B.M. Bower.

The Lonesome Trail and Other Stories online

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heard done about him. I heard uh him when I was on the Cross L; and I
will say right now that he's the biggest disappointment I've met up
with in many a long day. He's punk. Come and get him and let me have
something alive. I'm weary uh trying to delude myself into thinking
that this red image is a horse."

The Happy Family, huddled ten paces before him, stared. Pink slid out
of the saddle and came forward, smiling, and dimpling. He held out a
gloved hand to the first man he came to, which was Weary himself. "Are
yuh happy to meet Milk River Pink?" he wanted to know.

The Happy Family, grinning sheepishly, crowded close to shake him by
the hand.




THE SPIRIT OF THE RANGE

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
Jack.

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


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Online LibraryB.M. BowerThe Lonesome Trail and Other Stories → online text (page 9 of 12)