Western Short Story
There was a painting at the World's Fair at Chicago named "The Reply," in which the lines of two contending armies were distinctly outlined.
One of these armies had demanded the surrender of the other. The reply was being written by a little fellow, surrounded by grim veterans of war.
He was not even a soldier. But in this little fellow's countenance shone a supreme contempt for the enemy's demand. His patriotism beamed out as plainly as did that of the officer dictating to him. Physically he was debarred from being a soldier; still there was a place where he could be useful.
So with Little Jack Martin. He was a cripple and could not ride, but he could cook. If the way to rule men is through the stomach, Jack was a general who never knew defeat. The "J+H" camp, where he presided over the kitchen, was noted for good living. Jack's domestic tastes followed him wherever he went, so that he surrounded himself at this camp with chickens, and a few cows for milk. During the spring months, when the boys were away on the various round-ups, he planted and raised a fine garden. Men returning from a hard month's work would brace themselves against fried chicken, eggs, milk, and fresh
vegetables. After drinking alkali water for a month and living out of tin cans, who wouldn't love Jack? In addition to his garden, he always raised a fine patch of watermelons. This camp was an oasis in the
desert. Every man was Jack's friend, and an enemy was an unknown personage. The peculiarity about him, aside from his deformity, was his ability to act so much better than he could talk. In fact he could
barely express his simplest wants in words.
Cripples are usually cross, irritable, and unpleasant companions. Jack was the reverse. His best qualities shone their brightest when there were a dozen men around to cook for. When they ate heartily he felt he
was useful. If a boy was sick, Jack could make a broth, or fix a cup of beef tea like a mother or sister. When he went out with the wagon during beef-shipping season, a pot of coffee simmered over the fire
all night for the boys on night herd. Men going or returning on guard liked to eat. The bread and meat left over from the meals of the day were always left convenient for the boys. It was the many little things that he thought of which made him such a general favorite with every one.
Little Jack was middle-aged when the proclamation of the President opening the original Oklahoma was issued. This land was to be thrown open in April. It was not a cow-country then, though it had been once.
There was a warning in this that the Strip would be next. The dominion of the cowman was giving way to the homesteader. One day Jack found opportunity to take Miller, our foreman, into his confidence. They
had been together five or six years. Jack had coveted a spot in the section which was to be thrown open, and he asked the foreman to help him get it. He had been all over the country when it was part of the
range, and had picked out a spot on Big Turkey Creek, ten miles south of the Strip line. It gradually passed from one to another of us what Jack wanted. At first we felt blue about it, but Miller, who could
see farther than the rest of us, dispelled the gloom by announcing at dinner, "Jack is going to take a claim if this outfit has a horse in it and a man to ride him. It is only a question of a year or two at the farthest until the rest of us will be guiding a white mule between two corn rows, and glad of the chance. If Jack goes now, he will have just that many years the start of the rest of us."
We nerved ourselves and tried to appear jolly after this talk of the foreman. We entered into quite a discussion as to which horse would be the best to make the ride with. The ranch had several specially good saddle animals. In chasing gray wolves in the winter those qualities of endurance which long races developed in hunting these enemies of cattle, pointed out a certain coyote-colored horse, whose color marks and "Dead Tree" brand indicated that he was of Spanish extraction. Intelligently ridden with a light rider he was First Choice on which to make this run. That was finally agreed to by all. There was no trouble selecting the rider for this horse with the zebra marks. The lightest weight was Billy Edwards. This qualification gave him the preference over us all.
Jack described the spot he desired to claim by an old branding-pen which had been built there when it had been part of the range. Billy had ironed up many a calf in those same pens himself. "Well, Jack," said Billy, "if this outfit don't put you on the best quarter section around that old corral, you'll know that they have throwed off on you."
It was two weeks before the opening day. The coyote horse was given special care from this time forward. He feasted on corn, while others had to be content with grass. In spite of all the bravado that was being thrown into these preparations, there was noticeable a deep undercurrent of regret. Jack was going from us. Every one wanted him to go, still these dissolving ties moved the simple men to acts of
boyish kindness. Each tried to outdo the others, in the matter of a parting present to Jack. He could have robbed us then. It was as bad as a funeral. Once before we felt similarly when one of the boys died at camp. It was like an only sister leaving the family circle.
Miller seemed to enjoy the discomfiture of the rest of us. This creedless old Christian had fine strata in his make-up. He and Jack planned continually for the future. In fact they didn't live in the present like the rest of us. Two days before the opening, we loaded up a wagon with Jack's effects. Every man but the newly installed cook went along. It was too early in the spring for work to commence. We all dubbed Jack a boomer from this time forward. The horse so much depended on was led behind the wagon.
On the border we found a motley crowd of people. Soldiers had gathered them into camps along the line to prevent "sooners" from entering before the appointed time. We stopped in a camp directly north of the
claim our little boomer wanted. One thing was certain, it would take a better horse than ours to win the claim away from us. No sooner could take it. That and other things were what all of us were going along
The next day when the word was given that made the land public domain, Billy was in line on the coyote. He held his place to the front with the best of them. After the first few miles, the others followed the valley of Turkey Creek, but he maintained his course like wild fowl, skirting the timber which covered the first range of hills back from the creek. Jack followed with the wagon, while the rest of us rode leisurely, after the first mile or so. When we saw Edwards bear straight ahead from the others, we argued that a sooner only could beat us for the claim. If he tried to out-hold us, it would be six to one, as we noticed the leaders closely when we slacked up. By not following the valley, Billy would cut off two miles. Any man who could ride twelve miles to the coyote's ten with Billy Edwards in the saddle was welcome to the earth. That was the way we felt. We rode together, expecting to make the claim three quarters of an hour behind our man. When near enough to sight it, we could see Billy and another horseman apparently protesting with one another. A loud yell from one of us attracted our man's attention. He mounted his horse and rode out and met us. "Well, fellows, it's the expected that's happened this time," said he. "Yes, there's a sooner on it, and he puts up a fine bluff of having ridden from the line; but he's a liar by the watch, for there isn't a wet hair on his horse, while the sweat was dripping from the fetlocks of this one."
"If you are satisfied that he is a sooner," said Miller, "he has to go."
"Well, he is a lying sooner," said Edwards.
We reined in our horses and held a short parley. After a brief discussion of the situation, Miller said to us: "You boys go down to him,--don't hurt him or get hurt, but make out that you're going to hang him. Put plenty of reality into it, and I'll come in in time to save him and give him a chance to run for his life."
We all rode down towards him, Miller bearing off towards the right of the old corral,--rode out over the claim noticing the rich soil thrown up by the mole-hills. When we came up to our sooner, all of us dismounted. Edwards confronted him and said, "Do you contest my right to this claim?"
"I certainly do," was the reply.
"Well, you won't do so long," said Edwards. Quick as a flash Mouse prodded the cold steel muzzle of a six-shooter against his ear. As the sooner turned his head and looked into Mouse's stern countenance, one of the boys relieved him of an ugly gun and knife that dangled from his belt. "Get on your horse," said Mouse, emphasizing his demand with an oath, while the muzzle of a forty-five in his ear made the order undebatable. Edwards took the horse by the bits and started for a large black-jack tree which stood near by. Reaching it, Edwards said, "Better use Coon's rope; it's manilla and stronger. Can any of you boys tie a hangman's knot?" he inquired when the rope was handed him.
"Yes, let me," responded several.
"Which limb will be best?" inquired Mouse.
"Take this horse by the bits," said Edwards to one of the boys, "till I look." He coiled the rope sailor fashion, and made an ineffectual attempt to throw it over a large limb which hung out like a yard-arm,
but the small branches intervening defeated his throw. While he was coiling the rope to make a second throw, some one said, "Mebby so he'd like to pray."
"What! him pray?" said Edwards. "Any prayer that he might offer couldn't get a hearing amongst men, let alone above, where liars are forbidden."
"Try that other limb," said Coon to Edwards; "there's not so much brush in the way; we want to get this job done sometime to-day." As Edwards made a successful throw, he said, "Bring that horse directly
underneath." At this moment Miller dashed up and demanded, "What in hell are you trying to do?"
"This sheep-thief of a sooner contests my right to this claim," snapped Edwards, "and he has played his last cards on this earth. Lead that horse under here."
"Just one moment," said Miller. "I think I know this man--think he worked for me once in New Mexico." The sooner looked at Miller appealingly, his face blanched to whiteness. Miller took the bridle reins out of the hands of the boy who was holding the horse, and whispering something to the sooner said to us, "Are you all ready?"
"Just waiting on you," said Edwards. The sooner gathered up the reins. Miller turned the horse halfway round as though he was going to lead him under the tree, gave him a slap in the flank with his hand, and
the sooner, throwing the rowels of his spurs into the horse, shot out from us like a startled deer. We called to him to halt, as half a dozen six-shooters encouraged him to go by opening a fusillade on the
fleeing horseman, who only hit the high places while going. Nor did we let up fogging him until we emptied our guns and he entered the timber. There was plenty of zeal in this latter part, as the lead must
have zipped and cried near enough to give it reality. Our object was to shoot as near as possible without hitting.
Other horsemen put in an appearance as we were unsaddling and preparing to camp, for we had come to stay a week if necessary. In about an hour Jack joined us, speechless as usual, his face wreathed in smiles. The first step toward a home he could call his own had been taken. We told him about the trouble we had had with the sooner, a story which he seemed to question, until Miller confirmed it. We put up a tent among the black-jacks, as the nights were cool, and were soon at peace with all the world.
At supper that evening Edwards said: "When the old settlers hold their reunions in the next generation, they'll say, 'Thirty years ago Uncle Jack Martin settled over there on Big Turkey,' and point him out to
their children as one of the pioneer fathers."
No one found trouble in getting to sleep that night, and the next day arts long forgotten by most of us were revived. Some plowed up the old branding-pen for a garden. Others cut logs for a cabin. Every one
did two ordinary days' work. The getting of the logs together was the hardest. We sawed and chopped and hewed for dear life. The first few days Jack and one of the boys planted a fine big garden. On the fourth day we gave up the tent, as the smoke curled upward from our own chimney, in the way that it does in well-told stories. The last night we spent with Jack was one long to be remembered. A bright fire
snapped and crackled in the ample fireplace. Every one told stories. Several of the boys could sing "The Lone Star Cow-trail," while "Sam Bass" and "Bonnie Black Bess" were given with a vim.
The next morning we were to leave for camp. One of the boys who would work for us that summer, but whose name was not on the pay-roll until the round-up, stayed with Jack. We all went home feeling fine,
and leaving Jack happy as a bird in his new possession. As we were saddling up to leave, Miller said to Jack, "Now if you're any good, you'll delude some girl to keep house for you 'twixt now and fall. Remember what the Holy Book says about it being hard luck for man to be alone. You notice all your boomer neighbors have wives. That's a hint to you to do likewise."
We were on the point of mounting, when the coyote horse began to act up in great shape. Some one said to Edwards, "Loosen your cinches!"
"Oh, it's nothing but the corn he's been eating and a few days' rest," said Miller. "He's just running a little bluff on Billy." As Edwards went to put his foot in the stirrup a second time, the coyote reared like a circus horse. "Now look here, colty," said Billy, speaking to the horse, "my daddy rode with Old John Morgan, the Confederate cavalry raider, and he'd be ashamed of any boy he ever raised that couldn't ride a bad horse like you. You're plum foolish to act this way. Do you think I'll walk and lead you home?" He led him out a few rods from the others and mounted him without any trouble. "He just wants to show Jack how it affects a cow-horse to graze a few days on a boomer's claim,--that's all," said Edwards, when he joined us.
"Now, Jack," said Miller, as a final parting, "if you want a cow, I'll send one down, or if you need anything, let us know and we'll come a-running. It's a bad example you've set us to go booming this way, but we want to make a howling success out of you, so we can visit you next winter. And mind what I told you about getting married," he called back as he rode away.
We reached camp by late noon. Miller kept up his talk about what a fine move Jack had made; said that we must get him a stray beef for his next winter's meat; kept figuring constantly what else he could do
for Jack. "You come around in a few years and you'll find him as cosy as a coon, and better off than any of us," said Miller, when we were talking about his farming. "I've slept under wet blankets with him, and watched him kindle a fire in the snow, too often not to know what he's made of. There's good stuff in that little rascal."
About the ranch it seemed lonesome without Jack. It was like coming home from school when we were kids and finding mother gone to the neighbor's. We always liked to find her at home. We busied ourselves
repairing fences, putting in flood-gates on the river, doing anything to keep away from camp. Miller himself went back to see Jack within ten days, remaining a week. None of us stayed at the home ranch any more than we could help. We visited other camps on hatched excuses, until the home round-ups began. When any one else asked us about Jack, we would blow about what a fine claim he had, and what a boost we had given him. When we buckled down to the summer's work the gloom gradually left us. There were men to be sent on the eastern, western, and middle divisions of the general round-up of the Strip. Two men were sent south into the Cheyenne country to catch anything that had winter-drifted. Our range lay in the middle division. Miller and one man looked after it on the general round-up.
It was a busy year with us. Our range was full stocked, and by early fall was rich with fat cattle. We lived with the wagon after the shipping season commenced. Then we missed Jack, although the new cook
did the best he knew how. Train after train went out of our pasture, yet the cattle were never missed. We never went to camp now; only the wagon went in after supplies, though we often came within sight of the stabling and corrals in our work.
One day, late in the season, we were getting out a train load of "Barb Wire" cattle, when who should come toddling along on a plow nag but Jack himself. Busy as we were, he held quite a levee, though he didn't give down much news, nor have anything to say about himself or the crops. That night at camp, while the rest of us were arranging the guards for the night, Miller and Jack prowled off in an opposite
direction from the beef herd, possibly half a mile, and afoot, too. We could all see that something was working. Some trouble was bothering Jack, and he had come to a friend in need, so we thought. They did not come back to camp until the moon was up and the second guard had gone out to relieve the first. When they came back not a word was spoken. They unrolled Miller's bed and slept together.
The next morning as Jack was leaving us to return to his claim, we overheard him say to Miller, "I'll write you." As he faded from our sight, Miller smiled to himself, as though he was tickled about something. Finally Billy Edwards brought things to a head by asking bluntly, "What's up with Jack? We want to know."
"Oh, it's too good," said Miller. "If that little game-legged rooster hasn't gone and deluded some girl back in the State into marrying him, I'm a horse-thief. You fellows are all in the play, too. Came here special to see when we could best get away. Wants every one of us to come. He's built another end to his house, double log style, floored both rooms and the middle. Says he will have two fiddlers, andpromises us the hog killingest time of our lives. I've accepted the invitation on behalf of the 'J+H's' without consulting any one."
"But supposing we are busy when it takes place," said Mouse, "then what?"
"But we won't be," answered Miller. "It isn't every day that we have a chance at a wedding in our little family, and when we get the word, this outfit quits then and there. Ordinary callings in life, like cattle matters, must go to the rear until important things are attended to. Every man is expected to don his best togs, and dance to the centre on the word. If it takes a week to turn the trick properly, good enough. Jack and his bride must have a blow-out right. This outfit must do themselves proud. It will be our night to howl, and every man will be a wooly wolf."
We loaded the beeves out the next day, going back after two trains of "Turkey Track" cattle. While we were getting these out, Miller cut out two strays and a cow or two, and sent them to the horse pasture at the home camp. It was getting late in the fall, and we figured that a few more shipments would end it. Miller told the owners to load out what they wanted while the weather was fit, as our saddle horses were getting worn out fast. As we were loading out the last shipment of mixed cattle of our own, the letter came to Miller. Jack would return with his bride on a date only two days off, and the festivities were set for one day later. We pulled into headquarters that night, the first time in six weeks, and turned everything loose. The next morning we overhauled our Sunday bests, and worried around trying to pick out something for a wedding present.
Miller gave the happy pair a little "Flower Pot" cow, which he had rustled in the Cheyenne country on the round-up a few years before. Edwards presented him with a log chain that a bone-picker had lost in our pasture. Mouse gave Jack a four-tined fork which the hay outfit had forgotten when they left. Coon Floyd's compliments went with five cow-bells, which we always thought he rustled from a boomer's wagon that broke down over on the Reno trail. It bothered some of us to rustle something for a present, for you know we couldn't buy anything. We managed to get some deer's antlers, a gray wolf's skin for the bride's tootsies, and several colored sheepskins, which we had bought from a Mexican horse herd going up the trail that spring. We killed a nice fat little beef, the evening before we started, hanging it out
over night to harden. None of the boys knew the brand; in fact, it's bad taste to remember the brand on anything you've beefed. No one troubles himself to notice it carefully. That night a messenger brought a letter to Miller, ordering him to ship out the remnant of "Diamond Tail" cattle as soon as possible. They belonged to a northwest Texas outfit, and we were maturing them. The messenger stayed all night, and in the morning asked, "Shall I order cars for you?"
"No, I have a few other things to attend to first," answered Miller.
We took the wagon with us to carry our bedding and the other plunder, driving along with us a cow and a calf of Jack's, the little "Flower Pot" cow, and a beef. Our outfit reached Jack's house by the middle of the afternoon. The first thing was to be introduced to the bride. Jack did the honors himself, presenting each one of us, and seemed just as proud as a little boy with new boots. Then we were given introductions to several good-looking neighbor girls. We began to feel our own inferiority.
While we were hanging up the quarters of beef on some pegs on the north side of the cabin, Edwards said, whispering, "Jack must have pictured this claim mighty hifalutin to that gal, for she's a way up good-looker. Another thing, watch me build to the one inside with the black eyes. I claimed her first, remember. As soon as we get this beef hung up I'm going in and sidle up to her."
"We won't differ with you on that point," remarked Mouse, "but if she takes any special shine to a runt like you, when there's boys like the rest of us standing around, all I've got to say is, her tastes must be a heap sight sorry and depraved. I expect to dance with the bride--in the head set--a whirl or two myself."
"If I'd only thought," chimed in Coon, "I'd sent up to the State and got me a white shirt and a standing collar and a red necktie. You galoots out-hold me on togs. But where I was raised, back down in Palo Pinto County, Texas, I was some punkins as a ladies' man myself--you hear me."
"Oh, you look all right," said Edwards. "You would look all right with only a cotton string around your neck."
After tending to our horses, we all went into the house. There sat Miller talking to the bride just as if he had known her always, with Jack standing with his back to the fire, grinning like a cat eating paste. The neighbor girls fell to getting supper, and our cook turned to and helped. We managed to get fairly well acquainted with the company by the time the meal was over. The fiddlers came early, in fact, dined with us. Jack said if there were enough girls, we could run three sets, and he thought there would be, as he had asked every one both sides of the creek for five miles. The beds were taken down and stowed away, as there would be no use for them that night.
The company came early. Most of the young fellows brought their best girls seated behind them on saddle horses. This manner gave the girl a chance to show her trustful, clinging nature. A horse that would carry double was a prize animal. In settling up a new country, primitive methods crop out as a matter of necessity.
Ben Thorn, an old-timer in the Strip, called off. While the company was gathering, the fiddlers began to tune up, which sent a thrill through us. When Ben gave the word, "Secure your pardners for the first quadrille," Miller led out the bride to the first position in the best room, Jack's short leg barring him as a participant. This was the signal for the rest of us, and we fell in promptly. The fiddles struck up "Hounds in the Woods," the prompter's voice rang out "Honors to your pardner," and the dance was on.
Edwards close-herded the black-eyed girl till supper time. Not a one of us got a dance with her even. Mouse admitted next day, as we rode home, that he squeezed her hand several times in the grand right and left, just to show her that she had other admirers, that she needn't throw herself away on any one fellow, but it was no go. After supper Billy corralled her in a corner, she seeming willing, and stuck to her until her brother took her home nigh daylight.
Jack got us boys pardners for every dance. He proved himself clean strain that night, the whitest little Injun on the reservation. We knocked off dancing about midnight and had supper,--good coffee with no end of way-up fine chuck. We ate as we danced, heartily. Supper over, the dance went on full blast. About two o'clock in the morning, the wire edge was well worn off the revelers, and they showed signs of weariness. Miller, noticing it, ordered the Indian war-dance as given by the Cheyennes. That aroused every one and filled the sets instantly. The fiddlers caught the inspiration and struck into "Sift the Meal and save the Bran." In every grand right and left, we ki-yied as we had witnessed Lo in the dance on festive occasions. At the end of every change, we gave a war-whoop, some of the girls joining in, that would have put to shame any son of the Cheyennes.
It was daybreak when the dance ended and the guests departed. Though we had brought our blankets with us, no one thought of sleeping. Our cook and one of the girls got breakfast. The bride offered to help, but we wouldn't let her turn her hand. At breakfast we discussed the incidents of the night previous, and we all felt that we had done the occasion justice.