Lost in the Petrified Forest by Will C. Barnes

When the stockholders of the "Lazy H" outfit met annually in solemn conclave to receive the report of their range manager and find out how much more the expenses for the year had been than the receipts, they called it the "Montezuma Cattle Company," but as their brand was an H lying down on the sides of their cattle thus, everyone on the range called it the "Lazy H" outfit.

We were in the Lazy H winter horse camp looking after a hundred and seventy-five cow-ponies that had seen a hard summer's work, and the job was a snap. Two men rode out every morning and saw that none of the animals strayed too far, bringing them all in for water down the trail in the caņon, salting them once a week, and keeping a sharp lookout for horse thieves, both white and Indian.

The camp was a dugout in the side of a hill, part logs, part hill, with a dirt roof a foot thick. A grand fireplace in one end served alike for heating and cooking purposes, and at night with a fire of pine knots you could lie in the "double decker" bunks and read as if the place was lighted with an arc lamp. There was a heavy door in the end, while half a dozen loopholes cut in the logs served for windows and for defense if necessary.

Two of the boys were playing a solemn game of "seven-up" to decide which of them should build the fire in the morning, and the balance were smoking or reading some two-weeks-old newspapers that had come out from town with the last load of grub.

Outside the wind was whistling around the corner, and the coyotes, attracted by the scent of a freshly killed yearling hanging in a cedar near the dugout, were howling and shrieking like a lot of school-children at play.

"Just about such a night outside as the night old man Hart's wife and kids got lost two years ago," remarked Peg Leg Russel, who was busy with leather strings and an awl plaiting a fancy quirt.

"Didn't you help hunt for 'em?" queried a voice from one of the bunks.

"Sure thing I did," answered the quirt maker, "and, what's more," he continued, "I hope I never get another such job as long as I live."

"Tell us about it Peg Leg. You know I was over in Kansas looking after a bunch of company steers that fall and never did get the straight of it." The speaker turned from his game of solitaire toward the one-legged cow-puncher. With his knife Russel clipped the end of a leather string from the finished "Turk's head," laid the quirt on the floor and rolled it back and forth under the sole of his boot to give it the proper "set" and finish, finally hanging it on the wall. Then he filled and lighted his pipe, and after a few preliminary puffs, began his story.

(image)

 "We was camped over in the petrified forest"

"Well, boys, that was one of the toughest nights I've seen in Arizony. We was camped up near the 'Peterified' Forest on our way back to the headquarter ranch. We'd been down to the railroad with a bunch of steers, and expected to bust the outfit up for the winter when we got back to the ranch. It were late in November, an' you all know how everlastin' cold it gits 'long in November an' December.

"Well, 'long comes one of them tearin' howlin' sandstorms 'bout two o'clock in the afternoon, and the wagon boss camped us under the lee of a hill and wouldn't go any furder. And 'twas well he did, too, fer the wind blowed a gale, snow begin to fall, and ag'in sunset it was as ornery a piece of weather as I ever seen anywheres. You all know wood's pow'ful skeerce up thar, too, and all the cook had was sage brush an' 'chips.'

"We put in a mis'able night. The wind blowed every way, an' drifted sand an' snow into our beds in spite of all a feller could do. Me and Sandy, the horse-wrangler, slep' together, an' Sandy he lowed, he did, that the Lord mus' have it in fer us pore ignorant cow-punchers that night, shore. About daylight I heard a shot, then another, an' another. Everybody 'most in camp waked up, an' Wilson, the wagon boss, he takes his six-shooter an' fires a few shots to answer 'em.

"We all speculated as to what it meant at such a time, an' Wilson he says he'd bet a yearlin' ag'in a sack of terbaccer that it were some derned tenderfoot bug-hunter who'd been out to the Petrified Forest an' gone an' lost hisself, an' now was a bellerin' around like a dogie calf. The cook he lowed 'twan't no bug-hunter, 'cause that was the crack of a forty-five, an' them bug-hunter fellers ginerally packed a little short twenty-two to stand off the Injuns, an' we all laughed at this, fer the night we got the steers shipped the cook went up town an' got full as a goat, an' tried to run a 'sandy' over a meek-looking tenderfoot, who wan't a harmin' nobody; but he wan't near so meek as he looked, an' fust thing the cocinero knowed he war a gazin' in to one of them same little twenty-twos, an' I'm blessed if the stranger didn't take his forty-five away from him an' turned him over to the sheriff to cool off—but I guess you all know about that.

"We could soon hear the 'chug chug' of a pony's feet, an' then a voice a hollerin'. We all gave a yell, and in a few minutes a man named Hart rode into camp. We all knowed him. He was a sheep man with a ranch over on the 'tother side of the Petrified Forest. He was nearly froze an' half crazy with excitment, an' 'twas some minutes afore we could git him to tell what was a hurtin' him.

"'Boys,' he says, 'for God's sake git up an' help me find my wife an' chillun.'

"An' then he told us he had been away from his ranch all the day before, at one of his sheep camps over on the Milky Holler. When he left in the mornin' his wife tole him she'd hitch up the hosses to the buckboard after dinner an' take the kids an' drive down to the railroad station an' git the mail, an' git back in time for supper. You know it's 'bout eight miles down to the station at Carrizo.

"Comin' home at night in the wust of the storm, Hart had found the shack empty, his wife not home yit an' the hosses gone. Thinkin' that the storm had kept 'em, he waited an hour or two, when he got so blamed oneasy he couldn't wait no longer, but saddled up his hoss an' drug it for the station. When he got there they told him his wife had left 'bout an hour by sun, an' they hadn't seen nothin' of her sence, although they had begged her not to start back, an' the wind a-blowin' like it was. 'Twas then about as dark as the inside of a cow, and leavin' the men at the station to foller him, Hart struck out across the prairie, ridin' in big circles, and tryin', but without no luck, to cut some 'sign' of the buckboard and hosses. You know, fellers, how them sandy mesas are about there, and, between the driftin' sand and the snow, every mark had been wiped out slick and clean. Then he pulled his freight for the ranch, thinkin' mebbeso she'd got back while he were away; but nary a sign of them was there about the place. He struck out agin, makin' big circles, and firin' his six-shooter and hollerin' like an Apache Injin, all the time a-listenin' an' a-prayin' fer some answer. Then he heerd our shots and thought sure he'd found her, fer she always carried a gun when she went out alone, and he jist hit the high places till he ran onto our camp and he war sure disappointed when he seen us an' not her.

"'Tain't no use for to tell you that we got a move onto ourselves. You've all seen the Cimarron Kid git a move on an' tear round and just bust hisself to get out to the herd in the mornin' to relieve the last guard, along in the fall when the boss was pickin' out men for the winter work. Well, that was the way we all tore round, an' as everybody kep' up a night hoss (you all know what a crank that feller Wilson was 'bout night hosses; he'd make every man keep one up if he had the whole cavyyard in a ten-acre field), we soon had a cup of coffee into us an' was ready to ride slantin'. Pore Hart was so nigh crazy that he couldn't say nothin', an' 'twas hard to see a big, strong feller as he was all broke up like.

"By this time 'twas gettin' daylight in the east an' we struck out, scatterin' every way, but keepin' in sight an' hearin' of each other. 'Bout two miles from camp I ran slap dab onto the buckboard, with one of the hosses tied up to the wheel, an' 'tother gone. The harness of the other hoss laid on the ground, an' from the sign, she had evidently unharnessed the gentlest hoss of the two, an' got on him, with the kids, an' tried to ride him bareback. I fired a couple of shots, which brought some of the other boys to me, an' we follered up the trail, step by step, 'cause 'twas a hard trail to pick out, owin', as I said, to the sand an' snow.

"Pretty soon we come to where she had got off the hoss an' led him for a ways; then we found the tracks of the kids; an' we judged they'd all got so cold they had to walk to git warm; an' all that time my fingers an' ears was tinglin' an achin', they was so cold, an' what was them pore kids an' that little woman goin' to do, when a big, stout puncher like me was shiverin' an' shakin' like a old cow under a cedar in a norther?

"Bimeby we struck the hoss standin' there all humped up with the cold, the reins hooked over a little sage bush. I sent one of the boys back with the hoss, an' tole him to hitch up to the buckboard an' foller on, fer I knowed shore we'd need it to put their pore frozen bodies on when we found 'em.

"Here we saw signs where she'd tried to build a fire, but, Lord A'mighty, you know how hard it is to find anything to burn round that there Petrified Forest country, an' she only had three or four matches, an' nothin' to make a fire catch with. Then she started on ag'in, an' I judged she'd got a star to go by, 'cause she kep' almost straight north to'ds the railroad. By the trail, she was a-carryin' the youngest kid, a boy 'bout two years old, an' leadin' the other, which was a little gal 'bout five.

"Right here, fellers, she showed she was fit to be the wife of a man livin' in such a country. She knowed mighty well that she'd be follered, an' that her trail would be hard to find, so what does she do but tear pieces out of the gingham skirt she had on, an' hang 'em along on a sage brush here, an' a Spanish bayonet there, so's we could foller faster. When we struck this sign an' seed what sh'd done, one of the boys says, says he, 'Fellers, ain't she a trump, an' no mistake?' An' so she shore was.

"We jist turned our hosses loose along here, an' one of us would lope ahead an' cut for sign, an' as soon as he found it, another would cut in ahead of him, an' in that way we trailed her up, right peart. We soon ran the trail down to the edge of the big mesa back of the Carrizo station.

"If you remember, it's quite a cliff there, mebbeso two hundred feet down; sort of in steps, from two to six feet high. We seen where she jumped over the fust ledge an' helped the young ones down. She worked her way down the rocky cliff that way, step by step, an' it must 'a' been a job, too, in the dark, an' as cold as she was. Two of us went on down the cliff, an' I sent the other boys around with the hosses, to a break, where there was a good trail.

"Right here I began to think that p'raps she's been saved, after all. 'Twas only a mile from the foot of the mesa to the station at Carrizo, an' in plain sight from where we were.

"Me an' Little Bob, who was with me, was so sure that she was all right that we quit follerin' the trail an' jist got down the cliff anywhere we could. When we got to the bottom an' clear of the rocks, we set out to cut for her trail ag'in, when Little Bob says, says he, 'There she is, Jack.'

"Lord, how my heart jumped into my mouth. Seemed as if I could most taste it. I looks where Bob was a-p'intin', and shore enough, there she were a-sittin' on a rock with the little boy in her lap, an' the little girl a-leanin' up ag'in her an' a-lookin' into her face.

"We both gave a yell an' started to'ds her, but she never paid no 'tention to us, which seemed to me mighty queer like. But we were a little to one side of her, an' I thought mebbe she were so tired she didn't notice us. Bob he got up to her fust, an' walked up an' put his hand on her shoulder to shake her, but, fellers, you all know how 'twas, the pore little woman an' the two young ones were dead.

"Little Bob was so skeert that he couldn't do nothin', but I fired all the shots in my six-shooter, an' the balance of the outfit soon came up to us.

"Wilson he had a little more savvy than the rest of us, an' rode back an' met pore Hart, who had got off to one side, an' tells him sort o' kindly like, what we'd found; an' I reckon that Jim never had no harder job in all his life.

"Hart says, says he, 'Jim, old man, you take 'em inter town as tenderly as you kin, an' make all the arrangements for the funeral, an' I'll follow you in tonight.'

"'Course Jim swore we'd all do everything we could, an' Hart rode off to'ds his ranch without comin' nigh the place where his little family was a restin' so peaceful an' quiet.

"Say, fellers, that was the pitifullest sight I ever seed, an' I've seed some sad work in the days when old Geronimo an' his murderin' gang of government pets used to range all over the country.

"'Twas easy enuff to read the whole thing now. She'd come to the edge of the mesa an' seen the lights in the station house, for they get up 'bout four o'clock every mornin' to get breakfast for the section men. Climbin' down the cliff had used her up, an' knowin' she was so clost to help, she had set down on a big flat rock at the bottom to rest a minute before starting to walk the mile from the foot of the mesa to the station. To set down, as cold and tired as she was, meant sleep, an' to sleep was shore death that night, an' she went to sleep an' never woke up no more.

"The little boy was cuddled up ag'in her under her shawl, with the peacefullest look on his little face you ever see, an' the little girl was a-leanin' on her lap an' a-lookin' up into her face, with the big tears frozen on her cheeks, an' so natural that it was hard to believe she was dead.

"One of the boys went over to the station an' got two wagon sheets and some blankets, an' when the buckboard came we rolled 'em up as carefully an' softly as we could. They was so stiff we had to leave the little feller where he was, but the girl we rolled up separate.

"Now, say, boys, that was a hard thing to do, for a bunch of rough cow-punchers, if you hear me. Hookey Jim he'd been through a yellow fever year down in Memphis once, an' he was more used to such things, so he sort of bossed the job.

"I ain't ashamed to say I bawled like a baby, fellers. Mrs. Hart was awful good to us boys, even if her husband was a sheep man. No puncher ever went there without gettin' a good square meal, no matter when it was; an' when Curly Joe got sick over at the 'Rail N' ranch, she jist made the boys fetch him over to her place, an' she nussed him like his own mammy would have done.

"After we got 'em packed on the buckboard, Wilson sent the rest of the outfit back to camp, an' him an' me rode on into town, leavin' Shorty French to drive the team in. We met everybody in town out on the road to hunt for Mrs. Hart, for the word had got round that she had got lost; an' everyone that could leave had turned out on the search.

"'Twas a sorrowful place that day, an' the next. Everybody in town knew an' loved the little woman, an' her awful death made it seem more pitiful an' sad. They made one coffin an' put her an' the two chillun into it, one on each arm, an' they looked so sweet an' peaceful, like they was only asleep—an', anyway, that's what he read from the book at the grave—that they was only asleep.

"You fellers all know how everybody in town was at the funeral, an' how one of the men in town had to say a little prayer at the grave, 'cause there wasn't no parson, they all bein' away off in Afriky an' Chiney a-prayin' an' a-singin' with niggers an' Chinees, an' not havin' no time to tend to their own kind of people to home, who p'raps needed prayin' for jist as much as the heathen in Chiney.

"Then two sweet little girls sung a hymn 'bout 'Nearer my God to Thee,' an' when they got to the second verse everybody was a-cryin' an' the little girls jist busted out too, an' couldn't finish the song for a long time.

"An', boys, that's about all there is to tell."

I glanced around the dugout. The fire had burned low and I guess the most of them were glad; for, in the uncertain light, I could see moisture on more than one sunburned cowboy cheek, and my own eyes were, as one of them quaintly put it, "jist a-spillin' clean over with tears."