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The Rio Blanco Puts In A Claim

From: The Fighting Edge

Preparations for the drive occupied several days. The cattle were rounded
up and carefully worked. Many of those that had roughed through the hard
winter were still weak. Some of these would yet succumb and would
increase the thirty per cent of losses already counted. Only those able
to stand inspection were thrown into the trail herd. Afterward, a second
cut was made and any doubtful ones culled from the bunch.

Word had come from Rangely that all the streams were high as far as and
beyond the Utah line. But the owner of the Slash Lazy D was under
contract to deliver and he could not wait for the water to go down.

When the road herd had been selected and the mavericks in the round-up
branded with the Slash Lazy D or whatever other brand seemed fair
considering the physical characteristics of the animal and the group with
which it was ranging, Harshaw had the cattle moved up the river a couple
of miles to a valley of good grass. Here they were held while the ranch
hands busied themselves with preparations for the journey. A wagon and
harness were oiled, a chuck-box built, and a supply of groceries packed.
Bridles and cinches were gone over carefully, ropes examined, and hobbles

The remuda for the trail outfit was chosen by Harshaw himself. He knew
his horses as he knew the trail to Bear Cat. No galled back or lame leg
could escape his keen eye. No half-tamed outlaw could slip into the
cavvy. Every horse chosen was of proved stamina. Any known to be afraid
of water remained at the ranch. Every rider would have to swim streams a
dozen times and his safety would depend upon his mount. Tails were
thinned, hoofs trimmed, manes cleared of witches' bridles, and ears
swabbed to free them of ticks.

The start was made before dawn. Stars were shining by thousands when the
chuck-wagon rolled down the road. The blatting of cows could be heard as
the riders moved the phantom cattle from their bedding-ground.

The dogies were long-legged and shaggy, agile and wild as deer. They were
small-boned animals, not fit for market until they were four-year-olds.
On their gaunt frames was little meat, but they were fairly strong and
very voracious. If not driven too hard these horned jackrabbits, as some
wag had dubbed them, would take on flesh rapidly.

Harshaw chose five punchers to go with him--Dud, Big Bill, Tom Reeves,
Hawks, and Bob. A light mess-wagon went with the outfit. Before noon the
herd had grazed five miles down the river.

The young grass matted the ground. Back of the valley could be seen the
greenclad mesas stretching to the foothills which hemmed in the Rio
Blanco. The timber and the mesquite were in leaf. Wild roses and
occasionally bluebells bloomed. The hillsides were white with the
blossoms of service berries.

In the early afternoon they reached the ford. Harshaw trailed the cattle
across in a long file. He watched the herd anxiously, for the stream was
running strong from the freshet. After a short, hard swim the animals
made the landing.

The mess-wagon rattled down to the ford as the last of the herd scrambled

"Think I'll put you at the reins, Dud," the cattleman said. "Head the
horses upstream a little and keep 'em going."

All the other punchers except Bob were across the river with the herd.

Dud relieved the previous driver, gathered up reins and whip with
competent hands, and put the horses at the river. They waded in through
the shallows, breasted the deep water, and began to swim. Before they had
gone three yards they were in difficulties. The force of the current
carried the light wagon downstream. The whiplash cracked around the ears
of the horses, but they could not make headway. Team, wagon, and driver
began to drift down the river. Supplies, floating from the top of the
load, were scattered in all directions.

Instantly six men became very busy. Rope loops flew out and tightened
around the bed of the wagon. Others circled the necks of the horses. Dud
dived into the river to lighten the load. Harshaw, Bob, and the cook rode
into the shallow water and salvaged escaping food, while the riders on
the other bank guided wagon and team ashore.

Dud, dripping like a mermaid, came to land with a grin. Under one arm a
pasty sack of flour was tucked, under the other a smoked venison haunch.
"An' I took a bath only yesterday," he lamented.

The food was sun-dried and the wagon repacked.

At Dry Creek, which was now a rushing torrent, Harshaw threw the cattle
into a draw green with young grass and made camp for the night.

"We got neighbors," announced Big Bill, watching a thin column of smoke
rising from the mesa back of them.

"Guess I'll drift over after supper," Harshaw said. "Maybe they can give
me the latest news about high water down the river."

Hawks had just come in from the remuda. He gave information.

"I drifted over to their camp. An old friend, one of 'em. Gent by the
name of Bandy Walker. He's found that outfit of he-men he was lookin'

"Yes," said the cattleman non-committally.

"One's a stranger. The other's another old friend of some o' the boys.
Jake Houck he calls hisself."

Bob's heart shriveled within him. Two enemies scarcely a stone's throw
away, and probably both of them knew he was here. Had they come to settle
with him?

He dismissed this last fear. In Jake Houck's scheme of things he was not
important enough to call for a special trip of vengeance.

"We'll leave 'em alone," Harshaw decided. "If any of them drop over we'll
be civil. No trouble, boys, you understand."

But Houck's party did not show up, and before break of day the camp of
the trail herd outfit was broken. The riders moved the herd up the creek
to an open place where it could be easily crossed. From here the cattle
drifted back toward the river. Dud was riding on the point, Hawks and
Dillon on the drag.

In the late afternoon a gulch obstructed their path. It ran down at right
angles to the Rio Blanco. Along the edge of this Harshaw rode till he
found an easier descent. He drove the leaders into the ravine and started
them up the other side of the trough to the mesa beyond. The cattle
crowded so close that some of them were forced down the bed of the gorge
instead of up the opposite bank.

Bob galloped along the edge and tried to head the animals back by firing
his revolver in front from above. In this he was not successful. The
gulch was narrow, and the pressure behind drove the foremost cattle on to
the river.

The dogies waded in to drink. The push of the rear still impelled the
ones in advance to move deeper into the water. Presently the leaders were
swimming out into the stream. Those behind followed at heel.

Dillon flung his horse down into the ravine in the headlong fashion he
had learned from months of hill riding. He cantered along it, splashing
through shallow pools and ploughing into tangled brush. When he came
within sight of the river the cattle were emerging from it upon a sandy
bar that formed an island in midstream.

He kicked off his chaps, remounted, and headed into the water. The
current was strong and Powder River already tired. But the bronco
breasted the rushing waters gamely. It was swept downstream, fighting
every inch of the way. When at last the Wyoming horse touched bottom, it
was at the lower edge of the long bar.

Bob swung down into the water and led his mount ashore.

From the bank he had just left, Hawks called to him. "Want I should come
over, or can you handle 'em?"

"Better stay there till I see if I can start 'em back," Bob shouted.

On Powder River he rounded up the cattle, a score or more of them, and
drove them back into the stream. They went reluctantly, for they too were
tired and the swim across had been a hard one. But after one or two had
started the others followed.

The young cowpuncher did not like the look of the black rushing waters.
He had known one horrible moment of terror while he was crossing, that
moment during which he had been afraid Powder River would be swept beyond
the point of the sand spit. Now he cringed at the thought of venturing
into that flood again. He postponed the hazard, trying two or three
starting-places tentatively before he selected one at the extreme upper
point of the island.

His choice was a bad one. The bronco was carried down into a swirl of
deep, angry water. So swift was the undertow that Powder River was
dragged from beneath its rider. Bob caught at the mane of the horse and
clung desperately to it with one hand. A second or two, and this was torn
from his clutch.

Dillon was washed downstream. He went under, tried to cry for help, and
swallowed several gulps of water. When he came to the surface again he
was still close to the island, buffeted by the boiling torrent. It swept
him to a bar of willow bushes. To these he clung with the frenzy of a
drowning man.

After a time he let go one hand-hold and found another. Gradually he
worked into the shallows and to land. He could see Powder River, far
downstream, still fighting impotently against the pressure of the

Bob shuddered. If he lived a hundred years he would never have a closer
escape from drowning. It gave him a dreadful sinking at the stomach even
to look at the plunging Blanco. The river was like some fearful monster
furiously seeking to devour.

The voice of Hawks came to him. "Stay there while I get the boss."

The dismounted cowboy watched Hawks ride away, then lay down in the hot
sand and let the sun bake him. He felt sick and weak, as helpless as a
blind and wobbly pup.

It may have been an hour later that he heard voices and looked across to
the mouth of the ravine. Harshaw and Big Bill and Dud were there with
Hawks. They were in a group working with ropes.

Harshaw rode into the river. He carried a coil of rope. Evidently two or
more lariats had been tied together.

"Come out far as you can and catch this rope when I throw it," Harshaw
told the marooned cowboy.

Bob ventured out among the willows, wading very carefully to make sure of
his footing. The current swirled around his thighs and tugged at him.

The cattleman flung the rope. It fell short. He pulled it in and rewound
the coil. This time he drove his horse into deeper water. The animal was
swimming when the loop sailed across to the willows.

Dillon caught it, slipped it over his body, and drew the noose tight. A
moment later he was being tossed about by the cross-currents. The lariat
tightened. He was dragged under as the force of the torrent flung him
into midstream. His body was racked by conflicting forces tugging at it.
He was being torn in two, the victim of a raging battle going on to
possess him. Now he was on his face, now on his back. For an instant he
caught a glimpse of blue sunlit sky before he plunged down again into the
black waters and was engulfed by them....

He opened his eyes. Dud's voice came from a long way.

"Comin' to all right. Didn't I tell you this bird couldn't drown?"

The mists cleared. Bob saw Dud's cheerful smile, and back of it the faces
of Harshaw, Hawks, and Big Bill.

"You got me out," he murmured.

"Sure did, Bob. You're some drookit, but I reckon we can dry you like we
did the grub," his riding mate said.

"Who got me?"

"Blame the boss."

"We all took a hand, boy," Harshaw explained. "It was quite some job. You
were headed for Utah right swift. The boys rode in and claimed ownership.
How you feelin'?"

"Fine," Bob answered, and he tried to demonstrate by rising.

"Hold on. What's yore rush?" Harshaw interrupted. "You're right dizzy, I
expect. A fellow can't swallow the Blanco and feel like kickin' a hole in
the sky right away. Take yore time, boy."

Bob remembered his mount. "Powder River got away from me--in the water."
He said it apologetically.

"I'm not blamin' you for that," the boss said, and laid a kindly hand on
Dillon's shoulder.

"Was it drowned?"

"I reckon we'll find that out later. Lucky you wasn't. That's a heap more

Bob was riding behind Dud fifteen minutes later in the wake of the herd.
Hawks had gone back to learn what had become of Powder River.

Supper was ready when Buck reached camp. He was just in time to hear the
cook's "Come an' get it." He reported to Harshaw.

"Horse got outa the river about a mile below the island. I scouted around
some for it, but couldn't trail in the dark."

"All right, Buck. To-morrow Dud and Bob can ride back and get the bronc.
We'll loaf along the trail and make a short day of it."

He sat down on his heels, reached for a tin plate and cup, and began one
of the important duties of the day.

Next: Cutting Sign

Previous: In The Saddle

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