[Frontispiece: His knees sagged under him as a forty-five slug struck him an inch above the buckle of his belt.]
THE SETTLING OF THE SAGE
BY HAL G. EVARTS
"The Cross Pull," "The Yellow Horde," etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers ———— New York
Published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company
Printed in U. S. A.
BY HAL G. EVARTS.
All rights reserved
Published January, 1922
Reprinted February, 1922
Reprinted March, 1922
The Settling of the Sage
A rider jogged northward along the road on a big pinto horse, a led buckskin, packed, trailing a half-length behind. The horseman traveled with the regulation outfit of the roaming range dweller—saddle, bed roll and canvas war bag containing personal treasures and extra articles of attire—but this was supplemented by two panniers of food and cooking equipment and a one-man teepee that was lashed on top in lieu of canvas pack cover. A ranch road branched off to the left and the man pulled up his horse to view a sign that stood at the forks.
"Squatter, don't let the sun go down on you," he read. "That's the third one of those reminders, Calico," he told the horse. "The wording a little different but the sentiment all the same."
Fifty yards off the trail the charred and blackened fragments of a wagon showed in sharp contrast to the bleached white bones of two horses.
"They downed his team and torched his worldly goods," the rider said. "All his hopes gone up in smoke."
He turned in his saddle and looked off across the unending expanse of sage. Coldriver—probably so named from the fact that the three wells in the town constituted the only source of water within an hour's ride—lay thirty miles to the south, a cluster of some forty buildings nestling on a wind-swept flat. Seventy miles beyond it, and with but two more such centers of civilization between, the railroad stretched across the rolling desolation. North of him the hills lifted above the sage, angling with the directions so that four miles along the Three Bar road that branched off to the left would bring him to their foot and a like distance along the main fork saw its termination at Brill's store, situated in a dent in the base of the hills, the end of the Coldriver Trail.
The man took one more look at the evidence left behind to prove that the sign was no empty threat before heading the paint-horse along the left-hand fork. The crisp cool of early spring was blown down from the slope of the hills. Old drifts, their tops gray-streaked with dust, lay banked in the gulches and on sheltered east slopes, but the new grass had claimed the range to the very foot of the drifts, the green of it intensified in patches watered by the trickle that seeped from the downhill extremities of the snow banks. He noted that the range cows along his route were poor and lean, their hip bones showing lumpily through sagging skin, giving them the appearance of milkers rather than of beef stock. The preceding summer had been hot and dry, browning the range six weeks before its time, and the stock had gone into the winter in poor shape. Heavy snowfalls had completed the havoc and ten per cent. of the range stock had been winter-killed. Those that had pulled through were slow in putting on weight and recovering their strength.
A big red steer stood broadside to him, the Three Bar brand looming on its side, and the man once more pulled up his horse and lost himself in retrospection as he gazed at the brand.
"The old Three Bar, Calico," he remarked to the horse. "The old home brand. It's been many a moon since last I laid an eye on a Three Bar cow."
The man was gazing directly at the steer but he no longer saw it. Instead he was picturing the old-time scenes that the sight of the brand recalled. Step by step he visioned the long trail of the Three Bar cows from Dodge City to the Platte, from the Platte to the rolling sage-clad hills round old Fort Laramie and from Laramie to the present range. Many times he had heard the tale, and though most of the scenes had been enacted before his birth, they were impressed so firmly upon his mind by repetition that it seemed as if he himself had been a part of them.
His mind pictured two boys of somewhere round eighteen years of age setting forth from the little home town of Kansas City, nestling at the confluence of the Missouri and the Kaw. A year later Cal Warren was whacking bulls on the Santa Fe Trail while the other, William Harris, was holding the reins over four plunging horses as he tooled a lumbering Concord stage over the trail from Omaha to the little camp called Denver.
It was five years before their trails crossed again. Cal Warren was the first of the two to wed, and he had established a post along the trail, a rambling structure of 'dobe, poles and sod, and there conducted the business of "Two for One," a calling impossible and unknown in any other than that day and place.
The long bull trains were in sight from horizon to horizon every hour of the day. The grind of the gravel wore down the hoofs of the unshod oxen, and when footsore they could not go on. One sound bull for two with tender feet was Warren's rule of trade. These crippled ones were soon made sound in the puddle pen, a sod corral flooded with sufficient water to puddle the yellow clay into a six-inch layer of stiff, healing mud, then thrown out on the open range to fatten and grow strong. But transitions were swift and sweeping. Steel rails were crowding close behind the prairie schooners and the ox-bows. Bull trains grew fewer every year and eventually Cal Warren made his last trade of two for one.
Bill Harris had come back to view the railroad of which he had heard so much and he remained to witness and to be a part of the wild days of Abilene, Hays and Dodge, as each attained the apex of its glory as the railroad's end and the consequent destination of the Texas trail herds. The sight of these droves of thousands implanted a desire to run cows himself and when he was wed in Dodge he broached this project to his boyhood pal.
It was the sincere wish of each to gain the other as a partner in all future enterprise, but this was not to be. Warren had seen the bottom drop out of the bull trade and he would not relinquish the suspicion that any business dealing in four-footed stock was hazardous in the extreme and he insisted that the solution of all their financial problems rested upon owning land, not cows. Harris could not be induced to farm the soil while steers were selling round eight dollars a head.
Warren squatted on a quarter of land. Harris bought a few head of she-stock and grazed his cows north and west across the Kansas line into the edge of the great unknown that was styled Nebraska and Northwest District. At first his range was limitless, but in a few short years he could stand on the roof of his sod hut and see the white points of light which were squatters' wagons dotting the range to the far horizon in any direction he chose to look. The first of these to invade his range had been Cal Warren, moving on before the swarm of settlers flocking into the locality of his first choice in such alarming numbers that he feared an unhealthy congestion of humanity in the near future. The debate of farming versus cows was resumed between the two, but each held doggedly to his own particular views and the longed-for partnership was again postponed.
Harris moved once more—and then again—and it was something over two decades after his departure from Dodge with the Three Bar cows that he made one final shift, faring on in search of that land where nesters were unknown. He made a dry march that cost him a fourth of his cows, skirted the Colorado Desert and made his stand under the first rim of the hills. Those others who came to share this range were men whose views were identical with his own, whose watchword was: "Our cows shall run free on a thousand hills." They sought for a spot where the range was untouched by the plow and the water holes unfenced. They had moved, then moved again, driven on before the invasion of the settlers. These men banded together and swore that here conditions should be reversed, that it was the squatter who should move, and on this principle they grimly rested.
Cal Warren had been the vanguard of each new rush of settlers that had pushed Bill Harris on to another range, and the cowman had come to see the hand of fate in this persistence. The nesters streamed westward on all the trails, filing their rights on the fertile valleys and pushing those who would be cattle barons undisputed back into the more arid regions. When the Warren family found him out again and halted their white-topped wagon before his door, Bill Harris gave it up.
"I've come up to see about getting that partnership fixed up, Bill," Warren greeted. "You know—the one we talked over in Dodge a while ago, about our going in together when either of us changed his mind. Well, I've changed mine. I've come to see that running cows is a good game, Bill, so let's fix it up. I've changed my mind."
"That was twenty years ago, Cal," Harris said. "But it still holds good—only I've changed my mind too. You was dead right from the first. Squatters will come to roost on every foot of ground and there'll come a day when I'll have to turn squatter myself—so I might as well start now. The way to get used to crowds, Cal, is to go where the crowds are at. I'm headed back for Kansas and you better come along. We'll get that partnership fixed up."
A single child had come to bless each union in the parents' late middle age. The Harris heir, a boy of eight, had been named Calvin in honor of his father's friend. Cal Warren had as nearly returned the compliment as circumstances would permit, and his three-year-old daughter bore the name of Williamette Ann for both father and mother of the boy who was his namesake, and Warren styled her Billie for short.
Each man was as stubbornly set in his new views as he had been in the old. The Harrises came into possession of the Warrens' prairie schooner and drove off to the east. The Warrens took over the Three Bar brand and the little Williamette Ann slept in the tiny bunk built for the son of the Harris household.
For a space of minutes these old pictures occupied the mind of the man on the pinto horse. The led buckskin moved fretfully and tugged on the lead rope, rousing the man from his abstraction. Distant strings of prairie schooners and ox-bows faded from his mind's eye and he way once more conscious of the red steer with the Three Bar brand that had stirred up the train of reflections. He turned for another glimpse of the distant sign as he headed the paint-horse along the road.
"All that was quite a spell back, Calico," he said. "Old Bill Harris planted the first one of those signs, and it served a good purpose then. It's a sign that stands for lack of progress to-day. Times change, and it's been eighteen years or so since old Bill Harris left."
The road traversed the bench, angled down a side hill to a valley somewhat more than a mile across. Calico pricked his ears sharply toward the Three Bar buildings that stood at the upper end of it.
Curious eyes peered from the bunk house as he neared it, for the paint-horse and the buckskin were not without fame even if the man himself were a stranger to them all. For the better part of a year the two high-colored horses had been seen on the range,—south to the railroad, west to the Idaho line. The man had kept to himself and when seen by approaching riders he had always been angling on a course that would miss their own. Those who had, out of curiosity, deliberately ridden out to intercept him reported that he seemed a decent sort of citizen, willing to converse on any known topics except those which concerned himself.
He dropped from the saddle before the bunk house and as he stood in the door he noted half a dozen men lounging on the bunks. This indolence apprised him of the fact that they were extra men signed on for the summer season and that their pay had not yet started, for the cowhand, when on the pay roll, works sixteen hours daily and when he rests or frolics it is, except in rare instances, on his own time and at his own expense.
A tall, lean individual, who sat cross-legged on a bunk, engaged in mending a spur strap, was the first to answer his inquiry for the foreman.
"Billie Warren is the big he-coon of the Three Bar," he informed. "You'll likely find the boss at the blacksmith shop." The lanky one grinned as the stranger turned back through the litter of log outbuildings, guided by the hissing squeak of bellows and the clang of a sledge on hot iron. Several men pressed close to the windows in anticipation of viewing the newcomer's surprise at greeting the Three Bar boss. But the man did not seem surprised when a young girl emerged from the open door of the shop as he neared it.
She was clad in a gray flannel skirt and black Angora chaps. The heavy brown hair was concealed beneath the broad hat that was pulled low over her eyes after the fashion of those who live much in the open. The man removed his hat and stood before her.
"Miss Warren?" he inquired. The girl nodded and waited for him to state his purpose.
"What are the chances of my riding for the Three Bar?" he asked.
"We're full-handed," said the girl. "I'm sorry."
"You'll be breaking out the remuda right soon now," he suggested. "I'm real handy round a breaking corral."
"They're all handy at that," she said. Then she noted the two horses before the bunk house and frowned. Her eyes searched the stranger's face and found no fault with it; she liked his level gaze. But she wondered what manner of man this was who had so aimlessly wandered alone for a year and avoided all other men.
"Since you've finally decided to work, how does it happen that you choose the Three Bar?" she asked, then flushed under his eyes as she remembered that so many men had wished to ride for her brand more than for another, their reasons in each case the same.
"Because the Three Bar needs a man that has prowled this country and gathered a few points about what's going on," he returned.
"And that information is for sale to any brand that hires you!" said the girl. "Is that what you mean?"
"If it was, there would be nothing wrong with a man's schooling himself to know all points of his job before he asked for it," he said. "But it happens that wasn't exactly my reason."
A shade of weariness passed over her face. During the two years that her father had been confined to the house after being caved in by a horse and in the one year that had elapsed since his death the six thousand cows that had worn the Three Bar brand on the range had decreased by almost half under her management.
"I'll put you on," she said. "But you'll probably be insulted at what I have to offer. The men start out after the horses to-morrow. I want a man to stay here and do tinkering jobs round the place till they get back."
"That'll suit me as well as any," he accepted promptly. "I'm a great little hand at tinkering round."
The clang of the sledge had ceased and a huge, fat man loomed in the door of the shop and mopped his dripping face with a bandanna.
"I'm glad you've come," he assured the new-comer. "A man that's not above doing a little fixing up! A cowhand is the most overworked and underpaid saphead that ever lost three nights' sleep hand running and worked seventy-two hours on end; sleep in the rain or not at all—to hold a job at forty per for six months in the year. The other six he's throwed loose like a range horse to rustle or starve. Hardest work in the world—but he don't know it, or money wouldn't hire him to lift his hand. He thinks it's play. Not one out of ten but what prides himself that he can't be browbeat into doing a tap of work. Ask him to cut a stick of firewood and he'll arch his back and laugh at you scornful like. Don't that beat hell?"
"It do," said the stranger.
"I'm the best wagon cook that ever sloshed dishwater over the tail-gate, and even better than that in a ranch-house kitchen," the loquacious one modestly assured him. "But I can't do justice to the meals when I lay out to do all the chores within four miles and run myself thin collecting scraps and squaw wood to keep the stove het up. Now since Billie has hired you, I trust you'll work up a pile of wood that will keep me going—and folks call me Waddles," he added as an afterthought.
"Very good, Mr. Waddles," the newcomer smiled. "You shall have your fuel."
The big man grinned.
"That title is derived from my shape and gait," he informed. "My regular name is Smith—if you're set on tacking a Mister on behind it."
The girl waved the talkative cook aside and turned to the new hand.
"You'll take it then."
"Could you spare me about ten minutes some time to-day?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "I'll send for you when I have time."
The man headed back for his horses and unlashed the buckskin's top-pack, dropping it to the ground, then led the two of them back toward the corral, stripped the saddle from the pinto, the side panniers and packsaddle from the buckskin and turned them into the corral. He rambled among the outbuildings on a tour of inspection and the girl saw him stand long in one spot before the solid log cabin, now used as a storeroom for odds and ends, that had been the first one erected on the Three Bar and had sheltered the Harrises before her father took over their brand.
The Three Bar girl sat looking from the window of her own room, the living room of the ranch house, one end of which was curtained off to serve as sleeping quarters. The rattle of pots and pans came from the big room in the rear which was used by Waddles as a kitchen and dining hall for the hands. The new man was still prowling about the place, inspecting every detail, and she wondered if he could tell her anything which would prove of benefit in her fight to stop the shrinkage of the Three Bar herds and help her to face the drastic changes that were reshaping the policies of the range country.
The Three Bar home range was one of many similar isolated spots where the inhabitants held out for a continuance of the old order of things. All through the West, from the Mexican border to the Canadian line, a score of bitter feuds were in progress, the principles involved differing widely according to conditions and locality. There were existing laws,—and certain clans that denied the justice of each one, holding out against its enforcement and making laws of their own. In some spots the paramount issue was over the relative grazing rights of cows and sheep, fanning a flame of hatred between those whose occupations were in any way concerned with these rival interests. In others the stockmen ignored the homestead laws which proclaimed that settlers could file their rights on land. As always before, wherever men resorted to lawlessness to protect their fancied rights, the established order of things had broken down, all laws disregarded instead of the single one originally involved.
In many communities these clashes between rival interests had furnished opportunity for rustlers to build up in power and practically take the range. Each clan was outside the law in some one particular and so could not have recourse to it against those who violated it in some other respect; could not appear against neighbors in one matter lest their friends do likewise against themselves in another.
This attitude had enabled the wild bunch to saddle themselves on certain communities and ply their trade without restraint. Rustling had come to be a recognized occupation to be reckoned with; the identity of the thieves was often known, and they visited from ranch to ranch, whose owners possibly were honest themselves but had friends among the outlaws for whom the latch-string was always out. The rustlers' toll was in the nature of a tribute levied against every brand and the various outfits expected certain losses from this source. It was good business to recoup these losses at another's expense and thus neighbor preyed on neighbor. Big outfits fought to crush others who would start up in a small way, and between periods of defending their own interests against the rustlers they hired them to harry their smaller competitors from the range; clover for outlaws where all factions, by mutual assent, played their own hands without recourse to the law. It was a case of dog eat dog and the slogan ran: "Catch your calves in a basket or some other thief will put his iron on them first."
It was to this pass that the Three Bar home range had come in the last five years. As Billie Warren watched the new hand moving slowly toward the bunk house she pondered over what manner of man this could be who had played a single-handed game in the hills for almost a year. Was he leagued with the wild bunch, with the law, or was he merely an eccentric who might have some special knowledge that would help her save the Three Bar from extinction?
The stranger picked up his bed roll and disappeared through the bunk-house door as she watched him.
The lean man who had first greeted him jerked a thumb toward an unoccupied bunk.
"Pay roll?" he inquired; then, as the new man nodded, "I'm most generally referred to as Lanky," he offered tentatively. "Evans is the rest of it."
The stranger hesitated appreciably; then:
"Harris will do all right for me—Cal for every day," he returned and introductions had been effected. It was up to each man to use his own individual method of making his name known to the newcomer as occasion arose.
There had been much speculation about the brand worn by the two horses. The hands were a drifting lot, gathered from almost as many points as there were men present, but none of them knew the brand.
A dark, thin-faced man with a slender black mustache was the first to voice a query, not from the fact that his curiosity was large—it was perhaps less than that of any other man in the room—but for the reason that he chose to satisfy it at once. Morrow's personality was cold and bleak, inviting no close friendships or intimacies; uncommunicative to a degree that had impressed itself on his companions of the last few days and they looked up, mildly surprised at his abrupt interrogation.
"Box L," he commented. "Where does that brand run?"
"Southwest Kansas and Oklahoma," the stranger answered.
"Squatter country," Morrow said. "Every third section under fence."
Harris sat looking through the door at the valley spread out below and after a moment he answered the thrust as if he had been long prepared for it.
"Yes," he said. "And that's what all range country will come to in a few more years; farm what they can and graze what they can't—and the sooner the better for all concerned." He waved an arm down the valley. "Good alfalfa dirt going to waste down there—overrun with sage and only growing enough grass to keep ten cows to the quarter. If that was ripped up and seeded to hay it would grow enough to winter five thousand head."
This remark led to the old debate that was never-ending in the cow country, breaking out afresh in every bunk house and exhaustively rediscussed. There were men there who had viewed both ends of the game,—had seen the foremost outfits in other parts tearing up the sage and putting in hay for winter feed and had seen that this way was good.
Evans regarded Harris curiously as he deliberately provoked the argument, then sat back and listened to the various ideas of the others as the discussion became heated and general. It occurred to Evans that Harris was classifying the men by their views, and when the argument lagged the lean man grinned and gave it fresh impetus.
"It's a settled fact that the outfits that have put in hay are better off," he said. "But there's a dozen localities like this, a dozen little civil wars going on right now where the inhabitants are so mulish that they lay their ears and fight their own interests by upholding a flea-bit prejudice that was good for twenty years ago but is a dead issue to-day."
"And why is it dead to-day?" Morrow demanded. "And not as good as it always was?"
"Only a hundred or so different reasons," Evans returned indifferently. "Then beef-tops brought ten dollars a head and they're worth three times that now; then you bought a brand on the hoof, come as they run, for round five dollars straight through, exclusive of calves; now it's based at ten on the round-up tally. In those days a man could better afford to let part of his cows winter-kill than to raise feed to winter the whole of them through—among other things. These days he can't."
"And have your water holes fenced," Morrow said. "As soon as you let the first squatter light."
"The government has prohibited fencing water holes necessary to the adjacent range," Harris cut in. "If that valley was mine I'd have put it in hay this long time back."
"But it wasn't yours," Morrow pointed out.
"No; but it is now, or at least a part of it is," Harris said. "I picked up that school section that lays across the valley and filed on a home quarter that butts up against the rims." He sat gazing indifferently out the door as if unconscious of the dead silence that followed his remark. More men had drifted in till nearly a dozen were gathered in the room.
"That's never been done out here—buying school sections and filing squatter's rights," Morrow said at last. "This is cow country and will never be anything else."
"Good cow country," Harris agreed. "And it stands to reason it could be made better with a little help."
"Whenever you start helping a country with fence and plow you ruin it for cows," Morrow stated. "I know!"
"It always loomed up in the light of a good move to me," the newcomer returned. "One of us has likely read his signs wrong."
"There's some signs round here you better read," Morrow said. "They were posted for such as you."
"It appears like I'd maybe made a bad selection then. I'm sorry about that," Harris deprecated in a negligent tone that belied his words. "It's hard to tell just how it will pan out."
"Not so very hard—if you can read," the dark man contradicted.
The newcomer's gaze returned from down the valley and settled on Morrow's face.
"Do you run a brand of your own—so's you'd stand to lose a dollar if every foot of range was fenced?" he inquired.
"What are you trying to get at now?" Morrow demanded.
"Nothing much—now; I've already got," Harris said. "A man's interest lays on the side where his finances are most concerned."
"What do you mean by that?" Morrow insisted.
"You're good at predicting—maybe you're an expert at guessing too," Harris returned. And suddenly Evans laughed as if something had just occurred to him.
Morrow glanced at him without turning his head, then fell silent, his expression unchanged.
A chunky youngster stood in the door and bent an approving gaze on the big pinto as he swung out across the pasture lot. The boy's face was small and quizzical, a shaggy mop of tawny hair hanging so low upon his forehead that his mild blue eyes peered forth from under the fringe of it and gave him the air of a surprised terrier, which effect had gained him the title of Bangs.
"I bet the little paint-horse could make a man swing and rattle to set up in his middle, once he started to act up," he said.
"Calico wouldn't know how to start," Harris said. "A horse, inside his limitations, is what his breaker makes him. I never favored the idea of breaking a horse to fight you every time you climb him. My horses are gentle-broke."
"But you have to be able to top off just any kind of a horse," Bangs objected.
"That don't hinder a man from gentling his own string," Harris returned.
Bangs turned his surprised eyes on Harris and regarded him intently as if striving to fathom a viewpoint that was entirely new to him.
"Why, it don't, for a fact," he said at last. "Only I just never happened to think of it like that before."
Morrow laughed and the boy flushed at the disagreeable ring of it. The sound was not loud but flat and mirthless, the syllables distinct and evenly spaced. His white even teeth remained tight-closed and showed in flashing contrast to his swarthy face and black mustache. Morrow's face wore none of the active malignancy that stamps the features of those uncontrolled desperadoes who kill in a flare of passion; rather it seemed that the urge to kill was always with him, had been born with him, his face drawn and over-lengthened from the inner effort to render his homicidal tendencies submissive to his brain, not through desire for regeneration, for he had none, but as a mere matter of expediency. The set, bleak expression of countenance was but a reflection of his personality and his companions had sensed this strained quality without being able to define it in words.
"You listen to what the squatter man tells you," Morrow said to Bangs. "He'll put you right—give you a course in how everything ought to be done." He rose and went outside.
"That was a real unhumorous laugh," Evans said. "Right from the bottom of his heart."
A raucous bellow sounded from the cookhouse and every man within earshot rose and moved toward the summons to feed.
"Let's go eat it up," Evans said and left the bunk house with Harris.
"Did you gather all the information you was prospecting for?" he asked.
Harris nodded. "I sorted out one man's number," he said.
"Now if you'd only whispered to me I'd have told you right off," Evans said. "It's astonishing how easy it is to pick them if you try."
"Waddles is a right unpresuming sort of a man in most respects," Evans volunteered as they entered the cookhouse. "But he's downright egotistical about his culinary accomplishments."
All through the meal the gigantic cook hovered near Billie Warren as she sat near one end of the long table. It was evident to Harris that the big man was self-appointed guardian and counsellor of the Three Bar boss. He showed the same fussy solicitude for her welfare that a hen would show for her helpless chicks.
"Praise the grub and have a friend at court," Harris murmured in Evans' ear.
Billie Warren had nearly completed her meal before the men came in. She left the table and went to her own room. When Harris rose to go he slapped the big man on the back.
"I'd work for half pay where you get grub like this," he said. "That's what I'd call a real feed."
Waddles beamed and followed him to the door.
"It's a fact that I can set out the best bait you ever throwed a lip over," he confessed. "You're a man of excellent tastes and it's a real pleasure to have you about."
Billie Warren opened the door and motioned to Harris. He went into the big front room that answered for both living room and sleeping quarters. A fire burned in the rough stone fireplace; tanned pelts, Indian curios and Navajo rugs covered the walls; more rugs and pelts lay on the floor. Indian blankets partitioned off one end for her sleeping room.
"You had something to tell me," she observed, after he had remained silent for the space of a minute, sitting in the chair she had indicated and gazing into the fire.
"And I'll have to start it a little different from the way I first counted on," he said. "Have any of the boys mentioned my name to you?"
She shook her head and waited for him to go on.
"You won't care much to hear it," he announced. "I'd thought some of spending two years here under some other name—but perhaps it's better to come out in the open—don't you think?"
The girl had straightened in her chair and was leaning toward him, her face white and her gray eyes boring straight into the man's. She knew now who he was,—the man she had more reason to despise than all others on earth combined. Of the Harris family she knew nothing at all except that her father's lifelong regret had been the fact that the partnership between himself and his oldest friend, William Harris, had never been brought to pass. And this regret had, in the end, led him to try and cement that arrangement in the second generation. Five years before his trail had crossed that of the elder Harris for the first time since he had taken over the Three Bar brand; and when his will had been read she had known that on the occasion of that visit his old friend had played upon this sentiment to trick him into making it. On all sides of her she had evidence that men were wolves who preyed upon the interests of others, and there was not a doubt that the father of the man before her had preyed upon her interests through the sentiment of her parent; no other possible theory could account for the strange disposal of his property, the will dated and signed at the exact time of his visit to the Harrises.
The tenseness of her pose was replaced by lethargic indifference and she relaxed into her chair.
"I've known all the time you would come," she said.
"It's too bad, Billie," he said. "It's tough having me wished on to you this way."
"Don't play that game with me!" she flared. "Of course you've disproved every drop of human decency in advance."
"It sure looms up like that on the surface," he admitted ruefully. "But I didn't have a hand in cinching you this way."
"You could have proved that by staying away. I wrote you a year ago that I'd donate you a half-interest in the Three Bar at the expiration of the time if you'd only keep off the place. But at the last moment you couldn't resist having it all. Ten more days and you'd have been too late."
The man nodded slowly.
"Too late," he agreed and sat looking into the fire.
She had been almost a son to her father, had ridden the range with him, managed the Three Bar during his sickness; and such was her loyalty to his memory that not a trace of her bitterness had been directed toward her parent. He had loved the Three Bar and had always believed that old Bill Harris, its founder, had loved it too. His will had stipulated that half of his property should go to the younger Harris under the condition that the man should make his home on the Three Bar for two out of the first three years after her father's decease. The whole of it was to go to him in case she failed to make her own home at the Three Bar during her co-heir's stay, or in the event of her marriage to another before the expiration of three years.
"Of course I'm tied here for two years," she said. "Or left penniless. If you can make it unpleasant enough to drive me away—which won't be difficult—you win."
"I wouldn't count too strong on that," he counseled mildly.
"Then why did you come?" she insisted. "Half of it was yours by merely keeping away."
"Maybe I'm sort of tied up myself—in ways you don't suspect," he offered.
"Very likely!" she returned; "sounds plausible. You might offer to marry me," she suggested when he failed to answer. "You could gain full possession at once that way."
He removed his gaze from the fire and looked long at her.
"It will likely come to that," he said.
"I'll put a weapon in your hands," she retorted. "Whenever it does come to that I'll leave the ranch—so now you know the one sure way to win."
"I hope it won't pan out like that," he said. "I'll be disappointed—more than I can say."
She rose and stood waiting for him to go.
"Good night, Billie," he said. "I expect maybe things will break all right for us."
She did not answer and he went out. Waddles hailed him in friendly fashion as he passed through the cookhouse, then wiped his hands and stepped into Billie's quarters. Waddles was a fixture at the Three Bar; he had ridden for her father until he had his legs smashed up by a horse and had thereafter reigned as cook. He was confidential adviser and self-appointed guardian of the girl. His mind was still pleasantly concerned with the stranger's warm praise of his culinary efforts.
"That new man now, Billie," he remarked. "He's away off ahead of the average run. You mark me—he'll be top hand with this outfit in no time at all." Then he observed the girl's expression. "What is it, Pet?" he inquired. "What's a-fretting you?"
"Do you know who he is?" she asked.
Waddles wagged a negative head.
"He's Calvin Harris," she stated.
Instead of the blank dismay which she had expected to see depicted on Waddles's face at this announcement, it seemed to her that the big man was pleased.
"The hell!" he said. "'Scuse me, Billie. So this here is Cal! Well, well—now what do you think of that?"
"I think that I don't want to stay here alone with him while you're out after the horses," she returned.
"Wrong idea!" the big man promptly contradicted. "You've got to stick it out for two years, girl. The best thing you can do is to get acquainted; and figure out how to get along the best you can—the pair of you."
"That's probably true," she assented indifferently. "I'll have to face a number of things that are equally unpleasant in the next two years—so I might as well start now. He must have praised the food in order to win you to his side in two minutes flat."
Waddles's face expressed pained reproach.
"Now there it is again!" he said. "You know I'm only on one side—yours. Old Cal Warren had some definite notion when he framed this play; so it's likely this young Cal is on your side, too."
"But even more likely not," she stated.
"Why, then I'll have to kill him and put a stop to it," the big man announced. "But it's noways probable that it will come to that. Let's use logic. He spoke well of my cooking—like you said—which proves him a man of some discernment. No way to get around that. Now a man with his judgment wouldn't suspect for one living second that he could play it low-down on you with me roosting close at hand. Putting two plain facts together it works out right natural and simple that he's on the square. As easy as that," he finished triumphantly. "So don't you fret. And in case he acts up I'll clamp down on him real sudden," he added by way of further reassurance.
His great paw opened and shut to illustrate his point as he moved toward the door and the Three Bar girl knew that when Waddles spoke of clamping down it was no mere figure of speech.
Billie Warren heard the steady buzz of a saw and later the ringing strokes of an axe. The men had departed three hours before to be gone for a week on the horse round-up but she had not yet issued from her own quarters. The music of axe and saw was ample evidence that her new and undesired partner was making valuable use of his time. She went outside and he struck the axe in a cross section of pine log as she moved toward him.
"We'll have to get along the best we can," she announced abruptly. "Of course you will have a say in the management of the Three Bar and draw the same amount for yourself that I do."
He sat on a log and twisted a cigarette as he reflected upon this statement.
"I'd rather not do that," he decided. "I don't want to be a drain on the brand—but to help build it up. Suppose I just serve as an extra hand and do whatever necessary turns up—in return for your letting me advise with you on a few points that I happen to have worked out while I was prowling through the country."
"Any way you like," she returned. "It's for you to decide. Any money which you fail to draw now will revert to you in the end so it won't matter in the least."
His reply was irrelevant, a deliberate refusal to notice her ungenerous misinterpretation of his offer.
"Do you mind if I gather a few Three Bar colts round here close and break out my own string before they get back?" he asked.
"Anything you like," she repeated. "I'm not going to quarrel. I've made up my mind to that. I'll be gone the rest of the day."
Five minutes later he saw her riding down the lane. She was not seeking companionship but rather solitude and for hours she drifted aimlessly across the range, sometimes dismounting on some point that afforded a good view and reclining in the warm spring sun. Dusk was falling when she rode back to the Three Bar. As she turned her sorrel, Papoose, into the corral she noticed several four-year-old colts in the pasture lot. As she returned to the house Harris appeared in the door.
"Grub-pile," he announced.
They sat down to a meal of broiled steak, mashed potatoes, hot biscuits, coffee and raspberry jam. She had deliberately absented herself through the noon hour and well past the time for evening meal, confidently expecting to find him impatiently waiting for her to return and prepare food for him.
"You make good biscuits—better than those Waddles stirs up," she said. "Though I'd never dare tell him so." It was the first time she had conceded that there might be even a taint of good in him.
"Well, yes—they're some better than those I usually turn out," he confessed. "Having a lady to feed I flaked the lard in cold instead of just melting it and stirring her in like I most generally do. I'm right glad that you consider them a success."
When the meal was finished she rose without a word and went into her own quarters, convinced that this desertion would certainly call forth a protest; but the man calmly went about the business of washing the dishes as if he had expected nothing else, and presently she heard the door close behind him and immediately afterwards a light appeared in the bunk-house window.
The rattle of pots and pans roused her before daylight. Some thirty minutes later he called to her.
"I've finished," he said. "You'd better eat yours before it gets cold," and the closing of the door announced that he had gone without waiting for an answer. She heard again the sound of saw and axe as he worked up the dry logs into stove lengths. At least he was making good his word to the cook. The sounds ceased when the sun was an hour high and when she looked out to determine the reason she saw him working with four colts in one of the smaller corrals.
He had fashioned a hackamore for each and they stood tied to the corral bars. He left them there and repaired to the big gates of the main corral. The two swinging halves sagged until their ends dragged on the ground when opened or closed, necessitating the expenditure of considerable energy in performing either operation. She watched him tear down the old support wires and replace them with new ones, stretching a double strand from the top of the tall pivot posts to the free ends of the gates. Placing a short stick between the two strands of heavy wire he twisted until the shortening process had cleared the gate ends and they swung suspended, moving so freely that a rider could lean from his saddle and throw them open with ease.
This completed to his satisfaction he fashioned heavy slabs of wood to serve as extra brake-blocks for the chuck wagon. Between the performance of each two self-appointed duties he spent some little time with the colts, handling them and teaching them not to fear his approach, cinching his saddle on first one and then the next, talking to them and handling their heads.
For three days there was little communication between the two. It was evident that he had no intention of forcing his society upon her, and her failure to prepare his meals failed to elicit a single sign to show that he had expected otherwise; the contrary was true, in fact, for he invariably prepared enough for two. It was clear that he exercised the same patience toward her that he showed in handling the green four-year-olds; and she was inclined to be a little scornful of his method of gentle-breaking them. She felt her own ability to handle any horse on the range although old Cal Warren had gentled every animal she had wanted for her own and flatly refused to let her mount any others. Waddles was as insistent upon this point as her parent had been, but never had she known a cowhand who took time and pains to gentle his own string.
In the afternoon of the third day she saw him swing to the back of a big bay, easing into the saddle without a jar, and the colt ambled round the corral, rolling his eyes back toward the thing clamped upon him but making no effort to pitch. He dismounted and stripped off the saddle, cinched it on a second horse and let him stand, leading a third out to a snubbing post near the door of the blacksmith shop where he proceeded to put on his first set of shoes.
The girl went out and sat on the sill of the shop door and watched him. The colt pulled back in an effort to release the forefoot that the man held clamped between his leather-clad knees, then changed his tactics and sagged his weight against Harris.
"You Babe!" the man ordered. "Don't you go leaning on me." He pared down the hoof and fitted the shoe but before nailing it on he released the colt's foot and addressed the girl. "If I'd fight him now while he's spooky and half-scared it would spoil him maybe," he explained.
"I gentle-break mine, too," she said, and the man overlooked the inflection which, as plainly as words, was intended to convey the impression that his ways were effeminate. "If every man used up his time gentling his string he'd never have a day off to work at anything else."
"Why, it don't use up much time," he objected. "They halfway break themselves, standing round with a saddle on and having a man handle them a little between spells of regular work—like cutting firewood and such. And it's a saving of time in the end. There's three hundred odd days every year when a man consumes considerable time fighting every horse he steps up on—if they're broke that way to start."
"So your only reason for not riding them out is to save time," she said.
"If you mean that I'm timid," he observed, "why, I don't know as I'd bother to dispute it." He moved over and sat on his heels facing her, twisting the ever handy cigarette. "Listen," he urged. "Let's you and I try to get along. Now if you'll only make up your mind that I'm not out to grab the Three Bar, not even the half of it that's supposed to be mine—unless you get paid for it—why, we're liable to get to liking each other real well in the end. I'll give you a contract to that effect."
"Which you know would be worthless!" she returned. "The will specifically states that any agreements between us prior to the time of division are to be disregarded. A written contract would have no more value than your unsupported promise and in view of what's happened you don't expect me to place a value on that."
He pulled reflectively at his cigarette and she rather expected another of the irrelevant remarks with which he so often replied to her pointed thrusts.
"No," he said at last. "But it's a fact that I don't want the Three Bar—or rather I do if you should ever decide to sell."
"I never will," she stated positively. "It's always been my home. I've been away and had a good time; three winters in school and enjoying every second; but there always comes a time when I'm sick to get back, when I know I can't stay away from the Three Bar, when I want to smell the sage and throw my leg across a horse—and ride!"
"I know, Billie," he said softly. "I was raised here, up until I was eight. My feeling is likely less acute than yours but I've always hankered to get back to where the sage and pine trees run together. I mentioned a while back that I was tied up peculiar and stood to lose considerable if I failed to put in two years out here—which wouldn't have been of any particular consequence only that I found out that the Three Bar was going under unless some one put a stop to what's going on. I'll pull it out of the hole, maybe, and hand it back to you."
She was swayed into a momentary belief in his sincerity but steeled herself against it, and in the effort to strengthen the crumbling walls of her dislike she fell back on open ridicule.
"You!" she flared. "And what can you do against it—a man that was raised in squatter country behind a barb-wire fence, who has to gentle his horses before he can sit up on one, who has hitched a gun on his belt because he thinks it's the thing to do, and has stowed it in a place where he'd have to tie himself in a knot—or undress—to reach it. And then you talk of pulling the Three Bar out of a hole! Why, there are twenty men within fifty miles of here that would kill you the first move you made."
"There's considerable sound truth in that," he said. He looked down at his gun; it swung on his left side, in front, the butt pointing toward the right. "It's easier to work with it sort of out of the way of my hands," he explained and smiled.
She found herself liking him, even in the face of the treachery he had practiced against her father and was correspondingly angry, both with herself and at him. She left him without a word and returned to the house.
He finished putting the shoes on the colt and as he turned him back into the corral he observed a horseman jogging up the lane at a trail trot. He knew the man for Slade, whose home ranch lay forty miles to the south and a little west, the owner of the largest outfit in that end of the State; a man feared by his competitors, quick to resent an insinuation against his business methods and capable of backing his resentment.
Slade dropped from his horse and accorded Harris only a casual nod as he headed for the house. Slade's face was of a peculiar cast. The black eyes were set very close together in a wide face; his cheek bones were low and oddly protruding, sloping far out to a point below each eye. His small ears were set so close to his skull that the outcropping cheek bones extended almost an inch beyond them to either side. Yet there was a certain fascination about his face and bearing that appealed to the spark of the primitive in women; that last lingering cell that harks fondly back to men in the raw. His age might have been anywhere above twenty-six and under fifty-six.
He walked through the cookhouse and opened the door of the girl's quarters without the formality of a knock, as if a frequent visitor and sure of his privileges.
"How many times have I told you to knock?" she demanded. "The next time you forget it I'll go out as you come in."
Slade dropped into a chair.
"I never have knocked—not in twelve years," he said.
"It was somewhat different when I was a small girl and you were only a friend of my father," she pointed out. "But now——"
"But now that I've come to see you as a woman it's different?" he inquired. "No reason for that."
She switched the channel of conversation and spoke of the coming round-up, of the poor condition of range stock owing to the severity of the winter; but it was a monologue. For a time the man sat and listened, as if he enjoyed the sound of her voice, contributing nothing to the conversation himself, then suddenly he stirred in his chair and waved a hand to indicate the unimportance of the topics.
"Yes, yes; true enough," he interrupted. "But I didn't come to talk about that. When are you coming home with me, Billie?"
"And you can't come if you insist on talking about that," she countered.
"I'll come," he stated. "Tell me when you're going to move over to the Circle P."
"Not ever," she said. "I'd rather be a man's horse than his wife. Men treat women like little tinsel queens before, and afterwards they answer to save a cook's wages and drudge their lives out feeding a hunch of half-starved hands—or else go to the other extreme. Wives are either work horses or pets. I was raised like a boy and I want to have a say in running things myself."
"You can go your own gait," he pledged.
"I'm doing that now," she returned. "And prefer going on as I am."
Slade rose and moved over to her, taking her hands and lifting her from her chair.
The girl pushed him back with a hand braced against his chest.
"Stop it!" she said. "You're getting wilder every time you come, but you've never pawed at me before. I won't have people's hands on me," and she made a grimace of distaste.
The man reached out again and drew her to him. She wrenched away and faced Slade.
"That will be the last time you'll do that until I give the word," she said. "I don't want the Circle P—or you. When I do I'll let you know!"
He moved toward her again and she refused to back away from him but stood with her hands at her sides.
"If you put a finger on me it's the last lime you'll visit the Three Bar," she calmly announced.
He stood so close as almost to touch her but she failed to lift a hand or move back an inch, and Slade knew that he faced one whose spirit matched his own, perhaps the one person within a hundred miles who did not fear him. He had tamed men and horses—and women; he raised his arms slowly, deliberately, to see if she would flinch away or stand fast and outgame him. She knew that he was harmless to her—and he knew it. He might perpetrate almost any crime on the calendar and come clear; but in this land where women were few they were honored. One whisper from the Three Bar girl that Slade had raised his hand against her and, powerful as he was, the hunt for him would be on, with every man's hand against him.
His arms had half circled her when he whirled, catlike, every faculty cool and alert, as a voice sounded from the door. Both had been too engrossed to notice its noiseless opening.
"I've finished cleaning up round the shop and corrals," Harris said. "Is there any rubbish round the house you'd like to have throwed out and piled in a dry gulch somewheres out of sight?"
He stood in the door, half facing them, his left side quartering toward Slade. To the girl it appeared that the strange pose was for the purpose of enabling him to take a quick step to the right and spring outside if Slade should make a move and she felt a tinge of scorn at his precaution even though she knew that it would avail him nothing if Slade's deadly temper were roused by the insult. Slade, who had killed many, would add Harris to his list before he could move.
Slade's understanding of the quartering position and the odd sling of Harris's gun was entirely different and as he shifted his feet until he faced the man in the door, his movements were slow and deliberate, nothing that could be misconstrued.
"Who summoned you in here?" he demanded.
Harris did not reply but stood waiting for some word from the girl. She had a sudden sick dread that Slade would kill him and was surprised at the sentiment, for no longer than an hour before she had wished him dead. She made belated answer to his original question.
"No," she said. "Go on out, please."
He turned his back on Slade and went out.
"And you," she said to Slade, "you'd best be going too. We've been too good neighbors to quarrel—unless you come over again with the same idea you did to-day."
At sunset the girl called to Harris and he repaired to the house and found her putting a hot meal for two on the end of the long pine table, the first time she had deigned to eat with him since that first meal.
"There's no use of our going on like this," she said. "We've two years of it to face; so it's best to get on some kind of a neutral footing."
For her own peace of mind she had tried to smother her dislike of him and he was very careful to avoid any topic that would rekindle it. They washed the dishes together, and from that hour their relations, to all outward appearance, were friendly or at least devoid of open hostility. They no longer ate separately; she did not avoid him during the day, and the second evening she prepared two places at her own table in the big living room before the fireplace.
"It's so empty out there," she explained.
"With only the two of us at a table built for twenty."
He lingered for an hour's chat before her fire and each evening thereafter was the same. But he knew that she was merely struggling to make the best of a matter that was distasteful, that her opinion of him was unaltered. Her bitterness could not be entirely concealed, and she frequently touched on some fresh point that added to her distrust of his present motives and confirmed her belief in his double-dealing in the past. There were so many of these points; his refusal to accept her offer to give him his half-interest if he would stay off the place; his weak insinuations that there was some reason why he must spend two years on the Three Bar; his prowling the country for a year spying on the methods she followed in running the outfit, half of which would soon be his; his buying the school section and filing on a quarter of land, the location blocking the lower end of the Three Bar valley. Whenever she mentioned one of these he refused to take issue with her. And one night she touched on still another point.
"What was the reason for your first idea—of coming here under another name?" she demanded.
"I thought maybe others knew I'd been left a part interest," he said, "and it might be embarrassing. The way it is, with only the two of us knowing the inside, I can stay on as a regular hand until the time is up."
"You're so plausible," she said. "You put it as a favor to me. Did it ever strike you that if the truth were known it might also be uncomfortable for you?"
He smiled across at her and once more she frowned as she discovered that he was likeable for all his underhandedness.
"Worse than that—suicidal," he admitted.
"If you mentioned what you think of me, that I've framed to rob you by law, you wouldn't be bothered with me for long." He laughed softly and stretched his feet toward the fire. "Look at it any way you like and I'm in bad shape to deal you any misery," he pointed out. "If you'd drop a hint that I'm an unwelcome addition it would only be a matter of days until I'd fail to show up for meals. If you view it from that angle you can see I'm setting on the powder can."
She did see it, but had not so clearly realized it till he pointed it out, and for the first time she wavered in her conviction that he had come simply to deprive her of her rights. But the thought that her father would not easily have willed away the home place to another without being unduly influenced served to reinstate her distrust along with a vague resentment for his having shaken it by throwing himself so openly on her mercy.
"You probably thought to overcome that by reaching the point the whole thing so patently aims for," she said. "And you calculated well—arriving at a time when we'd be alone for a week. The whole scheme was based on that idea and I've been patiently wondering why you don't rush matters and invite me to marry you."
He rose and flicked the ash from his cigarette into the fireplace.
"I do invite you—right now," he said, and in her surprise she left her chair and stood facing him. "I'd like real well to have you, Billie."
"That's the final proof," she said. "I'm surprised that you didn't tell me the first day."
"So am I," he said.
She found no answer for this but stood silent, knowing that she had suddenly become afraid of him.
"And that's the living truth," he affirmed. "Other men have loved you the first day. You know men well enough to be certain that I wouldn't be tied to one woman for the sake of owning a few head of cows—not if I didn't want her for herself." He waved an arm toward the door. "There's millions of miles of sage just outside," he said. "And millions of cows—and girls."
He moved across to her and stood almost touching her, looking down into her face. When Slade had stood so a few days past she had been coldly indifferent except for a shiver of distaste at the thought of his touching her. Before Harris she felt a weakening, a need of support, and she leaned back from him and placed one hand behind her on the table.
"You judge for yourself whether a man wouldn't be right foolish—with all those things I mentioned being right outside to call him—to marry a woman he didn't want for herself, because she had a few hundred head of cows." He smiled down at her. "Don't pull back from me, Billie; I won't lay a finger on you. But now do you think it's you I want—or the little old Three Bar?"
"You can prove it," she said at last. "Prove it by going away for six months—or three."
He shook his head.
"Not that," he said. "I've told you I was sewed up in a right peculiar way myself—which wouldn't matter a damn if it wasn't for this. I'd have tossed it off in a second if the girl on the Three Bar had turned out to be any other than you. Now I'm going to see it through. The Three Bar is going under—the brand both our folks helped to found—unless some one pulls it out of the hole. Believe me if you can and if you can't—why, you know that one remark about my being unwelcome here will clear the road for you, like I mentioned a few minutes back."
He turned away without touching her and she had not moved when the door closed behind him.
An hour past noon on the following day a drove of horses appeared at the lower extremity of the valley and swept on toward the ranch. As Harris threw open the gates of the big corral he saw her standing in the door of the cookhouse watching the oncoming drove. Riders flanked the bunch well out to each side to steady it. There was a roar of hoofs and a stifling cloud of dust as three hundred half-wild horses clattered past and crowded through the gates, scattering swiftly across the pasture lot back of the corral. A dozen sweat-streaked riders swung from their saddles. There was no chance to distinguish color or kind among them through the dust caked in the week-old growth of beard that covered every face.
One man remained on his mount and followed the horses into the pasture lot, cutting out fifty or more and heading them back into the corral; for Waddles had decreed that they could have the rest of the afternoon off for a jaunt to Brill's Store and they waited only to change mounts before the start.
Calico stood drooping sleepily in one of the smaller corrals and Harris moved toward him, intending to ride over with the rest of the men.
"The boss said for you to ride Blue," Morrow stated as Harris passed the group at the gates of the corral. "He's clear gentle-broke, Blue is."
The men looked up in surprise. Morrow had not been near the house to receive instructions from the girl. The lie had been so apparent as to constitute a direct challenge to the other man.
Harris stood looking at him, then shrugged his shoulders.
"Whatever the boss says goes with me," he returned evenly.
A rangy blue roan swept past with the fifty or so others. At least once every round of the corral he laid back his ears and squealed as he scored some other horse with his teeth, then lashed out with wicked heels.
"I reckon that'll be Blue?" Harris asked of Evans and the lanky one nodded. The men scattered round the corral and each watched his chance to put his rope on some chosen horse. The roan kept others always between himself and any man with a rope but at last he passed Harris with but one horse between. Harris nipped his noose across the back of the intervening horse and over the blue roan's head.
Blue stopped the instant the rope tightened on his neck.
"You've been busted and rope-burnt a time or two," Harris remarked, and he led the horse out to saddle him. The big blue leaned back, crouching on his haunches as the man put on the hackamore. His eyes rolled wickedly as Harris smoothed the saddle blanket and he flinched away with a whistling snort of fear, his nostrils flaring, as the heavy saddle was thrown on his back.
Harris tightened the front cinch and the blue horse braced himself and drew in a long, deep breath.
"That's right, Blue, you swell up and inflate yourself," Harris said. "I'll have to squeeze it out of you." He fastened the hind cinch loosely, then returned to the front and hauled on the latigo until the pressure forced the horse to release the indrawn breath and it leaked out of him with a groaning sigh.
"I wonder now why Morrow is whetting his tommyhawk for me," Harris remarked as he inspected the big roan. "You're a hard one, Blue. I'll let that saddle warm up on you before I top you off."
Every horse pitched a few jumps from force of habit when first mounted, some of them indifferently, others viciously, then moved restlessly around, anxious for the start.
"Well, step up on him and let's be going," Morrow ordered surlily.
Harris took a short hold on the rope reins of the hackamore with his left hand, cramped the horse's head toward him and gripped the mane, his right hand on the horn, and swung gently to the saddle, easing into it without a jar.
"Easy, Blue!" he said, holding up the big roan's head. "Don't you hang your head with me." He eased the horse to a jerky start and they were off for Brill's at a shuffling trot. Three times in the first mile Blue bunched himself nervously and made a few stiff jumps but each time Harris held him steady. The pace was increased to a long, swinging trot and he felt the play of powerful muscles under him as the blue horse seemed to reach out for distance at every stride.
"You'd have made one good little horse, Blue," he said, "if some sport hadn't spoiled you on the start."
"Don't speak loud or the blue horse might shy and spill his pack," Morrow remarked in a tone loud enough for Harris to overhear. Evans turned in his saddle and eyed the dark man curiously.
"He won't upset his load to-day," he prophesied. "Harris is just past the colt stage, round twenty-seven or eight somewheres, and has out-growed his longing to show off. But he'll be able to sit up in the middle of anything that starts to move out from under him."
They left the horses drooping at the several hitch rails before the post and crowded in. A few paused along the counters of merchandise that flanked the left side of the big room while the rest headed straight for the long bar that extended the full length of the opposite side. The Three Bar men had scarcely tossed off their first drink before there sounded a clatter of hoofs outside and twelve men from the Halfmoon D trooped in.
"Out of the way!" the foremost youth shouted. "Back off from the pine slab, you Three Bar soaks, and give parched folks a chance. Two hours' play and six months' work—so don't delay me."
The throng before the bar was a riot of color; Angora chaps ranging from orange and lavender to black and silky white; smooth leather chaps, and stamped, silver-ornamented and plain, with here and there an individual design, showing that the owner had selected some queerly spotted steer and tanned the pelt with the hair on to be fashioned into gaudy vest and pants. 'Twas an improvident, carefree lot who lived to-day with scarce a thought for to-morrow. The clatter of sardine and salmon cans mingled with the clink of glassware at the bar as the men who had missed the noon meal lunched out of cans between drinks.
Some few detached themselves from the group and occupied themselves with writing. Several started a game of stud poker at one of the many tables. Harris wrote a few letters before joining in the play, and as he looked up from time to time he caught many curious glances leveled upon him. Morrow had been busily spreading the tidings that a would-be squatter was among them and they were curious to see the man who had deliberately defied the unwritten law of the Coldriver Range. When he had finished his writing he crossed over to the group, tossed a bill on the bar and waved all hands to a drink.
Waddles had instructed Evans to start the men back before the spree had progressed to a point where they would refuse to leave Brill's and so leave the Three Bar short-handed. At the end of two hours he looked at his watch and snapped it shut.
"Turn out!" he shouted. "On your horses!"
"That goes for my men, too," the Halfmoon D foreman seconded. "Outside!"
Morrow had not neglected to inform the men from the Halfmoon D that Harris gentled his horses.
"Handle the little roan horse gentle," he advised as they moved toward the door. "Better hobble your stirrups before you crawl him." Several men turned and grinned. In riding contests women were allowed to hobble their stirrups while the same precaution disqualified a man.
Most of the men were young, scarcely more than boys, full of rough play and youthful pride of accomplishment along with a desire to make a presumably careless display of it. A Halfmoon D youth mounted a blocky bay and as he threw his leg across it he loosed a shrill yip and reached forward to rake the horse's shoulder. The bay dropped his head and performed. A half-dozen others followed his example and their horses pitched off in as many directions. All eyes were turned on Harris as he neared the big roan.
"Oh, I might as well act up a little," he said to Evans. "They seem to be looking for it."
"He's a hard citizen, that roan," Evans remarked. "I'll wrangle for you, Cal."
Harris stepped over to the horse.
"I wonder what old Blue can do," he said. He hooked the roan in the shoulder as he mounted and the horse plunged his head between his knees and rose in the air. The big roan bawled and expelled a long-drawn "wa-a-augh" each time he struck the ground, then savagely shook his whole frame as he rose again. The first four jumps Harris swung both feet forward and hooked his shoulders and the next two bounds reached back and raked his flanks, in accordance with the regulation rules prescribed for contest riding.
"He's riding for the judges," a megaphone voice announced. "Boy, you've rode your horse!"
Blue varied his leaps, draping himself in fantastic curves, lighting on a slant with his side arched out, sunfishing and swapping ends, then threw himself over and smashed down on his back. Harris slipped sidewise and cleared himself.
"Fourteen long jumps," one man testified. "One hell of a long time on an eel like that!"
As Blue regained his feet Harris stepped into the saddle and rose with him, the hackamore rope trailing loose under the horse's feet. A chorus of approving yelps broke out.
"Rake him from ears to tail roots!" "Ri-ide 'im, rider!" "Hang 'em up into that horse!" "Claw him!" "Scra-a-atch him!"
This wave of questionable advice ceased as Blue, after three short jumps, somersaulted forward and his rider made a headlong side-dive for safety.
Evans had flanked the roan's course and he now leaned from the saddle and seized the hackamore rope; as Blue scrambled to his feet he took two quick turns of the rope and snubbed his head short to the saddle horn. The roan struggled and threw himself, his head still suspended by the rope, rose and reared to strike savagely at the man who held him, but Evans left his saddle and leaned far out, his right foot on the ground, left still in the stirrup, and eased himself back into the saddle as the fighting horse slid down. He had never once lost his hold which snubbed Blue to the horn, a pretty bit of wrangling.
"He's on the fight now," Evans said. "I'll hold him solid till he cools down—which won't be long, for Cal didn't cut him any; he was swinging his feet free and never hooked him once." He jerked his thumb at the roan's shoulder and flanks where not a drop of blood appeared; his hide would have been tattered indeed if Harris had driven home his rowels each time he swung his feet. "Nice ride."
Harris walked back to a small group that had not yet mounted, Morrow among them. His left side was quartering toward Morrow and apparently he was addressing the group as a whole instead of any one man.
"The next time some one frames me to put on a show like that," he said, "why, he'd better make certain beforehand about what part he's willing to play in the performance himself—for next time I won't take it out of the horse."
It is said that there comes a day in the life of every handler of bad horses when he will mount one and ride him out, master him and dismount,—and forever after decline to ride another. Riley Foster was evidence of this. For three years Rile and Bangs had been inseparable, riding together on every job, and the shaggy youth topped off the animals in Foster's string before the older man would mount them. As Bangs went about his work his faded blue eyes were ever turned toward the Three Bar boss who stood in the door of the blacksmith shop.
The girl was vaguely troubled as she noted this. Bangs and Foster had returned for their second season at the Three Bar. All through the previous summer the boy had evidenced his silent adoration, his eyes following her every move.
The scene round Billie was one of strenuous activity, every effort bent toward whipping the remuda into shape for the calf round-up in the least possible space of time.
Every rider must have nine horses in his string. His five circle horses needed but little training, the only necessary qualifications being endurance and a sufficient amount of breaking to make it possible to saddle them; the two night mounts must be partially broken to work the herd, then switched to night guarding and thereafter used exclusively for that. But the two cow horses required long and skilful training. Every man gave one of his circle string the preliminary training of the cow horse each season, the work resumed by the man to whose string the horse was allotted the following year; thus new ones were coming on to replace the older horses as fast as they were condemned.
Four pairs of men worked within a hundred yards of the girl, taking equal turns at riding and wrangling. The one who wrangled put his rope on a horse and led him out, snubbed him to the saddle horn and frequently eared him as well, while the one who was to ride him out cinched on his saddle and mounted.
Green horses were led out, one after another, to be saddled for the first time, and those previously broken required a few work-outs to knock the wire edge off their unwillingness to carry a rider after a winter of freedom on the range.
Three men were shoeing horses tied to snubbing posts at ten-yard intervals before the shop. One animal that had fought viciously against this treatment had been thrown and stretched, his four feet roped to convenient posts, and while he struggled and heaved on the ground Rile Foster calmly fitted and nailed the shoes on him. Cal Harris finished shoeing the colt he was working.
"That's the last touch," he said. "My string is all set to go."
"You have five colts gentled for your circle bunch," she said. "But you didn't pick a single cow horse. The boys have sorted out the best ones and the few that are left won't answer for a man that insists on a gentled string."
"Creamer and Calico will do for me," he said. "I broke them myself and maybe I can worry along."
"Did you break them like that?" she asked. Bangs was topping a horse that strenuously refused to be conquered and as they looked on the animal threw himself.
"Like that? Well, no—not precisely," Harris said. "They're not breaking horses. They're proving that they're bronc-peelers that can ride 'em before they're broke. A horse started out that way will be a bronc till the day he dies. The first thing he knows some straddler swarms him and hangs the spurs in him. He bogs his head and starts out to slip his pack—and from right then on he thinks the first thing to do whenever a man steps up on him is to try his best to shake him off."
Three men were lashing their bed rolls and war bags on three pack horses and when this task was completed they rode down the lane, each one leading his pack animal. Harris knew this as evidence that they would start after the calves on the following day. The custom was to exchange representatives to ride with each wagon within a reasonable distance, the reps to look after the interest of the brand for which they rode.
"How many reps do you trade?" he asked.
"Three," she said. "Halfmoon D, V L and with Slade."
The Halfmoon D lay some fifteen miles eastward along the foot of the hills; the V L the same distance to the west, but cached away in a pocket that led well back into the base of the range, a comparatively small outfit owned by the Brandons, father and four sons, who made every effort to keep the bulk of their cows ranging in their own home basin and exchanged reps only with the Three Bar.
Slade's home place lay forty miles south and a little west and his cows grazed for over a hundred miles, requiring three wagons to cover his range.
During the afternoon the three reps came in to replace the men who had left. The surplus horses had been cut out and thrown back on the range, only those required for the remuda remaining in the pasture lot. The chuck wagon was wheeled before the cookhouse door and packed for an early start. Before the first streaks of dawn the men had saddled and breakfasted. It was turning gray in the east when four horses, necessitating the attentions of four men, were hooked to the wagon. A man hung on the bit of each wheel horse while another grasped the bits of the lead team as Waddles made one last hasty trip inside.
"This will be a rocky ride for a mile or two," he prophesied, as he mounted the seat and braced himself. "These willow-tails haven't had on a strap of harness for many a month. All set. Turn loose!"
The men stepped back and the four horses hit the collars raggedly. One wheel horse reared and jumped forward. The off leader dropped his head and pitched, shaking himself as if struggling to unseat a rider, then the four settled into a jerky run and the heavy wagon clattered and lurched down the lane.
"Fine way to break work stock," Harris remarked to Evans. "That layout would bring maybe a dollar a head."
The men swung to their saddles and followed the wagon at a shuffling trot. From where she rode between Evans and Harris, the girl turned in her saddle and watched two men throw open the gates of the big corral where the remuda was held. The wrangler, whose duty it was to tend the horse herd by day, and the nighthawk who would guard it at night sat on their horses at the far end of the corral and urged the herd out as the gates swung back. The remuda streamed down the valley, the two first riders swinging wide to either flank while the nighthawk and wrangler brought up the rear.
The four that pulled the wagon had settled to a steady gait and when some three miles below the Three Bar Waddles wheeled to the right and angled up the bench that flanked the bottoms, the wagon tilting perilously in the ascent, then struck out westward across a rolling country that showed not even a wagon track. The big cook unerringly picked the route of least resistance to the point from which the first circle would be launched, striking every wash and coulee at a place where a crossing was possible.
Shortly before noon the wagon was halted in a broad bottom threaded by a tiny spring-fed stream. The teams were unhitched; mounts were unsaddled and thrown into the horse herd, which was then headed into the mouth of a branching draw and allowed to graze. Waddles dumped off the bed rolls that were piled from the broad lowered tail-gate to the wagon top and each man sorted out his own and spread it upon some spot which struck him as a likely bed ground.
One man carried water from the stream. Two others snaked in wood for the chuck-wagon fire. Still another drove long stakes in the shape of a hollow square, stretching a single rope from one to the next and fashioning a frail rope corral.
Harris and Evans took three poles that were slung under the wagon, looped the top-rope of a little teepee round the small ends of them and erected the three, tripod fashion, after having first pegged down the teepee sides. Harris brought the girl's bed roll and war bag from the wagon and placed them inside.
"There's your house," he said. "All ready to move in."
The men repaired to the creek bank and splashed faces and hands. The big voice of the cook bellowed angrily from the wagon.
"Downstream! Downstream!" he boomed. "Get below that water hole!"
Two men who had elected to perform their ablutions above the point from which the culinary water supply was drawn moved hastily downstream.
It was not long before Waddles was dispensing nourishment from the lowered tail-gate, ladling food and hot coffee into the plates and cups which the men held out to him. They drew away and sat cross-legged on the ground. The meal was almost finished when six horsemen rode down the valley and pulled up before the wagon.
"What's the chance for scraps?" the leader asked.
"Step down," Waddles invited. "And throw a feed in you. She's still a-steaming."
Four of the men differed in no material way from the Three Bar men in appearance. The fifth was a ruffian with little forehead, a face of gorilla cast, stamped with brute ferocity and small intelligence. The last of the six was a striking figure, a big man with pure white hair and brows, his pale eyes peering from a red face.
"The roasted albino is Harper, our leading bad man in these parts," Evans remarked to Harris. "And the human ape is Lang; Fisher, Coleman, Barton and Canfield are the rest. Nice layout of murderers and such."
Harper's men ate unconcernedly, conscious that they were marked as men who had violated every law on the calendar, but knowing also that no man would take exceptions to their presence on that general ground alone, and as they had neared the wagon each man had scanned the faces of the round-up crew to make certain that there were none among them who might bear some more specific and personal dislike.
The Three Bar men chatted and fraternized with them as they would have done with the riders of any legitimate outfit. Harper praised the food that Waddles tendered them.
Billie Warren forced a smile as she nodded to them, then moved off and sat upon a rock some fifty yards from the wagon, despising the six men who ate her fare and inwardly raging at the conditions which forced her to extend the hospitality of the Three Bar to men of their breed whenever they chanced by.
Harris strolled over and sat down facing her, sifting tobacco into a brown paper and deftly rolling his smoke.
"Has it been on your mind—what I was telling you a few nights back, about how much I was loving you?" he asked.
"You had your chance to prove it by going away," she said, "and refused; so why bring it up again? The next two years will be hard enough without my having to listen to that."
"Our families must have been real set on throwing us together," he observed. "I was cut off without a dime myself—unless I spent two full years on the Three Bar."
She was angry with herself for believing him sincere, for being convinced that he too, as he had several times intimated, was tied in much the same fashion as herself. The explanation came to her in an illuminating flash. The elder Harris must have nursed a lifelong enmity against her father, who had believed him the most devoted friend on earth.
She had often heard the tale of how her parent had, in all friendliness, followed old Bill Harris step by step from Dodge City to the Platte, to old Fort Laramie and finally to the present Three Bar range. Perhaps the one so followed had felt that Cal Warren was but the hated symbol of the whole clan of squatters who had driven him from place to place and eventually forced him to relinquish his hope of seeing the Three Bar brand on a hundred thousand cows; that his friendliness had been simulated, his vindictiveness nursed and finally consummated by leaving his affairs in such fashion that his son must carry on the work his trickery had begun.
The voice of Waddles reached them. He was announcing a half-day of rest, according to her orders.
"It's kill-time for the rest of the day," he stated. "Make the most of it."
For three weeks past, excepting for the trip to Brill's, the men had toiled incessantly, breakfasting before sunup and seeking their bunks long after dark. Some immediately turned to their bed rolls to make up lost sleep. Others repaired to the stream to wash out extra articles of soiled clothing before taking their rest.
Harris resumed where he had broken off some five minutes before.
"And I'd have tossed it off, as I told you once, if the Three Bar girl had turned out to be any except you. You've had a tough problem to work out, girl," he said. "I sold out my little Box L outfit for more than it was worth—and figured to stop the leak at the Three Bar and put the old brand on its feet."
His calm assurance on this point exasperated the girl.
"How?" she demanded. "What can you do?" She pointed toward the six men near the wagon. "During the time you spent prowling the hills did you ever come across those men?"
"Not to pal round with them," he confessed. "But I did cut their trail now and then."
"Then don't you know what every other man in this country knows—that those six and a lot more of their breed are responsible for every loss within a hundred miles? They can operate against a brand one week and stop at the home ranch and get fed the next. That's where the Three Bar loss comes in. And I have to feed them when they come along."
"Some day we'll feed them and hang them right after the meal," he said. "They're not the outfit that's going to be hardest to handle when the time arrives."
"What do you mean?" she asked. "No one has ever been able to handle them up to date."
"Did it ever strike you as queer that Slade could come into this country twelve years back, with nothing but a long rope and a running iron, and be owning thirty thousand head to-day?"
"He has the knack to protect his own and increase," she said. "They're afraid of Slade."
Harris absently traced the Three Bar in the dust with a stick, then fashioned the V L and the Halfmoon D, the three brands that ranged along the foot of the hills. With a few deft strokes he transformed the Three Bar into the Three Cross T, reworked the V L into a Diamond Box and the Halfmoon D into Circle P, each one of the worked-overs representing one of the dozen or so brands registered by Slade. He blotted out his handiwork with the flat of his hand.
"Don't you suppose that the owner of every one of those brands knows that?" she scoffed. "A clumsy rebrand would loom up for a mile. Slade's no fool."
"Not in a thousand years," Harris agreed. "I was just commenting on how peculiar it was that the three brands he runs farthest north should be so easy worked over into any one of the three that his range overlaps up this way. And I happen to know his farthest south brands would work out the same way with the outfits at the other end of his range. But he earmarks all of his brands the same—with jinglebobs; and jinglebobs most generally drop off and leave nothing but a good big piece absent out of the ear."
"So you think a man as big as Slade is stupid enough to try his hand at brand-blotting on all sides at once?" she asked.
"No; nor even once on one side," he returned. "Not him. The one fact that the similarity of brands would make it easy to fall into the habit is enough to keep every outfit watching him. He couldn't start—and knows it."
"Then what does it all amount to?" she asked.
"While folks watch him on that score he could work in a dozen ways that don't concern those brands at all," he said.
The girl shook her head impatiently and looked across at the six men who ate her fare.
"Look at them," she flared. "Eating my food; and in a few nights they'll be hazing a bunch of Three Bar steers toward the Idaho line. Why doesn't some man that is a man kill that albino fiend and all his whelps and rid the country of his breed? Even Slade lets them put up at his place."
"If they're pestering you I'll order them off," he said.
"And what effect would that have?" she inquired scornfully.
"The effect of causing them to climb their horses and amble off down the country," he returned. He sprawled on the grass, his head propped on one hand as he regarded them.
"Then probably you'd better order them off," she suggested. "You have my permission. Now's your chance to make good the lordly brag of helping the Three Bar out of the hole." She instantly regretted having said it. A dozen times of late she had wondered if she were turning bitter and waspish, if she would ever again be the even-tempered Billie Warren with a good word and a smile for every one.
Harris was, as always, apparently undisturbed by her words. Far down the bottoms she could see a point of light which she knew for a white sign that read: "Squatter, don't let sundown find you here." The man before her had defied these sinister warnings scattered about the range and publicly announced that he would put in hay on his filing, knowing that he was a marked man from the hour he turned the first furrow. Whatever his shortcomings, lack of courage was not one of them.
"I take that back," she said, referring to her words of a few moments before. Harris straightened to a sitting position in his surprise at this impulsive retraction, and as he smiled across at her she divined that this man, seemingly so impervious to her sarcasm, could be easily moved by a single kind word.
"Thanks, Billie," he said. "That was real white of you."
He rose and sauntered toward the wagon and Billie Warren felt a sudden clutch of fear as he halted before Harper and she realized that he had taken her words literally and intended ordering them off.
"I've been made temporary foreman of the Three Bar—just so the boss could try me out on that job for an hour or two," he remarked conversationally. "So I'm putting in a new rule that goes into effect right off. When you boys ride away, in a few minutes from now, you can tell folks that the grub line is closed as far as the Three Bar is concerned."
Lang took a half-step toward him, his face reflecting his gathering rage as his slow brain comprehended the fact that this speech was but another way of announcing that he and his men would find no welcome at the Three Bar from that moment on. Harper caught his arm and jerked him back. The albino was an old hand and could rightly read the signs.
"The gentleman was remarking to me," he said to Lang; "not you." He turned to Harris, noting as he did so that every Three Bar man, excepting those asleep, had suddenly evidenced keen interest in what was transpiring there; several carelessly shifted their positions. "There's no law to make you feed any man," he said to Harris. "From now on we'll pay our way—as far as the Three Bar is concerned."
His tones were casual; only his pale eyes, fastened unblinkingly on Harris's face, betrayed his real feeling toward the man who, notwithstanding the roundabout nature of his announcement, had practically ordered him to stay away from the Three Bar for all time.
"But even in the face of that," he resumed, "we'll welcome you any time you happen to ride down our way."
Every man within earshot understood the threat that lay beneath the casual words.
"Then I'll likely drop in some time," Harris said. "If you'll send word where it is. And I'll bring fifty men along."
The albino motioned his men toward their horses and they mounted and rode off down the bottoms. Harris walked back and resumed his seat near the girl, who sat looking at him as if she could not believe what she had just witnessed.
"You see it was just as easy as I'd counted on," he said. "It'll be a considerable saving on food."
"But how did you know?" she asked. "Why is Harper afraid of you?"
"He's not," Harris said. "Not for a single second. But he's an old hand and has left a few places on the jump before he came out here."
"And he thinks you know it!" she guessed.
"He don't care what I know; it's what he knows himself—that the wild bunch is always roosting on the powder can even when it appears like they're sitting pretty—that counts with him. You thought I was taking a fool chance of out-gaming him. In reality I was taking almost an unfair advantage of him, providing he had the brains he must possess to have lived to his age."