The Salvation of Slats
The girl started it but Slats himself had a good deal to do with finishing it
J. PAUL LOOMIS
YOU’RE back from the Big Stampede, are you? Never no more! H’mph! Boy, don’t kid an old-timer that-a-way. What if you did find some better riders, an’ wuss horses are rounded up at Calgary than graze among these hills along Butte Creek an’ the North Saskatchewan? You’ll hear the announcer bawl your name an’ see ’em yank open the chute an’ feel a quiverin’ bundle o’ steel springs an’ devilment between your knees —ride to glory or root the dust many a time yet. It’s in your blood!
Yeah! I’ve heard better men than you swear off contest r din’, but, only one did I ever see quit an’ stay quit, right while he was goin’ strong. That was Slats Eagen—him that now owns the Half-moon K. What? Cold feet? Slats! Why, that boy was so plumb sure he could ride anything with hair, feathers, or wool, he’d a’ been ready at a chance to cinch his saddle on to that winged horse Peg-gas-us it tells about in Shakespeare or somethin’. Ready; that was Slats ! Ready to jump like a ball-bearin’ mouse-trap for a dance, a drink or a fight; ready to stake his ev’ry cent on the turn of a card, to quit one job an’ take another—poorer like as not—just to have a change an’ to make love to ev’ry pretty girl he saw for the same reason. Just an ordinary you-be-hang cowboy with an ordinary cowboy’s future ahead o’ him; same as I’ve got—behind me.
Sure, it was a girl started his remodlin’, but it was old Dame Fate took over the job an’ put Slats through a course o’ sprouts that took the foolishness out o’ him. He met her—the girl I mean—at the Moccasin Hill Stampede, which the town put on to celebrate the cornin’ o’ the railroad. Nan MacVail was her name, daughter of old Dune MacVail, the cattle-feeder, whose Circle M ranch was on Old Man River south o’ the Saskatchewan. We first seen her helpin’ her brothers drive in a bunch o’ broncos they’d gathered up for the contest. She was ridin’ a thoroughbred—stallion, mind you—that nipped the fuzz-tails’ rumps an’ dodged their kicks nimble as a buck deer, while his brown coat shone like mink’s fur an’ the silver conchas on his saddle an’ bridle glinted in the sunshine. But Slat’s eyes weren’t on the horse, much as he loved a good one; it was Nan took his attention. She was good to look at. Tall, strong, square-shouldered—though not a line about her that wasn’t trim an’ graceful—with blue eyes an’ yellow hair, but eyes so blue an’ hair so yellow an’ lips an’ cheeks with so much color in ’em, she could wear her screamin’ red scarf an’ cream-colored shirt an’ blue an’ gold bead hatband without their gettin’ the beat of her.
Slats won that stampede. He could a’ ridden a hurricane with Nan lookin’ on. At the dance that night he was cock-o’-the-walk as usual, an’ let me also remark that not many other young bucks got within reach o’ Miss MacVail. They made a handsome couple, too—both so tall an’ strikin’; her with that shiny yellow hair, him with black. When they called a Highland Schottische, old Bill Bolander tried to fiddle down ev’rybody on the floor but he couldn’t play too fast nor long for Nan an’ Slats.
I don’t need to tell you Slats quit the L-cross an’ hit a job down by Old Man River. An’ there he didn’t let the grass sprout under his boot-heels. By the end o’ two weeks he’d been ridin’ with Nan four times, an’ three times he’d asked her to marry him.
“I believe you really mean it,” she said, on the third occasion, “but don’t you think that before you ask a girl to marry you, you ought to show more proof that you can support a wife?”
At that Slats rared like someone had give a powerful jerk on his bridle-reins. There he stood six foot two an’ a hundred an’ seventy pounds o’ whalebone an’ whangleather, an’ the idea he couldn’t make a livin’ for someone besides himself plumb strangled him.
“Creepin’ Christopher—” he finally begins but Nan takes his words away from him.
“I know what you’re tryin’ to say. You think because you’re big an’ can do all the things men like to do better’n most of ’em can, there’s no doubt you can take care of a wife—an’ some day a fam’ly. But tell me, have you ever saved a cent?”
“Never needed to,” Slats declares. “I can alius get a job with board an’ lodgin’ found.”
“Yes, but a wife’s board isn’t found—not with a job o’ punchin’ cattle. Besides, if we were to be married I’d not want you to keep on workin’ at forty a month for someone else. I’d want you to start on your own.” “I’ve got a homestead,” he speaks up hopeful. “We could start farmin’ an’ work into cattle.”
“What have you for an outfit?” Nan enquires, an’ her businesslike way began to chafe Slats.
“I’ve got two cow-ponies an’ a saddle,” he snaps; “but I can borrow for work horses an’ seed an’ machinery.” “No,” says Nan, “I couldn’t let you take on a load of debt either. One’s soul isn’t his own when ev’rything he’s got has a plaster on it. It’s worse than workin’ for wages.”
“How much kale does a man have to salt down before you’ll look at him?”
Nan jumps up an’ catches his sleeve. “Now don’t take it that way,” she begs. “You know I like you—like you a lot right now—but it isn’t fair to either of us not to look ahead a little.”
“How much,” persists Slats, “do I have to save before you’ll do any more than like me?”
“Oh, just show me you can save—something; the price of the horses an’ machinery you need. Say a thousand dollars.”
“I’ll do it,” declares Slats. “I’ll bring you a thousand dollars a lot quicker than you think for, too. I’ll go to the Calgary Stampede next week an’ win a bunch o’ prize-money. I’ll show you I’m not just a wind-jammer.”
AN’ SO Slats sailed for Calgary with a ramrod up his back an’ his hat jammed on very solid. Come time for us to expect him back again but he didn’t show up an’ we wondered what had become o’ him. Finally, Hank Brassington ran acrost a hoss-trader who’d been at the stampede an’ who told him Slats had taken first money in the calf roping, doubled it twice bettin’ on the races, had a rib busted by a brindle long-horn in the bulldogging, an’ then, strapped an’ bandaged around the barrel, had ridden three wall-eyed wild-cats in the finals of the bucking contest for the big prize. An’ then gone on a toot and lost it all !
Well, that was bad but, worse yet, Hank didn’t have sense enough to keep his news under his hat. Soon Nan heard it. She never let on she cared a mite. But one day I was lookin’ for L-cross cattle along the North Saskatchewan an’ I come acrost her sittin’ on top of a little butte while her horse grazed nearby. Her chin was in her hands an’ she was lookin’ off down the big valley to where the river run like a twisty ribbon, bluish silver in the fall haze. She was surprised when I rode up, but no more than I. Her snappy high-headed style seemed to have left her, an’ in her eyes was a smoky far-away look like the river, while so much o’ the color had gone from her cheeks, her bright shirt an’ scarf seemed garish an’ out o’ place.
“Do you believe it about him, Pete?” she asks when we’d exchanged howdies.
“Fm ’fraid I do,” I answers. “But a range four-yearold throws hisself purty hard sometimes afore he’s halter-broke. There’s no other way to learn him. We’ll just wait till Slats comes back to Old Man River afore we pass judgment on him.”
“Do you think he’ll come back?” she says very quick. “I don’t think a gang o’ men with dogs an’ shotguns could keep him away,” I tells her; “but first he’s got to square up with hisself.”
SOON after that, I went to Winnipeg with steers for old Dan Lawton. The market was off, so I wired him I was takin’ ’em on to Chicago. At South St. Paul we fed an’ watered in the night, an’ after the cattle was loaded again I climbed aboard the caboose an’ a switchengine shoved us out acrost the old Mississippi to the mail? line tracks to wait for the through freight. There was no light in the caboose ’cept half a dozen cigarette sparks, but a voice behind one of ’em mentioned a coffee-house nearby an’ we all filed in.
“What’ll it be?” says the sleepy waitress to the guy under a ten-quart hat at the end o’ the line. He flung out a long arm to point to a frothy lemon pie.
“Honey,” says he, “give us a slab o’ that pie with the calf-slobbers on it.” Next minute I was whackin’ Slats Eagen on the back.
As we clickety-elicked along past cornfields an’ appleorchards toward Chicago, Slats told me what had happened; how after he’d made a clean-up at the stampede he’d just intended to have a glass or two with the boys who were so anxious to congratulate him, but Squint Gangwer in particular, who’d had to be content with second place, had been such a generous loser an’ set ’em up so often that things got kinda blurry, an’ he only remembered tryin’ to ride his horse into the King’s Hotel an’ ropin’ a cop that objected thereto, an’ then wakin’ up in the skookum-house with a taste like burnt hen-feathers in his mouth an’ all his money gone. So was Squint Gangwer, an’ after Slats had sold his saddle to pay his fine, he’d been huntin’ Squint ever since. Not havin’ found scratch o’ him, he was now workin’ his way to Chicago for fhe sake o’ bein’ somewhere else, an’ he was a-goin’ to stay there! Right; he wouldn’t come away -with me, not even when I told him about Nan.
“Think I’m goin’ back with my tail between my legs! Besides,” he adds, “she don’t really care or she wouldn’t have bargained with me the way she did.” An’ bein’ cross an’ stubborn, nothin’ I could say would make him look at it any different.
He got a job in the stockyards, an’ they put him at the brandin’ chutes where stockers are rebranded before bein’ shipped back to the range. It was a kind o’ work he didn’t mind on the ranch, knowin’ that lie an’ the cattle too would soon be out again where the sod’s clean an’ the wind’s sweet. But here all day an’ ev’ry day he watched cattle squirm under the red-hot iron till it made a raw placejnside him, while the stink o’ burnin’ hair an’ the smell o’ blood from the dehornin’ choked his nostrils. his in
At night he’d eat his supper in some beanery among gabblin’ Greeks an’ shifty-eyed Sicilians, an’ maybe go to a movie where some “Western” would give him a pain in the withers, an’ then he’d climb three flights o’ stairs to his room on South Halstead Street an’ listen to the “L” trains rumble past. Howl of a coyote instead would a’ been the sweetest music, an’ he’d have swapped his soul for the sight of a country where he could see a long ways—if he couldn’t see much. Much!—it seemed to Slats like gray-green prairie dotted with little lakes an’ splotched with poplar bluffs, stretchin’ away to velvety buttes on the skyline, an’ all warm an’ shimmery in the sunshine or soft an’ gray in the rain, was about all in the world worth seein’. ’Specially if he could see it again with Nan MacVail. Howsomever he stayed right on in the stockyards—mostly to punish himself, I guess.
But one day when the lonesomeness had got him about loco, he fell in with a saddle-bowed chap named Hauser from Arizona, an’ the two nicked together so well they agreed to have a drink on it. For Slats it worked like a match in a powder factory. At the end of a week’s hell-raisin’, a gray-faced, pouchy-eyed cowboy was called into the yard office an’ fired.
As Slats come away from the pay-window with his little blue cheque in his fingers, he was stopped by a big man with a heavy belt-line, a Stetson twisted nearly sideways on his head an’ crow’s-feet round his eyes. Slats knew him for Jim Halliwell o’ the commission firm o’ Halliwell & McLay, an’ he followed him to a seat in the corner o’ the lobby.
“I’ve been watchin’ you, Canady,” Halliwell begins, “ever since the time you bought that calf that had its eye knocked out, an’ killed it rather than have it suffer till it went to the packer next day. You know cattle an’ you care about ’em, too. But now you’ve gone to interferin’ in your gait an’ you’ll go lame for good if you stay on here.
“Not much danger,” growls Slats, “I’m sacked.”
“You come from a good cow-country,” Halliwell goes on. “I rode range north o’ Medicine Hat myself twenty year ago. Got two ranches up there now. Do you know a good location for another?”
“Yes,” says Slats, warmin’ up at once, “there’s a purty little prairie up in the bush by Cold Lake, a hundred miles north o’ the North Saskatchewan. An’ in the sloughs an’ meadows around it you can cut plenty o’ hay.”
“Crowded,” Halliwell asked, studyin’ him sideways.
“Hardly. A few French-Canadian ranchers.”
The old cow-puncher chewed his cigar. Directly he says: “I’ll stake you. Buy a hundred yearlin’s in Winnipeg an’ take ’em out there this spring. We split fifty-fifty.”
Slats mighty near fell off his chair. “But,” he stammers, “I’ve just been canned for drinking too much to prod steers into a brandin’ chute—an’ you’d send me off back o’ nowhere with twenty-five hundred dollars worth o’ cattle!”
“Sure,” says Halliwell, throwin’ his cigar at a giboon. “All you need is responsibility—an’ to get back on your own range again.”
SLATS began his ranchin’ on an off-colored year.
Spring an’ early summer was drier’n a cork leg. Crops burned out an’ made sure of a feed shortage in the fall; then come so much rain, it spoiled the wild hay. ’Way back in the bush beyond Cold Lake, Slats mowed around the edges o’ his meadows an’ bogged his horses an’ stacked his hay wet, if he stacked it at all. Wavin’ tantalizin’ly in front o’ him was acres o’ waist-high grass—with four inches o’ water underneath. He watched it bleach to worthless straw. Then come the Big Cold with storms an’ fifty below. When you’re winterin’ cattle you know what that means; it’s feed! An’ beyond his own scanty hayricks an’ the coils he’d not had a chance to stack, an’ now dug from under the snow there was no feed to be had. Few ranchers had enough for their own stock that year, let alone hay to sell.
All winter long Slats saw it starin’ him in the face— that day when the hay would be gone; an’ spring, unless it come uncommon early, not yet in sight. He cut the rations all he dared; he saw his cattle grow ribby an’ rough-haired an’ dead-eyed. Day after day he watched ’em lick the trampled snow for the last mouldy straw an’ then hump their backs an’ hang their sorry beads. Often he’d tail up some dogie that was too weak to rise alone, an’ stand the others off while it ate, but without shed or beddin’ he’d always end by givin’ it an iron poultice an’ snakin’ it out for the brush wolves to howl over at night.
Nights—week long—was the worst. Great white cracklin’ moonlight nights when the ghostly poplars threw slantin’ blue shadows on the snow an’ he could hear the cattle breathin’ down at the bed-ground an’ see the fog o’ their breath. Thick stormy nights when the wind soughed through the spruces an’ the snow sifted down inches deep on their bony backs. Creepy nights durin’ soft spells when the Northern Lights flitted over the sky an’ the big owls hooted round his cabin. For hours Slats would lie awake, waitin’ for the sneakin’ dawn when he could try to do somethin’ for his cattle. Mighty little to do; that was the hell of it!
When that dreaded day finally came, late in March, an’ the last spear o’ hay had been eaten by the thinflanked cattle, Slats didn’t beat it down the trail away from their low pitiful bawlin’ as some men would a’ done. He hitched his four crow-bait horses to a snowplow he’d built o’ hewn planks, an’ fought desperate through the wind-packed drifts to uncover enough dead slough-grass to keep the herd a-goin’ one day more— only one day more! Spring’d surely start to come to-morrow! Two o’ the horses died durin’ the night an’ a blizzard come ! In the murk o’ storm Slats walked up an’ down among his spooky cattle, waitin’ for it to get light. Then he went to the cabin with his hard jaw harder still, took down his Winchester an’ counted his shells. There was three to spare—He had those three still when the job was done, but he couldn’t see the trees in his way as he come back to his cabin an’ his hand made the rifle clatter as he laid it on the table.
A WEEK later he come trudgin’ through the slush o’ meltin’ snow to Lawton’s ranch. He wanted me to look after the two bags-o’-bones he was leadin’ that had a hard time to carry his saddle, turn about between ’em. Nan MacVail was there visitin’ Lucy Lawton. Slats havin’ kept out o’ her sight ever since he went to Calgary, she had a good right to think he’d forgotten all about her, but bein’ a woman I don’t think she could miss the way he caught his breath when he saw her, nor the starved look that come into his gray eyes—different from the hurt, hard look there already. They said: “Hello,” without lookin’ at each other straight, an’ when dinner—which wasn’t what you’d call a social success— was over, Slats got his coat an’ hat.
“Excuse me this time,” he answered Dan and Lucy’s protests, “but I got to do like the mosquitos—eat an’ run.”
I loaned him a horse an’ he saddled in front o’ the barn. I went inside for somethin’ an’ cornin’ out, stopped, for there was Nan beside him with both her hands upon his arm. Her eyes were soft an’ deep, an’ in her face was a world o’ things that even I could read: sympathy, anxiety, desire to help—an’ a good deal more. Of which I don’t know how much Slats understood.
“I know what you’ve been through,” I heard her say. “I can read it in your
“It’s the game,” says he gruffly.
“What are you going to do?”
“Look for my money where I lost it. I’m now only thirty-five hundred short o’ the price you put on yourself.”
She dropped back like he had hit her. Then she drew herself up till it seemed she could look level into his eyes. Hers were blue fire.
“I didn’t put a price on myself ! I didn’t say I’d love you if you came to me with a thousand dollars ! Do you think I am that cheap—cheap enough to mix money an’ love? Then I’m too cheap for you—an’ you’re too cheap for me.” She turned away with a fling of her arm. “Go on to town an’ get drunk if you want to; I don’t want to see you again.”
He tried to say somethin’ but she wouldn’t listen, so he swung to the saddle an’ rode off. Nan got out her horse an’ rode away, too, in the opposite direction, an’ didn’t come back till the sunset was reddenin’ all the sky an’ snow.
But Slats didn’t stop in Moccasin Hill to get drunk. He kept right on a-goin’; blind baggage, cattle-trains an’ the like, to Chicago again. He didn’t get drunk there either. He went straight to Jim Halliwell an’ told him he’d lost every hoof o’ the cattle—an’ asked him for five thousand dollars backin’ for a riskier business still; buyin’ an’ shippin’ stock! It took the old boy’s breath but the nerve of it tickled him, too. Slats shipped eighty cars o’ cattle out o’ Belpre an’ Moccasin Hill that summer an’ fall.
But let me tell you he didn’t do it restin’ his hands an’ face. He was only out of the saddle once in a while to sleep. Now he’d be bringin’ down a bunch o' cattle from Midnight Lake an’ next he’d be workin’ up Horsehead Valley an’ then you’d hear o’ him ’way over south o’ the Saskatchewan. He knew cattle an’ he knew men an’ the ranchers liked him. When the market was good he give ’em the benefit, an’ when it was down he had the nerve to make a fair offer when other buyers had quit. Ev’ry stampede found him right on hand—doin’ a roarin’ business buyin’ steers from the stockmen assembled. ,
I was lined up at the feed-trough in Sam’s place in Moccasin Hill one day in October when Slats folded himself into the chair next to me. “Pete,” he says, “I want to hire you for two weeks or so.” “What for to do?” I asks.
“To go up in the Cold Lake country an’ help bring down a bunch o’ steers.”
“Go to granny!” I replies. “This old cow-punch has served his time standin’ night-guard an’ sleepin’ on the ground. Besides, I know that darned bush too well!”
“That’s why I need you,” he persists. “You’re worth a dozen o’ these bigmouthed kids. Dune MacVail wants eight carloads o’ two-year-olds to feed this winter. Offered me a big price if I can get him an even bunch o’ the kind he wants an’ get ’em to him in fifteen days.” “Think you can find ’em?” I asks. “I know I can. Besides, yesterday I sent Halliwell the balance due on the cattle I shot last winter an’ I only have to clear five dollars a head to make a thousand on this deal. It’s my chance, Pete. Will you give me a hand?”
It took us eight days to get to Cold Lake an’ buy an’ round up the cattle. They was good ones—better than even Slats expected—but we had to take a lot we didn’t want, to get the ones we did. We started south with near three hundred head—an awkward bunch for two men to handle through the bush. We had to herd ’em three nights before we got to Veniot’s where we could put ’em in a corral. That night we slept like logs on Veniot’s floor
It had been dozy Indian Summer weather, with the woods all crisp and smelly and the yellow poplar leaves driftin’ down, but with the last flocks o’ geese an’ cranes hustlin’ south. The mornin’ we left Veniot’s the sky was leadcolored, an’ there was ice an inch thick on the creek where we watered the cattle.
Slats looked anxious. There was the North Saskatchewan yet to cross, an’ ice there, which might begin cornin’ down from the mountains soon, would mean the ferry couldn’t run an’ no way to get the cattle over. Toward noon cold kernel snow began to fall, drivin’ down on a northeast wind that made the trees around us sigh an’ creak oneasy like. We drove the cattle hard bound to make Ben Greer’s at Cache Lake before dark. ’Bout four o’clock we met a rider—didn’t see him where he had pulled into the brush to let the cattle pass till he spurred up beside us. He was wearin’ woolly chaps an’ a beaded mooseskin coat an’ a wide hat with a scarf tied Indian-fashion over his ears. He spoke to us before we saw it wasn’t a “he” at all—it was Nan MacVail.
“I knew I’d meet you,” she cried, “with the cattle, too. But Dad an’ the boys laughed at the idea that you could get the bunch they want up in the bush. If you don’t come to-morrow Dad’s going to Edmonton next day to buy his steers there. And ice was beginnin’ to come down the river when I crossed this mornin’. If you get over at all you’ve got to do it to-night!”
I hope we’ll be forgiven for the way we drove those tired critters. Nan eould swing a bull-whip or head a steer as well as any man, an’ through the dark an’ squalls o’ snow we crowded ’em along, strainin’ our eyes to deep the trail an’ not miss any o’ the cattle. We were out o’ the bush now, in the rough hills near the river. Finally the emptiness on our right told us we were flankin’ the big valley. Then with yells an’ bitin’ whips we wheeled the cattle down into the blackness; smashing through brush, slidin’ into coulees; one o’ us ridin’ well up on each flank o’ the herd to keep ’em together. Down an’ down an’ down we slid, aimin’ by guess an’ by glory for the ferry.
For a while I hadn’t heard Nan shoutin’ on my left, so I ranged to that side the herd. Didn’t find no one either. I bellered for Slats an’ he heard me or missed me, for purty soon he come scramblin’ back up to where I’d stopped. “She’s gone,” I yelled, an’ together we started back, callin’ as we climbed. We knew what to expect. The skift o’ snow on that steep frozen ground made desperate footin’ for a horse. Bye an’ bye a whinny guided us to the bottom of a deep coulee. There we found her horse with a broken leg an’ beside him a dark huddle that made us sick. Slats picked her up like she was a sleepin’ baby. She was limp—in the dark we couldn’t tell no more. I shot the horse an’ we started down, Slats mindin’ his footin’ like he was walkin’ a rope an’ me leadin’ our horses. Even in the dark I could see his white face.
We’d worked our way mebbe two hundred yards when Nan come to. She gripped Slats tight for a while, then denied she’d done so an’ insisted on bein’ put down. But I reckon, about then, somethin’ they’d been fightin’ back broke loose inside both of ’em. Slats answered her by coverin’ her face with kisses, an’ purty soon she quit her scoldin’ of him an’ flung both her arms around his neck. So I tested the saddle-girths, an’ stood on one foot an’ then the other an’ rubbed my ears in the wind, an’ finally had to remind ’em of a triflin’ matter o’ twelve carloads o’ cattle off down below us somewhere in the dark an’ brush still headed galleywest.
Nan cried when we explained about her horse. Lucky, Slats’ horse would carry double, but it was your old Uncle Pete that rounded up the cattle. At midnight we reached the river. Out o’ the snowy dark come the hiss an’ grind of a hundred yards o’ runnin’ ice, an’ we knew that the ferryman with his capstan had hauled out the ferry.
I took a long breath an’ started in to cuss in a style suitable to the situation, but them two young loons sittin’ there on the one horse told me to dry up an’ build a fire an’ help make things comf’ter’ble. Comf’ter’ble—with the cattle market failin’ ev’ry day, so Nan had said, an’ us with three hundred steers on our hands we’d paid a heap too much money for!
It was cold enough to freeze the whiskers of hope before mornin’. Kept us hoppin’ to rustle firewood. But it set the runnin’ ice in the river, so’s Nan an’ Slats crossed it that same day an’ took Shank’s ponies down to the Circle M to head MacVail from goin’ to Edmonton. An’ three days later we crossed the cattle, yes, sir, ev’ry hoof of ’em, by buildin’ a corral on the river-bank an’ lettin’ the steers out one at a time through a chute on to a trail sanded across the ice . . .
Then what d’ye think? MacVail wouldn’t take ’em. Slats was two days late, y’ see an’ cattle market gone to thunder. Nan sure boiled over, but Slats acted like Dune was accommodatin’ him. He fixed it with a bank ki Belpre, somehow, so’s he bought Preston’s frozen oats crop an’ he fed those steers so well that when he shipped ’em in May—the market had stiffened some, too, just as he figgered —he cleared on ’em twice what he’d have made if Dune had stuck to his bargain.
So Nan an’ Slats had a purty June weddin’ with frills an’ roses?
Not that anybody noticed. They’d stopped at Preacher Brown’s an’ forestalled that, the day they crossed the North Saskatchewan an’ hoofed it together through the snowstorm down to Old Man River.