Chapter 9. The Happy Family Buys a Bunch of Cattle
 

With the Kid riding gleefully upon Weary's shoulder they trooped up the path their own feet had helped wear deep to the bunk-house. They looked in at the open door and snorted at the cheerlessness of the place.

"Why don't you come back here and stay?" the Kid demanded. "I was going to sleep down here with you--and now Doctor Dell won't let me. These hobees are no good. They're damn' bone- head. Daddy Chip says so. I wish you'd come back, so I can sleep with you. One man's named Ole and he's got a funny eye that looks at the other one all the time. I wish you'd come back."

The Happy Family wished the same thing, but they did not say so. Instead they told the Kid to ask his mother if he couldn't come and visit them in their new shacks, and promised indulgences that would have shocked the Little Doctor had she heard them. So they went on to the house, where the Old Man sat on the porch looking madder than when they had left him three weeks before.

"Why don't yuh run them nesters outa the country?" he demanded peevishly when they were close enough for speech. "Here they come and accuse me to my face of trying to defraud the gov'ment. Doggone you boys, what you think you're up to, anyway? What's three or four thousand acres when they're swarming in here like flies to a butcherin'? They can't make a living--serve 'em right. What you doggone rowdies want now?"

Not a cordial welcome, that--if they went no deeper than his words. But there was the old twinkle back of the querulousness in the Old Man's eyes, and the old pucker of the lips behind his grizzled whiskers. "You've got that doggone Kid broke to foller yuh so we can't keep him on the ranch no more," he added fretfully. "Tried to run away twice, on Silver. Chip had to go round him up. Found him last time pretty near over to Antelope coulee, hittin' the high places for town. Might as well take yuh back, I guess, and save time running after the Kid."

"We've got to hold down our claims," Weary minded him regretfully. In three weeks, he could see a difference the Old Man, and the change hurt him.

Lines were deeper drawn, and the kind old eyes were a shade more sunken.

"What's that amount to?" grumbled the Old Man, looking from one to the other under his graying eye brows. "You can't stop them dry-farmers from taking the country. Yuh might as well try to dip the Missouri dry with a bucket. They'll flood the country with stock--"

"No, they won't," put in Big Medicine, impatient for the real meat of their errand. "By cripes, we got a scheme to beat that--you tell 'im, Weary."

"We want to buy a bunch of cattle from you," Weary said obediently. "We want to graze our claims, instead of trying to crop the land. We haven't any fence up, so we'll have to range-herd our stock, of course. I--don't hardly think any nester stock will get by us, J. G. And seeing our land runs straight through from Meeker's line fence to yours, we kinda think we've got the nesters pretty well corralled. They're welcome to the range between Antelope coulee and Dry Lake, far as we're concerned. Soon as we can afford it," he added tranquilly, "we'll stretch a fence along our west line that'll hold all the darn milkcows they've a mind to ship out here."

"Huh!" The Old Man studied them quizzically, his chin on his chest.

"How many yuh want?" he asked abruptly.

"All you'll sell us. We want to give mortgages, with the stock for security."

"Oh, yuh do, ay? What if I have to foreclose on yuh?" The pucker of his lips grew more pronounced." Where do you git off at, then?"

"Well, we kinda thought we could fix it up to save part of the increase outa the wreck, anyway."

"Oh. That's it ay?" He studied them another minute. "You'll want all my best cows, too, I reckon--all that grade stock I shipped in last spring. Ay?"

"We wouldn't mind," grinned Weary, glancing at the others roosting at ease along the edge of the porch.

"Think you could handle five-hundred head--the pick uh the bunch?"

"Sure, we could! We'd rather split 'em up amongst us, though--let every fellow buy so many. We can throw in together on the herding."

"Think you can keep the milk-cows between you and Dry Lake, ay?" The Old Man chuckled--the first little chuckle since the Happy Family left him so unceremoniously three weeks before. "How about that, Pink?"

"Why, I think we can," chirped Pink cheerfully.

"Huh! Well, you're the toughest bunch, take yuh up one side and down the other, I ever seen keep onta jail--I guess maybe you can do it. But lemme tell you boys something--and I want you to remember it: You don't want to git the idea in your heads you're going to have any snap; you ain't. If I know B from a bull's foot, you've got your work cut out for yuh. I've been keeping cases pretty close on this dry-farm craze, and this stampede for claims. Folks are land crazy. They've got the idea that a few acres of land is going to make 'em free and independent--and it don't matter much what the land is, or where it is. So long as it's land, and they can git it from the government for next to nothing, they're satisfied. And yuh want to remember that. Yuh don't want to take it for granted they're going to take a look at your deadline and back up. If they ship in stock, they're going to see to it that stock don't starve. You'll have to hold off men and women that's making their last stand, some of 'em, for a home of their own. They ain't going to give up if they can help it. You get a man with his back agin the wall, and he'll fight till he drops. I don't need to tell yuh that."

The Happy Family listened to him soberly, their eyes staring broodily at the picture he conjured.

"Well, by golly, we're makin' our last stand, too," Slim blurted with his customary unexpectedness. "Our back's agin the wall right now. If we can't hold 'em back from takin' what little range is left, this outfit's going under. We got to hold 'em, by golly, er there won't be no more Flying U."

"Well," said Andy Green quietly, "that's all right. We're going to hold 'em."

The Old Man lifted his bent head and looked from one to another. Pride shone in his eyes, that had lately stared resentment. "Yuh know, don't yuh, the biggest club they can use?" He leaned forward a little, his lips working under his beard.

"Sure, we know. We'll look out for that." Weary smiled hearteningly.

"We want a good lawyer to draw up those mortgages," put in the Native Son lazily. "And we'll pay eight per cent. interest."

"Doggonedest crazy bunch ever I struck," grumbled the Old Man with grateful insincerity. "What you fellers don't think of, there ain't any use in mentioning. Oh, Dell! Bring out that jug Blake sent me! Doggoned thirsty bunch out here--won't stir a foot till they sample that wine! Got to get rid of 'em somehow--they claim to be full uh business as a jack rabbit is of fleas! When yuh want to git out and round up them cows? Wagon's over on Dry creek som'ers--or ought to be. Yuh might take your soogans and ride ove' there tomorrow or next day and ketch 'em. I'll write a note to Chip and tell 'im what's to be done. And while you're pickin' your bunch you can draw wages just the same as ever, and help them double-dutch blisterin' milk-fed pilgrims with the calf crop."

"We'll sure do that," promised Weary for the bunch. "We can start in the morning, all right."

"Take a taste uh this wine. None of your tobaccojuice stuff; this comes straight from Fresno. Senator Blake sent it the other day. Fill up that glass, Dell! What yuh want to be so doggone stingy fer? Think this bunch uh freaks are going to stand for that? They can't git the taste outa less'n a pint. This ain't any doggone liver-tonic like you dope out."

The Little Doctor smiled understandingly and filled their glasses with the precious wine from sunland. She did not know what had happened, but she did know that the Old Man had seized another hand-hold on life in the last hour, and she was grateful. She even permitted the Kid to take a tiny sip, just because the Happy Family hated to see him refused anything he wanted.

So Flying U coulee was for the time being filled with the same old laughter and the same atmosphere of care-free contentment with life. The Countess stewed uncomplainingly in the kitchen, cooking dinner for the boys. The Old Man grumbled hypocritically at them from his big chair, and named their faults in the tone that transmuted them into virtues. The Little Doctor heard about Miss Allen and her three partners, who were building a four-room shack on the four corners of four claims, and how Irish had been caught more than once in the act of staring fixedly in the direction of that shack. She heard a good many things, and she guessed a good many more.

By mid afternoon the Old Man was fifty per cent brighter and better than he had been in the morning, and he laughed and bullied them as of old. When they left he told them to clear out and stay out, and that if he caught them hanging around his ranch, and making it look as if he were backing them and trying to defraud the government, he'd sic the dog onto them. Which tickled the Kid immensely, because there wasn't any dog to sic.