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The Back Of A Bronc








From: The Fighting Edge

The bunkhouse of the Slash Lazy D received Bob Dillon gravely and with
chill civility. He sat on his bunk that first evening, close enough to
touch a neighbor on either hand, and was left as completely out of the
conversation as though he were a thousand miles away. With each other the
riders were jocular and familiar. They "rode" one another with familiar
jokes. The new puncher they let alone.

Bob had brought some cigars with him. He offered them eagerly to the
chap-clad youth on his right. "Take one, won't you? An' pass the others
round."

The name of the cowboy was Hawks. He looked at the cigars with disfavor.
"I reckon I'll not be carin' for a cigar to-night, thank you," he said
slowly.

"Perhaps the others--if you'll pass them."

Hawks handed the cigars to a brick-red Hercules patching his overalls.
From him they went to his neighbor. Presently the cheroots came back to
their owner. They had been offered to every man in the room and not one
had been taken.

Bob's cheeks burned. Notice was being served on him that the pleasant
give-and-take of comradeship was not for him. The lights went out early,
but long into the night the boy lay awake in torment. If he had been a
leper the line could scarcely have been drawn more plainly. These men
would eat with him because they must. They would sleep in the same room.
They would answer a question if he put it directly. But they would
neither give nor accept favors. He was not to be one of them.

Many times in the months that were to follow he was to know the sting of
shame that burned him now at memory of the scene between him and Jake
Houck at Bear Cat. He tossed on the bunk, burying his face in the
blankets in a vain effort to blot out the picture. Why had he not shot
the fellow? Why, at least, had he not fought? If he had done anything,
but what he did do? If he had even stuck it out and endured the pain
without yielding.

In the darkness he lived over every little incident of the evening. When
Hawks had met him he had grinned and hoped he would like the Slash Lazy
D. There had been friendliness in the crinkled, leathery face. But when
he passed Bob ten minutes later the blue eyes had frozen. He had heard
who the new rider was.

He would not stand it. He could not. In the morning he would pack up his
roll and ride back to Bear Cat. It was all very well for Blister Haines
to talk about standing the gaff, but he did not have to put up with such
treatment.

But when morning came Bob set his teeth and resolved to go through with
it for a while anyhow. He could quit at any time. He wanted to be able to
tell the justice that he had given his plan a fair trial.

In silence Bob ate his breakfast. This finished, the riders moved across
to the corral.

"Better rope and saddle you a mount," Harshaw told his new man curtly.
"Buck, you show him the ones he can choose from."

Hawks led the way to a smaller corral. "Any one o' these except the roan
with the white stockings an' the pinto," he said.

Dillon walked through the gate of the enclosure and closed it. He
adjusted the rope, selected the bronco that looked to him the meekest,
and moved toward it. The ponies began to circle close to the fence. The
one he wanted was racing behind the white-stockinged roan. For a moment
it appeared in front. The rope snaked out and slid down its side. Bob
gathered in the lariat, wound it, waited for a chance, and tried again.
The meek bronco shook its head as the rope fell and caught on one ear. A
second time the loop went down into the dust.

Some one laughed, an unpleasant, sarcastic cackle. Bob turned. Four or
five of the punchers, mounted and ready for the day's work, were sitting
at ease in their saddles enjoying the performance.

Bob gave himself to the job in hand, though his ears burned. As a
youngster he had practiced roping. It was a pastime of the boys among
whom he grew up. But he had never been an expert, and now such skill as
he had acquired deserted him. The loop sailed out half a dozen times
before it dropped over the head of the sorrel.

The new rider for the Slash Lazy D saddled and cinched a bronco which no
longer took an interest in the proceedings. Out of the corner of his eye,
without once looking their way, Bob was aware of subdued hilarity among
the bronzed wearers of chaps. He attended strictly to business.

Just before he pulled himself to the saddle Bob felt a momentary qualm at
the solar plexus. He did not give this time to let it deter him. His feet
settled into the stirrups. An instant violent earthquake disturbed his
equilibrium. A shock jarred him from the base of the spine to the neck.
Urgently he flew through space.

Details of the landscape gathered themselves together again. From a
corner of the corral Bob looked out upon a world full of grinning faces.
A sick dismay rose in him and began to submerge his heart. They were glad
he had been thrown. The earth was inhabited by a race of brutal and
truculent savages. What was the use of trying? He could never hold out
against them.

Out of the mists of memory he heard a wheezy voice issuing from a great
bulk of a man--"... yore red haid's covered with glory. Snap it up!" The
words came so clear that for an instant he was startled. He looked round
half expecting to see Blister.

Stiffly he gathered himself out of the snow slush. A pain jumped in the
left shoulder. He limped to the rope and coiled it. The first cast
captured the sorrel.

His limbs were trembling when he dropped into the saddle. With both hands
he clung to the horn. Up went the bronco on its hind legs. It pitched,
bucked, sun-fished. In sheer terror Bob clung like a leech. The animal
left the ground and jolted down stiff-legged on all fours. The impact was
terrific. He felt as though a piledriver had fallen on his head and
propelled his vital organs together like a concertina. Before he could
set himself the sorrel went up again with a weaving, humpbacked twist.
The rider shot from the saddle.

When the scenery had steadied itself for Dillon he noticed languidly a
change in one aspect of it. The faces turned toward him were no longer
grinning. They were watching him expectantly. What would he do now?

They need not look at him like that. He was through. If he got on the
back of that brute again it would kill him. Already he was bleeding at
the nose and ears. Sometimes men died just from the shock of being tossed
about so furiously.

The sorrel was standing by itself at the other end of the corral. Its
head was drooping languidly. The bronco was a picture of injured
innocence.

Bob discovered that he hated it with an impotent lust to destroy. If he
had a gun with him--Out of the air a squeaky voice came to him: "C-clamp
yore jaw, you worm! You been given dominion." And after that, a moment
later, "... made in the image of God."

Unsteadily he rose. The eyes of the Slash Lazy D riders watched him
relentlessly and yet curiously. Would he quit? Or would he go through?

He had an odd feeling that his body was a thing detached from himself. It
was full of aches and pains. Its legs wobbled as he moved. Its head
seemed swollen to twice the normal size. He had strangely small control
over it. When he walked, it was jerkily, as a drunk man sometimes does.
His hand caught at the fence to steady himself. He swayed dizzily. A
surge of sickness swept through his organs. After this he felt better. He
had not consciously made up his mind to try again, but he found himself
moving toward the sorrel. This time he could hardly drag his weight into
the saddle.

The mind of a bronco is unfathomable. This one now pitched weakly once or
twice, then gave up in unconditional surrender. Bob's surprise was
complete. He had expected, after being shaken violently, to be flung into
the mire again. The reaction was instantaneous and exhilarating. He
forgot that he was covered with mud and bruises, that every inch of him
cried aloud with aches. He had won, had mastered a wild outlaw horse as
he had seen busters do. For the moment he saw the world at his feet. A
little lower than the angels, he had been given dominion.

He rode to the gate and opened it. Hawks was looking at him, a puzzled
look in his eyes. He had evidently seen something he had not expected to
see.

Harshaw had ridden up during the bronco-busting. He spoke now to Bob.
"You'll cover Beaver Creek to-day--you and Buck."

Something in the cattleman's eye, in the curtness of his speech, brought
Dillon back to earth. He had divined that his boss did not like him, had
employed him only because Blister Haines had made a personal point of it.
Harshaw was a big weather-beaten man of forty, hard, keen-eyed, square as
a die. Game himself, he had little patience with those who did not stand
the acid test.

Bob felt himself shrinking up. He had not done anything after all,
nothing that any one of these men could not do without half trying. There
was no way to wipe out his failure when a real ordeal had confronted him.
What was written in the book of life was written.

He turned his pony and followed Hawks across the mesa.





Next: The First Day

Previous: Blister As Deus Ex Machina



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