Horace Annesley Vachell.

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BUNCH GRASS

A CHRONICLE OF LIFE ON A CATTLE RANCH


BY HORACE ANNESLEY VACHELL

AUTHOR OF "BROTHERS" "THE HILL" ETC. ETC.

1913


TO MY BROTHER

ARTHUR HONYWOOD VACHELL

I DEDICATE

THIS BOOK


FOREWORD

The author of _Bunch Grass_ ventures to hope that this book will
not be altogether regarded as mere flotsam and jetsam of English and
American magazines. The stories, it will be found, have a certain
continuity, and may challenge interest as apart from incident because
an attempt has been made to reproduce atmosphere, the atmosphere of a
country that has changed almost beyond recognition in three decades.
The author went to a wild California cow-country just thirty years
ago, and remained there seventeen years, during which period the land
from such pastoral uses as cattle and sheep-raising became subdivided
into innumerable small holdings. He beheld a new country in the
making, and the passing of the pioneer who settled vital differences
with a pistol. During those years some noted outlaws ranged at large
in the county here spoken of as San Lorenzo. The Dalton gang of train
robbers lived and died (some with their boots on) not far from the
village entitled Paradise. Stage coaches were robbed frequently. Every
large rancher suffered much at the hands of cattle and horse thieves.
The writer has talked to Frank James, the most famous of Western
desperados; he has enjoyed the acquaintance of Judge Lynch, who hanged
two men from a bridge within half-a-mile of the ranch-house; he
remembers the Chinese Riots; he has witnessed many a fight between the
hungry squatter and the old settler with no title to the leagues over
which his herds roamed, and so, in a modest way, he may claim to be a
historian, not forgetting that the original signification of the word
was a narrator of fables founded upon facts.

Apologies are tendered for the dialect to be found in these pages.
There is no Californian dialect. At the time of the discovery of gold,
the state was flooded with men from all parts of the world, and
dialects became inextricably mixed. Not even Bret Harte was able to
reproduce the talk of children whose fathers may have come from
Kentucky or Massachusetts, and their mothers from Louisiana.

Re-reading these chapters, with a more or less critical detachment,
and leaving them - good, bad and indifferent - as they were originally
printed, one is forced to the conclusion that sentiment - which would
seem to arouse what is most hostile in the cultivated dweller in
cities - is an all-pervading essence in primitive communities,
colouring and discolouring every phase of life and thought. One
instance among a thousand will suffice. Stage coaches, in the writer's
county, used to be held up, single-handed, by a highwayman, known as
Black Bart. All the foothill folk pleaded in extenuation of the robber
that he wrote a copy of verses, embalming his adventure, which he used
to pin to the nearest tree. Black Bart would have been shot on sight
had he presented his doggerel to any self-respecting Western editor;
nevertheless the sentiment that inspired a bandit to set forth his
misdeeds in execrable rhyme transformed him from a criminal into a
popular hero! The virtues that counted in the foothills during the
eighties were generosity, courage, and that amazing power of
recuperation which enables a man to begin life again and again,
undaunted by the bludgeonings of misfortune. Some of the stories in
this volume are obviously the work of an apprentice, but they have
been included because, however faulty in technique, they do serve to
illustrate a past that can never come back, and men and women who were
outwardly crude and illiterate but at core kind and chivalrous, and
nearly always humorously unconventional. The bunch grass, so beloved
by the patriarchal pioneers, has been ploughed up and destroyed; the
unwritten law of Judge Lynch will soon become an oral tradition; but
the Land of Yesterday blooms afresh as the Golden State of To-day - and
Tomorrow.


* * * * *


CONTENTS

CHAP.

I. ALETHEA-BELLE

II. THE DUMBLES

III. PAP SPOONER

IV. GLORIANA

V. BUMBLEPUPPY

VI. JASPERSON'S BEST GIRL

VII. FIFTEEN FAT STEERS

VIII. AN EXPERIMENT

IX. UNCLE JAP'S LILY

X. WILKINS AND HIS DINAH

XI. A POISONED SPRING

XII. THE BABE

XIII. THE BARON

XIV. JIM'S PUP

XV. MARY

XVI. OLD MAN BOBO'S MANDY

XVII. MINTIE

XVIII. ONE WHO DIED

XIX. A RAGAMUFFIN OF THE FOOTHILLS

XX. DENNIS

* * * * *


I

ALETHEA-BELLE


In the early eighties, when my brother Ajax and I were raising cattle
in the foothills of Southern California, our ranch-house was used as a
stopping-place by the teamsters hauling freight across the Coast
Range; and after the boom began, while the village of Paradise was
evolving itself out of rough timber, we were obliged to furnish all
comers with board and lodging. Hardly a day passed without some
"prairie schooner" (the canvas-covered wagon of the squatter) creaking
into our corral; and the quiet gulches and cañons where Ajax and I had
shot quail and deer began to re-echo to the shouts of the children of
the rough folk from the mid-West and Missouri. These "Pikers," so
called, settled thickly upon the sage-brush hills to the south and
east of us, and took up all the land they could claim from the
Government. Before spring was over, we were asked to lend an old
_adobe_ building to the village fathers, to be used as a
schoolhouse, until the schoolhouse proper was built. At that time a
New England family of the name of Spafford was working for us. Mrs.
Spafford, having two children of her own, tried to enlist our
sympathies.

"I'm kinder sick," she told us, "of cookin' an' teachin'; an' the hot
weather's comin' on, too. You'd oughter let 'em hev that old
_adobe_."

"But who will teach the children?" we asked.

"We've fixed that," said Mrs. Spafford. "'Tain't everyone as'd want to
come into this wilderness, but my auntie's cousin, Alethea-Belle
Buchanan, is willin' to take the job."

"Is she able?" we asked doubtfully.

"She's her father's daughter," Mrs. Spafford replied. "Abram Buchanan
was as fine an' brave a man as ever preached the Gospel. An' clever,
too. My sakes, he never done but one foolish thing, and that was when
he merried his wife."

"Tell us about her," said that inveterate gossip, Ajax.

Mrs. Spafford sniffed.

"I seen her once - that was once too much fer me. One o' them
lackadaisical, wear-a-wrapper-in-the-mornin', soft, pulpy Southerners.
Pretty - yes, in a spindlin', pink an' white soon-washed-out pattern,
but without backbone. I've no patience with sech."

"Her daughter won't be able to halter-break these wild colts."

"Didn't I say that Alethea-Belle took after her father? She must hev
consid'able snap an' nerve, fer she's put in the last year, sence
Abram died, sellin' books in this State."

"A book agent?"

"Yes, sir, a book agent."

If Mrs. Spafford had said road agent, which means highwayman in
California, we could not have been more surprised. A successful book
agent must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the guile of a serpent, the
obstinacy of a mule, and the persuasive notes of a nightingale.

"If Miss Buchanan has been a book agent, she'll do," said Ajax.

* * * * *

She arrived at Paradise on the ramshackle old stage-coach late one
Saturday afternoon. Ajax and I carried her small hair-trunk into the
ranch-house; Mrs. Spafford received her. We retreated to the corrals.

"She'll never, never do," said Ajax.

"Never," said I.

Alethea-Belle Buchanan looked about eighteen; and her face was white
as the dust that lay thick upon her grey linen cloak. Under the cloak
we had caught a glimpse of a thin, slab-chested figure. She wore
thread gloves, and said "I thank you" in a prim, New England accent.

"Depend upon it, she's had pie for breakfast ever since she was born,"
said Ajax, "and it's not agreed with her. She'll keep a foothill
school in order just about two minutes - and no longer!"

At supper, however, she surprised us. She was very plain-featured, but
the men - the rough teamsters, for instance - could not keep their eyes
off her. She was the most amazing mixture of boldness and timidity I
had ever met. We were about to plump ourselves down at table, for
instance, when Miss Buchanan, folding her hands and raising her eyes,
said grace; but to our first questions she replied, blushing, in timid
monosyllables.

After supper, Mrs. Spafford and she washed up. Later, they brought
their sewing into the sitting-room. While we were trying to thaw the
little schoolmarm's shyness, a mouse ran across the floor. In an
instant Miss Buchanan was on her chair. The mouse ran round the room
and vanished; the girl who had been sent to Paradise to keep in order
the turbulent children of the foothills stepped down from her chair.

"I'm scared to death of mice," she confessed. My brother Ajax scowled.

"Fancy sending that whey-faced little coward - here!" he whispered to
me.

"Have you taught school before?" I asked.

"Oh yes, indeed," she answered; "and I know something of your foothill
folks. I've been a book agent. Oh, indeed? You know that. Well, I did
first-rate, but that was the book, which sold itself - a beautiful
book. Maybe you know it - _The Milk of Human Kindness_? When we're
better acquainted, I'd like to read you," she looked hard at Ajax,
"some o' my favourite passages."

"Thanks," said Ajax stiffly.

Next day was Sunday. At breakfast the schoolmarm asked Ajax if there
was likely to be a prayer-meeting.

"A prayer-meeting, Miss Buchanan?"

"It's the Sabbath, you know."

"Yes - er - so it is. Well, you see," he smiled feebly, "the cathedral
isn't built yet."

"Why, what's the matter with the schoolhouse? I presume you're all
church-members?"

Her grey eyes examined each of us in turn, and each made confession.
One of the teamsters was a Baptist; another a Latter-Day Adventist;
the Spaffords were Presbyterians; we, of course, belonged to the
Church of England.

"We ought to have a prayer-meeting," said the little schoolmarm.

"Yes; we did oughter," assented Mrs. Spafford.

"I kin pray first-rate when I git started," said the Baptist teamster.

The prayer-meeting took place. Afterwards Ajax said to me -

"She's very small, is Whey-face, but somehow she seemed to fill the
_adobe_."

In the afternoon we had an adventure which gave us further insight
into the character and temperament of the new schoolmarm.

We all walked to Paradise across the home pasture, for Miss Buchanan
was anxious to inspect the site - there was nothing else then - of the
proposed schoolhouse. Her childlike simplicity and assurance in taking
for granted that she would eventually occupy that unbuilt academy
struck us as pathetic.

"I give her one week," said Ajax, "not a day more."

Coming back we called a halt under some willows near the creek. The
shade invited us to sit down.

"Are there snakes - rattlesnakes?" Miss Buchanan asked nervously.

"In the brush-hills - yes; here - no," replied my brother.

By a singular coincidence, the words were hardly out of his mouth when
we heard the familiar warning, the whirring, never-to-be-forgotten
sound of the beast known to the Indians as "death in the grass."

"Mercy!" exclaimed the schoolmarm, staring wildly about her. It is not
easy to localise the exact position of a coiled rattlesnake by the
sound of his rattle.

"Don't move!" said Ajax. "Ah, I see him! There he is! I must find a
stick."

The snake was coiled some half-dozen yards from us. Upon the top coil
was poised his hideous head; above it vibrated the bony, fleshless
vertebræ of the tail. The little schoolmarm stared at the beast,
fascinated by fear and horror. Ajax cut a switch from a willow; then
he advanced.

"Oh!" entreated Miss Buchanan, "please don't go so near."

"There's no danger," said Ajax. "I've never been able to understand
why rattlers inspire such terror. They can't strike except at objects
within half their length, and one little tap, as you will see, breaks
their backbone. Now watch! I'm going to provoke this chap to strike;
and then I shall kill him."

He held the end of the stick about eighteen inches from the glaring,
lidless eyes. With incredible speed the poised head shot forth. Ajax
laughed. The snake was recoiling, as he struck it on the neck.
Instantly it writhed impotently. My brother set the heel of his heavy
boot upon the skull, crushing it into the ground.

"Now let's sit down," said he.

"Hark!" said the little schoolmarm.

Another snake was rattling within a yard or two of the first.

"It's the mate," said I. "At this time of year they run in pairs. We
ought to have thought of that."

"I'll have him in a jiffy," said my brother.

As he spoke I happened to be watching the schoolmarm. Her face was
painfully white, but her eyes were shining, and her lips set above a
small, resolute chin.

"Let me kill him," she said, in a low voice.

"You, Miss Buchanan?"

"Yes."

"It's easy enough, but one mustn't - er - miss."

"I shan't miss."

She took the willow stick from my brother's hand. Every movement of
his she reproduced exactly, even to the setting of her heel upon the
serpent's head. Then she smiled at us apologetically.

"I hated to do it. I was scared to death, but I wanted to conquer that
cowardly Belle. It's just as you say, they're killed mighty easy. If
we could kill the Old Serpent as easy - - " she sighed, not finishing
the sentence.

Ajax, who has a trick of saying what others think, blurted out -

"What do you mean by conquering - Belle?"

We sat down.

"My name is Alethea-Belle, a double name. Father wanted to call me
Alethea; but mother fancied Belle. Father, you know, was a
Massachusetts minister; mother came from way down south. She died when
I was a child. She - she was not very strong, poor mother, but father,"
she spoke proudly, "father was the best man that ever lived."

All her self-consciousness had vanished. Somehow we felt that the
daughter of the New England parson was speaking, not the child of the
invertebrate Southerner.

"I had to take to selling books," she continued, speaking more to
herself than to us, "because of Belle. That miserable girl got into
debt. Father left her a little money. Belle squandered it sinfully on
clothes and pleasure. She'd a rose silk dress - - "

"A rose silk dress?" repeated Ajax.

"It was just too lovely - that dress," said the little schoolmarm,
reflectively.

"Even Alethea could not resist it," said I.

She blushed, and her shyness, her awkwardness, returned.

"Alethea had to pay for it," she replied primly. "I ask your pardon
for speaking so foolishly and improperly of - myself."

After this, behind her back, Ajax and I invariably called her Alethea-
Belle.

* * * * *

School began at nine sharp the next morning. We expected a large
attendance, and were not disappointed. Some of the boys grinned
broadly when Alethea-Belle appeared carrying books and maps. She
looked absurdly small, very nervous, and painfully frail. The fathers
present exchanged significant glances; the mothers sniffed. Alethea-
Belle entered the names of her scholars in a neat ledger, and shook
hands with each. Then she made a short speech.

"Friends," she said, "I'm glad to make your acquaintance. I shall
expect my big boys and girls to set an example to the little ones by
being punctual, clean, and obedient. We will now begin our exercises
with prayer and a hymn. After that the parents will please retire."

That evening Alethea-Belle went early to bed with a raging headache.
Next morning she appeared whiter than ever, but her eyelids were red.
However, she seemed self-possessed and even cheerful. Riding together
across the range, Ajax said to me: "Alethea-Belle is scared out of her
life."

"You mean Belle. Alethea is as brave as her father was before her."

"You're right. Poor little Belle! Perhaps we'd better find some job or
other round the _adobe_ this afternoon. There'll be ructions."

But the ructions did not take place that day. It seems that Alethea-
Belle told her scholars she was suffering severely from headache. She
begged them politely to be as quiet as possible. Perhaps amazement
constrained obedience.

"These foothill imps will kill her," said Ajax.

Within a week we knew that the big boys were becoming unmanageable,
but no such information leaked from Alethea-Belle's lips. Each evening
at supper we asked how she had fared during the day. Always she
replied primly: "I thank you; I'm getting along nicely, better than I
expected."

Mrs. Spafford, a peeper through doors and keyholes, explained the
schoolmarm's methods.

"I jest happened to be passin' by," she told me, "and I peeked in
through - through the winder. That great big hoodlum of a George Spragg
was a-sassin' Miss Buchanan an' makin' faces at her. The crowd was a-
whoopin' him up. In the middle o' the uproar she kneels down. 'O
Lord,' says she, 'I pray Thee to soften the heart of pore George
Spragg, and give me, a weak woman, the strength to prevail against his
everlastin' ignorance and foolishness!' George got the colour of a
beet, but he quit his foolin'. Yes sir, she prays for 'em, and she
coaxes 'em, an' she never knows when she's beat; but they'll be too
much for her. She's losin' her appetite, an' she don't sleep good. We
won't be boardin' her much longer."

But that night, as usual, when I asked Alethea-Belle how she did, she
replied, in her prim, formal accents: "I'm doing real well, I thank
you; much, much better than I expected."

Two days later I detected a bruise upon her forehead. With great
difficulty I extracted the truth. Tom Eubanks had thrown an apple at
the schoolmarm.

"And what did you do?"

Her grey eyes were unruffled, her delicately cut lips never smiled, as
she replied austerely: "I told Thomas that I was sure he meant well,
but that if a boy wished to give an apple to a lady he'd ought to hand
it politely, and not throw it. Then I ate the apple. It was a Newtown
pippin, and real good. After recess Thomas apologised."

"What did the brute say?"

"He is not a brute. He said he was sorry he'd thrown the pippin so
hard."

Next day I happened to meet Tom Eubanks. He had a basket of Newtown
pippins for the schoolmarm. He was very red when he told me that Miss
Buchanan liked - apples. Apples at that time did not grow in the brush-
hills. Tom had bought them at the village store.

* * * * *

But Alethea-Belle grew thinner and whiter.

Just before the end of the term the climax came. I happened to find
the little schoolmarm crying bitterly in a clump of sage-brush near
the water-troughs.

"It's like this," she confessed presently: "I can't rid myself of that
weak, hateful Belle. She's going to lie down soon, and let the boys
trample on her; then she'll have to quit. And Alethea sees the
Promised Land. Oh, oh! I do despise the worst half of myself!"

"The sooner you leave these young devils the better."

"What do you say?"

She confronted me with flashing eyes. I swear that she looked
beautiful. The angularities, the lack of colour, the thin chest, the
stooping back were effaced. I could not see them, because - well,
because I was looking through them, far beyond them, at something
else.

"I love my boys, my foothill boys; and if they are rough, brutal at
times, they're strong." Her emphasis on the word was pathetic.
"They're strong, and they're young, and they're poised for flight -
now. To me, me, has been given the opportunity to direct that flight -
upward, and if I fail them, if I quit - - " She trembled violently.

"You won't quit," said I, with conviction.

"To-morrow," said she, "they've fixed things for a real battle."

She refused obstinately to tell me more, and obtained a solemn promise
from me that I would not interfere.

* * * * *

Afterwards I got most of the facts out of George Spragg. Three of the
biggest boys had planned rank mutiny. Doubtless they resented a
compulsory attendance at school, and with short-sighted policy made
certain that if they got rid of Alethea-Belle the schoolhouse would be
closed for ever. And what chance could she have - one frail girl
against three burly young giants?

A full attendance warned her that her scholars expected something
interesting to happen. Boys and girls filed into the schoolroom
quietly enough, and the proceedings opened with prayer, but not the
usual prayer. Alethea-Belle prayed fervently that right might prevail
against might, now, and for ever. Amen.

Within a minute the three mutineers had marched into the middle of the
room. In loud, ear-piercing notes they began to sing "Pull for the
Shore." The girls giggled nervously; the boys grinned; several opened
their mouths to sing, but closed them again as Alethea-Belle descended
from the rostrum and approached the rebels. The smallest child knew
that a fight to a finish had begun.

The schoolmarm raised her thin hand and her thin voice. No attention
was paid to either. Then she walked swiftly to the door and locked it.
The old _adobe_ had been built at a time when Indian raids were
common in Southern California. The door was of oak, very massive; the
windows, narrow openings in the thick walls, were heavily barred. The
children wondered what was about to happen. The three rebels sang with
a louder, more defiant note as Alethea-Belle walked past them and on
to the rostrum. Upon her desk stood a covered basket. Taking this in
her hand, she came back to the middle of the room. The boys eyed her
movements curiously. She carried, besides the basket, a cane. Then she
bent down and placed the basket between herself and the boys. They
still sang "Pull for the Shore," but faintly, feebly. They stared hard
at the basket and the cane. Alethea-Belle stood back, with a curious
expression upon her white face; very swiftly she flicked open the lid
of the basket. Silence fell on the scholars.

Out of the basket, quite slowly and stealthily, came the head of a
snake, a snake well known to the smallest child - known and dreaded.
The flat head, the lidless, baleful eyes, the grey-green, diamond-
barred skin of the neck were unmistakable.

"It's a rattler!" shrieked one of the rebels.

They sprang back; the other children rose, panic-stricken. The
schoolmarm spoke very quietly -

"Don't move! The snake will not hurt any of you."

As she spoke she flicked again the lid of the basket. It fell on the
head of the serpent. Alethea-Belle touched the horror, which withdrew.
Then she picked up the basket, secured the lid, and spoke to the
huddled-up, terrified crowd -

"You tried to scare me, didn't you, and I have scared you." She
laughed pleasantly, but with a faint inflection of derision, as if she
knew, as she did, that the uncivilised children of the foothills, like
their fathers, fear nothing on earth so much as rattlers and -
ridicule. After a moment she continued: "I brought this here to-day as
an object-lesson. You loathe and fear the serpent in this basket, as I
loathe and fear the serpent which is in you." She caught the eyes of
the mutineers and held them. "And," her eyes shone, "I believe that I
have been sent to kill the evil in you, as I am going to kill this
venomous beast. Stand back!"

They shrank back against the walls, open-eyed, open-mouthed,
trembling. Alethea-Belle unfastened for the second time the lid of the
basket; once more the flat head protruded, hissing. Alethea-Belle
struck sharply.

"It is harmless now," she said quietly; "its back is broken."

But the snake still writhed. Alethea-Belle shuddered; then she set her
heel firmly upon the head.

"And now" - her voice was weak and quavering, but a note of triumph, of
mastery, informed it - "and now I am going to cane you three boys; I am
going to try to break your stubborn wills; but you are big and strong,
and you must let me do it. If you don't let me do it, you will break
my heart, for if I am too weak to command here, I must resign. Oh, I
wish that I were strong!"

The mutineers stared at each other, at the small white face
confronting them, at the boys and girls about them. It was a great
moment in their lives, an imperishable experience. The biggest spoke
first, sheepishly, roughly, almost defiantly -

"Come on up, boys; we'll hev to take a lickin' this time."

Alethea-Belle went back to the rostrum, trembling. She had never caned


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