THE LURE OF THE DIM TRAILS
By B. M. Bower
IN SEARCH OF THE WESTERN TONE
LOCAL COLOR IN THE RAW
THE BIG DIVIDE
AT THE STEVENS PLACE
A QUESTION OF NERVE
THE DRIFT OF THE HERDS
FOLLOWING THE DIM TRAILS!
CHAPTER I. IN SEARCH OF THE WESTERN TONE
"What do you care, anyway?" asked Reeve-Howard philosophically. "It isn't
as if you depended on the work for a living. Why worry over the fact that
a mere pastime fails to be financially a success. You don't need to write—"
"Neither do you need to slave over those dry-point things," Thurston
retorted, in none the best humor with his comforter "You've an income
bigger than mine; yet you toil over Grecian-nosed women with untidy hair
as if each one meant a meal and a bed."
"A meal and a bed—that's good; you must think I live like a king."
"And I notice you hate like the mischief to fail, even though."
"Only I never have failed," put in Reeve-Howard, with the amused
complacency born of much adulation.
Thurston kicked a foot-rest out of his way. "Well, I have. The fashion now
is for swashbuckling tales with a haze of powder smoke rising to high
heaven. The public taste runs to gore and more gore, and kidnappings of
"Follow the fashion then—if you must write. Get out of your pink tea
and orchid atmosphere, and take your heroines out West—away out,
beyond the Mississippi, and let them be kidnapped. Or New Mexico would
"New Mexico is also beyond the Mississippi, I believe," Thurston hinted.
"Perhaps it is. What I mean is, write what the public wants, since you
don't relish failure. Why don't you do things about the plains? It ought
to be easy, and you were born out there somewhere. It should come
"I have," Thurston sighed. "My last rejection states that the local color
is weak and unconvincing. Hang the local color!" The foot-rest suffered
Reeve-Howard was getting into his topcoat languidly, as he did everything
else. "The thing to do, then," he drawled, "is to go out and study up on
it. Get in touch with that country, and your local color will convince.
Personally though, I like those little society skits you do—"
"Skits!" exploded Thurston. "My last was a four-part serial. I never did a
skit in my life."
"Beg pardon-which is more than you did after accusing my studies of having
untidy hair. Don't look so glum, Phil. Go out and learn your West; a month
or so will put you up to date—and by Jove! I half envy you the
That is what put the idea into Thurston's head; and as Thurston's ideas
generally bore fruit of one sort or another, he went out that very day and
ordered from his tailor a complete riding outfit, and because he was a
good customer the tailor consented to rush the work. It seemed to
Thurston, looking over cuts of the very latest styles in riding clothes,
that already he was breathing the atmosphere of the plains.
That night he stayed at home and dreamed, of the West. His memory, coupled
with what he had heard and idealized by his imagination, conjured dim
visions of what he had once known had known and forgotten; of a land here
men and conditions harked back to the raw foundations of civilization;
where wide plains flecked with sage-brush and ribboned with faint, brown
trails, spread away and away to a far sky-line. For Phil Thurston was
range-born, if not range-bred, His father had chosen always to live out on
the edge of things—out where the trails of men are dim and far
apart-and the silent prairie bequeaths a heritage of distance-hunger to
While he brooded grew a keen longing to see again the little town huddled
under the bare, brown hills that shut out the world; to see the
gay-blanketed Indians who stole like painted shadows about the place, and
the broad river always hurrying away to the sunrise. He had been afraid of
the river and of the bare hills and the Indians. He felt that his mother,
also, had been afraid. He pictured again—and he picture was blurred
and indistinct-the day when strange men had brought his father
mysteriously home; men who were silent save for the shuffling of their
feet, and who carried their big hats awkwardly in their hands.
There had been a day of hushed voices and much weeping and gloom, and he
had been afraid to play. Then they had carried his father as mysteriously
away again, and his mother had hugged him close and cried bitterly and
long. The rest was blank. When one is only five, the present quickly blurs
what is past, and he wondered that, after all these years, he should feel
the grip of something very like homesickness—and for something more
than half forgotten. But though he did not realize it, in his veins flowed
the adventurous blood of his father, and to it the dim trails were
In four days he set his face eagerly toward the dun deserts and the
At Chicago a man took the upper berth in Thurston's section, and settled
into the seat with a deep sigh—presumably of thankfulness. Thurston,
with the quick eye of those who write, observed the whiteness of his
ungloved hands, the coppery tan of cheeks and throat, the clear keenness
of his eyes, and the four dimples in the crown of his soft, gray hat, and
recognized him as a fine specimen of the Western type of farmer, returning
home from the stockman's Mecca. After that he went calmly back to his
magazine and forgot all about him.
Twenty miles out, the stranger leaned forward and tapped him lightly on
the knee. "Say, I hate to interrupt yuh," he began in a whimsical drawl,
evidently characteristic of the man, "but I'd like to know where it is
I've seen yuh before."
Thurston glanced up impersonally, hesitated between annoyance and a
natural desire to, be courteous, and replied that he had no memory of any
"Mebby not," admitted the other, and searched the face of Thurston with
his keen eyes. It came to Phil that they were also a bit wistful, but he
went unsympathetically back to his reading.
Five miles more and be touched Thurston again, apologetically yet
insistently. "Say," he drawled, "ain't your name Thurston? I'll bet a
carload uh steers it is—Bud Thurston. And your home range is Fort
Phil stared and confessed to all but the "Bud."
"That's what me and your dad always called yuh," the man asserted. "Well,
I'll be hanged! But I knew it. I knew I'd run acrost yuh somewheres.
You're the dead image uh your dad, Bill Thurston. And me and Bill
freighted together from Whoop-up to Benton along in the seventies. Before
yuh was born we was chums. I don't reckon you'd remember me? Hank Graves,
that used to pack yuh around on his back, and fill yuh up on dried prunes—when
dried prunes was worth money? Yuh used to call 'em 'frumes,' and—Why,
it was me with your dad when the Indians pot-shot him at Chimney Rock; and
it was me helped your mother straighten things up so she could pull out,
back where she come from. She never took to the West much. How is she?
Dead? Too bad; she was a mighty fine woman, your mother was.
"Well, I'll-be-hanged! Bud Thurston little, tow-headed Bud that used to
holler for 'frumes' if he seen me coming a mile off. Doggone your measly
hide, where's all them pink apurns yuh used to wear?" He leaned back and
laughed—a silent, inner convulsion of pure gladness.
Philip Thurston was, generally speaking, a conservative young man and one
slow to make friends; slower still to discard them. He was astonished to
feel a choky sensation in his throat and a stinging of eyelids, and a leap
in his blood. To be thus taken possession of by a blunt-speaking stranger
not at all in his class; to be addressed as "Bud," and informed that he
once devoured dried prunes; to be told "Doggone your measly hide" should
have affronted him much. Instead, he seemed to be swept mysteriously back
into the primitive past, and to feel akin to this stranger with the drawl
and the keen eyes. It was the blood of his father coming to its own.
From that hour the two were friends. Hank Graves, in his whimsical drawl,
told Phil things about his father that made his blood tingle with pride;
his father, whom he had almost forgotten, yet who had lived bravely his
life, daring where other men quailed, going steadfastly upon his way when
other men hesitated.
So, borne swiftly into the West they talked, and the time seemed short.
The train had long since been racing noisily over the silent prairies
spread invitingly with tender green—great, lonely, inscrutable,
luring men with a spell as sure and as strong as is the spell of the sea.
The train reeled across a trestle that spanned a deep, dry gash in the
earth. In the green bottom huddled a cluster of pygmy cattle and mounted
men; farther down were two white flakes of tents, like huge snowflakes
left unmelted in the green canyon.
"That's the Lazy Eight—my outfit," Graves informed Thurston with the
unconscious pride of possession, pointing a forefinger as they whirled on.
"I've got to get off, next station. Yuh want to remember, Bud, the Lazy
Eight's your home from now on. We'll make a cow-puncher of yuh in no time;
you've got it in yuh, or yuh wouldn't look so much like your dad. And you
can write stories about us all yuh want—we won't kick. The way I've
got the summer planned out, you'll waller chin-deep in material; all yuh
got to do is foller the Lazy Eight through till shipping time."
Thurston had not intended learning to be a cow-puncher, or following the
Lazy Eight or any other hieroglyphic through 'till shipping time—whenever
But facing Hank Graves, he had not the heart to tell him so, or that he
had planned to spend only a month—or six weeks at most—in the
West, gathering local color and perhaps a plot or two? and a few types.
Thurston was great on types.
The train slowed at a little station with a dismal red section house in
the immediate background and a red-fronted saloon close beside. "Here we
are," cried Graves, "and I ain't sorry; only I wisht you was going to stop
right now. But I'll look for yuh in three or four days at the outside.
So-long, Bud. Remember, the Lazy Eight's your hang-out."
CHAPTER II. LOCAL COLOR IN THE RAW
For the rest of the way Thurston watched the green hills slide by—and
the greener hollows—and gave himself up to visions of Fort Benton;
visions of creaking bull-trains crawling slowly, like giant brown worms,
up and down the long hill; of many high-piled bales of buffalo hides upon
the river bank, and clamorous little steamers churning up against the
current; the Fort Benton that had, for many rushing miles, filled and
colored the speech of Hank Graves and stimulated his childish half-memory.
But when he reached the place and wandered aimlessly about the streets,
the vision faded into half-resentful realization that these things were no
more forever. For the bull-trains, a roundup outfit clattered noisily out
of town and disappeared in an elusive dust-cloud; for the gay-blanketed
Indians slipping like painted shadows from view, stray cow-boys galloped
into town, slid from their saddles and clanked with dragging rowels into
the nearest saloon, or the post-office. Between whiles the town cuddled
luxuriously down in the deep little valley and slept while the river,
undisturbed by pompous steamers, murmured a lullaby.
It was not the Fort Benton he had come far to see, so that on the second
day he went away up the long hill that shut out the world and, until the
east-bound train came from over the prairies, paced the depot platform
impatiently with never a vision to keep him company.
For a long time the gaze of Thurston clung fascinated to the wide prairie
land, feeling again the stir in his blood. Then, when a deep cut shut from
him the sight of the wilderness, he chanced to turn his head, and looked
straight into the clear, blue-gray eyes of a girl across the aisle.
Thurston considered himself immune from blue-gray—or any other-eyes,
so that he permitted himself to regard her calmly and judicially, his mind
reverting to the fact that he would need a heroine to be kidnapped, and
wondering if she would do. She was a Western girl, he could tell that by
the tan and by her various little departures from the Eastern styles—such
as doing her hair low rather than high. Where he had been used to seeing
the hair of woman piled high and skewered with many pins, hers was brushed
smoothly back-smoothly save for little, irresponsible waves here and
there. Thurston decided that the style was becoming to her. He wondered if
the fellow beside her were her brother; and then reminded himself sagely
that brothers do not, as a rule, devote their time quite so assiduously to
the entertainment of their sisters. He could not stare at her forever, and
so he gave over his speculations and went back to the prairies.
Another hour, and Thurston was stiffing a yawn when the coaches bumped
sharply together and, with wheels screeching protest as the brakes
clutched them, the train, grinding protest in every joint, came, with a
final heavy jar, to a dead stop. Thurston thought it was a wreck, until
out ahead came the sharp crackling of rifles. A passenger behind him
leaned out of the window and a bullet shattered the glass above his head;
he drew back hastily.
Some one hurried through the front vestibule, the door was pushed
unceremoniously open and a man—a giant, he seemed to Thurston—stopped
just inside, glared down the length of the coach through slits in the
black cloth over his face and bawled, "Hands up!"
Thurston was so utterly surprised that his hands jerked themselves
involuntarily above his head, though he did not feel particularly
frightened; he was filled with a stupefied sort of curiosity to know what
would come next. The coach, so far as he could see, seemed filled with
uplifted, trembling hands, so that he did not feel ashamed of his own. The
man behind him put up his hands with the other—but one of them held
a revolver that barked savagely and unexpectedly close against the car of
Thurston. Thurston ducked. There was an echo from the front, and the man
behind, who risked so much on one shot, lurched into the aisle, swaying
uncertainly between the seats. He of the mask fired again, viciously, and
the other collapsed into a still, awkwardly huddled heap on the floor. The
revolver dropped from his fingers and struck against Thurston's foot,
making him wince.
Thurston had never before seen death come to a man, and the very
suddenness of it unnerved him. All his faculties were numbed before that
terrible, pitiless form in the door, and the limp, dead body at his feet
in the aisle. He did not even remember that here was the savage local
color he had come far a-seeking. He quite forgot to improve the
opportunity by making mental note of all the little, convincing details,
as was his wont.
Presently he awoke to the realization of certain words spoken insistently
close beside him. He turned his eyes and saw that the girl, her eyes
staring straight before her, her slim, brown hands uplifted, was yet
commanding him imperiously, her voice holding to that murmuring monotone
more discreet than a whisper.
"The gun—drop down—and get it. He can't see to shoot for the
seat in front. Get the gun. Get the gun!" was what she was saying.
Thurston looked at her helplessly, imploringly. In truth, he had never
fired a gun in all his peaceful life.
"The gun—get it—and shoot!" Her eyes moved quickly in a
cautious, side-long glance that commanded impatiently. Her straight
eyebrows drew together imperiously. Then, when he met her eyes with that
same helpless look, she said another word that hurt. It was "Coward!"
Thurston looked down at the gun, and at the huddled form. A tiny river of
blood was creeping toward him. Already it had reached his foot, and his
shoe was red along the sole. He moved his foot quickly away from it, and
"Coward!" murmured the girl contemptuously again, and a splotch of anger
showed under the tan of her cheek.
Thurston caught his breath and wondered if he could do it; he looked
toward the door and thought how far it was to send a bullet straight when
a man has never, in all his life, fired a gun. And without looking he
could see that horrible, red stream creeping toward him like some monster
in a nightmare. His flesh crimpled with physical repulsion, but he meant
to try; perhaps he could shoot the man in the mask, so that there would be
another huddled, lifeless Thing on the floor, and another creeping red
At that instant the tawny-haired young fellow beside the girl gathered
himself for a spring, flung himself headlong before her and into the
aisle; caught the dead man's pistol from the floor and fired, seemingly
with one movement. Then he sprang up, still firing as fast as the trigger
could move. From the door came answer, shot for shot, and the car was
filled with the stifling odor of burnt powder. A woman screamed
Then a puff of cool, prairie breeze came in through the shattered window
behind Thurston, and the smoke-cloud lifted like a curtain blown upward in
the wind. The tawny-haired young fellow was walking coolly down the aisle,
the smoking revolver pointing like an accusing finger toward the outlaw
who lay stretched upon his face, his fingers twitching.
Outside, rifles were crackling like corn in a giant popper. Presently it
slackened to an occasional shot. A brakeman, followed by two coatless
mail-clerks with Winchesters, ran down the length of the train calling out
that there was no danger. The thud of their running feet, and the
wholesome mingling of their shouting struck sharply in the silence after
the shooting. One of the men swung up on the steps of the day coach and
"Hello, Park," he cried to the tawny haired boy. "Got one, did yuh? That's
good. We did, too got him alive. Think uh the nerve uh that Wagner bunch!
to go up against a train in broad daylight. Made an easy getaway, too,
except the feller we gloomed in the express car. How's this one? Dead?"
"No. I reckon he'll get well enough to stretch a rope; he killed a man, in
here." He motioned toward the huddled figure in the aisle. They came
together, lifted the dead man and carried him away to the baggage car. A
brakeman came with a cloth and wiped up the red pool, and Thurston pressed
his lips tightly together and turned away his head; he could not remember
when the sight of anything had made him so deathly sick. Once he glanced
slyly at the girl opposite, and saw that she was very white under her tan,
and that the hands in her lap were clasped tightly and yet shook. But she
met his eyes squarely, and Thurston did not look at her again; he did not
like the expression of her mouth.
News of the holdup had been telegraphed ahead, and all Shellanne—which
was not much of a crowd—gathered at the station to meet the train
and congratulate the heroes. Thurston alighted almost shamefacedly into
the midst of the loud-voiced commotion. While he was looking uncertainly
about him, wondering where to go and what to do, a voice he knew hailed
him with drawling welcome.
"Hello, Bud. Got back quicker than you expected, didn't yuh? It's lucky I
happened to be in town—yuh can ride out with me. Say, yuh got quite
a bunch uh local color for a story, didn't yuh? You'll be writing
blood-and-thunder for a month on the strength of this little episode, I
reckon." his twinkling eyes teased, though his face was quite serious, as
was his voice.
She of the blue-gray eyes turned and measured Thurston with a deliberate,
leisurely glance, and her mouth still had that unpleasant expression.
Thurston colored guiltily, but Hank Graves lifted his hat and called her
Mona, and asked her if she wasn't scared stiff, and if she were home to
stay. Then he beckoned to the tawny-haired fellow with his finger, and
winked at Mona—a proceeding which shocked Thurston considerably.
"Mona—here, hold on a minute, can't yuh? Mona, this is a friend uh
mine; Bud Thurston's his name. He's come out to study us up and round up a
hunch uh real Western atmosphere. He's a story-writer. I used to whack
bulls all over the country with his father. Bud, this is Mona Stevens; she
ranges down close to the Lazy Eight, so the sooner yuh git acquainted, the
quicker." He did not explain what would be the quicker, and Thurston's
embarrassment was only aggravated by the introduction.
Miss Stevens gave him a chilly smile, the kind that is worse than none at
all and turned her back, thinly pretending that she heard her brother
calling her, which she did not. Her brother was loudly explaining what
would have happened if he had been on that train and had got a whack at
the robbers, and his sister was far from his mind.
Graves slapped the shoulder of the fellow they had called Park. "You young
devil, next time I leave the place for a week—yes, or overnight—I'll
lock yuh up in the blacksmith shop. Have yuh got to be Mona's special
escort, these days?"
"Wish I was," Park retorted, unmoved.
"Different here—yuh ain't much account, as it is. Bud, this here's
my wagon-boss, Park Holloway; one of 'em, that is. I'm going to turn yuh
over to him and let him wise yuh up. Say, you young bucks ought to get
along together pretty smooth. Your dads run buffalo together before either
of yuh was born. Well, let's be moving—we ain't home yet. Got a
Late that night Thurston lay upon a home-made bed and listened to the
frogs croaking monotonously in the hollow behind the house, and to the
lone coyote which harped upon the subject of his wrongs away on a distant
hillside, and to the subdued snoring of Hank Graves in the room beyond. He
was trying to adjust himself to this new condition of things, and the new
condition refused utterly to be measured by his accepted standard.
According to that standard, he should feel repulsed and annoyed by the
familiarity of strangers who persisted in calling him "Bud" without taking
the trouble to find out whether or not he liked it. And what puzzled
Thurston and put him all at sea was the consciousness that he did like it,
and that it struck familiarly upon his ears as something to which he had
been accustomed in the past.
Also, according to his well-ordered past, he should hate this raw life and
rawer country where could occur such brutal things as he had that day
witnessed. He should dislike a man like Park Holloway who, having wounded
a man unto death, had calmly dismissed the subject with the regret that
his aim had not been better, so that he could have saved the county the
expense of trying and hanging the fellow. Thurston was amazed to find
that, down in the inner man of him, he admired Park Holloway exceedingly,
and privately resolved to perfect himself in the use of fire-arms, he who
had been wont to deplore the thinly veneered savagery of men who liked
After much speculation he decided that Mona Stevens would not do for a
kidnapped heroine. He could not seem to "see" her in such a position, and,
besides, he told himself that such a type of girl did not attract him at
all. She had called him a coward—and why? simply because he,
straight from the trammels of civilization, had not been prepared to meet
the situation thrust upon him-which she had thrust upon him. She had
demanded of him something he had not the power to accomplish, and she had
called him a coward. And in his heart Thurston knew that it was unjust,
and that he was not a coward.
CHAPTER III. FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Thurston, dressed immaculately in riding clothes of the latest English
cut, went airily down the stairs and discovered that he was not early, as
he had imagined. Seven o'clock, he had told himself proudly, was not bad
for a beginner; and he had smiled in anticipation of Hank Graves' surprise
which was fortunate, since he would otherwise have been cheated of smiling
at all. For Hank Graves, he learned from the cook, had eaten breakfast at
five and had left the ranch more than an hour before; the men also were
scattered to their work.
Properly humbled in spirit, he sat down to the kitchen table and ate his
belated breakfast, while the cook kneaded bread at the other end of the
same table and eyed Thurston with frank amusement. Thurston had never
before been conscious of feeling ill at ease in the presence of a servant,
and hurried through the meal so that he could escape into the clear
sunshine, feeling a bit foolish in the unaccustomed bagginess of his
riding breeches and the snugness of his leggings; for he had never taken
to outdoor sports, except as an onlooker from the shade of a grand stand
While he was debating the wisdom of writing a detailed description of
yesterday's tragedy while it was still fresh in his mind and stowing it
away for future "color," Park Holloway rode into the yard and on to the
stables. He nodded at Thurston and grinned without apparent cause, as the
cook had done. Thurston followed him to the corral and watched him pull
the saddle off his horse, and throw it carelessly to one side. It looked
cumbersome, that saddle; quite unlike the ones he had inspected in the New
York shops. He grasped the horn, lifted upon it and said, "Jove!"
"Heavy, ain't it?" Park laughed, and slipped the bridle down over the ears
of his horse and dismissed him with a slap on the rump. "Don't yuh like
the looks of it?" he added indulgently.
Thurston, engaged in wondering what all those little strings were for,
felt the indulgence and straightened. "How should I know?" he retorted.
"Anyone can see that my ignorance is absolute. I expect you to laugh at
me, Mr. Holloway."
"Call me Park," said he of the tawny hair, and leaned against the fence
looking extremely boyish and utterly incapable of walking calmly down upon
a barking revolver and shooting as he went. "You're bound to learn all
about saddles and what they're made for," he went on. "So long as yuh
don't get swell-headed the first time yuh stick on a horse that side-steps
a little, or back down from a few hard knocks, you'll be all right."
Thurston had not intended getting out and actually living the life he had
come to observe, but something got in his nerves and his blood and bred an
impulse to which he yielded without reserve. "Park, see here," he said
eagerly. "Graves said he'd turn me over to you, so you could—er—teach
me wisdom. It's deuced rough on you, but I hope you won't refuse to be
bothered with me. I want to learn—everything. And I want you to find
fault like the mischief, and—er—knock me into shape, if it's
possible." He was very modest over his ignorance, and his voice rang true.
Park studied him gravely. "Bud," he said at last, "you'll do. You're
greener right now than a blue-joint meadow in June, but yuh got the right
stuff in yuh, and it's a go with me. You come along with us after that
trail-herd, and you'll get knocked into shape fast enough. Smoke?"
Thurston shook his head. "Not those."
"I dunno I'm afraid yuh can't be the real thing unless yuh fan your lungs
with cigarette smoke regular." The twinkle belied him, though. "Say, where
did you pick them bloomers?"
"They were made in New York." Thurston smiled in sickly fashion. He had
all along been uncomfortably aware of the sharp contrast between his own
modish attire and the somewhat disreputable leathern chaps of his host's
"Well," commented Park, "you told me to find fault like the mischief, and
I'm going to call your bluff. This here's Montana, recollect, and I raise
the long howl over them habiliments. The best thing you can do is pace
along to the house and discard before the boys get sight of yuh. They'd
queer yuh with the whole outfit, sure. Uh course," he went on soothingly
when he saw the resentment in Thurston's eyes, "I expect they're real
stylish—back East—but the boys ain't educated to stand for
anything like that; they'd likely tell yuh they set like the hide on the
hind legs of an elephant—which is a fact. I hate to say it, Kid, but
they sure do look like the devil."
"So would you, in New York," Thurston flung back at him.
"Why, sure. But this ain't New York; this here's the Lazy Eight corral,
and I'm doing yuh a favor. You wouldn't like to have the boys shooting
holes through the slack, would yuh? You amble right along and get some
pants on—and when you've wised up some you'll thank me a lot. I'm
going on a little jaunt down the creek, before dinner, and you might go
along; you'll need to get hardened to the saddle anyway, before we start
for Billings, or you'll do most uh riding on the mess-wagon."
Thurston, albeit in resentful mood, went meekly and did as he was
commanded to do; and no man save Park and the cook ever glimpsed those
smart riding clothes of English cut.
"Now yuh look a heap more human," was the way Park signified his approval
of the change. "Here's a little horse that's easy to ride and dead gentle
if yuh don't spur him in the neck, which you ain't liable to do at
present; and Hank says you can have this saddle for keeps. Hank used to
ride it, but he out-growed it and got one longer in the seat. When we
start for Billings to trail up them cattle, of course you'll get a string
of your own to ride."
"A string? I'm afraid I don't quite understand."
"Yuh don't savvy riding a string? A string, m'son, is ten or a dozen
saddle-horses that yuh ride turn about, and nobody else has got any right
to top one; every fellow has got his own string, yuh see."
Thurston eyed his horse distrustfully. "I think," he ventured, "one will
be enough for me. I'll scarcely need a dozen." The truth was that he
thought Park was laughing at him.
Park slid sidewise in the saddle and proceeded to roll another cigarette.
"I'd be willing to bet that by fall you'll have a good-sized string rode
down to a whisper. You wait; wait till it gets in your blood. Why, I'd die
if you took me off the range. Wait till yuh set out in the dark, on your
horse, and count the stars and watch the big dipper swing around towards
morning, and listen to the cattle breathing close by—sleeping while
you ride around 'em playing guardian angel over their dreams. Wait till
yuh get up at daybreak and are in the saddle with the pink uh sunrise, and
know you'll sleep fifteen or twenty miles from there that night; and yuh
lay down at night with the smell of new grass in your nostrils where your
bed had bruised it.
"Why, Bud, if you're a man, you'll be plumb spoiled for your little old
East." Then he swung back his feet and the horses broke into a lope which
jarred the unaccustomed frame of Thurston mightily, though he kept the
"I've got to go down to the Stevens place," Park informed him. "You met
Mona yesterday—it was her come down on the train with me, yuh
remember." Thurston did remember very distinctly. "Hank says yuh compose
stories. Is that right?"
Thurston's mind came back from wondering how Mona Stevens' mouth looked
when she was pleased with one, and he nodded.
"Well, there's a lot in this country that ain't ever been wrote about, I
guess; at least if it was I never read it, and I read considerable. But
the trouble is, them that know ain't in the writing business, and them
that write don't know. The way I've figured it, they set back East
somewhere and write it like they think maybe it is; and it's a hell of a
job they make of it."
Thurston, remembering the time when he, too, "set back East" and wrote it
like he thought maybe it was, blushed guiltily. He was thankful that his
stories of the West had, without exception, been rejected as of little
worth. He shuddered to think of one of them falling into the hands of Park
"I came out to learn, and I want to learn it thoroughly," he said, in the
face of much physical discomfort. Just then the horses slowed for a climb,
and he breathed thanks. "In the first place," he began again when he had
readjusted himself carefully in the saddle, "I wish you'd tell me just
where you are going with the wagons, and what you mean by trailing a
"Why, I thought I said we were going to Billings," Park answered,
surprised. "What we're going to do when we get there is to receive a
shipment of cattle young steer that's coming up from the Panhandle which
is a part uh Texas. And we trail 'em up here and turn 'em loose this side
the river. After that we'll start the calf roundup. The Lazy Eight runs
two wagons, yuh know. I run one, and Deacon Smith runs the other; we work
together, though, most of the time. It makes quite a crew, twenty-five or
"I didn't know," said Thurston dubiously, "that you ever shipped cattle
into this country. I supposed you shipped them out. Is Mr. Graves buying
"Hank? I guess yes! six thousand head uh yearlings and two year-olds, this
spring; some seasons it's more. We get in young stock every year and turn
'em loose on the range till they're ready to ship. It's cheaper than
raising calves, yuh know. When yuh get to Billings, Bud, you'll see some
cattle! Why, our bunch alone will make seven trains, and that ain't a
commencement. Cattle's cheap down South, this year, and seems like
everybody's buying. Hank didn't buy as much as some, because he runs quite
a bunch uh cows; we'll brand six or seven thousand calves this spring.
Hank sure knows how to rake in the coin."
Thurston agreed as politely as he could for the jolting. They had again
struck the level and seven miles, at Park's usual pace, was heartbreaking
to a man not accustomed to the saddle. Thurston had written, just before
leaving home, a musical bit of verse born of his luring dreams, about "the
joy of speeding fleetly where the grassland meets the sky," and he was
gritting his teeth now over the idiotic lines.
When they reached the ranch and Mona's mother came to the door and invited
them in, he declined almost rudely, for he had a feeling that once out of
the saddle he would have difficulty in getting into it again. Besides,
Mona was not at home, according to her mother.
So they did not tarry, and Thurston reached the Lazy Eight alive, but with
the glamour quite gone from his West. If he had not been the son of his
father, he would have taken the first train which pointed its nose to the
East, and he would never again have essayed the writing of Western stories
or musical verse which sung the joys of galloping blithely off to the
sky-line. He had just been galloping off to a sky-line that was always
just before and he had not been blithe; nor did the memory of it charm. Of
a truth, the very thought of things Western made him swear mild, city-bred
He choked back his awe of the cook and asked him, quite humbly, what was
good to take the soreness from one's muscles; afterward he had crept
painfully up the stairs, clasping to his bosom a beer bottle filled with
pungent, home-made liniment which the cook had gravely declared "out uh
sight for saddle-galls."
Hank Graves, when he heard the story, with artistic touches from the cook,
slapped his thigh and laughed one of his soundless chuckles. "The
son-of-a-gun! He's the right stuff. Never whined, eh? I knew it. He's his
dad over again, from the ground up." And loved him the better.
CHAPTER IV. THE TRAIL-HERD
Thurston tucked the bulb of his camera down beside the bellows and closed
the box with a snap. "I wonder what old Reeve would say to that view," he
"Oh, a fellow back in New York. Jove! he'd throw up his dry-point heads
and take to oils and landscapes if he could see this."
The "this" was a panoramic view of the town and surrounding valley of
Billings. The day was sunlit and still, and far objects stood up with
sharp outlines in the clear atmosphere. Here and there the white tents of
waiting trail-outfits splotched the bright green of the prairie. Horsemen
galloped to and from the town at top speed, and a long, grimy red stock
train had just snorted out on a siding by the stockyards where the
bellowing of thirsty cattle came faintly like the roar of pounding surf in
Thurston—quite a different Thurston from the trim, pale young man
who had followed the lure of the West two weeks before—drew a long
breath and looked out over the hurrying waters of the Yellowstone. It was
good to be alive and young, and to live the tented life of the plains; it
was good even to be "speeding fleetly where the grassland meets the sky "—for
two weeks in the saddle had changed considerably his view-point. He turned
again to the dust and roar of the stockyards a mile or so away.
"Perhaps," he remarked hopefully, "the next train will be ours." Strange
how soon a man may identify himself with new conditions and new aims. He
had come West to look upon the life from the outside, and now his chief
thought was of the coming steers, which he referred to unblushingly as
"our cattle." Such is the spell of the range.
"Let's ride on over, Bud," Park proposed. "That's likely the Circle Bar
shipment. Their bunch comes from the same place ours does, and I want to
see how they stack up."
Thurston agreed and went to saddle up. He had mastered the art of saddling
and could, on lucky days and when he was in what he called "form," rope
the horse he wanted; to say nothing of the times when his loop settled
unexpectedly over the wrong victim. Park Holloway, for instance, who once
got it neatly under his chin, much to his disgust and the astonishment of
"I'm going to take my Kodak," said he. "I like to watch them unload, and I
can get some good pictures, with this sunlight."
"When you've hollered 'em up and down the chutes as many times as I have,"
Park told him, "yuh won't need no pictures to help yuh remember what it's
It was an old story with Park, and Thurston's enthusiasm struck him as a
bit funny. He perched upon a corner of the fence out of the way, and
smoked cigarettes while he watched the cattle and shouted pleasantries to
the men who prodded and swore and gesticulated at the wild-eyed huddle in
the pens. Soon his turn would come, but just now he was content to look on
and take his ease.
"For the life of me," cried Thurston, sidling gingerly over to him, "I
can't see where they all come from. For two days these yards have never
been empty. The country will soon be one vast herd."
"Two days—huh! this thing'll go on for weeks, m'son. And after all
is over, you'll wonder where the dickens they all went to. Montana is some
bigger than you realize, I guess. And next fall, when shipping starts,
you'll think you're seeing raw porterhouse steaks for the whole world.
Let's drift out uh this dust; you'll have time to get a carload uh
pictures before our bunch rolls in."
As a matter of fact, it was two weeks before the Lazy Eight consignment
arrived. Thurston haunted the stockyards with his Kodak, but after the
first two or three days he took no pictures. For every day was but a
repetition of those that had gone before: a great, grimy engine shunting
cars back and forth on the siding; an endless stream of weary, young
cattle flowing down the steep chutes into the pens, from the pens to the
branding chutes, where they were burned deep with the mark of their new
owners; then out through the great gate, crowding, pushing, wild to flee
from restraint, yet held in and guided by mounted cowboys; out upon the
green prairie where they could feast once more upon sweet grasses and
drink their fill from the river of clear, mountain water; out upon the
weary march of the trail, on and on for long days until some boundary
which their drivers hailed with joy was passed, and they were free at last
to roam at will over the wind-brushed range land; to lie down in some
cool, sweet-scented swale and chew their cuds in peace.
Two weeks, and then came a telegram for Park. In the reading of it he
shuffled off his attitude of boyish irresponsibility and became in a
breath the cool, business-like leader of men. Holding the envelope still
in his hand he sought out Thurston, who was practicing with a rope. As
Park approached him he whirled the noose and cast it neatly over the peak
of the night-hawk's teepee.
"Good shot," Park encouraged, "but I'd advise yuh to take another target.
You'll have the tent down over Scotty's ears, and then you'll think yuh
stirred up a mess uh hornets.
"Say, Bud, our cattle are coming, and I'm going to be short uh men. If
you'd like a job I'll take yuh on, and take chances on licking yuh into
shape. Maybe the wages won't appeal to yuh, but I'm willing to throw in
heaps uh valuable experience that won't cost yuh a cent." He lowered an
eyelid toward the cook-tent, although no one was visible.
Thurston studied the matter while he coiled his rope, and no longer.
Secretly he had wanted all along to be a part of the life instead of an
onlooker. "I'll take the job, Park—if you think I can hold it down."
The speech would doubtless have astonished Reeve-Howard in more ways than
one; but Reeve-Howard was already a part of the past in Thurston's mind.
He was for living the present.
"Well," Park retorted, "it'll be your own funeral if yuh get fired. Better
stake yourself to a pair uh chaps; you'll need 'em on the trip."
"Also a large, rainbow-hued silk handkerchief if I want to look the part,"
"If yuh don't want your darned neck blistered, yuh mean," Park flung over
his shoulders. "Your wages and schooling start in to-morrow at sunup."
It was early in the morning when the first train arrived, hungry, thirsty,
tired, bawling a general protest against fate and man's mode of travel.
Thurston, with a long pole in his hand, stood on the narrow plank near the
top of a chute wall and prodded vaguely at an endless, moving incline of
backs. Incidentally he took his cue from his neighbors, and shouted till
his voice was a croak-though he could not see that he accomplished
anything either by his prodding or his shouting.
Below him surged the sea of hide and horns which was barely suggestive of
the animals as individuals. Out in the corrals the dust-cloud hung low,
just as it had hovered every day for more than two weeks; just as it would
hover every day for two weeks longer. Across the yards near the big, outer
gate Deacon Smith's crew was already beginning to brand. The first train
was barely unloaded when the second trailed in and out on the siding; and
so the third came also. Then came a lull, for the consignment had been
split in two and the second section was several hours behind the first.
Thurston rode out to camp, aching with the strain and ravenously hungry,
after toiling with his muscles for the first time in his life; for his had
been days of physical ease. He had yet to learn the art of working so that
every movement counted something accomplished, as did the others; besides,
he had been in constant fear of losing his hold on the fence and plunging
headlong amongst the trampling hoofs below, a fate that he shuddered to
contemplate. He did not, however, mention that fear, or his muscle ache,
to any man; he might be green, but he was not the man to whine.
When he went back into the dust and roar, Park ordered him curtly to tend
the branding fire, since both crews would brand that afternoon and get the
corrals cleared for the next shipment. Thurston thanked Park mentally;
tending branding-fire sounded very much like child's play.
Soon the gray dust-cloud took on a shade of blue in places where the smoke
from the fires cut through; a new tang smote the nostrils: the rank odor
of burning hair and searing hides; a new note crept into the clamoring
roar: the low-keyed blat of pain and fright.
Thurston turned away his head from the sight and the smell, and piled on
wood until Park stopped him with. "Say, Bud, we ain't celebrating any
election! It ain't a bonfire we want, it's heat; just keep her going and
save wood all yuh can." After an hour of fire-tending Thurston decided
that there were things more wearisome than "hollering 'em down the
chutes." His eyes were smarting intolerably with smoke and heat, and the
smell of the branding was not nice; but through the long afternoon he
stuck to the work, shrewdly guessing that the others were not having any
fun either. Park and "the Deacon" worked as hard as any, branding the
steers as they were squeezed, one by one, fast in the little branding
chutes. The setting sun shone redly through the smoke before Thurston was
free to kick the half-burnt sticks apart and pour water upon them as
directed by Park.
"Think yuh earned your little old dollar and thirty three cents, Bud?"
Park asked him. And Thurston smiled a tired, sooty smile that seemed all
"I hope so; at any rate, I have a deep, inner knowledge of the joys of
"Wait 'till yuh burn Lazy Eights on wriggling, blatting calves for two or
three hours at a stretch before yuh talk about the joys uh branding." Park
rubbed eloquently his aching biceps.
At dusk Thurston crept into his blankets, feeling that he would like the
night to be at least thirty six hours long. He was just settling into a
luxurious, leather-upholstered dream chair preparatory to telling
Reeve-Howard his Western experiences when Park's voice bellowed into the
"Roll out, boys—we got a train pulling in!"
There was hurried dressing in the dark of the bed-tent, hasty mounting,
and a hastier ride through the cool night air. There were long hours at
the chutes, prodding down at a wavering line of moving shadows, while the
"big dipper" hung bright in the sky and lighted lanterns bobbed back and
forth along the train waving signals to one another. At intervals Park's
voice cut crisply through the turmoil, giving orders to men whom he could
The east was lightening to a pale yellow when the men climbed at last into
their saddles and galloped out to camp for a hurried breakfast. Thurston
had been comforting his aching body with the promise of rest and sleep;
but three thousand cattle were milling impatiently in the stockyards, so
presently he found himself fanning a sickly little blaze with his hat
while he endeavored to keep the smoke from his tired eyes. Of a truth,
Reeve-Howard would have stared mightily at sight of him.
Once Park, passing by, smiled down upon him grimly. "Here's where yuh get
the real thing in local color," he taunted, but Thurston was too busy to
answer. The stress of living had dimmed his eye for the picturesque.
That night, one Philip Thurston slept as sleeps the dead. But he awoke
with the others and thanked the Lord there were no more cattle to unload
When he went out on day-herd that afternoon he fancied that he was getting
into the midst of things and taking his place with the veterans. He would
have been filled with resentment had he suspected the truth: that Park
carefully eased those first days of his novitiate. That was why none of
the night-guarding fell to him until they had left Billings many miles
CHAPTER V. THE STORM
The third night he was detailed to stand with Bob MacGregor on the middle
guard, which lasts from eleven o'clock until two. The outfit had camped
near the head of a long, shallow basin that had a creek running through;
down the winding banks of it lay the white-tented camps of seven other
trail-herds, the cattle making great brown blotches against the green at
sundown. Thurston hoped they would all be there in the morning when the
sun came up, so that he could get a picture.
"Aw, they'll be miles away by then," Bob assured him unfeelingly. "By the
signs, you can take snap-shots by lightning in another hour. Got your
Thurston said he hadn't, and Bob shook his head prophetically. "You'll
sure wish yuh had it before yuh hit camp again; when yuh get wise, you'll
ride with your slicker behind the cantle, rain or shine. They'll need
singing to, to-night."
Thurston prudently kept silent, since he knew nothing whatever about it,
and Bob gave him minute directions about riding his rounds, and how to
turn a stray animal back into the herd without disturbing the others.
The man they relieved met them silently and rode away to camp. Off to the
right an animal coughed, and a black shape moved out from the shadows.
Bob swung towards it, and the shape melted again into the splotch of shade
which was the sleeping herd. He motioned to the left. "Yuh can go that
way; and yuh want to sing something, or whistle, so they'll know what yuh
are." His tone was subdued, as it had not been before. He seemed to drift
away into the darkness, and soon his voice rose, away across the herd,
singing. As he drew nearer Thurston caught the words, at first disjointed
and indistinct, then plainer as they met. It was a song he had never heard
before, because its first popularity had swept far below his social plane.
"She's o-only a bird in a gil-ded cage,
A beautiful sight to see-e-e;
You may think she seems ha-a-aappy and free from ca-a-re.."
The singer passed on and away, and only the high notes floated across to
Thurston, who whistled softly under his breath while he listened. Then, as
they neared again on the second round, the words came pensively:
"Her beauty was so-o-old
For an old man's go-o-old, She's a bird in a gilded ca-a-age."
Thurston rode slowly like one in a dream, and the lure of the range-land
was strong upon him. The deep breathing of three thousand sleeping cattle;
the strong, animal odor; the black night which grew each moment blacker,
and the rhythmic ebb and flow of the clear, untrained voice of a cowboy
singing to his charge. If he could put it into words; if he could but
picture the broody stillness, with frogs cr-ekk, er-ekking along the reedy
creek-bank and a coyote yapping weirdly upon a distant hilltop! From the
southwest came mutterings half-defiant and ominous. A breeze whispered
something to the grasses as it crept away down the valley.
"I stood in a church-yard just at ee-eve,
While the sunset adorned the west."
It was Bob, drawing close out of the night. "You're doing fine, Kid; keep
her a-going," he commended, in an undertone as he passed, and Thurston
moistened his unaccustomed lips and began industriously whistling "The
Heart Bowed Down," and from that jumped to Faust. Fifteen minutes
exhausted his memory of the whistleable parts, and he was not given to
tiresome repetitions. He stopped for a moment, and Bob's voice chanted
admonishingly from somewhere, "Keep her a-go-o-ing, Bud, old boy!" So
Thurston took breath and began on "The Holy City," and came near laughing
at the incongruity of the song; only he remembered that he must not
frighten the cattle, and checked the impulse.
"Say," Bob began when he came near enough, "do yuh know the words uh that
piece? It's a peach; I wisht you'd sing it." He rode on, still humming the
woes of the lady who married for gold.
Thurston obeyed while the high-piled thunder-heads rumbled deep
accompaniment, like the resonant lower tones of a bass viol.
"Last night I lay a-sleeping, there came a dream so fair;
I stood in old Jerusalem, beside the temple there."
A steer stepped restlessly out of the herd, and Thurston's horse, trained
to the work, of his own accord turned him gently back.
"I heard the children singing; and ever as they sang,
Me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang."
From the west the thunder boomed, drowning the words in its deep-throated
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing."
"Hit her up a little faster, Bud, or we'll lose some. They're getting on
their feet with that thunder."
Sunfish, in answer to Thurston's touch on the reins, quickened to a trot.
The joggling was not conducive to the best vocal expression, but the
"Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna to your King!"
Flash! the lightning cut through the storm-clouds, and Bob, who had
contented himself with a subdued whistling while he listened, took up the
It was as if a battery of heavy field pieces boomed overhead. The entire
herd was on its feet and stood close-huddled, their tails to the coming
storm. Now the horses were loping steadily in their endless circling—a
pace they could hold for hours if need be. For one blinding instant
Thurston saw far down the valley; then the black curtain dropped as
suddenly as it had lifted.
"Keep a-hollering, Bud!" came the command, and after it Bob's voice
trilled high above the thunder-growl:
"Hosanna in the high-est.
Hosanna to your King!"
A strange thrill of excitement came to Thurston. It was all new to him;
for his life had been sheltered from the rages of nature. He had never
before been out under the night sky when it was threatening as now. He
flinched when came an ear-splitting crash that once again lifted the black
curtain and showed him, white-lighted, the plain. In the dark that
followed came a rhythmic thud of hoofs far up the creek, and the rattle of
living castanets. Sunfish threw up his head and listened, muscles
"There's a bunch a-running," called Bob from across the frightened herd.
"If they hit us, give Sunfish his head, he's been there before—and
keep on the outside!"
Thurston yelled "All right!" but the pounding roar of the stampede drowned
his voice. A whirlwind of frenzied steers bore down upon him—twenty-five
hundred Panhandle two-year-olds, though he did not know it then, his mind
was all a daze, with one sentence zigzagging through it like the lightning
over his head, "Give Sunfish his head, and keep on the outside!"
That was what saved him, for he had the sense to obey. After a few minutes
of breathless racing, with a roar as of breakers in his ears and the
crackle of clashing horns and the gleaming of rolling eyeballs close upon
his horse's heels, he found himself washed high and dry, as it were, while
the tumult swept by. Presently he was galloping along behind and wondering
dully how he got there, though perhaps Sunfish knew well enough.
In his story of the West—the one that had failed to be convincing—he
had in his ignorance described a stampede, and it had not been in the
least like this one. He blushed at the memory, and wondered if he should
ever again feel qualified to write of these things.
Great drops of rain pounded him on the back as he rode—chill drops,
that went to the skin. He thought of his new canary-colored slicker in the
bed-tent, and before he knew it swore just as any of the other men would
have done under similar provocation; it was the first real, able-bodied
oath he had ever uttered. He was becoming assimilated with the raw
conditions of life.
He heard a man's voice calling to him, and distinguished the dim shape of
a rider close by. He shouted that password of the range, "Hello!"
"What outfit is this?" the man cried again.
"The Lazy Eight!" snapped Thurston, sure that the other had come with the
stampede. Then, feeling the anger of temporary authority, "What in hell
are you up to, letting your cattle run?" If Park could have heard him say
that for Reeve-Howard!
Down the long length of the valley they swept, gathering to themselves
other herds and other riders as incensed as were themselves. It is not
pretty work, nor amusing, to gallop madly in the wake of a stampede at
night, keeping up the stragglers and taking the chance of a broken neck
with the rain to make matters worse.
Bob MacGregor sought Thurston with much shouting, and having found him
they rode side by side. And always the thunder boomed overhead, and by the
lightning flashes they glimpsed the turbulent sea of cattle fleeing, they
knew not where or why, with blind fear crowding their heels.
The noise of it roused the camps as they thundered by; men rose up, peered
out from bed-tents as the stampede swept past, cursed the delay it would
probably make, hoped none of the boys got hurt, and thanked the Lord the
tents were pitched close to the creek and out of the track of the maddened
Then they went back to bed to wait philosophically for daylight.
When Sunfish, between flashes, stumbled into a shallow washout, and sent
Thurston sailing unbeautifully over his head, Bob pulled up and slid off
his horse in a hurry.
"Yuh hurt, Bud?" he cried anxiously, bending over him. For Thurston, from
the very frankness of his verdant ignorance, had won for himself the
indulgent protectiveness of the whole outfit; not a man but watched
unobtrusively over his welfare—and Bob MacGregor went farther and
loved him whole-heartedly. His voice, when he spoke, was unequivocally
Thurston sat up and wiped a handful of mud off his face; if it had not
been so dark Bob would have shouted at the spectacle. "I'm 'kinda sorter
shuck up like,"' he quoted ruefully. "And my nose is skinned, thank you.
Where's that devil of a horse?"
Bob stood over him and grinned. "My, I'm surprised at yuh, Bud! What would
your Sunday-school teacher say if she heard yuh? Anyway, yuh ain't got any
call to cuss Sunfish; he ain't to blame. He's used to fellows that can
"Shut up!" Thurston commanded inelegantly. "I'd like to see you ride a
horse when he's upside down!"
"Aw, come on," urged Bob, giving up the argument. "We'll be plumb lost
from the herd if we don't hustle."
They got into their saddles again and went on, riding by sound and the
rare glimpses the lightning gave them as it flared through the storm away
to the east.
"Wet?" Bob sung out sympathetically from the streaming shelter of his
slicker. Thurston, wriggling away from his soaked clothing, grunted a
The cattle were drifting now before the storm which had settled to a
monotonous downpour. The riders—two or three men for every herd that
had joined in the panic—circled, a veritable picket line without the
password. There would be no relief ride out to them that night, and they
knew it and settled to the long wait for morning.
Thurston took up his station next to Bob; rode until he met the next man,
and then retraced his steps till he faced Bob again; rode until the world
seemed unreal and far away, with nothing left but the night and the riding
back and forth on his beat, and the rain that oozed through his clothes
and trickled uncomfortably down inside his collar. He lost all count of
time, and was startled when at last came gray dawn.
As the light grew brighter his eyes widened and forgot their sleep-hunger;
he had not thought it would be like this. He was riding part way across
one end of a herd larger than his imagination had ever pictured; three
thousand cattle had seemed to him a multitude—yet here were more
than twenty thousand, wet, draggled, their backs humped miserably from the
rain which but a half hour since had ceased. He was still gazing and
wondering when Park rode up to him.
"Lord! Bud, you're a sight! Did the bunch walk over yuh?" he greeted.
"No, only Sunfish," snapped Thurston crossly. Time was when Philip
Thurston would not have answered any man abruptly, however great the
provocation. He was only lately getting down to the real, elemental man of
him; to the son of Bill Thurston, bull-whacker, prospector, follower of
dim trails. He rode silently back to camp with Bob, ate his breakfast, got
into dry clothes and went out and tied his slicker deliberately and
securely behind the cantle of his saddle, though the sun was shining
straight into his eyes and the sky fairly twinkled, it was so clean of
Bob watched him with eyes that laughed. "My, you're an ambitious
son-of-a-gun," he chuckled. "And you've got the slicker question settled
in your mind, I see; yuh learn easy; it takes two or three soakings to
learn some folks."
"We've got to go back and help with the herd, haven't we?" Thurston asked.
"The horses are all out."
"Yep. They'll stay out, too, till noon, m'son. We hike to bed, if anybody
should ask yuh."
So it was not till after dinner that he rode back to the great herd—with
his Kodak in his pocket—to find the cattle split up into several
bunches. The riders at once went to work separating the different brands.
He was too green a hand to do anything but help hold the "cut," and that
was so much like ordinary herd-ing that his interest flagged. He wanted,
more than anything, to ride into the bunch and single out a Lazy Eight
steer, skillfully hazing him down the slope to the cut, as he saw the
Bob told him it was the biggest mix-up he had ever seen, and Bob had
ridden the range in every State where beef grows wild. He was in the
thickest of the huddle, was Bob, working as if he did not know the meaning
of fatigue. Thurston, watching him thread his way in and out of the
restless, milling herd, only to reappear unexpectedly at the edge with a
steer just before the nose of his horse, rush it out from among the others—wheeling,
darting this way and that, as it tried to dodge back, and always coming
off victor, wondered if he could ever learn to do it.
Being in pessimistic mood, he told himself that he would probably always
remain a greenhorn, to be borne with and coached and given boy's work to
do; all because he had been cheated of his legacy of the dim trails and
forced to grow up in a city, hedged about all his life by artificial
conditions, his conscience wedded to convention.
CHAPTER VI. THE BIG DIVIDE
The long drive was nearly over. Even Thurston's eyes brightened when he
saw, away upon the sky-line, the hills that squatted behind the home ranch
of the Lazy Eight. The past month had been one of rapid living under new
conditions, and at sight of them it seemed only a few days since he had
first glimpsed that broken line of hills and the bachelor household in the
As the travel-weary herd swung down the long hill into the valley of the
Milk River, stepping out briskly as they sighted the cool water in the
near distance, the past month dropped away from Thurston, and what had
gone just before came back fresh as the happenings of the morning. There
was the Stevens ranch, a scant half mile away from where the tents already
gleamed on their last camp of the long trail; the smoke from the cook-tent
telling of savory meats and puddings, the bare thought of which made one
hurry his horse.
His eyes dwelt longest, however, upon the Stevens house half hidden among
the giant cottonwoods, and he wondered if Mona would still smile at him
with that unpleasant uplift at the corner of her red mouth. He would take
care that she did not get the chance to smile at him in any fashion, he
told himself with decision.
He wondered if those train-robbers had been captured, and if the one Park
wounded was still alive. He shivered when he thought of the dead man in
the aisle, and hoped he would never witness another death; involuntarily
he glanced down at his right stirrup, half expecting to see his boot red
with human blood. It was not nice to remember that scene, and he gave his
shoulders an impatient hitch and tried to think of something else.
Mindful of his vow, he had bought a gun in Billings, but he had not yet
learned to hit anything he aimed at; for firearms are hushed in roundup
camps, except when dire necessity breeds a law of its own. Range cattle do
not take kindly to the popping of pistols. So Thurston's revolver was yet
unstained with powder grime, and was packed away inside his bed. He was
promising his pride that he would go up on the hill, back of the Lazy
Eight corrals, and shoot until even Mona Stevens must respect his
marksmanship, when Park galloped back to him—"The world has moved
some while we was gone," he announced in the tone of one who has news to
tell and enjoys thoroughly the telling. "Yuh mind the fellow I laid out in
the hold-up? He got all right again, and they stuck him in jail along with
another one old Lauman, the sheriff, glommed a week ago. Well, they didn't
do a thing last night but knock a deputy in the head, annex his gun, swipe
a Winchester and a box uh shells out uh the office and hit the high
places. Old Lauman is hot on their trail, but he ain't met up with 'em
yet, that anybody's heard. When he does, there'll sure be something doing!
They say the deputy's about all in; they smashed his skull with a big iron
"I wish I could handle a gun," Thurston said between his teeth. "I'd go
after them myself. I wish I'd been left to grow up out here where I
belong. I'm all West but the training—and I never knew it till a
month ago! I ought to ride and rope and shoot with the best of you, and I
can't do a thing. All I know is books. I can criticize an opera and a new
play, and I'm considered something of an authority on clothes, but I can't
"Aw, go easy," Park laughed at him. "What if yuh can't do the double-roll?
Riding and shooting and roping's all right—we couldn't very well get
along without them accomplishments. But that's all they are; just
accomplishments. We know a man when we see him, and it don't matter
whether he can ride a bronk straight up, or don't know which way a saddle
sets on a horse. If he's a man he gets as square a deal as we can give
him." Park reached for his cigarette book. "And as for hunting outlaws,"
he finished, "we've got old Lauman paid to do that. And he's dead onto his
job, you bet; when he goes out after a man he comes pretty near getting
him, m'son. But I sure do wish I'd killed that jasper while I was about
it; it would have saved Lauman a lot uh hard riding."
Thurston could scarcely explain to Park that his desire to hunt
train-robbers was born of a half-defiant wish to vindicate to Mona Stevens
his courage, and so he said nothing at all. He wondered if Park had heard
her whisper, that day, and knew how he had failed to obey her commands;
and if he had heard her call him a coward. He had often wondered that, but
Park had a way of keeping things to himself, and Thurston could never
quite bring himself to open the subject boldly. At any rate, if Park had
heard, he hoped that he understood how it was and did not secretly despise
him for it. Women, he told himself bitterly, are never quite just.
After the four o'clock supper he and Bob MacGregor went up the valley to
relieve the men on herd. There was one nice thing about Park as a foreman:
he tried to pair off his crew according to their congeniality. That was
why Thurston usually stood guard with Bob, whom he liked better than any
of the others-always excepting Park himself.
"I brought my gun along," Bob told him apologetically when they were left
to themselves. "It's a habit I've got when I know there's bad men
rampaging around the country. The boys kinda gave me the laugh when they
seen me haul it out uh my war bag, but I just told 'em to go to thunder."
"Do you think those—"
"Naw. Uh course not. I just pack it on general principles, same as an old
woman packs her umbrella."
"Say, this is dead easy! The bunch is pretty well broke, ain't it? I'm
sure glad to see old Milk River again; this here trailing cattle gets
plumb monotonous." He got down and settled his back comfortably against a
rock. Below them spread the herd, feeding quietly. "Yes, sir, this is sure
a snap," he repeated, after he had made himself a smoke. "They's only two
ways a bunch could drift if they wanted to which they don't-up the river,
or down. This hill's a little too steep for 'em to tackle unless they was
crowded hard. Good feed here, too.
"Too bad yuh don't smoke, Bud. There's nothing like a good, smooth rock to
your back and a cigarette in your face, on a nice, lazy day like this.
It's the only kind uh day-herding I got any use for."
"I'll take the rock to my back, if you'll just slide along and make room,"
Thurston laughed. "I don't hanker for a cigarette, but I do wish I had my
"Aw, t'ell with your Kodak!" Bob snorted. "Can't yuh carry this layout in
your head? I've got a picture gallery in mine that I wouldn't trade for a
farm; I don't need no Kodak in mine, thankye. You just let this here view
soak into your system, Bud, where yuh can't lose it."
Thurston did. Long after he could close his eyes and see it in every
detail; the long, green slope with hundreds of cattle loitering in the
rank grass-growth; the winding sweep of the river and the green, rolling
hills beyond; and Bob leaning against the rock beside him, smoking
luxuriously with half-closed eyes, while their horses dozed with drooping
heads a rein-length away.
"Say, Bud," Bob's voice drawled sleepily, "I wisht you'd sing that
Jerusalem song. I want to learn the words to it; I'm plumb stuck on that
piece. It's different from the general run uh songs, don't yuh think? Most
of 'em's about your old home that yuh left in boyhood's happy days, and go
back to find your girl dead and sleeping in a little church-yard or else
it's your mother; or your girl marries the other man and you get it handed
to yuh right along—and they make a fellow kinda sick to his stomach
when he's got to sing 'em two or three hours at a stretch on night-guard,
just because he's plumb ignorant of anything better. This here Jerusalem
one sounds kinda grand, and—the cattle seems to like it, too, for a
"The composer would feel flattered if he heard that," Thurston laughed. He
wanted to be left alone to day-dream and watch the clouds trail lazily
across to meet the hills; and there was an embryonic poem forming, phrase
by phrase, in his mind. But he couldn't refuse Bob anything, so he sat a
bit straighter and cleared his throat. He sang well—well enough
indeed to be sought after at informal affairs among his set at home. When
he came to the refrain Bob took his cigarette from between his lips and
held it in his fingers while he joined his voice lustily to Thurston's:
Lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna in the high-est.
Hosanna to your King!"
The near cattle lifted their heads to stare stupidly a moment, then moved
a few steps slowly, nosing for the sweetest grass-tufts. The horses
shifted their weight, resting one leg with the hoof barely touching the
earth, twitched their ears at the flies and slept again.
"And then me thought my dream was changed,
The streets no longer rang,
Hushed were the glad Hosannas
The little children sang—"
Tamale lifted his head and gazed inquiringly up the hill; but Bob was not
observant of signs just then. He was Striving with his recreant memory for
the words that came after:
"The sun grew dark with mystery,
The morn was cold and still,
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill."
Tamale stirred restlessly with head uplifted and ears pointed straight
before up the steep bluff. Old Ironsides, Thurston's mount, was not the
sort to worry about anything but his feed, and paid no attention. Bob
turned and glanced the way Tamale was looking; saw nothing, and settled
down again on the small of his back.
"He sees a badger or something," he Said. "Go on, Bud, with the chorus."
Lift up your gates and sing."
"Lift up your hands damn quick!" mimicked a voice just behind. "If yuh
ain't got anything to do but lay in the shade of a rock and yawp, we'll
borrow your cayuses. You ain't needin' 'em, by the looks!"
They squirmed around until they could stare into two black gun-barrels—and
then their hands went up; their faces held a particularly foolish
expression that must have been amusing to the men behind the guns.
One of the gun-barrels lowered and a hand reached out and quietly took
possession of Tamale's reins; the owner of the hand got calmly into Bob's
saddle. Bob gritted his teeth. It was evident their movements had been
planned minutely in advance, for, once settled to his liking, the fellow
tested the stirrups to make sure they were the right length, and raising
his gun pointed it at the two in a business-like manner that left no doubt
of his meaning. Whereupon the man behind them came forward and
appropriated Old Ironsides to his own use.
"Too bad we had to interrupt Sunday-school," he remarked ironically. "You
can go ahead with the meetin' now—the collection has been took up."
He laughed without any real mirth in his voice and gathered up the reins.
"If yuh want our horses, they're up on the bench. I don't reckon they'll
ever turn another cow, but such as they are you're quite welcome. Better
set still, boys, till we get out uh sight; one of us'll keep an eye peeled
for yuh. So long, and much obliged." They turned and rode warily down the
"Now, wouldn't that jar yuh?" asked Bob in deep disgust His hands dropped
to his sides; in another second he was up and shooting savagely. "Get
behind the rock, Bud," he commanded.
Just then a rifle cracked, and Bob toppled drunkenly and went limply to
"My God!" cried Thurston, and didn't know that he spoke. He snatched up
Bob's revolver and fired shot after shot at the galloping figures. Not one
seemed to do any good; the first shot hit a two-year-old square in the
ribs. After that there were no cattle within rifle range.
One of the outlaws stopped, took deliberate aim with the stolen Winchester
and fired, meaning to kill; but he miscalculated the range a bit and
Thurston crumpled down with a bullet in his thigh. The revolver was empty
now and fell smoking at his feet. So he lay and cursed impotently while he
watched the marauders ride out of sight up the valley.
When the rank timber-growth hid their flying figures he crawled over to
where Bob lay and tried to lift him.
"Art you hurt?" was the idiotic question he asked.
Bob opened his eyes and waited a breath, as if to steady his thought. "Did
I get one, Bud?"
"I'm afraid not," Thurston confessed, and immediately after wished that he
had lied and said yes. "Are you hurt?" he repeated senselessly.
"Who, me?" Bob's eyes wavered in their directness. "Don't yuh bother none
about me," evasively.
"But you've got to tell me. You—they—" He choked over the
"Well—I guess they got me, all right. But don't let that worry yuh;
it don't me." He tried to speak carelessly and convincingly, but it was a
miserable failure. He did not want to die, did Bob, however much he might
try to hide the fact.
Thurston was not in the least imposed upon. He turned away his head,
pretending to look after the outlaws, and set his teeth together tight. He
did not want to act a fool. All at once he grew dizzy and sick, and lay
down heavily till the faintness passed.
Bob tried to lift himself to his elbow; failing that, he put out a hand
and laid it on Thurston's shoulder. "Did they—get you—too?" he
"The damn coyotes!"
"It's nothing; just a leg put out of business," Thurston hurried to assure
him. "Where are you hurt, Bob?"
"Aw, I ain't any X-ray," Bob retorted weakly but gamely. "Somewheres
inside uh me. It went in my side but the Lord knows where it wound up. It
hurts, like the devil." He lay quiet a minute. "I wish—do yuh feel—like
finishing—that song, Bud?"
Thurston gulped down a lump that was making his throat ache. When he
answered, his voice was very gentle:
"I'll try a verse, old man."
"The last one—we'd just come to the last. It's most like church. I—I
never went—much on religion, Bud; but when a fellow's—going
out over the Big Divide."
"You're not!" Thurston contradicted fiercely, as if that could make it
different. He thought he could not bear those jerky sentences.
"All right—Bud. We won't fight over it. Go ahead. The last verse."
Thurston eased his leg to a better position, drew himself up till his
shoulders rested against the rock and began, with an occasional, odd break
in his voice:
"I saw the holy city
Beside the tideless Sea;
The light of God was on its street
The gates were open wide.
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied."
"Wonder if that there—applies—to bone-headed—cowpunchers,"
Bob muttered drowsily. "'And all—who would—" Thurston glanced
quickly at his face; caught his breath sharply at what he saw there
written, and dropped his head upon his arms.
And so Park and his men, hurrying to the sound of the shooting, found them
in the shadow of the rock.
CHAPTER VII. AT THE STEVENS PLACE
When the excitement of the outrage had been pushed aside by the insistent
routine of everyday living, Thurston found himself thrust from the
fascination of range life and into the monotony of invalidism, and he was
anything but resigned. To be sure, he was well cared for at the Stevens
ranch, where Park and the boys had taken him that day, and Mrs. Stevens
mothered him as he could not remember being mothered before.
Hank Graves rode over nearly every day to sit beside the bed and curse the
Wagner gang back to their great-great-grandfathers and down to more than
the third generation yet unborn, and to tell him the news. On the second
visit he started to give him the details of Bob's funeral; but Thurston
would not listen, and told him so plainly.
"All right then, Bud, I won't talk about it. But we sure done the right
thing by the boy; had the best preacher in Shellanne out, and flowers till
further notice: a cross uh carnations, and the boys sent up to Minot and
had a spur made uh—oh, well, all right; I'll shut up about it, I
know how yuh feel, Bud; it broke us all up to have him go that way. He
sure was a white boy, if ever there was one, and—ahem!"
"I'd give a thousand dollars, hard coin, to get my hands on them Wagners.
It would uh been all off with them, sure, if the boys had run acrost 'em.
I'd uh let 'em stay out and hunt a while longer, only old Lauman'll get
'em, all right, and we're late as it is with the calf roundup. Lauman'll
run 'em down—and by the Lord! I'll hire Bowman myself and ship him
out from Helena to help prosecute 'em. They're dead men if he takes the
case against 'em, Bud, and I'll get him, sure—and to hell with the
cost of it! They'll swing for what they done to you and Bob, if it takes
every hoof I own."
Thurston told him he hoped they would be caught and—yes, hanged;
though he had never before advocated capital punishment.
But when he thought of Bob, the care-naught, whole-souled fellow.
He tried not to think of him, for thinking unmanned him. He had the
softest of hearts where his friends were concerned, and there were times
when he felt that he could with relish officiate at the Wagners'
He fought against remembrance of that day; and for sake of diversion he
took to studying a large, pastel portrait of Mona which hung against the
wall opposite his bed. It was rather badly; done, and at first, when he
saw it, he laughed at the thought that even the great, still plains of the
range land cannot protect one against the ubiquitous picture agent. In the
parlor, he supposed there would be crayon pictures of grandmothers and
aunts-further evidence of the agent's glibness.
He was glad that it was Mona who smiled down at him instead of a
grand-mother or an aunt. For Mona did smile, and in spite of the cheap
crudity the smile was roguish, with little dimply creases at the corners
of the mouth, and not at all unpleasant. If the girl would only look like
that in real life, he told himself, a fellow would probably get to liking
her. He supposed she thought him a greater coward than ever now, just
because he hadn't got killed. If he had, he would be a hero now, like Bob.
Well, Bob was a hero; the way he had jumped up and begun shooting required
courage of the suicidal sort. He had stood up and shot, also and had
succeeded only in being ridiculous; he hoped nobody had told Mona about
his hitting that steer. When he could walk again he would learn to shoot,
so that the range stock wouldn't suffer from his marksmanship.
After a week of seeing only Mrs. Stevens or sympathetic men acquaintances,
he began to wonder why Mona stayed so persistently away. Then one morning
she came in to take his breakfast things out. She did not, however, stay a
second longer than was absolutely necessary, and she was perfectly
composed and said good morning in her most impersonal tone. At least
Thurston hoped she had no tone more impersonal than that. He decided that
she had really beautiful eyes and hair; after she had gone he looked up at
the picture, told himself that it did not begin to do her justice, and
sighed a bit. He was very dull, and even her companionship, he thought,
would be pleasant if only she would come down off her pedestal and be
When he wrote a story about a fellow being laid up in the same house with
a girl—a girl with big, blue-gray eyes and ripply brown hair—he
would have the girl treat the fellow at least decently. She would read
poetry to him and bring him flowers, and do ever so many nice things that
would make him hate to get well. He decided that he would write just that
kind of story; he would idealize it, of course, and have the fellow in
love with the girl; you have to, in stories. In real life it doesn't
necessarily follow that, because a fellow admires a girl's hair and eyes,
and wants to be on friendly terms, he is in love with her. For example, he
emphatically was not in love with Mona Stevens. He only wanted her to be
decently civil and to stop holding a foolish grudge against him for not
standing up and letting himself be shot full of holes because she
In the afternoons, Mrs. Stevens would sit beside him and knit things and
talk to him in a pleasantly garrulous fashion, and he would lie and listen
to her—and to Mona, singing somewhere. Mona sang very well, he
thought; he wondered if she had ever had any training. Also, he wished he
dared ask her not to sing that song about "She's only a bird in a gilded
cage." It brought back too vividly the nights when he and Bob stood guard
under the quiet stars.
And then one day he hobbled out into the dining-room and ate dinner with
the family. Since he sat opposite Mona she was obliged to look at him
occasionally, whether she would or no. Thurston had a strain of obstinacy
in his nature, and when he decided that Mona should not only look at him,
but should talk to him as well, he set himself diligently to attain that
end. He was not the man to sit down supinely and let a girl calmly ignore
him; so Mona presently found herself talking to him with some degree of
cordiality; and what is more to the point, listening to him when he
talked. It is probable that Thurston never had tried so hard in his life
to win a girl's attention.
It was while he was still hobbling with a cane and taxing his imagination
daily to invent excuses for remaining, that Lauman, the sheriff, rode up
to the door with a deputy and asked shelter for themselves and the two
Wagners, who glowered sullenly down from their weary horses. When they had
been safely disposed in Thurston's bedroom, with one of the ranch hands
detailed to guard them, Lauman and his man gave themselves up to the joy
of a good meal. Their own cooking, they said, got mighty tame especially
when they hadn't much to cook and dared not have a fire.
They had come upon the outlaws by mere accident, and it is hard telling
which was the most surprised. But Lauman was, perhaps, the quickest man
with a gun in Valley County, else he would not have been serving his
fourth term as sheriff. He got the drop and kept it while his deputy did
the rest. It had been a hard chase, he said, and a long one if you counted
time instead of miles. But he had them now, harmless as rattlers with
their fangs fresh drawn. He wanted to get them to Glasgow before people
got to hear of their capture; he thought they wouldn't be any too safe if
the boys knew he had them.
If he had known that the Lazy Eight roundup had just pulled in to the home
ranch that afternoon, and that Dick Farney, one of the Stevens men, had
slipped out to the corral and saddled his swiftest horse, it is quite
possible that Lauman would not have lingered so long over his supper, or
drank his third cup of coffee—with real cream in it—with so
great a relish. And if he had known that the Circle Bar boys were camped
just three miles away within hailing distance of the Lazy Eight trail, he
would doubtless have postponed his after-supper smoke.
He was sitting, revolver in hand, watching the Wagners give a practical
demonstration of the extent of their appetites, when Thurston limped in
from the porch, his eyes darker than usual. "There are a lot of riders
coming, Mr. Lauman," he announced quietly. "It sounds like a whole
roundup. I thought you ought to know."
The prisoners went white, and put down knife and fork. If they had never
feared before, plainly they were afraid then.
Lauman's face did not in the least change. "Put the hand-cuffs on,
Waller," he said. "If you've got a room that ain't easy to get at from the
outside, Mrs. Stevens, I guess I'll have to ask yuh for the use of it."
Mrs. Stevens had lived long in Valley County, and had learned how to meet
emergencies. "Put 'em right down cellar," she invited briskly. "There's
just the trap-door into it, and the windows ain't big enough for a cat to
go through. Mona, get a candle for Mr. Lauman." She turned to hurry the
girl, and found Mona at her elbow with a light.
"That's the kind uh woman I like to have around," Lauman chuckled. "Come
on, boys; hustle down there if yuh want to see Glasgow again."
Trembling, all their dare-devil courage sapped from them by the menace of
Thurston's words, they stumbled down the steep stairs, and the darkness
swallowed them. Lauman beckoned to his deputy.
"You go with 'em, Waller," he ordered. "If anybody but me offers to lift
this trap, shoot. Don't yuh take any chances. Blow out that candle soon as
It was then that fifty riders clattered into the yard and up to the front
door, grouping in a way that left no exit unseen. Thurston, standing in
the doorway, knew them almost to a man. Lazy Eight boys, they were; men
who night after night had spread their blankets under the tent-roof with
him and with Bob MacGregor; Bob, who lay silently out on the hill back of
the home ranch-house, waiting for the last, great round-up. They glanced
at him in mute greeting and dismounted without a word. With them mingled
the Circle Bar boys, as silent and grim as their fellows. Lauman came up
and peered into the dusk; Thurston observed that he carried his Winchester
unobtrusively in one hand.
"Why, hello, boys," he greeted cheerfully. But for the rifle you never
would have guessed he knew their errand.
"Hello, Lauman," answered Park, matching him for cheerfulness. Then:
"We rode over to hang them Wagners." Lauman grinned. "I hate to disappoint
yuh, Park, but I've kinda set my heart on doing that little job myself.
I'm the one that caught 'em, and if you'd followed my trail the last month
you'd say I earned the privilege."
"Maybe so," Park admitted pleasantly, "but we've got a little personal
matter to settle up with those jaspers. Bob MacGregor was one of us, yuh
"I'll hang 'em just as dead as you can," Lauman argued.
"But yuh won't do it so quick," Park lashed back. "They're spoiling the
air every breath they draw. We want 'em, and I guess that pretty near
"Not by a damn sight it don't! I've never had a man took away from me yet,
boys, and I've been your sheriff a good many years. You hike right back to
camp; yuh can't have 'em."
Thurston could scarcely realize the deadliness of their purpose. He knew
them for kind-hearted, laughter-loving young fellows, who would give their
last dollar to a friend. He could not believe that they would resort to
violence now. Besides, this was not his idea of a mob; he had fancied they
would howl threats and wave bludgeons, as they did in stories. Mobs always
"howled and seethed with passion" at one's doors; they did not stand about
and talk quietly as though the subject was trivial and did not greatly
But the men were pressing closer, and their very calmness, had he known
it, was ominous. Lauman shifted his rifle ready for instant aim.
"Boys, look here," he began more gravely, "I can't say I blame yuh,
looking at it from your view-point. If you'd caught these men when yuh was
out hunting 'em, you could uh strung 'em up—and I'd likely uh had
business somewhere else about that time. But yuh didn't catch 'em; yuh
give up the chase and left 'em to me. And yuh got to remember that I'm the
one that brought 'em in. They're in my care. I'm sworn to protect 'em and
turn 'em over to the law—and it ain't a question uh whether they
deserve it or not. That's what I'm paid for, and I expect to go right
ahead according to orders and hang 'em by law. You can't have 'em—unless
yuh lay me out first, and I don't reckon any of yuh would go that far."
"There's never been a man hung by law in this county yet," a voice cried
angrily and impatiently.
"That ain't saying there never will be," Lauman flung back. "Don't yuh
worry, they'll get all that's coming to them, all right."
"How about the time yuh had 'em in your rotten old jail, and let 'em get
out and run loose around the country, killing off white men?" drawled
another-a Circle-Bar man.
A hand—the hand of him who had stood guard over the Wagners in the
bedroom during supper—reached out through the doorway and caught his
rifle arm. Taken unawares from behind, he whirled and then went down under
the weight of men used to "wrassling" calves. Even old Lauman was no match
for them, and presently he found himself stretched upon the porch with
three Lazy Eight boys sitting on his person; which, being inclined to
portliness, he found very uncomfortable.
Moved by an impulse he had no name for, Thurston snatched the sheriff's
revolver from its scabbard. As the heap squirmed pantingly upon the porch
he stepped into the doorway to avoid being tripped, which was the wisest
move he could have made, for it put him in the shadow—and there were
men of the Circle Bar whose trigger-finger would not have hesitated, just
then, had he been in plain sight and had they known his purpose.
"Just hold on there, boys," he called, and they could see the glimmer of
the gun-barrel. Those of the Lazy Eight laughed at him.
"Aw, put it down, Bud," Park admonished. "That's too dangerous a toy for
you to be playing with—and yuh know damn well yuh can't hit
"I killed a steer once," Thurston reminded him meekly, whereat the laugh
hushed; for they remembered.
"I know I can't shoot straight," he went on frankly, "but you're taking
that much the greater chance. If I have to, I'll cut loose—and
there's no telling where the bullets may strike."
"That's right," Park admitted. "Stand still, boys; he's more dangerous
than a gun that isn't loaded. What d'yuh want, m'son?"
"I want to talk to you for about five minutes. I've got a game leg, so
that I can neither run nor fight, but I hope you'll listen to me. The
Wagners can't get away—they're locked up, with a deputy standing
over them with a gun; and on top of that they're handcuffed. They're as
helpless, boys, as two trapped coyotes." He looked down over the crowd,
which shifted uneasily; no one spoke.
"That's what struck me most," he continued. "You know what I thought of
Bob, don't you? And I didn't thank them for boring a hole in my leg; it
wasn't any kindness of theirs that it didn't land higher—they
weren't shooting at me for fun. And I'd have killed them both with a clear
conscience, if I could. I tried hard enough. But it was different then;
out in the open, where a man had an even break. I don't believe if I had
shot as straight as I wanted to that I'd ever have felt a moment's
compunction. But now, when they're disarmed and shackled and altogether
helpless, I couldn't walk up to them deliberately and kill them could you?
"It could be done, and done easily. You have Lauman where he can't do
anything, and I'm not of much account in a fight; so you've really only
one deputy sheriff and two women to get the best of. You could drag these
men out and hang them in the cottonwoods, and they couldn't raise a hand
to defend themselves. We could do it easily—but when it was done and
the excitement had passed I'd have a picture in my memory that I'd hate to
look at. I'd have an hour in my life that would haunt me. And so would
you. You'd hate to look back and think that one time you helped kill a
couple of men who couldn't fight back.
"Let the law do it, boys. You don't want them to live, and I don't; nobody
does, for they deserve to die. But it isn't for us to play judge and jury
and hangman here to-night. Let them get what's coming to them at the hands
of the officers you've elected for that purpose. They won't get off. Hank
Graves says they will hang if it takes every hoof he owns. He said he
would bring Bowman down here to help prosecute them. I don't know Bowman—"
"I do," a voice spoke, somewhere in the darkness. "Lawyer from Helena.
Never lost a case."
"I'm glad to hear it, for he's the man that will prosecute. They haven't a
ghost of a show to get out of it. Lauman here is responsible for their
safe keeping and I guess, now that he knows them better, we needn't be
afraid they'll escape again. And it's as Lauman said; he'll hang them
quite as dead as you can. He's drawing a salary to do these things, make
him earn it. It's a nasty job, boys, and you wouldn't get anything out of
it but a nasty memory."
A hand that did not feel like the hand of a man rested for an instant on
his arm. Mona brushed by him and stepped out where the rising moon shone
on her hair and into her big, blue-gray eyes.
"I wish you all would please go away," she said. "You are making mamma
sick. She's got it in her head that you are going to do something awful,
and I can't convince her you're not. I told her you wouldn't do anything
so sneaking, but she's awfully nervous about it. Won't you please go,
They looked sheepishly at one another; every man of them feared the
ridicule of his neighbor.
"Why, sure we'll go," cried Park, rallying. "We were going anyway in a
minute. Tell your mother we were just congratulating Lauman on rounding up
these Wagners. Come on, boys. And you, Bud, hurry up and get well again;
we miss yuh round the Lazy Eight."
The three who were sitting on Lauman got up, and he gave a sigh of relief.
"Say, yuh darned cowpunchers don't have no mercy on an old man's carcass
at all," he groaned, in exaggerated self-pity. "Next time yuh want to
congratulate me, I wish you'd put it in writing and send it by mail."
A little ripple of laughter went through the crowd. Then they swung up on
their horses and galloped away in the moonlight.
CHAPTER VIII. A QUESTION OF NERVE
"That was your victory, Miss Stevens. Allow me to congratulate you." If
Thurston showed any ill grace in his tone it was without intent. But it
did seem unfortunate that just as he was waxing eloquent and felt sure of
himself and something of a hero, Mona should push him aside as though he
were of no account and disperse a bunch of angry cowboys with half a dozen
She looked at him with her direct, blue-gray eyes, and smiled. And her
smile had no unpleasant uplift at the corners; it was the dimply, roguish
smile of the pastel portrait only several times nicer. Re could hardly
believe it; he just opened his eyes wide and stared. When he came to a
sense of his rudeness, Mona was back in the kitchen helping with the
supper dishes, just as though nothing had happened—unless one
observed the deep, apple-red of her cheeks—while her mother, who
showed not the faintest symptoms of collapse, flourished a dish towel made
of a bleached flour sack with the stamp showing a faint pink and blue XXXX
across the center.
"I knew all the time they wouldn't do anything when it came right to the
point," she declared. "Bless their hearts, they thought they would—but
they're too soft-hearted, even when they are mad. If yuh go at 'em right
yuh can talk 'em over easy. It done me good to hear yuh talk right up to
'em, Bud." Mrs. Stevens had called hi Bud from the first time she laid
eyes on him. "That's all under the sun they needed—just somebody to
set 'em thinking about the other side. You're a real good speaker; seems
to me you ought to study to be a preacher."
Thurston's face turned red. But presently he forgot everything in his
amazement, for Mona the dignified, Mona of the scornful eyes and the
chilly smile, actually giggled—giggled like any ordinary girl, and
shot him a glance that had in it pure mirth and roguish teasing, and a
dash of coquetry. He sat down and giggled with her, feeling idiotically
happy and for no reason under the sun that he could name.
He had promised his conscience that he would go home to the Lazy Eight in
the morning, but he didn't; he somehow contrived, overnight, to invent a
brand new excuse for his conscience to swallow or not, as it liked. Hank
Graves had the same privilege; as for the Stevens trio, he blessed their
hospitable souls for not wanting any excuse whatever for his staying. They
were frankly glad to have him there; at least Mrs. Stevens and Jack were.
As for Mona, he was not so sure, but he hoped she didn't mind.
This was the reason inspired by his great desire: he was going to write a
story, and Mona was unconsciously to furnish the material for his heroine,
and so, of course, he needed to be there so that he might study his
subject. That sounded very well, to himself, but to Hank Graves, for some
reason, it seemed very funny. When Thurston told him, Hank was taken with
a fit of strangling that turned his face a dark purple. Afterward he
explained brokenly that something had got down his Sunday throat—and
Thurston, who had never heard of a man's Sunday throat, eyed him with
suspicion. Hank blinked at him with tears still in his quizzical eyes and
slapped him on the back, after the way of the West—and any other
enlightened country where men are not too dignified to be their real
selves—and drawled, in a way peculiar to himself:
"That's all right, Bud. You stay right here as long as yuh want to. I
don't blame yuh—if I was you I'd want to spend a lot uh time
studying this particular brand uh female girl myself. She's out uh sight,
Bud—and I don't believe any uh the boys has got his loop on her so
far; though I could name a dozen or so that would be tickled to death if
they had. You just go right ahead and file your little, old claim—"
"You're getting things mixed," Thurston interrupted, rather testily. "I'm
not in love with her. I, well, it's like this: if you were going to paint
a picture of those mountains off there, you'd want to be where you could
look at them—wouldn't you? You wouldn't necessarily want to—to
own them, just because you felt they'd make a fine picture. Your interest
would be, er, entirely impersonal."
"Uh-huh," Hank agreed, his keen eyes searching Phil's face amusedly.
"Therefore, it doesn't follow that I'm getting foolish about a girl just
because I—hang it! what the Dickens makes you look at a fellow that
way? You make me?"
"Uh-huh," said Hank again, smoothing the lower half of his face with one
hand. "You're a mighty nice little boy, Bud. I'll bet Mona thinks so, too
and when yuh get growed up you'll know a whole lot more than yuh do right
now. Well, I guess I'll be moving. When yuh get that—er—story
done, you'll come back to the ranch, I reckon. Be good."
Thurston watched him ride away, and then flounced, oh, men do flounce at
times, in spirit, if not in deed; and there would be no lack of the deed
if only they wore skirts that could rustle indignantly in sympathy with
the wearer—to his room. Plainly, Hank did not swallow the excuse any
more readily than did his conscience.
To prove the sincerity of his assertion to himself, his conscience, and to
Hank Graves, he straightway got out a thick pad of paper and sharpened
three lead pencils to an exceeding fine point. Then he sat him down by the
window—where he could see the kitchen door, which was the one most
used by the family—and nibbled the tip off one of the pencils like
any school-girl. For ten minutes he bluffed himself into believing that he
was trying to think of a title; the plain truth is, he was wondering if
Mona would go for a ride that afternoon and if so, might he venture to
suggest going with her.
He thought of the crimply waves in Mona's hair, and pondered what
adjectives would best describe it without seeming commonplace. "Rippling"
was too old, though it did seem to hit the case all right. He laid down
the pad and nearly stood on his head trying to reach his Dictionary of
Synonyms and Antonyms without getting out of his chair. While he was
clawing after it—it lay on the floor, where he had thrown it that
morning because it refused to divulge some information he wanted—he
heard some one open and close the kitchen door, and came near kinking his
neck trying to get up in time to see who it was. He failed to see anyone,
and returned to the dictionary.
"'Ripple—to have waves—like running water.'" (That was just
the way her hair looked, especially over the temples and at the nape of
her neck—Jove, what a tempting white neck it was!) "Um-m. 'Ripple;
wave; undulate; uneven; irregular.'" (Lord, what fools are the men who
write dictionaries!) "'Antonym—hang the antonyms!"
The kitchen door slammed. He craned again. It was Jack—going to town
most likely. Thurston shrewdly guessed that Mrs. Stevens leaned far more
upon Mona than she did upon Jack, although he could hardly accuse her of
leaning on anyone. But he observed that the men looked to her for orders.
He perceived that the point was gone from his pencil, and proceeded to
sharpen it. Then he heard Mona singing in the kitchen, and recollected
that Mrs. Stevens had promised him warm doughnuts for supper. Perhaps Mona
was frying them at that identical moment—and he had never seen
anyone frying doughnuts. He caught up his cane and limped out to
investigate. That is how much his heart just then was set upon writing a
story that would breathe of the plains.
One great hindrance to the progress of his story was the difficulty he had
in selecting a hero for his heroine. Hank Graves suggested that he use
Park, and even went so far as to supply Thurston with considerable data
which went to prove that Park would not be averse to figuring in a love
story with Mona. But Thurston was not what one might call enthusiastic,
and Hank laughed his deep, inner laugh when he was well away from the
Thurston, on the contrary, glowered at the world for two hours after. Park
was a fine fellow, and Thurston liked him about as well as any man he knew
in the West, but—And thus it went. On each and every visit to the
Stevens ranch—and they were many—Hank, learning by direct
inquiry that the story still suffered for lack of a hero, suggested some
fellow whom he had at one time and another caught "shining" around Mona.
And with each suggestion Thurston would draw down his eyebrows till he
came near getting a permanent frown.
A love story without a hero, while it would no doubt be original and all
that, would hardly appeal to an editor. Phil tried heroes wholly
imaginary, but he had a trick of making his characters seem very real to
himself and sometimes to other people as well. So that, after a few
passages of more or less ardent love-making, he would in a sense grow
jealous and spoil the story by annihilating the hero thereof.
Heaven only knows how long the thing would have gone on if he hadn't, one
temptingly beautiful evening, reverted to the day of the hold-up and
apologized for not obeying her command. He explained as well as he could
just why he sat petrified with his hands in the air.
And then having brought the thing freshly to her mind, he somehow lost
control of his wits and told her he loved her. He told her a good deal in
the next two minutes that he might better have kept to himself just then.
But a man generally makes a glorious fool of himself once or twice in his
life and it seems the more sensible the man the more thorough a job he
makes of it.
Mona moved a little farther away from him, and when she answered she did
not choose her words. "Of all things," she said, evenly, "I admire a brave
man and despise a coward. You were chicken-hearted that day, and you know
it; you've just admitted it. Why, in another minute I'd have had that gun
myself, and I'd have shown you—but Park got it before I really had a
chance. I hated to seem spectacular, but it served you right. If you'd had
any nerve I wouldn't have had to sit there and tell you what to do. If
ever I marry anybody, Mr. Thurston, it will be a man."
"Which means, I suppose, that I'm not one?" he asked angrily.
"I don't know yet." Mona smiled her unpleasant smile—the one that
did not belong in the story he was going to write. "You're new to the
country, you see. Maybe you've got nerve; you haven't shown much, so far
as I know—except when you talked to the boys that night. But you
must have known that they wouldn't hurt you anyway. A man must have a
little courage as much as I have; which isn't asking much—or I'd
never marry him in the world."
"Not even if you—liked him?" his smile was wistful.
"Not even if I loved him!" Mona declared, and fled into the house.
Thurston gathered himself together and went down to the stable and
borrowed a horse of Jack, who had just got back from town, and rode home
to the Lazy Eight.
When Hank heard that he was home to stay—at least until he could
join the roundup again—he didn't say a word for full five minutes.
Then, "Got your story done?" he drawled, and his eyes twinkled.
Thurston was going up the stairs to his old room, and Hank could not swear
positively to the reply he got. But he thought it sounded like, "Oh, damn
CHAPTER IX. THE DRIFT OF THE HERDS
Weeks slipped by, and to Thurston they seemed but days. His
world-weariness and cynicism disappeared the first time he met Mona after
he had left there so unceremoniously; for Mona, not being aware of his
cynicism, received him on the old, friendly footing, and seemed to have
quite forgotten that she had ever called him a coward, or refused to marry
him. So Thurston forgot it also—so long as he was with her.
How he filled in the hours he could scarcely have told; certain it is that
he accomplished nothing at all so far as Western stories were concerned.
Reeve-Howard wrote in slightly shocked phrases to ask what was keeping him
so long; and assured him that he was missing much by staying away.
Thurston mentally agreed with him long enough to begin packing his trunk;
it was idiotic to keep staying on when he was clearly receiving no benefit
thereby. When, however, he picked up a book which he had told Mona he
would take over to her the next time he went, he stopped and considered:
There was the Wagner trial coming off in a month or so; he couldn't get
out of attending it, for he had been subpoenaed as a witness for the
prosecution. And there was the beef roundup going to start before long—he
really ought to stay and take that in; there would be some fine chances
for pictures. And really he didn't care so much for the Barry Wilson bunch
and the long list of festivities which trailed ever in its wake; at any
rate, they weren't worth rushing two-thirds across the continent for.
He sat down and wrote at length to Reeve-Howard, explaining very carefully—and
not altogether convincingly—just why he could not possibly go home
at present. After that he saddled and rode over to the Stevens place with
the book, leaving his trunk yawning emptily in the middle of his badly
After that he spent three weeks on the beef roundup. At first he was full
of enthusiasm, and worked quite as if he had need of the wages, but after
two or three big drives the novelty wore off quite suddenly, and nothing
then remained but a lot of hard work. For instance, standing guard on
long, rainy nights when the cattle walked and walked might at first seem
picturesque and all that, but must at length, cease to be amusing.
Likewise the long hours which he spent on day-herd, when the wind was raw
and penetrating and like to blow him out of the saddle; also standing at
the stockyard chutes and forcing an unwilling stream of rollicky,
wild-eyed steers up into the cars that would carry them to Chicago.
After three weeks of it he awoke one particularly nasty morning and
thanked the Lord he was not obliged to earn his bread at all, to say
nothing of earning it in so distressful a fashion. There was a lull in the
shipping because cars were not then available. He promptly took advantage
of it and rode by the very shortest trail to the ranch—and Mona. But
Mona was visiting friends in Chinook, and there was no telling when she
would return. Thurston, in the next few days, owned to himself that there
was no good reason for his tarrying longer in the big, un-peopled West,
and that the proper thing for him to do was go back home to New York.
He had come to stay a month, and he had stayed five. He could ride and
rope like an old-timer, and he was well qualified to put up a stiff
gun-fight had the necessity ever arisen—which it had not.
He had three hundred and seventy-one pictures of different phases of range
life, not counting as many that were over-exposed or under-exposed or out
of focus. He had six unfinished stories, in each of which the heroine had
big, blue-gray eyes and crimply hair, and the title and bare skeleton of a
seventh, in which the same sort of eyes and hair would probably develop
later. He had proposed to Mona three times, and had been three times
rebuffed—though not, it must be owned, with that tone of finality
which precludes hope.
He was tanned a fine brown, which became him well. His eyes had lost the
dreamy, introspective look of the student and author, and had grown keen
with the habit of studying objects at long range. He walked with that
peculiar, stiff-legged gait which betrays long hours spent in the saddle,
and he wore a silk handkerchief around his neck habitually and had
forgotten the feel of a dress-suit.
He answered to the name "Bud" more readily than to his own, and he made
practical use of the slang and colloquialisms of the plains without any
mental quotation marks.
By all these signs and tokens he had learned his West, and should have
taken himself back to civilization when came the frost. He had come to get
into touch with his chosen field of fiction, that he might write as one
knowing whereof he spoke. So far as he had gone, he was in touch with it;
he was steeped to the eyes in local color—and there was the rub The
lure of it was strong upon him, and he might not loosen its hold. He was
the son of his father; he had found himself, and knew that, like him, he
loved best to travel the dim trails.
Gene Wasson came in and slammed the door emphatically shut after him.
"She's sure coming," he complained, while he pulled the icicles from his
mustache and cast them into the fire. "She's going to be a real, old
howler by the signs. What yuh doing, Bud? Writing poetry?"
Thurston nodded assent with certain mental reservations; so far the
editors couldn't seem to make up their minds that it was poetry.
"Well, say, I wish you'd slap in a lot uh things about hazy, lazy, daisy
days in the spring—that jingles fine!—and green grass and the
sun shining and making the hills all goldy yellow, and prairie dogs
chip-chip-chipping on the 'dobe flats. (Prairie dogs would go all right in
poetry, wouldn't they? They're sassy little cusses, and I don't know of
anything that would rhyme with 'em, but maybe you do.) And read it all out
to me after supper. Maybe it'll make me kinda forget there's a blizzard
"Another one?" Thurston got up to scratch a trench in the half-inch layer
of frost on the cabin window. "Why, it only cleared up this morning after
three days of it."
"Can't help that. This is just another chapter uh that same story. When
these here Klondike Chinooks gets to lapping over each other they never
know when to quit. Every darn one has got to be continued tacked onto the
tail of it the winter. All the difference is, you can't read the writing;
but I can."
"I've got some mail for yuh, Bud. And old Hank wanted me to ask yuh if
you'd like to go to Glasgow next Thursday and watch old Lauman start the
Wagner boys for wherever's hot enough. He can get yuh in, you being in the
writing business. He says to tell yuh it's a good chance to take notes, so
yuh can write a real stylish story, with lots uh murder and sudden death
in it. We don't hang folks out here very often, and yuh might have to go
back East after pointers, if yuh pass this up."
"Oh, go easy. It turns me sick when I think about it; how they looked when
they got their sentence, and all that. I certainly don't care to see them
hanged, though they do deserve it. Where are the letters?" Thurston
sprawled across the table for them. One was from Reeve-Howard; he put it
by. Another had a printed address in the corner—an address that
started his pulse a beat or two faster; for he had not yet reached that
blase stage where he could receive a personal letter from one of the
"Eight Leading" without the flicker of an eye-lash. He still gloated over
his successes, and was cast into the deeps by his failures.
He held the envelope to the light, shook it tentatively, like any woman,
guessed hastily and hopefully at the contents, and tore off an end
impatiently. From the great fireplace Gene watched him curiously and half
enviously. He wished he could get important-looking letters from New York
every few days. It must make a fellow feel that he amounted to something.
"Gene, you remember that story I read to you one night—that yarn
about the fellow that lived alone in the hills, and how the wolves used to
come and sit on the ridge and howl o' nights—you know, the one you
said was 'out uh sight'? They took it, all right, and—here, what do
you think of that?" He tossed the letter over to Gene, who caught it just
as it was about to be swept into the flame with the draught in Thurston,
in the days which he spent one of the half-dozen Lazy Eight line-camps
with Gene, down by the river, had been writing of the West—writing
in fear and trembling, for now he knew how great was his subject and his
ignorance of it. In the long evenings, while the fire crackled and the
flames played a game they had invented, a game where they tried which
could leap highest up the great chimney; while the north wind whoo-ooed
around the eaves and fine, frozen snow meal swished against the one little
window; while shivering, drifting range cattle tramped restlessly through
the sparse willow-growth seeking comfort where was naught but cold and
snow and bitter, driving wind; while the gray wolves hunted in packs and
had not long to wait for their supper, Thurston had written better than he
knew. He had sent the cold of the blizzards and the howl of the wolves; he
had sent bits of the wind-swept plains back to New York in long, white
envelopes. And the editors were beginning to watch for his white envelopes
and to seize them eagerly when they came, greedy for what was within. Not
every day can they look upon a few typewritten pages and see the
range-land spread, now frowning, now smiling, before them.
"Gee! they say here they want a lot the same brand, and at any old price
yuh might name. I wouldn't mind writing stories myself." Gene kicked a log
back into the flame where it would do the most good. His big,
square-shouldered figure stood out sharply against the glow.
Thurston, watching him meditatively, wanted to tell him that he was the
sort of whom good stories are made. But for men like Gene—strong,
purposeful, brave, the West would lose half its charm. He was like Bob in
many ways, and for that Thurston liked him and, stayed with him in the
line-camp when he might have been taking his ease at the home ranch.
It was wild and lonely down there between the bare hills and the frozen
river, but the wildness and the loneliness appealed to him. It was
primitive and at times uncomfortable. He slept in a bunk built against the
wall, with hard boards under him and a sod roof over his head. There were
times when the wind blew its fiercest and rattled dirt down into his face
unless he covered it with a blanket. And every other day he had to wash
the dishes and cook, and when it was Gene's turn to cook, Thurston chopped
great armloads of wood for the fireplace to eat o' nights. Also he must
fare forth, wrapped to the eyes, and help Gene drive back the cattle which
drifted into the river bottom, lest they cross the river on the ice and
range where they should not.
But in the evenings he could sit in the fire-glow and listen to the wind
and to the coyotes and the gray wolves, and weave stories that even the
most hyper-critical of editors could not fail to find convincing. By day
he could push the coffee-box that held his typewriter over by the frosted
window—when he had an hour or two to spare—and whang away at a
rate which filled Gene with wonder. Sometimes he rode over to the home
ranch for a day or two, but Mona was away studying music, so he found no
inducement to remain, and drifted back to the little, sod-roofed cabin by
the river, and to Gene.
The winter settled down with bared teeth like a bull-dog, and never a
chinook came to temper the cold and give respite to man or beast.
Blizzards that held them, in fear of their lives, close to shelter for
days, came down from the north; and with them came the drifting herds. By
hundreds they came, hurrying miserably before the storms. When the wind
lashed them without mercy even in the bottom-land, they pushed reluctantly
out upon the snow-covered ice of the Missouri. Then Gene and Thurston
watching from their cabin window would ride out and turn them pitilessly
back into the teeth of the storm.
They came by hundreds—thin, gaunt from cold and hunger. They came by
thousands, lowing their misery as they wandered aimlessly, seeking that
which none might find: food and shelter and warmth for their chilled
bodies. When the Canada herds pushed down upon them the boys gave over
trying to keep them north of the river; while they turned one bunch a
dozen others were straggling out from shore, the timid following single
file behind a leader more venturesome or more desperate than his fellows.
So the march went on and on: big, Southern-bred steer grappling the
problem of his first Northern winter; thin-flanked cow with shivering,
rough-coated calf trailing at her heels; humpbacked yearling with little
nubs of horns telling that he was lately in his calfhood; red cattle,
spotted cattle, white cattle, black cattle; white-faced Herefords,
Short-horns, scrubs; Texas longhorns—of the sort invariably pictured
in stampedes—still they came drifting out of the cold wilderness and
on into wilderness as cold.
Through the shifting wall of the worst blizzard that season Thurston
watched the weary, fruitless, endless march of the range. "Where do they
all come from?" he exclaimed once when the snow-veil lifted and showed the
river black with cattle.
"Lord! I dunno," Gene answered, shrugging his shoulders against the pity
of it. "I seen some brands yesterday that I know belongs up in the Cypress
Hills country. If things don't loosen up pretty soon, the whole darned
range will be swept clean uh stock as far north as cattle run. I'm looking
for reindeer next."
"Something ought to be done," Thurston declared uneasily, turning away
from the sight. "I've had the bellowing of starving cattle in my ears day
and night for nearly a month. The thing's getting on my nerves."
"It's getting on the nerves uh them that own 'em a heap worse," Gene told
him grimly, and piled more wood on the fire; for the cold bit through even
the thick walls of the cabin when the flames in the fireplace died, and
the door hinges were crusted deep with ice. "There's going to be the
biggest loss this range has ever known."
"It's the owners' fault," snapped Thurston, whose nerves were in that
irritable state which calls loudly for a vent of some sort. Even argument
with Gene, fruitless though it perforce must be, would be a relief. "It's
their own fault. I don't pity them any—why don't they take care of
their stock? If I owned cattle, do you think I'd sit in the house and
watch them starve through the winter?"
"What if yuh owned more than yuh could feed? It'd be a case uh have-to
then. There's fifty thousand Lazy Eight cattle walking the range somewhere
today. How the dickens is old Hank going to feed them fifty thousand? or
five thousand? It takes every spear uh hay he's got to feed his calves."
"He could buy hay," Thurston persisted.
"Buy hay for fifty thousand cattle? Where would he get it? Say, Bud, I
guess yuh don't realize that's some cattle. All ails you is, yuh don't
savvy the size uh the thing. I'll bet yuh there won't be less than three
hundred thousand head cross this river before spring."
"Some of them belong in Canada—you said so yourself."
"I know it, but look at all the country south of us: all the other cow
States. Why, Bud, when yuh talk about feeding every critter that runs the
range, you're plumb foolish."
"Anyway, it's a damnable pity!" Thurston asserted petulantly.
"Sure it is. The grass is there, but it's under fourteen inches uh snow
right now, and more coming; they say it's twelve feet deep up in the
mountains. You'll see some great old times in the spring, Bud, if yuh
stay. You will, won't yuh?"
Thurston laughed shortly. "I suppose it's safe to say I will," he
answered. "I ought to have gone last fall, but I didn't. It will probably
be the same thing over again; I ought to go in the spring, but I won't."
"You bet you won't. Talk about big roundups! what yuh seen last spring
wasn't a commencement. Every hoof that crosses this river and lives till
spring will have to be rounded up and brought back again. They'll be
scattered clean down to the Yellowstone, and every Northern outfit has got
to go down and help work the range from there back. I tell yuh, Bud, yuh
want to lay in a car-load uh films and throw away all them little,
jerk-water snap-shots yuh got. There's going to be roundups like these old
Panhandle rannies tell about, when the green grass comes." Gene, thinking
blissfully of the tented life, sprawled his long legs toward the snapping
blaze and crooned dreamily, while without the blizzard raged more
fiercely, a verse from an old camp song:
"Out on the roundup, boys, I tell yuh what yuh get
Little chunk uh bread and a little chunk uh meat;
Little black coffee, boys, chuck full uh alkali,
Dust in your throat, boys, and gravel in your eye!
So polish up your saddles, oil your slickers and your guns,
For we're bound for Lonesome Prairie when the green grass comes."
CHAPTER X. THE CHINOOK
One night in late March a sullen, faraway roar awakened Thurston in his
bunk. He turned over and listened, wondering what on earth was the matter.
More than anything it sounded like a hurrying freight train only the
railroad lay many miles to the north, and trains do not run at large over
the prairie. Gene snored peacefully an arm's length away. Outside the snow
lay deep on the levels, while in the hollows were great, white drifts that
at bedtime had glittered frostily in the moonlight. On the hill-tops the
gray wolves howled across coulees to their neighbors, and slinking coyotes
yapped foolishly at the moon.
Thurston drew the blanket up over his ears, for the fire had died to a
heap of whitening embers and the cold of the cabin made the nose of him
tingle. The roar grew louder and nearer-then the cabin shivered and
creaked in the suddenness of the blast that struck it. A clod of dirt
plumbed down upon his shoulder, bringing with it a shower of finer
particles. "Another blizzard!" he groaned, "and the worst we've had yet,
by the sound."
The wind shrieked down the chimney and sought the places where the
chinking was loose. It howled up the coulees, putting the wolves
themselves to shame. Gene flopped over like a newly landed fish, grunted
some unintelligible words and slept again.
For an hour Thurston lay and listened to the blast and selfishly thanked
heaven it was his turn at the cooking. If the storm kept up like that, he
told himself, he was glad he did not have to chop the wood. He lifted the
blanket and sniffed tentatively, then cuddled back into cover swearing
that a thermometer would register zero at that very moment on his pillow.
The storm came in gusts as the worst blizzards do at times. It made him
think of the nursery story about the fifth little pig who built a cabin of
rocks, and how the wolf threatened: "I'll huff and I'll puff, and I'll
blow your house down!" It was as if he himself were the fifth little pig,
and as if the wind were the wolf. The wolf-wind would stop for whole
minutes, gather his great lungs full of air and then without warning would
"huff and puff" his hardest. But though the cabin was not built of rocks,
it was nevertheless a staunch little shelter and sturdily withstood the
He pitied the poor cattle still fighting famine and frost as only
range-bred stock can fight. He pictured them drifting miserably before the
fury of the wind or crowding for shelter under some friendly cutback,
their tails to the storm, waiting stolidly for the dawn that would bring
no relief. Then, with the roar and rattle in his ears, he fell asleep.
In that particular line-camp on the Missouri the cook's duties began with
building a fire in the morning. Thurston waked reluctantly, shivered in
anticipation under the blankets, gathered together his fortitude and crept
out of his bunk. While he was dressing his teeth chattered like castanets
in a minstrel show. He lighted the fire hurriedly and stood backed close
before it, listening to the rage of the wind. He was growing very tired of
the monotony of winter; he could no longer see any beauty in the
high-turreted, snow-clad hills, nor the bare, red faces of the cliffs
frowning down upon him.
"I don't suppose you could see to the river bank," he mused, "and Gene
will certainly tear the third commandment to shreds before he gets the
He went over to the window, meaning to scratch a peep-hole in the frost,
just as he had done every day for the past three months; lifted a hand,
then stopped bewildered. For instead of frost there was only steam with
ridges of ice yet clinging to the sash and dripping water in a tiny
rivulet. He wiped the steam hastily away with his palm and looked out.
"Good heavens, Gene!" he shouted in a voice to wake the Seven Sleepers.
"The world's gone mad overnight. Are you dead, man? Get up and look out.
The whole damn country is running water, and the hills are bare as this
"Uh-huh!" Gene knuckled his eyes and sat up. "Chinook struck us in the
night. Didn't yuh hear it?"
Thurston pulled open the door and stood face to face with the miracle of
the West. He had seen Mother Nature in many a changeful mood, but never
like this. The wind blew warm from the southwest and carried hints of
green things growing and the song of birds; he breathed it gratefully into
his lungs and let it riot in his hair. The sky was purplish and soft, with
heavy, drifting clouds high-piled like a summer storm. It looked like
rain, he thought.
The bare hills were sodden with snow-water, and the drifts in the coulees
were dirt-grimed and forbidding. The great river lay, a gray stretch of
water-soaked snow over the ice, with little, clear pools reflecting the
drab clouds above. A crow flapped lazily across the foreground and perched
like a blot of fresh-spilled ink on the top of a dead cottonwood and cawed
raucous greeting to the spring.
The wonder of it dazed Thurston and made him do unusual things that
morning. All winter he had been puffed with pride over his cooking, but
now he scorched the oatmeal, let the coffee boil over, and blackened the
bacon, and committed divers other grievous sins against Gene's clamoring
appetite. Nor did he feel the shame that he should have felt. He simply
could not stay in the cabin five minutes at a time, and for it he had no
After breakfast he left the dishes un-washed upon the table and went out
and made merry with nature. He could scarce believe that yesterday he had
frosted his left ear while he brought a bucket of water up from the river,
and that it had made his lungs ache to breathe the chill air. Now the path
to the river was black and dry and steamed with warmth. Across the water
cattle were feeding greedily upon the brown grasses that only a few hours
before had been locked away under a crust of frozen snow.
"They won't starve now," he exulted, pointing them out to Gene.
"No, you bet not!" Gene answered. "If this don't freeze up on us the
wagons 'll be starting in a month or so. I guess we can be thinking about
hitting the trail for home pretty soon now. The river'll break up if this
keeps going a week. Say, this is out uh sight! It's warmer out uh doors
than it is in the house. Darn the old shack, anyway! I'm plumb sick uh the
sight of it. It looked all right to me in a blizzard, but now—it's
me for the range, m'son." He went off to the stable with long, swinging
strides that matched all nature for gladness, singing cheerily:
"So polish up your saddles, oil your slickers and your guns,
For we're hound for Lonesome Prairie when the green grass comes."
CHAPTER XI. FOLLOWING THE DIM TRAILS!
Thurston did not go on the horse roundup. He explained to the boys, when
they clamored against his staying, that he had a host of things to write,
and it would keep him busy till they were ready to start with the wagons
for the big rendezvous on the Yellowstone, the exact point of which had
yet to be decided upon by the Stock Association when it met. The editors
were after him, he said, and if he ever expected to get anywhere, in a
literary sense, it be-hooved him to keep on the smiley side of the
That sounded all right as far as it went, but unfortunately it did not go
far. The boys winked at one another gravely behind his back and jerked
their thumbs knowingly toward Milk River; by which pantomime they reminded
one another—quite unnecessarily that Mona Stevens had come home.
However, they kept their skepticism from becoming obtrusive, so that
Thurston believed his excuses passed on their face value. The boys, it
would seem, realized that it is against human nature for a man to declare
openly to his fellows his intention of laying last, desperate siege to the
heart of a girl who has already refused him three times, and to ask her
for the fourth time if she will reconsider her former decisions and marry
That is really what kept Thurston at the Lazy Eight. His writing became
once more a mere incident in his life. During the winter, when he did not
see her, he could bring himself to think occasionally of other things; and
it is a fact that the stories he wrote with no heroine at all hit the mark
Now, when he was once again under the spell of big, clear, blue gray eyes
and crimply brown hair, his stories lost something of their virility and
verged upon the sentimental in tone. And since he was not a fool he
realized the falling off and chafed against it and wondered why it was.
Surely a man who is in love should be well qualified to write convincingly
of the obsession but Thurston did not. He came near going to the other
extreme and refusing to write at all.
The wagons were out two weeks—which is quite long enough for a
crisis to arise in the love affair of any man. By the time the horse
roundup was over, one Philip Thurston was in pessimistic mood and quite
ready to follow the wagons, the farther the better. Also, they could not
start too soon to please him. His thoughts still ran to blue-gray eyes and
ripply hair, but he made no attempt to put them into a story.
He packed his trunk carefully with everything he would not need on the
roundup, and his typewriter he put in the middle. He told himself bitterly
that he had done with crimply haired girls, and with every other sort of
girl. If he could figure in something heroic—only he said
melodramatic—he might possibly force her to think well of him. But
heroic situations and opportunities come not every day to a man, and girls
who demand that their knights shall be brave in face of death need not
complain if they are left knightless at the last.
He wrote to Reeve-Howard, the night before they were to start, and
apologized gracefully for having neglected him during the past three weeks
and told him he would certainly be home in another month. He said that he
was "in danger of being satiated with the Western tone" and would be glad
to shake the hand of civilized man once more. This was distinctly unfair,
because he had no quarrel with the masculine portion of the West. If he
had said civilized woman it would have been more just and more
illuminating to Reeve-Howard who wondered what scrape Phil had gotten
himself into with those savages.
For the first few days of the trip Thurston was in that frame of mind
which makes a man want to ride by himself, with shoulders hunched moodily
and eyes staring straight before the nose of his horse.
But the sky was soft and seemed to smile down at him, and the clouds
loitered in the blue of it and drifted aimlessly with no thought of
reaching harbor on the sky-line. From under his horse's feet the prairie
sod sent up sweet, earthy odors into his nostrils and the tinkle of the
bells in the saddle-bunch behind him made music in his ears—the sort
of music a true cowboy loves. Yellow-throated meadow larks perched swaying
in the top of gray sage bushes and sang to him that the world was good.
Sober gray curlews circled over his head, their long, funny bills thrust
out straight as if to point the way for their bodies to follow and cried,
"Kor-r-eck, kor-r-eck!"—which means just what the meadow larks sang.
So Thurston, hearing it all about him, seeing it and smelling it and
feeling the riot of Spring in his blood, straightened the hunch out of his
shoulders and admitted that it was all true: that the world was good.
At Miles City he found himself in the midst of a small army, the regulars
of the range—-which grew hourly larger as the outfits rolled in. The
rattle of mess-wagons, driven by the camp cook and followed by the
bed-wagon, was heard from all directions. Jingling cavvies (herds of
saddle horses they were, driven and watched over by the horse wrangler)
came out of the wilderness in the wake of the wagons. Thurston got out his
camera and took pictures of the scene. In the first, ten different camps
appeared; he mourned because two others were perforced omitted. Two hours
later he snapped the Kodak upon fifteen, and there were four beyond range
of the lens.
Park came along, saw what he was doing and laughed. "Yuh better wait till
they commence to come," he said. "When yuh can stand on this little hill
and count fifty or sixty outfits camped within two or three miles uh here,
yuh might begin taking pictures."
"I think you're loading me," Thurston retorted calmly, winding up the roll
for another exposure.
"All right—suit yourself about it." Park walked off and left him
peering into the view-finder.
Still they came. From Swift Current to the Cypress Hills the Canadian
cattlemen sent their wagons to join the big meet. From the Sweet Grass
Hills to the mouth of Milk River not a stock-grower but was represented.
From the upper Musselshell they came, and from out the Judith Basin; from
Shellanne east to Fort Buford. Truly it was a gathering of the clans such
as eastern Montana had never before seen.
For a day and a night the cowboys made merry in town while their foremen
consulted and the captains appointed by the Association mapped out the
different routes. At times like these, foremen such as Park and Deacon
Smith were shorn of their accustomed power, and worked under orders as
strict as those they gave their men.
Their future movements thoroughly understood, the army moved down upon the
range in companies of five and six crews, and the long summer's work
began; each rider a unit in the war against the chaos which the winter had
wrought; in the fight of the stockmen to wrest back their fortunes from
the wilderness, and to hold once more their sway over the range-land.
Their method called for concerted action, although it was simple enough.
Two of the Lazy Eight wagons, under Park and Gene Wasson (for Hank that
spring was running four crews and had promoted Gene wagon-boss of one),
joined forces with the Circle-Bar, the Flying U, and a Yellowstone outfit
whose wagon-boss, knowing best the range, was captain of the five crews;
and drove north, gathering and holding all stock which properly ranged
beyond the Missouri.
That meant day after day of "riding circle"—which is, being
interpreted, riding out ten or twelve miles from camp, then turning and
driving everything before them to a point near the center of the circle
thus formed. When they met the cattle were bunched, and all stock which
belonged on that range was cut out, leaving only those which had crossed
the river during the storms of winter. These were driven on to the next
camping place and held, which meant constant day-herding and
night-guarding work which cowboys hate more than anything else.
There would be no calf roundup proper that spring, for all calves were
branded as they were gathered. Many there were among the she-stock that
would not cross the river again; their carcasses made unsightly blots in
the coulee-bottoms and on the wind-swept levels. Of the calves that had
followed their mothers on the long trail, hundreds had dropped out of the
march and been left behind for the wolves. But not all. Range-bred cattle
are blessed with rugged constitutions and can bear much of cold and
hunger. The cow that can turn tail to a biting wind the while she ploughs
to the eyes in snow and roots out a very satisfactory living for herself
breeds calves that will in time do likewise and grow fat and strong in the
doing. He is a sturdy, self-reliant little rascal, is the range-bred calf.
When fifteen hundred head of mixed stock, bearing Northern brands, were in
the hands of the day-herders, Park and his crew were detailed to take them
on and turn them loose upon their own range north of Milk River. Thurston
felt that he had gleaned about all the experience he needed, and more than
enough hard riding and short sleeping and hurried eating. He announced
that he was ready to bid good-by to the range. He would help take the herd
home, he told Park, and then he intended to hit the trail for little, old
He still agreed with the meadow larks that the world was good, but he had
made himself believe that he really thought the civilized portion of it
was better, especially when the uncivilized part holds a girl who persists
in saying no when she should undoubtedly say yes, and insists that a man
must be a hero, else she will have none of him.
CHAPTER XII. HIGH WATER
It was nearing the middle of June, and it was getting to be a very hot
June at that. For two days the trail-herd had toiled wearily over the
hills and across the coulees between the Missouri and Milk River. Then the
sky threatened for a day, and after that they plodded in the rain.
"Thank the Lord that's done with," sighed Park when he saw the last of the
herd climb, all dripping, up the north bank of the Milk River. "To-morrow
we can turn 'em loose. And I tell yuh, Bud, we didn't get across none too
soon. Yuh notice how the river's coming up? A day later and we'd have had
to hold the herd on the other side, no telling how long."
"It is higher than usual; I noticed that," Thurston agreed absently. He
was thinking more of Mona just then than of the river. He wondered if she
would be at home. He could easily ride down there and find out. It wasn't
far; not a quarter of a mile, but he assured himself that he wasn't going,
and that he was not quite a fool, he hoped Even if she were at home, what
good could that possibly do him? Just give him several bad nights, when he
would lie in his corner of the tent and listen to the boys snoring with a
different key for every man. Such nights were not pleasant, nor were the
thoughts that caused them.
From where they were camped upon a ridge which bounded a broad coulee on
the east, he could look down upon the Stevens ranch nestling in the
bottomland, the house half hidden among the cottonwoods. Through the last
hours of the afternoon he watched it hungrily. The big corral ran down to
the water's edge, and he noted idly that three panels of the fence
extended out into the river, and that the muddy water was creeping
steadily up until at sundown the posts of the first panel barely showed
above the water.
Park came up to him and looked down upon the little valley. "I never did
see any sense in Jack Stevens building where he did," he remarked. "There
ain't a June flood that don't put his corral under water, and some uh
these days it's going to get the house. He was too lazy to dig a well back
on high ground; he'd rather take chances on having the whole business
washed off the face uh the earth."
"There must be danger of it this year if ever," Thurston observed
uneasily. "The river is coming up pretty fast, it seems to me. It must
have raised three feet since we crossed this afternoon."
"I'll course there's danger, with all that snow coming out uh the
mountains. And like as not Jack's in Shellanne roosting on somebody's pool
table and telling it scary, instead uh staying at home looking after his
stuff. Where yuh going, Bud?"
"I'm going to ride down there," Thurston answered constrainedly. "The
women may be all alone."
"Well, I'll go along, if you'll hold on a minute. Jack ain't got a lick uh
sense. I don't care if he is Mona's brother."
"Half brother," corrected Thurston, as he swung up into the saddle. He had
a poor opinion of Jack and resented even that slight relation to Mona.
The road was soggy with the rain which fell steadily; down in the bottom,
the low places in the road were already under water, and the river,
widening almost perceptibly in its headlong rush down the narrow valley,
crept inch by inch up its low banks. When they galloped into the yard
which sloped from the house gently down to the river fifty yards away,
Mona's face appeared for a moment in the window. Evidently she had been
watching for some one, and Thurston's heart flopped in his chest as he
wondered, fleetingly, if it could be himself. When she opened the door her
eyes greeted him with a certain wistful expression that he had never seen
in them before. He was guilty of wishing that Park had stayed in camp.
"Oh, I'm glad you rode over," she welcomed—but she was careful,
after that first swift glance, to look at Park. "Jack wasn't at camp, was
he? He went to town this morning, and I looked for hi back long before
now. But it's a mistake ever to look for Jack until he's actually in
Park smiled vaguely. He was afraid it would not be polite to agree with
her as emphatically as he would like to have done. But Thurston had no
smile ready, polite or otherwise. Instead he drew down his brows in a way
not complimentary to Jack.
"Where is your mother?" he asked, almost peremptorily.
"Mamma went to Great Falls last week," she told him primly, just grazing
him with one of her impersonal glances which nearly drove him to
desperation. "Aunt Mary has typhoid fever—there seems to be so much
of that this spring and they sent for mamma. She's such a splendid nurse,
Thurston did know, but he passed over the subject. "And you're alone?" he
"Certainly not; aren't you two here?" Mona could be very pert when she
tried. "Jack and I are holding down the ranch just now; the boys are all
on roundup, of course. Jack went to town today to see some one.
"Um-m-yes, of course." It was Park, still trying to be polite and not
commit himself on the subject of Jack. The "some one" whom Jack went
oftenest to see was the bartender in the Palace saloon, but it was not
necessary to tell her that.
"The river's coming up pretty fast, Mona," he ventured. "Don't yuh think
yuh ought to pull out and go visiting?"
"No, I don't." Mona's tone was very decided. "I wouldn't drop down on a
neighbor without warning just because the river happens to be coming up.
It has 'come up' every June since we've been living here, and there have
been several of them. At the worst it never came inside the gate."
"You can never tell what it might do," Park argued. "Yuh know yourself
there's never been so much snow in the mountains. This hot weather we've
been having lately, and then the rain, will bring it a-whooping. Can't yuh
ride over to the Jonses? One of us'll go with yuh."
"No, I can't." Mona's chin went up perversely. "I'm no coward, I hope,
even if there was any danger which there isn't."
Thurston's chin went up also, and he sat a bit straighter. Whether she
meant it or not, he took her words as a covert stab at himself. Probably
she did not mean it; at any rate the blood flew consciously to her cheeks
after she had spoken, and she caught her under lip sharply between her
teeth. And that did not help matters or make her temper more yielding.
"Anyway," she added hurriedly, "Jack will be here; he's likely to come any
"Uh course, if Jack's got some new kind of half-hitch he can put on the
river and hold it back yuh'll be all right," fleered Park, with the
freedom of an old friend. He had known Mona when she wore dresses to her
shoe-tops and her hair in long, brown curls down her back.
She wrinkled her nose at him also with the freedom of an old friend and
Thurston stirred restlessly in his chair. He did not like even Park to be
too familiar with Mona, though he knew there was a girl in Shellanne whose
name Park sometimes spoke in his sleep.
She lifted the big glass lamp down from its place on the clock shelf and
lighted it with fingers not quite steady. "You men," she remarked, "think
women ought to be wrapped in pink cotton and put in a glass cabinet. If,
by any miracle, the river should come up around the house, I flatter
myself I should be able to cope with the situation. I'd just saddle my
horse and ride out to high ground!"
"Would yuh?" Park grinned skeptically. "The road from here to the hill is
half under water right now; the river's got over the bank above, and is
flooding down through the horse pasture. By the time the water got up here
the river'd be as wide and deep one side uh yuh as the other. Then where'd
yuh be at?"
"It won't get up here, though," Mona asserted coolly. "It never has."
"No, and the Lazy Eight never had to work the Yellowstone range on spring
roundup before either," Park told her meaningly.
Whereupon Mona got upon her pedestal and smiled her unpleasant smile,
against which even Park had no argument ready.
They lingered till long after all good cowpunchers are supposed to be in
their beds—unless they are standing night-guard—but Jack
failed to appear. The rain drummed upon the roof and the river swished and
gurgled against the crumbling banks, and grumbled audibly to itself
because the hills stood immovably in their places and set bounds which it
could not pass, however much it might rage against their base.
When the clock struck a wheezy nine Mona glanced at it significantly and
smothered a yawn more than half affected. It was a hint which no man with
an atom of self-respect could overlook. With mutual understanding the two
"I guess we'll have to be going," Park said with some ceremony. "I kept
think ing maybe Jack would show up; it ain't right to leave yuh here alone
"I don't see why not; I'm not the least bit afraid," Mona said. Her tone
was impersonal and had in it a note of dismissal.
So, there being nothing else that they could do, they said good-night and
took themselves off.
"This is sure fierce," Park grumbled when they struck the lower ground.
"Darn a man like Jack Stevens! He'll hang out there in town and bowl up on
other men's money till plumb daylight. It's a wonder Mona didn't go with
her mother. But no—it'd be awful if Jack had to cook his own grub
for a week. Say, the water has come up a lot, don't yuh think, Bud? If it
raises much more Mona'll sure have a chance to 'cope with the situation.
It'd just about serve her right, too."
Thurston did not think so, but he was in too dispirited a mood to argue
the point. It had not been good for his peace of mind to sit and watch the
color come and go in Mona's cheeks, and the laughter spring unheralded
into her dear, big eyes, and the light tangle itself in the waves of her
He guided his horse carefully through the deep places, and noted uneasily
how much deeper it was than when they had crossed before. He cursed the
conventions which forbade his staying and watching over the girl back
there in the house which already stood upon an island, cut off from the
safe, high land by a strip of backwater that was widening and deepening
every minute, and, when it rose high enough to flow into the river below,
would have a current that would make a nasty crossing.
On the first rise he stopped and looked back at the light which shone out
from among the dripping cottonwoods. Even then he was tempted to go back
and brave her anger that he might feel assured of her safety.
"Oh, come on," Park cried impatiently. "We can't do any good sitting out
here in the rain. I don't suppose the water will get clear up to the
house; it'll likely do things to the sheds and corrals, though, and serve
Jack right. Come on, Bud. Mona won't have us around, so the sooner we get
under cover the better for us. She's got lots uh nerve; I guess she'll
make out all right."
There was common sense in the argument, and Thurston recognized it and
rode on to camp. But instead of unsaddling, as he would naturally have
done, he tied Sunfish to the bed-wagon and threw his slicker over his back
to protect him from the rain. And though Park said nothing, he followed
CHAPTER XIII. "I'll STAY—ALWAYS"
For a long time Thurston lay with wide-open eyes staring up at nothing,
listening to the rain and thinking. By and by the rain ceased and he could
tell by the dim whiteness of the tent roof that the clouds must have been
swept away from before the moon, then just past the full.
He got up carefully so as not to disturb the others, and crept over two or
three sleeping forms on his way to the opening, untied the flap and went
out. The whole hilltop and the valley below were bathed in mellow
radiance. He studied critically the wide sweep of the river. He might
almost have thought it the Missouri itself, it stretched so far from bank
to bank; indeed, it seemed to know no banks but the hills themselves. He
turned toward where the light had shone among the cottonwoods below; there
was nothing but a great blot of shade that told him nothing.
A step sounded just behind. A hand, the hand of Park, rested upon his
shoulder. "Looks kinda dubious, don't it, kid? Was yuh thinking about
riding down there?"
"Yes," Thurston answered simply. "Are you coming?"
"Sure," Park assented.
They got upon their horses and headed down the trail to the Stevens place.
Thurston would have put Sunfish to a run, but Park checked him.
"Go easy," he admonished. "If there's swimming to be done and it's a cinch
there will be, he's going to need all the wind he's got."
Down the hill they stopped at the edge of a raging torrent and strained
their eyes to see what lay on the other side. While they looked, a light
twinkled out from among the tree-tops. Thurston caught his breath sharply.
"She's upstairs," he said, and his voice sounded strained and unnatural.
"It's just a loft where they store stuff." He started to ride into the
"Come on back here, yuh chump!" Park roared. "Get off and loosen the cinch
before yuh go in there, or yuh won't get far. Sunfish'll need room to
breathe, once he gets to bucking that current. He's a good water horse,
just give him his head and don't get rattled and interfere with him. And
we've got to go up a ways before we start in."
He led the way upstream, skirting under the bluff, and Thurston, chafing
against the delay, followed obediently. Trees were racing down, their
clean-washed roots reaching up in a tangle from the water, their branches
waving like imploring arms. A black, tar-papered shack went scudding past,
lodged upon a ridge where the water was shallower, and sat there swaying
drunkenly. Upon it a great yellow cat clung and yowled his fear.
"That's old Dutch Henry's house," Park shouted above the roar. "I'll bet
he's cussing things blue on some pinnacle up there." He laughed at the
picture his imagination conjured, and rode out into the swirl.
Thurston kept close behind, mindful of Park's command to give Sunfish his
head. Sunfish had carried him safely out of the stampede and he had no
fear of him now.
His chief thought was a wish that he might do this thing quite alone. He
was jealous of Park's leading, and thought bitterly that Mona would thank
Park alone and pass him by with scant praise and he did so want to
vindicate himself. The next minute he was cursing his damnable
selfishness. A tree had swept down just before him, caught Park and his
horse in its branches and hurried on as if ashamed of what it had done.
Thurston, in that instant, came near jerking Sunfish around to follow; but
he checked the impulse as it was formed and left the reins alone which was
wise. He could not have helped Park, and he could very easily have drowned
himself. Though it was not thought of himself but of Mona that stayed his
They landed at the gate. Sunfish scrambled with his feet for secure
footing, found it and waded up to the front door. The water was a foot
deep on the porch. Thurston beat an imperative tattoo upon the door with
the butt of his quirt, and shouted. And Mona's voice, shorn of its
customary assurance, answered faintly from the loft.
He shouted again, giving directions in a tone of authority which must have
sounded strange to her, but which she did not seem to resent and obeyed
without protest. She had to wade from the stairs to the door and when
Thurston stooped and lifted her up in front of him, she looked as if she
were very glad to have him there.
"You didn't 'cope with the situation,' after all," he remarked while she
was settling herself firmly in the saddle.
"I went to sleep and didn't notice the water till it was coming in at the
door," she explained. "And then—" She stopped abruptly.
"Then what?" he demanded maliciously. "Were you afraid?"
"A little," she confessed reluctantly.
Thurston gloated over it in silence—until he remembered Park. After
that he could think of little else. As before, now Sunfish battled as
seemed to him best, for Thurston, astride behind the saddle, held Mona
somewhat tighter than he need to have done, and let the horse go.
So long as Sunfish had footing he braced himself against the mad rush of
waters and forged ahead. But out where the current ran swimming deep he
floundered desperately under his double burden. While his strength lasted
he kept his head above water, struggling gamely against the flood that
lapped over his back and bubbled in his nostrils. Thurston felt his
laboring and clutched Mona still tighter. Of a sudden the horse's head
went under; the black water came up around Thurston's throat with a hungry
swish, and Sunfish went out from under him like an eel.
There was a confused roaring in his ears, a horrid sense of suffocation
for a moment. But he had learned to swim when he was a boy at school, and
he freed one hand from its grip on Mona and set to paddling with much
vigor and considerably less skill. And though the under-current clutched
him and the weight of Mona taxed his strength, he managed to keep them
both afloat and to make a little headway until the deepest part lay behind
How thankful he was when his feet touched bottom, no one but himself ever
knew! His ears hummed from the water in them, and the roar of the river
was to him as the roar of the sea; his eyes smarted from the clammy touch
of the dingy froth that went hurrying by in monster flakes; his lungs
ached and his heart pounded heavily against his ribs when he stopped,
gasping, beyond reach of the water-devils that lapped viciously behind.
He stood a minute with his arm still around her, and coughed his voice
clear. "Park went down," he began, hardly knowing what it was he was
saying. "Park—" He stopped, then shouted the name aloud. "Park!
And from somewhere down the river came a faint reassuring whoop.
"Thank the Lord!" gasped Thurston, and leaned against her for a second.
Then he straightened. "Are you all right?" he asked, and drew her toward a
rock near at hand—for in truth, the knees of him were shaking. They
sat down, and he looked more closely at her face and discovered that it
was wet with something more than river water. Mona the self-assured, Mona
the strong-hearted, was crying. And instinctively he knew that not the
chill alone made her shiver. He was keeping his arm around her waist
deliberately, and it pleased him that she let it stay. After a minute she
did something which surprised him mightily—and pleased him more: she
dropped her face down against the soaked lapels of his coat, and left it
there. He laid a hand tenderly against her cheek and wondered if he dared
feel so happy.
"Little girl—oh, little girl," he said softly, and stopped. For the
crowding emotions in his heart and brain the English language has no
Mona lifted her face and looked into his eyes. Her own were soft and
shining in the moonlight, and she was smiling a little—the roguish
little smile of the imitation pastel portrait. "You—you'll unpack
your typewriter, won't you please, and—and stay?"
Thurston crushed her close. "Stay? The range-land will never get rid of me
now," he cried jubilantly. "Hank wanted to take me into the Lazy Eight, so
now I'll buy an interest, and stay—always."
"You dear!" Mona snuggled close and learned how it feels to be kissed, if
she had never known before.
Sunfish, having scrambled ashore a few yards farther down, came up to them
and stood waiting, as if to be forgiven for his failure to carry them safe
to land, but Thurston, after the first inattentive glance, ungratefully
took no heed of him.
There was a sound of scrambling foot-steps and Park came dripping up to
them. "Well, say!" he greeted. "Ain't yuh got anything to do but set here
and er—look at the moon? Break away and come up to camp. I'll rout
out the cook and make him boil us some coffee."
Thurston turned joyfully toward him. "Park, old fellow, I was afraid."
"Yuh better reform and quit being afraid," Park bantered. "I got out uh
the mix-up fine, but I guess my horse went on down—poor devil. I was
poking around below there looking for him."
"Well, Mona, I see yuh was able to 'cope with the situation,' all right—but
yuh needed Bud mighty bad, I reckon. The chances is yuh won't have no
house in the morning, so Bud'll have to get busy and rustle one for yuh. I
guess you'll own up, now, that the water can get through the gate." He
laughed in his teasing way.
Mona stood up, and her shining eyes were turned to Thurston. "I don't
care," she asserted with reddened cheeks. "I'm just glad it did get
"Same here," said Thurston with much emphasis.
Then, with Mona once more in the saddle, and with Thurston leading Sunfish
by the bridle-rein, they trailed damply and happily up the long ridge to
where the white tents of the roundup gleamed sharply against the sky-line.