Chapter 7. The Coming of the Colony
 

If you would see northern Montana at its most beautiful best, you should see it in mid-May when the ground-swallows are nesting and the meadow larks are puffing their throats and singing of their sweet ecstasy with life; when curlews go sailing low over the green, grassy billows, peering and perking with long bills thrust rapier-wise through the sunny stillness, and calling shrilly, "Cor-r-eck, cor-r-eck!"-- which, I take it, is simply their opinion of world and weather given tersely in plain English. You should see the high prairies then, when all the world is a-shimmer with green velvet brocaded brightly in blue and pink and yellow flower-patterns; when the heat waves go quivering up to meet the sun, so that the far horizons wave like painted drop- scenes stirred by a breeze; when a hypnotic spell of peace and bright promises is woven over the rangeland--you should see it then, if you would love it with a sweet unreason that will last you through all the years to come.

The homeseekers' Syndicate, as represented by Florence Grace Hallman--she of the wheat-yellow hair and the tempting red lips and the narrow, calculating eyes and stubborn chin--did well to wait for the spell of the prairies when the wind flowers and the lupines blue the hillsides and the new grass paints green the hollows.

There is in us all a deep-rooted instinct to create, and never is that instinct so nearly dominant as in the spring when the grass and the flowers and the little, new leaves and the birds all sing the song of Creation together. Then is when case-hardened city dwellers study the bright array of seed-packets in the stores, and meditate rashly upon the possibilities of back-yard gardening. Then is when the seasoned country-dwellers walk over their farms in the sunset and plan largely for harvest time. Then is when the salaried- folk read avidly the real-estate advertisements, and pore optimistically over folders and dream of chicken ranches and fruit ranches and the like. Surely, then, the homeseekers' Syndicate planned well the date of their excursion into the land of large promise (and problematical fulfillment) which lay east of Dry Lake.

Rumors of the excursion seeped through the channels of gossip and set the town talking and chuckling and speculating--after the manner of very small towns.

Rumors grew to definite though erroneous statements of what was to take place. Definite statements became certified facts that bore fruit in detailed arrangements.

Came Florence Grace Hallman smilingly from Great Falls, to canvass the town for "accommodations." Florence Grace Hallman was a capable woman and a persuasive one, though perhaps a shade too much inclined to take certain things for granted-- such as Andy's anchored interest in her and her project, and the probability of the tract remaining just as it had been when last she went carefully over the plat in the land office. Florence Grace Hallman had been busy arranging the details of the coming of the colony, and she had neglected to visit the land office lately. Since she cannily represented the excursion as being merely a sight-seeing trip--or some such innocuous project--she failed also to receive any inkling of recent settlements.

On a certain sunny morning in mid-May, the Happy Family stood upon the depot platform and waited for the westbound passenger, that had attached to it the special car of the homeseekers' Syndicate. The Happy Family had been very busy during the past three weeks. They had taken all the land they could, and had sighed because they could still look from their claims upon pinnacles as yet unclaimed save by the government. They had done well. From the south line of Meeker's land in the very foothills of the Bear Paws, to the north line of the Flying U, the chain of newly-filed claims remained unbroken. It had taken some careful work upon the part of the Happy Family to do this and still choose land not absolutely worthless except from a scenic viewpoint. But they had managed it, with some bickering and a good deal of maneuvering. Also they had hauled loads of lumber from Dry Lake, wherewith to build their monotonously modest ten-by- twelve shacks with one door and one window apiece and a round hole in the roof big enough for a length of stove-pipe to thrust itself aggressively into the open and say by its smoke signal whether the owner was at home. And now, having heard of the mysterious excursion due that day, they had come to see just what would take place.

"She's fifteen minutes late," the agent volunteered, thrusting his head through the open window. "Looking for friends, boys?"

"Andy is," Pink informed him cheerfully. "The rest of us are just hanging around through sympathy. It's his girl coming."

"Well, I guess he thinks he needs a housekeeper now," the agent grinned. "Why don't you fellows get busy now and rustle some cooks?"

"Girls don't like to cook over a camp-fire," Cal Emmett told him soberly. "We kinda thought we ought to build our shacks first."

"You can pick you out some when the train gets in," said the agent, accepting a match from Weary. "There's a carload of--" He pulled in his head hurriedly and laid supple fingers on the telegraph key to answer a call, and the Happy Family moved down to the other end of the platform where there was more shade.

The agent presently appeared pushing the truck of outgoing express, a cheap trunk and a basket "telescope" belonging to one of the hotel girls--who had quit her job and was sitting now inside waiting for the train and seeing what she could of the Flying U boys through the window--and the mail sack. He placed the truck where the baggage car would come to a halt, stood for a minute looking down the track where a smudge of smoke might at any moment be expected to show itself over the low ridge of a hill, glanced at the lazy group in the patch of shade and went back into the office.

"There's her smoke," Cal Emmett announced in the midst of an apathetic silence.

Weary looked up from whittling a notch in the end of a platform plank and closed his jack-knife languidly.

Andy pushed his hat backward and then tilted it forward over one eyebrow and threw away his cigarette.

"Wonder if Florence Grace will be riding point on the bunch?" he speculated aloud. "If she is, I'm liable to have my hands full. Florence Grace will sure be sore when she finds out how I got into the game."

"Aw, I betche there ain't no such a person," said Happy Jack, doubter to the last.

"I wish there wasn't," sighed Andy. "Florence Grace is kinda getting on my nerves. If I done what I feel like doing, I'd crawl under the platform and size up the layout through a crack. Honest to gracious, Boys, I hate to meet that lady."

They grinned at him heartlessly and stared at the black smudge that was rolling toward them. "She's sure hittin' her up," Pink vouchsafed with a certain tenseness of tone. That train was not as ordinary trains; dimly they felt that it was relentlessly bringing them trouble, perhaps; certainly a problem--unless the homeseekers hovered only so long as it took them to see that wisdom lay in looking elsewhere for a home. Still--

"If this was August instead of May, I wouldn't worry none about them pilgrims staying long," Jack Bates voiced the thought that was uppermost in their minds.

"There comes two livery rigs to haul 'em to the hotel," Pink pointed out as he glanced toward town. And there's another one. Johnny told me every room they've got is spoke for, and two in every bed."

"That wouldn't take no crowd," Happy Jack grumbled, remembering the limitations of Dry Lake's hotel. "Here come Chip and the missus. Wonder what they want?"

The Little Doctor left Chip to get their tickets and walked quickly toward them.

"Hello, boys! Waiting for someone, or just going somewhere?"

"Waiting. Same to you, Mrs. Chip," Weary replied.

"To me? Well, we're going up to make our filings. Claude won't take a homestead, because we'll have to stay on at the Flying U, of course, and we couldn't hold one. But we'll both file desert claims. J. G. hasn't been a bit well, and I didn't dare leave him before--and of course Claude wouldn't go till I did. That the passenger coming, or a freight?"

"It's the train--with the dry-farmers," Andy informed her with a glance at the nearing smoke-smudge.

"Is it? We aren't any too soon then, are we? I left Son at home--and he threatened to run away and live with you boys. I almost wish I'd brought him along. He's been perfectly awful. So have the men Claude hired to take your places, if you want to know, boys. I believe that is what made J. G. sick--having those strange men on the place. He's been like a bear."

"Didn't Chip tell him--"

"He did, yes. He told him right away, that evening. But-- J. G. has such stubborn ideas. We couldn't make him believe that anyone would be crazy enough to take up that land and try to make a living farming it. He--" She looked sidewise at Andy and pursed her lips to Keep from smiling.

"He thinks I lied about it, I suppose," said that young man shrewdly.

"That's what he says. He pretends that you boys meant to quit, and just thought that up for an excuse. He'll be all right--you mustn't pay any attention--"

"Here she comes!"

A black nose thrust through a Deep cut that had a curve to it. At their feet the rails began to hum. The Little Doctor turned hastily to see if Chip were coming. The agent came out with a handful of papers and stood waiting with the rest. Stragglers moved quickly, and the discharged waitress appeared and made eyes covertly at Pink, whom she considered the handsomest one of the lot.

The train slid up, slowed and stopped. Two coaches beyond the platform a worried porter descended and placed the box-step for landing passengers, and waited. From that particular coach began presently to emerge a fluttering, exclaiming stream of humanity--at first mostly feminine. They hovered there upon the cindery path and lifted their faces to watch for others yet to come, and the babble of their voices could be, heard above the engine sounds.

The Happy Family looked dumbly at one another and drew back closer to the depot wall.

"Aw, I knowed there was some ketch to it!" blurted Happy Jack with dismal satisfaction. "That there ain't no colony--It's nothin' but a bunch of schoolma'ams!"

"That lady ridin' point is the lady herself," Andy murmured, edging behind Weary and Pink as the flutter came closer. "That's Florence Grace Hallman, boys."

"Well, by golly, git out and speak your little piece, then!" muttered Slim, and gave Andy an unexpected push that sent him staggering out into the open just as the leaders were coming up.

"Why, how de do, Mr. Green!" cried the blonde leader of the flock. "This is an unexpected pleasure, I'm sure."

"Yes ma'am, it is," Andy assented mildly, with an eye cocked sidewise in search of the guilty man.

The blonde leader paused, her flock coming to a fluttering, staring stand behind her. The nostrils of the astonished Happy Family caught a mingled odor of travel luncheons and perfume.

"Well, where have you been, Mr. Green? Why didn't you come and see me?" demanded Florence, Grace Hallman in the tone of one who has a right to ask leading questions. Her cool, brown, calculating eyes went appraisingly over the Happy Family while she spoke.

"I've been right around here, all the time," Andy gave meek account of himself. "I've been busy."

"Oh. Did you go over the tract, Mr. Green?" she lowered her voice.

"Yes-s--I went over it."

"And what do you think of it--privately?"

"Privately--it's pretty big." Andy sighed. The bigness of that tract had worried the Happy Family a good deal.

"Well, the bigger the better. You see I've got 'em started." She flicked a glance backward at her waiting colony. "You men are perfectly exasperating! Why didn't you tell me where you were and what you were doing?" She looked up at him with charming disapproval. "I feel like shaking you! I could have made good use of you, Mr. Green."

"I was making pretty good use of myself," Andy explained, and wished he knew who gave him that surreptitious kick on the ankle. Did the chump want an introduction? Well! In that case--

"Miss Hallman, if you don't mind I'd like to introduce some men I rounded up and brought here," he began before the Happy Family could move out of the danger zone of his imagination. "Representative citizens, you see. You can sic your bunch onto 'em and get a lot of information. This is Mr. Weary Davidson, Miss Hallman: He's a hayseed that lives out that way and he talks spuds better than anything else. And here's Slim--I don't know his right name--he raises hogs to a fare- you-well. And this is Percy Perkins"--meaning Pink--"and he's another successful dryfarmer. Goats is his trade. He's got a lot of 'em. And Mr. Jack Bates, he raises peanuts--or he's trying 'em this year--and has contracts to supply the local market. Mr. Happy Jack is our local undertaker. He wants to sell out if he can, because nobody ever dies in this country and that makes business slow. He's thinking some of starting a duck-ranch. This man--" indicating Big Medicine--" has got the finest looking crop of volunteer wild oats in the country. He knows all about 'em. Mr. Emmett, here, can put you wise to cabbage-heads; that's his specialty. And Mr. Miguel Rapponi is up here from Old Mexico looking for a favorable location for an extensive rubber plantation. The natural advantages here are simply great for rubber.

"I've gone to some trouble gathering this bunch together for you, Miss Hallman. I don't reckon you knew there was that many dry-farmers in the country. They've all got ranches of their own, and the prettiest folders you ever sent under a four-cent stamp can't come up to what these men can tell you. Your bunch won't have to listen to one man, only--here's half a dozen ready and waiting to talk."

Miss Hallman was impressed. A few of the closest homeseekers she beckoned and introduced to the perspiring Happy Family-- mostly feminine homeseekers, of whom there were a dozen or so. The men whom the hotel had sent down with rigs waited impatiently, and the unintroduced male colonists stared at the low rim of Lonesome Prairie and wondered if over there lay their future prosperity.

When the Happy Family finally made their escape, red-faced and muttering threats, Andy Green had disappeared, and no one knew when he went or where. He was not in Rusty Brown's place when the Happy Family went to that haven and washed down their wrongs in beer. Pink made a hurried trip to the livery stable and reported that Andy's horse was gone.

They were wondering among themselves whether he would have the nerve to go home and await their coming--home at this stage of the game meaning One Man coulee, which Andy had taken as a homestead and desert claim and where the Happy Family camped together until such time as their claim shacks were habitable. Some thought that he was hiding in town, and advised a thorough search before they took to their horses. The Native Son--he of mixed Irish and Spanish blood--told them with languid certainty that Andy was headed straight for the camp because he would figure that in camp was where they would least expect to find him.

The opinions of the Native Son were usually worth adopting. In this case, however, it brought them into the street at the very moment when Florence Grace Hallman and two homeseekers had ventured from the hotel in search of them. Slim and Jack Bates and Cal Emmett saw them in time and shied across the street and into the new barber shop where they sat themselves down and demanded unnecessary hair-cuts and a shampoo apiece, and spied upon their unfortunate fellows through the window while they waited; but the others met the women fairly since it was too late to turn back without making themselves ridiculous.

"I was wondering," began Miss Hallman in her brisk, business tone, "if some of you gentlemen could not help us out in the matter of conveyances. I have made arrangements for most of my guests, but we simply can't squeeze another one into the rigs I have engaged--and I've engaged every vehicle in town except a wheelbarrow I saw in the back yard of the hotel."

"How many are left out?" asked Weary, since no one else showed any symptoms of speech.

"Oh, not many, thank goodness. Just us three here. You've met Miss Allen, Mr. Davidson--and Miss Price. And so have you other gentlemen, because I introduced you at the depot. I went blandly ahead and told everybody just which rig they were to ride in, and put three in a seat, at that, and in counting noses I forgot to count our own--"

"I really don't see how she managed to overlook mine," sighed Miss Allen, laying a dainty, gloved finger upon a nose that had the tiniest possible tilt to it. "Nobody ever overlooked my nose before; it's almost worth walking to the tract."

Irish, standing close beside Weary and looking enough like him to be a twin instead of a mere cousin, smiled down at her with traitorous admiration. Miss Allen's nose was a nice nose, and above it twinkled a pair of warm brown eyes with humorous little wrinkles , around them; and still above them fluffed a kinky-curly mass of brown hair. Weary looked at her also, but he did not smile, because she looked a little like his own schoolma'am, Miss Ruty Satterly--and the resemblance hurt a sore place in his heart.

"--So if any of you gentlemen could possibly take us out to the tract, we'd be eternally grateful, besides keeping our independence intact with the usual payment. Could you help us out?"

"We all came in on horseback," Weary stated with a gentle firmness that was intended to kill their hopes as painlessly as possible.

"Wouldn't there be room on behind?" asked Miss Allen with hope still alive and flourishing.

"Lots of room," Weary assured her. "More room than you could possibly use."

"But isn't there any kind of a rig that you could buy, beg, borrow or steal?" Miss Hallman insisted. "These girls came from Wisconsin to take up claims, and I've promised to see that they get the best there is to be had. They are hustlers, if I know what the word means. I have a couple of claims in mind, that I want them to see--and that's why we three hung back till the rest were all arranged for. I had a rig promised that I was depending on, and at the last minute discovered it was not to be had. Some doctor from Havre came and got it for a trip into the hills. There's no use talking; we just must get out to the tract as soon as the others do--a little sooner wouldn't hurt. Couldn't you think of some way?"

"We'll try," Irish promised rashly, his eyes tying to meet Miss Allen's and succeeding admirably.

"What has become of Mr. Green?" Miss Hallman demanded after she had thanked Irish with a smile for the qualified encouragement.

"We don't know,," Weary answered mildly. "We were trying to locate him ourselves."

"Oh, were you? He seems a rather uncertain young man. I rather counted on his assistance; he promised--"

"Mr. Irish has thought of a rig he can use, Miss Hallman," said the Allen girl suddenly. "He's going to drive us out himself. Let's hurry and get ready, so we can start ahead of the others. How many minutes will it take you, Mr. Irish, to have that team here, for us?"

Irish turned red. He had thought of a rig, and he had thought of driving them himself, but he could not imagine how Miss Allen could possibly; have known his thoughts. Then and there he knew who would occupy the other half of the front seat, in case he did really drive the team he had in mind.

"I told you she's a hustler," laughed Miss Hallman. "She'll be raising bigger crops than you men--give her a year to get started. Well, girls, come on, then."

They turned abruptly away, and Irish was left to his accounting with the Happy Family. He had not denied the thoughts and intentions imputed to him by the twinkling-eyed Miss Allen. They walked on toward the livery stable--where was manifested an unwonted activity--waiting for Irish to clear himself; which he did not do.

"You going to drive them women out there?" Pink demanded after an impatient silence.

"Why not ? Somebody'll have to."

"What team are you going to use!" asked Jack Bates.

"Chip's" Irish did not glance around, but kept striding down the middle of the road with his hands stuck deep in his pockets.

"Don't you think you need help, amigo?" the Native Son insinuated craftily. "You can't talk to three girls at once; I could be hired to go along and take one off your hands. That should help some."

"Like hell you will!" Irish retorted with characteristic bluntness. Then he added cautiously, "Which one?"

"That old girl with the blue eyes should not be permitted to annoy the driver," drawled the Native Son. "Also, Florence Grace might want some intelligent person to talk to."

"Well, I got my opinion of any man that'll throw in with that bunch," Pink declared hotly. "Why don't you fellows keep your own side the fence. What if they are women farmers? They can do just as much harm--and a darn sight more. You make me sick."

"Let 'em go," Weary advised calmly. "They'll be a lot sicker when the ladies discover what they've helped do to that bench-land. Come on, boys--let's pull out, away from all these lunatics. I hate to see them get stung, but I don't see what we can do about it--only, if they come around asking me what I think of that land, I'm going to tell 'em."

"And then they'll ask you why you took claims up there, and you'll tell 'em that, too--will you?" The Native Son turned and smiled at him ironically.

That was it. They could not tell the truth without harming their own cause. They could not do anything except stand aside and see the thing through to whatever end fate might decree. They thought that Irish and the Native Son were foolish to take Chip's team and drive those women fifteen miles or so that they might seize upon land much better left alone; but that was the business of Irish and the Native Son, who did not ask for the approval of the Happy Family before doing anything they wanted to do.

The Happy Family saddled and rode back to the claims, gravely discussing the potentialities of the future. Since they rode slowly while they talked, they were presently overtaken by a swirl of dust, behind which came the matched browns which were the Flying U's crack driving team, bearing Irish and Miss Allen of the twinkling eyes upon the front seat of a two seated spring-wagon that had seen far better days than this. Native Son helped to crowd the back seat uncomfortably, and waved a hand with reprehensible cheerfulness as they went rattling past.

The Happy Family stared after them with frowning disapproval, and Weary turned in the saddle and looked ruefully at his fellows.

"Things won't ever be the same around here," he predicted soberly. "There goes the beginning of the end of the Flying U, boys--and we ain't big enough to stop it."