Chapter 4. Andy Takes a Hand in the Game
 

Andy Green was a day late in arriving at the Flying U. First he lost time by leaving the train thirty miles short of the destination marked on his ticket, and when he did resume his journey on the next train, he traveled eighty-four miles beyond Dry Lake, which landed him in Great Falls in the early morning. There, with the caution of a criminal carefully avoiding a meeting with Miss Hallman, he spent an hour in poring over a plat of a certain section of Chouteau County, and in copying certain description of unoccupied land.

He had not slept very well the night before and he looked it. He had cogitated upon the subject of land speculations and the welfare of his outfit until his head was one great, dull ache; but he stuck to his determination to do something to block the game of the Homeseekers' Syndicate. Just what that something would be he had not yet decided. But on general principles it seemed wise to learn all he could concerning the particular tract of land about which Florence Grace Hallman had talked.

The day was past when range rights might be defended honorably with rifles and six-shooters and iron nerved men to use them--and I fear that Andy Green sighed because it was so. Give him the "bunch" and free swing, and he thought the Homeseekers would lose their enthusiasm before even the first hot wind blew up from the southwest to wither their crops. But such measures were not to be thought of; if they fought at all they must fight with the law behind them--and even Andy's optimism did not see much hope from the law; none, in fact, since both the law and the moneyed powers were eager for the coming of homebuilders into that wide land. All up along the Marias they had built their board shacks, and back over the benches as far as one could see. There was nothing to stop them, everything to make their coming easy.

Andy scowled at the plat he was studying, and admitted to himself that it looked as though the Home Seekers' Syndicate were going to have things their own way; unless--There he stuck. There must be some way out; never in his life had he faced a situation which had been absolutely hopeless; always there had been some chance to win, if a man only saw it in time and took it. In this case it was the clerk in the office who pointed the way with an idle remark.

"Going to take up a claim, are you?"

Andy looked up at him with the blank stare of preoccupation, and changed expression as the question filtered into his brain and fitted somehow into the puzzle. He grinned, said maybe he would, folded the sheet of paper filled with what looked like a meaningless jumble of letters and figures, bought a plat of that township and begged some government pamphlets, and went out humming a little tune just above a whisper. At the door he tilted his hat down at an angle over his right eye and took long, eager steps toward an obscure hotel and his meagre baggage.

There was no train going east until midnight, and he caught that train. This time he actually got off at Dry Lake, ate a hurried breakfast, got his horse out of the livery stable and dug up the dust of the lane with rapid hoof-beats so that he rode all the way to the first hill followed by a rolling, gray cloud that never quite caught him.

When he rode down the Hog's Back he saw the Happy Family bunched around some object on the creek-bank, and he heard the hysterical screaming of the Kid up in the house, and saw the Old Man limping excitedly up and down the porch. A man less astute than Andy Green would have known that some thing had happened. He hurried down the last slope, galloped along the creek-bottom, crossed the ford in a couple of leaps and pulled up beside the group that surrounded Silver.

"What's been taking place here?" he demanded curiously, skipping the usual greetings.

"Hell," said the Native Son succinctly, glancing up at him.

"Old Silver looked over the fence into Kingdom Come," Weary enlarged the statement a little. "Tried to take a drink with a nose bag on. I guess he'll come through all right."

"What ails the Kid?" Andy demanded, glancing toward the house whence issued a fresh outburst of shrieks.

The Happy Family looked at one another and then at the White House.

"Aw, some folks hain't got a lick of sense when it comes to kids," Big Medicine accused gruffly.

"The Kid," Weary explained, "put the nose bag on Silver and then left the stable door open."

"They ain't--spanking him for it, are they?" Andy demanded belligerently. "By gracious, how'd a kid know any better? Little bit of a tad like that--"

"Aw, they don't never spank the Kid!" Slim defended the parents loyally. "By golly, they's been times when I would-a spanked him, if it'd been me. Countess says it's plumb ridiculous the way that Kid runs over 'em--rough shod. If he's gittin' spanked now, it's the first time."

"Well," said Andy, looking from one to another and reverting to his own worry as he swung down from his sweating horse, "there's something worse than a spanked kid going to happen to this outfit if you fellows don't get busy and do something. There's a swarm of dry-farmers coming in on us, with their stock to eat up the grass and their darned fences shutting off the water--"

"Oh, for the Lord's sake, cut it out!" snapped Pink. "We ain't in the mood for any of your joshes. We've had about enough excitement for once."

"Ah, don't be a damn' fool," Andy snapped back. "There's no josh about it. I've got the whole scheme, just as they framed it up in Minneapolis. I got to talking with a she-agent on the train, and she gave the whole snap away; wanted me to go in with her and help land the suckers. I laid low, and made a sneak to the land office and got a plat of the land, and all the dope--"

"Get any mail?" Pink interrupted him, in the tone that took no notice whatever of Andy's ill news.

"Time I was hearing from them spurs I sent for." Andy silently went through his pockets and produced what mail he had gleaned from the post-office, and led his horse into the shade of the stable and pulled off the saddle. Every movement betrayed the fact that he was in the grip of unpleasant emotions, but to the Happy Family he said not another word.

The Happy Family did not notice his silence at the time. But afterwards, when the Kid had stopped crying and Silver had gotten to his feet and wobbled back to the stable, led by Chip, who explained briefly and satisfactorily the cause of the uproar at the house, and the boys had started up to their belated dinner, they began to realize that for a returned traveler Andy Green was not having much to say.

They asked him about his trip, and received brief answers. Had he been anyone else they would have wanted to know immediately what was eatin' on him; but since it was Andy Green who sat frowning at his toes and smoking his cigarette as though it had no comfort or flavor, the boldest of them were cautious. For Andy Green, being a young man of vivid imagination and no conscience whatever, had fooled them too often with his lies. They waited, and they watched him covertly and a bit puzzled.

Silence and gloom were not boon companions of Andy Green, at any time. So Weary, having the most charitable nature of any among them, sighed and yielded the point of silent contention.

"What was all that you started to tell us about the dry- farmers, Andy?" he asked indulgently.

"All straight goods. But there's no use talking to you bone- heads. You'll set around chewing the rag and looking wise till it's too late to do anything but holler your heads off." He got up from where he had been lounging on a bench just outside the mess house and walked away, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his shoulders drooped forward.

The Happy Family looked after him doubtfully.

"Aw, it's just some darned josh uh his," Happy Jack declared. "I know him."

"Look at the way he slouches along--like he was loaded to the ears with trouble!" Pink pointed out amusedly. "He'd fool anybody that didn't know him, all right."

"And he fools the fellows that do know him, oftener than anybody else," added the Native Son negligently. "You're fooled right now if you think that's all acting. That hombre has got something on his mind."

"Well, by golly, it ain't dry-farmers," Slim asserted boldly.

"If you fellows wouldn't say it was a frame-up between us two, I'd go after him and find out. But . . ."

"But as it stands, we'd believe Andy Green a whole lot quicker'n what we would you," supplemented Big Medicine loudly. "You're dead right there."

"What was it he said about it?" Weary wanted to know. "I wasn't paying much attention, with the Kid yelling his head off and old Silver gaping like a sick turkey, and all. What was it about them dryfarmers?"

"He said," piped Pink, "that he'd got next to a scheme to bring a big bunch of dry-farmers in on this bench up here, with stock that they'd turn loose on the range. That's what he said. He claims the agent wanted him to go in on it."

"Mamma!" Weary held a match poised midway between his thigh and his cigarette while he stared at Pink. "That would be some mixup--if it was to happen." His sunny blue eyes--that were getting little crow's-feet at their corners--turned to look after the departing Andy. "Where's the josh?" he questioned the group.

"The josh is, that he'd like to see us all het up over it, and makin' war-talks and laying for the pilgrims some dark night with our six-guns, most likely," retorted Pink, who happened to be in a bad humor because in ten minutes he was due at a line of post-holes that divided the big pasture into two unequal parts. "He can't agitate me over anybody's troubles but my own. Happy, I'll help Bud stretch wire this afternoon if you'll tamp the, rest uh them posts."

"Aw, you stick to your own job! How was it when I wanted you to help pull the old wire off that hill fence and git it ready to string down here? You wasn't crazy about workin' with bob wire then, I noticed. You said--"

"What I said wasn't a commencement to what I'll say again," Pink began truculently, and so the subject turned effectually from Andy Green.

Weary smoked meditatively while they wrangled, and when the group broke up for the afternoon's work he went unobtrusively in search of Andy. He was not quite easy in his mind concerning the alleged joke. He had looked full at the possibilities of the situation--granting Andy had told the truth, as he sometimes did--and the possibilities had not pleased him. He found Andy morosely replacing some broken strands in his cinch, and he went straight at the mooted question.

Andy looked up from his work and scowled. "This ain't any joke with me," he stated grimly. "It's something that's going to put the Flying U out of business if it ain't stopped before it gets started. I've been worrying my head of[, ever since day before yesterday; I ain't in the humor to take anything off those imitation joshers up there--I'll tell yuh that much"

"Well, but how do you figure it can be stopped?" Weary sat soberly down on the oats box and absently watched Andy's expert fingers while they knotted the heavy cotton cord through the cinch-ring. "We can't stand 'em off with guns."

Andy dropped the cinch and stood up, pushing back his hat and then pulling it forward into place with the gesture he used when he was very much in earnest. "No, we can't. But if the bunch is game for it there's a way to block their play--and the law does all our fighting for us. We don't have to yeep. It's like this, Weary counting Chip and the Little Doctor and the Countess there's eleven of us that can use our rights up here on the bench. I've got it all figured out. If we can get Irish and Jack Bates to come back and help us out, there's thirteen of us. And we can take homesteads along the creeks and deserts back on the bench, and--say, do you know how much land we can corral, the bunch of us? Four thousand acres and if we take our claims right, that's going to mean that we get a dead immortal cinch on all the bench land that's worth locating, around here, and we'll have the creeks, and also we'll have the breaks corralled for our own stock.

"I've gone over the plat--I brought a copy to show you fellows what we can do. And by taking up our claims right, we keep a deadline from the Bear Paws to the Flying U. Now the Old Man owns Denson's ranch, all south uh here is fairly safe--unless they come in between his south line and the breaks; and there ain't room for more than two or three claims there. Maybe we can get some of the boys to grab what there is, and string ourselves out north uh here too.

"That's the only way on earth we can save what little feed there is left. This way, we get the land ourselves and hold it, so there don't any outside stock come in on us. If Florence Grace Hallman and her bunch lands any settlers here, they'll be between us and Dry Lake; and they're dead welcome to squat on them dry pinnacles--so long as we keep their stock from crossing our claims to get into the breaks. Savvy the burro?"

"Yes-s--but how'd yuh know they're going to do all this? Mamma! I don't want to turn dry-farmer if I don't have to!"

Andy's face clouded. "That's just what'll block the game, I'm afraid. I don't want to, either. None of the boys'll want to. It'll mean going up there and baching, six or seven months of the year, by our high lonesomes. We'll have to fulfill the requirements, if we start in--because them pilgrims'll be standing around like dogs at a picnic, waiting for something to drop so they can grab it and run. It ain't going to be any snap.

"And there's another thing bothers me, Weary. It's going to be one peach of a job to make the boys believe it hard enough to make their entries in time." Andy grinned wrily. "By gracious, this is where I could see a gilt-edged reputation for telling the truth!"

"You could, all right," Weary agreed sympathetically. "It's going to strain our swallowers to get all that down, and that's a fact. You ought to have some proof, if you want the boys to grab it, Andy." His face sobered. "Who is this Florence person? If you could get some kinda proof--a letter, say . . ."

"Easiest thing in the world!" Andy brightened at the suggestion. "She's stopping at the Park, in Great Falls, and she wanted me to come up or write. Anybody going to town right away? I'll send that foxy dame a letter that'll produce proof enough. You've helped ma a lot, Weary."

Weary scrutinized him sharply and puckered his lips into a doubtful expression. "I wish I knew for a fact whether all this is straight goods, Andy," he "said pensively. "Chances are you're just stringing me. But if you are, old boy, I'm going to take it outa your hide--and don't you forget that." He grinned at his own mental predicament. "Honest, Andy, is this some josh, or do you mean it?"

"By gracious, I wish it was a josh! But it ain't, darn it. In about two weeks or so you'll all see the point of this joke-- but whether the joke's on us or on the homeseekers' Syndicate depends on you fellows. Lord! I wish I'd never told a lie!"

Weary sat knocking his heels rhythmically against the side of the box while he thought the matter over from start to hypothetical finish and back again. Meanwhile Andy Green went on with his work and scowled over his well-earned reputation that hampered him now just when he needed the confidence of his fellows in order to save their beloved Flying U from slow annihilation. Perhaps his mental suffering could not rightly be called remorse, but a poignant regret it most certainly was, and a sense of complete bafflement which came out in his next sentence.

"Even if she wrote me a letter, the boys'd call it a frame-up just the same. They'd say I had it fixed before I left town. Doctor Cecil's up at the Falls. They'd lay it to her."

"I was thinking of that, myself. What's the matter with getting Chip to go up with you? Couldn't you ring him in on the agent somehow, so he can get the straight of it?"

Andy stood up and looked at Weary a minute. "How'd I make Chip believe me enough to go?" he countered. "Darn it, everything looked all smooth sailing till I got back here to the ranch and the boys come at me with that same old smart- aleck brand uh talk. I kinda forgot how I've lied to 'em and fooled 'em right along till they duck every time I open my face." His eyes were too full of trouble to encourage levity in his listener. "You remember that time the boys' rode off and left me laying out here on the prairie with my leg broke?" he went on dismally. "I'd rather have that happen to me a dozen times than see 'em set back and give me the laugh now, just when--Oh, hell!" He dropped the finished cinch and walked moodily to the door. "Weary, if them dry-farmers come flockin' in on us while this bunch stands around callin' me a liar, I--" He did not attempt to finish the sentence; but Weary, staring curiously at Andy's profile, saw a quivering of the muscles around his lips and felt a responsive thrill of sympathy and belief that rose above his long training in caution.

Spite of past experience he believed, at that moment, every word which Andy Green had uttered upon the subject of the proposed immigration. He was about to tell Andy so, when Chip walked unexpectedly out of Silver's stall and glanced from Weary to Andy standing still in the doorway. Weary looked at him enquiringly; for Chip must have heard every word they said, and if Chip believed it--

"Have you got that plat with you, Andy?" Chip asked tersely and with never a doubt in his tone.

Andy swung toward him like a prisoner who has just heard a jury return a verdict of not guilty to the judge. "I've got it, yes," he answered simply, with only his voice betraying the emotions he felt--and his eye? "Want it?"

"I'll take a look at it, if it's handy," said Chip.

Andy felt in his inside coat pocket, drew out a thin, folded map of that particular part of the county with all the government land marked upon it, and handed it to Chip without a word. He singled out a couple of pamphlets from a bunch of old letters such as men are in the habit of carrying upon their persons, and gave them to Chip also.

"That's a copy of the homestead and desert laws," he said. "I guess you heard me telling Weary what kinda deal we're up against, here. Better not say anything to the Old Man till you have to; no use worrying him--he can't do nothing." It was amazing, the change that had come over Andy's face and manner since Chip first spoke. Now he grinned a little.

"If you want to go in on this deal," he said quizzically, "maybe it'll be just as well if you talk to the bunch yourself about it, Chip. You ain't any tin, angel, but I'm willing to admit the boys'll believe you; a whole lot quicker than they would me."

"Yes--and they'll probably hand me a bunch of pity for getting stung by you," Chip retorted. "I'll take a chance, anyway--but the Lord help you, Andy if you can't produce proof when the time comes."