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A gray clarity of the air told that daylight was near. The skyline retreated, the hills came out of the duskiness like a photograph in the developer tray. Irish dipped down the steep slope into Antelope Coulee, cursing the sprinkle of new shacks that stood stark in the dawn on every ridge and every hilltop, look where one might. He loped along the winding trail through the coulee's bottom and climbed the hill beyond. At the top he glanced across the more level upland to the east and his eyes lightened. Far away stood a shack-- Patsy's, that was. Beyond that another, and yet another. Most of the boys had built in the coulees where was water. They did not care so much about the view--over which Miss Allen had grown enthusiastic.
He pulled up in a certain place near the brow of the hill, and looked down into the narrower gulch where huddled the shacks they had moved. He grinned at the sight. His hand went involuntarily to his pocket and the grin widened. He hurried on that he might the sooner tell the boys of their good luck; all the material for that line fence bought and paid for-- there would certainly laugh when they heard where the money had come from!
First he thought that he would locate the cattle and tell his news to the boys on guard. He therefore left the trail and rode up on a ridge from which he could overlook the whole benchland, with the exception of certain gulches that cut through. The sky was reddening now, save where banked clouds turned purple. A breeze crept over the grass and carried the fresh odor of rain. Close beside him a little brown bird chittered briskly and flew away into the dawn.
He looked away to where the Bear Paws humped, blue-black against the sky, the top of Old Baldy blushing faintly under the first sun rays. He looked past Wolf Butte, where the land was blackened with outcroppings of rock. His eyes came back leisurely to the claim country. A faint surprise widened his lids, and he turned and sent a glance sweeping to the right, toward Flying U Coulee. He frowned, and studied the bench land carefully.
This was daybreak, when the cattle should be getting out for their breakfast-feed. They should be scattered along the level just before him. And there were no cattle anywhere in sight. Neither were there any riders in sight. Irish gave a puzzled grunt and turned in his saddle, looking back toward Dry Lake. That way, the land was more broken, and he could not see so far. But as far as he could see there were no cattle that way either. Last night when he rode to town the cattle of the colonists had been feeding on the long slope three or four miles from where he stood, across Antelope Coulee where he had helped the boys drive them.
He did not waste many minutes studying the empty prairie from the vantage point of that ridge, however. The keynote of Irish's nature was action. He sent his horse down the southern slope to the level, and began looking for tracks, which is the range man's guide-book. He was not long in finding a broad trail, in the grass where cattle had lately crossed the coulee from the west. He knew what that meant, and he swore when he saw how the trail pointed straight to the east--to the broken, open country beyond One Man Coulee. What had the boys been thinking of, to let that nester stock get past them in the night? What had the line-riders been doing? They were supposed to guard against just such a move as this.
Irish was sore from his fight in town, and he had not had much sleep during the past forty-eight hours, and he was ravenously hungry. He followed the trail of the cattle until he saw that they certainly had gotten across the Happy Family claims and into the rough country beyond; then he turned and rode over to Patsy's shack, where a blue smoke column wobbled up to the fitful air-current that seized it and sent it flying toward the mountains.
There he learned that Dry Lake had not hugged to itself all the events of the night. Patsy, smoking a pipefull of Durham while he waited for the teakettle to boil, was wild with resentment. In the night, while he slept, something had heaved his cabin up at one corner. In a minute another corner heaved upward a foot or more. Patsy had yelled while he felt around in the darkness for his clothes, and had got no answer, save other heavings from below.
Patsy was not the man to submit tamely to such indignities. He had groped and found his old 45-70 riffle, that made a noise like a young cannon and kicked like a broncho cow. While the shack lurched this way and that, Patsy pointed the gun toward the greatest disturbance and fired. He did not think: he hit anybody, but he apologized to Irish for missing and blamed the darkness for the misfortune. Py cosh, he sure tried--witness the bullet holes which he had bored through the four sides of the shack; he besought Irish to count them; which Irish did gravely. And what happened then?
Then? Why, then the Happy Family had come; or at least all those who had been awake and riding the prairie had come pounding up out of the dark, their horses running like rabbits, their blood singing the song of battle. They had grappled with certain of the enemy--Patsy broke open the door and saw tangles of struggling forms in the faint starlight. The Happy Family were not the type of men who must settle every argument with a gun, remember. Not while their hands might be used to fight with. Patsy thought that they licked the nesters without much trouble. He knew that the settlers ran, and that the Happy Family chased them clear across the line and then came back and let the shack down where it belonged upon the rock underpining.
"Und py cosh! Dey vould move my shack off'n my land!" he grunted ragefully as he lived over the memory.
Irish went to the door and looked out. The wind had risen in the last half hour, so that his hat went sailing against the rear wall, but he did not notice that. He was wondering why the settlers had made this night move against Patsy. Was it an attempt to irritate the boys to some real act of violence- -something that would put them in fear of the law? Or was it simply a stratagem to call off the night-guard so that they might slip their cattle across into the breaks? They must have counted on some disturbance which would reach the ears of the boys on guard. If Patsy had not begun the bombardment with his old rifle, they would very likely have fired a few shots themselves--enough to attract attention. With that end in view, he could see why Patsy's shack had been chosen for the attack. Patsy's shack was the closest to where they had been holding the cattle. It was absurdly simple, and evidently the ruse had worked to perfection.
"Where are the boys at now?" he asked abruptly, turning to Patsy who had risen and knocked the ashes from his pipe and was slicing bacon.
"Gone after the cattle. Dey stampede alreatty mit all der noise," Patsy growled, with his back to Irish.
So it was just as Irish had suspected. He faced the west and the gathering bank of "thunder heads" that rode swift on the wind and muttered sullenly as they rode, and he hesitated. Should he go after the boys and help them round up the stock and drive it back, or should he stay where he was and watch the claims? There was that fence--he must see to that, too.
He turned and asked Patsy if all the boys were gone. But Patsy did not know.
Irish stood in the doorway until breakfast was ready whereupon he sat down and ate hurriedly--as much from habit as from any present need of haste. A gust of wind made the flimsy cabin shake, and Patsy went to close the door against its sudden fury.
"Some riders iss coming now," he said, and held the door half closed against the wind. "It ain't none off der boys," he added, with the certainty which came of his having watched, times without number, while the various members of the Happy Family rode in from the far horizons to camp. "Pilgrims, I guess--from der ridin'."
Irish grunted and reached for the coffee pot, giving scarce a thought to Patsy's announcement. While he poured his third cup of coffee he made a sudden decision. He would get that fence off his mind, anyway.
"Say, Patsy, I've rustled wire and posts--all we'll need. I guess I'll just turn this receipt over to you and let you get busy. You take the team and drive in today and get the stuff headed out here pronto. The nesters are shipping in more stock--I heard in town that they're bringing in all they can rustle, thinkin' the stock will pay big money while the claims are getting ready to produce. I heard a couple of marks telling each other just how it was going to work out so as to put 'em all on Easy Street--the darned chumps! Free grass--that's what they harped on; feed don't cost anything. All yuh do is turn 'em loose and wait till shippin' season, and then collect. That's what they were talking.
"The sooner that fence is up the better. We can't put in the whole summer hazing their cattle around. I've bought the stuff and paid for it. And here's forty dollars you can use to hire it hauled out here. Us fellows have got to keep cases on the cattle, so you 'tend to this fence." He laid the money and Fred's receipt upon the table and set Patsy's plate over them to hold them safe against the wind that rattled the shack. He had forgotten all about the three approaching riders, until Patsy turned upon him sharply.
"Vot schrapes you been into now?" he demanded querulously. "Py cosh you done somet'ings. It's der conshtable comin' alreatty. I bet you be pinched."
"I bet I don't," Irish retorted, and made for the one window, which looked toward the hills. "Feed 'em some breakfast, Patsy. And you drive in and tend to that fencing right away, like I told you."
He threw one long leg over the window sill, bent his lean body to pass through the square opening, and drew the other leg outside. He startled his horse, which had walked around there out of the wind, but he caught the bridle-reins and led him a few steps farther where he would be out of the direct view from the window. Then he stopped and listened.
He heard the three ride up to the other side of the shack and shout to Patsy. He heard Patsy moving about inside, and after a brief delay open the door. He heard the constable ask Patsy if he knew anything about Irish, and where he could be found; and he heard Patsy declare that he had enough to do without keeping track of that boneheaded cowpuncher who was good for nothing but to fight and get into schrapes.
After that he heard Patsy ask the constable if they had had any breakfast before leaving town. He heard certain saddle- sounds which told of their dismounting in response to the tacit invitation. And then, pulling his hat firmly down upon his head, Irish led his horse quietly down into a hollow behind the shack, and so out of sight and hearing of those three who sought him.
He did not believe that he was wanted for anything very serious; they meant to arrest him, probably, for laying out those two gamblers with a chair and a bottle of whisky respectively. A trumped-up charge, very likely, chiefly calculated to make him some trouble and to eliminate him from the struggle for a time. Irish did not worry at all over their reason for wanting him, but he did not intend to let them come close enough to state their errand, because he did not want to become guilty of resisting an officer--which would be much worse than fighting nesters with fists and chairs and bottles and things.
In the hollow he mounted and rode down the depression and debouched upon the wide, grassy coulee where lay a part of his own claim. He was not sure of the intentions of that constable, but he took it for granted that he would presently ride on to Irish's cabin in search of him; also that he would look for him further, and possibly with a good deal of persistence; which would be a nuisance and would in a measure hamper the movements and therefore the usefulness of Irish. For that reason he was resolved to take no chance that could be avoided.
The sun slid behind the scurrying forerunners of the storm and struggled unavailingly to shine through upon the prairie land. From where he was Irish could not see the full extent of the storm-clouds, and while he had been on high land he had been too absorbed in other matters to pay much attention. Even now he did no more than glance up casually at the inky mass above him, and decided that he would do well to ride on to his cabin and get his slicker.
By the time he reached his shack the storm was beating up against the wind which had turned unexpectedly to the northeast. Mutterings of thunder grew to sharper booming. It was the first real thunderstorm of the season, but it was going to be a hard one, if looks meant anything. Irish went in and got his slicker and put it on, and then hesitated over riding on in search of the cattle and the men in pursuit of them.
Still, the constable might take a notion to ride over this way in spite of the storm. And if he came there would be delay, even if there were nothing worse. So Irish, being one to fight but never to stand idle, mounted again and turned his long-suffering horse down the coulee as the storm swept up.
First a few large drops of rain pattered upon the earth and left blobs of wet where they fell. His horse shook its head impatiently and went sidling forward untill an admonitory kick from Irish sent him straight down the dim trail. Then the clouds opened recklessly the headgates and let the rain down in one solid rush of water that sluiced the hillsides and drove muddy torrents down channels that had been dry since the snow left.
Irish bent his head so that his hat shielded somewhat his face, and rode doggedly on. It was not the first time that he had been out in a smashing, driving thunderstorm, and it would not be his last if his life went on logically as he had planned it. But it was not the more comfortable because it was an oft-repeated experience. And when the first fury had passed and still it rained steadily and with no promise of a let-up, his optimism suffered appreciably.
His luck in town no longer cheered him. He began to feel the loss of sleep and the bone-weariness of his fight and the long ride afterwards. His breakfast was the one bright spot, and saved him from the gnawing discomfort of an empty stomach--at first.
He went into One Man Coulee and followed it to the arm that would lead to the rolling, ridgy open land beyond, where the "breaks" of the Badlands reached out to meet the prairie. He came across the track of the herd, and followed it to the plain. Once out in the open, however, the herd had seemed to split into several small bunches, each going in a different direction. Which puzzled Irish a little at first. Later, he thought he understood.
The cattle, it would seem, had been driven purposefully into the edge of the breaks and there made to scatter out through the winding gulches and canyons that led deeper into the Badlands. It was the trick of range-men--he could not believe that the strange settlers, ignorant of the country and the conditions, would know enough to do this. He hesitated before several possible routes, the rain pouring down upon him, a chill breeze driving it into his face. If there had been hoofprints to show which way the boys had gone, the rain had washed them so that they looked dim and old and gave him little help.
He chose what seemed to him the gorge which the boys would be most likely to follow--especially at night and if they were in open pursuit of those who had driven the cattle off the benchland; and that the cattle had been driven beyond this point was plain enough, for otherwise he would have overtaken stragglers long before this.
It was nearing noon when he came out finally upon a little, open flat and found there Big Medicine and Pink holding a bunch of perhaps a hundred cattle which they had gleaned from the surrounding gulches and little "draws" which led into the hills. The two were wet to the skin, and they were chilled and hungry and as miserable as a she-bear sent up a tree by yelping, yapping dogs.
Big Medicine it was who spied him first through the haze of falling water, and galloped heavily toward him, his horse flinging off great pads of mud from his feet as he came.
"Say!" he bellowed when he was yet a hundred yards away. "Got any grub with yuh?"
"No!" Irish called back.
"Y'ain't" Big Medicine's voice was charged with incredulous reproach. "What'n hell yuh doin' here without grub? Is Patsy comin' with the wagon?"
"No. I sent Patsy on in to town after--"
"Town? And us out here--" Big Medicine choked over his wrongs.
Irish waited until he could get in a word and then started to explain. But Pink rode up with his hatbrim flapping soggily against one dripping cheek when the wind caught it, and his coat buttoned wherever there were buttons, and his collar turned up, and looking pinched and draggled and wholly miserable.
"Say! Got anything to eat?" he shouted when he came near, his voice eager and hopeful.
"No!" snapped Irish with the sting of Big Medicine's vituperations rankling fresh in his soul.
"Well why ain't yuh? Where's Patsy?" Pink came closer and eyed the newcomer truculently.
"How'n hell do I know?" Irish was getting a temper to match their own.
"Well, why don't yuh know? What do yuh think you're out here for? To tell us you think it's going to rain? If we was all of us like you, there'd be nothing to it for the nester- bunch. It's a wonder you come alive enough to ride out this way at all! I don't reckon you've even got anything to drink! "Pink paused a second, saw no move toward producing anything wet and cheering, and swore disgustedly. "Of course not! You needed it all yourself! So help me Josephine, if I was as low-down ornery as some I could name I'd tie myself to a mule's tail and let him kick me to death! Ain't got any grub! Ain't got--"
Irish interrupted him then with a sentence that stung. Irish, remember, distinctly approved of himself and his actions. True, he had forgotten to bring anything to eat with him, but there was excuse for that in the haste with which he had left his own breakfast. Besides how could he be expected to know that the cattle had been driven away down here, and scattered, and that the Happy Family would not have overtaken them long before? Did they think he was a mind-reader?
Pink, with biting sarcasm, retorted that they did not. That it took a mind to read a mind. He added that, from the looks of Irish, he must have started home drunk, anyway, and his horse had wandered this far of his own accord. Then three or four cows started up a gulch to the right of them and Pink, hurling insults over his shoulder, rode off to turn them back. So they did not actually come to blows, those two, though they were near it.
Big Medicine lingered to bawl unforgivable things at; Irish, and Irish shouted back recklessly that they had all acted like a bunch of sheepherders, or the cattle would never have been driven off the bench at all. He declared that anybody with the brains of a sick sage hen would have stopped the thing right in the start. He said other things also.
Big Medicine said things in reply, and Pink, returning to the scene with his anger grown considerably hotter from feeding upon his discomfort, made a few comments pertinent to the subject of Irish's shortcomings.
You may scarcely believe it, unless you have really lived, and have learned how easily small irritations grow to the proportions of real trouble, and how swiftly--but this is a fact: Irish and Big Medicine became so enraged that they dismounted simultaneously and Irish jerked off his slicker while Big Medicine was running up to smash him for some needless insult.
They fought, there in the rain and the mud and the chill wind that whipped their wet cheeks. They fought just as relentlessly as though they had long been enemies, and just as senselessly as though they were not grown men but schoolboys. They clinched and pounded and smashed until Pink sickened at the sight and tore them apart and swore at them for crazy men and implored them to have some sense. They let the cattle that had been gathered with so much trouble drift away into the gulches and draws where they must be routed out of the brush again, or perhaps lost for days in that rough country.
When the first violence of their rage had like the storm settled to a cold steadiness of animosity, the two remounted painfully and turned back upon each other.
Big Medicine and Pink drew close together as against a common foe, and Irish cursed them both and rode away--whither he did not know nor care.
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