The Flying U's Last Stand by B.M. Bower
Chapter 13. Irish Works for the Cause
Big Medicine with Weary and Chip to bear him company, rode up to the shack nearest his own, which had been hastily built by a raw-boned Dane who might be called truly Americanized. Big Medicine did not waste time in superfluities or in making threats of what he meant to do. He called the Dane to the door--claim-jumpers were keeping close to their cabins, these days--and told him that he was on another man's land, and asked him if he meant to move.
"Sure I don't intend to move!" retorted the Dane with praiseworthy promptness. "I'm going to hold 'er down solid."
"Yuh hear what says, boys." Big Medicine turned to his companions "He ain't going to git off'n my land, he says. Weary, yuh better go tell the bunch I need'em."
Weary immediately departed. He was not gone so very long, and when he returned the Happy Family was with him, even to Patsy who drove the wagon with all the ease of a veteran of many roundups. The Dane tried bluster, but that did not seem to work. Nothing seemed to work, except the Happy Family.
There in broad daylight, with no more words than were needful, they moved the Dane, and his shack. When they began to raise the building he was so unwise as to flourish a gun, and thereby made it perfectly right and lawful that Big Medicine should take the gun away from him and march him ahead of his own forty-five.
They took the shack directly past one of the trespassing signs, and Big Medicine stopped accommodatingly while the Dane was permitted to read the sign three times aloud. That the Dane did not seem truly appreciative of the privilege was no fault of Big Medicine's, surely. They went on, skidding the little building sledlike over the uneven prairie. They took it down into Antelope Coulee and left it there, right side up and with not even a pane of glass broken in the window.
"There, darn yuh, live there awhile!" Andy gritted to when the timbers were withdrawn from beneath the cabin and they were ready to leave. "You can't say we damaged your property--this time. Come back, and there's no telling what we're liable to do."
Since Big Medicine kept his gun, the Dane could do nothing but swear while he watched them ride up the hill and out of sight.
They made straight for the next interloper, remarking frequently that it was much simpler and easier to do their moving in daylight. There they had an audience, for Florence Grace rode furiously up just as they were getting under way. The Happy Family spoke very nicely to Florence Grace, and when she spoke very sharply to them they were discreetly hard of hearing and became absorbed in their work.
Several settlers came before that shack was moved, but they only stood around and talked among themselves, and were careful not to get in the way or to hinder, and to lower their voices so that the Happy Family need not hear unless they chose to listen.
So they slid that shack into the coulee, righted it carefully and left it there--where it would be exceedingly difficult to get it out, by the way; since it is much easier to drag a building down hill than up, and the steeper the hill and the higher, the greater the difference.
They loaded the timbers into the wagon and methodically on to the next shack, their audience increased to a couple of dozen perturbed settlers. The owner of this particular shack, feeling the strength of numbers behind him, was disposed to argue the point.
"Oh, you'll sweat for this!" he shouted impotently when the Happy Family was placing the timbers.
"Ah, git outa the way!" said Andy, coming toward him with a crowbar. "We're sweating now, if that makes yuh feel any better."
The man got out of the way, and went and stood with the group of onlookers, and talked vaguely of having the law on them-- whatever he meant by that.
By the time they had placed the third shack in the bottom of the coulee, the sun was setting. They dragged the timbers up the steep bluff with their ropes and their saddle-horses, loaded them on to the wagon and threw the crowbars and rolling timbers in, and turned to look curiously and unashamed at their audience. Andy, still tacitly their leader, rode a few steps forward.
"That'll be all today," he announced politely. "Except that load of lumber back here on the bench where it don't belong-- we aim to haul that over the line. Seeing your considerable interest in our affairs, I'll just say that we filed on our claims according to law, and we're living on 'em according to law. Till somebody proves in court that we're not, there don't any shack, or any stock, stay on our side the line any longer than it takes to get them off. There's the signs, folks--read 'em and take 'em to heart. You can go home now. The show's over."
He lifted his hat to the women--and there were several now-- and went away to join his fellows, who had ridden on slowly till he might overtake them. He found Happy Jack grumbling and predicting evil, as it was his nature to do, but he merely straightened his aching back and laughed at the prophecies.
"As I told you before, there's more than one way to kill a cat," he asserted tritely but never the less impressively. "Nobody can say we wasn't mild; and nobody can say we hadn't a right to get those chickencoops off our land. If you ask me, Florence Grace will have to go some now if she gets the best of the deal. She overlooked a bet. We haven't been served with any contest notices yet, and so we ain't obliged to take their say-so. Who's going to stand guard tonight? We've got to stand our regular shifts, if we want to keep ahead of the game. I'm willing to be It. I'd like to make sure they don't slip any stock across before daylight."
"Say, it's lucky we've got a bunch of boneheads like them to handle," Pink observed thankfully. Would a bunch of natives have stood around like that with their hands in their pockets and let us get away with the moving job? Not so you could notice!"
"What we'd better do," cut in the Native Son without any misleading drawl, "is try and rustle enough money to build that fence."
"That's right," assented Cal. "Maybe the Old Man--"
"We don't go to the Old Man for so much as a bacon rind!" cried the Native Son impatiently. "Get it into your systems, boys, that we've got to ride away around the Flying U. We ought to be able to build that fence, all right, without help from anybody. Till we do we've got to hang and rattle, and keep that nester stock from getting past us. I'll stand guard till midnight."
A little more talk, and some bickering with Slim and Happy Jack, the two chronic kickers, served to knock together a fair working organization. Weary and Andy Green were informally chosen joint leaders, because Weary could be depended upon to furnish the mental ballast for Andy's imagination. Patsy was told that he would have to cook for the outfit, since he was too fat to ride. They suggested that he begin at, once, by knocking together some sort of supper. Moving houses, they declared, was work. They frankly hoped that they would not have to move many more--and they were very positive that they would not be compelled to move the same shack twice, at any rate.
"Say, we'll have quite a collection of shacks down in Antelope Coulee if we keep on," Jack Bates reminded them. "Wonder where they'll get water?"
"Where's the rest of them going to get water?" Cal Emmett challenged the crowd. "There's that spring the four women up here pack water from--but that goes dry in August. And there's the creek--that goes dry too. On the dead, I feel sorry for the women--and so does Irish," he added dryly.
Irish made an uncivil retort and swung suddenly away from the group. "I'm going to ride into town, boys," he announced curtly. "I'll be back in the morning and go on day-herd."
"Maybe you will and maybe you won't," Weary amended somewhat impatiently. "This is certainly a poor time for Irish to break out," he added, watching his double go galloping toward the town road.
"I betche he comes back full and tries to clean out all them nesters," Happy Jack predicted. For once no one tried to combat his pessimism--for that was exactly what every one of them believed would happen.
"He's stayed sober a long while--for him," sighed Weary, who never could quite shake off a sense of responsibility for the moral defections of his kinsman. "Maybe I better go along and ride herd on him." Still, he did not go, and Irish presently merged into the dusky distance.
As is often the case with a family's black sheep, his intentions were the best, even though they might have been considered unorthodox. While the Happy Family took it for granted that he was gone because an old thirst awoke within him, Irish was thinking only of the welfare of the outfit. He did not tell them, because he was the sort who does not prattle of his intentions, one way or the other. If he did what he meant to do there would be time enough to explain; if he failed there was nothing to be said.
Irish had thought a good deal about the building of that fence, and about the problem of paying for enough wire and posts to run the fence straight through from Meeker's south line to the north line of the Flying U. He had figured the price of posts and the price of wire and had come somewhere near the approximate cost of the undertaking. He was not at all sure that the Happy Family had faced the actual figures on that proposition. They had remarked vaguely that it was going to cost some money. They had made casual remarks about being broke personally and, so far as they knew, permanently.
Irish was hot-headed and impulsive to a degree. He was given to occasional tumultuous sprees, during which he was to be handled with extreme care--or, better still, left entirely alone until the spell was over. He looked almost exactly like Weary, and yet he was almost his opposite in disposition. Weary was optimistic, peace-loving, steady as the sun above him except for a little surface-bubbling of fun that kept him sunny through storm and calm. You could walk all over Weary-- figuratively speaking--before he would show resentment. You could not step very close to Irish without running the risk of consequences. That he should, under all that, have a streak of calculating, hard-headed business sense, did not occur to them.
They rode on, discussing the present situation and how best to meet it; the contingencies of the future, and how best to circumvent the active antagonism of Florence Grace Hallman and the colony for which she stood sponsor. They did not dream that Irish was giving his whole mind to solving the problem of raising money to build that fence, but that is exactly what he was doing.
Some of you at least are going to object to his method. Some of you--those of you who live west of the big river--are going to understand his point of view, and you will recognize his method as being perfectly logical, simple, and altogether natural to a man of his temperament and manner of life. It is for you that I am going to relate his experiences. Sheltered readers, readers who have never faced life in the raw, readers who sit down on Sunday mornings with a mind purged of worldly thoughts and commit to memory a "golden text" which they forget before another Sunday morning, should skip the rest of this chapter for the good of their morals. The rest is for you men who have kicked up alkali dust and afterwards washed out the memory in town; who have gone broke between starlight and sun; who know the ways of punchers the West over, and can at least sympathize with Irish in what he meant to do that night.
Irish had been easing down a corner of the last shack, with his back turned toward three men who stood looking on with the detached interest which proved they did not own this particular shack. One was H. J. Owens--I don't think you have met the others. Irish had not. He had overheard this scrap of conversation while he worked:
"Going to town tonight?"
"Guess so--I sure ain't going to hang out on this prairie any more than I have to. You going?"
"Ye-es--~I think I will. I hear there's been some pretty swift games going, the last night or two. A fellow in that last bunch Florence rounded up made quite a clean up last night."
"That so. let's go on in. This claim-holding gets my goat anyway. I don't see where--"
That was all Irish heard, but that was enough.
Had he turned in time to catch the wink that one speaker gave to the other, and the sardonic grin that answered the lowered eyelid, he would have had the scrap of conversation properly focused in his mind, and would not have swallowed the bait as greedily as he did. But we all make mistakes. Irish made the mistake of underestimating the cunning of his enemies.
So here he was, kicking up the dust on the town trail just as those three intended that he should do. But that he rode alone instead of in the midst of his fellows was not what the three had intended; and that he rode with the interest of his friends foremost in his mind was also an unforeseen element in the scheme.
Irish did not see H. J. Owens anywhere in town--nor did he see either of the two men who had stood behind him. But there was a poker game running in Rusty Brown's back room, and Irish immediately sat in without further investigation. Bert Rogers was standing behind one of the players, and gave Irish a nod and a wink which may have had many meanings. Irish interpreted it as encouragement to sail in and clean up the bunch.
There was money enough in sight to build that fence when he sat down. Irish pulled his hat farther over his eyebrows, rolled and lighted a cigarette while he waited for that particular jackpot to be taken, and covertly sized up the players.
Every one of them was strange to him. But then, the town was full of strangers since Florence Grace and her Syndicate began to reap a harvest off the open country, so Irish merely studied the faces casually, as a matter of habit They were nesters, of course--real or prospective. They seemed to have plenty of money--and it was eminently fitting that the Happy Family's fence should be built with nester money.
Irish had in his pockets exactly eighteen dollars and fifty- cents. He bought eighteen dollars' worth of chips and began to play. Privately he preferred stud poker to draw, but he was not going to propose a change; he felt perfectly qualified to beat any three pilgrims that ever came West.
Four hands he played and lost four dollars. He drank a glass of beer then, made himself another cigarette and settled down to business, feeling that he had but just begun. After the fifth hand he looked up and caught again the eye of Bert Rogers. Bert pulled his eyebrows together in a warning look, and Irish thought better of staying that hand. He did not look at Bert after that, but he did watch the other players more closely.
After awhile Bert wandered away, his interest dulling when he saw that Irish was holding his own and a little better. Irish played on, conservative to such a degree that in two hours he had not won more than fifteen dollars. The Happy Family would have been surprised to see him lay down kings and refuse to draw to them which he did once, with a gesture of disgust that flipped them face up so that all could see. He turned them over immediately, but the three had seen that this tall stranger, who had all the earmarks of a cowpuncher, would not draw to kings but must have something better before he would stay.
So they played until the crowd thinned; until Irish, by betting safely and sticking to a caution that must have cost him a good deal in the way of self-restraint, had sixty dollars' worth of chips piled in front of him.
Some men, playing for a definite purpose, would have quit at that. Irish did not quit, however. He wanted a certain sum from these nesters. He had come to town expecting to win a certain sum from them. He intended to play until he got it or went broke. He was not using any trickery--and he had stopped one man in the middle of a deal, with a certain look in his eye remarking that he'd rather have the top card than the bottom one, so that he was satisfied they were not trying to cheat.
There came a deal when Irish looked at his cards, sent a slanting look at the others and laid down his five cards with a long breath. He raised the ante four blue ones and rolled and lit a cigarette while the three had drawn what cards they thought they needed. The man at Irish's left had drawn only one card. Now he hesitated and then bet with some assurance. Irish smoked imperturbably while the other two came in, and then he raised the bet three stacks of blues. His neighbor raised him one stack, and the next man hesitated and then laid down his cards. The third man meditated for a minute and raised the bet ten dollars. Irish blew forth a leisurely smoke wreath and with a sweep of his hand sent in all his chips.
There was a silent minute, wherein Irish smoked and drummed absently upon the table with his fingers that were free. His neighbor frowned, grunted and threw down his hand. The third man did the same. Irish made another sweep of his hand and raked the table clean of chips.
"That'll do for tonight," he remarked dryly. "I don't like to be a hog."
Had that ended the incident, sensitive readers might still read and think well of Irish. But one of the players was not quite sober, and he was a poor loser and a pugnacious individual anyway, with a square face and a thick neck that went straight up to the top of his head. His underlip pushed out, and when Irish turned away, to cash in his chips, this pugnacious one reached over and took a look at the cards Irish had held.
It certainly was as rotten a hand as a man could hold. Suits all mixed, and not a face card or a pair in the lot. The pugnacious player had held a king high straight, and he had stayed until Irish sent in all his chips. He gave a bellow and jumped up and hit Irish a glancing blow back of the ear. Let us not go into details. You know Irish--or you should know him by this time. A man who will get away with a bluff like that should be left alone or brained in the beginning of the fight--especially when he can look down on the hair of a six-foot man, and has muscles hardened by outdoor living. When the dust settled, two chairs were broken and some glasses swept off the bar by heaving bodies, and two of the three players had forgotten their troubles. The third was trying to find the knob on the back door, and could not because of the buzzing in his head and the blood in his eyes. Irish had welts and two broken knuckles and a clear conscience, and he was so mad he almost wound up by thrashing Rusty, who had stayed behind the bar and taken no hand in the fight. Rusty complained because of the damage to his property, and Irish, being the only one present in a condition to listen, took the complaint as a personal insult.
He counted his money to make sure he had it all, evened the edges of the package of bank notes and thrust the package into his pocket. If Rusty had kept his face closed about those few glasses and those chairs, he would have left a "bill" on the bar to pay for them, even though he did need every cent of that money. He told Rusty this, and he accused him of standing in with the nesters and turning down the men who had helped him make money' all these years.
"Why, darn your soul, I've spent money enough over this bar to buy out the whole damn joint, and you know it!" he cried indignantly. "If you think you've got to collect damages, take it outa these blinkety-blink pilgrims you think so much of. Speak to 'em pleasant, though, or you're liable to lose the price of a beer, maybe! They'll never bring you the money we've brought you, you--"
"They won't because you've likely killed 'em both," Rusty retorted angrily. "You want to remember you can't come into town and rip things up the back the way you used to, and nobody say a word. You better drift, before that feller that went out comes back with an officer. You can't--"
"Officer be damned!" retorted Irish, unawed.
He went out while Rusty was deciding to order him out, and started for the stable. Halfway there he ducked into the shadow of the blacksmith shop and watched two men go up the street to Rusty's place, walking quickly. He went on then, got his horse hurriedly without waiting to cinch the saddle, led him behind the blacksmith shop where he would not be likely to be found, and tied him there to the wreck of a freight wagon.
Then he went across lots to where Fred Wilson, manager of the general store, slept in a two-room shack belonging to the hotel. The door was locked--Fred being a small man with little trust in Providence or in his overt physical prowess-- and so he rapped cautiously upon the window until Fred awoke and wanted to know who in thunder was there.
Irish told his name, and presently went inside. "I'm pulling outa town, Fred," he explained, "and I don't know when I'll be in again. So I want you to take an order for some posts and bob wire and steeples. I--"
"Why didn't you come to the store?" Fred very naturally demanded, peevish at being wakened at three o'clock in the morning. "I saw you in town when I closed up."
"I was busy. Crawl back into bed and cover up, while I give you the order. I'll want a receipt for the money, too--I'm paying in advance, so you won't have any excuse for holding up the order. Got any thing to write on?"
Fred found part of an order pad and a pencil, and crept shivering into his bed. The offer to pay in advance had silenced his grumbling, as Irish expected it would. So Irish gave the order--thirteen hundred cedar posts, I remember--I don't know just how much wire, but all he would need.
"Holy Macintosh! Is this for you?" Fred wanted to know as he wrote it down.
"Some of it. We're fencing our claims. If I don't come after the stuff myself, let any of the boys have it that shows up. And get it here as quick as you can--what you ain't got on hand--"
Fred was scratching his jaw meditatively with the pencil, and staring at the order. "I can just about fill that order outa stock on hand," he told Irish. "When all this land rush started I laid in a big supply of posts and wire. First thing they'd want, after they got their shacks up. How you making it, out there?"
"Fine," said Irish cheerfully, feeling his broken knuckles. "How much is all that going to cost? You oughta make us a rate on it, seeing it's a cash sale, and big."
"I will." Fred tore out a sheet and did some mysterious figuring, afterwards crumpling the paper into a little wad and hipping it behind the bed. "This has got to be on the quiet, Irish. I can't sell wire and posts to those eastern marks at this rate, you know. This is just for you boys--and the profit for us is trimmed right down to a whisper." He named the sum total with the air of one who confers a great favor.
Irish grinned and reached into his pocket. "You musta knocked your profit down to fifty percent.," he fleered. "But it's a go with me." He peeled off the whole roll, just about. He had two twenties left in his hand when he stopped. He was very methodical that night. He took a receipt for the money before he left and he looked at it with glistening eyes before he folded it with the money. "Don't sell any posts and wire till our order's filled, Fred," he warned. "We'll begin hauling right away, and we'll want it all."
He let himself out into the cool starlight, walked in the shadows to where he had left his horse, mounted and rode whistling away down the lane which ended where the hills began.