The Flying U's Last Stand by B.M. Bower
Chapter 11. A Moving Chapter in Events
Having nothing more than a general warning of trouble ahead to disturb him, Andy rode blithely back down the coulee and met the herd just after sunrise. Dreams of Miss Allen had left a pleasant mood behind them, though the dreams themselves withdrew behind the veil of forgetfulness when he awoke. He wondered what her first name was. He wondered how far Irish's acquaintance with her had progressed, but he did not worry much about Irish. Having represented himself to be an exceedingly dangerous man, and having permitted himself to be persuaded into promising reform and a calm demeanor--for her sake--he felt tolerably sure of her interest in him. He had heard that a woman loves best the taming of a dangerous man, and he whistled and sang and smiled until the dust of the coming herd met him full. Since he felt perfectly sure of the result, he hoped that Florence Grace Hallman would start something, just so that he might show Miss Allen how potent was her influence over a bad, bad man who still has virtues worth nurturing carefully.
Weary, riding point on the loitering herd, grinned a wordless greeting. Andy passed with a casual wave of his hand and took his place on the left flank. From his face Weary guessed that all was well with the claims, and the assurance served to lighten his spirits. Soon he heard Andy singing at the top of his voice, and his own thoughts fell into accord with the words of the ditty. He began to sing also, whenever he knew the words. Farther back, Pink took it up, and then the others joined in, until all unconsciously they had turned the monotonous drive into a triumphal march.
"They're a little bit rough I must confess, the most of them at least," prompted Andy, starting on the second verse alone because the others didn't know the song as well as he. He waited a second for them to join him, and went on extolling the valor of all true cowboys:
"But long's you do not cross their trail you can live with them at peace.
"But if you do they're sure to rule, the day you come to their land,
"For they'll follow you up and shoot it out, and do it man to man."
"Say, Weary! They tell me Florence Grace is sure hittin' the warpost! Ain't yuh scared?"
Weary shook his head and rode forward to ease the leaders into a narrow gulch that would cut off a mile or so of the journey.
"Taking 'em up One Man?" called Pink, and got a nod for answer. There was a lull in the singing while they shouted and swore at these stubborn cows who would have tried to break back on the way to a clover patch, until the gulch broadened into an arm of One Man Coulee itself. It was all peaceful and easy and just as they had planned. The morning was cool and the cattle contented. They were nearing their claims, and all that would remain for them to do was the holding of their herd upon the appointed grazing ground. So would the requirements of the law be fulfilled and the machinations of the Syndicate be thwarted and the land saved to the Flying U, all in one.
And then the leaders, climbing the hill at a point half a mile below Andy's cabin, balked, snorted and swung back. Weary spurred up to push them forward, and so did Andy and Pink. They rode up over the ridge shouting and urging the reluctant cattle ahead, and came plump into the very dooryard of a brand new shack. A man was standing in the doorway watching the disturbance his presence had created; when he saw the three riders come bulging up over the crest of the bluff, his eyes widened.
The three came to a stop before him, too astonished to do more than stare. Once past the fancied menace of the new building and the man, the cattle went trotting awkwardly across the level, their calves galloping alongside.
"Hello," said Weary at last, "what do you think you're doing here?"
"Me? I'm holding down a claim. What are you doing?" The man did not seem antagonistic or friendly or even neutral toward them. He seemed to be waiting. He eyed the cattle that kept coming, urged on by those who shouted at them in the coulee below. He watched them spread out and go trotting away after the leaders.
"Say, when did yuh take this claim?" Andy leaned negligently forward and looked at him curiously.
"Oh, a week or so ago. Why?"
"I just wondered. I took it up myself, four weeks ago. Four forties I've got, strung out in a line that runs from here to yonder. You've got over on my land--by mistake, of course. I just thought I'd tell yuh he added casually, straightening up, "because I didn't think you knew it before."
"Thanks." The man smiled one-sidedly and began filling a pipe while he watched them.
"A-course it won't be much trouble to move your shack," Andy continued with neighborly interest. "A wheelbarrow will take it, easy. Back here on the bench a mile or so, yuh may find a patch of ground that nobody claims."
"Thanks." The man picked a match from his pocket and striking it on the new yellow door-casing lighted his pipe.
Andy moved uneasily. He did not like that man, for all he appeared so thankful for information. The fellow had a narrow forehead and broad, high cheek bones and a predatory nose. His eyes were the wrong shade of blue and the lids drooped too much at the outer corners. Andy studied him curiously. Did the man know what he was up against, or did he not? Was he sincere in his ready thanks, or was he sarcastic? The man looked up at him then. His eyes were clean of any hidden meaning, but they were the wrong shade of blue--the shade that is opaque and that you feel hides much that should be revealed to you.
"Seems like there's been quite a crop of shacks grown up since I rode over this way," Weary announced suddenly, returning from a brief scurry after the leaders, that inclined too much toward the south in their travel.
"Yes, the country's settling up pretty fast," conceded the man in the doorway.
"Well, by golly!" bellowed Slim, popping up from below on a heaving horse. Slim was getting fatter every year, and his horses always puffed when they climbed a hill under his weight. His round eyes glared resentfully at the man and the shack and at the three who were sitting there so quietly on their horses--just as if they had ridden up for a friendly call. "Ain't this shack on your land?" he spluttered to Andy.
"Why, yes. It is, just right at present." Andy admitted, following the man's example in the matter of a smoke, except that Andy rolled and lighted a cigarette. "He's going to move it, though."
"Oh. Thanks." With the one-sided smile.
"Say, you needn't thank me," Andy protested in his polite tone. "You're going to move it, you know."
"You may know, but I don't," corrected the other.
"Oh, that's all right. You may not know right now, but don't let that worry yuh. This is sure a great country for pilgrims to wise up in."
Big Medicine came up over the hill a hundred feet or so from them; goggled a minute at the bold trespass and came loping across the intervening space. "Say, by cripes, what's this mean?" he bawled. "Claim-jumper, hey? Say, young feller, do you realize what you're doing--squattin' down on another man's land. Don't yuh know claim-jumpers git shot, out here? Or lynched?"
"Oh, cut out all that rough stuff!" advised the man wearily. "I know who you are, and what your bluff is worth. I know you can't held a foot of land if anybody is a mind to contest your claims. I've filed a contest on this eighty, here, and I'm going to hold it. Let that soak into your minds. I don't want any trouble--I'm even willing to take a good deal in the way of bluster, rather than have trouble. But I'm going to stay. See?" He waved his pipe in a gesture of finality and continued to smoke and to watch them impersonally, leaning against the door in that lounging negligence which is so irritating to a disputant.
"Oh, all right--if that's the way you feel about it," Andy replied indifferently, and turned away. "Come on, boys--no use trying to bluff that gazabo. He's wise."
He rode away with his face turned over his shoulder to see if the others were going to follow. When he was past the corner and therefore out of the man's sight, he raised his arm and beckoned to them imperatively, with a jerk of his head to add insistence. The four of them looked after him uncertainly. Weary kicked his horse and started, then Pink did the same. Andy beckoned again, more emphatically than before, and Big Medicine, who loved a fight as he loved to win a jackpot, turned and glared at the man in the doorway as be passed. Slim was rumbling by-golly ultimatums in his fat chest when he came up.
"Pink, you go on back and put the boys next, when they come up with the drag they won't do anything much but hand out a few remarks and ride on." Andy said, in the tone of one who knows exactly what he means to do. "This is my claim-jumper. Chances are I've got three more to handle--or will have. Nothing like starting off right. Tell the boys just rag the fellow a little and ride on, like we did. Get the cattle up here and set Happy and Slim day-herding and the rest of us'll get busy."
"You wouldn't tell for a dollar, would yuh?" Pi asked him with his dimples showing.
"I've got to think it out first," Andy evaded. feel all the symptoms of an idea. You let me alone a while."
"Say, yuh going to tell him he's been found out and yuh know his past," began Slim, "like yuh done Dunk? I'll bet, by golly--"
"Go on off and lay down!" Andy retorted pettishly. "I never worked the same one off on you twice, did I? Think I'm getting feeble-minded? It ain't hard to put his nibs on the run--that's dead easy. Trouble is I went and hobbled myself. I promised a lady I'd be mild."
"Mamma!" muttered Weary, his sunny eyes taking in the shack- dotted horizon. "Mild!--and all these jumpers on our hands!"
"Oh, well--there's more'n one way to kill a cat," Andy reminded them cheerfully. "You go on back and post the boys, Pink, not to get too riled."
He galloped off and left them to say and think what they pleased. He was not uneasy over their following his advice or waiting for his plan. For Andy Green had risen rapidly to a tacit leadership, since first he told them of the coming colony. From being the official Ananias of the outfit, king of all joke-makers, chief irritator of the bunch, whose lightest word was suspected of hiding some deep meaning and whose most innocent action was analysed, he had come to the point where they listened to him and depended upon him to see a way out of every difficulty. They would depend upon him now; of that he was sure--therefore they would wait for his plan.
Strange as it may seem, the Happy Family had not seriously considered the possibility of having their claims "jumped" so long as they kept valid their legal residence. They had thought that they would be watched and accused of collusion with the Flying U, and they intended to be extremely careful. They meant to stay upon their claims at least seven months in the year, which the law required. They meant to have every blade of grass eaten by their own cattle, which would be counted as improving their claims. They meant to give a homelike air of permanency to their dwellings. They had already talked over a tentative plan of bringing water to their desert claims, and had ridden over the bench-land for two days, with the plat at hand for reference, that they might be sure of choosing their claims wisely. They had prepared for every contingency save the one that had arisen-- which is a common experience with us all. They had not expected that their claims would be jumped and contests filed so early in the game, as long as they maintained their residence.
However, Andy was not dismayed at the turn of events. It was stimulating to the imagination to be brought face to face with an emergency such as this, and to feel that one must handle it with strength and diplomacy and a mildness of procedure that would find favor in the eyes of a girl.
He looked across the waving grass to where the four roomed shack was built upon the four corners of four "eighties" so that four women might live together and yet be said to live upon their own claims. That was drawing the line pretty fine, of course; finer than the Happy Family would have dared to draw it. But no one would raise any objection, on account of their being women and timid about living alone. Andy smiled sympathetically because the four conjunctive corners of the four claims happened to lie upon a bald pinnacle bare of grass or shelter or water, even. The shack stood bleakly revealed to the four winds--but also it over looked the benchland and the rolling, half-barren land to the west, which comprised Antelope Coulee and Dry Coulee and several other good-for-nothing coulees capable of supporting nothing but coyotes and prairie dogs and gophers.
A mile that way Andy rode, and stopped upon the steep side of a gulch which was an arm of Antelope Coulee. He looked down into the gulch, searched with his eyes for the stake that marked the southeast corner of the eighty lying off in this direction from the shack, and finally saw it fifty yards away on a bald patch of adobe.
He resisted the temptation to ride over and call upon Miss Allen--the resistance made easier by the hour, which was eight o'clock or thereabouts--and rode back to the others very well satisfied with himself and his plan.
He found the whole Happy Family gathered upon the level land just over his west line, extolling resentment while they waited his coming. Grinning, he told them his plan, and set them grinning also. He gave them certain work to be done, and watched them scatter to do his bidding. Then he turned and rode away upon business of his own.
The claim-jumper, watching the bench land through a pair of field glasses, saw a herd of cows and calves scattered and feeding contentedly upon the young grass a mile or so away. Two men on horseback loitered upon the outer fringe of the herd. From a distance hilltop came the staccato sound of hammers where an other shack was going up. Cloud shadows slid silently over the land, with bright sunlight chasing after. Of the other horsemen who had come up the bluff with the cattle, he saw not a sign. So the man yawned and went in to his breakfast.
Many times that day he stood at the corner of his shack with the glasses sweeping the bench-land. Toward noon the cattle drifted into a coulee where there was water. In a couple of hours they drifted leisurely back upon high ground and scattered to their feeding, still watched and tended by the two horsemen who looked the most harmless of individuals. One was fat and red-faced and spent at least half of his time lying prone upon some slope in the shade of his horse. The other was thin and awkward, and slouched in the saddle or sat upon the ground with his knees drawn up and his arms clasped loosely around them, a cigarette dangling upon his lower lip, himself the picture of boredom.
There was nothing whatever to indicate that events were breeding in that peaceful scene, and that adventure was creeping close upon the watcher. He went in from his fourth or fifth inspection, and took a nap.
That night he was awakened by a pounding on the side of the shack where was his window. By the time he had reached the middle of the floor--and you could count the time in seconds- -a similar pounding was at the door. He tried to open the door and couldn't. He went to the window and could see nothing, although the night had not been dark when he went to bed. He shouted, and there was no reply; nor could he hear any talking without. His name, by the way, was H. J. Owens, though his name does not matter except for convenience in mentioning him. Owens, then, lighted a lamp, and almost instantly was forced to reach out quickly and save it from toppling, because one corner of the shack was lifting, lifting . . .
Outside, the Happy Family worked in silence. Before they had left One Man Coulee they had known exactly what they were to do, and how to do it. They knew who was to nail the hastily constructed shutter over the window. They knew who was to fasten the door so that it could not be opened from within. They knew also who were to use the crow-bars, who were to roll the skids under the shack.
There were twelve of them--because Bert Rogers had insisted upon helping. In not many more minutes than there were men, they were in their saddles, ready to start. The shack lurched forward after the straining horses. Once it was fairly started it moved more easily than you might think it could do, upon crude runners made of cottonwood logs eight inches or so in diameter and long enough for cross pieces bolted in front and rear. The horses pulled it easily with the ropes tied to the saddle-horns, just as they had many times pulled the roundup wagons across mirey creeks or up steep slopes; just as they had many times pulled stubborn cattle or dead cattle--just as they had been trained to pull anything and everything their masters chose to attach to their ropes.
Within, Owens called to them and cursed them. When they had just gained an even pace, he emptied his revolver through the four sides of the shack. But he did not know where they were, exactly, so that he was compelled to shoot at random. And since the five shots seemed to have no effect whatever upon the steady progress of the shack, he decided to wait until he could see where to aim. There was no use, he reflected, in wasting good ammunition when there was a strong probability that he would need it later.
After a half hour or more of continuous travel, the shack tilted on a steep descent. H. J. Owens blew out his lamp and swore when a box came sliding against his shins in the dark. The descent continued until it was stopped with a jolt that made him bite his tongue painfully, so that tears came into the eyes that were the wrong shade of blue to please Andy Green. He heard a laugh cut short and a muttered command, and that was all. The shack heaved, toppled, righted itself and went on down, and down, and down; jerked sidewise to the left, went forward and then swung joltingly the other way. When finally it came to a permanent stand it was sitting with an almost level floor.
Then the four corners heaved upward, two at a time, and settled with a final squeal of twisted boards and nails. There was a sound of confused trampling, and after that the lessening sounds of departure. Mr. Owens tried the door again, and found it still fast. He relighted the lamp, carried it to the window and looked upon rough boards outside the glass. He meditated anxiously and decided to remain quiet until daylight.
The Happy Family worked hard, that night. Before daylight they were in their beds and snoring except the two who guarded the cattle. Each was in his own cabin. His horse was in his corral, smooth-coated and dry. There was nothing to tell of the night's happenings,--nothing except the satisfied grins on their faces when they woke and remembered.