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Duke of Chimney Butte, The

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<SPAN name="Page_130" id="Page_130">[Pg 130]</SPAN></span> <br /> <hr /> <br /> <h2>CHAPTER X</h2> <h3>GUESTS OF THE BOSS LADY</h3> <br /> <p>Vesta rode out to meet them as they were coming back, to make sure of her thanks. She was radiant with gratitude, and at no loss any longer for words to express it. Before they had ridden together on the return journey half a mile, Taterleg felt that he had known her all her life, and was ready to cast his fortunes with her, win or lose.</p> <p>Lambert was leaving the conversation between her and Taterleg, for the greater part. He rode in gloomy isolation, like a man with something on his mind, speaking only when spoken to, and then as shortly as politeness would permit. Taterleg, who had words enough for a book, appeared to feel the responsibility of holding them up to the level of gentlemen and citizens of the world. Not if talk could prevent it would Taterleg allow them to be classed as a pair of boors who could not go beyond the <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_131" id="Page_131">[Pg 131]</SPAN></span>ordinary cow-puncher's range in word and thought.</p> <p>"It'll be some time, ma'am, before that feller Hargus and his boy'll try to make a short cut to Glendora through your ranch ag'in," said he.</p> <p>"It was the first time they were ever caught, after old man Hargus had been cutting our fence for years, Mr. Wilson. I can't tell you how much I owe you for humiliating them where they thought the humiliation would be on my side."</p> <p>"Don't you mention it, ma'am; it's the greatest pleasure in the world."</p> <p>"He thought he'd come by the house and look in the window and defy me because I was alone."</p> <p>"He's got a mean eye; he's got a eye like a wolf."</p> <p>"He's got a wolf's habits, too, in more ways than one, Mr. Wilson."</p> <p>"Yes, that man'd steal calves, all right."</p> <p>"We've never been able to prove it on him, Mr. Wilson, but you've put your finger on Mr. Hargus' weakness like a phrenologist."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_132" id="Page_132">[Pg 132]</SPAN></span>Taterleg felt his oats at this compliment. He sat up like a major, his chest out, his mustache as big on his thin face as a Mameluke's. It always made Lambert think of the handlebars on that long-horn safety bicycle that he came riding into the Bad Lands.</p> <p>"The worst part of it is, Mr. Wilson, that he's not the only one."</p> <p>"Neighbors livin' off of you, are they? Yes, that's the way it was down in Texas when the big ranches begun to fence, they tell me&mdash;I never was there, ma'am, and I don't know of my own knowledge and belief, as the lawyers say. Fence-ridin' down there in them days was a job where a man took his life in both hands and held it up to be shot at."</p> <p>"There's been an endless fight on this ranch, too. It's been a strain and a struggle from the first day, not worth it, not worth half of it. But father put the best years of his life into it, and established it where men boasted it couldn't be done. I'm not going to let them whip me now."</p> <p>Lambert looked at her with a quick gleam of admiration in his eyes. She was riding between him and Taterleg, as easy in their company, <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_133" id="Page_133">[Pg 133]</SPAN></span>and as natural as if she had known them for years. There had been no heights of false pride or consequence for her to descend to the comradeship of these men, for she was as unaffected and ingenuous as they. Lambert seemed to wake to a sudden realization of this. His interest in her began to grow, his reserve to fall away.</p> <p>"They told us at Glendora that rustlers were running your cattle off," said he. "Are they taking the stragglers that get through where the fence is cut, or coming after them?"</p> <p>"They're coming in and running them off almost under our eyes. I've only got one man on the ranch beside Ananias; nobody riding fence at all but myself. It takes me a good while to ride nearly seventy miles of fence."</p> <p>"Yes, that's so," Lambert seemed to reflect. "How many head have you got in this pasture?"</p> <p>"I ought to have about four thousand, but they're melting away like snow, Mr. Lambert."</p> <p>"We saw a bunch of 'em up there where them fellers cut the fence," Taterleg put in, not to be left out of the game which he had <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_134" id="Page_134">[Pg 134]</SPAN></span>started and kept going single-handed so long; "white-faced cattle, like they've got in Kansas."</p> <p>"Ours&mdash;mine are all white-faced. They stand this climate better than any other."</p> <p>"It must have been a bunch of strays we saw&mdash;none of them was branded," Lambert said.</p> <p>"Father never would brand his calves, for various reasons, the humane above all others. I never blamed him after seeing it done once, and I'm not going to take up the barbarous practice now. All other considerations aside, it ruins a hide, you know, Mr. Lambert."</p> <p>"It seems to me you'd better lose the hide than the calf, Miss Philbrook."</p> <p>"It does make it easy for thieves, and that's the only argument in favor of branding. While we've&mdash;I've got the only white-faced herd in this country, I can't go into court and prove my property without a brand, once the cattle are run outside of this fence. So they come in and take them, knowing they're safe unless they're caught."</p> <p>Lambert fell silent again. The ranchhouse <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_135" id="Page_135">[Pg 135]</SPAN></span>was in sight, high on its peninsula of prairie, like a lighthouse seen from sea.</p> <p>"It's a shame to let that fine herd waste away like that," he said, ruminatively, as if speaking to himself.</p> <p>"It's always been hard to get help here; cowboys seem to think it's a disgrace to ride fence. Such as we've been able to get nearly always turned out thieves on their own account in the end. The one out with the cattle now is a farm boy from Iowa, afraid of his shadow."</p> <p>"They didn't want no fence in here in the first place&mdash;that's what set their teeth ag'in' you," Taterleg said.</p> <p>"If I could only get some real men once," she sighed; "men who could handle them like you boys did this morning. Even father never seemed to understand where to take hold of them to hurt them, the way you do."</p> <p>They were near the house now. Lambert rode on a little way in silence. Then:</p> <p>"It's a shame to let that herd go to pieces," he said.</p> <p>"It's a sin!" Taterleg declared.</p> <p>She dropped her reins, looking from one to <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_136" id="Page_136">[Pg 136]</SPAN></span>the other, an eager appeal in her hopeful face.</p> <p>"Why can't you boys stop here a while and help me out?" she asked, saying at last in a burst of hopeful eagerness what had been in her heart to say from the first. She held out her hand to each of them in a pretty way of appeal, turning from one to the other, her gray eyes pleading.</p> <p>"I hate to see a herd like that broken up by thieves, and all of your investment wasted," said the Duke, thoughtfully, as if considering it deeply.</p> <p>"It's a sin <i>and</i> a shame!" said Taterleg.</p> <p>"I guess we'll stay and give you a hand," said the Duke.</p> <p>She pulled her horse up short, and gave him, not a figurative hand, but a warm, a soft and material one, from which she pulled her buckskin glove as if to level all thought or suggestion of a barrier between them. She turned then and shook hands with Taterleg, warming him so with her glowing eyes that he patted her hand a little before he let it go, in manner truly patriarchal.</p> <p>"You're all right, you're <i>all</i> right," he said.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_137" id="Page_137">[Pg 137]</SPAN></span>Once pledged to it, the Duke was anxious to set his hand to the work that he saw cut out for him on that big ranch. He was like a physician who had entered reluctantly into a case after other practitioners had left the patient in desperate condition. Every moment must be employed if disaster to that valuable herd was to be averted.</p> <p>Vesta would hear of nothing but that they come first to the house for dinner. So the guests did the best they could at improving their appearance at the bunkhouse after turning their horses over to the obsequious Ananias, who appeared with a large bandage, and a strong smell of turpentine, on his bruised head.</p> <p>Beyond brushing off the dust of the morning's ride there was little to be done. Taterleg brought out his brightest necktie from the portable possessions rolled up in his slicker; the Duke produced his calfskin vest. There was not a coat between them to save the dignity of their profession at the boss lady's board. Taterleg's green-velvet waistcoat had suffered damage during the winter when a spark from his pipe burned a hole in it as big as a dollar. He held <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_138" id="Page_138">[Pg 138]</SPAN></span>it up and looked at it, concluding in the end that it would not serve.</p> <p>With his hairy chaps off, Taterleg did not appear so bow-legged, but he waddled like a crab as they went toward the house to join the companion of their ride. The Duke stopped on the high ground near the house, turned, looked off over the great pasture that had been Philbrook's battle ground for so many years.</p> <p>"One farmer from Iowa out there to watch four thousand cattle, and thieves all around him! Eatin' looks like burnin' daylight to me."</p> <p>"She'd 'a' felt hurt if we'd 'a' shied off from her dinner, Duke. You know a man's got to eat when he ain't hungry and drink when he ain't dry sometimes in this world to keep up appearances."</p> <p>"Appearances!" The Duke looked him over with humorous eye, from his somewhat clean sombrero to his capacious corduroy trousers gathered into his boot tops. "Oh, well, I guess it's all right."</p> <p>Vesta was in excellent spirits, due to the broadening of her prospects, which had appeared so narrow and unpromising but a few <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_139" id="Page_139">[Pg 139]</SPAN></span>hours before. One of this pair, she believed, was worth three ordinary men. She asked them about their adventures, and the Duke solemnly assured her that they never had experienced any.</p> <p>Taterleg, loquacious as he might be on occasion, knew when to hold his tongue. Lambert led her away from that ground into a discussion of her own affairs, and conditions as they stood between her neighbors and herself.</p> <p>"Nick Hargus is one of the most persistent offenders, and we might as well dispose of him first, since you've met the old wretch and know what he's like on the outside," she explained. "Hargus was in the cattle business in a hand-to-mouth way when we came here, and he raised a bigger noise than anybody else about our fences, claiming we'd cut him off from water, which wasn't true. We didn't cut anybody off from the river.</p> <p>"Hargus is married to an Indian squaw, a little old squat, black-faced thing as mean as a snake. They've got a big brood of children, that boy you saw this morning is the senior of the gang. Old Hargus usually harbors two or three cattle thieves, horse thieves or other <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_140" id="Page_140">[Pg 140]</SPAN></span>crooks of that kind, some of them just out of the pen, some preparing their way to it. He does a sort of general rustling business, with this ranch as his main source of supply. We've had a standing fight on with him ever since we came here, but today was the first time, as I told you, that he ever was caught.</p> <p>"You heard what he said about cutting the fence this morning. That's the attitude of the country all around. You couldn't convict a man for cutting a fence in this country. So all a person can do is shoot them if you catch them at it. I don't know what Hargus will do to get even with this morning's humiliation."</p> <p>"I think he'll leave that fence alone like it was charged with lightnin'," Taterleg said.</p> <p>"He'll try to turn something; he's wily and vindictive."</p> <p>"He needs a chunk of lead about the middle of his appetite," Taterleg declared.</p> <p>"Who comes next?" Lambert inquired.</p> <p>"There's a man they call Walleye Bostian&mdash;his regular name is Jesse&mdash;on the farther end of this place that's troubled with a case of incurable resentment against a barbed-wire fence. <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_141" id="Page_141">[Pg 141]</SPAN></span>He's a sheepman, one of the last that would do a lawless deed, you'd think, from the look of him, but he's mean to the roots of his hair."</p> <p>"All sheepmen's onery, ma'am, they tell me," said Taterleg, a cowman now from core to rind, and loyal to his calling accordingly.</p> <p>"I don't know about the rest of them, but Walleye Bostian is a mighty mean sheepman. Well, I know I got a shot at him once that he'll remember."</p> <p>"<i>You</i> did?" Taterleg's face was as bright as a dishpan with admiration. He chuckled in his throat, eying the Duke slantingly to see how he took that piece of news.</p> <p>The Duke sat up a little stiffer, his face grew a shade more serious, and that was all the change in him that Taterleg could see.</p> <p>"I hope we can take that kind of work off your hands in the future, Miss Philbrook," he said, his voice slow and grave.</p> <p>She lifted her grateful eyes with a look of appreciation that seemed to him overpayment for a service proposed, rather than done. She went on, then, with a description of her interesting neighbors.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_142" id="Page_142">[Pg 142]</SPAN></span>"This ranch is a long, narrow strip, only about three miles wide by twenty deep, the river at this end of it, Walleye Bostian at the other. Along the sides there are various kinds of reptiles in human skin, none of them living within four or five miles of our fences, the average being much farther than that, for people are not very plentiful right around here.</p> <p>"On the north of us Hargus is the worst, on the south a man named Kerr. Kerr is the biggest single-handed cattleman around here. His one grievance against us is that we shut a creek that he formerly used along inside our fences that forced him to range down to the river for water. As the creek begins and ends on our land&mdash;it empties into the river about a mile above here&mdash;it's hard for an unbiased mind to grasp Kerr's point of objection."</p> <p>"Have you ever taken a shot at him?" the Duke asked, smiling a little dry smile.</p> <p>"No-o," said she reflectively, "not at Kerr himself. Kerr is what is usually termed a gentleman; that is, he's a man of education and wears his beard cut like a banker's, but his methods of carrying on a feud are extremely <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_143" id="Page_143">[Pg 143]</SPAN></span>low. Fighting is beneath his dignity, I guess; he hires it done."</p> <p>"You've seen some fightin' in your time, ma'am," Taterleg said.</p> <p>"Too much of it," she sighed wearily. "I've had a shot at his men more than once, but there are one or two in that Kerr family I'd like to sling a gun down on!"</p> <p>It was strange to hear that gentle-mannered, refined girl talk of fighting as if it were the commonest of everyday business. There was no note of boasting, no color of exaggeration in her manner. She was as natural and sincere as the calm breeze, coming in through the open window, and as wholesome and pure. There was not a doubt of that in the mind of either of the men at the table with her. Their admiration spoke out of their eyes.</p> <p>"When you've had to fight all your life," she said, looking up earnestly into Lambert's face, "it makes you old before your time, and quick-tempered and savage, I suppose, even when you fight in self-defense. I used to ride fence when I was fourteen, with a rifle across my saddle, and I wouldn't have thought any more of shooting <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_144" id="Page_144">[Pg 144]</SPAN></span>a man I saw cutting our fence or running off our cattle than I would a rabbit."</p> <p>She did not say what her state of mind on that question was at present, but it was so plainly expressed in her flushed cheeks and defiant eyes that it needed no words.</p> <p>"If you'd 'a' had your gun on you this morning when them fellers knocked that old coon down I bet there'd 'a' been a funeral due over at old Hargus' ranch," said Taterleg.</p> <p>"I'd saddled up to go to the post office; I never carry a gun with me when I go to Glendora," she said.</p> <p>"A country where a lady has to carry a gun at all ain't no country to speak of. It needs cleanin' up, ma'am, that's what it needs."</p> <p>"It surely does, Mr. Wilson: you've got it sized up just right."</p> <p>"Well, Taterleg, I guess we'd better be hittin' the breeze," the Duke suggested, plainly uneasy between the duty of courtesy and the long lines of unguarded fence.</p> <p>Taterleg could not accustom himself to that extraordinary bunkhouse when they returned to it, on such short time. He walked about in <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_145" id="Page_145">[Pg 145]</SPAN></span>it, necktie in his hand, looking into its wonders, marveling over its conveniences.</p> <p>"It's just like a regular human house," said he.</p> <p>There was a bureau with a glass to it in every room, and there were rooms for several men. The Duke and Taterleg stowed away their slender belongings in the drawers and soon were ready for the saddle. As he put the calfskin vest away, the Duke took out the little handkerchief, from which the perfume of faint violet had faded long ago, and pressed it tenderly against his cheek.</p> <p>"You'll wait on me a little while longer, won't you?" he asked.</p> <p>Then he laid it away between the folds of his remarkable garment very carefully, and went out, his slicker across his arm, to take up his life in that strip of contention and strife between Vesta Philbrook's far-reaching wire fences.</p> <br /> <br /> <br /><span class='pagenum'>
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