The Flying U's Last Stand by B.M. Bower
Chapter 10. Wherein Andy Green Lies to a Lady
In the soft-creeping dusk came Andy Green, slouched in the saddle with the weariness of riding since dawn; slouched to one side and singing, with his hat far back on his head and the last of a red sunset tinting darkly the hills above him. Tip-toe on a pinnacle a great, yellow star poised and winked at him knowingly. Andy's eyes twinkled answer as he glanced up that way. "We've got her going, old-timer," he announced lazily to the star.
Six miles back toward the edge of the "breaks" which are really the beginning of the Badlands that border the Missouri River all through that part of Montana, an even five hundred head of the Flying U's best grade cows and their calves were settling down for the night upon a knoll that had been the bed-ground of many a herd. At the Flying U ranch, in the care of the Old Man, were the mortgages that would make the Happy Family nominal owners of those five hundred cows and their calves. In the morning Andy would ride back and help bring the herd upon its spring grazing ground, which was the claims; in the meantime he was leisurely obeying an impulse to ride into One Man coulee and spend the night under his own roof. And, say what you will, there is a satisfaction not to be denied in sleeping sometimes under one's own roof; and it doesn't matter in the least that the roof is made of prairie dirt thrown upon cottonwood poles. So he sang while he rode, and his voice boomed loud in the coulee and scared long stilled echoes into repeating the song:
"We're here because we're here, because we're here, because we're here, We're here because we're here, because we're here, because we're here--"
That, if you please, is a song; there are a lot more verses exactly like this one, which may be sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne with much effectiveness when one is in a certain mood. So Andy sang, while his tired horse picked its way circumspectly among the scattered rocks of the trail up the coulee.
"It's time you're here, it's time you're here, It's time that you were here--"
mocked an echo not of the hills.
Andy swore in his astonishment and gave his horse a kick as a mild hint for haste. He thought he knew every woman-voice in the neighborhood--or had until the colony came--but this voice, high and sweet and with a compelling note that stirred him vaguely, was absolutely strange. While he loped forward, silenced for the moment, he was conscious of a swift, keen thankfulness that Pink had at the last minute decided to stay in camp that night instead of accompanying Andy to One Man. He was in that mood when a sentimental encounter appealed to him strongly; and a woman's voice, singing to him from One Man cabin, promised undetermined adventure.
He did not sing again. There had been something in the voice that held him quiet, listening, expectant. But she also was silent after that last, high note--like a meadow lark startled in the middle of his song, thought Andy whimsically.
He came within sight of the cabin, squatting in the shadow of the grove at its back. He half expected ,to see a light, but the window was dark, the door closed as he had left it. He felt a faint, unreasoning disappointment that it was so. But he had heard her. That high note that lingered upon the word "here" still tingled his senses. His eyes sent seeking glances here and there as he rode up.
Then a horse nickered welcomingly, and someone rode out from the deeper shadow at the corner of the cabin, hesitated as though tempted to flight, and came on uncertainly. They met full before the cabin, and the woman leaned and peered through the dusk at Andy.
"Is this--Mr. Mallory--Irish?" she asked nervously. "Oh dear! Have I gone and made a fool of myself again?"
"Not at all! Good evening, Miss Allen." Andy folded his hands upon the saddle horn and regarded her with a little smile, Keen for what might come next.
"But you're not Irish Mallory. I thought I recognized the voice, or I wouldn't have--" She urged her horse a step closer, and Andy observed from her manner that she was not accustomed to horses. She reined as if she were driving, so that the horse, bewildered, came sidling up to him. "Who are you?" she asked him sharply.
"Me? Why, I'm a nice young man--a lot better singer than Irish. I guess you never heard him, did you?" He kept his hands folded on the horn, his whole attitude passive--a restful, reassuring passivity that lulled her uneasiness more than words could have done.
"Oh, are you Andy Green? I seem to connect that name with your voice--and what little I can see of you."
"That's something, anyway." Andy's tone was one of gratitude. "It's two per cent. better than having to tell you right out who I am. I met you three different times, Miss Allen," he reproached.
"But always in a crowd," she defended, "and I never talked with you, particularly."
"Oh, well, that's easily fixed," he said. "It's a nice night," he added, looking up appreciatively at the brightening star-sprinkle. "Are you living on your claim now? We can talk particularly on the way over."
Miss Allen laughed and groped for a few loose hairs, found them and tucked them carefully under her hatcrown. Andy remembered that gesture; it helped him to visualize her clearly in spite of the deepening night.
"How far have you ridden today, Mr. Green?" she asked irrelevantly.
"Since daylight, you mean? Not so very far counting miles--We were trailing a herd, you see. But I've been in the saddle since sunrise, except when I was eating."
"Then you want a cup of coffee, before you ride any farther. If I get down, will you let me make it or you? I'd love to. I'm crazy to see inside your cabin, but I only rode up and tried to peek in the window before you came. I have two brothers and a cousin, so I understand men pretty well and I know you can talk better when you aren't hungry."
"Are you living on your claim?" he asked again, without moving.
"Why, yes. We moved in last week."
"Well, we'll ride over, then, and you can make coffee there. I'm not hungry right now."
"Oh." She leaned again and peered at him, trying to read his face. "You don't want me to go in!"
"Yes, I do--but I don't. If you stayed and made coffee, tomorrow you'd be kicking yourself for it, and you'd be blaming me." Which, considering the life he had lived, almost wholly among men, was rather astute of Andy Green.
"Oh." Then she laughed. "You must have some sisters, Mr. Green." She was silent for a minute, looking at him. "You're right," she said quietly then. "I'm always making a fool of myself, just on the impulse of the moment. The girls will be worried about me, as it is. But I don't want you to ride any farther, Mr. Green. What I came to say need not take very long, and I think I can find my way home alone, all right."
"I'll take you home when you're ready to go," said Andy quietly. All at once he had wanted to shield her, to protect her from even so slight an unconventionality as making his coffee for him. He had felt averse to putting her at odds with her conventional self, of inviting unfavorable criticism of himself; dimly, because instinct rather than cold analysis impelled him. What he had told her was the sum total of his formulated ideas.
"Well, I'm ready to go now, since you insist on my being conventional. I did not come West with the expectation of being tied to a book of etiquette, Mr. Green. But I find one can't get away from it after all. Still, living on one's own claim twelve miles from a town is something!"
"That's a whole lot, I should say," Andy assured her politely, and refrained from asking her what she expected to do with that eighty acres of arid land. He turned his tired horse and rode alongside her, prudently waiting for her to give the key.
"I'm not supposed to be away over here, you know," she began when they were near the foot of the bluff up which the trail wound seeking the easiest slopes and avoiding boulders and deep cuts. "I'm supposed to be just out riding, and the girls expected me back by sundown. But I've been trying and trying to find some of you Flying U boys--as they call you men who have taken so much land--on your claims. I don't know that what I could tell you would do you a particle of good--or anyone else. But I wanted to tell you, anyway, just to clear my own mind."
"It does lots of good just to meet you," said Andy with straightforward gallantry. "Pleasures are few and far between, out here."
"You said that very nicely, I'm sure," she snubbed. "Well, I'm going to tell you, anyway--just on the chance of doing some good." Then she stopped.
Andy rode a rod or two, glancing at her inquiringly, waiting for her to go on. She was guiding her horse awkwardly where it needed only to be let alone, and he wanted to give her a lesson in riding. But it seemed too early in their acquaintance for that, so he waited another minute.
"Miss Hallman is going to make you a lot of trouble," she began abruptly. "I thought perhaps it might be better for you--all of you--if you knew it in advance, so there would be no sudden anger and excitement. All the settlers are antagonistic, Mr. Green--all but me, and one or two of the girls. They are going to do everything they can to prevent your land-scheme from going through. You are going to be watched and--and your land contested--"
"Well, we'll be right there, I guess, when the dust settles," he filled in her thought unmoved.
"I--almost hope so," she ventured. "For my part, I can see the side--your side. I can see where it is very hard for the cattle men to give up their range. It is like the big plantations down south, when the slaves were freed. It had to be done, and yet it was hard upon those planters who depended on free labor. They resented it deeply; deeply enough to shed blood--and that is one thing I dread here. I hope, Mr. Green, that you will not resort to violence. I want to urge you all to--to--"
"I understand," said Andy softly. "A-course, we're pretty bad when we get started, all right. We're liable to ride up on dark nights and shoot our enemies through the window--I can't deny it, Miss Allen. And if it comes right to a show-down, I may as well admit that some of us would think nothing at all of taking a man out and hanging him to the first three we come to, that was big enough to hold him. But now that ladies have come into the country, a-course we'll try and hold our tempers down all we can. Miss Hallman, now--I don't suppose there's a man in the bunch that would shoot her, no matter what she done to us. We take pride in being polite to women. You've read that about us, haven't you, Miss Allen? And you've seen us on the stage--well, it's a fact, all right. Bad as we are, and wild and tough, and savage when we're crossed, a lady can just do anything with us, if she goes at it the right way."
"Thank you. I felt sure that you would not harm any of us. Will you promise not to be violent--not to--to--"
Andy sat sidewise in the saddle, so that he faced her. Miss Allen could just make out his form distinctly; his face was quite hidden, except that she could see the shine of his eyes.
"Now, Miss Allen," he protested with soft apology "You musta known what to expect when you moved out amongst us rough characters. You know I can make any promises about being mild with the men that try to get the best of us. If you've got friends--brothers--anybody here that you think a lot of Miss Allen, I advise you to send 'em outa the country, before trouble breaks loose; because when she starts she'll start a- popping. I know I can't answer for my self, what I'm liable to do if they bother me; and I'm about the mildest one in the bunch. What the rest of the boys would do--Irish Mallory for instance--I hate to think, Miss Allen. I--hate--to--think!"
Afterwards, when he thought it all over dispassionately, Andy wondered why he had talked to Miss Allen like that. He had not done it deliberately, just to frighten her--yet he had frightened her to a certain extent. He had roused her apprehension for the safety of her neighbors and the ultimate well-being of himself and his fellows. She had been so anxious over winning him to more peaceful ways that she had forgotten to give him any details of the coming struggle. Andy was sorry for that. He wished, on the way home, that he knew just what Florence Grace Hallman intended to do.
Not that it mattered greatly. Whatever she did, Andy felt that it would be futile. The Happy Family were obeying the land laws implicitly, except as their real incentive had been an unselfish one. He could not feel that it was wrong to try and save the Flying U; was not loyalty a virtue? And was not the taking of land for the preservation of a fine, fair dealing outfit that had made itself a power for prosperity and happiness in that country, a perfectly laudable enterprise? Andy believed so.
Even though they did, down in their deepest thoughts, think of the Flying U's interest, Andy did not believe that Florence Grace Hallman or anyone else could produce any evidence that would justify a contest for their land. Though they planned among themselves for the good of the Flying U, they were obeying the law and the dictates of their range- conscience and their personal ideas of right and justice and loyalty to their friends and to themselves. They were not conspiring against the general prosperity of the country in the hope of great personal gain. When you came to that, they were saving fifty men from bitter disappointment--counting one settler to every eighty acres, as the Syndicate apparently did.
Still, Andy wondered why he had represented himself and his friends to be such bloodthirsty devils. He grinned wickedly over some of the things he had said, and over her womanly perturbation and pleading that they would spare the lives of their enemies. Oh, well--if she repeated half to Florence Grace Hallman, that lady would maybe think twice before she tackled the contract of boosting the Happy Family off their claims. So at the last he managed to justify his lying to her. He liked Miss Allen. He was pleased to think that at least she would not forget him the minute he was out of her sight.
He went to sleep worrying, not over the trouble which Florence Grace Hallman might be plotting to bring upon him, but about Miss Allen's given name and her previous condition of servitude. He hoped that she was not a stenographer, and he hoped her first name was not Mary; and if you know the history of Andy Green you will remember that he had a reason for disliking both the name and the vocation.