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CHAPTER IX. THE DRIFT OF THE HERDS
Weeks slipped by, and to Thurston they seemed but days. His
world-weariness and cynicism disappeared the first time he met Mona after
he had left there so unceremoniously; for Mona, not being aware of his
cynicism, received him on the old, friendly footing, and seemed to have
quite forgotten that she had ever called him a coward, or refused to marry
him. So Thurston forgot it also—so long as he was with her.
How he filled in the hours he could scarcely have told; certain it is that
he accomplished nothing at all so far as Western stories were concerned.
Reeve-Howard wrote in slightly shocked phrases to ask what was keeping him
so long; and assured him that he was missing much by staying away.
Thurston mentally agreed with him long enough to begin packing his trunk;
it was idiotic to keep staying on when he was clearly receiving no benefit
thereby. When, however, he picked up a book which he had told Mona he
would take over to her the next time he went, he stopped and considered:
There was the Wagner trial coming off in a month or so; he couldn't get
out of attending it, for he had been subpoenaed as a witness for the
prosecution. And there was the beef roundup going to start before long—he
really ought to stay and take that in; there would be some fine chances
for pictures. And really he didn't care so much for the Barry Wilson bunch
and the long list of festivities which trailed ever in its wake; at any
rate, they weren't worth rushing two-thirds across the continent for.
He sat down and wrote at length to Reeve-Howard, explaining very carefully—and
not altogether convincingly—just why he could not possibly go home
at present. After that he saddled and rode over to the Stevens place with
the book, leaving his trunk yawning emptily in the middle of his badly
After that he spent three weeks on the beef roundup. At first he was full
of enthusiasm, and worked quite as if he had need of the wages, but after
two or three big drives the novelty wore off quite suddenly, and nothing
then remained but a lot of hard work. For instance, standing guard on
long, rainy nights when the cattle walked and walked might at first seem
picturesque and all that, but must at length, cease to be amusing.
Likewise the long hours which he spent on day-herd, when the wind was raw
and penetrating and like to blow him out of the saddle; also standing at
the stockyard chutes and forcing an unwilling stream of rollicky,
wild-eyed steers up into the cars that would carry them to Chicago.
After three weeks of it he awoke one particularly nasty morning and
thanked the Lord he was not obliged to earn his bread at all, to say
nothing of earning it in so distressful a fashion. There was a lull in the
shipping because cars were not then available. He promptly took advantage
of it and rode by the very shortest trail to the ranch—and Mona. But
Mona was visiting friends in Chinook, and there was no telling when she
would return. Thurston, in the next few days, owned to himself that there
was no good reason for his tarrying longer in the big, un-peopled West,
and that the proper thing for him to do was go back home to New York.
He had come to stay a month, and he had stayed five. He could ride and
rope like an old-timer, and he was well qualified to put up a stiff
gun-fight had the necessity ever arisen—which it had not.
He had three hundred and seventy-one pictures of different phases of range
life, not counting as many that were over-exposed or under-exposed or out
of focus. He had six unfinished stories, in each of which the heroine had
big, blue-gray eyes and crimply hair, and the title and bare skeleton of a
seventh, in which the same sort of eyes and hair would probably develop
later. He had proposed to Mona three times, and had been three times
rebuffed—though not, it must be owned, with that tone of finality
which precludes hope.
He was tanned a fine brown, which became him well. His eyes had lost the
dreamy, introspective look of the student and author, and had grown keen
with the habit of studying objects at long range. He walked with that
peculiar, stiff-legged gait which betrays long hours spent in the saddle,
and he wore a silk handkerchief around his neck habitually and had
forgotten the feel of a dress-suit.
He answered to the name "Bud" more readily than to his own, and he made
practical use of the slang and colloquialisms of the plains without any
mental quotation marks.
By all these signs and tokens he had learned his West, and should have
taken himself back to civilization when came the frost. He had come to get
into touch with his chosen field of fiction, that he might write as one
knowing whereof he spoke. So far as he had gone, he was in touch with it;
he was steeped to the eyes in local color—and there was the rub The
lure of it was strong upon him, and he might not loosen its hold. He was
the son of his father; he had found himself, and knew that, like him, he
loved best to travel the dim trails.
Gene Wasson came in and slammed the door emphatically shut after him.
"She's sure coming," he complained, while he pulled the icicles from his
mustache and cast them into the fire. "She's going to be a real, old
howler by the signs. What yuh doing, Bud? Writing poetry?"
Thurston nodded assent with certain mental reservations; so far the
editors couldn't seem to make up their minds that it was poetry.
"Well, say, I wish you'd slap in a lot uh things about hazy, lazy, daisy
days in the spring—that jingles fine!—and green grass and the
sun shining and making the hills all goldy yellow, and prairie dogs
chip-chip-chipping on the 'dobe flats. (Prairie dogs would go all right in
poetry, wouldn't they? They're sassy little cusses, and I don't know of
anything that would rhyme with 'em, but maybe you do.) And read it all out
to me after supper. Maybe it'll make me kinda forget there's a blizzard
"Another one?" Thurston got up to scratch a trench in the half-inch layer
of frost on the cabin window. "Why, it only cleared up this morning after
three days of it."
"Can't help that. This is just another chapter uh that same story. When
these here Klondike Chinooks gets to lapping over each other they never
know when to quit. Every darn one has got to be continued tacked onto the
tail of it the winter. All the difference is, you can't read the writing;
but I can."
"I've got some mail for yuh, Bud. And old Hank wanted me to ask yuh if
you'd like to go to Glasgow next Thursday and watch old Lauman start the
Wagner boys for wherever's hot enough. He can get yuh in, you being in the
writing business. He says to tell yuh it's a good chance to take notes, so
yuh can write a real stylish story, with lots uh murder and sudden death
in it. We don't hang folks out here very often, and yuh might have to go
back East after pointers, if yuh pass this up."
"Oh, go easy. It turns me sick when I think about it; how they looked when
they got their sentence, and all that. I certainly don't care to see them
hanged, though they do deserve it. Where are the letters?" Thurston
sprawled across the table for them. One was from Reeve-Howard; he put it
by. Another had a printed address in the corner—an address that
started his pulse a beat or two faster; for he had not yet reached that
blase stage where he could receive a personal letter from one of the
"Eight Leading" without the flicker of an eye-lash. He still gloated over
his successes, and was cast into the deeps by his failures.
He held the envelope to the light, shook it tentatively, like any woman,
guessed hastily and hopefully at the contents, and tore off an end
impatiently. From the great fireplace Gene watched him curiously and half
enviously. He wished he could get important-looking letters from New York
every few days. It must make a fellow feel that he amounted to something.
"Gene, you remember that story I read to you one night—that yarn
about the fellow that lived alone in the hills, and how the wolves used to
come and sit on the ridge and howl o' nights—you know, the one you
said was 'out uh sight'? They took it, all right, and—here, what do
you think of that?" He tossed the letter over to Gene, who caught it just
as it was about to be swept into the flame with the draught in Thurston,
in the days which he spent one of the half-dozen Lazy Eight line-camps
with Gene, down by the river, had been writing of the West—writing
in fear and trembling, for now he knew how great was his subject and his
ignorance of it. In the long evenings, while the fire crackled and the
flames played a game they had invented, a game where they tried which
could leap highest up the great chimney; while the north wind whoo-ooed
around the eaves and fine, frozen snow meal swished against the one little
window; while shivering, drifting range cattle tramped restlessly through
the sparse willow-growth seeking comfort where was naught but cold and
snow and bitter, driving wind; while the gray wolves hunted in packs and
had not long to wait for their supper, Thurston had written better than he
knew. He had sent the cold of the blizzards and the howl of the wolves; he
had sent bits of the wind-swept plains back to New York in long, white
envelopes. And the editors were beginning to watch for his white envelopes
and to seize them eagerly when they came, greedy for what was within. Not
every day can they look upon a few typewritten pages and see the
range-land spread, now frowning, now smiling, before them.
"Gee! they say here they want a lot the same brand, and at any old price
yuh might name. I wouldn't mind writing stories myself." Gene kicked a log
back into the flame where it would do the most good. His big,
square-shouldered figure stood out sharply against the glow.
Thurston, watching him meditatively, wanted to tell him that he was the
sort of whom good stories are made. But for men like Gene—strong,
purposeful, brave, the West would lose half its charm. He was like Bob in
many ways, and for that Thurston liked him and, stayed with him in the
line-camp when he might have been taking his ease at the home ranch.
It was wild and lonely down there between the bare hills and the frozen
river, but the wildness and the loneliness appealed to him. It was
primitive and at times uncomfortable. He slept in a bunk built against the
wall, with hard boards under him and a sod roof over his head. There were
times when the wind blew its fiercest and rattled dirt down into his face
unless he covered it with a blanket. And every other day he had to wash
the dishes and cook, and when it was Gene's turn to cook, Thurston chopped
great armloads of wood for the fireplace to eat o' nights. Also he must
fare forth, wrapped to the eyes, and help Gene drive back the cattle which
drifted into the river bottom, lest they cross the river on the ice and
range where they should not.
But in the evenings he could sit in the fire-glow and listen to the wind
and to the coyotes and the gray wolves, and weave stories that even the
most hyper-critical of editors could not fail to find convincing. By day
he could push the coffee-box that held his typewriter over by the frosted
window—when he had an hour or two to spare—and whang away at a
rate which filled Gene with wonder. Sometimes he rode over to the home
ranch for a day or two, but Mona was away studying music, so he found no
inducement to remain, and drifted back to the little, sod-roofed cabin by
the river, and to Gene.
The winter settled down with bared teeth like a bull-dog, and never a
chinook came to temper the cold and give respite to man or beast.
Blizzards that held them, in fear of their lives, close to shelter for
days, came down from the north; and with them came the drifting herds. By
hundreds they came, hurrying miserably before the storms. When the wind
lashed them without mercy even in the bottom-land, they pushed reluctantly
out upon the snow-covered ice of the Missouri. Then Gene and Thurston
watching from their cabin window would ride out and turn them pitilessly
back into the teeth of the storm.
They came by hundreds—thin, gaunt from cold and hunger. They came by
thousands, lowing their misery as they wandered aimlessly, seeking that
which none might find: food and shelter and warmth for their chilled
bodies. When the Canada herds pushed down upon them the boys gave over
trying to keep them north of the river; while they turned one bunch a
dozen others were straggling out from shore, the timid following single
file behind a leader more venturesome or more desperate than his fellows.
So the march went on and on: big, Southern-bred steer grappling the
problem of his first Northern winter; thin-flanked cow with shivering,
rough-coated calf trailing at her heels; humpbacked yearling with little
nubs of horns telling that he was lately in his calfhood; red cattle,
spotted cattle, white cattle, black cattle; white-faced Herefords,
Short-horns, scrubs; Texas longhorns—of the sort invariably pictured
in stampedes—still they came drifting out of the cold wilderness and
on into wilderness as cold.
Through the shifting wall of the worst blizzard that season Thurston
watched the weary, fruitless, endless march of the range. "Where do they
all come from?" he exclaimed once when the snow-veil lifted and showed the
river black with cattle.
"Lord! I dunno," Gene answered, shrugging his shoulders against the pity
of it. "I seen some brands yesterday that I know belongs up in the Cypress
Hills country. If things don't loosen up pretty soon, the whole darned
range will be swept clean uh stock as far north as cattle run. I'm looking
for reindeer next."
"Something ought to be done," Thurston declared uneasily, turning away
from the sight. "I've had the bellowing of starving cattle in my ears day
and night for nearly a month. The thing's getting on my nerves."
"It's getting on the nerves uh them that own 'em a heap worse," Gene told
him grimly, and piled more wood on the fire; for the cold bit through even
the thick walls of the cabin when the flames in the fireplace died, and
the door hinges were crusted deep with ice. "There's going to be the
biggest loss this range has ever known."
"It's the owners' fault," snapped Thurston, whose nerves were in that
irritable state which calls loudly for a vent of some sort. Even argument
with Gene, fruitless though it perforce must be, would be a relief. "It's
their own fault. I don't pity them any—why don't they take care of
their stock? If I owned cattle, do you think I'd sit in the house and
watch them starve through the winter?"
"What if yuh owned more than yuh could feed? It'd be a case uh have-to
then. There's fifty thousand Lazy Eight cattle walking the range somewhere
today. How the dickens is old Hank going to feed them fifty thousand? or
five thousand? It takes every spear uh hay he's got to feed his calves."
"He could buy hay," Thurston persisted.
"Buy hay for fifty thousand cattle? Where would he get it? Say, Bud, I
guess yuh don't realize that's some cattle. All ails you is, yuh don't
savvy the size uh the thing. I'll bet yuh there won't be less than three
hundred thousand head cross this river before spring."
"Some of them belong in Canada—you said so yourself."
"I know it, but look at all the country south of us: all the other cow
States. Why, Bud, when yuh talk about feeding every critter that runs the
range, you're plumb foolish."
"Anyway, it's a damnable pity!" Thurston asserted petulantly.
"Sure it is. The grass is there, but it's under fourteen inches uh snow
right now, and more coming; they say it's twelve feet deep up in the
mountains. You'll see some great old times in the spring, Bud, if yuh
stay. You will, won't yuh?"
Thurston laughed shortly. "I suppose it's safe to say I will," he
answered. "I ought to have gone last fall, but I didn't. It will probably
be the same thing over again; I ought to go in the spring, but I won't."
"You bet you won't. Talk about big roundups! what yuh seen last spring
wasn't a commencement. Every hoof that crosses this river and lives till
spring will have to be rounded up and brought back again. They'll be
scattered clean down to the Yellowstone, and every Northern outfit has got
to go down and help work the range from there back. I tell yuh, Bud, yuh
want to lay in a car-load uh films and throw away all them little,
jerk-water snap-shots yuh got. There's going to be roundups like these old
Panhandle rannies tell about, when the green grass comes." Gene, thinking
blissfully of the tented life, sprawled his long legs toward the snapping
blaze and crooned dreamily, while without the blizzard raged more
fiercely, a verse from an old camp song:
"Out on the roundup, boys, I tell yuh what yuh get
Little chunk uh bread and a little chunk uh meat;
Little black coffee, boys, chuck full uh alkali,
Dust in your throat, boys, and gravel in your eye!
So polish up your saddles, oil your slickers and your guns,
For we're bound for Lonesome Prairie when the green grass comes."