The First Blow In The Fight





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.





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