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The Passing Of The Colt's Forty-five

From: Arizona Nights

The man of whom I am now to tell you came to Arizona in the early days
of Chief Cochise. He settled in the Soda Springs Valley, and there
persisted in spite of the devastating forays of that Apache. After a
time he owned all the wells and springs in the valley, and so,
naturally, controlled the grazing on that extensive free range. Once a
day the cattle, in twos and threes, in bands, in strings, could be seen
winding leisurely down the deep-trodden and converging trails to the
water troughs at the home ranch, there leisurely to drink, and then
leisurely to drift away into the saffron and violet and amethyst
distances of the desert. At ten other outlying ranches this daily
scene was repeated. All these cattle belonged to the man, great by
reason of his priority in the country, the balance of his even
character, and the grim determination of his spirit.

When he had first entered Soda Springs Valley his companions had called
him Buck Johnson. Since then his form had squared, his eyes had
steadied to the serenity of a great authority, his mouth, shadowed by
the moustache and the beard, had closed straight in the line of power
and taciturnity. There was about him more than a trace of the Spanish.
So now he was known as Senor Johnson, although in reality he was
straight American enough.

Senor Johnson lived at the home ranch with a Chinese cook, and Parker,
his foreman. The home ranch was of adobe, built with loopholes like a
fort. In the obsolescence of this necessity, other buildings had
sprung up unfortified. An adobe bunkhouse for the cow-punchers, an
adobe blacksmith shop, a long, low stable, a shed, a windmill and
pond-like reservoir, a whole system of corrals of different sizes, a
walled-in vegetable garden--these gathered to themselves cottonwoods
from the moisture of their being, and so added each a little to the
green spot in the desert. In the smallest corral, between the stable
and the shed, stood a buckboard and a heavy wagon, the only wheeled
vehicles about the place. Under the shed were rows of saddles, riatas,
spurs mounted with silver, bits ornamented with the same metal, curved
short irons for the range branding, long, heavy "stamps" for the corral
branding. Behind the stable lay the "pasture," a thousand acres of
desert fenced in with wire. There the hardy cow-ponies sought out the
sparse, but nutritious, bunch grass, sixty of them, beautiful as
antelope, for they were the pick of Senor Johnson's herds.

And all about lay the desert, shimmering, changing, many-tinted,
wonderful, hemmed in by the mountains that seemed tenuous and thin,
like beautiful mists, and by the sky that seemed hard and polished like
a turquoise.

Each morning at six o'clock the ten cow-punchers of the home ranch
drove the horses to the corral, neatly roped the dozen to be "kept up"
for that day, and rewarded the rest with a feed of grain. Then they
rode away at a little fox trot, two by two. All day long they
travelled thus, conducting the business of the range, and at night,
having completed the circle, they jingled again into the corral.

At the ten other ranches this programme had been duplicated. The
half-hundred men of Senor Johnson's outfit had covered the area of a
European principality. And all of it, every acre, every spear of
grass, every cactus prickle, every creature on it, practically belonged
to Senor Johnson, because Senor Johnson owned the water, and without
water one cannot exist on the desert.

This result had not been gained without struggle. The fact could be
read in the settled lines of Senor Johnson's face, and the great calm
of his grey eye. Indian days drove him often to the shelter of the
loopholed adobe ranch house, there to await the soldiers from the Fort,
in plain sight thirty miles away on the slope that led to the foot of
the Chiricahuas. He lost cattle and some men, but the profits were
great, and in time Cochise, Geronimo, and the lesser lights had
flickered out in the winds of destiny. The sheep terror merely
threatened, for it was soon discovered that with the feed of Soda
Springs Valley grew a burr that annoyed the flocks beyond reason, so
the bleating scourge swept by forty miles away. Cattle rustling so
near the Mexican line was an easy matter. For a time Senor Johnson
commanded an armed band. He was lord of the high, the low, and the
middle justice. He violated international ethics, and for the laws of
nations he substituted his own. One by one he annihilated the thieves
of cattle, sometimes in open fight, but oftener by surprise and
deliberate massacre. The country was delivered. And then, with
indefatigable energy, Senor Johnson became a skilled detective. Alone,
or with Parker, his foreman, he rode the country through, gathering
evidence. When the evidence was unassailable he brought offenders to
book. The rebranding through a wet blanket he knew and could prove;
the ear-marking of an unbranded calf until it could be weaned he
understood; the paring of hoofs to prevent travelling he could tell as
far as he could see; the crafty alteration of similar brands--as when a
Mexican changed Johnson's Lazy Y to a Dumb-bell Bar--he saw through at
a glance. In short, the hundred and one petty tricks of the
sneak-thief he ferreted out, in danger of his life. Then he sent to
Phoenix for a Ranger--and that was the last of the Dumb-bell Bar brand,
or the Three Link Bar brand, or the Hour Glass Brand, or a half dozen
others. The Soda Springs Valley acquired a reputation for good order.

Senor Johnson at this stage of his career found himself dropping into a
routine. In March began the spring branding, then the corralling and
breaking of the wild horses, the summer range-riding, the great fall
round-up, the shipping of cattle, and the riding of the winter range.
This happened over and over again.

You and I would not have suffered from ennui. The roping and throwing
and branding, the wild swing and dash of handling stock, the mad races
to head the mustangs, the fierce combats to subdue these raging wild
beasts to the saddle, the spectacle of the round-up with its brutish
multitudes and its graceful riders, the dust and monotony and
excitement and glory of the Trail, and especially the hundreds of
incidental and gratuitous adventures of bears and antelope, of thirst
and heat, of the joy of taking care of one's self--all these would have
filled our days with the glittering, changing throng of the unusual.

But to Senor Johnson it had become an old story. After the days of
construction the days of accomplishment seemed to him lean. His men
did the work and reaped the excitement. Senor Johnson never thought
now of riding the wild horses, of swinging the rope coiled at his
saddle horn, or of rounding ahead of the flying herds. His inspections
were business inspections. The country was tame. The leather chaps
with the silver conchas hung behind the door. The Colt's forty-five
depended at the head of the bed. Senor Johnson rode in mufti. Of his
cowboy days persisted still the high-heeled boots and spurs, the broad
Stetson hat, and the fringed buckskin gauntlets.

The Colt's forty-five had been the last to go. Finally one evening
Senor Johnson received an express package. He opened it before the
undemonstrative Parker. It proved to contain a pocket "gun"--a
nickel-plated, thirty-eight calibre Smith & Wesson "five-shooter."
Senor Johnson examined it a little doubtfully. In comparison with the
six-shooter it looked like a toy.

"How do you, like her?" he inquired, handing the weapon to Parker.

Parker turned it over and over, as a child a rattle. Then he returned
it to its owner.

"Senor," said he, "if ever you shoot me with that little old gun, AND I
find it out the same day, I'll just raise hell with you!"

"I don't reckon she'd INJURE a man much," agreed the Senor, "but
perhaps she'd call his attention."

However, the "little old gun" took its place, not in Senor Johnson's
hip pocket, but inside the front waistband of his trousers, and the old
shiny Colt's forty-five, with its worn leather "Texas style" holster,
became a bedroom ornament.

Thus, from a frontiersman dropped Senor Johnson to the status of a
property owner. In a general way he had to attend to his interests
before the cattlemen's association; he had to arrange for the buying
and shipping, and the rest was leisure. He could now have gone away
somewhere as far as time went. So can a fish live in trees--as far as
time goes. And in the daily riding, riding, riding over the range he
found the opportunity for abstract thought which the frontier life had
crowded aside.

Next: The Shapes Of Illusion

Previous: The Accomplishment

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