Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Cal Emmett straightened up with his gloved hand pressed tight against the small of his back, sighed "Hully Gee!" at the ache of his muscles and went over to the water bucket and poured a quart or so of cool, spring water down his parched throat. The sun blazed like a furnace with the blower on, though it was well over towards the west; the air was full of smoke, dust and strong animal odors, and the throaty bawling of many cattle close-held. For it was nearing the end of spring round-up, and many calves were learning, with great physical and mental distress, the feel of a hot iron properly applied. Cal shouted to the horse-wrangler that the well had gone dry—meaning the bucket—and went back to work.
"I betche we won't git through in time for no picnic," predicted Happy Jack gloomily, getting the proper hold on the hind leg of a three-months-old calf. "They's three hundred to decorate yet, if they's one; and it'll rain—"
"You're batty," Cal interrupted. "Uh course we'll get through—we've got to; what d'yuh suppose we've been tearing the bone out for the last three weeks for?"
Chip, with a foot braced against the calf's shoulder, ran a U on its ribs with artistic precision. Chip's Flying U's were the pride of the whole outfit; the Happy Family was willing at any time, to bet all you dare that Chip's brands never varied a quarter-inch in height, width or position. The Old Man and Shorty had been content to use a stamp, as prescribed by law; but Chip Bennett scorned so mechanical a device and went on imperturbably defying the law with his running iron—and the Happy Family gloated over his independence and declared that they would sure deal a bunch of misery to the man that reported him. His Flying U's were better than a stamp, anyhow, they said, and it was a treat to watch the way he slid them on, just where they'd do the most good.
"I'm going home, after supper," he said, giving just the proper width to the last curve of the two-hundredth U he had made that afternoon. "I promised Dell I'd try and get home to-night, and drive over to the picnic early to-morrow. She's head push on the grub-pile, I believe, and wants to make sure there's enough to go around. There's about two hundred and fifty calves left. If you can't finish up to-night, it'll be your funeral."
"Well, I betche it'll rain before we git through—it always does, when you don't want it to," gloomed Happy, seizing another calf.
"If it does," called Weary, who was branding—with a stamp—not far away, "if it does, Happy, we'll pack the bossies into the cook-tent and make Patsy heat the irons in the stove. Don't yuh cry, little boy—we'll sure manage somehow."
"Aw yes—you wouldn't see nothing to worry about, not if yuh was being paid for it. They's a storm coming—any fool can see that; and she's sure going to come down in large chunks. We ain't got this amatoor hell for nothing! Yuh won't want to do no branding in the cook-tent, nor no place else. I betche—"
"Please," spoke up Pink, coiling afresh the rope thrown off a calf he had just dragged up to Cal and Happy Jack, "won't somebody lend me a handkerchief? I want to gag Happy; he's working his hoodoo on us again."
Happy Jack leered up at him, consciously immune—for there was no time for strife of a physical nature, and Happy knew it. Everyone was working his fastest.
"Hoodoo nothing! I guess maybe yuh can't see that bank uh thunderheads. I guess your sight's poor, straining your eyes towards the Fourth uh July ever since Christmas. If yuh think yuh can come Christian Science act on a storm, and bluff it down jest by sayin' it ain't there, you're away off. I ain't that big a fool; I—" he trailed into profane words, for the calf he was at that minute holding showed a strong inclination to plant a foot in Happy's stomach.
Cal Emmett glanced over his shoulder, grunted a comprehensive refutation of Happy Jack's fears and turned his whole attention to work. The branding proceeded steadily, with the hurry of skill that makes each motion count something done; for though not a man of them except Happy Jack would have admitted it, the Happy Family was anxious. With two hundred and fifty calves to be branded in the open before night, on the third day of July; with a blistering sun sapping the strength of them and a storm creeping blackly out of the southwest; with a picnic tugging their desires and twenty-five long prairie miles between them and the place appointed, one can scarce wonder that even Pink and Weary—born optimists, both of them—eyed the west anxiously when they thought no one observed them. Under such circumstances, Happy Jack's pessimism came near being unbearable; what the Happy Family needed most was encouragement.
The smoke hung thicker in the parched air and stung more sharply their bloodshot, aching eyeballs. The dust settled smotheringly upon them, filled nostrils and lungs and roughened their patience into peevishness. A calf bolted from the herd, and a "hold-up" man pursued it vindictively, swearing by several things that he would break its blamed neck—only his wording was more vehement. A cinder got in Slim's eye and one would think, from his language, that such a thing was absolutely beyond the limit of man's endurance, and a blot upon civilization. Even Weary, the sweet-tempered, grew irritable and heaped maledictions on the head of the horse-wrangler because he was slow about bringing a fresh supply of water. Taken altogether, the Happy Family was not in its sunniest mood.
When Patsy shouted that supper was ready, they left their work reluctantly and tarried just long enough to swallow what food was nearest. For the branding was not yet finished, and the storm threatened more malignantly.
Chip saddled Silver, his own particular "drifter," eyed the clouds appraisingly and swung into the saddle for a fifteen-mile ride to the home ranch and his wife, the Little Doctor. "You can make it, all right, if yuh half try," he encouraged. "It isn't going to cut loose before dark, if I know the signs. Better put your jaw in a sling, Happy—you're liable to step on it. Cheer up! to-morrow's the Day we Celebrate in letters a foot high. Come early and stay late, and bring your appetites along. Fare-you-well, my brothers." He rode away in the long lope that eats up the miles with an ease astonishing to alien eyes, and the Happy Family rolled a cigarette apiece and went back to work rather more cheerful than they had been.
Pleasure, the pleasure of wearing good clothes, dancing light-footedly to good music and saying nice things that bring smiles to the faces of girls in frilly dresses and with brown, wind-tanned faces and eyes ashine, comes not often to the veterans of the "Sagebrush Cavalry." They were wont to count the weeks and the days, and at last the hours until such pleasure should come to them. They did not grudge the long circles, short sleeps and sweltering hours at the branding, which made such pleasures possible—only so they were not, at the last, cheated of their reward.
Every man of them—save Pink—had secret thoughts of some particular girl. And more than one girl, no doubt, would be watching, at the picnic, for a certain lot of white hats and sun-browned faces to dodge into sight over a hill, and looking for one face among the group; would be listening for a certain well-known, well-beloved chorus of shouts borne faintly from a distance—the clear-toned, care-naught whooping that heralded the coming of Jim Whitmore's Happy Family.
To-morrow they would be simply a crowd of clean-hearted, clean-limbed cowboys, with eyes sunny and untroubled as a child's, and laughs that were good to hear and whispered words that were sweet to dream over until the next meeting. (If you ask the girls of the range-land, and believe their verdict, cowboys make the very best and most piquant of lovers.) Tomorrow there would be no hint of the long hours in the saddle, or the aching muscles and the tired, smarting eyes. They might, if pressed, own that they burnt the earth getting there, but the details of that particular conflagration would be far, far behind them—forgotten; no one could guess, to-morrow, that they were ever hot or thirsty or tired, or worried over a threatening storm, or that they ever swore at one another ill-naturedly from the sheer strain of anxiety and muscle-ache.
By sundown, so great was their industry, the last calf had scampered, blatting resentment, to seek his mother in the herd. Slim kicked the embers of the branding fire apart and emptied the water-bucket over them with a satisfied grunt.
"By golly, I ain't mourning because brandin's about over," he said.
"I'm plumb tired uh the sight uh them blasted calves."
"And we got through ahead of the storm," Weary sweetly reminded Happy
Happy looked moodily up at the muttering black mass nearly over their heads and said nothing; Happy never did have anything to say when his gloomy predictions were brought to naught.
"I'm going to get on the bed-ground without any red tape or argument, if yuh ask me," volunteered Cal Emmett, rubbing his aching arms. "We want to get an early start in the morning."
"Meaning sun-up, I suppose," fleered Pink, who had no especial, feminine reason for looking forward with longing. With Pink, it was pleasure in the aggregate that lured him; there would be horse racing after dinner, and a dance in the school-house at night, and a season of general hilarity over a collection of rockets and Roman candles. These things appealed more directly to the heart of Pink than did the feminine element; for he had yet to see the girl who could disturb the normal serenity of his mind or fill his dreams with visions beautiful. Also, there was one thing about these girls that did not please him; they were prone to regard him as a sweet, amusing little boy whose dimples they might kiss with perfect composure (though of course they never did). They seemed to be forever taking the "Isn't he cunning!" attitude, and refused to regard him seriously, or treat him with the respect they accorded to the rest of the Happy Family. Weary's schoolma'am had offended him deeply, at a dance the winter before, by patting him indulgently on the shoulder and telling him to "Run along and find you a partner." Such things rankled, and he knew that the girls knew it, and that it amused them very much. Worse, the Happy Family knew it, and it amused them even more than it amused the girls. For this reason Pink would much prefer to sleep luxuriously late and ride over to the picnic barely in time for dinner and the races afterward. He did not want too long a time with the girls.
"Sure, we'll start at sun-up," Cal answered gravely. "We've got to be there by ten o'clock, so as to help the girls cut the cake and round up all the ham sandwiches; haven't we, Weary?"
"I should smile to remark," Weary assented emphatically. "Sun-up sure sees us on the road, Cadwolloper—and yuh want to be sure and wear that new pink silk handkerchief, that matches the roses in your cheeks so nice. My schoolma'am's got a friend visiting her, and she's been hearing a lot about yuh. She's plumb wild to meet yuh. Chip drawed your picture and I sent it over in my last letter, and the little friend has gone plumb batty over your dimples (Chip drawed yuh with a sweet smile drifting, like a rose-leaf with the dew on it, across your countenance, and your hat pushed back so the curls would show) and it sure done the business for Little Friend. Schoolma'am says she's a good-looker, herself, and that Joe Meeker has took to parting his hair on the dead center and wearing a four-inch, celluloid collar week days. But he's all to the bad—she just looks at your picture and smiles sad and longing."
"I hate to see a man impose on friendship," murmured Pink. "I don't want to spoil your face till after the Fourth, though that ain't saying yuh don't deserve it. But I will say this: You're a liar—you ain't had a letter for more than six weeks."
"Got anything yuh want to bet on that?" Weary reached challengingly toward an inner pocket of his vest.
"Nit. I don't give a darn, anyway yuh look at it. I'm going to bed." Pink unrolled his "sooguns" in their accustomed corner next to Weary's bed and went straightway to sleep.
Weary thumped his own battered pillow into some semblance of plumpness and gazed with suspicion at the thick fringe of curled lashes lying softly upon Pink's cheeks.
"If I was a girl," he said pensively to the others, "I'd sure be in love with Cadwolloper myself. He don't amount to nothing, but his face 'd cause me to lose my appetite and pine away like a wilted vi'let. It's straight, about that girl being stuck on his picture; I'd gamble she's counting the hours on her fingers, right now, till he'll stand before her. Schoolma'am says it'll be a plumb sin if he don't act pretty about it and let her love him." He eyed Pink sharply from the tail of his eye, but not a lash quivered; the breath came evenly and softly between Pink's half-closed lips—and if he heard there was nothing to betray the fact.
Weary sighed and tried again. "And that ain't the worst of it, either. Mame Beckman has got an attack; she told Schoolma'am she could die for Pink and never bat an eye. She said she never knowed what true love was till she seen him. She says he looks just like the cherubs—all but the wings—that she's been working in red thread on some pillow shams. She was making 'em for her sister a present, but she can't give 'em up, now; she calls all the cherubs 'Pink,' and kisses 'em night and morning, regular." He paused and watched anxiously Pink's untroubled face. "I tell yuh, boys, it's awful to have the fatal gift uh beauty, like Cadwolloper's got. He means all right, but he sure trifles a lot with girls' affections—which ain't right. Mamma! don't he look sweet, laying there so innocent? I'm sure sorry for Mame, though." He eyed him sidelong. But Pink slept peacefully on, except that, after a half minute, he stirred slightly and muttered something about "drive that darned cow back." Then Weary gave up in despair and went to sleep. When the tent became silent, save for the heavy breathing of tired men. Pink's long lashes lifted a bit, and he grinned maliciously up at the cloth roof.
For obvious reasons he was the only one of the lot who heard with no misgivings the vicious swoop of the storm; so long as the tent-pegs held he didn't care how hard it rained. But the others who woke to the roar of wind and the crash of thunder and to the swish and beat of much falling water, turned uneasily in their beds and hoped that it would not last long. To be late in starting for that particular scene of merry-making which had held their desires for so long would be a calamity they could not reflect upon calmly.
At three o'clock Pink, from long habit, opened his eyes to the dull gray of early morning. The air in the tent was clammy and chill and filled with the audible breathing of a dozen sleeping men; overhead the canvas was dull yellow and sodden with the steady drip, drip, drop of rain. There would be no starting out at sunrise—and perhaps there would be no starting at all, he thought with lazy disappointment, and turned on his side for another nap. His glance fell upon Weary's up-turned, slumber-blank face, and his memory reverted revengefully to the baiting of the night before. He would fix Weary for that, he told himself spitefully; mentally measured a perpendicular line from Weary's face to the roof, reached up and drew his finger firmly down along the canvas for a good ten inches—and if you don't know why, try it yourself some time in a tent with the rain pouring down upon the land. As if that were not enough he repeated the operation again and again, each time in a fresh place, until the rain came through beautifully all over the bed of Weary. Then he lay down, cuddled the blankets up to his ears, closed his eyes and composed himself to sleep, at peace with his conscience and the world—and it did not disturb his self-satisfaction when Weary presently awoke, moved sleepily away from one drip and directly under another, shifted again, swore a little in an undertone and at last was forced to take refuge under his tarpaulin. After that Pink went blissfully off to dreamland.
At four o'clock it still rained dismally—and the Happy Family, waking unhappily one after another, remembered that this was the Fourth that they had worked and waited for so long, "swore a prayer or two and slept again." At six the sun was shining, and Jack Bates, first realizing the blessed fact, called the others jubilantly.
Weary sat up and observed darkly that he wished he knew what son-of-a-gun got the tent to leaking over him, and eyed Pink suspiciously; but Pink only knuckled his eyes like a sleepy baby and asked if it rained in the night, and said he had been dead to the world. Happy Jack came blundering under the ban by asking Weary to remember that he told him it would rain. As he slept beside Weary, his guilt was certain and his punishment, Weary promised himself, would be sure.
Then they went out and faced the clean-washed prairie land, filled their lungs to the bottom with sweet, wine-like air, and asked one another why in the dickens the night-hawk wasn't on hand with the cavvy, so they could get ready to start.
At nine o'clock, had you wandered that way, you would have seen the
Happy Family—a clean-shaven, holiday-garbed, resplendent Happy
Family—roosting disconsolately wherever was a place clean enough to
sit, looking wistfully away to the skyline.
They should, by now, have been at the picnic, and every man of them realized the fact keenly. They were ready, but they were afoot; the nighthawk had not put in an appearance with the saddle bunch, and there was not a horse in camp that they might go in search of him. With no herd to hold, they had not deemed it necessary to keep up any horses, and they were bewailing the fact that they had not forseen such an emergency—though Happy Jack did assert that he had all along expected it.
"By golly, I'll strike out afoot and hunt him up, if he don't heave in sight mighty suddent," threatened Slim passionately, after a long, dismal silence. "By golly, he'll wisht I hadn't, too."
Cal looked up from studying pensively his patent leathers. "Go on, Slim, and round him up. This is sure getting hilarious—a fine way to spend the Fourth!"
"Maybe that festive bunch that held up the Lewistown Bank, day before yesterday, came along and laid the hawk away on the hillside so they could help themselves to fresh horses," hazarded Jack Bates, in the hope that Happy Jack would seize the opening to prophesy a new disaster.
"I betche that's what's happened, all right," said Happy, rising to the bait. "I betche yuh won't see no horses t'day—ner no night-hawk, neither."
The Happy Family looked at one another and grinned.
"Who'll stir the lemonade and help pass the sandwiches?" asked Pink, sadly. "Who'll push, when the school-ma'am wants to swing? Or Len Adams? or—"
"Oh, saw off!" Weary implored. "We can think up troubles enough,
Cadwolloper, without any help from you."
"Well, I guess your troubles are about over, cully—I can hear 'em coming." Pink picked up his rope and started for the horse corral as the belated cavvy came jingling around the nose of the nearest hill. The Happy Family brightened perceptibly; after all, they could be at the picnic by noon—if they hurried. Their thoughts flew to the crowd—and to the girls in frilly dresses—under the pine trees in a certain canyon just where the Bear Paws reach lazily out to shake hands with the prairie land.
Up on the high level, with the sun hot against their right cheeks and a lazy breeze flipping neckerchief ends against their smiling lips, the world seemed very good, and a jolly place to live in, and there was no such thing as trouble anywhere. Even Happy Jack was betrayed into expecting much pleasure and no misfortune, and whistled while he rode.
Five miles slipped behind them easily—so easily that their horses perked ears and tugged hard against the bits. The next five were rougher, for they had left the trail and struck out across a rough bit of barrenness on a short cut to the ford in Sheep Coulee. All the little gullies and washouts were swept clean and smooth with the storm, and the grass roots showed white where the soil had washed away. They hoped the rain had not reached to the mountains and spoiled the picnic grounds, and wondered what time the girls would have dinner ready.
So they rode down the steep trail into Sheep Coulee, galloped a quarter mile and stopped, amazed, at the ford. The creek was running bank full; more, it was churning along like a mill-race, yellow with the clay it carried and necked with great patches of dirty foam.
"I guess here's where we don't cross," said Weary, whistling mild dismay.
"Now, wouldn't that jostle yuh?" asked Pink, of no one in particular.
"By golly, the lemonade 'll be cold, and so'll the san'wiches, before we git there," put in Slim, with one of his sporadic efforts to be funny. "We got t' go back."
"Back nothing," chorused five outraged voices. "We'll hunt some other crossing."
"Down the creek a piece—yuh mind where that old sandbar runs half across? We'll try that." Weary's tone was hopeful, and they turned and followed him.
Half a mile along the raging little creek they galloped, with no place where they dared to cross. Then, loping around a willow-fringed bend, Weary and Pink, who were ahead, drew their horses back upon their haunches. They had all but run over a huddle of humanity lying in the fringe of weeds and tall grasses that grew next the willows.
"What in thunder—" began Cal, pulling up. They slid off their horses and bent curiously over the figure. Weary turned it investigatively by a shoulder. The figure stirred, and groaned. "It's somebody hurt; take a hand here, and help carry him out where the sun shines. He's wet to the skin," commanded Weary sharply.
When they lifted him he opened his eyes and looked at them; while they carried him tenderly out from the wet tangle and into the warmth of the sun, he set his teeth against the groans that would come. They stood around him uneasily and looked down at him. He was young, like themselves, and he was a stranger; also, he was dressed like a cowboy, in chaps, high-heeled boots and silver-mounted spurs. The chaps were sodden and heavy with water, as was the rest of his clothing.
"He must uh laid out in all that storm, last night," observed Cal, in a subdued voice. "He—"
"Somebody better ride back and have the bed wagon brought up, so we can haul him to a doctor," suggested Pink. "He's hurt."
The stranger's eyes swept the faces of the Happy Family anxiously. "Not on your life," he protested weakly. "I don't want any doctor—in mine, thank yuh. I—it's no use, anyhow."
"The hell it ain't!" Pink was drawing off his coat to make a pillow.
"You're hurt, somehow, ain't yuh?"
"I'm—dying," the other said, laconically. "So yuh needn't go to any trouble, on my account. From the looks—yuh was headed for some—blowout. Go on, and let me be."
The Happy Family looked at one another incredulously; they were so likely to ride on!
"I guess you don't savvy this bunch, old-timer," said Weary calmly, speaking for the six. "We're going to do what we can. If yuh don't mind telling us where yuh got hurt—"
The lips of the other curled bitterly. "I was shot," he said distinctly, "by the sheriff and his bunch. But I got away. Last night I tried to cross the creek, and my horse went on down. It was storming—fierce. I got out, somehow, and crawled into the weeds. Laying out in the rain—didn't help me none. It's—all off."
"There ought to be something—" began Jack Bates helplessly.
"There is. If yuh'll just put me away—afterwards—and say nothing,—I'll be—mighty grateful." He was looking at them sharply, as if a great deal depended upon their answer.
The Happy Family was dazed. The very suddenness of this unlooked-for glimpse into the somber eyes of Tragedy was unnerving. The world had seemed such a jolly place; ten minutes ago—five minutes, even, their greatest fear had been getting to the picnic too late for dinner. And here was a man at their feet, calmly telling them that he was about to die, and asking only a hurried burial and a silence after. Happy Jack swallowed painfully and shifted his feet in the grass.
"Of course, if yuh'd feel better handing me over—"
"That'll be about enough on that subject," Pink interrupted with decision. "Just because yuh happen to be down and out—for the time being—is no reason why yuh should insult folks. You can take it for granted we'll do what we can for yuh; the question is, what? Yuh needn' go talking about cashing in—they's no sense in it. You'll be all right.—"
"Huh. You wait and see." The fellow's mouth set grimly upon another groan. "If you was shot through, and stuck to the saddle—and rode—and then got pummeled—by a creek at flood, and if yuh laid out in the rain—all night— Hell, boys! Yuh know I'm about all in. I'm hard to kill, or I'd have been—dead— What I want to know—will yuh do what I—said? Will yuh bury me—right here—and keep it—quiet?"
The Happy Family moved uncomfortably. They hated to see him lying that way, and talking in short, jerky sentences, and looking so ghastly, and yet so cool—as if dying were quite an everyday affair.
"I don't see why yuh ask us to do it," spoke Cal Emmet bluntly. "What we want to do is get yuh to help. The chances is you could be—cured. We—"
"Look here." The fellow raised himself painfully to an elbow, and fell back again. "I've got folks—and they don't know—about this scrape. They're square—and stand at the top—And they don't—it would just about— For God sake, boys! Can't yuh see—how I feel? Nobody knows—about this. The sheriff didn't know—they came up on me in the dusk—and I fought. I wouldn't be taken—And it's my first bad break—because I got in with a bad—lot. They'll know something—happened, when they find—my horse. But they'll think—it's just drowning, if they don't find—me with a bullet or two— Can't yuh see?"
The Happy Family looked away across the coulee, and there were eyes that saw little of the yellow sunlight lying soft on the green hillside beyond. The world was not a good place; it was a grim, pitiless place, and—a man was dying, at their very feet.
"But what about the rest oh the bunch?" croaked Happy Jack, true to his misanthropic nature, but exceeding husky as to voice. "They'll likely tell—"
The dying man shook his head eagerly. "They won't; they're both—dead. One was killed—last night. The other when we first tried—to make a getaway. It—it's up to you, boys."
Pink swallowed twice, and knelt beside him; the others remained standing, grouped like mourners around an open grave.
"Yuh needn't worry about us," Pink said softly, "You can count on us, old boy. If you're dead sure a doctor—"
"Drop it!" the other broke in harshly. "I don't want to live. And if I did, I couldn't. I ain't guessing—I know."
They said little, after that. The wounded man seemed apathetically waiting for the end, and not inclined to further speech. Since they had tacitly promised to do as he wished, he lay with eyes half closed, watching idly the clouds drifting across to the skyline, hardly moving.
The Happy Family sat listlessly around on convenient rocks, and watched the clouds also, and the yellow patches of foam racing down the muddy creek. Very quiet they were—so quiet that little, brown birds hopped close, and sang from swaying weeds almost within reach of them. The Happy Family listened dully to the songs, and waited. They did not even think to make a cigarette.
The sun climbed higher and shone hotly down upon them. The dying man blinked at the glare, and Happy Jack took off his hat and tilted it over the face of the other, and asked him if he wouldn't like to be moved into the shade.
"No matter—I'll be in the shade—soon enough," he returned quietly, and something gripped their throats to aching. His voice, they observed, was weaker than it had been.
Weary took a long breath, and moved closer. "I wish you'd let us get help," he said, wistfully. It all seemed so horribly brutal, their sitting around him like that, waiting passively for him to die.
"I know—yuh hate it. But it's—all yuh can do. It's all I want." He took his eyes from the drifting, white clouds, and looked from face to face. "You're the whitest bunch—I'd like to know—who yuh are. Maybe I can put in—a good word for yuh—on the new range—where I'm going. I'd sure like to do—something—"
"Then for the Lord's sake, don't say such things!" cried Pink, shakily. "You'll have us—so damn broke up—"
"All right—I won't. So long,—boys. See yuh later—"
"Mamma!" whispered Weary, and got up hastily and walked away. Slim followed him a few paces, then turned resolutely and went back. It seemed cowardly to leave the rest to bear it—and somebody had to. They were breathing quickly, and they were staring across the coulee with eyes that saw nothing; their lips were shut very tightly together. Weary came back and stood with his back turned. Pink moved a bit, glanced furtively at the long, quiet figure beside him, and dropped his face into his gloved hands.
Glory threw up his head, glanced across the coulee at a band of range horses trooping down a gully to drink at the river, and whinnied shrilly. The Happy Family started and awoke to the stern necessities of life. They stood up, and walked a little way from the spot, avoiding one another's eyes.
"Somebody'll have to go back to camp," said Cal Emmett, in the hushed tone that death ever compels from the living. "We've got to have a spade—"
"It better be the handiest liar, then," Jack Bates put in hastily.
"If that old loose-tongued Patsy ever gets next—"
"Weary better go—and Pink. They're the best liars in the bunch," said Cal, trying unsuccessfully to get back his everyday manner.
Pink and Weary went over and took the dragging bridle-reins of their mounts, caught a stirrup and swung up into the saddles silently.
"And say!" Happy Jack called softly, as they were going down the slope. "Yuh better bring—a blanket."
Weary nodded, and they rode away, their horses stepping softly in the thick grasses. When they were passed quite out of the presence of the dead, they spurred their horses into a gallop.
The sun marked mid-afternoon when they returned, and the four who had waited drew long breaths of relief at sight of them.
"We told Patsy we'd run onto a—den—"
"Oh, shut up, can't yuh?" Jack Bates interrupted shortly. "Yuh'll have plenty uh time to tell us afterwards."
"We've got a place picked out," said Cal, and led them a little distance up the slope, to a level spot in the shadow of a huge, gray bowlder. "That's his headstone," he said, soberly. "The poor devil won't be cheated out uh that, if we can't mark it with his name. It'll last as long as he'll need it."
Only in the West, perhaps, may one find a funeral like that. No minister stood at the head of the grave and read, "Dust to dust" and all the heartbreaking rest of it. There was no singing but from a meadowlark that perched on a nearby rock and rippled his brief song when, with their ropes, they lowered the blanket wrapped form. They stood, with bare heads bowed, while the meadow lark sang. When he had flown, Pink, looking a choir-boy in disguise, repeated softly and incorrectly the Lord's prayer.
The Happy Family did not feel that there was any incongruity in what they did. When Pink, gulping a little over the unfamiliar words, said:
"Thine be power and glory—Amen;" five clear, youthful voices added the Amen quite simply. Then they filled the grave and stood silent a minute before they went down to where their horse stood waiting patiently, with now and then a curious glance up the hill to where their masters grouped.
The Happy Family mounted and without a backward glance rode soberly away; and the trail they took led, not to the picnic, but to camp.