Chapter 8. Florence Grace Hallman Speaks Plainly
 

Andy Green rode thoughtfully up the trail from his cabin in One Man coulee, his hat tilted to the south to shield his face from the climbing sun, his eyes fixed absently upon the yellow soil of the hillside. Andy was facing a problem that concerned the whole Happy Family--and the Flying U as well. He wanted Weary's opinion, and Miguel Rapponi's, and Pink's-- when it came to that, he wanted the opinion of them all.

Thus far the boys had been wholly occupied with getting their shacks built and in rustling cooking outfits and getting themselves settled upon their claims with an air of convincing permanency. Also they had watched with keen interest--which was something more vital than mere curiosity--developments where the homeseekers were concerned, and had not given very much thought to their next step, except in a purely general way.

They all recognized the fact that, with all these new settlers buzzing around hunting claims where there was some promise of making things grow, they would have to sit very tight indeed upon their own land if they would avoid trouble with "jumpers." Not all the homeseekers were women. There were men, plenty of them; a few of them were wholly lacking in experience it is true, but perhaps the more greedy for land because of their ignorance. The old farmers had looked askance at the high, dry prairie land, where even drinking water must be hauled in barrels from some deep-set creek whose shallow gurgling would probably cease altogether when the dry season came on the heels of June. The old farmers had asked questions that implied doubt. They had wanted to know about sub-soil, and average rainfall, and late frosts, and markets. The profusely illustrated folders that used blue print for emphasis here and there, seemed no longer to satisfy them.

The Happy Family did not worry much about the old farmers who knew the game, but there were town men who had come to see the fulfillment of their dreams; who had burned their bridges, some of them, and would suffer much before they would turn back to face the ridicule of their friends and the disheartening task of getting; a fresh foothold in the wage- market. These the Happy Family knew for incipient enemies once the struggle for existence was fairly begun. And there were the women--daring rivals of the men in their fight for independence--who had dreamed dreams and raised up ideals for which they would fight tenaciously. School- teachers who hated the routine of the schools, and who wanted freedom; who were willing to work and wait and forego the little, cheap luxuries which are so dear to women; who would cheerfully endure loneliness and spoiled complexions and roughened hands and broken nails, and see the prairie winds and sun wipe the sheen from their hair; who would wear coarse, heavy-soled shoes and keep all their pretty finery packed carefully away in their trunks with dainty sachet pads for month after month, and take all their pleasure in dreaming of the future; these would fight also to have and to hold--and they would fight harder than the men, more dangerously than the men, because they would fight differently.

The Happy Family, then, having recognized these things and having measured the fighting-element, knew that they were squarely up against a slow, grim, relentless war if they would save the Flying U. They knew that it was going to be a pretty stiff proposition, and that they would have to obey strictly the letter and the spirit of the land laws, or there would be contests and quarrels and trouble without end.

So they hammered and sawed and fitted boards and nailed on tar-paper and swore and jangled and joshed one another and counted nickels--where they used to disdain counting anything but results--and badgered the life out of Patsy because he kicked at being expected to cook for the bunch just the same as if he were in the Flying U mess-house. Py cosh, he wouldn't cook for the whole country just because they were too lazy to cook for themselves, and py cosh if they wanted him to cook for them they could pay him sixty dollars a month, as the Old Man did.

The Happy Family were no millionaires, and they made the fact plain to Patsy to the full extent of their vocabularies. But still they begged bread from him, a loaf at a time, and couldn't see why he objected to making pie, if they furnished the stuff. Why, for gosh sake, had they planted him in the very middle of their string of claims, then? With a dandy spring too, that never went dry except in the driest years, and not more than seventy-five yards, at the outside, to carry water. Up hill? Well, what of that? Look at Pink--had to haul water half a mile from One Man Creek, and no trail. Look at Weary--had to pack water twice as far as Patsy. And hadn't they clubbed together and put up his darned shack first thing, just so he could get busy and cook? What did the old devil expect, anyway?

Well--you see that the Happy Family had been fully occupied in the week since the arrival of the homeseekers' excursion. They could not be expected to give very much thought to their next steps. But there was Andy, who had only to move into the cabin in One Man coulee, with a spring handy, and a stable for his horse, and a corral and everything. Andy had not been harassed with the house-building and settling, except as he assisted the others. As fast as the shacks were up, the Happy Family had taken possession, so that now Andy was alone, stuck down there in the coulee out of sight of everybody. Pink had once named One Man coulee as the lonesomest hole in all that country, and he had not been far wrong. But at any rate the lonesomeness had served one good purpose, for it had started Andy to thinking out the details of their so called land-pool. Now the thinking had borne fruit to the extent that he felt an urgent need of the Happy Family in council upon the subject.

As he topped at last the final rise which put him on a level with the great undulating bench-land gashed here and there with coulees and narrow gulches that gave no evidence of their existence until one rode quite close, he lifted his head and gazed about him half regretfully, half proudly. He hated to see that wide upland dotted here and there with new, raw buildings, which proclaimed themselves claim-shacks as far a one could see them. Andy hated the sight of claim- shacks with a hatred born of long range experience and the vital interests of the cattleman. A claim-shack stuck out on the prairie meant a barbed wire fence somewhere in the immediate vicinity; and that meant a hindrance to the easy handling of herds. A claim-shack meant a nester, and a nester was a nuisance, with his plowed fields and his few head of cattle that must be painstakingly weeded out of a herd to prevent a howl going up to high heaven. Therefore, Andy Green instinctively hated the sight of a shack on the prairie. On the other hand, those shacks belonged to the Happy Family-- and that pleased him. From where he sat on his horse he could count five in sight, and there were more hidden by ridges and tucked away in hollows.

But there were others going up--shacks whose owners he did not know. He scowled when he saw, on distant hilltops, the yellow skeletons that would presently be fattened with boards and paper and made the dwellingplace of interlopers. To be sure, they had as much right to take government land as had he or any of his friends--but Andy, being a normally selfish person, did not think so.

From one partially built shack three quarters of a mile away on a bald ridge which the Happy Family had passed up because of its barrenness and the barrenness of the coulee on the other side, and because no one was willing to waste even a desert right on that particular eighty-acres, a team and light buggy came swiftly toward him. Andy, trained to quick thinking, was puzzled at the direction the driver was taking. That eighty acres joined his own west line, and unless the driver was lost or on the way to One Man coulee, there was no reason whatever for coming this way.

He watched and saw that the team was comin' straight toward him over the uneven prairie sod, and at a pace that threatened damage to the buggy-springs. Instinctively Andy braced himself in the saddle. At a half mile he knew the team, and it did not require much shrewdness to guess at the errand. He twitched the reins, turned his spurred heels against his horse and went loping over the grassland to meet the person who drove in such haste; and the probability that he was meeting trouble halfway only sent him the more eagerly forward.

Trouble met him with hard, brown eyes and corn yellow hair blown in loose strands across cheeks roughened by the spring winds and sun-glare of Montana. Trouble pulled up and twisted sidewise in the seat and kicked the heads off some wild larkspurs with her whip while her tongue flayed the soul of Andy Green with sarcasm.

"Well, I have found out just how you helped me colonize this tract, Mr. Green," she began with a hard inflection under the smoothness of her voice. "I must compliment you upon your promptness and thoroughness in the matter; for an amateur you have made a remarkable showing--in--in treachery and deceit. I really did not suppose you had it in you."

"Remember, I told you I might buy in if it looked good to me," Andy reminded her in the mildest tone of which he was capable--and he could be as mild as new milk when he chose.

Florence Grace Hallman looked at him with a lift of her full upper lip at the left side. "It does look good, then? You told Mr. Graham and that Mr. Wirt a different story, Mr. Green. You told them this land won't raise white beans, and you were at some pains, I believe, to explain why it would not. You convinced them, by some means or other, that the whole tract is practically worthless for agricultural purposes. Both Mr. Wirt and Mr. Graham had some capital to invest here, and now they are leaving, and they have persuaded several others to leave with them. Does it really look good to you--this land proposition?"

"Not your proposition--no, it don't." Andy faced her with a Keen level glance as hard as her own. One could get the truth straight from the shoulder if one pushed Andy Green into a corner. "You know and I know that you're trying to cold-deck this bunch. The land won't raise white beans or anything else without water, and you know it. You can plant folks on the land and collect your money and tell 'em goodbye and go to it--and that settles your part of it. But how about the poor devils that put in their time and money?"

Florence Grace Hallman spread her hands in a limited gesture because of the reins, and smiled unpleasantly. "And yet, you nearly broke your neck filing on the land yourself and getting a lot of your friends to file," she retorted. "What was your object, Mr. Green--since the land is worthless?"

"My object don't matter to anyone but myself." Andy busied himself with his smoking material and did not look at her.

"Oh, but it Does! It matters to me, Mr. Green, and to my company, and to our clients."

"I'll have to buy me a new dictionary," Andy observed casually, reaching behind him to scratch a match on the skirt of his saddle. "The one I've got don't say anything about 'client' and 'victim' meaning the same thing. It's getting all outa date."

"I brought enough clients--" she emphasized the word--" to settle every eighty acres of land in that whole tract. The policy of the company was eminently fair. We guaranteed to furnish a claim of eighty, acres to every person who joined our homeseekers' Club, and free pasturage to all the stock they wanted to bring. Failing to do that, we pledged ourselves to refund the fee and pay all return expenses. We could have located every member of this lot, and more--only for you."

"Say, it'd be just as easy to swear as to say 'you' in that tone uh voice," Andy pointed out placidly.

"You managed to gobble up just exactly four thousand acres of this tract--and you were careful to get all the water and all the best land. That means you have knocked us out of fifty settlements--"

"Fifty wads of coin to hand back to fifty come-ons, and fifty return tickets for fifty fellows glad to get back--tough luck, ain't it?" Andy smiled sympathetically. "You oughta be glad I saved your conscience that much of a load, anyway."

Florence Grace Hallman bit her lip to control her rage. "Smart talk isn't going to help you, Mr. Green. You've simply placed yourself in a position you can't' hold. You've put it up to us to fight--and we're going to do it. I'm playing fair with you. I'll tell you this much: I've investigated you and your friends pretty thoroughly, and it's easy to guess what your object is. We rather expected the Flying U to fight this colonization scheme, so we are neither surprised nor unprepared. Mr. Green, for your own interest and that of your employer, let me advise you to abandon your claims now, before we begin action in the matter. It will be simpler, and far, far cheaper. We have our clients to look after, and we have the law all on our side. These are bona fide settlers we are bringing in; men and women whose sole object is to make homes for themselves. The land laws are pretty strict, Mr. Green. If we set the wheels in motion they will break the Flying U."

Andy grinned while he inspected his cigarette. "Funny--I heard a man brag once about how he'd break the Flying U, with sheep," he drawled. "He didn't connect, though; the Flying U broke him." He smoked until he saw an angry retort parting the red lips of the lady, and then continued calmly:

"The Flying U has got nothing to do with this case. As a matter of fact, old man Whitmore is pretty sore at us fellows right now, because we quit him and turned nesters right under his nose. Miss Hallman, you'll have one sweet time proving that we ain't bona fide settlers. We're just crazy to make homes for ourselves. We think it's time we settled down--and we're settling here because we're used to this country. We're real sorry you didn't find it necessary to pay your folks for the fun of pointing out the land to us and steering us to the land office--but we can't help that. We needed the money to buy plows." He looked at her full with his honest, gray eyes that could so deceive his fellow men--to say nothing of women. "And that reminds me, I've got to go and borrow a garden rake. I'm planting a patch of onions," he explained engagingly. "Say, this farming is a great game, isn't it? Well, good day, Miss Hallman. Glad I happened to meet you."

"You won't be when I get through with you!" predicted the lady with her firm chin thrust a little forward. "You think you've got everything your own way, don't you? Well, you've just simply put yourself in a position where we can get at you. You deceived me from the very start--and now you shall pay the penalty. I've got our clients to protect--and besides that I shall dearly love to get even. Oh, you'll squeal for mercy, believe me!" She touched up the horses with her whip and went bumping away over the tough sod.

"Wow!" ejaculated Andy, looking after her with laughter in his eyes. "She's sure one mad lady, all right. But shucks!" He turned and galloped off toward the farthest claim, which was Happy Jack's and the last one to be furnished with a lawful habitation.

He was lucky. The Happy Family were foregathered there, wrangling with Happy Jack over some trifling thing. He joined zealously in the argument and helped them thrash Happy Jack in the word-war, before he came at his errand.

"Say, boys, we'll have to get busy now," he told them seriously at last. "Florence Grace is onto us bigger'n a wolf--and if I'm any judge, that lady's going to be some fighter. We've either got to plow up a bunch of ground and plant some darn thing, or else get stock on and pasture it. They ain't going to over look any bets from now on. I met her back here on the bench. She was so mad she talked too much and I got next to their scheme--seems like we've knocked the Syndicate outa quite a bunch of money, all right. They want this land, and they think they're going to get it.

"Now my idea is this: We've got to have stock, or we can't graze the land. And if we take Flying U cattle and throw 'em on here, they'll contest us for taking fake claims, for the outfit. So what's the matter with us buying a bunch from the Old Man?"

"I'm broke," began Pink promptly, but Andy stopped him.

"Listen here. ;We buy a bunch of stock and give him mortgages for the money, with the cattle for security. We graze 'em till the mortgage runs out--till we prove up, that means--and then we don't spot up, and the Old Man takes the stock back. see? We're grazing our own stock, according to law--but the outfit--"

"Where do we git off at?" demanded Happy Jack suspiciously. "We got to live--and it takes money to buy grub, these days."

"Well, we'll make out all right. We can have so many head of cattle named for the mortgage; there'll be increase, and we should get that. By the time we all prove up we'll have a little bunch of stock of our own' d',uh see? And we'll have the range--what there is left. These squatters ain't going to last over winter, if you ask me. And it'll be a long, cold day when another bunch of greenhorns bites on any colony scheme."

"How do you know the Old Man'll do that, though?" Weary wanted to know. "He's pretty mad. I rode over to the ranch last week to see Chip, and the Old Man wouldn't have anything to say to me."

"Well, what's the matter with all of us going? He can't pass up the whole bunch. We can put it up to him just the way it is, and he'll see where it's going to be to his interest to let us have the cattle. Why, darn it, he can't help seeing now why we quit!" Pink looked ready to start then, while his enthusiasm was fresh.

"Neither can Florence Grace help seeing why we did it," Andy supplemented dryly. "She can think what she darn pleases--all we got to do is deliver the goods right up to the handle, on these claims and not let her prove anything on us."

"It'll take a lot uh fencing," Happy Jack croaked pessimistically. "We ain't got the money to buy wire and posts, ner the time to build the fence."

"What's the matter with rang-herding 'em?" Andy seemed to have thought it all out, and to have an answer for every objection. "We can take turns at that--and we must all be careful and don't let 'em graze on our neighbors!"

Whereat the Happy Family grinned understandingly.

"Maybe the Old Man'll let us have three or four hundred head uh cows on shares," Cal hazarded optimistically.

"Can't take 'em that way," said the Native Son languidly. "It wouldn't be safe. Andy's right; the way to do is buy the cattle outright, and give a mortgage on the bunch. And I think we better split the bunch, and let every fellow buy a few head. We can graze 'em together--the law can't stop us from doing that."

"Sounds good--if the Old Man will come to the centre," said Weary dubiously. The chill atmosphere of Flying U coulee, with strangers in the bunk-house and with the Old Man scowling at his paper on the porch, had left its effect upon Weary, sunny-souled as he was.

"Oh, he'll come through," cried Cal, moving toward his horse. "gee whiz, he's got to! Come on--let's go and get it done with. As it stands now, we ain't got a thing to do but set around and look wise--unless we go spoiling good grass with plows. First thing we know our neighbors will be saying we ain't improving our claims!"

"You improve yours every time you git off it!" stated Happy Jack spitefully because of past wrongs. "You could improve mine a whole lot that way, too," he added when he heard the laugh of approval from the others.

They rung all the changes possible upon that witticism while they mounted and rode away, every man of them secretly glad of some excuse for making overtures to the Old Man. Spite of the excitement of getting on to their claims, and of watching strangers driving here and there in haste, and hauling loads of lumber toilfully over the untracked grass and building chickencoop dwellings as nearly alike as the buttons on a new shirt--spite of all that they had felt keenly their exile from Flying U ranch. They had stayed away, for two reasons: one was a latent stubbornness which made them resent the Old Man's resentment; the other was a matter of policy, as preached by Andy Green and the Native Son. It would not do, said these two cautious ones, to be running to the Flying U outfit all the time.

So the Happy Family had steered clear since that afternoon when they had simulated treachery to the outfit. And fate played them a scurvy trick in spite of their caution, for just as they rode down the Hog's Back and across the ford, Florence Grace Hallman rode away from the White House and met them fairly at the stable.

Florence Grace smiled a peculiar smile as she went past them. A smile that promised she would not forget; a smile that told them how sure she felt of having caught them fairly. With the smile went a chilly, supercilious bow that was worse than a direct cut, and which the Happy Family returned doubtfully, not at all sure of the rules governing warfare with a woman.