Chapter 5. The Happy Family Turn Nesters
 

Say, Andy, where's them dry-farmers?" Big Medicine inquired at the top of his voice when the Happy Family had reached the biscuit-and-syrup stage of supper that evening.

"Oh, they're trying to make up their minds whether to bring the old fannin'-mill along or sell it and buy new when they get here," Andy informed him imperturbably. "The women-folks are busy going through their rag bags, cutting the buttons off all the pants that ain't worth patching no more, and getting father's socks all darned up."

The Happy Family snickered appreciatively; this was more like the Andy Green with whom they were accustomed to deal.

"What's daughter doin', about now?" asked Cal Emmett, fixing his round, baby-blue stare upon Andy.

"Daughter? Why, daughter's leaning over the gate telling him she wouldn't never look at one of them wild cowboys--the idea! She's heard all about 'em, and they're too rough and rude for her. And she's promising to write every day, and giving him a lock of hair to keep in the back of his dollar watch. Pass the cane Juice, somebody."

"Yeah--all right for daughter. If she's a good looker we'll see if she don't change her verdict about cowboys."

"Who will? You don't call yourself one, do yuh?" Pink flung at him quickly.

"Well, that depends; I know I ain't any lady broncho--hey, cut it out!" This last because of half a biscuit aimed accurately at the middle of his face. If you want to know why, search out the history of a certain War Bonnet Roundup, wherein Pink rashly impersonated a lady broncho-fighter.

"Wher'e they going to live when they git here?" asked Happy Jack, reverting to the subject of dry farmers.

"Close enough so you can holler from here to their back door, my boy--if they have their say about it," Andy assured him cheerfully. Andy felt that he could afford to be facetious now that he had Chip and Weary on his side.

"Aw, gwan! I betche there ain't a word of truth in all that scarey talk," Happy Jack fleered heavily.

"Name your bet. I'll take it." Andy filled his mouth with hot biscuit and stirred up the sugar in his coffee like a man who is occupied chiefly with the joys of the table.

"Aw, you ain't going to git me that way agin," Happy Jack declared. "They's some ketch to it."

"There sure is, Happy. The biggest ketch you ever seen in your life. It's ketch the Flying U outfit and squeeze the life out of it; that's the ketch." Andy's tone had in it no banter, but considerable earnestness. For, though Chip would no doubt convince the boys that the danger was very real, there was a small matter of personal pride to urge Andy into trying to convince, them himself, without aid from Chip or any one else.

"Well, by golly, I'd like to see anybody try that there scheme," blurted Slim. "That's all--I'd just like to see 'em try it once!"

"Oh, you'll see it, all right--and you won't have to wait long, either. Just set around on your haunches a couple of weeks or so. That's all you'll have to do, Slim; you'll see it tried, fast enough."

Pink eyed him with a wide, purple glance. "You'd like to make us fall for that, wouldn't you?" he challenged warily.

Andy gave him a level look. "No, I wouldn't. I'd like to put one over on you smart gazabos that think you know it all; but I don't want to bad enough to see the Flying U go outa business just so I could holler didn't-I-tell-you. There's a limit to what I'll pay for a, josh."

"Well," put in the Native Son with his easy drawl, "I'm coming to the centre with my ante, just for the sake of seeing the cards turned. Deal 'em out, amigo; state your case once more, so we can take a good, square look at these dry- farmers."

"Yeah--go ahead and tell us what's bustin' the buttons off your vest," Cal Emmett invited.

"What's the use?" Andy argued. "You'd all just raise up on your hind legs and holler your heads off. You wouldn't do anything about it--not if you knew it was the truth!" This, of course, was pure guile upon his part.

"Oh, wouldn't we? I guess, by golly, we'd do as much for the outfit as what you would--and a hull lot more if it come to a show-down." Slim swallowed the bait.

"Maybe you would, if you could take it out in talking," snorted Andy. "My chips are in. I've got three-hundred-and- twenty acres picked out, up here, and I'm going to file on 'em before these damned nesters get off the train. Uh course, that won't be more'n a flea bite--but I can make it interesting for my next door neighbors, anyway; and every flea bite helps to keep a dog moving, yuh know."

"I'll go along and use my rights," Weary offered suddenly and seriously. "That'll make one section they won't get, anyway."

Pink gave him a startled look across the table. "You ain't going to grab it, are yuh?" he demanded disappointedly.

"I sure am--if it's three-hundred-and-twenty acres of land you mean. If I don't, somebody else will." He sighed humorously. "Next summer you'll see me hoeing spuds, most likely--if the law says I got to."

"Haw-haw-haw-w!" laughed Big Medicine suddenly. "It'd sure be worth the price, jest to ride up and watch you two marks down on all fours weedin' onions." He laughed again with his big, bull-like bellow.

"We don't have to do anything like that if we don't want to," put in Andy Green calmly. "I've been reading up on the law. There's one little joker in it I've got by heart. It says that homestead land can be used for grazing purposes if it's more valuable for pasture than for crops, and that actual grazing will be accepted instead of cultivation--if it is grazing land. So--"

"I betche you can't prove that," Happy lack interrupted him. "I never heard of that before--"

"The world's plumb full of things you never heard of, Happy," Andy told him witheringly. "I gave Chip my copy of the homestead laws, and a plat of the land up here; soon as he hands 'em back I can show you in cold print where it says that very identical thing.

"That's what makes it look good to me, just on general principles," he went on, his honest, gray eyes taking in the circle of attentive faces. "If the bunch of us could pool our interests and use what rights we got, we can corral about four thousand acres--and we can head off outsiders from grazing in the Badlands, if we take our land right. We've been overlooking a bet, and don't you forget it. We've been fooling around, just putting in our time and drawing wages, when we could be owning our own grazing land by now and shipping our own cattle, if we had enough sense to last us overnight.

"A-course, I ain't crazy about turning nester, myself--but we've let things slide till we've got to come through or get outa the game. It's a fact, boys, about them dry-farmers coming in on us. That Minneapolis bunch that the blonde lady works for is sending out a colony of farmers to take up this land between here and the Bear Paws. The lady tipped her hand, not knowing where I ranged and thinking I wouldn't be interested in anything but her. She's a real nice lady, too, and goodlooking--but a grafter to her last eye winker. And she hit too close home to suit me, when she named the place where they're going to dump their colony."

"Where does the graft come in?" inquired Pink cautiously. "The farmers get the land, don't they?"

"Sure, they get the land. And they pungle up a good-sized fee to Florence Grace Hallman and her outfit, for locating 'em. Also there's side money in it, near as I can find out. They skin the farmers somehow on the fare out here. That's their business, according to the lady. They prowl around through the government plats till they spot a few thousand acres of land in a chunk; they take a look at it, maybe, and then they boom it like hell, and get them eastern marks hooked--them with money, the lady said. Then they ship a bunch out here, locate 'em on the land and leave it up to them, whether they scratch a living or not. She said they urge the rubes to bring all the stock they can, because there's plenty of range left. She says they play that up big. You can see for yourself how that'll work out, around here!"

Pink eyed him attentively, and suddenly his dimples stood deep. "All right, I'm It," he surrendered.

"It'd be a sin not to fall for a yarn like that, Andy. I expect you made it all up outa your own head, but that's all right. It's a pleasure to be fooled by a genius like you. I'll go raising turnips and cabbages myself."

By golly, you couldn't raise nothing but hell up on that dry bench," Slim observed ponderously. "There ain't any water. What's the use uh talking foolish?"

"They're going to tackle it, just the same," Andy pointed out patiently.

"Well, by golly, if you ain't just lyin' to hear yourself, that there graftin' bunch had oughta be strung up!"

"Sure, they had. Nobody's going to argue about that. But seeing we can't do that, the next best thing is to beat them to it. If they came out here with their herd of pilgrims and found the land all took up--" Andy smiled hypnotically upon the goggling group.

"Haw-haw-haw-w!" bawled Big Medicine. "It'd be wuth it, by cripes!"

"Yeah--it would, all right. If that talk Andy's been giving us is straight, about grazing the land instead uh working it--"

"You can mighty quick find out," Andy retorted. "Go up and ask Chip for them land laws, and that plat. And ask him what he thinks about the deal. You don't have to take my word for it." Andy grinned virtuously and pushed back his chair. From their faces, and the remarks they had made, he felt very confident of the ultimate decision. "What about you, Patsy?" he asked suddenly, turning to the bulky, bald German cook who was thumping bread dough in a far corner. "You got any homestead or desert rights you ain't used?"

"Py cosh, I got all der rights dere iss," Patsy returned querulously. "I got more rights as you shmartys. I got soldier's rights mit fightin'. Und py cosh, I use him too if dem fellers coom by us mit der dry farms alreatty!"

"Well, you son-of-a-gun!" Andy smote him elatedly upon a fat shoulder. "What do you know about old Patsy for a dead game sport? By gracious, that makes another three hundred and twenty to the good. Gee, it's lucky this bunch has gone along turning up their noses at nesters and thinkin' they couldn't be real punchers and hold down claims too. If any of us had had sense enough to grab a piece of land and settle down to raise families, we'd be right up against it now. We'd have to set back and watch a bunch of down-east rubes light down on us like flies on spilt molasses, and we couldn't do a thing."

"As it is, we'll all turn nesters for the good of the cause!" finished Pink somewhat cynically, getting up and following Cal and Slim to the door.

"Aw, I betche they's some ketch to it!" gloomed Happy Jack. "I betche Andy jest wants to see us takin' up claims on that dry bench, and then set back and laugh at us fer bitin' on his josh."

"Well, you'll have the claims, won't you. And if you hang onto them there'll be money in the deal some day. Why, darn your bomb-proof skull, can't you get it into your system that all this country's bound to settle up?" Andy's eyes snapped angrily. "Can't you see the difference between us owning the land between here and the mountains, and a bunch of outsiders that'll cut it all up into little fields and try to farm it. If you can't see that, you better go hack a hole in your head with an axe, so an idea can squeeze in now and then when you ain't looking!"

"Well, I betche there ain't no colony comin' to settle that there bench," Happy Jack persisted stubbornly.

"Yes there is, by cripes!" trumpeted Big Medicine behind him. "Yes there is! And that there colony is goin' to be us, and don't you forget it. It's time I was doin' somethin' fer that there boy uh mine, by cripes! And soon as we git that fence strung I'm goin' to hit the trail fer the nearest land office. Honest to grandma, if Andy's lyin' it's goin' to be the prof't'blest lie he ever told, er anybody else. I don't care a cuss about whether them dry-farmers is fixin' to light here or not. That there land-pool looks good to me, and I'm comin' in on it with all four feet!"

Big Medicine was nothing less than a human land slide when once he threw himself into anything, be it a fight or a frolic. Now ho blocked the way to the door with his broad shoulders and his big bellow and his enthusiasm, and his pale, frog-like eyes fixed their protruding stare accusingly upon the reluctant ones.

"Cal, you git up there and git that plat and bring it here," he ordered. "And fer criminy sakes git that table cleared off, Patsy, so's't we kin have a place to lay it! What's eatin' on you fellers, standin' around like girls to a party, waitin' fer somebody to come up and ast you to dance! Ain't you got head enough to see what a cinch we got, if we only got sense enough to play it! Honest to grandma you make me sick to look at yuh! Down in Conconino County the boys wouldn't stand back and wait to be purty-pleased into a thing like this. You're so scared Andy's got a josh covered up somewheres, you wouldn't take a drink uh whisky if he ast yuh up to the bar! You'd pass up a Chris'mas turkey, by cripes, if yuh seen Andy washin' his face and lookin' hungry! You'd--"

What further reproach he would have heaped upon them was interrupted by Chip, who opened the door just then and bumped Big Medicine in the back. In his hand Chip carried the land plat and the pamphlets, and in his keen, brown eyes he carried the light of battle for his outfit. The eyes of Andy Green sent bright glances from him to Big Medicine, and on to the others. He was too wise then to twit those others with their unbelief. His wisdom went farther than that; for he remained very much in the background of the conversation and contented himself with answering, briefly and truthfully, the questions they put to him about Florence Grace Hallman and the things she had so foolishly divulged concerning her plans.

Chip spread the plat upon an end of the table hastily and effectually cleared by a sweep of Big Medicine's arm, and the Happy Family crowded close to stare down at the checker-board picture of their own familiar bench land. They did not doubt, now--nor did they Hang back reluctantly. Instead they followed eagerly the trail Chip's cigarette-yellowed finger took across the map, and they listened intently to what he said about that trail.

The clause about grazing the land, he said, simplified matters a whole lot. It was a cinch you couldn't turn loose and dry-farm that land and have even a fair chance of reaping a harvest. But as grazing land they could hold all the land along One Man Creek--and that was a lot. And the land lying back of that, and higher up toward the foothills, they could take as desert. And he maintained that Andy had been right in his judgment: If they all went into it and pulled together they could stretch a line of claims that would protect the Badland grazing effectually.

"I wouldn't ask you fellows to go into this," said Chip, straightening from his stooping over the map and looking from one sober face to another, "just to help the outfit. But it'll be a good thing for you boys. It'll give you a foothold--something better than wages, if you stay with your claims and prove up. Of course, I can't say anything about us buying out your claims--that's fraud, according to Hoyle; but you ain't simple-minded--you know your land won't be begging for a buyer, in case you should ever want to sell.

"There's another thing. This will not only head off the dry- farmers from overstocking what little range is left--it'll make a dead-line for sheep, too. We've been letting 'em graze back and forth on the bench back here beyond our leased land, and not saying much, so long as they didn't crowd up too close, and kept going. With all our claims under fence, do you realize what that'll mean for the grass?"

"Josephine! There's feed for considerable stock, right over there on our claims, to say nothing of what we'll cover," exclaimed Pink.

"I'd tell a man! And if we get water on the desert claims--" Chip grinned down at him. "See what we've been passing up, all this time. We've had some of it leased, of course--but that can't be done again. There's been some wire-pulling, and because we ain't politicians we got turned down when the Old Man wanted to renew the lease. I can see now why it was, maybe. This dry-farm business had something to do with it, if you ask me."

"Gee whiz! And here we've been calling Andy a liar," sighed Cal Emmett.

"Aw, jest because he happened to tell the truth once, don't cut no ice," Happy Jack maintained with sufficient ambiguity to avert the natural consequences.

"Of course, it won't be any gold-mine," Chip added dispassionately. "But it's worth picking up, all right; and if it'll keep out a bunch of tight-fisted settlers that don't give a darn for anything but what's inside their own fence, that's worth a lot, too."

"Say, my dad's a farmer," Pink declared defiantly in his soft treble." And while I think of it, them eastern farmers ain't so worse--not the brand I've seen, anyway. They're narrow, maybe--but they're human. Damn it, you fellows have got to quit talking about 'em as if they were blackleg stock or grasshoppers or something."

"We ain't saying nothing aginst farmers as farmers, Little One" Big Medicine explained forebearingly. "As men, and as women, and as kids, they're mighty nice folks. My folks have got an eighty-acre farm in Wisconsin," he confessed unexpectedly, "and I think a pile of 'em. But if they was to come out here, trying to horn in on our range, I'd lead 'em gently to the railroad, by cripes, and tell 'em goodbye so's't they'd know I meant it! Can't yuh see the difference?" he bawled, goggling at Pink with misleading savageness in his ugly face.

"Oh, I see," Pink admitted mildly. "I only just wanted to remind you fellows that I don't mean anything personal and I don't want you to. Say, what about One Man Coulee?" he asked suddenly. "That's marked vacant on the map. I always thought--"

"Sure, you did!" Chip grinned at him wisely, "because we used it for a line camp, you thought we owned a deed to it. Well, we don't. We had that land leased, is all."

"Say, by golly, I'll file on that, then," Slim declared selfishly. For One Man coulee, although a place of gruesome history, was also desirable for one or two reasons. There was wood, for instance, and water, and a cabin that was habitable. There was also a fence on the place, a corral and a small stable. "If Happy's ghost don't git to playin' music too much," he added with his heavy-handed wit.

"No, sir! You ain't going to have One Man coulee unless Andy, here, says he don't want it!" shouted Big Medicine. "I leave it to Chip if Andy hadn't oughta have first pick. He's the feller that's put us onto this, by cripes, and he's the feller that's going to pick his claim first."

Chip did not need to sanction that assertion. The whole Happy Family agreed unanimously that it should be so, except Slim, who yielded a bit unwillingly.

Till midnight and after, they bent heads over the plat and made plans for the future and took no thought whatever of the difficulties that might lie before them. For the coming colony they had no pity, and for the balked schemes of the Homeseekers' Syndicate no compunctions whatever.

So Andy Green, having seen his stratagem well on the way to success, and feeling once more the well-earned confidence of his fellows, slept soundly that night in his own bed, serenely sure of the future.