Western Short Story
The Norther was a thing of the past, but it left its mark on Buck Peters, whose grimness of face told what the winter had been to him. His daily rides over the range, the reports of his men since that deadly storm, had done a great deal to lift the sagging weight that rested on his shoulders; but he would not be sure until the round-up supplied facts and figures.
That the losses had not been greater he gave full credit to the valley with its arroyos, rock walls, draws, heavily grassed range and groves of timber; for the valley, checking the great southward drift by its steep ridges of rock, sheltered the herds in timber and arroyos and fed them on the rich profusion of its grasses, which, by some trick of the rushing winds, had been whirled clean of snow.
But over the cow-country, north, east, south and west, where vast ranges were unprotected against the whistling blasts from the north, the losses had been stupendous, appalling, stunning. Outfits had been driven on and on before the furious winds, sleepy and apathetic, drifting steadily southward in the white, stinging shroud to a drowsy death. Whole herds, blindly moving before the wind, left their weaker units in constantly growing numbers to mark the trail, and at last lay down to a sleep eternal. And astonishing and incredible were the distances traveled by some of those herds.
Following the Norther came another menace and one which easily might surpass the worst efforts of the blizzard. Warm winds blew steadily, a hot sun glared down on the snow-covered plain and then came torrents of rain which continued for days, turning the range into a huge expanse of water and mud and swelling the water-courses with turgid floods that swirled and roared above their banks. Should this be quickly followed by cold, even the splendid valley would avail nothing. Ice, forming over the grasses, would prove as deadly as a pestilence; the cattle, already weakened by the hardships of the Norther, and not having the instinct to break through the glassy sheet and feed on the grass underneath, would search in vain for food, and starve to death. The week that followed the cessation of the rains started gray hairs on the foreman’s head; but a warm, constant sun and warm winds dried off the water before the return of freezing weather. The herds were saved.
Relieved, Buck reviewed the situation. The previous summer had seen such great northern drives to the railroad shipping points in Kansas that prices fell until the cattlemen refused to sell. Rather than drive home again, the great herds were wintered on the Kansas ranges, ready to be hurled on the market when Spring came with better prices. Many ranches, mortgaged heavily to buy cattle, had been on the verge of bankruptcy, hoping feverishly for better prices the following year. Buck had taken advantage of the situation to stock his ranch at a cost far less than he had dared to dream. Then came the Norther and in the three weeks of devastating cold and high winds the Kansas ranges were swept clean of cattle, and even the ranges in the South were badly crippled. Knowing this, Buck also knew that the following Spring would show record high prices. If he had the cattle he could clean up a fortune for his ranch; and if his herd was the first big one to reach the railroad at Sandy Creek it would practically mean a bonus on every cow.
Under the long siege of uncertainty his impatience smashed through and possessed him as a fever and he finally ordered the calf round-up three weeks earlier than it had been held on the ranch. There was no need of urging his men to the task—they, like himself, sprang to the call like springs freed from a restraining weight, and the work went on in a fever of haste. And he took his place on the firing line and worked even harder than his outfit of fanatics.
One day shortly after the work began a stranger rode up to him and nodded cheerfully. “Li’l early, ain’t you?” Buck grunted in reply and sent Skinny off at top speed to close a threatened gap in the driving line. “Goin’ to git ‘em on th’ trail early this year?” persisted the stranger. Buck, swayed by some swift intuition, changed his reply. “Oh, I dunno; I’m mainly anxious to see just what that storm did. An’ I hate th’ calf burnin’ so much I allus like to get it over quick.” He shouted angrily at the cook and waved his arms frantically to banish the chuck wagon. “He can make more trouble with that waggin than anybody I ever saw,” he snorted. “Get out of there, you fool!” he yelled, dashing off to see his words obeyed. The cook, grinning cheerfully at his foreman’s language and heat, forthwith chose a spot that was not destined to be the center of the cut-out herd. And when Buck again thought of the stranger he saw a black dot moving toward the eastern skyline.
The crowded days rolled on, measured full from dawn to dark, each one of them a panting, straining, trying ordeal. Worn out, the horses were turned back into the temporary corral or to graze under the eyes of the horse wranglers, and fresh ones took up their work; and woe unto the wranglers if the supply fell below the demand. For the tired men there was no relief, only a shifting in the kind of work they did, and they drove themselves with grave determination, their iron wills overruling their aching bodies. First came the big herds in the valley; then, sweeping north, they combed the range to the northern line in one grand, mad fury of effort that lasted day after day until the tally man joyously threw away his chewed pencil and gladly surrendered the last sheet to the foreman. The first half of the game was over. Gone as if it were a nightmare was the confusion of noise and dust and cows that hid a remarkable certainty of method. But as if to prove it not a dream, four thousand cows were held in three herds on the great range, in charge of the extra men.
Buck, leading the regular outfit from the north line and toward the bunkhouse, added the figures of the last tally sheet to the totals he had in a little book, and smiled with content. Behind him, cheerful as fools, their bodies racking with weariness, their faces drawn and gaunt, knowing that their labors were not half over, rode the outfit, exchanging chaff and banter in an effort to fool themselves into the delusion that they were fresh and “chipper.” Nearing the bunkhouse they cheered lustily as they caught sight of the hectic cook laboring profanely with two balking pintos that had backed his wagon half over the edge of a barranca and then refused to pull it back again. Cookie’s reply, though not a cheer, was loud and pregnant with feeling. To think that he had driven those two animals for the last two weeks from one end of the ranch to the other without a mishap, and then have them balance him and his wagon on the crumbling edge of a twenty-foot drop when not half a mile from the bunkhouse, thus threatening the loss of the wagon and all it contained and the mangling of his sacred person! And to make it worse, here came a crowd of whooping idiots to feast upon his discomfiture.
The outfit, slowing so as not to frighten the devilish pintos and start them backing again, drew near; and suddenly the air became filled with darting ropes, one of which settled affectionately around Cookie’s apoplectic neck. In no time the strangling, furious dough-king was beyond the menace of the crumbling bank, flat on his back in the wagon, where he had managed to throw himself to escape the whistling hoofs that quickly turned the dashboard into matchwood. When he managed to get the rope from his neck he arose, unsteady with rage, and choked as he tried to speak before the grinning and advising outfit. Before he could get command over his tongue the happy bunch wheeled and sped on its way, shrieking with mirth unholy. They had saved him from probable death, for Cookie was too obstinate to have jumped from the wagon; but they not only forfeited all right to thanks and gratitude, but deserved horrible deaths for the conversation they had so audibly carried on while they worked out the cook’s problem. And their departing words and gestures made homicide justifiable and a duty. In this frame of mind Cookie watched them go.
Buck, emerging from the bunkhouse in time to see the rescue, leaned against the door and laughed as he had not laughed for one heartbreaking winter. Drying his eyes on the back of his hand, he looked at the bouncing, happy crowd tearing southward with an energy of arms and legs and lungs that seemed a miracle after the strain of the round-up. Just then a strange voice made him wheel like a flash, and he saw Billy Williams sitting solemnly on his horse near the corner of the house.
“Hullo, Williams,” Buck grunted, with no welcoming warmth in his voice. “What th’ devil brings you up here?”
“I want a job,” replied Billy. The two, while never enemies nor interested in any mutual disagreements, had never been friends. They never denied a nodding acquaintance, nor boasted of it. “That Norther shore raised h——l. There’s ten men for every job, where I came from.”
The foreman, with that quick decision that was his in his earlier days, replied crisply. “It’s your’n. Fifty a month, to start.”
“Keno. Lemme chuck my war-bag through that door an’ I’m ready,” smiled Billy. He believed he would like this man when he knew him better. “I thought th’ Diamond Bar, over east a hundred mile, had weathered th’ storm lucky. You got ‘em beat. They’re movin’ heaven an’ earth to get a herd on the trail, but they didn’t have no job for me,” he laughed, flushing slightly. “Sam Crawford owns it,” he explained naively.
Buck laughed outright. “I reckon you didn’t have much show with Sam, after that li’l trick you worked on him in Fenton. So Sam is in this country? How are they fixed?”
“They aims to shove three thousan’ east right soon. It’s fancy prices for th’ first herd that gets to Sandy Creek,” he offered. “I heard they’re havin’ lots of wet weather along th’ Comanchee; mebby Sam’ll have trouble a-plenty gettin’ his herd acrost. Cows is plumb aggervatin’ when it comes to crossin’ rivers,” he grinned.
Buck nodded. “See that V openin’ on th’ skyline?” he asked, pointing westward. “Ride for it till you see th’ herd. Help ‘em with it. We’ll pick it up t’morrow.” He turned on his heel and entered the house, grave with a new worry. He had not known that there was a ranch where Billy had said the Diamond Bar was located; and a hundred miles handicap meant much in a race to Sandy Creek. Crawford was sure to drive as fast as he dared. He was glad that Billy had mentioned it, and the wet weather along the Comanchee—Billy already had earned his first month’s pay.
All that day and the next the consolidation of the three herds and the preparation for the drive went on. Sweeping up from the valley the two thousand three- and four-year-olds met and joined the thousand that waited between Little Timber and Three Rocks; and by nightfall the three herds were one by the addition of the thousand head from Big Coulee. Four thousand head of the best cattle on the ranch spent the night within gunshot of the bunkhouse and corrals on Snake Creek.
Buck, returning from the big herd, smiled as he passed the chuck wagon and heard Cookie’s snores, and went on growing serious all too quickly. At the bunkhouse he held a short consultation with his regular outfit and then returned to the herd again while his drive crew turned eagerly to their bunks. B PEARSON’S MAGAZINE 4 Breakfast was eaten by candle light and when the eastern sky faded into a silver gray Skinny Thompson vaulted into the saddle and loped eastward without a backward glance. The sounds of his going scarcely had died out before Hopalong, relieved of the responsibilities of trail boss, shouldered others as weighty and rode into the northeast with Lanky at his side. Behind him, under charge of Red, the herd started on its long and weary journey to Sandy Creek, every man of the outfit so imbued with the spirit of the race that even with its hundred miles advantage the Diamond Bar could not afford to waste an hour if it hoped to win.
Out of the side of a verdant hill, whispering and purling, flowed a small stream and shyly sought the crystal depths of a rock-bound pool before gaining courage enough to flow gently over the smooth granite lip and scurry down the gentle slope of the arroyo. To one side of it towered a splinter of rock, slender and gray, washed clean by the recent rains. To the south of it lay a baffling streak a little lighter than the surrounding grass lands. It was, perhaps, a quarter of a mile wide and ended only at the horizon. This faint band was the Dunton trail, not used enough to show the strong characteristics of the depressed bands found in other parts of the cow-country. If followed it would lead one to Dunton’s Ford on the Comanchee, forty miles above West Bend, where the Diamond Bar aimed to cross the river.
The shadow of the pinnacle drew closer to its base and had crossed the pool when Skinny Thompson rode slowly up the near bank of the ravine, his eyes fixed smilingly on the splinter of rock. He let his mount nuzzle and play with the pool for a moment before stripping off the saddle and turning the animal loose to graze. Taking his rifle in the hope of seeing game, he went up to the top of the hill, glanced westward and then turned and gazed steadily into the northeast, sweeping slowly over an arc of thirty degrees. He stood so for several minutes and then grunted with satisfaction and returned to the pool. He had caught sight of a black dot far away on the edge of the skyline that split into two parts and showed a sidewise drift. Evidently his friends would be on time. Of the herd he had seen no sign, which was what he had expected.
When at last he heard hoof beats he arose lazily and stretched, chiding himself for falling asleep, and met his friends as they turned into sight around the bend of the hill. “Reckoned you might ‘a’ got lost,” he grinned sleepily.
“G’wan!” snorted Lanky.
“What’d you find?” eagerly demanded Hopalong.
“Three thousan’ head on th’ West Bend trail five days ahead of us,” replied Skinny. “Ol’ Sam is drivin’ hard.” He paused a moment. “Acts like he knows we’re after him. Anyhow, I saw that feller that visited us on th’ third day of th’ round-up. So I reckon Sam knows.”
Lanky grinned. “He won’t drive so hard later. I’d like to see him when he sees th’ Comanchee! Bet it’s a lake south of Dunton’s, ‘cordin’ to what we found. But it ain’t goin’ to bother us a whole lot.”
Hopalong nodded, dismounted and drew a crude map in the sand of the trail. Skinny watched it, grave and thoughtful until, all at once, he understood. His sudden burst of laughter startled his companions and they exchanged foolish grins. It appeared that from Dunton’s Ford north, in a distance of forty miles, the Comanchee was practically born. So many feeders, none of them formidable, poured into it that in that distance it attained the dignity of a river. Hopalong’s plan was to drive off at a tangent running a little north from the regular trail and thus cross numerous small streams in preference to going on straight and facing the swollen Comanchee at Dunton’s Ford. As the regular trail turned northward when not far from Sandy Creek they were not losing time. Laughing gaily they mounted and started west for the herd which toiled toward them many miles away. Thanks to their scouting expedition the new trail was picked out and there would be no indecision on the drive.
Eighty miles to the south lay the fresh trail of the Diamond Bar herd, and five days’ drive eastward on it, facing the water-covered lowlands at West Bend, Sam Crawford held his herd, certain that the river would fall rapidly in the next two days. It was the regular ford, and the best on the river. The water did fall, just enough to lure him to stay; but, having given orders at dark on the second night for an attempt at crossing at daylight the next morning, he was amazed when dawn showed him the river was back to its first level.
Sam was American born, but affected things English and delighted in spelling “labor” and like words with a “u.” He hated hair chaps and maintained that the gun-play of the West was mythical and existed only in the minds of effete Easterners. Knowing that, it was startling to hear him tell of Plummer, Hickock, Roberts, Thompson and a host of other gun-men who had splotched the West with blood. Not only did every man of that section pack a gun, but Crawford, himself, packed one, thus proving himself either a malicious liar or an imbecile. He acted as though the West belonged to him and that he was the arbiter of its destiny and its chosen historian—which made him troublesome on the great, free ranges. Only that his pretensions and his crabbed, irascible, childish temper made him ludicrous he might have been taken seriously, to his sorrow. Failing miserably at law, he fled from such a precarious livelihood, beset with a haunting fear that he had lost his grip, to an inherited ranch. This fear that pursued him turned him into a carping critic of those who excelled him in most things, except in fits of lying about the West as it existed at that time.
When he found that the river was over the lowlands again he became furious and, carried away by rage, shouted down the wiser counsel of his clear-headed night boss and ordered the herd into the water. Here and there, desperate, wild-eyed steers wheeled and dashed back through the cordon of riders, their numbers constantly growing as the panic spread. The cattle in the front ranks, forced into the swirling stream by the pressure from the rear, swam with the current and clambered out below, adding to the confusion. Steers fought throughout the press and suddenly, out of the right wing of the herd, a dozen crazed animals dashed out in a bunch for the safety of the higher ground; and after them came the herd, an irresistible avalanche of maddened beef. It was not before dark that they were rounded up into a nervous, panicky herd once more. The next morning they were started north along the river, to try again at Dunton’s Ford, which they reached in three days, and where another attempt at crossing the river proved in vain.
Meanwhile the Bar-20 herd pushed on steadily with no confusion. It crossed the West Run one noon and the upper waters of the Little Comanchee just before dark on the same day. Next came East Run, Pawnee Creek and Ten Mile Creek, none of them larger than the stream the cattle were accustomed to back on the ranch. Another day’s drive brought them to the west branch of the Comanchee itself, the largest of all the rivers they would meet. Here they were handled cautiously and “nudged” across with such care that a day was spent in the work. The following afternoon the east branch held them up until the next day and then, with a clear trail they were sent along on the last part of the long journey.
When Sam Crawford, forced to keep on driving north along the Little Comanchee, saw that wide, fresh trail, he barely escaped apoplexy and added the finishing touches to the sullenness of his outfit. Seeing the herd across, he gave orders for top speed and drove as he never had driven before; and when the last river had been left behind he left the night boss in charge of the cattle and rode on ahead to locate his rivals of the drive. Three days later, when he returned to his herd, he was in a towering fury and talked constantly of his rights and an appeal to law, and so nagged his men that mutiny stalked in his shadow.
When the Bar-20 herd was passing to the south of the little village of Depau, Hopalong turned back along the trail to find the Diamond Bar herd. So hard had Sam pushed on that he was only two days’ drive behind Red and his outfit when Hopalong rode smilingly into the Diamond Bar camp. He was talking pleasantly of shop to some of the Diamond Bar punchers when Sam dashed up and began upbraiding him and threatening dire punishment. Hopalong, maintaining a grave countenance, took the lacing meekly and humbly as he winked at the grinning punchers. Finally, after exasperating Sam to a point but one degree removed from explosion, he bowed cynically, said “so-long” to the cheerful outfit and loped away toward his friends. Sam, choking with rage, berated his punchers for not having thrown out the insulting visitor and commanded more speed, which was impossible. Reporting to Red the proximity of their rivals, Hopalong fell in line and helped drive the herd a little faster. The cattle were in such condition from the easy traveling of the last week that they could easily stand the pace if Crawford’s herd could. So the race went on, Red keeping the same distance ahead day after day.
Then came the night when Sandy Creek lay but two days’ drive away. A storm had threatened since morning and the first lightning of the drive was seen. The cattle were mildly restless when Hopalong rode in at midnight and he was cheerfully optimistic. He was also very much awake, and after trying in vain to get to sleep he finally arose and rode back along the trail toward the stragglers, which Jimmy and Lanky were holding a mile away. Red had pushed on to the last minute of daylight and Lanky had decided to hold the stragglers instead of driving them up to the main herd so they would start even with it the following morning. It was made up of the cattle that had found the drive too much for them and was smaller than the outfit had hoped for.
Hopalong had just begun to look around for the herd when it passed him with sudden uproar. Shouting to a horseman who rode furiously past, he swung around and raced after him, desperately anxious to get in front of the stampede to try to check it before it struck the main herd and made the disaster complete. For the next hour he was in a riot of maddened cattle and shaved death many times by the breadth of a hand. He could hear Jimmy and Lanky shouting in the black void, now close and now far away. Then the turmoil gradually ceased and the remnant of the herd paused, undecided whether to stop or go on. He flung himself at it and by driving cleverly managed to start a number of cows to milling, which soon had the rest following suit. The stampede was over. A cursing blot emerged from the darkness and hailed. It was Lanky, coldly ferocious. He had not heard Jimmy for a long time and feared that the boy might be lying out on the black plain, trampled into a shapeless mass of flesh. One stumble in front of the charging herd would have been sufficient.
Daylight disclosed the missing Jimmy hobbling toward the breakfast fire at the cook wagon. He was bruised and bleeding and covered with dirt, his clothes ripped and covered with mud; and every bone and muscle in his body was alive with pain.
The Diamond Bar’s second squad had ridden in to breakfast when a horseman was seen approaching at a leisurely lope. Sam, cursing hotly, instinctively fumbled at the gun he wore at his thigh in defiance to his belief concerning the wearing of guns. He blinked anxiously as the puncher stopped at the wagon and smiled a heavyeyed salutation. The night boss emerged from the shelter of the wagon and grinned a sheepish welcome. “Well, Cassidy, you fellers got th’ trail somehow. We was some surprised when we hit yore trail. How you makin’ it?”
“All right, up to last night,” replied Hopalong, shaking hands with the night boss. “Got a match, Barnes?” he asked, holding up an unlighted cigarette. They talked of things connected with the drive and Hopalong cautiously swung the conversation around to mishaps, mentioning several catastrophes of past years. After telling of a certain stampede he had once seen, he turned to Barnes and asked a blunt question. “What would you do to anybody as stampeded yore stragglers within a mile of th’ main herd on a stormy night?” The answer was throaty and rumbling. “Why, shoot him, I reckon.” The others intruded their ideas and Crawford squirmed, his hand seeking his gun under the pretense of tightening his belt.
Hopalong arose and went to his horse, where a large bundle of canvas was strapped behind the saddle. He loosened it and unrolled it on the ground. “Ever see this afore, boys?” he asked, stepping back. Barnes leaped to his feet with an ejaculation of surprise and stared at the canvas. “Where’d you git it?” he demanded. “That’s our old wagon cover!”
Hopalong, ignoring Crawford, looked around the little group and smiled grimly. “Well, last night our stragglers was stampeded. Lanky told me he saw somethin’ gray blow past him in th’ darkness, an’ then th’ herd started. We managed to turn it from th’ trail an’ so it didn’t set off our main herd. Jimmy was near killed—well, you know what it is to ride afore stampeded cows. I found this cover blowed agin’ a li’l clump of trees, an’ when I sees yore mark, I reckoned I ought to bring it back.” He dug into his pocket and brought out a heavy clasp knife. “I just happened to see this not far from where th’ herd started from, so I reckoned I’d return it, too.” He held it out to Barnes, who took it with an oath and wheeled like a flash to face his employer.
Crawford was backing toward the wagon, his hand resting on the butt of his gun, and a whiteness of face told of the fear that gripped him. “I’ll take my time, right now,” growled Barnes. “D——d if I works another day for a low-lived coyote that’d do a thing like that!” The punchers behind him joined in and demanded their wages. Hopalong, still smiling, waved his hand and spoke. “Don’t leave him with all these cows on his hands, out here on the range. If you quits him, wait till you get to Sandy Creek. He ain’t no man, he ain’t; he’s a nasty li’l brat of a kid that couldn’t never grow up into a man. So, that bein’ true, he ain’t goin’ to get handled like a man. I’m goin’ to lick him, ‘stead of shootin’ him like he was a man. You know,” he smiled, glancing around the little circle, “us cowpunchers don’t never carry guns. We don’t swear, nor wear chaps, even if all of us has got ‘em on right now. We say ‘please’ an’ ‘thank you’ an’ never get mad. Not never wearin’ a gun I can’t shoot him; but, by G—d, I can lick him th’ worst he’s ever been licked, an’ I’m goin’ to do it right now.” He wheeled to start after the still-backing cow-man, and leaped sideways as a cloud of smoke swirled around his hips. Crawford screamed with fear and pain as his Colt tore loose from his fingers and dropped near the wheel of the wagon. Terror gripped him and made him incapable of flight. Who was this man, what was he, when he could draw and fire with such speed and remarkable accuracy? Crawford’s gun had been half raised before the other had seen it. And before his legs could perform one of their most cherished functions the limping cow-puncher was on him, doing his best to make good his promise. The other half of the Diamond Bar drive crew, attracted by the commotion at the chuck wagon, rode in with ready guns, saw their friends making no attempt at interference, asked a few terse questions and, putting up their guns, forthwith joined the circle of interested and pleased spectators to root with them for the limping redhead.
Red, back at the Bar-20 wagon, inquired of Cookie the whereabouts of Hopalong. Cookie, still smarting under Jimmy’s galling fire of language, grunted ignorance and a wish. Ned looked at him, scowling. “You can talk to th’ kid like that, mebby; but you get a civil tongue in yore head when any of us grown-ups ask questions.” He turned on his heel, looked searchingly around the plain and mounting, returned to the herd, perplexed and vexed. As he left the camp, Jimmy hobbled around the wagon and stared after him. “Kid!” he snorted. “Grown-ups!” he sneered. “Huh!” He turned and regarded Cookie evilly. “Yo’re gonna get a good lickin’ when I get so I can move better,” he promised. Cookie lifted the red flannel dish-rag out of the pan and regarded it thoughtfully. “You better wait,” he agreed pleasantly. “You can’t run now. I’m honin’ for to drape this mop all over yore wall-eyed face; but I can wait.” He sighed and went back to work. “Wish Red would shove you in with th’ rest of th’ cripples back yonder, an’ get you off’n my frazzled nerves.”
Jimmy shook his head sorrowfully and limped around the wagon again, where he resumed his sun bath. He dozed off and was surprised to be called for dinner. As he arose, grunting and growling, he chanced to look westward, and his shout apprised his friends of the return of the missing redhead.
Hopalong dismounted at the wagon and grinned cheerfully, despite the suspicious marks on his face. Giving an account of events as they occurred at the Diamond Bar chuck wagon, he wound up with: “Needn’t push on so hard, Red. Crawford’s herd is due to stay right where it is an’ graze peaceful for a week. I heard Barnes give th’ order before I left. How’s things been out here while I was away?”
Red glared at him, ready to tell his opinion of reckless fools that went up against a gun-packing outfit alone when his friends had never been known to refuse to back up one of their outfit. The words hung on his lips as he waited for a chance to launch them. But when that chance came he had been disarmed by the cheerfulness of his happy friend. “Hoppy,” he said, trying to be severe, “yo’re nothin’ but a crazy, d——d fool. But what did they say when you started for huffy Sam like that?”