When came the famine in stock-cars on the Montana Central, and the Flying U herd had grazed for two days within five miles of Dry Lake, waiting for the promised train of empties, Chip Bennett, lately promoted foreman, felt that he had trouble a-plenty. When, short-handed as he was, two of his cowboys went a-spreeing and a-leisuring in town, with their faces turned from honest toil and their hands manipulating pairs and flushes and face-cards, rather than good "grass" ropes, he was positive that his cup was dripping trouble all round the rim.
The delinquents were not "top hands," it is true. They--the Happy Family, of which Jim Whitmore was inordinately proud--would sooner forswear their country than the Flying U. But even two transients of very ordinary ability are missed when they suddenly vanish in shipping time, and Chip, feeling keenly his responsibilities, rode disgustedly into town to reclaim the recreants or pay them off and hire others in their places.
With his temper somewhat roughened by the agent's report that no cars were yet on the way, he clanked into Rusty Brown's place after his deserters. One was laid blissfully out in the little back room, breathing loudly, dead to the world and the exigencies of life; him Chip passed up with a snort of disgust. The other was sitting in a corner, with his hat balanced precariously over his left ear, gazing superciliously upon his fellows and, incidentally, winning everything in sight. He leered up at Chip and fingered ostentatiously his three stacks of blues.
"What'n thunder do I want to go t' camp for?" he demanded, in answer to Chip's suggestion. "Forty dollars a month following your trail don't look good t' me no more. I'm four hundred dollars t' the good sence last night, and takin' all comers. Good money's just fallin' my way. I don't guess I hanker after any more night guardin', thank ye."
"Suit yourself," said Chip coldly, and turned away.
Argument was useless and never to his liking. The problem now was to find two men who could take their places, and that was not so easily solved. A golden-haired, pink-cheeked, blue-eyed young fellow in dainty silk negligee, gray trousers, and russet leather belt, with a panama hat and absurdly small tan shoes, followed him outside.
"If you're looking for men," he announced musically, "I'm open for engagements."
Chip looked down at him tolerantly. "Much obliged, but I'm not getting up a garden-party," he informed him politely, and took a step. He was not in the mood to find amusement in the situation.
The immaculate one showed some dimples that would have been distracting in the face of a woman. "And I ain't looking for a job leading cows to water," he retorted. "Yuh shouldn't judge a man by his clothes, old-timer."
"I don't--a man!" said Chip pointedly. "Run away and play. I'll tell you what, sonny, I'm not running a kindergarten. Every man I hire has got man's work to do. Wait till you're grown up; as it is, you'd last quick on round-up, and that's a fact."
"Oh! it is, eh? Say, did yuh ever hear uh old Eagle Creek Smith, of the Cross L, or Rowdy Vaughan, or a fellow up on Milk River they call Pink?"
"I'd tell a man!" Chip turned toward him again. "At least I've heard of Eagle Creek Smith, and of Pink--bronco-fighter, they say, and a little devil. Why?"
The immaculate one lifted his panama, ran his fingers through his curls, and smiled demurely. "Nothing in particular--only, I'm Pink!"
Chip stared frankly, and measured the slender figure from accurately dented hat-crown to tiny shoe-tips. "Well, yuh sure don't look it," he said bluntly, at length. "Why that elaborate disguise of respectability?"
Pink sat him down on an empty beer case in the shade of the saloon and daintily rolled a cigarette.
"Yuh see, it's like this," he began, in his soft voice. "When the Cross L moved their stock across the line Rowdy Vaughan had charge uh the outfit; and, seeing we're pretty good friends, uh course I went along. I hadn't been over there a month till I had occasion t' thump the daylights out uh one uh them bone-headed grangers that vitiates the atmosphere up there; and I put him all to the bad. So a bunch uh them gaudy buck-policemen rose up and fogged me back across the line; a man has sure got t' turn the other cheek up there, or languish in ga-ol."
Pink brought the last word out as if it did not taste good.
"I hit for the home range, which is Upper Milk River. But it was cussed lonesome with all the old bunch gone; so I sold my outfit and quit cow-punching for good. I wonder if the puncher lives that didn't sell his saddle and bed, and reform at least once in his checkered career!
"I had a fair-sized roll so I took the home trail back to Minnesota, and chewed on the fatted calf all last winter and this summer. It wasn't bad, only the girls run in bunches and are dead anxious to tie up to some male human. I dubbed around and dodged the loop long as I could stand it, and then I drifted.
"I kinda got hungry for the feel of a good horse between m' legs once more. It made me mad to see houses on every decent bed-ground, and fences so thick yuh couldn't get out and fan the breeze if yuh tried. I tell yuh straight, old-timer, last month I was home I plumb wore out mother's clothes-line roping the gate-post. For the Lord's sake, stake me to a string! and I don't give a damn how rough a one it is!"
Chip sat down on a neighboring case and regarded the dapper little figure curiously. Such words, coming from those girlishly rosy lips, with the dimples dodging in and out of his pink cheeks, had an odd effect of unreality. But Pink plainly was in earnest. His eyes behind the dancing light of harmless deviltry, were pleading and wistful as a child.
"You're it!" said Chip relievedly. "You can go right to work. Seems you're the man I've been looking for, only I will say I didn't recognize yuh on sight. We've got a heap of work ahead, and only five decent men in the outfit. It's the Flying U; and these five have worked for the outfit for years."
"I sure savvy that bunch," Pink declared sweetly. "I've heard uh the Happy Family before. Ain't you one uh them?"
Chip grinned reminiscently. "I was," he admitted, a shade of regret in his voice. "Maybe I am yet; only I went up a notch last spring. Got married, and settled down. I'm one of the firm now, so I had to reform and cut out the foolishness. Folks have got to calling the rest the Frivolous Five. They're a pretty nifty bunch, but you'll get on, all right, seeing you're not the pilgrim you look to be. If you were, I'd say: 'The Lord help you!' Got an outfit?"
"Sure. Bought one, brand new, in the Falls. It's over at the hotel now, with a haughty, buckskin-colored suitcase that fair squeals with style and newness." Pink pulled his silver belt-buckle straight and patted his pink-and-blue tie approvingly.
"Well, if you're ready, I'll get the horses these two hoboes rode in, and we'll drift. By the way, how shall I write you on the book?"
Pink stooped and with his handkerchief carefully, wiped the last speck of Dry Lake dust from his shiny toes. "Yuh won't crawfish on me, if I tell yuh?" he inquired anxiously, standing up and adjusting his belt again.
"Of course not." Chip looked his surprise at the question.
"Well, it ain't my fault, but my lawful, legal name is Percival Cadwallader Perkins."
"Percival Cad-wall-ader Perkins. Shall I get yuh something to take with it?"
Chip, with his pencil poised in air, grinned sympathetically. "It's sure a heavy load to carry," he observed solemnly. "How do you spell that second shift?"
Pink told him, spelling the word slowly, syllable by syllable. "Ain't it fierce?" he wanted to know. "My mother must have sure been frivolous and light-minded when I was born. I'm the only boy she ever had, and there was two grandfathers that wanted a kid named after 'em; they sure make a hot combination. Yuh know what Cadwallader means, in the dictionary?"
"Lord, no!" said Chip, putting away his book.
"Battle arranger," Pink told him sadly. "Now, wouldn't that jostle yuh? It's true, too; it has sure arranged a lot uh battles for me. It caused me to lick about six kids a day, and to get licked by a dozen, when I went to school. So, seeing the name was mine, and I couldn't chuck it, I went and throwed in with an ex-pugilist and learned the trade thorough. Since then things come easier. Folks don't open up the subject more'n a dozen times before they take the hint. And this summer I fell in with a ju-jutsu sharp--a college-fed Jap that sure savvied things a white man never dreams except in nightmares. I set at his feet all summer learning wisdom. I ain't afraid now to wear my name on my hatband."
"Still, I wouldn't," said Chip dryly. "Hike over and get the haughty new war-bag, and we'll hit the sod. I've got to be in camp by dinner-time."
A mile out Pink looked down at his festal garments and smiled. "I expect I'll be pickings for your Happy Family when they see me in these war-togs," he remarked.
Chip turned and regarded him meditatively for a minute. "I was just wondering," he said slowly, "if the Happy Family wouldn't be pickings for you."
Pink dimpled wickedly and said nothing.
The Happy Family were at dinner when Chip and Pink rode up and dismounted by the bed-tent. Chip and Pink went over to where the others were sitting in various places and attitudes, and the Happy Family received them, not with the nudges and winks one might justly expect, but with decorous silence.
Chip got plate, knife, fork, and spoon and started for the stove.
"Help yourself to the tools, and then come over here and fill up," he invited Pink, over his shoulder. "We don't stand on ceremony here. May look queer to you at first, but you'll get used to it."
The Happy Family pricked up its ears and looked guardedly at one another. This wasn't a chance visitor, then; he was going to work!
Weary, sitting cross-legged in the shade of a wagon-wheel looked up at Pink, fumbling shyly among the knives and forks, and with deceitful innocence he whistled absently:
Oh, tell me, pretty maiden, Are there any more at home like you?
Pink glanced at him quickly, then at the solemn faces of the others, and retreated hastily inside the tent, where was Chip; and every man of them knew the stranger had caught Weary's meaning. They smiled discreetly at their plates and said nothing.
Pink came out with heaped plate and brimming cup, and retired diffidently to the farthest bit of shade he could find, which brought him close to Cal Emmett. He sat down gingerly so as not to spill anything.
"Going to work for the outfit?" asked Cal politely.
"Yes, sir; the overseer gave me a position," answered Pink sweetly, in his soft treble. "I just came to town this morning. Is it very hard work?"
"Yeah, it sure is," said Cal plaintively, between bites. "What with taming wild broncos and trying to keep the cattle from stampeding, our shining hours are sure improved a lot. It's a hard, hard life." He sighed deeply and emptied his cup of coffee.
"I--I thought I'd like it," ventured Pink wistfully.
"It's dead safe to prognosticate yuh won't a little bit. None of us like it. I never saw a man with soul so vile that he did."
"Why don't you give it up, then, and get a position at something else?" Pink's eyes looked wide and wistful over the rim of his cup.
"Can't. We're most of us escaped desperadoes with a price on our heads." Cal shook his own lugubriously. "We're safer here than we would be anywhere else. If a posse showed up, or we got wind of one coming, there's plenty uh horses and saddles to make a getaway. We'd just pick out a drifter and split the breeze. We can keep on the dodge a long time, working on round-up, and earn a little money at the same time, so when we do have to fly we won't be dead broke."
"Oh!" Pink looked properly impressed. "If it isn't too personal--er--is there a--that is, are you----"
"An outlaw?" Cal assisted. "I sure am--and then some. I'm wanted for perjury in South Dakota, manslaughter in Texas, and bigamy in Utah. I'm all bad."
"Oh, I hope not!" Pink looked distressed. "I'm very sorry," he added simply, "and I hope the posses won't chase you."
Cal shook his head very, very gravely. "You can't most always tell," he declared gloomily. "I expect I'll have an invite to a necktie-party some day."
"I've been to necktie-parties myself." Pink brightened visibly. "I don't like them; you always get the wrong girl."
"I don't like 'em, either," agreed Cal. "I'm always afraid the wrong necktie will be mine. Were you ever lynched?"
Pink moved uneasily. "I--I don't remember that I ever was," he answered guardedly.
"I was. My gang come along and cut me down just as I was about all in. I was leading a gang----"
"Excuse me a minute," Pink interrupted hurriedly. "I think the overseer is motioning for me."
He hastened over to where Chip was standing alone, and asked if he should change his clothes and get ready to go to work.
Chip told him it wouldn't be a bad idea, and Pink, carrying his haughty suit-case and another bulky bundle, disappeared precipitately into the bed-tent.
"By golly!" spoke up Slim, "it looks good enough to eat."
"Where did yuh pluck that modest flower, Chip?" Jack Bates wanted to know.
Chip calmly sifted some tobacco in a paper. "I picked it in town," he told them. "I hired it to punch cows, and its name is--wait a minute." He put away the tobacco sack, got out his book, and turned the leaves. "Its name is Percival Cadwallader Perkins."
"Oh, mamma! Percival Cadwolloper--what?" Weary looked utterly at sea.
"Perkins," supplied Chip.
"Percival--Cad-wolloper--Perkins," Weary mused aloud. "Yuh want to double the guard to-night, Chip; that name'll sure stampede the bunch."
"He's sure a sweet young thing--mamma's precious lamb broke out uh the home corral!" said Jack Bates. "I'll bet yuh a tall, yellow-haired mamma with flowing widow's weeds'll be out here hunting him up inside a week. We got to be gentle with him, and not rub none uh the bloom uh innocence off his rosy cheek. Mamma had a little lamb, his cheeks were red and rosy. And everywhere that mamma went--er--everywhere--that mamma--went----"
"The lamb was sure to mosey," supplied Weary.
"By golly! yuh got that backward," Slim objected. "It ought uh be: Everywhere the lambie went; his mamma was sure to mosey."
The reappearance of Pink cut short the discussion. Pink as he had looked before was pretty as a poster. Pink as he reappeared would have driven a matinee crowd wild with enthusiasm. On the stage he would be in danger of being Hobsonized; in the Flying U camp the Happy Family looked at him and drew a long breath. When his back was turned, they shaded their eyes ostentatiously from the blaze of his splendor.
He still wore his panama, and the dainty pink-and-white striped silk shirt, the gray trousers, and russet-leather belt with silver buckle. But around his neck, nestling under his rounded chin, was a gorgeous rose-pink silk handkerchief, of the hue that he always wore, and that had given him the nickname of "Pink."
His white hands were hidden in a pair of wonderful silk-embroidered buckskin gauntlets. His gray trousers were tucked into number four tan riding-boots, high as to heel--so high that they looked two sizes smaller--and gorgeous as to silk-stitched tops. A shiny, new pair of silver-mounted spurs jingled from his heels.
He smiled trustfully at Chip, and leaned, with the studiously graceful pose of the stage, against a hind wheel of the mess-wagon. Then he got papers and tobacco from a pocket of the silk shirt and began to roll a cigarette. Inwardly he hoped that the act would not give him away to the Happy Family, whom he felt in honor bound to deceive, and bewailed the smoke-hunger that drove him to take the risk.
The Happy Family, however, was unsuspicious. His pink-and-white prettiness, his clothes, and the baby innocence of his dimples and his long-lashed blue eyes branded him unequivocally in their eyes as the tenderest sort of tenderfoot.
"Get onto the way he rolls 'em--backward!" murmured Weary into Cal's ear.
"If there's anything I hate," Cal remarked irrelevantly to the crowd, "it's to see a girl chewing a tutti-frutti cud--or smoking a cigarette!"
Pink looked up from under his thick lashes and opened his lips to speak, then thought better of it. The jingling of the cavvy coming in cut short the incipient banter, and Pink turned and watched intently the corralling process. To him the jangling bells were sweetest music, for which ears and heart had hungered long, and which had come to him often in dreams. His blood tingled as might a lover's when his sweetheart approaches.
"Weary, you and Cal better relieve the boys on herd," Chip called. "I'll get you a horse, P--Perkins"--he had almost said "Pink"--"and you can go along. Then to-night you'll go on guard with Cal."
"Yes, sir," said Pink, with a docility that would have amazed any who knew him well, and followed Chip out to the corral, where Cal and Weary were already inside with their ropes, among the circling mass.
Chip led out a gentle little cow-pony that could almost day-herd without a rider of any sort, and Pink bridled him before the covertly watching crew. He did not do it as quickly as he might have done, for he "played to the gallery" and deliberately fumbled the buckle and pinned one ear of the pony down flat with the head-stall.
A new saddle, stiff and unbroken, is ever a vexation unto its proud owner, and its proper adjustment requires time and much language. Pink omitted the language, so that the process took longer than it would naturally have done; but Cal and Weary, upon their mounts, made cigarettes and waited, with an air of endurance, and gave Pink much advice. Then he got somehow into the saddle and flapped elbows beside them, looking like a gorgeous-hued canary with wings a-flutter.
Happy Jack, who had been standing herd disconsolately with two aliens, stared open-mouthed at Pink's approach and rode hastily to camp, fair bursting with questions and comments.
The herd, twelve hundred range-fattened steers, grazed quietly on a side hill half a mile or more from camp. Pink ran a quick, appraising eye over the bunch estimating correctly the number, and noting their splendid condition.
"Never saw so many cattle in one bunch before, did yuh?" queried Cal, misinterpreting the glance.
Pink shook his head vaguely. "Does one man own all those cows?" he wanted to know, with just the proper amount of incredulous wonder.
"Yeah--and then some. This ain't any herd at all; just a few that we're shipping to get 'em out uh the way uh the real herds."
"About how many do you think there are here?" asked Pink.
Cal turned his back upon his conscience and winked at Weary. "Oh, there's only nine thousand, seven hundred and twenty-one," he lied boldly. "Last bunch we gathered was fifty-one thousand six hundred and twenty-nine and a half. Er--the half," he explained hastily in answer to Pink's look of unbelief, "was a calf that we let in by mistake. I caught it, after we counted, and took it back to its mother."
"I should think," Pink ventured hesitatingly, "it would be hard to find its mother. I don't see how you could tell."
"Well," said Cal gravely, sliding sidewise in the saddle, "it's this way. A calf is always just like its mother, hair for hair. This calf had white hind feet, one white ear, and the deuce uh diamonds on its left side. All I had to do was ride the range till I found the cow that matched."
"Oh!" Pink looked thoughtful and convinced.
Weary, smiling to himself, rode off to take his station at the other side of the herd. Even the Happy Family must place duty a pace before pleasure, and Cal, much as he would liked to have continued the conversation, resisted temptation and started down along the nearest edge of the bunch. Pink showed inclination to follow.
"You stay where you're at, sonny," Cal told him, over his shoulder.
"What must I do?" Pink straightened his tie and set his panama more firmly on his yellow curls, for a brisk wind was blowing.
Cal's voice came back to him faintly: "Just dub around here and don't do a darn thing; and don't bother the cattle."
"Good advice, that," Pink commented amusedly. "Hits day-herding off to a T." He prepared for a lazy afternoon, and enjoyed every minute.
On his way back to camp at suppertime, Pink rode close to Cal and looked as if he had something on his mind. Cal and Weary exchanged glances.
"I'd like to ask," Pink began timidly, "how you fed that calf--before you found his mother. Didn't he get pretty hungry?"
"Why, I carried a bottle uh milk along," Cal lied fluently. "When the bottle went empty I'd catch a cow and milk it."
"Would it stand without being tied?"
"Sure. All range cows'll gentle right down, if yuh know the right way to approach 'em, and the words to say. That's a secret that we don't tell anybody that hasn't been a cowboy for a year, and rode fourteen broncos straight up. Sorry I can't tell yuh."
Pink went diplomatically back to the calf. "Did you carry it in your arms, or--"
"The calf? Sure. How else would I carry it?" Cal's big, baby-blue eyes matched Pink's for innocence. "I carried that bossy in my arms for three days," he declared solemnly, "before I found a cow with white hind feet, one white ear, and the deuce uh--er--clubs----"
"Diamonds" corrected Pink, drinking in each word greedily.
"That's it: diamonds, on its right hind--er--shoulders----"
"The calf's was on its left side," reminded Pink reproachfully. "I don't believe you found the right mother, after all!"
"Yeah, I sure did, all right," contended Cal earnestly. "I know, 'cause she was that grateful, when she seen me heave in sight over a hill a mile away, she come up on the gallop, a-bawling, and--er--licked my hand!"
That settled it, of course. Pink dismounted stiffly and walked painfully to the cook-tent. Ten months out of saddle--with a new, unbroken one to begin on again--told, even upon Pink, and made for extreme discomfort.
When he had eaten, hungrily and in silence, responding to the mildly ironical sociability of his fellows with a brevity which only his soft voice saved from bruskness, he unrolled his new bed and lay down with not a thought for the part he was playing. He heard with absolute indifference Weary's remark outside, that "Cadwolloper's about all in; day-herding's too strenuous for him." The last that came to him, some one was chanting relishfully:
Mamma had a precious lamby his cheeks were red and rosy; And when he rode the festive bronk, he tumbled on his nosey.
There was more; but Pink had gone to sleep, and so missed it.
At sundown he awoke and went out to saddle the night horse Chip had caught for him, and then went to bed again. When shaken gently for middle guard, he dressed sleepily, added a pair of white Angora chaps to his afternoon attire, and stumbled out into the murky moonlight.
Guided and coached by Cal, he took his station and began that monotonous round which had been a part of the life he loved best. Though stiff and sore from unaccustomed riding, Pink felt quite content to be where he was; to watch the quiet land and the peaceful, slumbering herd; with the drifting gray clouds above, and the moon swimming, head under, in their midst. Twice in a complete round he met Cal, going in opposite direction. At the second round Cal stopped him.
"How yuh coming?" he queried cheerfully.
"All right, thank you," said Pink.
"Yuh want to watch out for a lop-horned critter over on the other side," Cal went on, in confidential tone. "He keeps trying to sneak out uh the bunch. Don't let him get away; if he goes, take after him and fog him back."
"He won't get away from me, if I can help it," Pink promised, and Cal rode on, with Pink smiling maliciously after him.
As he neared the opposite side, a dim shape angled slowly out before him, moving aimlessly away from the sleeping herd. Pink followed. Farther they went, and faster. Into a little hollow went the "critter", and circled. Pink took down his rope, let loose a good ten feet of it, and spurred unexpectedly close to it.
Whack! The rope landed with precision on the bowed shoulders of Cal. "Yuh will try to fool your betters, will yuh?" Whack! "I guess I can point out a critter that won't stray out uh the bunch again fer a spell!" Whack!
Cal straightened, gasping astonishment, in the saddle, pulled up with a jerk, and got off, in unlovely mood.
"And I can point to a little mamma's lamb that won't take down his rope to his betters again, either!" he cried angrily. "Climb down and get your ears cuffed proper, yuh darned, pink little smart Aleck; or them shiny heels'll break your pretty neck. Thump me with a rope, will yuh?"
Pink got down. Immediately after, to use a slang term, they "mixed." Presently Cal, stretched the long length of him in the grass, with Pink sitting comfortably upon his middle, looked up at the dizzying swim of the moon, saw new and uncharted stars, and nearer, dimly revealed in the half-light, the self-satisfied, cherubic face of Pink.
He essayed to rise and continue the discussion, and discovered a quite surprising state of affairs. He could scarcely move: and the more he tried the more painful became Pink's diabolical hold of him. He blinked and puzzled over the mystery.
"Of all the bone-headed, feeble-minded sons-uh-guns it's ever been my duty and pleasure to reconstruct," announced Pink melodiously, "you sure take the sour-dough biscuit. You're a song that's been tried on the cattle and failed t' connect. You're the last wail of a coyote dying in the dim distance. For a man that's been lynched and cut down and waiting for another yank, you certainly--are--mild! You're the tamest thing that ever happened. A lady could handle yuh with safety and ease. You're a children's playmate. For a deep-dyed desperado that's wanted for manslaughter in Texas, perjury in South Dakota, and bigamy in Utah, you're the last feeble whisper of a summer breeze. You cuff my ears proper? Oh, my! and oh, fudge! It is to laugh!"
Cat, battered as to features and bewildered as to mind, blinked again and grinned feebly.
"Yuh try an old gag that I wore out on humans of your ilk in Wyoming," went on Pink, warming to the subject. "Yuh load me with stuff that would bring the heehaw from a sheep-herder. Yuh can't even lie consistent to a pilgrim. You're a story that's been told and forgotten, a canto that won't rhyme, blank verse with club feet. You're the last, horrible example of a declining race. You're extinct."
"Say"--Pink's fists kneaded energetically Cal's suffering diaphragm.--"are yuh--all--ba-a-d?"
"Oh, Lord! No. I'm dead gentle. Lemme up."
"D'yuh think that critter will quit the bunch ag'in to-night?"
"He ain't liable to," Cal assured him meekly. "Say, who the devil are yuh anyhow?"
"I'm Percival Cadwallader Perkins. Do yuh like that name? Do yuh think it drips sweetness and poetry, like a card uh honey?"
"Ouch! It--it's swell!"
"You're a dam' liar," declared Pink, getting up. "Furthermore, yuh old chuckle-head, yuh ought t' know better than try t' run any ranikaboos on me. I've got your pedigree, right back to the Flood; and it's safe betting yuh got mine, and don't know it. Your best girl happens to be my cousin."
Cal scrambled slowly and painfully to his feet. "Then you're Milk River Pink. I might uh guessed it," he sighed.
"I cannot tell a lie," Pink averred. "Only, plain Pink'll do for me. Where d'yuh suppose the bunch is by this time?"
They mounted and rode back together. Cal was deeply thoughtful.
"Say," he said suddenly, just as they parted to ride their rounds, "the boys'll be tickled plumb to death. We've been wishing you'd blow in here ever since the Cross L quit the country."
Pink drew rein and looked back, resting one hand on the cantle. "My gentle friend," he warned, "yuh needn't break your neck spreading the glad tidings. Yuh better let them frivolous youths wise-up in their own playful way, same as you done."
"Sure," agreed Cal, passing his fingers gingerly over certain portions of his face. "I ain't a hog. I'm willing they should have some sport with yuh, too."
Next morning, when Cal appeared at breakfast with a slight limp and several inches of cuticle missing from his features, the Happy Family learned that his horse had fallen down with him as he was turning a stray back into the herd.
Chip looked up quizzically and then hid a smile behind his coffee-cup.
It was Weary that afternoon on dayherd who indulged his mendacity for the benefit of Pink; and his remarks were but paving-stones for a scheme hatched overnight by the Happy Family.
Weary began by looking doleful and emptying his lungs in sighs deep and sorrowful. When Pink, rising obligingly to the bait, asked him if he felt bad. Weary only sighed the more. Then, growing confidential, he told how he had dreamed a dream the night before. With picturesque language, he detailed the horror of it. He was guilty of murder, he confessed, and the crime weighed heavily on his conscience.
"Not only that," he went on, "but I know that death is camping on my trail. That dream haunts me. I feel that my days are numbered in words uh one syllable. That dream'll come true; you see if it don't!"
"I--I wouldn't worry over just a bad dream, Mr. Weary," comforted Pink.
"But that ain't all. I woke up in a cold sweat, and went outside. And there in the clouds, perfect as life, I seen a posse uh men galloping up from the South. Down South," he explained sadly, "sleeps my victim--a white-headed, innocent old man. That posse is sure headed for me, Mr. Perkins."
"Still, it was only clouds."
"Wait till I tell yuh," persisted Weary, stubbornly refusing comfort. "When I got up this morning I put my boots on the wrong feet; that's a sure sign that your dream'll come true. At breakfast I upset the can uh salt; which is bad luck. Mr. Perkins, I'm a lost man."
Pink's eyes widened; he looked like a child listening to a story of goblins. "If I can help you, Mr. Weary, I will," he promised generously.
"Will yuh be my friend? Will yuh let me lean on yuh in my dark hours?" Weary's voice shook with emotion.
Pink said that he would, and he seemed very sympathetic and anxious for Weary's safety. Several times during their shift Weary rode around to where Pink was sitting uneasily his horse, and spoke feelingly of his crime and the black trouble that loomed so closer and told Pink how much comfort it was to be able to talk confidentially with a friend.
When Pink went out that night to stand his shift, he found Weary at his side instead of Cal. Weary explained that Cal was feeling pretty bum on account of that fall he had got, and, as Weary couldn't sleep, anyway, he had offered to stand in Cal's place. Pink scented mischief.
This night the moon shone brightly at intervals, with patches of silvery clouds racing before the wind and chasing black splotches of shadows over the sleeping land. For all that, the cattle lay quiet, and the monotony of circling the herd was often broken by Weary and Pink with little talks, as they turned and rode together.
"Mr. Perkins, fate's a-crowding me close," said Weary gloomily, when an hour had gone by. "I feel as if--what's that?"
Voices raised in excited talk came faintly and fitfully on the wind. Weary turned his horse, with a glance toward the cattle, and, beckoning Pink to follow, rode out to the right.
"It's the posse!" he hissed. "They'll go to the herd so look for me. Mr. Perkins, the time has come to fly. If only I had a horse that could drift!"
Pink thought he caught the meaning. "Is--is mine any good, Mr. Weary?" he quavered. "If he is, you--you can have him. I--I'll stay and--and fool them as--long as I can."
"Perkins," said Weary solemnly, "you're sure all right! Let that posse think you're the man they want for half an hour, and I'm safe. I'll never forget yuh!"
He had not thought of changing horses, but the temptation mastered him. He was riding a little sorrel, Glory by name, that could beat even the Happy Family itself for unexpected deviltry. Yielding to Pink's persuasions, he changed mounts, clasped Pink's hand affectionately, and sped away just as the posse appeared over a rise, riding furiously.
Pink, playing his part, started toward them, then wheeled and sped away in the direction that would lead them off Weary's trail. That is, he sped for ten rods or so. After that he seemed to revolve on an axis, and there was an astonishing number of revolutions to the minute.
The stirrups were down in the dark somewhere below the farthest reach of Pink's toes--he never once located them. But Pink was not known all over Northern Montana as a "bronco-peeler" for nothing. He surprised Glory even more than that deceitful bit of horseflesh had surprised Pink. While his quirt swung methodically, he looked often over his shoulder for the posse, and wondered that it did not appear.
The posse, however, was at that moment having troubles of its own. Happy Jack, not having a night horse saddled, had borrowed one not remarkable for its sure-footedness. No sooner had they sighted their quarry than Jack's horse stepped in a hole and went head-long--which was bad enough. When he got up he planted a foot hastily on Jack's diaphragm and then bolted straight for the peacefully slumbering herd--which was worse.
With stirrup-straps snapping like pistol-shots, he tore down through the dreaming cattle, with none to stop him or say him nay. The herd did not wait for explanations; as the posse afterward said, it quit the earth, while they gathered around the fallen Jack and tried to discover if it was a doctor or coroner that was needed.
When Jack came up sputtering sand and profane words, there was no herd, no horse and no Pink anywhere in that portion of Chouteau County. Weary came back, laughing at the joke and fully expecting to see Pink a prisoner. When he saw how things stood, he said "Mamma mine!" and headed for camp on a run. The others deployed to search the range for a beef-herd, strayed, and with no tag for its prompt delivery.
Weary crept into the bed-tent and got Chip by the shoulder. Chip sat up, instantly wide-awake. "What's the matter?" he demanded sharply.
"Chip, we--we've lost Cadwolloper!" Weary's voice was tragic.
"Hell!" snapped Chip, lying down again. "Don't let that worry yuh."
"And we've lost the herd, too," added Weary mildly.
Chip got up and stayed up, and some of his remarks, Weary afterward reported, were scandalous.
There was another scene at sunrise that the Happy Family voted scandalous--and that was when they rode into a little coulee and came upon the herd, quietly grazing, and Pink holding them, with each blue eye a volcano shooting wrath.
"Yuh knock-kneed bunch uh locoed sheep-herders!" he greeted spitefully, "if yuh think yuh can saw off on your foolery and hold this herd, I'll go and get something to eat. When I come to this outfit t' work, I naturally s'posed yuh was cow-punchers. Yuh ain't. Yuh couldn't hold a bunch uh sick lambs inside a high board corral with the gate shut and locked on the outside. When it comes t' cow-science, you're the limit. Yuh couldn't earn your board on a ten-acre farm in Maine, driving one milk-cow and a yearling calf t' pasture and back. You're a hot bunch uh rannies--I don't think! Up on Milk River they'd put bells on every dam' one uh yuh t' keep yuh from getting lost going from the mess-house t' the corral and back. And, Mr. Weary, next time yuh give a man a horse t' fall off from, for the Lord's sake don't put him on a gentle old skate that would be pickings for a two-year-old kid. I thought this here Glory'd give a man something to do, from all the yawping I've heard done about him. I heard uh him when I was on the Cross L; and I will say right now that he's the biggest disappointment I've met up with in many a long day. He's punk. Come and get him and let me have something alive. I'm weary uh trying to delude myself into thinking that this red image is a horse."
The Happy Family, huddled ten paces before him, stared. Pink slid out of the saddle and came forward, smiling, and dimpling. He held out a gloved hand to the first man he came to, which was Weary himself. "Are yuh happy to meet Milk River Pink?" he wanted to know.
The Happy Family, grinning sheepishly, crowded close to shake him by the hand.