Part Three
Chapter XVI
 

The sawmill lay on the direct trail to the back country. Every man headed for the big mountains by way of Sycamore Flats passed fairly through the settlement itself. So every cattleman out after provisions or stock salt, followed by his docile string of pack mules, paused to swap news and gossip with whoever happened for the moment to have leisure for such an exchange.

The variety poured through this funnel of the mountains comprised all classes. Professional prospectors with their burros, ready alike for the desert or the most inaccessible crags, were followed by a troupe of college boys afoot leading one or two old mares as baggage transportation. The business-like, semi-military outfits of geological survey parties, the worn but substantial hunters' equipments, the marvellous and oftentimes ridiculous luxury affected by the wealthy camper, the makeshifts of the poorer ranchmen of the valley, out with their entire families and the farm stock for a "real good fish," all these were of never-failing interest to Bob. In fact, he soon discovered that the one absorbing topic--outside of bears, of course--was the discussion, the comparison and the appraising of the various items of camping equipment. He also found each man amusingly partisan for his own. There were schools advocating--heatedly--the merits respectively of the single or double cinch, of the Dutch oven or the reflector, of rawhide or canvas kyacks, of sleeping bags or blankets. Each man had invented some little kink of his own without which he could not possibly exist. Some of these kinks were very handy and deserved universal adoption, such as a small rubber tube with a flattened brass nozzle with which to encourage reluctant fires. Others expressed an individual idiosyncrasy only; as in the case of the man who carried clothes hooks to screw into the trees. A man's method of packing was also closely watched. Each had his own favourite hitch. The strong preponderance seemed to be in favour of the Diamond, both single and double, but many proved strongly addicted to the Lone Packer, or the Basco, or the Miners', or the Square, or even the generally despised Squaw, and would stoutly defend their choices, and give reasons therefore. Bob sometimes amused himself practising these hitches in miniature by means of a string, a bent nail, and two folded handkerchiefs as packs. After many trials, and many lapses of memory, he succeeded on all but the Double Diamond. Although apparently he followed every move, the result was never that beautiful all-over tightening at the last pull. He reluctantly concluded that on this point he must have instruction.

Although rarely a day went by during the whole season that one or more parties did not pass through, or camp over night at the Meadow Lake, it was a fact that, after passing Baldy, these hundreds could scatter so far through the labyrinth of the Sierras that in a whole summer's journeying they were extremely unlikely to see each other--or indeed any one else, save when they stumbled on one of the established cow camps. The vastness of the California mountains cannot be conveyed to one who has not travelled them. Men have all summer pastured illegally thousands of head of sheep undiscovered, in spite of the fact that rangers and soldiers were out looking for them. One may journey diligently throughout the season, and cover but one corner of the three great maps that depict about one-half of them. If one wills he can, to all intents and purposes, become sole and undisputed master of kingdoms in extent. He can occupy beautiful valleys miles long, guarded by cliffs rising thousands of feet, threaded by fish-haunted streams, spangled with fair, flower-grown lawns, cool with groves of trees, neck high in rich feed. Unless by sheer chance, no one will disturb his solitude. Of course he must work for his kingdom. He must press on past the easy travel, past the wide cattle country of the middle elevations, into the splintered, frowning granite and snow, over the shoulders of the mighty peaks of the High Sierras. Nevertheless, the reward is sure for the hardy voyager.

Most men, however, elect to spend their time in the easier middle ground. There the elevations run up to nine or ten thousand feet; the trails are fairly well defined and travelled; the streams are full of fish; meadows are in every moist pocket; the great box canons and peaks of the spur ranges offer the grandeur of real mountain scenery.

From these men, as they ended their journeys on the way out, came tales and rumours. There was no doubt whatever that the country had too many cattle in it. That was brought home to each and every man by the scarcity of horse feed on meadows where usually an abundance for everybody was to be expected. The cattle were thin and restless. It was unsafe to leave a camp unprotected; the half-wild animals trampled everything into the ground. The cattlemen, of whatever camp, appeared sullen and suspicious of every comer.

"It's mighty close to a cattle war," said one old lean and leathery individual to Bob; "I know, for I been thar. Used to run cows in Montana. I hear everywhar talk about Wright's cattle dyin' in mighty funny ways. I know that's so, for I seen a slather of dead cows myself. Some of 'em fall off cliffs; some seem to have broke their legs. Some bogged down. Some look like to have just laid down and died."

"Well, if they're weak from loss of feed, isn't that natural?" asked Bob.

"Wall," said the old cowman, "in the first place, they're pore, but they ain't by no means weak. But the strange part is that these yere accidents always happens to Wright's cattle."

He laughed and added:

"The carcasses is always so chawed up by b'ar and coyote--or at least that's what they say done it--that you can't sw'ar as to how they did come to die. But I heard one funny thing. It was over at the Pollock boys' camp. Shelby, Wright's straw boss, come ridin' in pretty mad, and made a talk about how it's mighty cur'ous only Wright's cattle is dyin'.

"'It shorely looks like the country is unhealthy for plains cattle,' says George Pollock; 'ours is brought up in the hills.'

"'Well,' says Shelby, 'if I ever comes on one of these accidents a-happenin', I'll shore make some one hard to catch!'

"'Some one's likely one of these times to make you almighty easy to catch!' says George.

"Now," concluded the old cattleman, "folks don't make them bluffs for the sake of talkin' at a mark--not in this country."

Nevertheless, in spite of that prediction, the summer passed without any personal clash. The cattle came out from the mountains rather earlier than usual, gaunt, wiry, active. They were in fine shape, as far as health was concerned; but absolutely unfit, as they then stood, for beef. The Simeon Wright herds were first, thousands of them, in charge of many cowboys and dogs. The punchers were a reckless, joyous crew, skylarking in anticipation of the towns of the plains. They kissed their hands and waved their hats at all women, old and young, in the mill settlement; they played pranks on each other; they charged here and there on their wiry ponies, whirling to right and left, 'turning on a ten-cent piece,' throwing their animals from full speed to a stand, indulging in the cowboys' spectacular 'flash riding' for the sheer joy of it. The leading cattle, eager with that strange instinct that, even early in the fall, calls all ruminants from good mountain feed to the brown lower country, pressed forward, their necks outstretched, their eyes fixed on some distant vision. Their calls blended into an organ note. Occasionally they broke into a little trot. At such times the dogs ran forward, yelping, to turn them back into their appointed way. At an especially bad break to right or left one or more of the men would dash to the aid of the dogs, riding with a splendid recklessness through the timber, over fallen trees, ditches, rocks, boulders and precipitous hills. The dust rose chokingly. At the rear of the long procession plodded the old, the infirm, the cripples and the young calves. Three or four men rode compactly behind this rear guard, urging it to keep up. Their means of persuasion were varied. Quirts, ropes, rattles made of tin cans and pebbles, strong language were all used in turn and simultaneously. Long after the multitude had passed, the vast and composite voice of it reechoed through the forest; the dust eddied and swirled among the trees.

The mountain men's cattle, on the other hand, came out sullenly, in herds of a few hundred head. There was more barking of dogs; more scurrying to and fro of mounted men, for small bands are more difficult to drive than large ones. There were no songs, no boisterous high spirits, no flash riding. In contrast to the plains cowboys, even the herders' appearance was poor. They wore blue jeans overalls, short jeans jumpers, hats floppy and all but disintegrated by age and exposure to the elements. Wright's men, being nothing but cowboys, without other profession, ties or interests, gave more attention to details of professional equipment. Their wide hats were straight of brim and generally encircled by a leather or hair or snakeskin band; their shirts were loose; they wore handkerchiefs around their necks, and oiled leather "chaps" on their legs. Their distinguishing and especial mark, however, was their boots. These were made of soft leather, were elaborately stitched or embroidered in patterns, possessed exaggeratedly wide and long straps like a spaniel's ears, and were mounted on thin soles and very high heels. They were footwear such as no mountain man, nor indeed any man who might ever be required to go a mile afoot, would think of wearing. The little herds trudged down the mountains. While the plainsmen anticipated easy duty, the pleasures of the town, fenced cattle growing fat on alfalfa raised during the summer by irrigation, these sober-faced mountaineers looked forward to a winter range much depleted, a market closed against such wiry, active animals as they herded, and an impossibility of rounding into shape for sale any but a few old cows.

"If it wasn't for this new shake-up," said Jim Pollock, "I'd shore be gettin' discouraged. But if they keep out Simeon Wright's cattle this spring, we'll be all right. It's cost us money, though."

"A man with a wife and child can't afford to lose money," said George Pollock.

Jim laughed.

"You and your new kid!" he mocked. "No, I suppose he can't. Neither can a man with a wife and six children. But I reckon we'll be all right as long as there's a place to crawl under when it rains."