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Weary Unburdens

From: Flying U Ranch

Hungry with the sharp, gnawing hunger of healthy stomachs accustomed
to regular and generous feeding; tired with the weariness of healthy
muscles pushed past their accustomed limit of action; and hot with the
unaccustomed heat of a blazing day shunted unaccountably into the midst
of soft spring weather, the Happy Family rode out of the embrace of
the last barren coulee and up on the wide level where the breeze swept
gratefully up from the west, and where every day brought with it a
deeper tinge of green into its grassy carpet.

Only for this harassment of the Dot sheep, the roundup wagons would
be loaded and ready to rattle abroad over the land. Meadow larks and
curlews and little, pert-eyed ground sparrows called out to them that
roundup time was come. They passed a bunch of feeding Flying U cattle,
and flat-ribbed, bandy-legged calves galloped in brief panic to their
mothers and from the sanctuary of grass-filled paunches watched the
riders with wide, inquisitive eyes.

"We ought to be starting out, by now," Weary observed a bit gloomily to
Andy and Pink, who rode upon either side of him. "The calf crop is going
to be good, if this weather holds on another two weeks or so. But--" he
waved his cigarette disgustedly "--that darned Dot outfit would be all
over the place, if we pulled out on roundup and left 'em the run of
things." He smoked moodily for a minute. "My religion has changed a lot
in the last few days," he observed whimsically. "My idea of hell is
a place where there ain't anything but sheep and sheepherders; and
cowpunchers have got to spend thousands uh years right in the middle of
the corrals."

"If that's the case, I'm going to quit cussing, and say my prayers every
night," Andy Green asserted emphatically.

"What worries me," Weary confided, obeying the impulse to talk over his
troubles with those who sympathized, "is how I'm going to keep the work
going along like it ought to, and at the same time keep them Dot sheep
outa the house. Dunk's wise, all right. He knows enough about the cow
business to know we ye got to get out on the range pretty quick, now.
And he's so mean that every day or every half day he can feed his sheep
on Flying U grass, he calls that much to the good. And he knows we won't
go to opening up any real gun-fights if we can get out of it; he counts
on our faunching around and kicking up a lot of dust, maybe--but we
won't do anything like what he'd do, in our places. He knows the Old Man
and Chip are gone, and he knows we've just naturally got to sit back and
swallow our tongues because we haven't any authority. Mamma! It comes
pretty tough, when a low-down skunk like that just banks on your doing
the square thing. He wouldn't do it, but he knows we will; and so he
takes advantage of white men and gets the best of 'em. And if we should
happen to break out and do something, he knows the herders would be the
ones to get it in the neck; and he'd wait till the dust settled, and bob
up with the sheriff--" He waved his hand again with a hopeless gesture.
"It may not look that way on the face of it," he added gloomily, "but
Dunk has got us right where he wants us. From the way they've been
letting sheep on our land, time and time again, I'd gamble he's just
trying to make us so mad we'll break out. He's got it in for the whole
outfit, from the Old Man and the Little Doctor down to Slim. If any of
us boys got into trouble, the Old Man would spend his last cent to clear
us; and Dunk knows that just as well as he knows the way from the house
to the stable. He'd see to it that it would just about take the Old
Man's last cent, too. And he's using these Dot sheep like you'd use a
red flag on a bull, to make us so crazy mad we'll kill off somebody.

"That's why," he said to them all when he saw that they had ridden up
close that they might hear what he was saying, "I've been hollering so
loud for the meek-and-mild stunt. When I slapped him on the jaw, and he
stood there and took it, I saw his game. He had a witness to swear I hit
him and he didn't hit back. And when I saw them Dots in our field again,
I knew, just as well as if Dunk had told me, that he was kinda hoping
we'd kill a herder or two so he could cinch us good and plenty. I don't
say," he qualified with a rueful grin, "that Dunk went into the sheep
business just to get r-re-venge, as they say in shows. But if he can
make money running sheep--and he can, all right, because there's more
money in them right now than there is in cattle--and at the same time
get a good whack at the Flying U, he's the lad that will sure make a
running jump at the chance." He spat upon the burnt end of his cigarette
stub from force of the habit that fear of range fires had built, and
cast it petulantly from him; as if he would like to have been able to
throw Dunk and his sheep problem as easily out of his path.

"So I wish you boys would hang onto yourselves when you hear a sheep
blatting under your window," he summed up his unburdening whimsically.
"As Bud said this morning, you can't hang a man for telling a
sheepherder you'll take off his shoes. And they can't send us over the
road for moving that band of sheep onto new range to-day. Last night
you all were kinda disorderly, maybe, but you didn't hurt anybody, or
destroy any property. You see what I mean. Our only show is to stop with
our toes on the right side of the dead line."

"If Andy, here, would jest git his think-wheels greased and going good,"
Big Medicine suggested loudly, "he ought to frame up something that
would put them Dots on the run permanent. I d'no, by cripes, why it is
a feller can always think uh lies and joshes by the dozens, and put 'em
over O. K. when there ain't nothing to be made out of it except hard
feelin's; and then when a deal like this here sheep deal comes up, he's
got about as many idees, by cripes, as that there line-back calf over
there. Honest to grandma, Andy makes me feel kinda faint. Only time he
did have a chanc't, he let them--" It occurred to Big Medicine at that
point that perhaps his remarks might be construed by the object of
them as being offensively personal. He turned his head and grinned
good-naturedly in Andy's direction, and refrained from finishing what he
was going to say. "I sure do like them wind-flowers scattered all
over the ground," he observed with such deliberate and ostentatious
irrelevance that the Happy Family laughed, even to Andy Green, who had
at first been inclined toward anger.

"Everything," declared Andy in the tone of a paid instructor, "has its
proper time and place, boys; I've told you that before. For instance, I
wouldn't try to kill a skunk by talking it to death; and I wouldn't
be hopeful of putting the run on this Dunk person by telling him ghost
stories. As to ideas--I'm plumb full of them. But they're all about
grub, just right at present."

That started Slim and Happy Jack to complaining because no one had had
sense enough to go back after some lunch before taking that long trail
south; the longer because it was a slow one, with sheep to set the pace.
And by the time they had presented their arguments against the Happy
Family's having enough brains to last them overnight, and the Happy
Family had indignantly pointed out just where the mental deficiency was
most noticeable, they were upon that last, broad stretch of "bench" land
beyond which lay Flying U coulee and Patsy and dinner; a belated dinner,
to be sure, but for that the more welcome.

And when they reached the point where they could look away to the
very rim of the coulee, they saw sheep--sheep to the skyline, feeding
scattered and at ease, making the prairie look, in the distance, as
if it were covered with a thin growth of gray sage-brush. Four herders
moved slowly upon the outskirts, and the dogs were little, scurrying,
black dots which stopped occasionally to wait thankfully until the
master-minds again urged them to endeavor.

The Happy Family drew up and stared in silence.

"Do I see sheep?" Pink inquired plaintively at last. "Tell me,

"It's that bunch you fellows tackled last night," said Weary miserably.
"I ought to have had sense enough to leave somebody on the ranch to look
out for this."

"They've got their nerve," stated Irish, "after the deal they got last
night. I'd have bet good money that you couldn't drag them herders
across Flying U coulee with a log chain."

"Say, by golly, do we have to drive this here bunch anywheres before we
git anything to eat?" Slim wanted to know distressfully.

Weary considered briefly. "No, I guess we'll pass 'em up for the
present. An hour or so won't make much difference in the long run, and
our horses are about all in, right now--"

"So'm I, by cripes!" Big Medicine attested, grinning mirthlessly. "This
here sheep business is plumb wearin' on a man. 'Specially," he added
with a fretful note, "when you've got to handle 'em gentle. The things
I'd like to do to them Dots is all ruled outa the game, seems like.
Honest to grandma, a little gore would look better to me right now than
a Dutch picnic before the foam's all blowed off the refreshments. Lemme
kill off jest one herder, Weary?" he pleaded. "The one that took a shot
at me las' night. Purty, please!"

"If you killed one," Weary told him glumly, "you might as well make a
clean sweep and take in the whole bunch."

"Well, I won't charge nothin' extra fer that, either," Bud assured him
generously. "I'm willin' to throw in the other three--and the dawgs,
too, by cripes!" He goggled the Happy Family quizzically. "Nobody can't
say there's anything small about me. Why, down in the Coconino country
they used to set half a dozen greasers diggin' graves, by cripes, soon
as I started in to argy with a man. It was a safe bet they'd need three
or four, anyways, if old Bud cut loose oncet. Sheepherders? Why, they
jest natcherly couldn't keep enough on hand, securely, to run their
sheep. They used to order sheepherders like they did woolsacks, by
cripes! You could always tell when I was in the country, by the number
uh extra herders them sheep outfits always kep' in reserve. Honest to
grandma, I've knowed two or three outfits to club together and ship in
a carload at a time, when they heard I was headed their way. And so when
it comes to killin' off four, why that ain't skurcely enough to make it
worth m'while to dirty up m'gun!"

"Aw, I betche yuh never killed a man in your life!" Happy Jack grumbled
in his characteristic tone of disparagement; but such was his respect
for Big Medicine's prowess that he took care not to speak loud enough
to be overheard by that modest gentleman, who continued with certain
fearsome details of alleged murderous exploits of his own, down in
Coconino County, Arizona.

But as they passed the detested animals, thankful that the trail
permitted them to ride by at a distance sufficient to blur the most
unsavory details, even Big Medicine gave over his deliberate boastings
and relapsed into silence.

He had begun his fantastic vauntings from an instinctive impulse
to leaven with humor a situation which, at the moment, could not be
bettered. Just as they had, when came the news of the Old Man's dire
plight, sought to push the tragedy of it into the background and cling
to their creed of optimism, they had avoided openly facing the sheep
complication squarely with mutual admissions of all it might mean to the
Flying U.

Until Weary had unburdened his heart of worry on the ride home that day,
they had not said much about it, beyond a general vilification of the
sheep industry as a whole, of Dunk as the chief of the encroaching Dots,
and of the herders personally.

But there were times when they could not well avoid thinking rather
deeply upon the subject, even if they did refuse to put their
forebodings into speech. They were not children; neither were they to
any degree lacking in intelligence. Swearing, about herders and at them,
was all very well; bluffing, threatening, pummeling even with willing
fists, tearing down tents and binding men with ropes might serve to
relieve the emotions upon occasion. But there was the grim economic
problem which faced squarely the Flying U as a "cow outfit"--the problem
of range and water; the Happy Family did not call it by name, but they
realized to the full what it meant to the Old Man to have sheep just
over his boundary line always. They realized, too, what it meant to have
the Old Man absent at this time--worse, to have him lying in a
hospital, likely to die at any moment; what it meant to have the whole
responsibility shifted to their shoulders, willing though they might be
to bear the burden; what it meant to have the general of an army gone
when the enemy was approaching in overwhelming numbers.

Pink, when they were descending the first slope of the bluff which was
the southern rim of Flying U coulee, turned and glared vindictively back
at the wavering, gray blanket out there to the west. When he faced to
the front his face had the look it wore when he was fighting.

"So help me, Josephine!" he gritted desperately, "we've got to clean the
range of them Dots before the Old Man comes back, or--" He snapped his
jaws shut viciously.

Weary turned haggard eyes toward him.

"How?" he asked simply. And Pink had no answer for him.

Next: Two Of A Kind

Previous: The Happy Family Herd Sheep

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