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The First Blow In The Fight








From: The Flying U's Last Stand

Letters went speeding to Irish and Jack Bates, absent members of the
Happy Family of the Flying U; letters that explained the situation with
profane completeness, set forth briefly the plan of the proposed pool,
and which importuned them to come home or make haste to the nearest
land-office and file upon certain quarter-sections therein minutely
described. Those men who would be easiest believed wrote and signed
the letters, and certain others added characteristic postscripts best
calculated to bring results.

After that, the Happy Family debated upon the boldness of going in
a body to Great Falls to file upon their claims, or the caution of
proceeding instead to Glasgow where the next nearest land-office might
be found. Slim and Happy Jack favored caution and Glasgow. The others
sneered at their timidity, as they were wont to do.

"Yuh think Florence Grace Hallman is going to stand guard with a
six-gun?" Andy challenged at last. "She's tied up till her colony gets
there. She can't file on all that land herself, can she?" He smiled
reminiscently. "The lady asked me to come up to the Falls and see her,"
he said softly. "I'm going. The rest of you can take the same train, I
reckon--she won't stop you from it, and I won't. And who's to stop you
from filing? The land's there, open for settlement. At least it was
open, day before yesterday."

"Well, by golly, the sooner we go the better," Slim declared fussily.
"That fencin' kin wait. We gotta go and git back before Chip wants to
start out the wagons, too."

"Listen here, hombres," called the Native Son from the window, where
he had been studying the well-thumbed pamphlet containing the homestead
law. "If we want to play dead safe on this, we all better quit the
outfit before we go. Call for our time. I don't like the way some of
this stuff reads."

"I don't like the way none of it reads," grumbled Happy Jack. "I betche
we can't make it go; they's some ketch to it. We'll never git a patent.
I'll betche anything yuh like."

"Well, pull out of the game, then!" snapped Andy Green, whose nerves
were beginning to feel the strain put upon them.

"I ain't in it yet," said Happy Jack sourly, and banged the door shut
upon his departure.

Andy scowled and returned to studying the map. Finally he reached for
his hat and gloves in the manner of one who has definitely made up his
mind to some thing.

"Well, the rest of you can do as you darned please," he delivered his
ultimatum from the doorway. "I'm going to catch up my horse, draw a
month's wages and hit the trail. I can catch the evening train to
the Falls, easy, and be ready to file on my chunk first thing in the
morning."

"Ain't in any rush, are yuh?" Pink inquired facetiously. "If I had my
dinner settled and this cigarette smoked, I might go along--provided you
don't take the trail with yuh."

"Hold on, boys, and listen to this," the Native Son called out
imperatively. "I think we better get a move on, too; but we want to get
a fair running start, and not fall over this hump. Listen here! We've
got to swear that it is not for the benefit of any other person, persons
or corporation, and so on; and farther along it says we must not act
in collusion with any person, persons or corporation, to give them the
benefit of the land. There's more of the same kind, too, but you see--"

"Well, who's acting in collusion? What's collusion mean anyhow?" Slim
demanded aggressively.

"It means what we're aiming to do--if anybody could prove it on us,"
explained the Native Son. "My oldest brother's a lawyer, and I caught
some of it from him. And my expert, legal advice is this: to get into a
row with the Old Man, maybe--anyway, quit him cold, so we get our time.
We must let that fact percolate the alleged brains of Dry Lake and
vicinity--and if we give any reason for taking claims right under the
nose of the Flying U, why, we're doing it to spite the Old Man. Sabe?
Otherwise we're going to have trouble--unless that colony scheme is just
a pipe dream of Andy's."

The Happy Family had learned to respect the opinions of the Native Son,
whose mixture of Irish blood with good Castilian may have had something
to do with his astuteness. Once, as you may have heard, the Native Son
even scored in a battle of wits with Andy Green, and scored heavily.
And he had helped Andy pull the Flying U out of an extremely ticklish
situation, by his keen wit saving the outfit much trouble and money.
Wherefore they heeded now his warning to the extent of unsmilingly
discussing the obstacle he had pointed out to them. One after another
they read the paragraph which they had before passed over too hastily,
and sensed the possibilities of its construction. Afterward they went
into serious consultation as to ways and means, calling Happy Jack back
so that he might understand thoroughly what must be done. For the Happy
Family was nothing if not thorough, and their partisanship that had been
growing insensibly stronger through the years was roused as it had not
been since Dunk Whittaker drove sheep in upon the Flying U.

The Old Man, having eaten a slice of roast pork the size of his two
hands, in defiance of his sister's professional prohibition of the
indulgence, was sitting on the sunny side of the porch trying to ignore
the first uneasy symptoms of indigestion. The Little Doctor had taken
his pipe away from him that morning, and had badgered him into taking
a certain decoction whose taste lingered bitterly. The paper he was
reading was four days old and he disagreed with its political policy,
and there was no telling when anyone would have time to go in after the
mail and his favorite paper. Ranch work was growing heavier each year in
proportion to the lightening of range work. He was going to sow another
twenty acres of alfalfa, and to do that he must cut down the size of his
pasture--something that always went against the grain. He had not been
able to renew his lease of government land,--which also went against the
grain. And the Kid, like the last affliction which the Lord sent unto
Job--I've forgotten whether that was boils or the butchery of his
offspring--came loping down the length of the porch and kicked the Old
Man's bunion with a stubby boot-toe.

Thus was born the psychological moment when the treachery of the Happy
Family would cut deepest.

They came, bunched and talking low-voiced together with hatbrims hiding
shamed eyes, a type-true group of workers bearing a grievance. Not a man
was absent--the Happy Family saw to that! Even Patsy, big and sloppy and
bearing with him stale kitchen odors, limped stolidly in the rear beside
Slim, who looked guilty as though he had been strangling somebody's
favorite cat.

The Old Man, bent head-foremost over his growing paunch that he might
caress his outraged bunion, glared at them with belligerent curiosity
from under his graying eyebrows. The group came on and stopped short
at the steps--and I don't suppose the Happy Family will ever look such
sneaks again whatever crime they may commit. The Old Man straightened
with a grunt of pain because of his lame back, and waited. Which made it
all the harder for the Happy Family, especially for Andy Green who had
been chosen spokesman--for his sins perhaps.

"We'd like our time," blurted Andy after an unpleasant silence, and
fixed his eyes frigidly upon the lowest rung of the Old Man's chair.

"Oh, you would, hunh? The whole bunch of yuh?" The Old Man eyed them
incredulously.

"Yes, the whole bunch of us. We're going to quit."

The Old Man's jaw dropped a little, but his eyes didn't waver from
their Hangdog faces. "Well, I never coaxed a man to stay yet," he stated
grimly, "and I'm gittin' too old in the business to start coaxin' now.
Dell!" He turned stiffly in his chair so that he faced the open door.
"Bring me my time and check books outa the desk!"

A gray hardness came slowly to the Old Man's face while he waited, his
seamed hands gripping the padded arms of his chair. A tightness pulled
at his lips behind the grizzled whiskers. It never occurred to him now
that the Happy Family might be perpetrating one of their jokes. He had
looked at their faces, you see. They meant to quit him--quit him cold
just as spring work was beginning. They were ashamed of themselves,
of course; they had a right to be ashamed, he thought bitterly. It
hurt--hurt so that he would have died before he would ask for excuse,
reason, grievance, explanation--for whatever motive impelled them. So he
waited, and he gripped the arms of his chair, and he clamped his mouth
shut and did not speak a word.

The Happy Family had expected him to swear at them stormily; to accuse
them of vile things; to call them such names as his memory could seize
upon or his ingenuity invent. They had been careful to prepare a list of
plausible reasons for leaving then. They had first invented a gold
rumor that they hoped would sound convincing, but Andy had insisted upon
telling him straightforwardly that they did not favor fence-building and
ditch-digging and such back-breaking toil; that they were range men
and they demanded range work or none; that if they must dig ditches and
build fences and perform like menial tasks, they preferred doing it
for themselves. "That," said Andy, "makes us out such dirty, low-down
sons-of-guns we'd have to climb a tree to look a snake in the eye, but
it's got the grain of truth that'll make it go down. We DON'T love this
farming graft, and the Old Man knows it. He's heard us kicking often
enough. That's where it'll git him. He'll believe this last stretch of
fence is what made us throw him down, and he'll be so mad he'll cuss us
out till the neighbors'll think the smoke's a prairie fire. We'll get
our time, all right' and the things he'll say will likely make us so
hot we can all talk convincing when we hit town. Keep a stiff upper lip,
boys. We got to do it, and he'll make us mad, so it won't be as hard as
you imagine."

The theory was good, and revealed a knowledge of human nature that
made one cease to wonder why Andy was a prince of convincing liars. The
theory was good--nothing in the world was the matter with it, except
that in this particular instance it did not work. The Old Man did not
ask for their reasons, excuses or explanations. Neither did he say
anything or do anything to make them mad. He just sat there, with his
face gray and hard, and said nothing at all.

The Little Doctor appeared with the required books and a fountain pen;
saw the Happy Family standing there like condemned men at the steps;
saw the Old Man's face, and trembled wide-eyed upon the verge of speech.
Then she decided that this was no time for questioning and hurried,
still wide of eye, away from sight of them. The Happy Family did not
look at one another--they looked chiefly at the wall of the house.

The Old Man reckoned the wages due each one, and wrote a check for the
exact amount. And he spoke no word that did not intimately concern the
matter in hand. He still had that gray, hard look in his face that froze
whatever explanation they would otherwise have volunteered. And when
he handed the last man--who was Patsy--his check, he got up stiffly and
turned his back on them, and went inside and closed the door while yet
they lingered, waiting to explain.

At the bunk-house, whence they walked silently, Slim turned suddenly
upon their leader. His red face had gone a sallow white, and the whites
of his eyes were veined with red.

"If that there land business falls down anywhere because you lied to us,
Andy Green' I'll kill you fer this" he stated flatly.

"If it Does, Slim, I'll stand and let yuh shoot me as full of lead as
you like," Andy promised, in much the same tone. Then he strove to shake
off the spell of the Old Man's stricken silence. "Buck up, boys. He'll
thank us for what we aim to do--when he knows all about it."

"Well, it seems to me," sighed Weary lugubriously, "we mighta managed it
without hitting the Old Man a wallop in the back, like that."

"How'n hell did I know he'd take it the way he did?" Andy questioned
sharply, and began throwing his personal belongings into his "war-bag"
as if he had a grudge against his own clothes.

"Aw, looks to me like he was glad to git shet of us!" grumbled Happy
Jack. "I betche he's more tickled than sorry, right now."

It was an exceedingly unhappy Family that rode up the Hog's Back upon
their private mounts, and away from the Flying U; in spite of Chip's
assurance that he would tell the Old Man all about it as soon as he
could, it was an ill-humored Family that rode into Dry Lake and cashed
their several checks at the desk of the General store which also did
an informal banking business, and afterwards took the train for Great
Falls.

The news spread through the town that old J. G. Whitmore had fired the
Happy Family in a bunch for some unforgivable crime against the peace
and dignity of the outfit, and that the boys were hatching up some
scheme to get even. From the gossip that was rolled relishfully upon the
tongues of the Dry Lake scandal lovers, the Happy Family must have been
more than sufficiently convincing.





Next: The Coming Of The Colony

Previous: The Happy Family Turn Nesters



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