Chapter 6. The First Blow in the Fight
 

Letters went speeding to Irish and Jack Bates, absent members of the Happy Family of the Flying U; letters that explained the situation with profane completeness, set forth briefly the plan of the proposed pool, and which importuned them to come home or make haste to the nearest land-office and file upon certain quarter-sections therein minutely described. Those men who would be easiest believed wrote and signed the letters, and certain others added characteristic postscripts best calculated to bring results.

After that, the Happy Family debated upon the boldness of going in a body to Great Falls to file upon their claims, or the caution of proceeding instead to Glasgow where the next nearest land-office might be found. Slim and Happy Jack favored caution and Glasgow. The others sneered at their timidity, as they were wont to do.

"Yuh think Florence Grace Hallman is going to stand guard with a six-gun?" Andy challenged at last." She's tied up till her colony gets there. She can't file on all that land herself, can she?" He smiled reminiscently. "The lady asked me to come up to the Falls and see her," he said softly. "I'm going. The rest of you can take the same train, I reckon--she won't stop you from it, and I won't. And who's to stop you from filing? The land's there, open for settlement. At least it was open, day before yesterday.

"Well, by golly, the sooner we go the better," Slim declared fussily. "That fencin' kin wait. We gotta go and git back before Chip wants to start out the wagons, too."

"Listen here, hombres," called the Native Son from the window, where he had been studying the well-thumbed pamphlet containing the homestead law. "If we want to play dead safe on this, we all better quit the outfit before we go. Call for our time. I don't like the way some of this stuff reads."

"I don't like the way none of it reads," grumbled Happy Jack. "I betche we can't make it go; they's some ketch to it. We'll never git a patent. I'll betche anything yuh like."

"Well, pull out of the game, then!" snapped Andy Green, whose nerves were beginning to feel the strain put upon them.

"I ain't in it yet," said Happy Jack sourly, and banged the door shut upon his departure.

Andy scowled and returned to studying the map. Finally he reached for his hat and gloves in the manner of one who has definitely made up his mind to some thing.

"Well, the rest of you can do as you darned please," he delivered his ultimatum from the doorway. "I'm going to catch up my horse, draw a month's wages and hit the trail. I can catch the evening train to the Falls, easy, and be ready to file on my chunk first thing in the morning."

"Ain't in any rush, are yuh?" Pink inquired facetiously. "If I had my dinner settled and this cigarette smoked, I might go along--provided you don't take the trail with yuh."

"Hold on, boys, and listen to this," the Native Son called out imperatively. "I think we better get a move on, too; but we want to get a fair running start, and not fall over this hump. Listen here! We've got to swear that it is not for the benefit of any other person, persons or corporation, and so on; and farther along it says we must not act in collusion with any person, persons or corporation, to give them the benefit of the land. There's more of the same kind, too, but you see--"

"Well, who's acting in collusion? What's collusion mean anyhow?" Slim demanded aggressively.

"It means what we're aiming to do--if anybody could prove it on us," explained the Native Son. "My oldest brother's a lawyer, and I caught some of it from him. And my expert, legal advice is this: to get into a row with the Old Man, maybe--anyway, quit him cold, so we get our time. We must let that fact percolate the alleged brains of Dry Lake and vicinity--and if we give any reason for taking claims right under the nose of the Flying U, why, we're doing it to spite the Old Man. Sabe? Otherwise we're going to have trouble-- unless that colony scheme is just a pipe dream of Andy's."

The Happy Family had learned to respect the opinions of the Native Son, whose mixture of Irish blood with good Castilian may have had something to do with his astuteness. Once, as you may have heard, the Native Son even scored in a battle of wits with Andy Green, and scored heavily. And he had helped Andy pull the Flying U out of an extremely ticklish situation, by his keen wit saving the outfit much trouble and money. Wherefore they heeded now his warning to the extent of unsmilingly discussing the obstacle he had pointed out to them. One after another they read the paragraph which they had before passed over too hastily, and sensed the possibilities of its construction. Afterward they went into serious consultation as to ways and means, calling Happy Jack back so that he might understand thoroughly what must be done. For the Happy Family was nothing if not thorough, and their partisanship that had been growing insensibly stronger through the years was roused as it had not been since Dunk Whittaker drove sheep in upon the Flying U.

The Old Man, having eaten a slice of roast pork the size of his two hands, in defiance of his sister's professional prohibition of the indulgence, was sitting on the sunny side of the porch trying to ignore the first uneasy symptoms of indigestion. The Little Doctor had taken his pipe away from him that morning, and had badgered him into taking a certain decoction whose taste lingered bitterly. The paper he was reading was four days old and he disagreed with its political policy, and there was no telling when anyone would have time to go in after the mail and his favorite paper. Ranch work was growing heavier each year in proportion to the lightening of range work. He was going to sow another twenty acres of alfalfa, and to do that he must cut down the size of his pasture--something that always went against the grain. He had not been able to renew his lease of government land,--which also went against the grain. And the Kid, like the last affliction which the Lord sent unto Job--I've forgotten whether that was boils or the butchery of his offspring--came loping down the length of the porch and kicked the Old Man's bunion with a stubby boot-toe.

Thus was born the psychological moment when the treachery of the Happy Family would cut deepest.

They came, bunched and talking low-voiced together with hatbrims hiding shamed eyes, a type-true group of workers bearing a grievance. Not a man was absent--the Happy Family saw to that! Even Patsy, big and sloppy and bearing with him stale kitchen odors, limped stolidly in the rear beside Slim, who looked guilty as though he had been strangling somebody's favorite cat.

The Old Man, bent head-foremost over his growing paunch that he might caress his outraged bunion, glared at them with belligerent curiosity from under his graying eyebrows. The group came on and stopped short at the steps--and I don't suppose the Happy Family will ever look such sneaks again whatever crime they may commit. The Old Man straightened with a grunt of pain because of his lame back, and waited. Which made it all the harder for the Happy Family, especially for Andy Green who had been chosen spokesman--for his sins perhaps.

"We'd like our time," blurted Andy after an unpleasant silence, and fixed his eyes frigidly upon the lowest rung of the Old Man's chair.

"Oh, you would, hunh? The whole bunch of yuh?" The Old Man eyed them incredulously.

"Yes, the whole bunch of us. We're going to quit."

The Old Man's jaw dropped a little, but his eyes didn't waver from their Hangdog faces. "Well, I never coaxed a man to stay yet," he stated grimly, "and I'm gittin' too old in the business to start coaxin' now. Dell!" He turned stiffly in his chair so that he faced the open door. "Bring me my time and check books outa the desk!"

A gray hardness came slowly to the Old Man's face while he waited, his seamed hands gripping the padded arms of his chair. A tightness pulled at his lips behind the grizzled whiskers. It never occurred to him now that the Happy Family might be perpetrating one of their jokes. He had looked at their faces, you see. They meant to quit him--quit him cold just as spring work was beginning. They were ashamed of themselves, of course; they had a right to be ashamed, he thought bitterly. It hurt--hurt so that he would have died before he would ask for excuse, reason, grievance, explanation--for whatever motive impelled them. So he waited, and he gripped the arms of his chair, and he clamped his mouth shut and did not speak a word.

The Happy Family had expected him to swear at them stormily; to accuse them of vile things; to call them such names as his memory could seize upon or his ingenuity invent. They had been careful to prepare a list of plausible reasons for leaving then. They had first invented a gold rumor that they hoped would sound convincing, but Andy had insisted upon telling him straightforwardly that they did not favor fence- building and ditch-digging and such back-breaking toil; that they were range men and they demanded range work or none; that if they must dig ditches and build fences and perform like menial tasks, they preferred doing it for themselves. "That," said Andy, "makes us out such dirty, low-down sons- of-guns we'd have to climb a tree to look a snake in the eye, but it's got the grain of truth that'll make it go down. We don't love this farming graft, and the Old Man knows it. He's heard us kicking often enough. That's where it'll git him. He'll believe this last stretch of fence is what made us throw him down, and he'll be so mad he'll cuss us out till the neighbors'll think the smoke's a prairie fire. We'll get our time, all right' and the things he'll say will likely make us so hot we can all talk convincing when we hit town. Keep a stiff upper lip, boys. We got to do it, and he'll make us mad, so it won't be as hard as you imagine."

The theory was good, and revealed a knowledge of human nature that made one cease to wonder why Andy was a prince of convincing liars. The theory was good--nothing in the world was the matter with it, except that in this particular instance it did not work. The Old Man did not ask for their reasons, excuses or explanations. Neither did he say anything or do anything to make them mad. He just sat there, with his face gray and hard, and said nothing at all.

The Little Doctor appeared with the required books and a fountain pen; saw the Happy Family standing there like condemned men at the steps; saw the Old Man's face, and trembled wide-eyed upon the verge of speech. Then she decided that this was no time for questioning and hurried, still wide of eye, away from sight of them. The Happy Family did not look at one another--they looked chiefly at the wall of the house.

The Old Man reckoned the wages due each one, and wrote a check for the exact amount. And he spoke no word that did not intimately concern the matter in hand. He still had that gray, hard look in his face that froze whatever explanation they would otherwise have volunteered. And when he handed the last man--who was Patsy--his check, he got up stiffly and turned his back on them, and went inside and closed the door while yet they lingered, waiting to explain.

At the bunk-house, whence they walked silently, Slim turned suddenly upon their leader. His red face had gone a sallow white, and the whites of his eyes were veined with red.

"If that there land business falls down anywhere because you lied to us, Andy Green' I'll kill you fer this" he stated flatly.

"If it Does, Slim, I'll stand and let yuh shoot me as full of lead as you like," Andy promised, in much the same tone. Then he strove to shake off the spell of the Old Man's stricken silence. "Buck up, boys. He'll thank us for what we aim to do--when he knows all about it."

"Well, it seems to me," sighed Weary lugubriously, "we mighta managed it without hitting the Old Man a wallop in the back, like that."

"How'n hell did I know he'd take it the way he did?" Andy questioned sharply, and began throwing his personal belongings into his "war-bag" as if he had a grudge against his own clothes.

"Aw, looks to me like he was glad to git shet of us!" grumbled Happy Jack. "I betche he's more tickled than sorry, right now."

It was an exceedingly unhappy Family that rode up the Hog's Back upon their private mounts, and away from the Flying U; in spite of Chip's assurance that he would tell the Old Man all about it as soon as he could, it was an ill-humored Family that rode into Dry Lake and cashed their several checks at the desk of the General store which also did an informal banking business, and afterwards took the train for Great Falls.

The news spread through the town that old J. G. Whitmore had fired the Happy Family in a bunch for some unforgivable crime against the peace and dignity of the outfit, and that the boys were hatching up some scheme to get even. From the gossip that was rolled relishfully upon the tongues of the Dry Lake scandal lovers, the Happy Family must have been more than sufficiently convincing.