Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
It was an early spring. The round-up was set for the 10th of June. The grass was well forward, while the cattle had changed their shaggy winter coats to glossy suits of summer silk. The brands were as readable as an alphabet.
It was one day yet before the round-up of the Cherokee Strip. This strip of leased Indian lands was to be worked in three divisions. We were on our way to represent the Coldwater Pool in the western division, on the annual round-up. Our outfit was four men and thirty horses. We were to represent a range that had twelve thousand cattle on it, a total of forty-seven brands. We had been in the saddle since early morning, and as we came out on a narrow divide, we caught our first glimpse of the Cottonwoods at Antelope Springs, the rendezvous for this division. The setting sun was scarcely half an hour high, and the camp was yet five miles distant. We had covered sixty miles that day, traveling light, our bedding lashed on gentle saddle horses. We rode up the mesa quite a little distance to avoid some rough broken country, then turned southward toward the Springs. Before turning off, we could see with the naked eye signs of life at the meeting-point. The wagon sheets of half a dozen chuck-wagons shone white in the dim distance, while small bands of saddle horses could be distinctly seen grazing about.
When we halted at noon that day to change our mounts, we sighted to the northward some seven miles distant an outfit similar to our own. We were on the lookout for this cavalcade; they were supposed to be the "Spade" outfit, on their way to attend the round-up in the middle division, where our pasture lay. This year, as in years past, we had exchanged the courtesies of the range with them. Their men on our division were made welcome at our wagon, and we on theirs were extended the same courtesy. For this reason we had hoped to meet them and exchange the chronicle of the day, concerning the condition of cattle on their range, the winter drift, and who would be captain this year on the western division, but had traveled the entire day without meeting a man.
Night had almost set in when we reached the camp, and to our satisfaction and delight found the Spade wagon already there, though their men and horses would not arrive until the next day. To hungry men like ourselves, the welcome of their cook was hospitality in the fullest sense of the word. We stretched ropes from the wagon wheels, and in a few moments' time were busy hobbling our mounts. Darkness had settled over the camp as we were at this work, while an occasional horseman rode by with the common inquiry, "Whose outfit is this?" and the cook, with one end of the rope in his hand, would feel the host in him sufficiently to reply in tones supercilious, "The Coldwater Pool men are with us this year."
Our arrival was heralded through the camp with the same rapidity with which gossip circulates, equally in a tenement alley or the upper crust of society. The cook had informed us that we had been inquired for by some Panhandle man; so before we had finished hobbling, a stranger sang out across the ropes in the darkness, "Is Billy Edwards here?" Receiving an affirmative answer from among the horses' feet, he added, "Come out, then, and shake hands with a friend."
Edwards arose from his work, and looking across the backs of the circle of horses about him, at the undistinguishable figure at the rope, replied, "Whoever you are, I reckon the acquaintance will hold good until I get these horses hobbled."
"Who is it?" inquired "Mouse" from over near the hind wheel of the wagon, where he was applying the hemp to the horses' ankles.
"I don't know," said Billy, as he knelt among the horses and resumed his work,--"some geranium out there wants me to come out and shake hands, pow-wow, and make some medicine with him; that's all. Say, we'll leave Chino for picket, and that Chihuahua cutting horse of Coon's, you have to put a rope on when you come to him. He's too touchy to sabe hobbles if you don't."
When we had finished hobbling, and the horses were turned loose, the stranger proved to be "Babe" Bradshaw, an old chum of Edwards's. The Spade cook added an earthly laurel to his temporal crown with the supper to which he shortly invited us. Bradshaw had eaten with the general wagon, but he sat around while we ate. There was little conversation during the supper, for our appetites were such and the spread so inviting that it simply absorbed us.
"Don't bother me," said Edwards to his old chum, in reply to some inquiry. "Can't you see that I'm occupied at present?"
We did justice to the supper, having had no dinner that day. The cook even urged, with an earnestness worthy of a motherly landlady, several dishes, but his browned potatoes and roast beef claimed our attention. "Well, what are you doing in this country anyhow?" inquired Edwards of Bradshaw, when the inner man had been thoroughly satisfied.
"Well, sir, I have a document in my pocket, with sealing wax but no ribbons on it, which says that I am the duly authorized representative of the Panhandle Cattle Association. I also have a book in my pocket showing every brand and the names of its owners, and there is a whole raft of them. I may go to St. Louis to act as inspector for my people when the round-up ends."
"You're just as windy as ever, Babe," said Billy. "Strange I didn't recognize you when you first spoke. You're getting natural now, though. I suppose you're borrowing horses, like all these special inspectors do. It's all right with me, but good men must be scarce in your section or you've improved rapidly since you left us. By the way, there is a man or four lying around here that also represents about forty-seven brands. Possibly you'd better not cut any of their cattle or you might get them cut back on you."
"Do you remember," said Babe, "when I dissolved with the 'Ohio' outfit and bought in with the 'LX' people?"
"When you what?" repeated Edwards.
"Well, then, when I was discharged by the 'Ohio's' and got a job ploughing fire-guards with the 'LX's.' Is that plain enough for your conception? I learned a lesson then that has served me since to good advantage. Don't hesitate to ask for the best job on the works, for if you don't you'll see some one get it that isn't as well qualified to fill it as you are. So if you happen to be in St. Louis, call around and see me at the Panhandle headquarters. Don't send in any card by a nigger; walk right in. I might give you some other pointers, but you couldn't appreciate them. You'll more than likely be driving a chuck-wagon in a few years."
These old cronies from boyhood sparred along in give-and-take repartee for some time, finally drifting back to boyhood days, while the harshness that pervaded their conversation before became mild and genial.
"Have you ever been back in old San Saba since we left?" inquired Edwards after a long meditative silence.
"Oh, yes, I spent a winter back there two years ago, though it was hard lines to enjoy yourself. I managed to romance about for two or three months, sowing turnip seed and teaching dancing-school. The girls that you and I knew are nearly all married."
"What ever became of the O'Shea girls?" asked Edwards. "You know that I was high card once with the eldest."
"You'd better comfort yourself with the thought," answered Babe, "for you couldn't play third fiddle in her string now. You remember old Dennis O'Shea was land-poor all his life. Well, in the land and cattle boom a few years ago he was picked up and set on a pedestal. It's wonderful what money can do! The old man was just common bog Irish all his life, until a cattle syndicate bought his lands and cattle for twice what they were worth. Then he blossomed into a capitalist. He always was a trifle hide-bound. Get all you can and can all you get, took precedence and became the first law with your papa-in-law. The old man used to say that the prettiest sight he ever saw was the smoke arising from a 'Snake' branding-iron. They moved to town, and have been to Europe since they left the ranch. Jed Lynch, you know, was smitten on the youngest girl. Well, he had the nerve to call on them after their return from Europe. He says that they live in a big house, their name's on the door, and you have to ring a bell, and then a nigger meets you. It must make a man feel awkward to live around a wagon all his days, and then suddenly change to style and put on a heap of dog. Jed says the red-headed girl, the middle one, married some fellow, and they live with the old folks. He says the other girls treated him nicely, but the old lady, she has got it bad. He says that she just languishes on a sofa, cuts into the conversation now and then, and simply swells up. She don't let the old man come into the parlor at all. Jed says that when the girls were describing their trip through Europe, one of them happened to mention Rome, when the old lady interrupted: 'Rome? Rome? Let me see, I've forgotten, girls. Where is Rome?'
"'Don't you remember when we were in Italy,' said one of the girls, trying to refresh her memory.
"'Oh, yes, now I remember; that's where I bought you girls such nice long red stockings.'
"The girls suddenly remembered some duty about the house that required their immediate attention, and Jed says that he looked out of the window."
"So you think I've lost my number, do you?" commented Edwards, as he lay on his back and fondly patted a comfortable stomach.
"Well, possibly I have, but it's some consolation to remember that that very good woman that you're slandering used to give me the glad hand and cut the pie large when I called. I may be out of the game, but I'd take a chance yet if I were present; that's what!"
They were singing over at one of the wagons across the draw, and after the song ended, Bradshaw asked, "What ever became of Raneka Bill Hunter?"
"Oh, he's drifting about," said Edwards. "Mouse here can tell you about him. They're old college chums."
"Raneka was working for the '-BQ' people last summer," said Mouse, "but was discharged for hanging a horse, or rather he discharged himself. It seems that some one took a fancy to a horse in his mount. The last man to buy into an outfit that way always gets all the bad horses for his string. As Raneka was a new man there, the result was that some excuse was given him to change, and they rung in a spoilt horse on him in changing. Being new that way, he wasn't on to the horses. The first time he tried to saddle this new horse he showed up bad. The horse trotted up to him when the rope fell on his neck, reared up nicely and playfully, and threw out his forefeet, stripping the three upper buttons off Bill's vest pattern. Bill never said a word about his intentions, but tied him to the corral fence and saddled up his own private horse. There were several men around camp, but they said nothing, being a party to the deal, though they noticed Bill riding away with the spoilt horse. He took him down on the creek about a mile from camp and hung him.
"How did he do it? Why, there was a big cottonwood grew on a bluff bank of the creek. One limb hung out over the bluff, over the bed of the creek. He left the running noose on the horse's neck, climbed out on this overhanging limb, taking the rope through a fork directly over the water. He then climbed down and snubbed the free end of the rope to a small tree, and began taking in his slack. When the rope began to choke the horse, he reared and plunged, throwing himself over the bluff. That settled his ever hurting any one. He was hung higher than Haman. Bill never went back to the camp, but struck out for other quarters. There was a month's wages coming to him, but he would get that later or they might keep it. Life had charms for an old-timer like Bill, and he didn't hanker for any reputation as a broncho-buster. It generally takes a verdant to pine for such honors.
"Last winter when Bill was riding the chuck line, he ran up against a new experience. It seems that some newcomer bought a range over on Black Bear. This new man sought to set at defiance the customs of the range. It was currently reported that he had refused to invite people to stay for dinner, and preferred that no one would ask for a night's lodging, even in winter. This was the gossip of the camps for miles around, so Bill and some juniper of a pardner thought they would make a call on him and see how it was. They made it a point to reach his camp shortly after noon. They met the owner just coming out of the dug-out as they rode up. They exchanged the compliments of the hour, when the new man turned and locked the door of the dug-out with a padlock. Bill sparred around the main question, but finally asked if it was too late to get dinner, and was very politely informed that dinner was over. This latter information was, however, qualified with a profusion of regrets. After a confession of a hard ride made that morning from a camp many miles distant, Bill asked the chance to remain over night. Again the travelers were met with serious regrets, as no one would be at camp that night, business calling the owner away; he was just starting then. The cowman led out his horse, and after mounting and expressing for the last time his sincere regrets that he could not extend to them the hospitalities of his camp, rode away.
"Bill and his pardner moseyed in an opposite direction a short distance and held a parley. Bill was so nonplussed at the reception that it took him some little time to collect his thoughts. When it thoroughly dawned on him that the courtesies of the range had been trampled under foot by a rank newcomer and himself snubbed, he was aroused to action.
"'Let's go back,' said Bill to his pardner, 'and at least leave our card. He might not like it if we didn't.'
"They went back and dismounted about ten steps from the door. They shot every cartridge they both had, over a hundred between them, through the door, fastened a card with their correct names on it, and rode away. One of the boys that was working there, but was absent at the time, says there was a number of canned tomato and corn crates ranked up at the rear of the dug-out, in range with the door. This lad says that it looked as if they had a special grievance against those canned goods, for they were riddled with lead. That fellow lost enough by that act to have fed all the chuck-line men that would bother him in a year.
"Raneka made it a rule," continued Mouse, "to go down and visit the Cheyennes every winter, sometimes staying a month. He could make a good stagger at speaking their tongue, so that together with his knowledge of the Spanish and the sign language he could converse with them readily. He was perfectly at home with them, and they all liked him. When he used to let his hair grow long, he looked like an Indian. Once, when he was wrangling horses for us during the beef-shipping season, we passed him off for an Indian on some dining-room girls. George Wall was working with us that year, and had gone in ahead to see about the cars and find out when we could pen and the like. We had to drive to the State line, then, to ship. George took dinner at the best hotel in the town, and asked one of the dining-room girls if he might bring in an Indian to supper the next evening. They didn't know, so they referred him to the landlord. George explained to that auger, who, not wishing to offend us, consented. There were about ten girls in the dining-room, and they were on the lookout for the Indian. The next night we penned a little before dark. Not a man would eat at the wagon; every one rode for the hotel. We fixed Bill up in fine shape, put feathers in his hair, streaked his face with red and yellow, and had him all togged out in buckskin, even to moccasins. As we entered the dining-room, George led him by the hand, assuring all the girls that he was perfectly harmless. One long table accommodated us all. George, who sat at the head with our Indian on his right, begged the girls not to act as though they were afraid; he might notice it. Wall fed him pickles and lump sugar until the supper was brought on. Then he pushed back his chair about four feet, and stared at the girls like an idiot. When George ordered him to eat, he stood up at the table. When he wouldn't let him stand, he took the plate on his knee, and ate one side dish at a time. Finally, when he had eaten everything that suited his taste, he stood up and signed with his hands to the group of girls, muttering, 'Wo-haw, wo-haw.'
"'He wants some more beef,' said Wall. 'Bring him some more beef.' After a while he stood up and signed again, George interpreting his wants to the dining-room girls: 'Bring him some coffee. He's awful fond of coffee.'
"That supper lasted an hour, and he ate enough to kill a horse. As we left the dining-room, he tried to carry away a sugar-bowl, but Wall took it away from him. As we passed out George turned back and apologized to the girls, saying, 'He's a good Injun. I promised him he might eat with us. He'll talk about this for months now. When he goes back to his tribe he'll tell his squaws all about you girls feeding him.'"
"Seems like I remember that fellow Wall," said Bradshaw, meditating.
"Why, of course you do. Weren't you with us when we voted the bonds to the railroad company?" asked Edwards.
"No, never heard of it; must have been after I left. What business did you have voting bonds?"
"Tell him, Coon. I'm too full for utterance," said Edwards.
"If you'd been in this country you'd heard of it," said Coon Floyd. "For a few years everything was dated from that event. It was like 'when the stars fell,' and the 'surrender' with the old-time darkies at home. It seems that some new line of railroad wanted to build in, and wanted bonds voted to them as bonus. Some foxy agent for this new line got among the long-horns, who own the cattle on this Strip, and showed them that it was to their interests to get a competing line in the cattle traffic. The result was, these old long-horns got owly, laid their heads together, and made a little medicine. Every mother's son of us in the Strip was entitled to claim a home somewhere, so they put it up that we should come in and vote for the bonds. It was believed it would be a close race if they carried, for it was by counties that the bonds were voted. Towns that the road would run through would vote unanimously for them, but outlying towns would vote solidly against the bonds. There was a big lot of money used, wherever it came from, for we were royally entertained. Two or three days before the date set for the election, they began to head for this cow-town, every man on his top horse. Everything was as free as air, and we all understood that a new railroad was a good thing for the cattle interests. We gave it not only our votes, but moral support likewise.
"It was a great gathering. The hotels fed us, and the liveries cared for our horses. The liquid refreshments were provided by the prohibition druggists of the town and were as free as the sunlight. There was an underestimate made on the amount of liquids required, for the town was dry about thirty minutes; but a regular train was run through from Wichita ahead of time, and the embarrassment overcome. There was an opposition line of railroad working against the bonds, but they didn't have any better sense than to send a man down to our town to counteract our exertions. Public sentiment was a delicate matter with us, and while this man had no influence with any of us, we didn't feel the same toward him as we might. He was distributing his tickets around, and putting up a good argument, possibly, from his point of view, when some of these old long-horns hinted to the boys to show the fellow that he wasn't wanted. 'Don't hurt him,' said one old cow-man to this same Wall, 'but give him a scare, so he will know that we don't indorse him a little bit. Let him know that this town knows how to vote without being told. I'll send a man to rescue him, when things have gone far enough. You'll know when to let up.'
"That was sufficient. George went into a store and cut off about fifty feet of new rope. Some fellows that knew how tied a hangman's knot. As we came up to the stranger, we heard him say to a man, 'I tell you, sir, these bonds will pauperize unborn gener--' But the noose dropped over his neck, and cut short his argument. We led him a block and a half through the little town, during which there was a pointed argument between Wall and a "Z----" man whether the city scales or the stockyards arch gate would be the best place to hang him. There were a hundred men around him and hanging on to the rope, when a druggist, whom most of them knew, burst through the crowd, and whipping out a knife cut the rope within a few feet of his neck. 'What in hell are you varments trying to do?' roared the druggist. 'This man is a cousin of mine. Going to hang him, are you? Well, you'll have to hang me with him when you do.'
"'Just as soon make it two as one,' snarled George. 'When did you get the chips in this game, I'd like to know? Oppose the progress of the town, too, do you?'
"'No, I don't,' said the druggist, 'and I'll see that my cousin here doesn't.'
"'That's all we ask, then,' said Wall; 'turn him loose, boys. We don't want to hang no man. We hold you responsible if he opens his mouth again against the bonds.'
"'Hold me responsible, gentlemen,' said the druggist, with a profound bow. 'Come with me, Cousin,' he said to the Anti.
"The druggist took him through his store, and up some back stairs; and once he had him alone, this was his advice, as reported to us later: 'You're a stranger to me. I lied to those men, but I saved your life. Now, I'll take you to the four-o'clock train, and get you out of this town. By this act I'll incur the hatred of these people that I live amongst. So you let the idea go out that you are my cousin. Sabe? Now, stay right here and I'll bring you anything you want, but for Heaven's sake, don't give me away.'
"'Is--is--is the four o'clock train the first out?' inquired the new cousin.
"'It is the first. I'll see you through this. I'll come up and see you every hour. Take things cool and easy now. I'm your friend, remember,' was the comfort they parted on.
"There were over seven hundred votes cast, and only one against the bonds. How that one vote got in is yet a mystery. There were no hard drinkers among the boys, all easy drinkers, men that never refused to drink. Yet voting was a little new to them, and possibly that was how this mistake occurred. We got the returns early in the evening. The county had gone by a handsome majority for the bonds. The committee on entertainment had provided a ball for us in the basement of the Opera House, it being the largest room in town. When the good news began to circulate, the merchants began building bonfires. Fellows who didn't have extra togs on for the ball got out their horses, and in squads of twenty to fifty rode through the town, painting her red. If there was one shot fired that night, there were ten thousand.
"I bought a white shirt and went to the ball. To show you how general the good feeling amongst everybody was, I squeezed the hand of an alfalfa widow during a waltz, who instantly reported the affront offered to her gallant. In her presence he took me to task for the offense. 'Young man,' said the doctor, with a quiet wink,' this lady is under my protection. The fourteenth amendment don't apply to you nor me. Six-shooters, however, make us equal. Are you armed?'
"'I am, sir.'
"'Unfortunately, I am not. Will you kindly excuse me, say ten minutes?'
"'Certainly, sir, with pleasure.'
"'There are ladies present,' he observed. 'Let us retire.'
"On my consenting, he turned to the offended dame, and in spite of her protests and appeals to drop matters, we left the ballroom, glaring daggers at each other. Once outside, he slapped me on the back, and said, 'Say, we'll just have time to run up to my office, where I have some choice old copper-distilled, sent me by a very dear friend in Kentucky.'
"The goods were all he claimed for them, and on our return he asked me as a personal favor to apologize to the lady, admitting that he was none too solid with her himself. My doing so, he argued, would fortify him with her and wipe out rivals. The doctor was a rattling good fellow, and I'd even taken off my new shirt for him, if he'd said the word. When I made the apology, I did it on the grounds that I could not afford to have any difference, especially with a gentleman who would willingly risk his life for a lady who claimed his protection.
"No, if you never heard of voting the bonds you certainly haven't kept very close tab on affairs in this Strip. Two or three men whom I know refused to go in and vote. They ain't working in this country now. It took some of the boys ten days to go and come, but there wasn't a word said. Wages went on just the same. You ain't asleep, are you, Don Guillermo?"
"Oh, no," said Edwards, with a yawn, "I feel just like the nigger did when he eat his fill of possum, corn bread, and new molasses: pushed the platter away and said, 'Go way, 'lasses, you done los' yo' sweetness.'"
Bradshaw made several attempts to go, but each time some thought would enter his mind and he would return with questions about former acquaintances. Finally he inquired, "What ever became of that little fellow who was sick about your camp?"
Edwards meditated until Mouse said, "He's thinking about little St. John, the fiddler."
"Oh, yes, Patsy St. John, the little glass-blower," said Edwards, as he sat up on a roll of bedding. "He's dead long ago. Died at our camp. I did something for him that I've often wondered who would do the same for me--I closed his eyes when he died. You know he came to us with the mark on his brow. There was no escape; he had consumption. He wanted to live, and struggled hard to avoid going. Until three days before his death he was hopeful; always would tell us how much better he was getting, and every one could see that he was gradually going. We always gave him gentle horses to ride, and he would go with us on trips that we were afraid would be his last. There wasn't a man on the range who ever said 'No' to him. He was one of those little men you can't help but like; small physically, but with a heart as big as an ox's. He lived about three years on the range, was welcome wherever he went, and never made an enemy or lost a friend. He couldn't; it wasn't in him. I don't remember now how he came to the range, but think he was advised by doctors to lead an outdoor life for a change.
"He was born in the South, and was a glass-blower by occupation. He would have died sooner, but for his pluck and confidence that he would get well. He changed his mind one morning, lost hope that he would ever get well, and died in three days. It was in the spring. We were going out one morning to put in a flood-gate on the river, which had washed away in a freshet. He was ready to go along. He hadn't been on a horse in two weeks. No one ever pretended to notice that he was sick. He was sensitive if you offered any sympathy, so no one offered to assist, except to saddle his horse. The old horse stood like a kitten. Not a man pretended to notice, but we all saw him put his foot in the stirrup three different times and attempt to lift himself into the saddle. He simply lacked the strength. He asked one of the boys to unsaddle the horse, saying he wouldn't go with us. Some of the boys suggested that it was a long ride, and it was best he didn't go, that we would hardly get back until after dark. But we had no idea that he was so near his end. After we left, he went back to the shack and told the cook he had changed his mind,--that he was going to die. That night, when we came back, he was lying on his cot. We all tried to jolly him, but each got the same answer from him, 'I'm going to die.' The outfit to a man was broke up about it, but all kept up a good front. We tried to make him believe it was only one of his bad days, but he knew otherwise. He asked Joe Box and Ham Rhodes, the two biggest men in the outfit, six-footers and an inch each, to sit one on each side of his cot until he went to sleep. He knew better than any of us how near he was to crossing. But it seemed he felt safe between these two giants. We kept up a running conversation in jest with one another, though it was empty mockery. But he never pretended to notice. It was plain to us all that the fear was on him. We kept near the shack the next day, some of the boys always with him. The third evening he seemed to rally, talked with us all, and asked if some of the boys would not play the fiddle. He was a good player himself. Several of the boys played old favorites of his, interspersed with stories and songs, until the evening was passing pleasantly. We were recovering from our despondency with this noticeable recovery on his part, when he whispered to his two big nurses to prop him up. They did so with pillows and parkers, and he actually smiled on us all. He whispered to Joe, who in turn asked the lad sitting on the foot of the cot to play Farewell, my Sunny Southern Home.' Strange we had forgotten that old air,--for it was a general favorite with us,--and stranger now that he should ask for it. As that old familiar air was wafted out from the instrument, he raised his eyes, and seemed to wander in his mind as if trying to follow the refrain. Then something came over him, for he sat up rigid, pointing out his hand at the empty space, and muttered, 'There stands--mother--now--under--the--oleanders. Who is--that with--her? Yes, I had--a sister. Open--the--windows. It--is--getting--dark--dark--dark.'
"Large hands laid him down tenderly, but a fit of coughing came on. He struggled in a hemorrhage for a moment, and then crossed over to the waiting figures among the oleanders. Of all the broke-up outfits, we were the most. Dead tough men bawled like babies. I had a good one myself. When we came around to our senses, we all admitted it was for the best. Since he could not get well, he was better off. We took him next day about ten miles and buried him with those freighters who were killed when the Pawnees raided this country. Some man will plant corn over their graves some day."
As Edwards finished his story, his voice trembled and there were tears in his eyes. A strange silence had come over those gathered about the camp-fire. Mouse, to conceal his emotion, pretended to be asleep, while Bradshaw made an effort to clear his throat of something that would neither go up nor down, and failing in this, turned and walked away without a word. Silently we unrolled the beds, and with saddles for pillows and the dome of heaven for a roof, we fell asleep.