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Hal G. (Hal George) Evarts.

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Produced by Al Haines










[Frontispiece: His knees sagged under him as a forty-five slug struck
him an inch above the buckle of his belt.]






THE SETTLING OF THE SAGE


BY HAL G. EVARTS



AUTHOR OF

"The Cross Pull," "The Yellow Horde," etc.





A. L. BURT COMPANY

Publishers - - - - New York


Published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company

Printed in U. S. A.




Copyright, 1922,

BY HAL G. EVARTS.


All rights reserved



Published January, 1922

Reprinted February, 1922

Reprinted March, 1922




The Settling of the Sage


I

A rider jogged northward along the road on a big pinto horse, a led
buckskin, packed, trailing a half-length behind. The horseman traveled
with the regulation outfit of the roaming range dweller - saddle, bed
roll and canvas war bag containing personal treasures and extra
articles of attire - but this was supplemented by two panniers of food
and cooking equipment and a one-man teepee that was lashed on top in
lieu of canvas pack cover. A ranch road branched off to the left and
the man pulled up his horse to view a sign that stood at the forks.

"Squatter, don't let the sun go down on you," he read. "That's the
third one of those reminders, Calico," he told the horse. "The wording
a little different but the sentiment all the same."

Fifty yards off the trail the charred and blackened fragments of a
wagon showed in sharp contrast to the bleached white bones of two
horses.

"They downed his team and torched his worldly goods," the rider said.
"All his hopes gone up in smoke."

He turned in his saddle and looked off across the unending expanse of
sage. Coldriver - probably so named from the fact that the three wells
in the town constituted the only source of water within an hour's
ride - lay thirty miles to the south, a cluster of some forty buildings
nestling on a wind-swept flat. Seventy miles beyond it, and with but
two more such centers of civilization between, the railroad stretched
across the rolling desolation. North of him the hills lifted above the
sage, angling with the directions so that four miles along the Three
Bar road that branched off to the left would bring him to their foot
and a like distance along the main fork saw its termination at Brill's
store, situated in a dent in the base of the hills, the end of the
Coldriver Trail.

The man took one more look at the evidence left behind to prove that
the sign was no empty threat before heading the paint-horse along the
left-hand fork. The crisp cool of early spring was blown down from the
slope of the hills. Old drifts, their tops gray-streaked with dust,
lay banked in the gulches and on sheltered east slopes, but the new
grass had claimed the range to the very foot of the drifts, the green
of it intensified in patches watered by the trickle that seeped from
the downhill extremities of the snow banks. He noted that the range
cows along his route were poor and lean, their hip bones showing
lumpily through sagging skin, giving them the appearance of milkers
rather than of beef stock. The preceding summer had been hot and dry,
browning the range six weeks before its time, and the stock had gone
into the winter in poor shape. Heavy snowfalls had completed the havoc
and ten per cent. of the range stock had been winter-killed. Those
that had pulled through were slow in putting on weight and recovering
their strength.

A big red steer stood broadside to him, the Three Bar brand looming on
its side, and the man once more pulled up his horse and lost himself in
retrospection as he gazed at the brand.

"The old Three Bar, Calico," he remarked to the horse. "The old home
brand. It's been many a moon since last I laid an eye on a Three Bar
cow."

The man was gazing directly at the steer but he no longer saw it.
Instead he was picturing the old-time scenes that the sight of the
brand recalled. Step by step he visioned the long trail of the Three
Bar cows from Dodge City to the Platte, from the Platte to the rolling
sage-clad hills round old Fort Laramie and from Laramie to the present
range. Many times he had heard the tale, and though most of the scenes
had been enacted before his birth, they were impressed so firmly upon
his mind by repetition that it seemed as if he himself had been a part
of them.

His mind pictured two boys of somewhere round eighteen years of age
setting forth from the little home town of Kansas City, nestling at the
confluence of the Missouri and the Kaw. A year later Cal Warren was
whacking bulls on the Santa Fe Trail while the other, William Harris,
was holding the reins over four plunging horses as he tooled a
lumbering Concord stage over the trail from Omaha to the little camp
called Denver.

It was five years before their trails crossed again. Cal Warren was
the first of the two to wed, and he had established a post along the
trail, a rambling structure of 'dobe, poles and sod, and there
conducted the business of "Two for One," a calling impossible and
unknown in any other than that day and place.

The long bull trains were in sight from horizon to horizon every hour
of the day. The grind of the gravel wore down the hoofs of the unshod
oxen, and when footsore they could not go on. One sound bull for two
with tender feet was Warren's rule of trade. These crippled ones were
soon made sound in the puddle pen, a sod corral flooded with sufficient
water to puddle the yellow clay into a six-inch layer of stiff, healing
mud, then thrown out on the open range to fatten and grow strong. But
transitions were swift and sweeping. Steel rails were crowding close
behind the prairie schooners and the ox-bows. Bull trains grew fewer
every year and eventually Cal Warren made his last trade of two for one.

Bill Harris had come back to view the railroad of which he had heard so
much and he remained to witness and to be a part of the wild days of
Abilene, Hays and Dodge, as each attained the apex of its glory as the
railroad's end and the consequent destination of the Texas trail herds.
The sight of these droves of thousands implanted a desire to run cows
himself and when he was wed in Dodge he broached this project to his
boyhood pal.

It was the sincere wish of each to gain the other as a partner in all
future enterprise, but this was not to be. Warren had seen the bottom
drop out of the bull trade and he would not relinquish the suspicion
that any business dealing in four-footed stock was hazardous in the
extreme and he insisted that the solution of all their financial
problems rested upon owning land, not cows. Harris could not be
induced to farm the soil while steers were selling round eight dollars
a head.

Warren squatted on a quarter of land. Harris bought a few head of
she-stock and grazed his cows north and west across the Kansas line
into the edge of the great unknown that was styled Nebraska and
Northwest District. At first his range was limitless, but in a few
short years he could stand on the roof of his sod hut and see the white
points of light which were squatters' wagons dotting the range to the
far horizon in any direction he chose to look. The first of these to
invade his range had been Cal Warren, moving on before the swarm of
settlers flocking into the locality of his first choice in such
alarming numbers that he feared an unhealthy congestion of humanity in
the near future. The debate of farming versus cows was resumed between
the two, but each held doggedly to his own particular views and the
longed-for partnership was again postponed.

Harris moved once more - and then again - and it was something over two
decades after his departure from Dodge with the Three Bar cows that he
made one final shift, faring on in search of that land where nesters
were unknown. He made a dry march that cost him a fourth of his cows,
skirted the Colorado Desert and made his stand under the first rim of
the hills. Those others who came to share this range were men whose
views were identical with his own, whose watchword was: "Our cows shall
run free on a thousand hills." They sought for a spot where the range
was untouched by the plow and the water holes unfenced. They had
moved, then moved again, driven on before the invasion of the settlers.
These men banded together and swore that here conditions should be
reversed, that it was the squatter who should move, and on this
principle they grimly rested.

Cal Warren had been the vanguard of each new rush of settlers that had
pushed Bill Harris on to another range, and the cowman had come to see
the hand of fate in this persistence. The nesters streamed westward on
all the trails, filing their rights on the fertile valleys and pushing
those who would be cattle barons undisputed back into the more arid
regions. When the Warren family found him out again and halted their
white-topped wagon before his door, Bill Harris gave it up.

"I've come up to see about getting that partnership fixed up, Bill,"
Warren greeted. "You know - the one we talked over in Dodge a while
ago, about our going in together when either of us changed his mind.
Well, I've changed mine. I've come to see that running cows is a good
game, Bill, so let's fix it up. I've changed my mind."

"That was twenty years ago, Cal," Harris said. "But it still holds
good - only I've changed my mind too. You was dead right from the
first. Squatters will come to roost on every foot of ground and
there'll come a day when I'll have to turn squatter myself - so I might
as well start now. The way to get used to crowds, Cal, is to go where
the crowds are at. I'm headed back for Kansas and you better come
along. We'll get that partnership fixed up."

A single child had come to bless each union in the parents' late middle
age. The Harris heir, a boy of eight, had been named Calvin in honor
of his father's friend. Cal Warren had as nearly returned the
compliment as circumstances would permit, and his three-year-old
daughter bore the name of Williamette Ann for both father and mother of
the boy who was his namesake, and Warren styled her Billie for short.

Each man was as stubbornly set in his new views as he had been in the
old. The Harrises came into possession of the Warrens' prairie
schooner and drove off to the east. The Warrens took over the Three
Bar brand and the little Williamette Ann slept in the tiny bunk built
for the son of the Harris household.

For a space of minutes these old pictures occupied the mind of the man
on the pinto horse. The led buckskin moved fretfully and tugged on the
lead rope, rousing the man from his abstraction. Distant strings of
prairie schooners and ox-bows faded from his mind's eye and he way once
more conscious of the red steer with the Three Bar brand that had
stirred up the train of reflections. He turned for another glimpse of
the distant sign as he headed the paint-horse along the road.

"All that was quite a spell back, Calico," he said. "Old Bill Harris
planted the first one of those signs, and it served a good purpose
then. It's a sign that stands for lack of progress to-day. Times
change, and it's been eighteen years or so since old Bill Harris left."

The road traversed the bench, angled down a side hill to a valley
somewhat more than a mile across. Calico pricked his ears sharply
toward the Three Bar buildings that stood at the upper end of it.

Curious eyes peered from the bunk house as he neared it, for the
paint-horse and the buckskin were not without fame even if the man
himself were a stranger to them all. For the better part of a year the
two high-colored horses had been seen on the range, - south to the
railroad, west to the Idaho line. The man had kept to himself and when
seen by approaching riders he had always been angling on a course that
would miss their own. Those who had, out of curiosity, deliberately
ridden out to intercept him reported that he seemed a decent sort of
citizen, willing to converse on any known topics except those which
concerned himself.

He dropped from the saddle before the bunk house and as he stood in the
door he noted half a dozen men lounging on the bunks. This indolence
apprised him of the fact that they were extra men signed on for the
summer season and that their pay had not yet started, for the cowhand,
when on the pay roll, works sixteen hours daily and when he rests or
frolics it is, except in rare instances, on his own time and at his own
expense.

A tall, lean individual, who sat cross-legged on a bunk, engaged in
mending a spur strap, was the first to answer his inquiry for the
foreman.

"Billie Warren is the big he-coon of the Three Bar," he informed.
"You'll likely find the boss at the blacksmith shop." The lanky one
grinned as the stranger turned back through the litter of log
outbuildings, guided by the hissing squeak of bellows and the clang of
a sledge on hot iron. Several men pressed close to the windows in
anticipation of viewing the newcomer's surprise at greeting the Three
Bar boss. But the man did not seem surprised when a young girl emerged
from the open door of the shop as he neared it.

She was clad in a gray flannel skirt and black Angora chaps. The heavy
brown hair was concealed beneath the broad hat that was pulled low over
her eyes after the fashion of those who live much in the open. The man
removed his hat and stood before her.

"Miss Warren?" he inquired. The girl nodded and waited for him to
state his purpose.

"What are the chances of my riding for the Three Bar?" he asked.

"We're full-handed," said the girl. "I'm sorry."

"You'll be breaking out the remuda right soon now," he suggested. "I'm
real handy round a breaking corral."

"They're all handy at that," she said. Then she noted the two horses
before the bunk house and frowned. Her eyes searched the stranger's
face and found no fault with it; she liked his level gaze. But she
wondered what manner of man this was who had so aimlessly wandered
alone for a year and avoided all other men.

"Since you've finally decided to work, how does it happen that you
choose the Three Bar?" she asked, then flushed under his eyes as she
remembered that so many men had wished to ride for her brand more than
for another, their reasons in each case the same.

"Because the Three Bar needs a man that has prowled this country and
gathered a few points about what's going on," he returned.

"And that information is for sale to any brand that hires you!" said
the girl. "Is that what you mean?"

"If it was, there would be nothing wrong with a man's schooling himself
to know all points of his job before he asked for it," he said. "But
it happens that wasn't exactly my reason."

A shade of weariness passed over her face. During the two years that
her father had been confined to the house after being caved in by a
horse and in the one year that had elapsed since his death the six
thousand cows that had worn the Three Bar brand on the range had
decreased by almost half under her management.

"I'll put you on," she said. "But you'll probably be insulted at what
I have to offer. The men start out after the horses to-morrow. I want
a man to stay here and do tinkering jobs round the place till they get
back."

"That'll suit me as well as any," he accepted promptly. "I'm a great
little hand at tinkering round."

The clang of the sledge had ceased and a huge, fat man loomed in the
door of the shop and mopped his dripping face with a bandanna.

"I'm glad you've come," he assured the new-comer. "A man that's not
above doing a little fixing up! A cowhand is the most overworked and
underpaid saphead that ever lost three nights' sleep hand running and
worked seventy-two hours on end; sleep in the rain or not at all - to
hold a job at forty per for six months in the year. The other six he's
throwed loose like a range horse to rustle or starve. Hardest work in
the world - but he don't know it, or money wouldn't hire him to lift his
hand. He thinks it's play. Not one out of ten but what prides himself
that he can't be browbeat into doing a tap of work. Ask him to cut a
stick of firewood and he'll arch his back and laugh at you scornful
like. Don't that beat hell?"

"It do," said the stranger.

"I'm the best wagon cook that ever sloshed dishwater over the
tail-gate, and even better than that in a ranch-house kitchen," the
loquacious one modestly assured him. "But I can't do justice to the
meals when I lay out to do all the chores within four miles and run
myself thin collecting scraps and squaw wood to keep the stove het up.
Now since Billie has hired you, I trust you'll work up a pile of wood
that will keep me going - and folks call me Waddles," he added as an
afterthought.

"Very good, Mr. Waddles," the newcomer smiled. "You shall have your
fuel."

The big man grinned.

"That title is derived from my shape and gait," he informed. "My
regular name is Smith - if you're set on tacking a Mister on behind it."

The girl waved the talkative cook aside and turned to the new hand.

"You'll take it then."

He nodded.

"Could you spare me about ten minutes some time to-day?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "I'll send for you when I have time."

The man headed back for his horses and unlashed the buckskin's
top-pack, dropping it to the ground, then led the two of them back
toward the corral, stripped the saddle from the pinto, the side
panniers and packsaddle from the buckskin and turned them into the
corral. He rambled among the outbuildings on a tour of inspection and
the girl saw him stand long in one spot before the solid log cabin, now
used as a storeroom for odds and ends, that had been the first one
erected on the Three Bar and had sheltered the Harrises before her
father took over their brand.




II

The Three Bar girl sat looking from the window of her own room, the
living room of the ranch house, one end of which was curtained off to
serve as sleeping quarters. The rattle of pots and pans came from the
big room in the rear which was used by Waddles as a kitchen and dining
hall for the hands. The new man was still prowling about the place,
inspecting every detail, and she wondered if he could tell her anything
which would prove of benefit in her fight to stop the shrinkage of the
Three Bar herds and help her to face the drastic changes that were
reshaping the policies of the range country.

The Three Bar home range was one of many similar isolated spots where
the inhabitants held out for a continuance of the old order of things.
All through the West, from the Mexican border to the Canadian line, a
score of bitter feuds were in progress, the principles involved
differing widely according to conditions and locality. There were
existing laws, - and certain clans that denied the justice of each one,
holding out against its enforcement and making laws of their own. In
some spots the paramount issue was over the relative grazing rights of
cows and sheep, fanning a flame of hatred between those whose
occupations were in any way concerned with these rival interests. In
others the stockmen ignored the homestead laws which proclaimed that
settlers could file their rights on land. As always before, wherever
men resorted to lawlessness to protect their fancied rights, the
established order of things had broken down, all laws disregarded
instead of the single one originally involved.

In many communities these clashes between rival interests had furnished
opportunity for rustlers to build up in power and practically take the
range. Each clan was outside the law in some one particular and so
could not have recourse to it against those who violated it in some
other respect; could not appear against neighbors in one matter lest
their friends do likewise against themselves in another.

This attitude had enabled the wild bunch to saddle themselves on
certain communities and ply their trade without restraint. Rustling
had come to be a recognized occupation to be reckoned with; the
identity of the thieves was often known, and they visited from ranch to
ranch, whose owners possibly were honest themselves but had friends
among the outlaws for whom the latch-string was always out. The
rustlers' toll was in the nature of a tribute levied against every
brand and the various outfits expected certain losses from this source.
It was good business to recoup these losses at another's expense and
thus neighbor preyed on neighbor. Big outfits fought to crush others
who would start up in a small way, and between periods of defending
their own interests against the rustlers they hired them to harry their
smaller competitors from the range; clover for outlaws where all
factions, by mutual assent, played their own hands without recourse to
the law. It was a case of dog eat dog and the slogan ran: "Catch your
calves in a basket or some other thief will put his iron on them first."

It was to this pass that the Three Bar home range had come in the last
five years. As Billie Warren watched the new hand moving slowly toward
the bunk house she pondered over what manner of man this could be who
had played a single-handed game in the hills for almost a year. Was he
leagued with the wild bunch, with the law, or was he merely an
eccentric who might have some special knowledge that would help her
save the Three Bar from extinction?

The stranger picked up his bed roll and disappeared through the
bunk-house door as she watched him.

The lean man who had first greeted him jerked a thumb toward an
unoccupied bunk.

"Pay roll?" he inquired; then, as the new man nodded, "I'm most
generally referred to as Lanky," he offered tentatively. "Evans is the
rest of it."

The stranger hesitated appreciably; then:

"Harris will do all right for me - Cal for every day," he returned and
introductions had been effected. It was up to each man to use his own
individual method of making his name known to the newcomer as occasion
arose.

There had been much speculation about the brand worn by the two horses.
The hands were a drifting lot, gathered from almost as many points as
there were men present, but none of them knew the brand.

A dark, thin-faced man with a slender black mustache was the first to
voice a query, not from the fact that his curiosity was large - it was
perhaps less than that of any other man in the room - but for the reason
that he chose to satisfy it at once. Morrow's personality was cold and
bleak, inviting no close friendships or intimacies; uncommunicative to
a degree that had impressed itself on his companions of the last few
days and they looked up, mildly surprised at his abrupt interrogation.

"Box L," he commented. "Where does that brand run?"

"Southwest Kansas and Oklahoma," the stranger answered.

"Squatter country," Morrow said. "Every third section under fence."

Harris sat looking through the door at the valley spread out below and
after a moment he answered the thrust as if he had been long prepared
for it.

"Yes," he said. "And that's what all range country will come to in a
few more years; farm what they can and graze what they can't - and the
sooner the better for all concerned." He waved an arm down the valley.
"Good alfalfa dirt going to waste down there - overrun with sage and
only growing enough grass to keep ten cows to the quarter. If that was
ripped up and seeded to hay it would grow enough to winter five
thousand head."

This remark led to the old debate that was never-ending in the cow
country, breaking out afresh in every bunk house and exhaustively
rediscussed. There were men there who had viewed both ends of the
game, - had seen the foremost outfits in other parts tearing up the sage
and putting in hay for winter feed and had seen that this way was good.

Evans regarded Harris curiously as he deliberately provoked the
argument, then sat back and listened to the various ideas of the others
as the discussion became heated and general. It occurred to Evans that
Harris was classifying the men by their views, and when the argument
lagged the lean man grinned and gave it fresh impetus.

"It's a settled fact that the outfits that have put in hay are better
off," he said. "But there's a dozen localities like this, a dozen
little civil wars going on right now where the inhabitants are so
mulish that they lay their ears and fight their own interests by
upholding a flea-bit prejudice that was good for twenty years ago but
is a dead issue to-day."

"And why is it dead to-day?" Morrow demanded. "And not as good as it
always was?"


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