Andy stopped short, silenced by that unexplainable sense which warns us when our words are received with cold disbelief.
"Mh-hm—I thought maybe you'd run up against a hostile jackrabbit, or something," Pink purred, and went back to his place on the bench.
"Haw-haw-haw-w-w!" came Big Medicine's tardy bellow. "That's more reasonable than the sheepherder story, by cripes!"
Andy looked at them much as he had stared up at the sky before he began to swear—speechlessly, with a trembling of the muscles around his mouth. He was quite white, considering how tanned he was, and his forehead was shiny, with beads of perspiration standing thickly upon it.
"Weary, I wish you'd untie this rope. I can't." He spoke still in that peculiar, husky tone, and, when the last words were out, his teeth went together with a snap.
Weary glanced inquiringly across at the Native Son, who was regarding Andy steadily, as one gazes upon a tangled rope, looking for the end which will easiest lead to an untangling.
Miguel's brown eyes turned languidly to meet the look. "You'd better untie him," he advised in his soft drawl. "He may not be in the habit of doing it—but he's telling the truth."
"Untie me, Miguel," begged Andy, going over to him, "and let me at this bunch."
"I'll do it," said Weary, and rose pacifically. "I kinda believe you myself, Andy. But you can't blame the boys none; you've fooled 'em till they're dead shy of anything they can't see through. And, besides, it sure does look like a plant. I'd back you single-handed against a dozen sheepherders like then two we've been chasing around. If I hadn't felt that way I wouldn't have sent yuh out alone with 'em."
"Well, Andy needn't think he's goin' to stick me on that there story," Slim declared with brutal emphasis. "I've swallered too many baits, by golly. He's figurin' on gettin' us all out on the war-path, runnin' around in circles, so's't he can give us the laugh. I'll bet, by golly, he paid then herders to tie him up like that. He can't fool me!"
"Say, Slim, I do believe your brains is commencin' to sprout!" Big Medicine thumped him painfully upon the back by way of accenting the compliment. "You got the idee, all right."
Andy stood quiet while Weary unwound the rope; lifted his numbed arms with some difficulty, and displayed to the doubters his rope-creased wrists, and purple, swollen hands.
"I couldn't fight a caterpiller right now," he said thickly. "Look at them hands! Do yuh call that a josh? I've been tied up like a bed-roll for five hours, you—" Well, never mind, he merely repeated a part of what he had recited aloud in Antelope coulee, the only difference being that he applied the vitriolic utterances to the Happy Family instead of to sheepherders, and that with the second recitation he gained much in fluency and dramatic delivery.
It is not nice for a man to swear; to swear the way Andy did, at any rate. But the result perhaps atoned in a measure for the wickedness, in that the Happy Family were absolutely convinced of his sincerity, and the feelings of Andy greatly relieved, so that, when he had for the third time that day completely exhausted his vocabulary, he sat down and began to eat his dinner with a keen appetite.
"I don't suppose you know where your horse is at, by this tine," Weary observed, as casually as possible, breaking a somewhat constrained silence.
"I don't—and I don't give a darn," Andy snapped back. He ate a few mouthfuls, and added less savagely: "He wasn't in sight, as I came along. I didn't follow the trail; I struck straight across and came down the coulee. He may be at the gate, and he may be down toward Rogers'."
Pink reached for a toothpick, eyeing Andy side-long; dimpled his cheeks disarmingly, and cleared his throat. "Please don't kill me off when you get that pie swallowed," he began pacifically. "Strange as it may seem, I believe you, Andy. What I want to know is this: Who owns them Dots? And what are they chasing all over the Flying U range for? It looks plumb malicious, to me. Did you find out anything about 'en, Andy, while you—er—while they—" His eyes twinkled and betrayed him for an arrant pretender. (Pink was not afraid of anything on earth—least of all Andy Green.)
"I will kill yuh by inches, if I hear any remarks out of yuh that ain't respectful," Andy promised, thawing to his normal tone, which was pleasant to the ear. "I didn't find out much about 'em. The fellow I licked told me that Whittaker and Oleson owned the sheep. He didn't say—"
"Well—by—golly!" Shin thrust his head forward belligerently. "Whittaker! Well, what d'yuh think uh that!" He glared from one face to the other, his gaze at last resting upon Weary. "Say, do yuh reckon it's—Dunk?"
Weary paid no heed to Slim. He leaned forward, his face turned to Andy with that concentration of attention which means so much more than mere exclamation. "You're sure he said Whittaker?" he asked.
His tone and his attitude arrested Andy's cup midway to his mouth. "Sure—Whittaker and Oleson. I never heard of the outfit—who's this Whittaker person?"
Weary settled back in his place and smiled, but his eyes had quite lost their habitually sunny expression.
"Up until four years ago," he explained evenly, "he was the Old Man's partner. We caught him in some mighty dirty work, and—well, he sold out to the Old Man. The old party with the hoofs and tail can't be everywhere at once, the way I've got it sized up, so he turns some of his business over to other folks. Dunk Whittaker's his top hand."
"Why, by golly, he framed up a job on the Gordon boys, and railroaded 'em to the pen, just—"
"Oh, that's the gazabo!" Andy's eyes shone with enlightenment. "I've heard a lot about Dunk, but I didn't know his last name—"
"Say! I'll bet they're the outfit that bought out Denson. That's why old Denson acted so queer, maybe. Selling to a sheep outfit would make the old devil feel kinda uneasy, talking to us—" Pink's eyes were big and purple with excitement. "And that train-load of sheep we saw Sunday, I'll bet is the same identical outfit."
"Dunk Whittaker'd better not try to monkey with me, by golly!" Slim's face was lowering. "And he'd better not monkey with the Flying U either. I'd pump him so full uh holes he'd look like a colander, by golly!"
Weary got up and started to the door, his face suddenly grown careworn. "Slim, you and Miguel better go and hunt up Andy's horse," he said with a hint of abstraction in his tone, as though his mind was busy with more important things. "Maybe Andy'll feel able to help you set those posts, Bud—and you'd better go along the upper end of the little pasture with the wire stretchers and tighten her up; the top wire is pretty loose, I noticed this morning." His fingers fumbled with the door-knob.
"Want me to do anything?" Pink asked quizzically just behind him. "I thought sure we'd go and remonstrate with then gay—"
Weary interrupted him. "The herders can wait—and, anyway, I've kinda got an idea Andy wants to hand out his own brand of poison to that bunch. You and I will take a ride over to Denson's and see what's going on over there. Mamma!" he added fervently, under his breath, "I sure do wish Chip and the Old Man were here!"
CHAPTER VIII. The Dot Outfit
Before he laid him down to sleep, that night, Weary had repeated to himself many times and fervently that wish for old J. G. Whitmore and the stout staff upon which he was beginning more and more to lean, his brother-in-law, Chip Bennett. As matters stood, Weary could not even bring himself to let then know anything about his trouble—and that the thing was beginning to assume the form and shape and general malevolent attributes of Trouble, Weary was forced to admit to himself.
Just at present an unthinking, unobserving person might pass over this sheep outfit as a mere unsavory incident; but Weary was neither unobserving nor unthinking—nor, for the matter of that, were the rest of the Happy Family. It needed no Happy Jack, with his foreboding nature, to point out the unpleasant possibilities that night when the committee of two made their informal report at the supper table.
They had ridden to Denson coulee, which was in reality a meandering branch of Flying U coulee itself. To reach it one rode out of Flying U coulee and over a wide hill, and down again to Denson's. But the creek—Flying U creek—followed the devious turnings from Denson coulee down to the Flying U. A long mile of Flying U coulee J. G. Whitmore owned outright. Another mile he held under no other title save a fence. The creek flowed through it all—but that creek had its source somewhere up near the head of Denson coulee. J. G. Whitmore had, to his regret, been unable to claim the whole earth—or at least that portion of it—for his own; so, when he was constrained to make a choice, he settled himself in the wider, more fertile coulee, which he thereafter called the Flying U. While it is good policy to locate as near as possible to the source of those erratic little creeks which water certain garden spots of the northern range land, it is also well to choose land that will grow plenty of hay. J. G. Whitmore chose the hay land, and trusted that providence would insure the water supply. Through all these years Flying U creek had never once disappointed him. Denson, who settled in the tributary coulee, had not made any difference in the water supply, and his stock had consisted of thirty or forty head of cattle and horses.
When Denson sold, however, things might be different. And, if he had sold to a sheepman, the change might be unpleasant If he had sold to Dunk Whittaker—the Flying U boys faced that possibility just as they would face any other disaster, undaunted, but grim and unsmiling.
It was thus that Pink and Weary rode slowly down into Denson coulee. Two miles back they had passed the band of Dot sheep, feeding leisurely just without the Flying U fence, which was the southern boundary. The bug-killer and the other were there, and they noted that the features of that other bore witness to the truth of Andy's story of the fight. He regarded them with one perfectly good eye and one which was considerably swollen, and grinned a swollen grin.
The two had ridden ten paces past him when Pink pulled up suddenly. "I'm going to get off and lick that son-of-a-gun myself, just for luck," he stated dispassionately. "I'm going to lick 'em both," he revised while he dismounted.
"Oh, come on, Cadwalloper," Weary dissuaded. "You'll likely have all the excitement you need, without that."
"Here, you hold this fool cayuse. No." He shook his head, cutting short further protest. "You're the boss, and you don't want to mix in, and that part is all right. But I ain't responsible—and I sure am going to take a fall or two out of these geesers. They're a-w-l together too stuck on themselves to suit me." Pink did not say that he was thinking of Andy, but nevertheless a vivid recollection of that unfortunate young man's rope-creased wrists and swollen hands sent him toward the herder with long, eager strides.
Pink was not tall, and he was slight and boyish of build; also, his cherubic face, topped by tawny curls and lighted by eyes as deeply blue and as innocent as a baby's, probably deceived that herder, just as they had deceived many another. For Pink was a good deal like a stick of dynamite wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with blue ribbon; and Weary was not at all uneasy over the outcome, as he watched Pink go clanking back, though he loved him well.
Pink did not waste any time or words on the preliminaries. With a delightful frankness of purpose he pulled off his coat and threw it on the ground, as he came up, sent his hat after it, and arrived fist first.
The herder had waited grinning, and he had shouted something to Weary about spanking the kid if Weary didn't make him behave. Speedily he became a very surprised herder, and a distressed one as well.
"All right," Pink remarked, a little quick-breathed, when the herder decided for the third time to get up. "A friend of mine worked yuh over a little, this morning, and I just thought I'd make a better job than he did. Your eyes didn't match. They will, now."
The herder mumbled maledictions after him, but Pink would not even give him the satisfaction of resenting it.
"I'd like to have broken a knuckle against his teeth, darn him," he observed ruefully when he was in the saddle again. "Come on, Weary. It won't take but a minute to hand a punch or two to that bug-killer, and then I'll feel better. They've both got it coming—come on!" This because Weary showed a strong inclination to take the trail and keep it to his destination. "Well, I'll go alone, then. I've got to kinda square myself for the way I threw it into Andy; and you know blamed well, Weary, they played it low-down on him, or they'd never have got that rope on him. And I'm going to lick that—"
"Mamma! You sure are a rambunctious person when you feel that way," Weary made querulous comment; but he rode over with Pink to where the bug-killer was standing with his long stick held in a somewhat menacing manner, and once more he held Pink's horse for him.
Pink was gone longer this time, and he came back with a cut lip and a large lump on his forehead; the bug-killer had thrown a small rock with the precision which comes of much practice—such as stoning disobedient dogs, and the like—and, when Pink rushed at him furiously, the herder caught him very neatly alongside the head with his stick. These little amenities serving merely to whet Pink's appetite for battle, he stopped long enough to thrash that particular herder very thoroughly and to his own complete satisfaction.
"Well, I guess I'm ready to go on now," he observed, dimpling rather one-sidedly as he got back on his horse.
"I thought maybe you'd want to whip the dogs, too," Weary told him dryly; which was the nearest he came to expressing any disapproval of the incident. Weary was a peace-loving soul, whenever peace was compatible with self-respect; and it would never have occurred to him to punish strange men as summarily as Pink had done.
"I would, if the dogs were half as ornery as the men," Pink retorted. "Say, they hang together like bull snakes and rattlers, don't they? If they was human, they'd have helped each other out—but nothing doing! Do you reckon a man could ride up to a couple of our bunch, and thrash one at a time without the other fellow having something to say about it?" He turned in the saddle and looked back. "So help me, Josephine, I've got a good mind to go back and lick them again, for not hanging together like they ought to." But the threat was an idle one, and they went on to Denson's, Weary still with that anxious look in his eyes, and Pink quite complacent over his exploit.
In Denson coulee was an unwonted atmosphere of activity; heretofore the place had been animated chiefly by young Densons engaged in the pursuit of pleasure, but now a covered buggy, evidently just arrived, bore mute witness to the new order of things. There were more horses about the place, a covered wagon or two, three or four men working upon the corral, and, lastly, there was one whom Weary recognized the moment he caught sight of him.
"Looks like a sheep outfit, all right," he said somberly. "And, if that ain't old Dunk himself, it's the devil, and that's next thing to him."
Dunk, they judged, had just arrived with another man whom they did not know: a tall man with light hair that hung lank to his collar, a thin, sharp-nosed face and a wide mouth, which stretched easily into a smile, but which was none the pleasanter for that. When he turned inquiringly toward them they saw that he was stoop-shouldered; though not from any deformity, but from sheer, slouching lankness. Dunk gave them a swift, sour look from under his eyebrows and went on.
Weary rode straight past the lank man, whom he judged to be Oleson, and overtook Dunk Whittaker himself.
"Hello, Dunk," he said cheerfully, sliding over in the saddle so that a foot hung free of the stirrup, as men who ride much have learned to do when they stop for a chat, thereby resting while they may. "Back on the old stamping ground, are you?"
"Since you see me here, I suppose I am," Dunk made churlish response.
"Do you happen to own those Dot sheep, back there on the hill?" Weary tilted his head toward home.
"I happen to own half of them." By then they had reached the gate and Dunk passed through and started on to the house.
"Oh, don't be in a rush—come on back and be sociable," Weary called out, in the mildest of tones, twisting the reins around his saddle-horn so that he might roll a cigarette at ease.
Dunk remembered, perhaps, certain things he had learned when he was J. G. Whitmore's partner, and had more or less to do with the charter members of the Happy Family. He came back and stood by the gate, ungraciously enough, to be sure; still, he came back. Weary smiled under cover of lighting his cigarette. Dunk, by that reluctant compliance, betrayed something which Weary had been rather anxious to know.
"We've been having a little trouble with those sheep of yours," Weary remarked between puffs. "You've got some poor excuses for humans herding them. They drove the bunch across our coulee just exactly three times. There ain't enough grass left in our lower field to graze a prairie dog." He glanced back to see where Pink was, saw that he was close behind, as was the lank man, and spoke in a tone that included them all.
"The Flying U ain't pasturing sheep, this spring," he informed them pleasantly. "But, seeing the grass is eat up, we'll let yuh pay for it. Why didn't you bring them in along the trail, anyway?"
"I didn't bring them in. I just came down from Butte to-day. I suppose the herders brought them out where the feed was best; they did if they're worth their wages."
"They happened to strike some feed that was pretty expensive. And," he smiled down at Whittaker misleadingly, "you ought to keep an eye on those herders, or they might let you in for another grass bill. The Flying U has got quite a lot of range, right around here, you recollect. And we've got plenty of cattle to eat it. We don't need any help to keep the grass down so we can ride through it."
"Now, look here," began the lank man with that sort of persuasiveness which can turn instantly into bluster, "all this is pure foolishness, you know. We're here to stay. We've bought this place, and some other land to go with it, and we expect to stay right here and make a living. It happens that we expect to make a living off of sheep. Now, we don't want to start in by quarreling with our neighbors, and we don't want our neighbors to start any quarrel with us. All we want—"
"Mamma! You're taking a fine way to make us love yuh," Weary cut in ironically. "I know what you want. You want the same as every other meek and lovely sheepman wants. You want it all—core, seeds and peeling. Dunk," he said with a more impatient disgust than he was in the habit of showing for his fellowmen, "this man's a stranger; but I should think you'd know better than to come in here with sheep."
"I don't know why a sheep outfit isn't exactly as good as a cow outfit, and I don't know why they haven't as much right here. You're welcome to what land you own, but it always seemed to me that public land is open to the use of the public. Now, as Oleson says, we expect to raise sheep here, and we expect your outfit to leave us alone. As far as our sheep crossing your coulee is concerned—I don't know that they did. But, if they did, and, if they did any damage, let J. G. do the talking about that. I deal with the owners—not with the hired men."
Weary, you must understand, was never a bellicose young man. But, for all that, he leaned over and gave Dunk a slap on the jaw which must have stung considerably—and the full reason for his violence lay four years behind the two, when Dunk was part owner of the Flying U, and when his sneering arrogance had been very hard to endure.
"Are you going to swallow that—from a hired man?" Weary inquired, after a minute during which nothing whatever occurred beyond the slow reddening of Dunk's face.
"I'm not going to fight, if that's what you mean," Dunk sneered. "I decline to bring myself down to your level. One doesn't expect anything from a jackass but a bray, you know—and one doesn't feel compelled to bray because the jackass does." He smiled that supercilious smile which Weary had hated of old, and which, he knew, was well used to covering much treachery and small meannesses of various sorts.
"As I said, if the Flying U has any claim against us, let the owner present it in the usual way." Dunk drew down his black brows, lifted a corner of his lip and turned his back deliberately upon them.
Oleson let himself through the gate, which he closed somewhat hastily behind him. "I'm sorry you fellows seem to want to make trouble," he said, without looking up from the latch, which seemed somewhat out of repair, like the rest of the Denson property. "That's a poor way to start in with new neighbors." He lifted his hat with what Pink considered insulting politeness, and followed Dunk into the house.
Weary waited there until they had gone in and closed the door, then turned and rode back home again, frowning thoughtfully at the trail ahead of them all the way, and making no reply to Pink's importunings for war.
"I'd hate to say you've lost your nerve, Weary," Pink cried at last, in sheer desperation. "But why the devil didn't you get down and thump the daylights out of that black son-of-a-gun? I came pretty near walking into him myself, only I hate to butt into another fellow's scrap. But, if I'd known you were going to set there and let him walk off with that sneer on his face—"
"I can't fight a man that won't hit back," Weary protested. "You couldn't either, Cadwalloper. You'd have done just what I did; you'd have let him go."
"He will hit back, all right enough," Pink retorted passionately. "He'll do it when you ain't looking, though. He—"
"I know it," Weary sighed. "I'm kinda sorry, now, I slapped him. He'll hit back—but he won't hit me; he'll aim at the outfit. If the Old Man was here, or Chip, I'd feel a whole lot easier in my mind."
"They couldn't do anything you can't do," Pink assured him loyally, forgetting his petulance when he saw the careworn look in Weary's face. "All they can do is gobble all the range around here—and I guess there's a few of us that will have a word or two to say about that."
"What makes me sore," Weary confided, "is knowing that Dunk isn't thinking altogether of the dollar end of it. He's tickled to death to get a whack at the outfit. And I hate to see him get away with it; but I guess we'll have to stand for it."
That sentiment did not please Pink; nor, when Weary repeated it later that evening in the bunk-house, did it please the Happy Family. The less pleasing it was because it was perfectly true and every man of them knew it. Beyond keeping the sheep off Flying U land, there was nothing they could do without stepping over the line into lawlessness—and, while they were not in any sense a meek Happy Family, they were far more law-abiding than their conversation that night made them appear.
CHAPTER IX. More Sheep
The next week was a time of harassment for the Flying U; a week filled to overflowing with petty irritations, traceable, directly or indirectly, to their new neighbors, the Dot sheepmen. The band in charge of the bug-chaser and that other unlovable man from Wyoming fed just as close to the Flying U boundary as their guardians dared let them feed; a great deal closer than was good for the tempers of the Happy Family, who rode fretfully here and there upon their own business and at the same time tried to keep an eye upon their unsavory neighbors—a proceeding as nerve-racking as it was futile.
The Native Son, riding home in jingling haste from Dry Lake, whither he had hurried one afternoon in the hope of cheering news from Chicago, reported another trainload of Dots on the wide level beyond Antelope coulee. There were, he said, four men in charge of the band, and he believed they carried guns, though he was not positive of that. They were moving slowly, and he thought they would not attempt to cross Flying U coulee before the next day; though, from the course they were taking, he was sure they meant to cross.
Coupled with that bit of ill-tidings, the brief note from Chip, saying very little about the Old Man, but implying a good deal by its very omissions, would have been enough to send the Happy Family to sleepless beds that night if they had been the kind to endure with silent fortitude their troubles.
"If you fellers would back me up," brooded Big Medicine down by the corral after supper, "I'd see to it them sheep never gits across the coulee, by cripes! I'd send 'em so far the other way they'd git plumb turned around and forgit they ever wanted to go south."
"It's all Dunk's devilishness," Jack Bates declared. "He could take them in the other way, even if the feed ain't so good along the trail. It's most all prairie-dog towns—but that's good enough for sheep." Jack, in his intense partisanship, spoke as if sheep were not entitled to decent grass at any time or under any circumstances.
"Them herders packin' guns looks to me like they're goin' to make trouble if they kin," gloomed Happy Jack. "I betche they'll kill somebody before they're through. When sheepmen gits mean—"
Pink picked up his rope and started for the large corral, where a few saddle horses had been driven in just before supper and had not yet been turned out.
"You fellows can stand around and chew the rag, if you want to," he said caustically, "and wait for Weary to make a war-talk. But I'm going to keep cases on them Dots, if I have to stand an all-night guard on 'em. I don't blame Weary; he's looking out for the law-and-order business—and that's all right. But I'm not in charge of the outfit. I'm going to do as I darn please, and, if they don't like my style, they can give me my time."
"Good for you, Little One!" Big Medicine hurried to overtake him so that he might slap him on the shoulder with his favorite, sledge-hammer method of signifying his approval of a man's sentiments. "Honest to grandma, I was just b'ginnin' to think this bunch was gitting all streaked up with yeller. 'Course, we ain't goin' to wait for no official orders, by cripes! I'd ruther lock Weary up in the blacksmith shop than let him tell us to go ahead. Go awn and tell him a good, stiff lie, Andy—just to keep him interested while us fellers make a gitaway. He ain't in on this; we don't want him in on it."
"What yuh goin' to do?" Happy Jack inquired suspiciously. "Yuh can't go and monkey with them sheep, er them herders. They ain't on our land. And, if you don't git killed, old Dunk'll fix yuh like he fixed the Gordon boys—I know him—to a fare-you-well. It'd tickle him to death to git something on us fellers. I betche that's what he's aiming t'do. Git us to fightin' his outfit so's't—"
"Oh, go off and lie down!" Andy implored him contemptuously. "We're going to hang those herders, and drive the sheep all over a cut-back somewhere, like Jesus done to the hogs, and then we're going over and murder old Dunk, if he's at home, and burn the house to hide the guilty deed. And, if the sheriff comes snooping around, asking disagreeable questions, we'll all swear you done it. So now you know our plans; shut your face and go on to bed. And be sure," he added witheringly, "you pull the soogans over your head, so you won't hear the dying shriek of our victims. We're liable to get kinda excited and torture 'em a while before we kill 'em."
"Aw, gwan!" gulped Happy Jack mechanically. "You make me sick! If yuh think I'm goin' to swaller all that, you're away off! You wouldn't dast do nothing of the kind; and, if yuh did, you'd sure have a sweet time layin' it onto me!"
"Oh, I don't know," drawled the Native Son, with a slow, velvet-eyed glance, "any jury in the country would hang you on your looks, Happy. I knew a man down in the lower part of California, who was arrested, tried and hanged for murder. And all the evidence there was against him was the fact that he was seen within five miles of the place on the same day the murder was committed; and his face. They had an expert physiognomist there, and he swore that the fellow had the face of a murderer; the poor devil looked like a criminal—and, though he had one of the best lawyers on the Coast, it was adios for him."
"I s'pose you mean I got the face of a criminal!" sputtered Happy Jack. "It ain't always the purty fellers that wins out—like you 'n' Pink. I never seen the purty man yit that was worth the powder it'd take to blow him up! Aw, you fellers make me sick!" He went off, muttering his opinion of them all, and particularly of the Native Son, who smiled while he listened. "You go awn and start something—and you'll wisht you hadn't," they heard him croak from the big gate, and chuckled over his wrath.
As a matter of fact, the Happy Family, as a whole, or as individuals, had no intention of committing any great violence that evening. Pink wanted to see just where this new band of sheep was spending the night, and to find out, if possible, what were the herders' intentions. Since the boys were all restless under their worry, and, since there is a contagious element in seeking a trouble-zone, none save Happy Jack, who was "sore" at them, and Weary stayed behind in the coulee with old Patsy while the others rode away up the grade and out toward Antelope coulee beyond.
They meant only to reconnoiter, and to warn the herders against attempting to cross Flying U coulee; though they were not exactly sure that they would be perfectly polite, or that they would confine themselves rigidly to the language they were wont to employ at dances. Andy Green, in particular, seemed rather to look forward with pleasure to the meeting. Andy, by the way, had remained heartbrokenly passive during that whole week, because Weary had extracted from him a promise which Andy, mendacious though he had the name of being, felt constrained to keep intact. Though of a truth it irked him much to think of two sheepherders walking abroad unpunished for their outrage upon his person.
Weary, as he had made plain to them all, wanted to avoid trouble if it were possible to do so. And, though they grinned together in secret over his own affair with Dunk—which was not, in their opinion, exactly pacific—they meant to respect his wishes as far as human nature was able to do so. So that the Happy Family, galloping toward the red sunset and the great, gray blot on the prairie, just where the glory of the west tinged the grass blades with red, were not one-half as blood-thirsty as they had proclaimed themselves to be.
While they were yet afar off they could see two men walking slowly in the immediate vicinity of the huddled band. A hundred yards away was a small tent, with a couple of horses picketed near by and feeding placidly. The men turned, gazed long at their approach, and walked to the tent, which they entered somewhat hastily.
"Look at 'em dodge outa sight, will you!" cried Cal Emmett, and lifted up his voice in the yell which sometimes announced the Happy Family's arrival in Dry Lake after a long, thirsty absence on roundup. Other voices joined in after that first, shrill "Ow-ow-ow-eee!" of Cal's; so that presently the whole lot of them were emitting nerve-crimping yells and spurring their horses into a thunder of hoofbeats, as they bore down upon the tent. Between howls they laughed, picturing to themselves four terrified sheepherders cowering within those frail, canvas walls.
"I'm a rambler, and a gambler, and far from my ho-o-me, And if yuh don't like me, jest leave me alo-o-ne!" chanted Big Medicine most horribly, and finished with a yell that almost scared himself and set his horse to plunging wildly.
"Come out of there, you lop-eared mutton-chewers, and let us pick the wool outa your teeth!" shouted Andy Green, telling himself hastily that this was not breaking his promise to Weary, and yielding to the temptation of coming as close to the guilty persons as he might; for, while these were not the men who had tied him and left him alone on the prairie, they belonged to the same outfit, and there was some comfort in giving them a few disagreeable minutes.
Pink, in the lead, was turning to ride around the tent, still yelling, when someone within the tent fired a rifle—and did not aim as high as he should. The bullet zipped close over the head of Big Medicine, who happened to be opposite the crack between the tent-flaps. The hand of Big Medicine jerked back to his hip; but, quick as he was, the Native Son plunged between him and the tent before he could take aim.
"Steady, amigo," smiled Miguel. "You aren't a crazy sheepherder."
"No, but I'm goin' to kill off one. Git outa my way!" Big Medicine was transformed into a cold-eyed, iron-jawed fighting machine. He dug the spurs in, meaning to ride ahead of Miguel. But Miguel's spurs also pressed home, so that the two horses plunged as one. Big Medicine, bellowing one solitary oath, drew his right leg from the stirrup to dismount. Miguel reached out, caught him by the arm, and held him to the saddle. And, though Big Medicine was a strong man, the grip held firm and unyielding.
"You must think of the outfit, you know," said Miguel, smiling still. "There must be no shooting. Once that begins—" He shrugged his shoulders with that slight, eloquent movement, which the Happy Family had come to know so well. He was speaking to them all, as they crowded up to the scuffle. "The man who feels the trigger-itch had better throw his gun away," he advised coolly. "I know, boys. I've seen these things start before. All hell can't stop you, once you begin to shoot. Put it up, Bud, or give it to me."
"The man don't live that can shoot at me, by cripes, and git away with it. Not if he misses killin' me!" Big Medicine was shaking with rage; but the Native Son saw that he hesitated, nevertheless, and laughed outright.
"Call him out and give him a thumping. That's good enough for a sheepherder," he suggested as a substitute.
Perhaps because the Native Son so seldom offered advice, and, because of his cool courage in interfering with Big Medicine at such a time, Bud's jaw relaxed and his pale eyes became more human in their expression. He even permitted Miguel to remove the big, wicked Colt from his hand, and slide it into his own pocket; whereat the Happy Family gasped with astonishment. Not even Pink would have dreamed of attempting such a thing.
"Well he's got to come out and take a lickin', anyway," shouted Big Medicine vengefully, and rode close enough to slap the canvas smartly with his quirt. By all the gods he knew by name he called upon the offender to come forth, while the others drew up in a rude half-circle to await developments. Heavy silence was the reply he got. It was as though the men within were sitting tense and watchful, like cougars crouched for a spring, with claws unsheathed and muscles quivering.
"You better come out," called Andy sharply, after they had waited a decent interval. "We didn't come here hunting trouble; we want to know where you're headed for with these sheep. The fellow that cut loose with the gun—"
"Aw, don't talk so purty! I'm gitting almighty tired, just setting here lettin' m' legs hang down. Git your ropes, boys!" With one sweeping gesture of his arm Big Medicine made plain his meaning as he rode a few paces away, his fingers fumbling with the string that held his rope. "I'm goin' to have a look at 'em, anyway," he grinned. "I sure do hate to see men act so bashful."
With his rope free and ready for action, Big Medicine shook the loop out, glanced around, and saw that Andy, Pink and Cal Emmett were also ready, and, with a dexterous flip, settled the noose neatly over the iron pin that thrust up through the end of the ridge-pole in front. Andy's loop sank neatly over it a second later, and the two wheeled and dashed away together, with Pink and Irish duplicating their performance at the other end of the tent. The dingy, smoke-stained canvas swayed, toppled, as the pegs gave way, and finally lay flat upon the prairie fifty feet from where it had stood, leaving the inmates exposed to the cruel stare of eight unfriendly cowpunchers. Four cowering figures they were, with guns in their hands that shook.
"Drop them guns!" thundered Big Medicine, flipping his rope loose and recoiling it mechanically as he plunged up to the group.
One man obeyed. One gave a squawk of terror and permitted his gun to go off at random before he fled toward the coulee. The other two crouched behind their bed-rolls, set their jaws doggedly and glared defiance.
Pink, Andy, Irish, Big Medicine and the Native Son slid off their horses and made a rush at them. A rifle barked viciously, and Slim, sitting prudently on his horse well in the rear, gave a yell and started for home at a rapid pace.
Considering the provocation the Happy Family behaved with quite praiseworthy self-control and leniency. They did not lynch those two herders. They did not kill them, either by bullets, knives, or beating to death. They took away the guns, however, and they told them with extreme bluntness what sort of men they believed them to be. They defined accurately their position in society at large, in that neighborhood, and stated what would be their future fate if they persisted in acting with so little caution and common sense.
At Andy Green's earnest behest they also wound them round and round with ropes, before they departed, and gave them some very good advice upon the matter of range rules and the herding of sheep, particularly of Dot sheep.
"You're playing big luck, if you only had sense enough to know it," Andy pointed out to the recumbent three before they rode away. "We didn't come over here on the warpath, and, if you hadn't got in such a darned hurry to start something, you'd be a whole lot more comfortable right now. We rode over to tell yuh not to start them sheep across Flying U coulee; because, if you do, you're going to have both hands and your hats plumb full uh trouble. It has taken some little time and fussing to get yuh gentled down so we can talk to you, and I sure do hope yuh remember what I'm saying."
"Oh, we'll remember it, all right!" menaced one of the men, lifting his head turtlewise that he might glare at the group. "And our bosses'll remember it; you needn't worry about that none. You wait till—"
The next man to him turned his head and muttered a sentence, and the speaker dropped his head back upon the ground, silenced.
"It was your own outfit started this style of rope trimming, so you can't kick about that part of the deal," Pink informed them melodiously. "It's liable to get to be all the rage with us. So, if you don't like it, don't come around where we are. And say!" His dimples stood deep in his cheeks. "You send those ropes home to-morrow, will yuh? We're liable to need 'em."
"By cripes!" Big Medicine bawled. "What say we haze them sheep a few miles north, boys?"
"Oh, I guess they'll be all right where they are," Andy protested, his thirst for revenge assuaged at sight of those three trussed as he had been trussed, and apparently not liking it any better than he had liked it. "They'll be good and careful not to come around the Flying U—or I miss my guess a mile."
The others cast comprehensive glances at their immediate surroundings, and decided that they had at least made their meaning plain; there was no occasion for emphasizing their disapproval any further. They confiscated the rifles, and they told the fellows why they did so. They very kindly pulled a tarpaulin over the three to protect them in a measure from the chill night that was close upon them, and they wished them good night and pleasant dreams, and rode away home.
On the way they met Weary and Happy Jack, galloping anxiously to the battle scene. Slim, it appeared from Weary's rapid explanation, had arrived at the ranch with his horse in a lather and with a four-inch furrow in the fleshiest part of his leg, where a bullet had flicked him in passing. The tale he told had led Weary to believe that Slim was the sole survivor of that reckless company.
"Mamma! I'm so glad to see you boys able to fork your horses and swear natural, that I don't believe I can speak my little piece about staying on your own side the fence and letting trouble do some of the hunting," he exclaimed thankfully. "I wish you'd stayed at home and left these blamed Dots alone. But, seeing yuh didn't, I'm tickled to death to hear you didn't kill anybody off. I don't want the folks to come home and find the whole bunch in the pen. It might look as if—"
"You don't want the folks to come home and find the whole ranch sheeped off, either, and the herders camping up in the white house, do yuh?" Pink inquired pointedly. "I kinda think," he added dryly, "those same herders will feel like going away around Flying U fences with their sheep. I don't believe they'll do any cutting across."
"I betche old Dunk'll make it interestin' fer this outfit, just the same," Happy Jack predicted. "Tyin' up three men uh hisn, like that, and ropin' their tent and draggin' it off, ain't things he'll pass up. He'll have a possy out here—you see if he don't!"
"In that case, I'll be sorry for you, Happy," purred Miguel close beside him. "You're the only one in the outfit that looks capable of such a vile deed."
"Oh, Dunk won't do anything," Weary said cheerfully. "You'll have to take those guns back, though. They might take a notion to call that stealing!"
"You forget," the Native Son reminded calmly, "that we left them three good ropes in exchange."
Whereupon the Happy Family laughed and went to offer their unsought sympathy to Slim.
CHAPTER X. The Happy Family Herd Sheep
The boys of the Flying U had many faults in common, aside from certain individual frailties; one of their chief weaknesses was over-confidence in their own ability to cope with any situation which might arise, unexpectedly or otherwise, and a belief that others felt that same confidence in them, and that enemies were wont to sit a long time counting the cost before venturing to offer too great an affront. Also they believed—and made it manifest in their conversation—that they could even bring the Old Man back to health if they only had him on the ranch where they could get at him. They maligned the hospitals and Chicago doctors most unjustly, and were agreed that all he needed was to be back on the ranch where somebody could look after him right. They asserted that, if they ever got tired of living and wanted to cash in without using a gun or anything, they'd go to a hospital and tell the doctors to turn loose and try to cure them of something.
This by way of illustration; also as an explanation of their sleeping soundly that night, instead of watching for some hostile demonstration on the part of the Dot outfit. To a man—one never counted Happy Jack's prophecies of disaster as being anything more than a personal deformity of thought—they were positive in their belief that the Dot sheepherders would be very, very careful not to provoke the Happy Family to further manifestations of disapproval. They knew what they'd get, if they tried any more funny business, and they'd be mighty careful where they drove their sheep after this.
So, with the comfortable glow of victory in their souls, they laid them down, and, when the animated discussion of that night's adventure flagged, as their tongues grew sleep-clogged and their eyelids drooped, they slept in peace; save when Slim, awakened by the soreness of his leg, grunted a malediction or two before he began snoring again.
They rose and ate their breakfast in a fair humor with the world. One grows accustomed to the thought of sickness, even when it strikes close to the affections, and, with the resilience of youth and hope, life adjusts itself to make room for the specter of fear, so that it does not crowd unduly, but stands half-forgotten in the background of one's thoughts. For that reason they no longer spoke soberly because of the Old Man lying hurt unto death in Chicago. And, when they mentioned the Dot sheep and men, they spoke as men speak of the vanquished.
With the taste of hot biscuits and maple syrup still lingering pleasantly against their palates, they went out and were confronted with sheep, blatting sheep, stinking sheep, devastating sheep, Dot sheep. On the south side of the coulee, up on the bluff, grazed the band. They fed upon the brow of the hill opposite the ranch buildings; they squeezed under the fence and spilled a ragged fringe of running, gray animals down the slope. Half a mile away though the nearest of them were, the murmur of them, the smell of them, the whole intolerable presence of them, filled the Happy Family with an amazed loathing too deep for words.
Technically, that high, level stretch of land bounding Flying U coulee on the south was open range. It belonged to the government. The soil was not fertile enough even for the most optimistic of "dry land" farmers to locate upon it; and this was before the dry-land farming craze had swept the country, gathering in all public land as claims. J. G. Whitmore had contented himself with acquiring title to the whole of the Flying U coulee, secure in his belief that the old order of things would not change, in his life-time, at least, and that the unwritten law of the range land, which leaves the vicinity of a ranch to the use of the ranch owner, would never be repealed by new customs imposed by a new class of people.
Legally, there was no trespassing of the Dots, beyond the two or three hundred which had made their way through the fence. Morally, however, and by right of custom, their offense would not be much greater if they came on down the hill and invaded the Old Man's pet meadows, just beyond the "little pasture."
Ladies may read this story, so I am not going to pretend to repeat the things they said, once they were released from dumb amazement. I should be compelled to improvise and substitute—which would remove much of the flavor. Let bare facts suffice, at present.
They saddled in haste, and in haste they rode to the scene. This, they were convinced, was the band herded by the bug-killer and the man from Wyoming; and the nerve of those two almost excited the admiration of the Happy Family. It did not, however, deter them from their purpose.
Weary, to look at him, was no longer in the mood to preach patience and a turning of the other cheek. He also made that change of heart manifest in his speech when Pink, his eyes almost black, rode up close and gritted at him:
"Well, what's the orders now? Want me to go back and get the wire nippers so we can let them poor little sheep down into the meadow? Maybe we better ask the herders down to have some of Patsy's grub, too; I don't believe they had time to cook much breakfast. And it wouldn't be a bad idea to haze our own stuff clear off the range. I'm afraid Dunk's sheep are going to fare kinda slim, if we go on letting our cattle eat all the good grass!" Pink did not often indulge in such lengthy sarcasm, especially toward his beloved Weary; but his exasperation toward Weary's mild tactics had been growing apace.
Weary's reply, I fear, will have to be omitted. It was terribly unrefined.
"I want you boys to spread out, around the whole bunch," was his first printable utterance, "and haze these sheep just as far south as they can get without taking to the river. Don't get all het up chasing 'em yourself—make the men (Weary did not call them men; he called them something very naughty) that's paid for it do the driving."
"And, if they don't go," drawled the smooth voice of the Native Son, "what shall we do, amigo? Slap them on the wrist?"
Weary twisted in the saddle and sent him a baleful glance, which was not at all like Weary the sunny-hearted.
"If you can't figure that out for yourself," he snapped, "you had better go back and wipe the dishes for Patsy; and, when that's done, you can pull the weeds out of his radishes. Maybe he'll give you a nickel to buy candy with, if you do it good." Before he faced to the front again his harsh glance swept the faces of his companions.
They were grinning, every man of them, and he knew why. To see him lose his temper was something of an event with the Happy Family, who used sometimes to fix the date of an incident by saying, "It was right after that time Weary got mad, a year ago last fall," or something of the sort. He grinned himself, shamefacedly, and told them that they were a bunch of no-account cusses, anyway, and he'd just about as soon herd sheep himself as to have to run with such an outfit; which swept his anger from him and left him his usual self, with but the addition of a purpose from which nothing could stay him. He was going to settle the sheep question, and he was going to settle it that day.
Only one injunction did he lay upon the Happy Family. "You fellows don't want to get excited and go to shooting," he warned, while they were still out of hearing of the herders. "We don't want Dunk to get anything like that on us; savvy?"
They "savvied," and they told him so, each after his own individual manner.
"I guess we ought to be able to put the run on a couple of sheepherders, without wasting any powder," Pink said loftily, remembering his meeting with them a few days before.
"One thing sure—we'll make a good job of it this time," promised Irish, and spurred after Weary, who was leading the way around the band.
The herders watched them openly and with the manner of men who are expecting the worst to happen. Unlike the four whose camp had been laid low the night before, these two were unarmed, as they had been from the first; which, in Weary's opinion, was a bit of guile upon the part of Dunk. If trouble came—trouble which it would take a jury to settle—the fact that the sheepmen were unarmed would tell heavily in their favor; for, while the petty meanness of range-stealing and nagging trespass may be harder to bear than the flourishing of a gun before one's face, it all sounds harmless enough in the telling.
Weary headed straight for the nearest herder, told him to put his dogs to work rounding up the sheep, which were scattered over an area half a mile across while they fed, and, when the herder, who was the bug-killer, made no move to obey, Weary deliberately pulled his gun and pointed at his head.
"You move," he directed with grim intent, "and don't take too much time about it, either."
The bug-killer, an unkempt, ungainly figure, standing with his back to the morning sun, scowled up at Weary stolidly.
"Yuh dassent shoot," he stated sourly, and did not move.
For answer, Weary pulled back the hammer; also he smiled as malignantly as it was in his nature to do, and hoped in his heart that he looked sufficiently terrifying to convince the man. So they faced each other in a silent clash of wills.
Big Medicine had not been saying much on the way over, which was unusual. Now he rode forward until he was abreast of Weary, and he grinned down at the bug-killer in a way to distract his attention from the gun.
"Nobody don't have to shoot, by cripes!" he bawled. "We hain't goin' to kill yuh. We'll make yuh wisht, by cripes, we had, though, b'fore we git through. Git to work, boys, 'n' gether up some dry grass an' sticks. Over there in them rose-bushes you oughta find enough bresh. We'll give him a taste uh what we was talkin' about comm' over, by cripes! I guess he'll be willin' to drive sheep, all right, when we git through with him. Haw-haw-haw-w-w!" He leaned forward in the saddle and ogled the bug-killer with horrid significance.
"Git busy with that bresh!" he yelled authoritatively, when a glance showed him that the Happy Family was hesitating and eyeing him uncertainly. "Git a fire goin' quick's yuh kin—I'll do the rest. Down in Coconino county we used to have a way uh fixin' sheepherders—"
"Aw, gwan! We don't want no torture business!" remonstrated Happy Jack uneasily, edging away.
"Yuh don't, hey?" Big Medicine turned in the saddle wrathfully and glared. When he had succeeded in catching Andy Green's eye he winked, and that young man's face kindled understandingly. "Well, now, you hain't runnin' this here show. Honest to grandma, I've saw the time when a little foot-warmin' done a sheepherder a whole lot uh good; and, it looks to me, by cripes, as if this here feller needed a dose to gentle him down. You git the fire started. That's all I want you t' do, Happy. Some uh you boys help me rope him—like him and that other jasper over there done to Andy. C'mon, Andy—it ain't goin' to take long!"
"You bet your sweet life I'll come on!" exclaimed Andy, dismounting eagerly. "Let me take your rope, Weary. Too bad we haven't got a branding iron—"
"Aw, we don't need no irons." Big Medicine was also on the ground by then, and untying his rope. "Lemme git his shoes off once, and I'll show yuh."
The bug-killer lifted his stick, snarling like a mongrel dog when a stranger tries to drive it out of the house; hurled the stick hysterically, as Big Medicine, rope in hand, advanced implacably, and, with a squawk of horror, turned suddenly and ran. After him, bellowing terribly, lunged Big Medicine, straight through the band like a snowplow, leaving behind them a wide, open trail.
"Say, we kinda overplayed that bet, by gracious," Andy commented to Weary, while he watched the chase. "That gazabo's scared silly; let's try the other one. That torture talk works fine."
In his enthusiasm Andy remounted and was about to lead the way to the other herder when Big Medicine returned puffing, the bug-killer squirming in his grasp. "Tell him what yuh want him to do, Weary," he panted, with some difficulty holding his limp victim upright by a greasy coat-collar. "And if he don't fall over himself doin' it, why—by cripes—we'll take off his shoes!"
Whereupon the bug-killer gave another howl and professed himself eager to drive the sheep—well, what he said was that he would drive them to that place which ladies dislike to hear mentioned, if the Happy Family wanted him to.
"That's all right, then. Start 'em south, and don't quit till somebody tells you to." Weary carefully let down the hammer of his six-shooter and shoved it thankfully into his scabbard.
"Now, you don't want to pile it on quite so thick, next time," Irish admonished Big Medicine, when they turned away from watching the bug-killer set his dogs to work by gestures and a shouted word or two. "You like to have sent this one plumb nutty."
"I betche Bud gets us all pinched for that," grumbled Happy Jack. "Torturing folks is purty darned serious business. You might as well shoot 'em up decent and be done with it."
"Haw-haw-haw-w-w!" Big Medicine ogled the group mirthfully. "Nobody can't swear I done a thing, or said a thing. All I said definite was that I'd take off his shoes. Any jury in the country'd know that would be hull lot worse fer us than it would fer him, by cripes. Haw-haw-haw-w-w!"
"Say, that's right; yuh didn't say nothin', ner do nothin'. By golly, that was purty slick work, all right!" Slim forgot his sore leg until he clapped his hand enthusiastically down upon the place as comprehension of Bud's finesse dawned upon him. He yelped, and the Happy Family laughed unfeelingly.
"You want to be careful and don't try to see through any jokes, Slim, till that leg uh yours gets well," Irish bantered, and they laughed the louder.
All this was mere byplay; a momentary swinging of their mood to pleasantry, because they were a temperamentally cheerful lot, and laughter came to them easily, as it always does to youth and perfect mental and physical health. Their brief hilarity over Slim's misfortune did not swerve them from their purpose, nor soften the mood of them toward their adversaries. They were unsmiling and unfriendly when they reached the man from Wyoming; and, if they ever behaved like boys let out of school, they did not show it then.
The Wyoming man was wiser than his fellow. He had been given several minutes grace in which to meditate upon the unwisdom of defiance; and he had seen the bug-killer change abruptly from sullenness to terror, and afterward to abject obedience. He did not know what they had said to him, or what they had done; but he knew the bug-killer was a hard man to stampede. And he was one man, and they were many; also he judged that, being human, and this being the third offense of the Dot sheep under his care, it would be extremely unsafe to trust that their indignation would vent itself in mere words.
Therefore, when Weary told him to get the stragglers back through the fence and up on the level, he stopped only long enough for a good look at their faces. After that he called his dogs and crawled through the fence.
It really did not require the entire Family to force those sheep south that morning. But Weary's jaw was set, as was his heart, upon a thorough cleaning of that particular bit of range; and, since he did not definitely request any man to turn back, and every fellow there was minded to see the thing to a finish, they straggled out behind the trailing two thousand—and never had one bunch of sheep so efficient a convoy.
After the first few miles the way grew rough. Sheep lagged, and the blatting increased to an uproar. Old ewes and yearlings these were mostly, and there were few to suffer more than hunger and thirst, perhaps. So Weary was merciless, and drove them forward without a stop until the first jumble of hills and deep-worn gullies held them back from easy traveling.
But the Happy Family had not ridden those breaks for cattle, all these years, to be hindered by rough going. Weary, when the band stopped and huddled, blatting incessantly against a sheer wall of sandstone and gravel, got the herders together and told them what he wanted.
"You take 'em down that slope till you come to the second little coulee. Don't go up the first one—that's a blind pocket. In the second coulee, up a mile or so, there's a spring creek. You can hold 'em there on water for half an hour. That's more than any of yuh deserve. Haze 'em down there."
The herders did not know it, but that second coulee was the rude gateway to an intricate system of high ridges and winding waterways that would later be dry as a bleached bone—the real beginning of the bad lands which border the Missouri river for long, terrible miles. Down there, it is possible for two men to reach places where they may converse quite easily across a chasm, and yet be compelled to ride fifteen or twenty miles, perhaps, in order to shake hands. Yet, even in that scrap-heap of Nature there are ways of passing deep into the heart of the upheaval.
The Happy Family knew those ways as they knew the most complicated figures of the quadrilles they danced so lightfootedly with the girls of the Bear Paw country. When they forced the sheep and their herders out of the coulee Weary had indicated he sent Irish and Pink ahead to point the way, and he told them to head for the Wash Bowl; which they did with praiseworthy zeal and scant pity for the sheep.
When at last, after a slow, heartbreaking climb up a long, bare ridge, Pink and Irish paused upon the brow of a slope and let the trail-weary band spill itself reluctantly down the steep slope beyond, the sun stood high in the blue above them and their stomachs clamored for food; by which signs they knew that it must be near noon.
When the last sheep had passed, blatting discordantly, down the bluff, Weary halted the sweating herders for a parting admonition.
"We don't aim to deal you any more misery, for a while, if you stay where you're at. You're only working for a living, like the rest of us—but I must say I don't admire your trade none. Anyway, I'll send some of your bunch down here with grub and beds. This is good enough range for sheep. You keep away from the Flying U and nobody'll bother you. Over there in them trees," he added, pointing a gloved finger toward a little grove on the far side of the basin, "you'll find a cabin, and water. And, farther down the river there's pretty good grass, in the little bottoms. Now, git."
The herders looked as if they would enjoy murdering them all, but they did not say a word. With their dogs at heel they scrambled down the bluff in the wake of their sheep, and the Happy Family, rolling cigarettes while they watched them depart, told one another that this settled that bunch; they wouldn't bed down in the Flying U door-yard that night, anyway.
CHAPTER XI. Weary Unburdens
Hungry with the sharp, gnawing hunger of healthy stomachs accustomed to regular and generous feeding; tired with the weariness of healthy muscles pushed past their accustomed limit of action; and hot with the unaccustomed heat of a blazing day shunted unaccountably into the midst of soft spring weather, the Happy Family rode out of the embrace of the last barren coulee and up on the wide level where the breeze swept gratefully up from the west, and where every day brought with it a deeper tinge of green into its grassy carpet.
Only for this harassment of the Dot sheep, the roundup wagons would be loaded and ready to rattle abroad over the land. Meadow larks and curlews and little, pert-eyed ground sparrows called out to them that roundup time was come. They passed a bunch of feeding Flying U cattle, and flat-ribbed, bandy-legged calves galloped in brief panic to their mothers and from the sanctuary of grass-filled paunches watched the riders with wide, inquisitive eyes.
"We ought to be starting out, by now," Weary observed a bit gloomily to Andy and Pink, who rode upon either side of him. "The calf crop is going to be good, if this weather holds on another two weeks or so. But—" he waved his cigarette disgustedly "—that darned Dot outfit would be all over the place, if we pulled out on roundup and left 'em the run of things." He smoked moodily for a minute. "My religion has changed a lot in the last few days," he observed whimsically. "My idea of hell is a place where there ain't anything but sheep and sheepherders; and cowpunchers have got to spend thousands uh years right in the middle of the corrals."
"If that's the case, I'm going to quit cussing, and say my prayers every night," Andy Green asserted emphatically.
"What worries me," Weary confided, obeying the impulse to talk over his troubles with those who sympathized, "is how I'm going to keep the work going along like it ought to, and at the same time keep them Dot sheep outa the house. Dunk's wise, all right. He knows enough about the cow business to know we ye got to get out on the range pretty quick, now. And he's so mean that every day or every half day he can feed his sheep on Flying U grass, he calls that much to the good. And he knows we won't go to opening up any real gun-fights if we can get out of it; he counts on our faunching around and kicking up a lot of dust, maybe—but we won't do anything like what he'd do, in our places. He knows the Old Man and Chip are gone, and he knows we've just naturally got to sit back and swallow our tongues because we haven't any authority. Mamma! It comes pretty tough, when a low-down skunk like that just banks on your doing the square thing. He wouldn't do it, but he knows we will; and so he takes advantage of white men and gets the best of 'em. And if we should happen to break out and do something, he knows the herders would be the ones to get it in the neck; and he'd wait till the dust settled, and bob up with the sheriff—" He waved his hand again with a hopeless gesture. "It may not look that way on the face of it," he added gloomily, "but Dunk has got us right where he wants us. From the way they've been letting sheep on our land, time and time again, I'd gamble he's just trying to make us so mad we'll break out. He's got it in for the whole outfit, from the Old Man and the Little Doctor down to Slim. If any of us boys got into trouble, the Old Man would spend his last cent to clear us; and Dunk knows that just as well as he knows the way from the house to the stable. He'd see to it that it would just about take the Old Man's last cent, too. And he's using these Dot sheep like you'd use a red flag on a bull, to make us so crazy mad we'll kill off somebody.
"That's why," he said to them all when he saw that they had ridden up close that they might hear what he was saying, "I've been hollering so loud for the meek-and-mild stunt. When I slapped him on the jaw, and he stood there and took it, I saw his game. He had a witness to swear I hit him and he didn't hit back. And when I saw them Dots in our field again, I knew, just as well as if Dunk had told me, that he was kinda hoping we'd kill a herder or two so he could cinch us good and plenty. I don't say," he qualified with a rueful grin, "that Dunk went into the sheep business just to get r-re-venge, as they say in shows. But if he can make money running sheep—and he can, all right, because there's more money in them right now than there is in cattle—and at the same time get a good whack at the Flying U, he's the lad that will sure make a running jump at the chance." He spat upon the burnt end of his cigarette stub from force of the habit that fear of range fires had built, and cast it petulantly from him; as if he would like to have been able to throw Dunk and his sheep problem as easily out of his path.
"So I wish you boys would hang onto yourselves when you hear a sheep blatting under your window," he summed up his unburdening whimsically. "As Bud said this morning, you can't hang a man for telling a sheepherder you'll take off his shoes. And they can't send us over the road for moving that band of sheep onto new range to-day. Last night you all were kinda disorderly, maybe, but you didn't hurt anybody, or destroy any property. You see what I mean. Our only show is to stop with our toes on the right side of the dead line."
"If Andy, here, would jest git his think-wheels greased and going good," Big Medicine suggested loudly, "he ought to frame up something that would put them Dots on the run permanent. I d'no, by cripes, why it is a feller can always think uh lies and joshes by the dozens, and put 'em over O. K. when there ain't nothing to be made out of it except hard feelin's; and then when a deal like this here sheep deal comes up, he's got about as many idees, by cripes, as that there line-back calf over there. Honest to grandma, Andy makes me feel kinda faint. Only time he did have a chanc't, he let them—" It occurred to Big Medicine at that point that perhaps his remarks might be construed by the object of them as being offensively personal. He turned his head and grinned good-naturedly in Andy's direction, and refrained from finishing what he was going to say. "I sure do like them wind-flowers scattered all over the ground," he observed with such deliberate and ostentatious irrelevance that the Happy Family laughed, even to Andy Green, who had at first been inclined toward anger.
"Everything," declared Andy in the tone of a paid instructor, "has its proper time and place, boys; I've told you that before. For instance, I wouldn't try to kill a skunk by talking it to death; and I wouldn't be hopeful of putting the run on this Dunk person by telling him ghost stories. As to ideas—I'm plumb full of them. But they're all about grub, just right at present."
That started Slim and Happy Jack to complaining because no one had had sense enough to go back after some lunch before taking that long trail south; the longer because it was a slow one, with sheep to set the pace. And by the time they had presented their arguments against the Happy Family's having enough brains to last them overnight, and the Happy Family had indignantly pointed out just where the mental deficiency was most noticeable, they were upon that last, broad stretch of "bench" land beyond which lay Flying U coulee and Patsy and dinner; a belated dinner, to be sure, but for that the more welcome.
And when they reached the point where they could look away to the very rim of the coulee, they saw sheep—sheep to the skyline, feeding scattered and at ease, making the prairie look, in the distance, as if it were covered with a thin growth of gray sage-brush. Four herders moved slowly upon the outskirts, and the dogs were little, scurrying, black dots which stopped occasionally to wait thankfully until the master-minds again urged them to endeavor.
The Happy Family drew up and stared in silence.
"Do I see sheep?" Pink inquired plaintively at last. "Tell me, somebody."
"It's that bunch you fellows tackled last night," said Weary miserably. "I ought to have had sense enough to leave somebody on the ranch to look out for this."
"They've got their nerve," stated Irish, "after the deal they got last night. I'd have bet good money that you couldn't drag them herders across Flying U coulee with a log chain."
"Say, by golly, do we have to drive this here bunch anywheres before we git anything to eat?" Slim wanted to know distressfully.
Weary considered briefly. "No, I guess we'll pass 'em up for the present. An hour or so won't make much difference in the long run, and our horses are about all in, right now—"
"So'm I, by cripes!" Big Medicine attested, grinning mirthlessly. "This here sheep business is plumb wearin' on a man. 'Specially," he added with a fretful note, "when you've got to handle 'em gentle. The things I'd like to do to them Dots is all ruled outa the game, seems like. Honest to grandma, a little gore would look better to me right now than a Dutch picnic before the foam's all blowed off the refreshments. Lemme kill off jest one herder, Weary?" he pleaded. "The one that took a shot at me las' night. Purty, please!"
"If you killed one," Weary told him glumly, "you might as well make a clean sweep and take in the whole bunch."
"Well, I won't charge nothin' extra fer that, either," Bud assured him generously. "I'm willin' to throw in the other three—and the dawgs, too, by cripes!" He goggled the Happy Family quizzically. "Nobody can't say there's anything small about me. Why, down in the Coconino country they used to set half a dozen greasers diggin' graves, by cripes, soon as I started in to argy with a man. It was a safe bet they'd need three or four, anyways, if old Bud cut loose oncet. Sheepherders? Why, they jest natcherly couldn't keep enough on hand, securely, to run their sheep. They used to order sheepherders like they did woolsacks, by cripes! You could always tell when I was in the country, by the number uh extra herders them sheep outfits always kep' in reserve. Honest to grandma, I've knowed two or three outfits to club together and ship in a carload at a time, when they heard I was headed their way. And so when it comes to killin' off four, why that ain't skurcely enough to make it worth m'while to dirty up m'gun!"
"Aw, I betche yuh never killed a man in your life!" Happy Jack grumbled in his characteristic tone of disparagement; but such was his respect for Big Medicine's prowess that he took care not to speak loud enough to be overheard by that modest gentleman, who continued with certain fearsome details of alleged murderous exploits of his own, down in Coconino County, Arizona.
But as they passed the detested animals, thankful that the trail permitted them to ride by at a distance sufficient to blur the most unsavory details, even Big Medicine gave over his deliberate boastings and relapsed into silence.
He had begun his fantastic vauntings from an instinctive impulse to leaven with humor a situation which, at the moment, could not be bettered. Just as they had, when came the news of the Old Man's dire plight, sought to push the tragedy of it into the background and cling to their creed of optimism, they had avoided openly facing the sheep complication squarely with mutual admissions of all it might mean to the Flying U.
Until Weary had unburdened his heart of worry on the ride home that day, they had not said much about it, beyond a general vilification of the sheep industry as a whole, of Dunk as the chief of the encroaching Dots, and of the herders personally.
But there were times when they could not well avoid thinking rather deeply upon the subject, even if they did refuse to put their forebodings into speech. They were not children; neither were they to any degree lacking in intelligence. Swearing, about herders and at them, was all very well; bluffing, threatening, pummeling even with willing fists, tearing down tents and binding men with ropes might serve to relieve the emotions upon occasion. But there was the grim economic problem which faced squarely the Flying U as a "cow outfit"—the problem of range and water; the Happy Family did not call it by name, but they realized to the full what it meant to the Old Man to have sheep just over his boundary line always. They realized, too, what it meant to have the Old Man absent at this time—worse, to have him lying in a hospital, likely to die at any moment; what it meant to have the whole responsibility shifted to their shoulders, willing though they might be to bear the burden; what it meant to have the general of an army gone when the enemy was approaching in overwhelming numbers.
Pink, when they were descending the first slope of the bluff which was the southern rim of Flying U coulee, turned and glared vindictively back at the wavering, gray blanket out there to the west. When he faced to the front his face had the look it wore when he was fighting.
"So help me, Josephine!" he gritted desperately, "we've got to clean the range of them Dots before the Old Man comes back, or—" He snapped his jaws shut viciously.
Weary turned haggard eyes toward him.
"How?" he asked simply. And Pink had no answer for him.
CHAPTER XII. Two of a Kind
Patsy, staunch old partisan that he was, placed before them much food which he had tried his best to keep hot without burning everything to a crisp, and while they ate with ravenous haste he told, with German epithets and a trembling lower jaw, of his troubles that day.
"Dem sheeps, dey coom by der leetle pasture," he lamented while he poured coffee muddy from long boiling. "Looks like dey know so soon you ride away, und dey cooms cheeky as you pleece, und eats der grass und crawls under der fence and leafs der vool sthicking by der vires. I goes out mit a club, py cosh, und der sheeps chust looks und valks by some better place alreatty, und I throw rocks and yells till mine neck iss sore.
"Und' dose herders, dey sets dem by der rock and laugh till I felt like I could kill der whole punch, by cosh! Und von yells, 'Hey, dutchy, pring me some pie, alreatty!' Und he laughs some more pecause der sheeps dey don't go avay; dey chust run around und eat more grass and baa-aa!" He turned and went heavily back to the greasy range with the depleted coffee pot, lifted the lid of a kettle and looked in upon the contents with a purely mechanical glance; gave a perfunctory prod or two with a long-handled fork, and came back to stand uneasily behind Weary.
"If you poys are goin' to shtand fer dot," he began querulously, "Py cosh I von't! Py myself I vill go and tell dot Dunk W'ittaker vot lowdown skunk I t'ink he iss. Sheep's vool shtickin' by der fences efferwhere on der ranch, py cosh! Dot vould sure kill der Old Man quick if he see it. Shtinkin' off sheeps py our noses all der time, till I can't eat no more mit der shmell of dem. Neffer pefore did I see vool on der Flying U fences, py cosh, und sheeps baa-aain' in der coulee!"
Never had they seen Patsy take so to heart a matter of mere business importance. They did not say much to him; there was not much that they could say. They ate their fill and went out disconsolately to discuss the thing among themselves, away from Patsy's throaty complainings. They hated it as badly as did he; with Weary's urgent plea for no violence holding them in leash, they hated it more, if that were possible.
The Native Son tilted his head unobtrusively stableward when he caught Andy's eye, and as unobtrusively wandered away from the group. Andy stopped long enough to roll and light a cigarette and then strolled after him with apparent aimlessness, secretly curious over the summons. He found Miguel in the stable waiting for him, and Miguel led the way, rope in hand across the corral and into the little pasture where fed a horse he meant to ride. He did not say anything until he had turned to close the gate, and to make sure that they were alone and that their departure had not carried to the Happy Family any betraying air of significance.
"You remember when you blew in here, a few weeks or so ago?" the Native Son asked abruptly, a twinkle in his fathomless eyes. "You put up a good one on the boys, that time, you remember. Bluffed them into thinking I was a hero in disguise, and that you'd seen me pull off a big stunt of bull-fighting and bull-dogging down in Mexico. It was a fine josh. They believe it yet."
Andy glanced at him perplexedly. "Yes—but when it turned out to be true," he amended, "the josh was on me, I guess; I thought I was just lying, when I wasn't. I've wondered a good deal about that. By gracious, it makes a man feel funny to frame up a yarn out of his own think-machine, and then find out he's been telling the truth all the while. It's like a fellow handing out a twenty-four karat gold bar to a rube by mistake, under the impression it only looks like one. Of course they believe it! Only they don't know I just merely hit the truth by accident."
The Native Son smiled his slow, amused smile, that somehow never failed to be impressive. "That's the funny part of it," he drawled. "You didn't. I just piled another little josh on top of yours, that's all. I never throwed a bull in my life, except with my lariat. I'd heard a good deal about you, and—well, I thought I'd see if I could go you one better. And you put that Mexico yarn across so smooth and easy, I just simply couldn't resist the temptation to make you think it was all straight goods. Sabe?"
Andy Green did not say a word, but he looked exceedingly foolish.
"So I think we can both safely consider ourselves top-hands when it comes to lying," the Native Son went on shamelessly. "And if you're willing to go in with me on it and help put Dunk on the run—" He glanced over his shoulder, saw that Happy Jack, on horseback, was coming out to haze in the saddle bunch, and turned to stroll back as lazily as he had come. He continued to speak smoothly and swiftly, in a voice that would not carry ten paces. While Andy Green, with brown head bent attentively, listened eagerly and added a sentence or two on his own account now and then, and smiled—which he had not been in the habit of doing lately.
"Say, you fellers are gittin' awful energetic, ain't yuh?—wranglin' horses afoot!" Happy Jack bantered at the top of his voice when he passed them by. "Better save up your strength while you kin. Weary's goin' to set us herdin' sheep agin—and I betche there's goin' to be something more'n herdin' on our hands before we git through."
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there was," sang out Andy, as cheerfully as if he had been invited to dance "Ladies' choice" with the prettiest girl in the crowd. "Wonder what hole he's going to dump this bunch into," he added to the Native Son. "By gracious, he ought to send 'em just as far north as he can drive 'em without paying duty! I'd sure take 'em over into Canada, if it was me running the show."
"It was a mistake," the Native Son volunteered, "for the whole bunch to go off like we did to-day. They had those sheep up here on the hill just for a bait. They knew we'd go straight up in the air and come down on those two freaks herding 'em, and that gave them the chance to cross the other bunch. I thought so all along, but I didn't like to butt in."
"Well Weary's mad enough now to do things that will leave a dent, anyway," Andy commented under his breath when, from the corral gate, he got a good look at Weary's profile, which showed the set of his mouth and chin. "See that mouth? It's hunt the top rail, and do it quick, when old Weary straightens out his lips like that."
Behind them, Happy Jack bellowed for an open gate and no obstructions, and they drew hastily to one side to let the saddle horses gallop past with a great upflinging of dust. Pink, with a quite obtrusive facetiousness, began lustily chanting that it looked to him like a big night to-night—with occasional, furtive glances at Weary's face; for he, also, had been quick to read those close-pressed lips, which did not soften in response to the ditty. Usually he laughed at Pink's drollery.
They rode rather quietly upon the hill again, to where fed the sheep. During the hour or so that they had been absent the sheep had not moved appreciably; they still grazed close enough to the boundary to make their position seem a direct insult to the Flying U, a virtual slap in the face. And these young men who worked for the Flying U, and who made its interests right loyally their own, were growing very, very tired of turning the other cheek. With them, the time for profanity and for horseplay bluffing and judicious temporizing was past. There were other lips besides Weary's that were drawn tight and thin when they approached that particular band of sheep. More than one pair of eyes turned inquiringly toward him and away again when they met no answering look.
They topped a rise of ground, and in the shallow wrinkle which had hidden him until now they came full upon Dunk Whittaker, riding a chunky black which stepped restlessly about while he conferred in low tones with a couple of the herders. The Happy Family recognized them as two of the fellows in whose safe keeping they had left their ropes the night before. Dunk looked around quickly when the group appeared over the little ridge, scowled, hesitated and then came straight up to them.
"I want you rowdies to bring back those sheep you took the trouble to drive off this morning," he began, with the even, grating voice and the sneering lift of lip under his little, black mustache which the older members of the Happy Family remembered—and hated—so vividly. "I've stood just all I'm going to stand, of these typically Flying U performances you've been indulging in so freely during the past week. It's all very well to terrorize a neighborhood of long-haired rubes who don't know enough to teach you your places; but interfering with another man's property is—"
"Interfering with another—what?" Big Medicine, his pale blue eyes standing out more like a frog's than ever upon his face, gave his horse a kick and lunged close that he might lean and thrust his red face near to Dunk's. "Another what? I don't see nothin' in your saddle that looks t'me like a man, by cripes! All I can see is a smooth-skinned, slippery vermin I'd hate to name a snake after, that crawls around in the dark and lets cheap rough-necks do all his dirty work. I've saw dogs sneak up and grab a man behind, but most always they let out a growl or two first. And even a rattler is square enough to buzz at yuh and give yuh a chanc't to side-step him. Honest to grandma, I don't hardly know what kinda reptyle y'are. I hate to insult any of 'em, by cripes, by namin' yuh after 'em. But don't, for Lordy's sake, ever call yourself a man agin!"
Big Medicine turned his head and spat disgustedly into the grass and looked back slightingly with other annihilating remarks close behind his wide-apart teeth, but instead of speaking he made an unbelievably quick motion with his hand. The blow smacked loudly upon Dunk's cheek, and so nearly sent him out of the saddle that he grabbed for the horn to save himself.
"Oh, I seert yuh keepin' yer hand next yer six-gun all the while," Big Medicine bawled. "That's one reason I say yuh ain't no man! Yuh wouldn't dast talk up to a prairie dog if yuh wasn't all set to make a quick draw. Yuh got your face slapped oncet before by a Flyin' U man, and yuh had it comm'. Now you're—gittin'—it—done—right!"
If you have ever seen an irate, proletarian mother cuffing her offspring over an empty wood-box, you may picture perhaps the present proceeding of Big Medicine. To many a man the thing would have been unfeasible, after the first blow, because of the horses. But Big Medicine was very nearly all that he claimed to be; and one of his pet vanities was his horsemanship; he managed to keep within a fine slapping distance of Dunk. He stopped when his hand began to sting through his glove.
"Now you keep your hand away from that gun—that you ain't honest enough to carry where folks can see it, but 'ye got it cached in your pocket!" he thundered. "And go on with what you was goin' t'say. Only don't get swell-headed enough to think you're a man, agin. You ain't."
"I've got this to say!" Mere type cannot reproduce the malevolence of Dunk's spluttering speech. "I've sent for the county sheriff and a dozen deputies to arrest you, and you, and you, damn you!" He was pointing a shaking finger at the older members of the Happy Family, whom he recognized not gladly, but too well. "I'll have you all in Deer Lodge before that lying, thieving, cattle-stealing Old Man of yours can lift a finger. I'll sheep Flying U coulee to the very doors of the white house. I'll skin the range between here and the river—and I'll have every one of you hounds put where the dogs won't bite you!" He drew a hand across his mouth and smiled as they say Satan himself can smile upon occasion.
"You've done enough to send you all over the road; destroying property and assaulting harmless men—you wait! There are other and better ways to fight than with the fists, and I haven't forgotten any of you fellows—there are a few more rounders among you—"
"Hey! You apologize fer that, by cripes, er I'll kill yuh the longest way I know. And that—" Big Medicine again laid violent hands upon Dunk, "and that way won't feel good, now I'm tellin' yuh. Apologize, er—"
"Say, all this don't do any good, Bud," Weary expostulated. "Let Dunk froth at the mouth if he wants to; what we want is to get these sheep off the range. And," he added recklessly, "so long as the sheriff is headed for us anyway, we may as well get busy and make it worth his while. So—" He stopped, silenced by a most amazing interruption.
On the brow of the hill, when first they had sighted Dunk in the hollow, something had gone wrong with Miguel's saddle so that he had stopped behind; and, to keep him company, Andy had stopped also and waited for him. Later, when Dunk was spluttering threats, they had galloped up to the edge of the group and pulled their horses to a stand. Now, Miguel rode abruptly close to Dunk as rides one with a purpose.
He leaned and peered intently into Dunk's distorted countenance until every man there, struck by his manner, was watching him curiously. Then he sat back in the saddle, straightened his legs in the stirrups and laughed. And like his smile when he would have it so, or the little twitch of shoulders by which he could so incense a man, that laugh brought a deeper flush to Dunk's face, reddened though it was by Big Medicine's vigorous slapping.
"Say, you've got nerve," drawled the Native Son, "to let a sheriff travel toward you. I can remember when you were more timid, amigo." He turned his head until his eyes fell upon Andy. "Say, Andy!" he called. "Come and take a look at this hombre. You'll have to think back a few years," he assisted laconically.
In response, Andy rode up eagerly. Like the Native Son, he leaned and peered into eyes that stared back defiantly, wavered, and turned away. Andy also sat back in the saddle then, and snorted.
"So this is the Dunk Whittaker that's been raising merry hell around here! And talks about sending for the sheriff, huh? I've always heard that a lot uh gall is the best disguise a man can hide under, but, by gracious, this beats the deuce!" He turned to the astounded Happy Family with growing excitement in his manner.
"Boys, we don't have to worry much about this gazabo! We'll just freeze onto him till the sheriff heaves in sight. Gee! There'll sure be something stirring when we tell him who this Dunk person really is! And you say he was in with the Old Man, once? Oh, Lord!" He looked with withering contempt at Dunk; and Dunk's glance flickered again and dropped, just as his hand dropped to the pocket of his coat.
"No, yuh don't, by cripes!" Big Medicine's hand gripped Dunk's arm on the instant. With his other he plucked the gun from Dunk's pocket, and released him as he would let go of something foul which he had been compelled to touch.
"He'll be good, or he'll lose his dinner quick," drawled the Native Son, drawing his own silver-mounted six-shooter and resting it upon the saddle horn so that it pointed straight at Dunk's diaphragm. "You take Weary off somewhere and tell him something about this deal, Andy. I'll watch this slippery gentleman." He smiled slowly and got an answering grin from Andy Green, who immediately rode a few rods away, with Weary and Pink close behind.
"Say, by golly, what's Dunk wanted fer?" Slim blurted inquisitively after a short silence.
"Not for riding or driving over a bridge faster than a walk Slim," purred the Native Son, shifting his gun a trifle as Dunk moved uneasily in the saddle. "You know the man. Look at his face—and use your imagination, if you've got any."
CHAPTER XIII. The Happy Family Learn Something
"Well, I hope this farce is about over," Dunk sneered, with as near an approach to his old, supercilious manner as he could command, when the three who had ridden apart returned presently. "Perhaps, Weary, you'll be good enough to have this fellow put up his gun, and these—" he hesitated, after a swift glance, to apply any epithet whatever to the Happy Family. "I have two witnesses here to swear that you have without any excuse assaulted and maligned and threatened me, and you may consider yourselves lucky if I do not insist—"
"Ah, cut that out," Andy advised wearily. "I don't know how it strikes the rest, but it sounds pretty sickening to me. Don't overlook the fact that two of us happen to know all about you; and we know just where to send word, to dig up a lot more identification. So bluffing ain't going to help you out, a darned bit."
"Miguel, you can go with Andy," Weary said with brisk decision. "Take Dunk down to the ranch till the sheriff gets here—if it's straight goods about Dunk sending for him. If he didn't, we can take Dunk in to-morrow, ourselves." He turned and fixed a cold, commanding eye upon the slack-jawed herders. "Come along, you two, and get these sheep headed outa here."
"Say, we'll just lock him up in the blacksmith shop, and come on back," Andy amended the order after his own free fashion. "He couldn't get out in a million years; not after I'm through staking him out to the anvil with a log-chain." He smiled maliciously into Dunk's fear-yellowed countenance, and waved him a signal to ride ahead, which Dunk did without a word of protest while the Happy Family looked on dazedly.
"What's it all about, Weary?" Irish asked, when the three were gone. "What is it they've got on Dunk? Must be something pretty fierce, the way he wilted down into the saddle."
"You'll have to wait and ask the boys." Weary rode off to hurry the herders on the far side of the band.
So the Happy Family remained perforce unenlightened upon the subject and for that they said hard things about Weary, and about Andy and Miguel as well. They believed that they were entitled to know the truth, and they called it a smart-aleck trick to keep the thing so almighty secret.
There is in resentment a crisis; when that crisis is reached, and the dam of repression gives way, the full flood does not always sweep down upon those who have provoked the disaster. Frequently it happens that perfectly innocent victims are made to suffer. The Happy Family had been extremely forbearing, as has been pointed out before. They had frequently come to the boiling point of rage and had cooled without committing any real act of violence. But that day had held a long series of petty annoyances; and here was a really important thing kept from them as if they were mere outsiders. When Weary was gone, Irish asked Pink what crime Dunk had committed in the past. And Pink shook his head and said he didn't know. Irish mentally accused Pink of lying, and his temper was none the better for the rebuff, as anyone can readily understand.
When the herders, therefore, rounded up the sheep and started them moving south, the Happy Family speedily rebelled against that shuffling, nibbling, desultory pace that had kept them long, weary hours in the saddle with the other band. But it was Irish who first took measures to accelerate that pace.
He got down his rope and whacked the loop viciously down across the nearest gray back. The sheep jumped, scuttled away a few paces and returned to its nibbling progress. Irish called it names and whacked another.
After a few minutes he grew tired of swinging his loop and seeing it have so fleeting an effect, and pulled his gun. He fired close to the heels of a yearling buck that had more than once stopped to look up at him foolishly and blat, and the buck charged ahead in a panic at the noise and the spat of the bullet behind him.