"Hit him agin in the same place!" yelled Big Medicine, and drew his own gun. The Happy Family, at that high tension where they were ready for anything, caught the infection and began shooting and yelling like crazy men.
The effect was not at all what they expected. Instead of adding impetus to the band, as would have been the case if they had been driving cattle, the result was exactly the opposite. The sheep ran—but they ran to a common center. As the shooting went on they bunched tighter and tighter, until it seemed as though those in the center must surely be crushed flat. From an ambling, feeding company of animals, they become a lumpy gray blanket, with here and there a long, vacuous face showing idiotically upon the surface.
The herders grinned and drew together as against a common enemy—or as with a new joke to be discussed among themselves. The dogs wandered helplessly about, yelped half-heartedly at the woolly mass, then sat down upon their haunches and lolled red tongues far out over their pointed little teeth, and tilted knowing heads at the Happy Family.
"Look at the darned things!" wailed Pink, riding twice around the huddle, almost ready to shed tears of pure rage and helplessness. "Git outa that! Hi! Woopp-ee!" He fired again and again, and gave the range-old cattle-yell; the yell which had sent many a tired herd over many a weary mile; the yell before which had fled fat steers into the stockyards at shipping time, and up the chutes into the cars; the yell that had hoarsened many a cowpuncher's voice and left him with a mere croak to curse his fate with; a yell to bring results—but it did not start those sheep.
The Happy Family, riding furiously round and round, fired every cartridge they had upon their persons; they said every improper thing they could remember or invent; they yelled until their eyes were starting from their sockets; they glued that band of sheep so tight together that dynamite could scarcely have pried them apart.
And the herders, sitting apart with grimy hands clasped loosely over hunched-up knees, looked on, and talked together in low tones, and grinned.
Irish glanced that way and caught them grinning; caught them pointing derisively, with heaving shoulders. He swore a great oath and made for them, calling aloud that he would knock those grins so far in that they would presently find themselves smiling wrong-side-out from the back of their heads.
Pink, overhearing him, gave a last swat at the waggling tail of a burrowing buck, and wheeled to overtake Irish and have a hand in reversing the grins. Big Medicine saw them start, and came bellowing up from the far side of the huddle like a bull challenging to combat from across a meadow. Big Medicine did not know what it was all about, but he scented battle, and that was sufficient. Cal Emmett and Weary, equally ignorant of the cause, started at a lope toward the trouble center.
It began to look as if the whole Family was about to fall upon those herders and rend them asunder with teeth and nails; so much so that the herders jumped up and ran like scared cottontails toward the rim of Denson coulee, a hundred yards or so to the west.
"Mamma! I wish we could make the sheep hit that gait and keep it," exclaimed Weary, with the first laugh they had heard from him that day.
While he was still laughing, there was a shot from the ridge toward which they were running; the sharp, vicious crack of a rifle. The Happy Family heard the whistling hum of the bullet, singing low over their heads; quite low indeed; altogether too low to be funny. And they had squandered all their ammunition on the prairie sod, to hurry a band of sheep that flatly refused to hurry anywhere except under one another's odorous, perspiring bodies.
From the edge of the coulee the rifle spoke again. A tiny geyser of dust, spurting up from the ground ten feet to one side of Cal Emmett, showed them all where the bullet struck.
"Get outa range, everybody!" yelled Weary, and set the example by tilting his rowels against Glory's smooth hide, and heading eastward. "I like to be accommodating, all right, but I draw the line on standing around for a target while my neighbors practise shooting."
The Happy Family, having no other recourse, therefore retreated in haste toward the eastern skyline. Bullets followed them, overtook them as the shooter raised his sights for the increasing distance, and whined harmlessly over their heads. All save one.
CHAPTER XIV. Happy Jack
Big Medicine, Irish and Pink, racing almost abreast, heard a scream behind them and pulled up their horses with short, stiff-legged plunges. A brown horse overtook them; a brown horse, with Happy Jack clinging to the saddle-horn, his body swaying far over to one side. Even as he went hurtling past them his hold grew slack and he slumped, head foremost, to the ground. The brown horse gave a startled leap away from him and went on with empty stirrups flapping.
They sprang down and lifted him to a less awkward position, and Big Medicine pillowed the sweat-dampened, carroty head in the hollow of his arm. Those who had been in the lead looked back startled when the brown horse tore past them with that empty saddle; saw what had happened, wheeled and galloped back. They dismounted and stood silently grouped about poor, ungainly Happy Jack, lying there limp and motionless in Big Medicine's arms. Not one of them remembered then that there was a man with a rifle not more than two hundred yards away; or, if they did, they quite forgot that the rifle might be dangerous to themselves. They were thinking of Happy Jack.
Happy Jack, butt of all their jokes and jibes; Happy the croaker, the lugubrious forecaster of trouble; Happy Jack, the ugliest, the stupidest, the softest-hearted man of them all. He had "betched" there would be someone killed, over these Dot sheep; he had predicted trouble of every conceivable kind; and they had laughed at him, swore at him, lied to him, "joshed" him unmercifully, and kept him in a state of chronic indignation, never dreaming that the memory of it would choke them and strike them dumb with that horrible, dull weight in their chests with which men suffer when a woman would find the relief of weeping.
"Where's he hurt?" asked Weary, in the repressed tone which only tragedy can bring into a man's voice, and knelt beside Big Medicine.
"I dunno—through the lungs, I guess; my sleeve's gitting soppy right under his shoulder." Big Medicine did not bellow; his voice was as quiet as Weary's.
Weary looked up briefly at the circle of staring faces. "Pink, you pile onto Glory and go wire for a doctor. Try Havre first; you may get one up on the nine o' clock train. If you can't, get one down on the 'leven-twenty, from Great Falls. Or there's Benton—anyway, git one. If you could catch MacPherson, do it. Try him first, and never mind a Havre doctor unless you can't get MacPherson. I'd rather wait a couple of hours longer, for him. I'll have a rig—no, you better get a team from Jim. They'll be fresh, and you can put 'em through. If you kill 'em," he added grimly, "we can pay for 'em." He had his jack-knife out, and was already slashing carefully the shirt of Happy Jack, that he might inspect the wound.
Pink gave a last, wistful look at Happy Jack's face, which seemed unfamiliar with all the color and all the expression wiped out of it like that, and turned away. "Come and help me change saddles, Cal," he said shortly. "Weary's stirrups are too darned long." Even with the delay, he was mounted on Glory and galloping toward Flying U coulee before Weary was through uncovering the wound; and that does not mean that Weary was slow.
The rifle cracked again, and a bullet plucked into the sod twenty feet beyond the circle of men and horses. But no one looked up or gave any other sign of realization that they were still the target; they were staring, with that frowning painfully intent look men have at such moments, at a purplish hole not much bigger than if punched by a lead pencil, just under the point of Happy Jack's shoulder blade; and at the blood oozing sluggishly from it in a tiny stream across the girlishly white flesh and dripping upon Big Medicine's arm.
"Hadn't we better get a rig to take him home with?" Irish suggested.
Weary, exploring farther, had just disclosed a ragged wound under the arm where the bullet had passed out; he made no immediate reply.
"Well, he ain't got it stuck inside of 'im, anyway," Big Medicine commented relievedly. "Don't look to me like it's so awful bad—went through kinda anglin', and maybe missed his lungs. I've saw men shot up before—"
"Aw—I betche you'd—think it was bad—if you had it—" murmured Happy Jack peevishly, lifting his eyelids heavily for a resentful glance when they moved him a little. But even as Big Medicine grinned joyfully down at him he went off again into mental darkness, and the grin faded into solicitude.
"You'd kick, by golly, if you was goin' to be hung," Slim bantered tritely and belatedly, and gulped remorsefully when he saw that he was "joshing" an unconscious man.
"We better get him home. Irish, you—" Weary looked up and discovered that Irish and jack Bates were already headed for home and a conveyance. He gave a sigh of approval and turned his attention toward wiping the sweat and grime from Happy's face with his handkerchief.
"Somebody else is goin' to git hit, by golly, if we stay here," Slim blurted suddenly, when another bullet dug up the dirt in that vicinity.
"That gol-darned fool'll keep on till he kills somebody. I wisht I had m' thirty-thirty here—I'd make him wisht his mother was a man, by golly!"
Big Medicine looked toward the coulee rim. "I ain't got a shell left," he growled regretfully. "I wisht we'd thought to tell the boys to bring them rifles. Say, Slim, you crawl onto your hoss and go git 'em. It won't take more'n a minute. There'll likely be some shells in the magazines."
"Go on, Slim," urged Weary grimly. "We've got to do something. They can't do a thing like this—" he glanced down at Happy Jack— "and get away with it."
"I got half a box uh shells for my thirty-thirty, I'll bring that." Slim turned to go, stopped short and stared at the coulee rim. "By golly, they're comm' over here!" he exclaimed.
Big Medicine glanced up, took off his hat, crumpled it for a pillow and eased Happy Jack down upon it. He got up stiffly, wiped his fingers mechanically upon his trouser legs, broke his gun open just to make sure that it was indeed empty, put it back and picked up a handful of rocks.
"Let 'em come," he said viciously. "I c'n kill every damn' one with m' bare hands!"
CHAPTER XV. Oleson
"Say, ain't that Andy and Mig following along behind?" Cal asked after a minute of watching the approach. "Sure, it is. Now what—"
"They're drivin' 'em, by cripes!" Big Medicine, under the stress of the moment, returned to his usual bellowing tone. "Who's that tall, lanky feller in the lead? I don't call to mind ever seem him before. Them four herders I'd know a mile off."
"That?" Weary shaded his eyes with his hat-brim, against the slant rays of the westering sun. "That's Oleson, Dunk's partner."
"His mother'd be a-weepin'," Big Medicine observed bodefully, "if she knowed what was due to happen to her son right away quick. Must be him that done the shootin'."
They came on steadily, the four herders and Oleson walking reluctantly ahead, with Andy Green and the Native Son riding relentlessly in the rear, their guns held unwaveringly in a line with the backs of their captives. Andy was carrying a rifle, evidently taken from one of the men—Oleson, they judged for the guilty one. Half the distance was covered when Andy was seen to turn his head and speak briefly with the Native Son, after which he lunged past the captives and galloped up to the waiting group. His quick eye sought first the face of Happy Jack in anxious questioning; then, miserably, he searched the faces of his friends.
"Good Lord!" he exclaimed mechanically, dismounted and bent over the figure on the ground. For a long minute he knelt there; he laid his ear close to Happy Jack's mouth, took off his glove and laid his hand over Happy's heart; reached up, twitched off his neckerchief, shook out the creases and spread it reverently over Happy Jack's face. He stood up then and spoke slowly, his eyes fixed upon the stumbling approach of the captives.
"Pink told us Happy had been shot, so we rode around and come up behind 'em. It was a cinch. And—say, boys, we've got the Dots in a pocket. They've got to eat outa our hands, now. So don't think about—our own feelings, or about—" he stopped abruptly and let a downward glance finish the sentence. "We've got to keep our own hands clean, and—now don't let your fingers get the itch, Bud!" This, because of certain manifestations of a murderous intent on the part of Big Medicine.
"Oh, it's all right to talk, if yuh feel like talking," Big Medicine retorted savagely. "I don't." He made a catlike spring at the foremost man, who happened to be Oleson, and got a merciless grip with his fingers on his throat, snarling like a predatory animal over its kill. From behind, Andy, with Weary to help, pulled him off.
"I didn't mean to—to kill anybody," gasped Oleson, pasty white. "I heard a lot of shooting, and so I ran up the hill—and the herders came running toward me, and I thought I was defending my property and men. I had a right to defend—"
"Defend hell!" Big Medicine writhed in the restraining grasp of those who held him. "Look at that there! As good hearted a boy as ever turned a cow! Never harmed a soul in 'is life. Is all your dirty, stinkin' sheep, an' all your lousy herders, worth that boy's life? Yuh shot 'im down like a dog—lemme go, boys." His voice was husky. "Lemme tromp the life outa him."
"I thought you were killing my men, or I never—I never meant to—to kill—" Oleson, shaking till he could scarcely stand, broke down and wept; wept pitiably, hysterically, as men of a certain fiber will weep when black tragedy confronts them all unawares. He cowered miserably before the Happy Family, his face hidden behind his two hands.
"Boys, I want to say a word or two. Come over here." Andy's voice, quiet as ever, contrasted strangely with the man's sobbing. He led them back a few paces—Weary, Cal, Big Medicine and Slim, and spoke hurriedly. The Native Son eyed them sidelong from his horse, but he was careful to keep Oleson covered with his gun—and the herders too, although they were unarmed. Once or twice he glanced at that long, ungainly figure in the grass with the handkerchief of Andy Green hiding the face except where a corner, fluttering in the faint breeze which came creeping out of the west, lifted now and then and gave a glimpse of sunbrowned throat and a quiet chin and mouth.
"Quit that blubbering, Oleson, and listen here." Andys voice broke relentlessly upon the other's woe. "All these boys want to hang yuh without any red tape; far as I'm concerned, I'm dead willing. But we're going to give yuh a chance. Your partner, as we told yuh coming over, we've got the dead immortal cinch on, right now. And—well you can see what you're up against. But we'll give yuh a chance. Have you got any family?"
Oleson, trying to pull himself together, shook his head.
"Well, then, you can get rid of them sheep, can't yuh? Sell 'em, ship 'em outa here—we don't give a darn what yuh do, only so yuh get 'em off the range."
"Y-yes, I'll do that." Oleson's consent was reluctant, but it was fairly prompt. "I'll get rid of the sheep," he said, as if he was minded to clinch the promise. "I'll do it at once."
"That's nice." Andy spoke with grim irony. "And you'll get rid of the ranch, too. You'll sell it to the Flying U—cheap."
"But my partner—Whittaker might object—"
"Look here, old-timer. You'll fix that part up; you'll find a way of fixing it. Look here—at what you're up against." He waited, with pointing finger, for one terrible minute. "Will you sell to the Flying U?"
"Y-yes!" The word was really a gulp. He tried to avoid looking where Andy pointed; failed, and shuddered at what he saw.
"I thought you would. We'll get that in writing. And we're going to wait just exactly twenty-four hours before we make a move. It'll take some fine work, but we'll do it. Our boss, here, will fix up the business end with you. He'll go with yuh right now, and stay with yuh till you make good. And the first crooked move you make—" Andy, in unconscious imitation of the Native Son, shrugged a shoulder expressively and urged Weary by a glance to take the leadership.
"Irish, you come with me. The rest of you fellows know about what to do. Andy, I guess you'll have to ride point till I get back." Weary hesitated, looked from Happy Jack to Oleson and the herders, and back to the sober faces of his fellows. "Do what you can for him, boys—and I wish one of you would ride over, after Pink gets back, and—let me know how things stack up, will you?"
Incredible as was the situation on the face of it, nevertheless it was extremely matter-of-fact in the handling; which is the way sometimes with incredible situations; as if, since we know instinctively that we cannot rise unprepared to the bigness of its possibilities, we keep our feet planted steadfastly on the ground and refuse to rise at all. And afterward, perhaps, we look back and wonder how it all came about.
At the last moment Weary turned back and exchanged guns with Andy Green, because his own was empty and he realized the possible need of one—or at least the need of having the sheep-men perfectly aware that he had one ready for use. The Native Son, without a word of comment, handed his own silver-trimmed weapon over to Irish, and rolled a cigarette deftly with one hand while he watched them ride away.
"Does this strike anybody else as being pretty raw?" he inquired calmly, dismounting among them. "I'd do a good deal for the outfit, myself; but letting that man get off—Say, you fellows up this way don't think killing a man amounts to much, do you?" He looked from one to the other with a queer, contemptuous hostility in his eyes.
Andy Green took a forward step and laid a hand familiarly on his rigid shoulder. "Quit it, Mig. We would do a lot for the outfit; that's the God's truth. And I played the game right up to the hilt, I admit. But nobody's killed. I told Happy to play dead. By gracious, I caught him just in the nick uh time; he'd been setting up, in another minute." To prove it, he bent and twitched the handkerchief from the face of Happy Jack, and Happy opened his eyes and made shift to growl.
"Yuh purty near-smothered me t'death, darn yuh."
"Dios!" breathed the Native Son, for once since they knew him jolted out of his eternal calm. "God, but I'm glad!"
"I guess the rest of us ain't," insinuated Andy softly, and lifted his hat to wipe the sweat off his forehead. "I will say that—" After all, he did not. Instead, he knelt beside Happy Jack and painstakingly adjusted the crumpled hat a hair's breadth differently.
"How do yuh feel, old-timer?" he asked with a very thin disguise of cheerfulness upon the anxiety of his tone.
"Well, I could feel a lot—better, without hurtin' nothin," Happy Jack responded somberly. "I hope you fellers—feel better, now. Yuh got 'em—tryin' to murder—the hull outfit; jes' like I—told yuh they would—" Gunshot wounds, contrary to the tales of certain sentimentalists, do not appreciably sweeten, or even change, a man's disposition. Happy Jack with a bullet hole through one side of him was still Happy Jack.
"Aw, quit your beefin'," Big Medicine advised gruffly. "A feller with a hole in his lung yuh could throw a calf through sideways ain't got no business statin' his views on nothin', by cripes!"
"Aw gwan. I thought you said—it didn't amount t' nothin'," Happy reminded him, anxiety stealing into his face.
"Well, it don't. May lay yuh up a day or two; wouldn't be su'prised if yuh had to stay on the bed-ground two or three meals. But look at Slim, here. Shot through the leg—shattered a bone, by cripes!—las' night, only; and here he's makin' a hand and ridin' and cussin' same as any of us t'day. We ain't goin' to let yuh grouch around, that's all. We claim we got a vacation comm' to us; you're shot up, now, and that's fun enough for one man, without throwin' it into the whole bunch. Why, a little nick like that ain't nothin'; nothin' a-tall. Why, I've been shot right through here, by cripes"—Big Medicine laid an impressive finger-tip on the top button of his trousers—"and it come out back here"—he whirled and showed his thumb against the small of his back—"and I never laid off but that day and part uh the next. I was sore," he admitted, goggling Happy Jack earnestly, "but I kep' a-goin'. I was right in fall roundup, an' I had to. A man can't lay down an' cry, by cripes, jes' because he gets pinked a little—"
"Aw, that's jest because—it ain't you. I betche you'd lay 'em down—jest like other folks, if yuh got shot—through the lungs. That ain't no—joke, lemme tell yuh!" Happy Jack was beginning to show considerable spirit for a wounded man. So much spirit that Andy Green, who had seen men stricken down with various ills, read fever signs in the countenance and in the voice of Happy, and led Big Medicine somewhat peremptorily out of ear-shot.
"Ain't you got any sense?" he inquired with fine candor. "What do you want to throw it into him like that, for? You may not think so, but he's pretty bad off—if you ask me."
Big Medicine's pale eyes turned commiseratingly toward Happy Jack. "I know he is; I ain't no fool. I was jest tryin' to cheer 'im up a little. He was beginnin' to look like he was gittin' scared about it; I reckon maybe I made a break, sayin' what I did about it, so I jest wanted to take the cuss off. Honest to gran'ma—"
"If you know anything at all about such things, you must know what fever means in such a case. And, recollect, it's going to be quite a while before a doctor can get here."
"Oh, I'll be careful. Maybe I did throw it purty strong; I won't, no more." Big Medicine s meekness was not the least amazing incident of the day. He was a big-hearted soul under his bellow and bluff, and his sympathy for Happy Jack struck deep. He went back walking on his toes, and he stood so that his sturdy body shaded Happy Jack's face from the sun, and he did not open his mouth for another word until Irish and Jack Bates came rattling up with the spring wagon hurriedly transformed with mattress, pillows and blankets into an ambulance.
They had been thoughtful to a degree. They brought with them a jug of water and a tin cup, and they gave Happy Jack a long, cooling drink of it and bathed his face before they lifted him into the wagon. And of all the hands that ministered to his needs, the hands of Big Medicine were the eagerest and gentlest, and his voice was the most vibrant with sympathy; which was saying a good deal.
CHAPTER XVI. The End of the Dots
Slim may not have been more curious than his fellows, but he was perhaps more single-hearted in his loyalty to the outfit. To him the shooting of Happy Jack, once he felt assured that the wound was not necessarily fatal, became of secondary importance. It was all in behalf of the Flying U; and if the bullet which laid Happy Jack upon the ground was also the means of driving the hated Dots from that neighborhood, he felt, in his slow, phlegmatic way, that it wasn't such a catastrophe as some of the others seemed to think. Of course, he wouldn't want Happy to die; but he didn't believe, after all, that Happy was going to do anything like that. Old Patsy knew a lot about sickness and wounds. (Who can cook for a cattle outfit, for twenty years and more, and not know a good deal of hurts?) Old Patsy had looked Happy over carefully, and had given a grin and a snort.
"Py cosh, dot vos lucky for you, alreatty," he had pronounced. "So you don't git plood-poisonings, mit fever, you be all right pretty soon. You go to shleep, yet. If fix you oop till der dochtor he cooms. I seen fellers shot plumb through der middle off dem, und git yell. You ain't shot so bad. You go to shleep."
So, his immediate fears relieved, Slim's slow mind had swung back to the Dots, and to Oleson, whom Weary was even now assisting to keep his promise (Slim grinned widely to himself when he thought of the abject fear which Oleson had displayed because of the murder he thought he had done, while Happy Jack obediently "played dead"). And of Dunk, whom Slim had hated most abominably of old; Dunk, a criminal found out; Dunk, a prisoner right there on the very ranch he had thought to despoil; Dunk, at that very moment locked in the blacksmith shop. Perhaps it was not curiosity alone which sent him down there; perhaps it was partly a desire to look upon Dunk humbled—he who had trodden so arrogantly upon the necks of those below him; so arrogantly that even Slim, the slow-witted one, had many a time trembled with anger at his tone.
Slim walked slowly, as was his wont; with deadly directness, as was his nature. The blacksmith shop was silent, closed—as grimly noncommittal as a vault. You might guess whatever you pleased about its inmate; it was like trying to imagine the emotions pictured upon the face behind a smooth, black mask. Slim stopped before the closed door and listened. The rusty, iron hasp attracted his slow gaze, at first puzzling him a little, making him vaguely aware that something about it did not quite harmonize with his mental attitude toward it. It took him a full minute to realize that he had expected to find the door locked, and that the hasp hung downward uselessly, just as it hung every day in the year.
He remembered then that Andy had spoken of chaining Dunk to the anvil. That would make it unnecessary to lock the door, of course. Slim seized the hanging strip of iron, gave it a jerk and bathed all the dingy interior with a soft, sunset glow. Cobwebs quivered at the inrush of the breeze, and glistened like threads of fine gold. The forge remained a dark blot in the corner. A new chisel, lying upon the earthen floor, became a bar of yellow light.
Slim's eyes went to the anvil and clung there in a widening stare. His hands, white and soft when his gloves were off, drew up convulsively into fighting fists, and as he stood looking, the cords swelled and stood out upon his thick neck. For years he had hated Dunk Whittaker—
The Happy Family, with rare good sense, had not hesitated to turn the white house into an impromptu hospital. They knew that if the Little Doctor and Chip and the Old Man had been at home Happy Jack would have been taken unquestioningly into the guest chamber—which was a square, three-windowed room off the big livingroom. More than one of them had occupied it upon occasion. They took Happy Jack up there and put him to bed quite as a matter-of-course, and when he was asleep they lingered upon the wide, front porch; the hammock of the Little Doctor squeaked under the weight of Andy Green, and the wide-armed chairs received the weary forms of divers young cowpunchers who did not give a thought to the intrusion, but were thankful for the comfort. Andy was swinging luxuriously and drawing the last few puffs from a cigarette when Slim, purple and puffing audibly, appeared portentously before him.
"I thought you said you was goin' to lock Dunk up in the blacksmith shop," he launched accusingly at Andy.
"We did," averred that young man, pushing his toe against the railing to accelerate the voluptuous motion of the hammock.
"He ain't there. He's broke loose. The chain—by golly, yuh went an' used that chain that was broke an' jest barely hangin' together! His horse ain't anywheres around, either. You fellers make me sick. Lollin' around here an' not paying no attention, by golly—he's liable to be ten mile from here by this time!" When Slim stopped, his jaw quivered like a dish of disturbed jelly, and I wish I could give you his tone; choppy, every sentence an accusation that should have made those fellows wince.
Irish, Big Medicine and Jack Bates had sprung guiltily to their feet and started down the steps. The drawling voice of the Native Son stopped them, ten feet from the porch.
"Twelve, or fifteen, I should make it. That horse of his looked to me like a drifter."
"Well—are yuh goin' t' set there on your haunches an' let him GO?" Slim, by the look of him, was ripe for murder.
"You want to look out, or you'll get apoplexy sure," Andy soothed, giving himself another luxurious push and pulling the last, little whiff from his cigarette before he threw away the stub. "Fat men can't afford to get as excited as skinny ones can."
"Aw, say! Where did you put him, Andy?" asked Big Medicine, his first flurry subsiding before the absolute calm of those two on the porch.
"In the blacksmith shop," said Andy, with a slurring accent on the first word that made the whole sentence perfectly maddening. "Ah, come on back here and sit down. I guess we better tell 'em the how of it. Huh, Mig?"
Miguel cast a slow, humorous glance over the four. "Ye-es—they'll have us treed in about two minutes if we don't," he assented. "Go ahead."
"Well," Andy lifted his head and shoulders that he might readjust a pillow to his liking, "we wanted him to make a getaway. Fact is, if he hadn't, we'd have been—strictly up against it. Right! If he hadn't—how about it, Mig? I guess we'd have been to the Little Rockies ourselves."
"You've got a sweet little voice," Irish cut in savagely, "but we're tired. We'd rather hear yuh say something!"
"Oh—all right. Well, Mig and I just ribbed up a josh on Dunk. I'd read somewhere about the same kinda deal, so it ain't original; I don't lay any claim to the idea at all; we just borrowed it. You see, it's like this: We figured that a man as mean as this Dunk person most likely had stepped over the line, somewhere. So we just took a gambling chance, and let him do the rest. You see, we never saw him before in our lives. All that identification stunt of ours was just a bluff. But the minute I shoved my chips to the center, I knew we had him dead to rights. You were there. You saw him wilt. By gracious—"
"Yuh don't know anything against him?" gasped Irish.
"Not a darned thing—any more than what you all know," testified Andy complacently.
It took a minute or two for that to sink in.
"Well, I'll be damned!" breathed Irish.
"We did chain him to the anvil," Andy went on. "On the way down, we talked about being in a hurry to get back to you fellows, and I told Mig—so Dunk could hear—that we wouldn't bother with the horse. We tied him to the corral. And I hunted around for that bum chain, and then we made out we couldn't find the padlock for the door; so we decided, right out loud, that he'd be dead safe for an hour or two, till the bunch of us got back. Not knowing a darn thing about him, except what you boys have told us, we sure would have been in bad if he hadn't taken a sneak. Fact is, we were kinda worried for fear he wouldn't have nerve enough to try it. We waited, up on the hill, till we saw him sneak down to the corral and jump on his horse and take off down the coulee like a scared coyote. It was," quoth the young man, unmistakably pleased with himself, "pretty smooth work, if you ask me."
"I'd hate to ride as fast and far to-night as that hombre will," supplemented Miguel with his brief smile, that was just a flash of white, even teeth and a momentary lightening of his languorous eyes.
Slim stood for five minutes, a stolid, stocky figure in the midst of a storm of congratulatory comment. They forgot all about Happy Jack, asleep inside the house, and so their voices were not hushed. Indeed, Big Medicine's bull-like remarks boomed full-throated across the coulee and were flung back mockingly by the barren hills. Slim did not hear a word they were saying; he was thinking it over, with that complete mental concentration which is the chief recompense of a slow-working mind. He was methodically thinking it all out—and, eventually, he saw the joke.
"Well, by golly!" he bawled suddenly, and brought his palm down with a terrific smack upon his sore leg—whereat his fellows laughed uproariously.
"We told you not to try to see through any more jokes till your leg gets well, Slim," Andy reminded condescendingly.
"Say, by golly, that's a good one on Dunk, ain't it? Chasin' himself clean outa the country, by golly—scared plumb to death—-and you fellers was only jest makin' b'lieve yuh knowed him! By golly, that sure is a good one, all right!"
"You've got it; give you time enough and you could see through a barbed-wire fence," patronized Andy, from the hammock. "Yes, since you mention it, I think myself it ain't so bad."
"Aw-w shut up, out there, an' let a feller sleep!" came a querulous voice from within. "I'd ruther bed down with a corral full uh calves at weanin' time, than be anywheres within ten mile uh you darned, mouthy—" The rest was indistinguishable, but it did not matter. The Happy Family, save Slim, who stayed to look after the patient, tiptoed penitently off the porch and took themselves and their enthusiasm down to the bunk-house.
CHAPTER XVII. Good News
Pink rolled over in his bed so that he might look—however sleepily—upon his fellows, dressing more or less quietly in the cool dawn-hour.
"Say, I got a letter for you, Weary," he yawned, stretching both arms above his head. "I opened it and read it; it was from Chip, so—"
"What did he have to say?"
"Old Man any better?"
"How they comm', back here?"
Several voices, speaking at once, necessitated a delayed reply.
"They'll be here, to-day or to-morrow," Pink replied without any circumlocution whatever, while he fumbled in his coat pocket for the letter. "He says the Old Man wants to come, and the doctors think he might as well tackle it as stay there fussing over it. They're coming in a special car, and we've got to rig up an outfit to meet him. The Little Doctor tells just how she wants things fixed. I thought maybe it was important—it come special delivery," Pink added naively, "so I just played it was mine and read it."
"That's all right, Cadwalloper," Weary assured him while he read hastily the letter. "Well, we'll fix up the spring wagon and take it in right away; somebody's got to go back anyway, with MacPherson. Hello, Cal; how's Happy?"
"All right," answered Cal, who had watched over him during the night and came in at that moment after someone to take his place in the sickroom. "Waked up on the fight because I just happened to be setting with my eyes shut. I wasn't asleep, but he said I was; claimed I snored so loud I kept him awake all night. Gee whiz! I'd ruther nurse a she bear with the mumps!"
"Old Man's coming home, Cal." Pink announced with more joy in his tone and in his face than had appeared in either for many a weary day. Whereupon Cal gave an exultant whoop. "Go tell that to Happy," he shouted. "Maybe he'll forget a grouch or two. Say, luck seems to be kinda casting loving glances our way again—what?"
"By golly, seems to me Pink oughta told us when he come in, las' night," grumbled Slim, when he could make himself heard.
"You were all dead to the world," Pink defended, "and I wanted to be. Two o'clock in the morning is a mighty poor time for elegant conversation, if you want my opinion."
"And the main point is, you knew all about it, and you didn't give a darn whether we did or not," Irish said bluntly. "And Weary sneaked in, too, and never let a yip outa him about things over in Denson coulee."
"Oh, what was the use?" asked Weary blandly. "I got an option out of Oleson for the ranch and outfit, and all his sheep, at a mighty good figure—for the Flying U. The Old Man can do what he likes about it; but ten to one he'll buy him out. That is, Oleson's share, which was two-thirds. I kinda counted on Dunk letting go easy. And," he added, reaching for his hat, "once I got the papers for it, there wasn't anything to hang around for, was there? Especially," he said with his old, sunny smile, "when we weren't urged a whole lot to stay."
Remained therefore little, save the actual arrival of the Old Man—a pitifully weak Old Man, bandaged and odorous with antiseptics, and quite pathetically glad to be back home—and his recovery, which was rather slow, and the recovery of Happy Jack, which was rapid.
For a brief space the Flying U outfit owned the Dots; very brief it was; not a day longer than it took Chip to find a buyer—at a figure considerably above that named in the option, by the way.
So, after a season of worry and trouble and impending tragedy such as no man may face unflinchingly, life dropped back to its usual level, and the trail of the Flying U outfit once more led through pleasant places.