Chapter 16




MANLEY'S NEW TACTICS


To the east, to the south, to the north went the riders of the Wishbone, gathering the cattle which the fires had driven afar. No rivers stopped them, nor mountains, nor the deep-scarred coulees, nor the plains. It was Manley's first experience in real round-up work, for his own little herd he had managed to keep close at home, and what few strayed afar were turned back, when opportunity afforded, by his neighbors, who wished him well. Now he tasted the pride of ownership to the full, when a VP cow and her calf mingled with the milling Wishbones and Double Diamonds. He was proud of his brand, and proud of the sentiment which had made him choose Val's initials. More than once he explained to his fellows that VP meant Val Peyson, and that he had got it recorded just after he and Val were engaged. He was not sentimental about her now, but he liked to dwell upon the fact that he had been; it showed that he was capable of fine feeling.

More dominant, however, as the weeks passed and the branding went on, became the desire to accumulate property--cattle. The Wishbone brand went scorching through the hair of hundreds of calves, while the VP scared tens. It was not right. He felt, somehow, cheated by fate. He mentally figured the increase of his herd, and it seemed to him that it took a long while, much longer than it should, to gain a respectable number in that manner. He cast about in his mind for some rich acquaintance in the East who might be prevailed upon to lend him capital enough to buy, say, five hundred cows. He began to talk about it occasionally when the boys lay around in the evenings.

"You want to ride with a long rope," suggested Bob Royden, grinning openly at the others. "That's the way to work up in the cow business. Capital nothing! You don't get enough excitement buying cattle; you want to steal 'em. That's what I'd do if I had a brand of my own and all your ambitions to get rich."

"And get sent up," Manley rounded out the situation. "No, thanks." He laughed. "It's a better way to get to the pen than it is to get rich, from all accounts."

Sandy Moran remembered a fellow who worked a brand and kept it up for seven or eight years before they caught him, and he recounted the tale between puffs at his cigarette. "Only they didn't catch him" he finished. "A puncher put him wise to what was in the wind, and he sold out cheap to a tenderfoot and pulled his freight. They never did locate him." Then, with a pointed rock which he picked up beside him, he drew a rude diagram or two in the dirt. "That's how he done it," he explained. "Pretty smooth, too."

So the talk went on, as such things will, idly, without purpose save to pass the time. Shop talk of the range it was. Tales of stealing, of working brands, and of branding unmarked yearlings at weaning time. Of this big cattleman and that, who practically stole whole herds, and thereby took long strides toward wealth. Range scandals grown old; range gossip all of it, of men who had changed a brand or made one, using a cinch ring at a tiny fire in a secluded hollow, or a spur, or a jackknife; who were caught in the act, after the act, or merely suspected of the crime. Of "sweat" brands, blotched brands, brands added to and altered, of trials, of shootings, of hangings, even, and "getaways" spectacular and humorous and pathetic.

Manley, being in a measure a pilgrim, and having no experience to draw upon, and not much imagination, took no part in the talk, except that he listened and was intensely interested. Two months of mingling with men who talked little else had its influence.

That fall, when Manley had his hay up, and his cattle once more ranging close, toward the river and in the broken country bounded upon the west by the fenced-in railroad, three calves bore the VP brand--three husky heifers that never had suckled a VP mother. So had the range gossip, sown by chance in the soil of his greed of gain and his weakening moral fiber, borne fruit.

The deed scared him sober for a month. For a month his color changed and his blood quickened whenever a horseman showed upon the rim of Cold Spring Coulee. For a month he never left the ranch unless business compelled him to do so, and his return was speedy, his eyes anxious until he knew that all was well. After that his confidence returned. He grew more secretive, more self-assured, more at ease with his guilt. He looked the Wishbone men squarely in the eye, and it seldom occurred to him that he was a thief; or if it did, the word was but a synonym for luck, with shrewdness behind. Sometimes he regretted his timidity. Why three calves only? In a deep little coulee next the river--a coulee which the round-up had missed--had been more than three. He might have doubled the number and risked no more than for the three. The longer he dwelt upon that the more inclined he was to feel that he had cheated himself.

That fall there were no fires. It would be long before men grew careless when the grass was ripened and the winds blew hot and dry from out the west. The big prairie which lay high between the river and Hope was dotted with feeding cattle. Wishbones and Double Diamonds, mostly, with here and there a stray.

Manley grew wily, and began to plan far in advance. He rode here and there, quietly keeping his own cattle well down toward the river. There was shelter there, and feed, and the idea was a good one. Just before the river broke up he saw to it that a few of his own cattle, and with them some Wishbone cows and a steer or two, were ranging in a deep, bushy coulee, isolated and easily passed by. He had driven them there, and he left them there. That spring he worked again with the Wishbone.

When the round-up swept the home range, gathering and branding, it chanced that his part of the circle took him and Sandy Moran down that way. It was hot, and they had thirty or forty head of cattle before them when they neared that particular place.

"No need going down into the breaks here," he told Sandy easily. "I've been hazing out everything I came across lately. They were mostly my own, anyway. I believe I've got it pretty well cleaned up along here."

Sandy was not the man to hunt hard riding. He went to the rim of the coulee and looked down for a minute. He saw nothing moving, and took Manley's word for it with no stirring of his easy-going conscience. He said all right, and rode on.




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