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Moving The Herd








From: Rowdy Of The Cross L

Four thousand weary cattle crawled up the long ridge which divides Chin
Coulee from Quitter Creek. Pink, riding point, opposite the Silent One,
twisted round in his saddle and looked back at the slow-moving river of
horns and backs veiled in a gray dust-cloud. Down the line at intervals
rode the others, humped listlessly in their saddles, their hat brims
pulled low over tired eyes that smarted with dust and wind and burning
heat.

Pink sighed, and wished lonesomely that it was Rowdy riding point with
him, instead of the Silent One, who grew even more silent as the day
dragged leadenly to mid-afternoon; Pink could endure anything better
than being left to his thoughts and to the complaining herd for company.

He took off his hat, pushed back his curls--dripping wet they were and
flattened unbecomingly in pasty, yellow rings on his forehead--and eyed
with disfavor a line-backed, dry cow, with one horn tipped rakishly
toward her speckled nose; she blinked silently at wind and heat, and
forged steadily ahead, up-hill and down coulee, always in the lead,
always walking, walking, like an automaton. Her energy, in the face of
all the dry, dreary days, rasped Pink's nerves unbearably. For nearly a
week he had ridden left point, and always that line-backed cow with the
down-crumpled horn walked and walked and walked, a length ahead of her
most intrepid followers.

He leaned from his saddle, picked up a rock from the barren, yellow
hillside, and threw it at the cow spitefully. The rock bounced off her
lean rump; she blinked and broke into a shuffling trot, her dragging
hoofs kicking up an extra amount of dust, which blew straight into
Pink's face.

"Aw, cut it out!" he shouted petulantly. "You're sure the limit, without
doing any stunts at sprinting up-hill. Ain't yuh got any nerves, yuh
blamed old skate? Yuh act like it was milkin'-time, and yuh was headed
straight for the bars and a bran mash. Can't yuh realize the kind uh
deal you're up against? Here's cattle that's got you skinned for looks,
old girl, and they know it's coming blamed tough; and you just bat your
eyes and peg along like yuh enjoyed it. Bawl, or something, can't yuh?
Drop back a foot and act human!"

The Silent One looked across at him with a tired smile. "Let her go,
Pink, and pray for more like her," he called amusedly. "There'll be
enough of them dropping back presently."

Pink threw one leg over the horn and rode sidewise, made him a
cigarette, and tried to forget the cow--or, at least, to forgive her for
not acting as dog-tired as he felt.

They were on the very peak of the ridge now, and the hill sloped
smoothly down before them to the bluff which bounded Quitter Creek. Far
down, a tiny black speck in the coulee-bottom, they could see Wooden
Shoes riding along the creek-bank, scouting for water. From the way he
rode, and from the fact that camp was nowhere in sight, Pink guessed
shrewdly that his quest was in vain. He shrugged his shoulders at what
that meant, and gave his attention to the herd.

The marching line split at the brow of the bluff. The line-backed
cow lowered her head a bit and went unfaltering down the parched,
gravel-coated hill, followed by a few hundred of the freshest. Then the
stream stopped flowing, and Pink and the Silent One rode back up the
bluff to where the bulk of the footsore herd, their senses dulled by
hunger and weariness and choking thirst, sniffed at the gravel that
promised agony to their bruised feet, and balked at the ordeal. Others
straggled up, bunched against the rebels, and stood stolidly where they
were.

Pink galloped on down the crawling line. "Forward, the Standard Oil
Brigade!" he yelled whimsically as he went.

The cowboys heard--and understood. They left their places and went
forward at a lope, and Pink rode back to the coulee edge, untying
his slicker as he went. The Silent One was already off his horse and
shouting hoarsely as he whacked with his slicker at the sulky mass.
Pink rode in and did the same. It was not the first time this thing had
happened, and from a diversion it was verging closely on the monotonous.
Presently, even a rank tenderfoot must have caught the significance of
Pink's military expression. The Standard Oil Brigade was at the front in
force.

Cowboys, swinging five-gallon oil-cans, picked up from scattered sheep
camps and carried many a weary mile for just such an emergency, were
charging the bunch intrepidly. Others made shift with flat sirup-cans
with pebbles inside. A few, like Pink and the Silent One, flapped their
slickers till their arms ached. Anything, everything that would make
a din and startle the cattle out of their lethargy, was pressed into
service.

But they might have been raised in a barnyard and fed cabbage leaves
from back door-steps, for all the excitement they showed. Cattle that
three months ago--or a month--would run, head and tail high in air, at
sight of a man on foot, backed away from a rattling, banging cube of
gleaming tin, turned and faced the thing dull-eyed and apathetic.

In time, however, they gave way dogedly before the onslaught. A few were
forced shrinkingly down the hill; others followed gingerly, until the
line lengthened and flowed, a sluggish, brown-red stream, into the
coulee and across to Quitter Creek.

Here the leaders were browsing greedily along the banks. They had
emptied the few holes that had still held a meager store of brackish
water and so the mutinous bulk of the herd snuffed at the trampled,
muddy spots and bellowed their disappointment.

Wooden Shoes rode up and surveyed the half maddened animals gloomily.
"Push 'em on, boys," he said. "They's nothings for 'em here. I've sent
the wagons on to Red Willow; we'll try that next. Push 'em along all yuh
can, while I go on ahead and see."

With tin-cans, slickers, and much vituperation, they forced the herd up
the coulee side and strung them out again on trail. The line-backed
cow walked and walked in the lead before Pink's querulous gaze, and the
others plodded listlessly after. The gray dust-cloud formed anew over
their slowmoving backs, and the cowboys humped over in their saddles
and rode and rode, with the hot sun beating aslant in their dirt-grimed
faces, and with the wind blowing and blowing.

If this had been the first herd to make that dreary trip, things would
not have been quite so disheartening. But it was the third. Seven
thousand lean kine had passed that way before them, eating the scant
grass growth and drinking what water they could find among those barren,
sun-baked coulees.

The Cross L boys, on this third trip, were become a jaded lot of
hollow-eyed men, whose nerves were rasped raw with long hours and longer
days in the saddle. Pink's cheeks no longer made his name appropriate,
and he was not the only one who grew fretful over small things. Rowdy
had been heard, more than once lately, to anathematize viciously the
prairie-dogs for standing on their tails and chipchip-chipping at them
as they went by. And though the Silent One did not swear, he carried
rocks in his pockets, and threw them with venomous precision at every
"dog" that showed his impertinent nose out of a burrow within range. For
Pink, he vented his spleen on the line-backed cow.

So they walked and walked and walked.

The cattle balked at another hill, and all the tincans and slickers in
the crowd could scarcely move them. The wind dropped with the sun, and
the clouds glowed gorgeously above them, getting scant notice, except
that they told eloquently of the coming night; and there were yet
miles--long, rough, heartbreaking miles--to put behind them before
they could hope for the things their tired bodies craved: supper and
dreamless sleep.

When the last of the herd had sidled, under protest, down the long hill
to the flat, dusk was pushing the horizon closer upon them, mile by
mile. When they crawled sinuously out upon the welcome level, the hill
loomed ghostly and black behind them. A mile out, Wooden Shoes rode out
of the gloom and met the point. He turned and rode beside Pink.

"Yuh'll have t' swing 'em north," he greeted.

"Red Willow's dry as hell--all but in the Rockin' R field. No use askin'
ole Mullen to let us in there; we'll just go. I sent the wagons through
the fence, an' yuh'll find camp about a mile up from the mouth uh the
big coulee. You swing 'em round the end uh this bench, an' hit that big
coulee at the head. When you come t' the fence, tear it down. They's
awful good grass in that field!"

"All right," said Pink cheerfully. It was in open defiance of range
etiquette; but their need was desperate. The only thing about it Pink
did not like was the long detour they must make. He called the news
across to the Silent One, after Wooden Shoes had gone on down the line,
and they swung the point gradually to the left.

Before that drive was over, Pink had vowed many times to leave the range
forever and never to turn another cow--besides a good many other foolish
things which would be forgotten, once he had a good sleep. And Rowdy,
plodding half-way down the herd, had grown exceedingly pessimistic
regarding Jessie Conroy, and decided that there was no sense in thinking
about her all the time, the way he had been doing. Also, he told himself
savagely that if Harry ever crossed his trail again, there would be
something doing. This thing of letting a cur like that run roughshod
over a man on account of a girl that didn't care was plumb idiotic. And
beside him the cattle walked and walked and walked, a dim, moving mass
in the quiet July night.





Next: Harry Conroy At Home

Previous: Pink In A Threatening Mood



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