Storm Over the UX Bar
A story of the old West, of stampeding hoofs and strong hearts, and the courage that makes heroes of the men who ride the range
DECEMBER’S brief twilight was swiftly fading to dusk when old “Shaggy” McPherson hazed five gaunt cows out of the forested and snow-locked country there atop the high mountains to where he could see the home ranch.
Paused on a barren ridge, the lanky old cowman let his faded blue eyes drink in the mighty panorama below him. Canyon-scarred mountains fell away sharply to meet rolling foothills, which in turn met the wide and level valley of Tumbling River. Dense willows bordering the stream cut a vivid brown swath through haystack-dotted meadows. East of this valley. Wild Cat Hogback hunched its enormous black shoulders against the sky line. Except for a notch which bisected it. there was no trail across that rockpalisaded barrier.
North and south along Tumbling River for fourteen miles stretched the U X Bar ranch. On the eastern side of the hogback lay yet another huge field, and all the foothills lying west of the valley were U X Bar summer range.
Owning no part in this great cow outfit, old ShaggyMcPherson always thought of the U X Bar as if he belonged to it. rather than as if it belonged to him.
The weather-beaten oldster had been a cowpuncher in the prime of life when first he had hired out to Jesse Wilcox. For thirty years the U X Bar chuck wagon had been Shaggy’s summer and fall home. For thirty years the U X Bar bunkhouse had been his winter and spring quarters, the place where he hung his slouch hat and slept, and occasionally shaved his wrinkled face or took an infrequent bath. Countless other men had come and gone in those years, but Shaggy had stayed on. He and Jesse Wilcox, manager of the U X Bar Land and Cattle Company.
Cowmen both, they had worked together as smoothly as a well-matched team of freight horses, those two, and the rich owners of the big outfit, on their infrequent visits to the ranch, usually expressed satisfaction over the manner in which the U X Bar was being handled. However, Shaggy McPherson was not unaware of certain rumblings of discontent and dissatisfaction among those owners during this past summer and fall. Jesse Wilcox, more than a little upset about the situation, had told his old range foreman, “They’ve got to figgerin’ this outfit ain’t makin’ enough dough. One stockholder in particular has got some loco notions about new blood and efficiency, whatever that is. Reckon the smoke’ll die down.”
But the smoke had not died down. Only a week ago Jesse Wilcox had received word to come to the city immediately on business. Leaving Shaggy in full charge, he had obeyed the command.
In a nebulous way the entire matter worried old Shaggy. Still he felt certain Jesse Wilcox could explain everything to them city fellers all hunky. A good lingo spiller, Jesse. He’d be home soon, and things would go like they had for thirty years.
A FEW of the highlights of those years passed in retrospeet through the oldster’s mind now as he sat his ancient saddle on his tired horse, watching night lay its dark curtain over the rugged land he loved. Lots of grief and hard work, especially during those two hard winters when the cattle had nigh starved to death. Some tragic incidents, too: That pair of horse thieves Shaggy had
trailed to Elkhom Park. One of them had been pretty young, just a wild kid. Too bad he hadn’t had better sense than to fall in with the tough-nut older hand.
Shaggy carried a chunk of lead hidden deep in his right hip as a reminder of that adventure, and he'd always remember how Jesse Wilcox’s red face turned chalk white when he rode into the yard and fell out of his saddle.
“They—they hit you. Shaggy! Yet you brought back the horses. Where’re the thieves?”
“I done more for ’em than some fellers would ha’ done, Jesse. I buried ’em.”
Incidents of roundup and trail came to his mind, of minor clashes with rustlers and range hogs. Nothing grim however. It had been sort of tough that time when Wilcox got pneumonia and Shaggy rode thirty miles through a blizzard for the doctor, and froze his face and his feet bringing the man of medicine out to the U X Bar. Once the outfit had lost two hundred cattle in a single night.
Kinda horrible that. The animals had drifted ahead of a storm out onto the thin ice on Deep Lake, and Shaggy McPherson with twoother cowboys had arrived on the scene three hours too late.
But withal it had been a grand life, lots of fun mixed in with the work and the grief. Somethin’ mighty nice about punchin’ cows when the weather was fine. Mighty nice. Winters were no longer feared since the U X Bar had expanded and improved its meadows to a point where the outfit was harvesting more than enough hay to feed the stock.
Shaggy scattered the cattle out in
small bunches all up and down the Tumbling River in the many fields of the great ranch, and Wilcox hired strong young bucks to “flank” the hay. Shaggy himself was in the saddle from daylight till dark every single day the winter long, just attending to the thousand and one details of looking after the stock.
Hunting up cattle trapped in the snow on the high range, was one of these details. Shaggy had been out since before daybreak. He’d be late getting home because you had to handle*skinny critters like the five cows he’d found todaypowerful gentle, else they’d balk and go on the prod. For this reason it took the old cow-man three hours to travel approximately seven miles to the shelter of the dense willows along Tumbling River.
Shaggy was chilled to the bone long before he got there and left his five charges. Y'et, riding through that dark, sheltered area which was alive with cattle tonight, he felt ten degrees warmer. Now if only Jesse Wilcox had come home today. They’d sit around the fireplace and smoke, neither man saying much of anything, for they savvied one another.
All the ranch buildings were peaceful and quiet in the bright starlight. But after Shaggy had lighted a lantern to care for his mount, he found strange horses in the stable; strange saddles on the rack, too. The main house was aglow with lights, and to it the old cowman w-alked stiffly. Outside he paused to look in at a window at five strangers occupying Jesse Wilcox’s living room as if—as if they belonged there !
STRANGELY disquieted, old Shaggy went on past the living-room door to the kitchen, and there in pale lamplight he found the veteran cook of the U X Bar slumped over in a chair with his head in his hands.
Shaggy-’s spurs made a jingling sound on the floor and Shaggy said softly, “Matter, ol’ grub spoiler?”
“Naw-thin’ much.” Greasy Skillet Sam sprang up like a jack-in-the-box, a lean man with a long face and eyes as sad as those of a hound dog. He waved his pipe which was not alight. “I been expectin’ you. Got java and beans and beef and biscuits a-waitin’. Set up. ol’ boss.”
“You never call me old hoss ’cept when you’re in the dumps.” Shaggy
threw off his hat and twisted icicles from both ends of his mustache. “Trouble?”
The cook jerked his head to indicate the living room, which lay beyond the dining room so that no sound of voices carried from that living room to the kitchen. “Them in thar, Shaggy.”
Shaggy sat down at the kitchen table and attacked the hot food. Strange, when only ten minutes ago he liad been ravenous, that he was no longer hungry. “Them in thar,” and the way Greasy Skillet Sam had said it.
The cook jxmred coffee with unsteady hands and set the cup down at Shaggy’s elbow. He bent closer, his voice low, tense, angry. “All hell’s popped. That big noise in yander, name’s Hayward Nelson, he’s the new manager o’ the U X Bar.”
Shaggv’s fork halted halfway to his lips. “That jus’ can’t be.”
“ ’Tis though. Them idjuts as owns this shebang hung a can on Jesse Wilcox. This new gink, all swelled up like he was Nipoleon er somebody, come ridin’ in and toi’ us the news.”
“Must be ol’ man Nelson’s son. Nelson owns a heap o’ stock in this outfit,” Shaggy heard himself say, and then he forced himself to go on eating.
“Yeah,” grunted the cook. Then: “I never seen a
“No-o? Who’s with him?”
“He brung some new hands along. Husky young fellers as can do a day’s work, he sed, what is a day’s work. He sed to the supper table he sed, this U X Bar is goin’ to be put on an efficiency basis. What’s ’at, Shaggy?”
“They—they canned Jesse,” said Shaggy, and swallowed his coffee at one gulp and got up from the table and went out.
The lean, mournful cook stood at the kitchen door looking after the old cowman as he walked with his stilted, rolling gait to the bunkhouse. He growled an oath and muttered, “Did that hit him right atween the horns!”
AS THE new manager of a 5,000-head cow outfit, Hayward Nelson apparently thought it unnecessary to roll out of his bed at the first bell. Therefore he breakfasted alone, for his new men, very anxious to please the boss, had got up in time to eat with the old hands of the U X Bar. However, Hayward Nelson ordered Greasy Skillet Saman old sorehead Hayward intended to fire as soon as another cook could be found—to point out Shaggy McPherson to him.
“Eumphm,” grunted the new manager as he looked out
through the kitchen window. “So that slab-shouldered, lanky old coot has been foreman of this spread for thirty years, lie’s crippled, too At least he can’t walk like a man.”
Greasy Skillet Sam coughed—to stifle a flaming oath. Hayward Nelson chuckled and continued:
"Great Scott! To think of Jesse Wilcox havin’ a man like that around at all.
Wilcox said, ‘You’ll find everything on the ranch runnin’ as smooth as greased skis, for ol’ Shaggy’s on the job. Best cowman in the Rocky Mountains, bar none!’ Huh-ho!” Hayward clicked his tongue in his cheek and sat him down to eat.
Later he sauntered out to look things over and to take full command. Curly, the wrangler, had brought in the cavvy, and old Shaggy was roping saddle horses. Swinging his arms, Hayward Nelson strode to the corral.
“Hi, you, bowlegs. What’s your name? . . . It’s you with the long-horn mustache and shaggy grey hair sticking out like a fire-alarm under the edge of your hat I’m talking to—and my lord what a hat!”
“It’s done purty good for goin’ on five year, mister. Name’s McPherson, but folks has forgot that. They call me Shag or Shaggy. I take it you’re the new boss of this outfit the cook was tellin’ me ’bout.”
Shaggy found it hard to keep his tongue civil. Why, the smug walloper! Who’d he think he was, throwin’ halfexpressed insults at a man?
Hayward put a hand on each hip, threw back his head and surveyed the old hand. “Well, well, so you’re old Shaggy . . Boys,” to the four fellows he’d brought with him, “meet the foreman. Shaggy, old boy, it sort of looks to me like you’re ready for a pension.”
Shaggy McPherson bit one end of his drooping mustache and turned his back. With amazing skill he roped a refractory horse which was hiding behind a dozen others in the cavvy. Leading out this animal, he said mildly, “If these boys with you are new hands, sir, I might point out as we ain’t exactly needin’ ’em. Full up.”
“Wrong. We do need them, Shaggy. Need them to take the place of a lot of deadwood around this outfit. Young men for war is my motto.”
Shaggy’s mild blue eyes flashed. A flush ran up over his lean, sunken cheeks and his rather prominent, crooked
nose. Once long ago the hind foot of a horse had almost ripped that nose from his face. There were other scars, each with a story behind it, on his lanky wirehard body, and the pronounced lameness of his left leg was due to a double fracture incurred when Shaggy’s horse, running full tilt on a black night to head off a stampede, had hit a badger hole.
"Figgerin’ on goin’ to war?” he asked quietly. “We ain’t had a war in twenty years. Not since we held the range agin sheep . . All right. Curly an’ Slats,” to the cowboys of the old U X Bar, who, with Shaggy himself, were doing all the riding now that the roundup and the shipping were over and winter coming. "You can drift them steers we cut out day afore yesterday down to the Roberts’ field. Tell Roberts to start pourin’ the hay to ’em. I’ll—”
“Pourin’ the hay to ’em?” Hayward broke in sharply. “Just a moment, Shaggy. Now that I’m running this outfit—and I can see it has been badly mismanaged we are not going to feed any cattle until it is absolutely necessary."
Shaggy had lifted his ancient doublerig saddle from the ground to place it on the back of the last horse he had roped. He let the saddle fall, eyed the new boss challengingly.
“ ’Tis necessary. Might be you don't quite savvy this is a mighty cold, wintry country where it’s a sight easier to keep the flesh of steers by feedin’ ’em early ’stead of tryin’ to get the pounds back on ’em once they’re starved off.”
“Look here, look here, my man,” blustered Hayward. “You trying to tell me my business? Let me put you straight on something you don't seem to understand. Jesse Wilcox is out and I am the new manager. Now how does it come there are no cattle in that great pasture east of the hogback? I rode across it on my way to the ranch buildings. A world of grass there.”
“We save that feed for spring.” “Humph. We’ll use some of it this fall to save hay. Shaggy, take these new men and your old men—if they’re any good and round up a thousand cattle and shove them over the hogback into that field."
Old Shaggy McPherson fumbled in his hip pocket for his plug. He pinched his chin with the other hand.
“Storm cornin’." he remarked without raising his voice. But never that he could remember had he been quite so plain fightin’ mad.
"You don’t say?” the new boss spat contemptuously. “I suppose an old ci>ot like vou can feel it in his bones?”
'HE FOUR new hands, still idle, chuckled their appreciation of Hayward Nelson’s wit. Curly and Slats, mounted and ready to ride, glowered at them in silence. Old Shaggy said:
“Yep, 1 kin. But that ain’t the only sign of storm.”
“For the past two days, the cattle, sir, have been drifting outa the open country where there ain’t no shelter and takin’ to the heavy brush along the river. I never seen that sign fail. Blizzard sure cornin'.”
Hayward Nelson snapped his fingers derisively. “Suppose you’re right? What of it? What of it? . . . Men,” to the new hands, “catch up saddle horses for yourselves and one for me. Wait. On second thought. I’ll ride this pony Shaggy just 1er! out of the cavvy. Hand me that rope. Shaggy.”
As if he had been struck in the face, old Shaggy stepped back. Curly and Slats, youthful cowboys both, frozen in their saddles, saw his lips whiten. This was something they could understand.
The old hand said. “Torchy’s one o’ my string,” as if that explained everything.
“Yes, yes, I understand how cowboys are touchy as bumblebees about the horses they ride, their strings,” retorted Hayward impatiently. “It’s high time a lot of such idiotic, silly ideas as you fellows hold were knocked out of your heads. Get my bridle, and put it on that horse Shaggy.”
Old Shaggy’s temper snapped. "Go to the devil, he gritted, and it was Hayward Nelson's turn to take a step back.
“What’s this?” he blustered. “You—you’re defying my authority?”
“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Nelson. There is some things you don’t savvy. So let’s be reasonable and talk 'em over.” Old Shaggy was trembling the length of his bowlegged, rawhide bendy. “First, about shovin’ a herd into the Deep Lake pasture. Not a speck o’ shelter in that field, and the wind howls across it nine hundred miles an hour and once we lost two hundred head of cattle in—”
“Save your breath. Shaggy. I’m giving the orders and it’s your job to obey them. Are you going to give me that horse or not?”
“So long as I work for this outfit you don’t get ary hoss outa my string. Nor that ain’t all, mister. While I’m range foreman, no herd of cattle is goin’ to be moved to Deep Lake pasture at this season. I been tryin’ to tell you—” "Let me tell you!” roared Hayward Nelson, his well-fed face on fire. “Pack your war sack and rope your own horse, if you’ve got one. I’ll be making out your cheque. You’re fired!”
Staring at the man, old Shaggy' mechanically took the rope from Torchy’s neck. Then he turned and walked into the corral. A moment later his singing rope had picked out a small, wiry bay. Without a word he led out the animal and began to saddle it.
Meanwhile the new manager had thrown a challenging look at the two cowboys. Curly and Slats. “You galoots going to stay and obey orders, or . . . ?”
Curly swallowed hard tw'ice, and Slats hurled his dead cigarette aside. This was winter and jobs were as scarce as hens’ teeth. Neither cowboy had saved any money, and riding the grub line had become most unpopular in this section. If they stayed with the old U X Bar they were sure of their meals and a warm place to sleep. If they quit, as they were rashly and terribly tempted, they’d become homeless strays. They gazed dismally at one another and then Curly half-snarled and half-choked, “We’ll stick.”
RIDING away from the U X Bar, wearing his old Gallo» way cowhide chaps, his sheepskin coat and his overshoes, Shaggy McPherson held his head high, looking neither to the right nor left. But when he had climbed the steep slope leading to the notch in Wild Cat Hogback and had opened the strong pole gate in the fence across that notch and mounted again, his shoulders began to sag; his shaggy old head bent lower and lower.
Presently, while still crossing the vast wide plain of the Deep Lake field, he became aware that the sun had vanished under clouds. Clouds that were gathering, increasing and spreading moment by moment. Suddenly too a chill wind crept down from the huge mountains on the north. Shaggy felt it nipping his cheeks and his nose and his ears. He stopped Stepalong to put on his skull cap.
Stepalong fidgeted restively. A good oT pony this one horse that Shaggy' owned; hadn’t been ridden for over a month. He was fat and sassy, and his rider’s mood did not seem to have transmitted itself to the clever little cow horse. He tossed his head as much as to say. “Let’s go to town or someplace. I don’t like that breeze nor therm clouds neither.”
But old Shaggy, hipped around in his saddle, held the reins tight. He was looking back across five miles of bleak level land to Wild Cat Hogback rising black and forbidding against the sky. Through the notch in that gigantic barrier were now pouring at least a thousand head of U X Bar Herefords.
Biting off an oath. Shaggy faced ahead and the savage jab of his spurs astounded Stepalong. Outraged, the horse sprang to a ground-eating lope.
The old cowman’s eyes had become as bleak as winter ice. That fool of a Hayward Nelson! Shaggy had tried to tell the man about Deep I-ake pasture. about the five-mile-long lake at the lower, southern end. of the field.
A lake which seemed to have no bottom. which never froze over entirely, but did freeze out far enough from its shores for cattle to get on the thin ice and . . .
“But you’ve been fired!” the old-timer half snarled. “What happens to U Bar dogies ain’t no skin off your nose. Not none !”
Stepalong tossed his head and wiggled his ears as if he agreed. He stopped at the bars in the fence on this far side of the field. Rejecting the urge to look back. Shaggy opened the bars, let his horse through and put them up again.
The road ran now' across a waterless semi-desert land, where grew only greasewood and stunted sage. Twenty miles to town. The blizzard would be upon Shaggy long long before he got there. But he’d make it. He’d stop first at Jeffers’ Livery Stable, for Stepalong’s sake. Then he’d go to Jim Kemper’s. A big drink. Maybe he’d get drunk. Twould be a good idea, when nothing mattered any more. Nothing. Nothing! Except . . .
“Curse them cattle. Let ’em go to blazes!” he exploded. “They’re now Mister Hayward Nelson’s responsibility.
“Are they? Shaggy, you raised them dogies. You know every last one of ’em like they was your own blood relations.
“Don’t be a sentimental idjut. The company throwed you out on your ear. Jesse, too . . . Serves ’em right if they lose a thousand cattle more or less . . . Drift along, hoss.”
'Twould be fun living m town. A feller could set up beside hot stoves in the hotel livery stable; not have to go out in the cold, keep warm. Yeh, and drink and play cards with tolerable decent companions. Eat three times a day, too, be just as happy as . . .
Old Shaggy would never never be happy loafing. Cattle and horses were his life’s work. His very life’s blood. Separated from his work, from the cattle he had raised and loved, he was a lost spirit, drifting aimlessly, already beginning to hate himself; and suddenly the tragedy of what had now happened to him struck with all its shattering force.
Abruptly something else struck him a physical blow. Sweeping down this barren flat land from the north came the blizzard. A white wall of pelting snow, borne onward by a forty-mile gale, blotted out earth and sky. It caught old Shaggy and his horse in its wild embrace. It sucked the breath from their nostrils and beat against their bodies with cold and terrible frenzy.
INSTANTLY Stepalong turned tail to the howling wind.
But with a savage oath, old Shaggy spun the horse halfway around, heading him not into the wind but across it. Not toward town, but back toward Wild Cat Hogback. Back tow'ard a thousand U X Bar cattle which he knew as well as if he could see them, were already drifting ahead of the storm.
But Shaggy’s beloved cows and heifers, steers and yearlings and calves, his friends, were not merely drifting; they were heading straight to a death trap. Deep Lake would swallow them all unless . . .
Stark horror gripped the old hand. “Stepalong, had we turned back fust off we could ha’ got to the ranch and got help. No time for that now. We got to fight this through all alone.”
He was back in the big field once again and prodding Stepalong across it as fast as he dared to press the horse, and presently he came suddenly upon the cattle, not seeing them until he was almost among them. But this was not merely a herd of cattle. It was a huge mountain of animal flesh on the march.
Shaggy McPherson shot his horse across the entire front of that dark moving mountain, lashing the cattle with his stinging rope, yelling himself voiceless. He could slow them,
but he could not stop them. Neither could he turn this herd and get it to milling. The forces of storm a thousand times stronger than he, were whooping those cattle onward.
Shrieking wind almost swept Stepalong off his feet. Pelting snow was blinding the horse, the man, the cattle. One thing only was in old Shaggy’s favor: Four or five miles intervened between the herd and the lake. Perhaps the lone rider could turn the herd enough to steer the cattle past the lake either at its right or left !
With that idea in mind, Shaggy concentrated his attack against the moving mountain on its east side. With Stepalong darting back and forth along that side of the herd, he lashed and pounded and shoved the cattle over. Every few minutes he was obliged to brush snow from his own eyes; from his horse’s eyes, too, and also twist icicles from the pony’s nostrils. Stepalong, game pony though he was,
showed the terrific strain. He was faltering. So was the man in the saddle, the half-frozen old man in the saddle. He had lost all track of time. He had stopped thinking or feeling. He just fought on because there was no quit to him, because the herd must be saved if he could save it.
At no time had he been able to see more than a few yards in any direction, but now with the blizzard increasing in volume it had become even darker. How that bitter wind was driving the cattle on and on straight toward the lake despite all old Shaggy could do !
Suddenly a new sound echoed through the storm—voices of men shouting and cursing. Old Shaggy felt like cheering until he realized those fellows were on the farther side of the herd. Therefore, they were attempting to turn the cattle in the opposite direction from that in which he had fought to turn them.
Shaggy tried to yell, but only a whisper, torn away by the wind, escaped his lips. If only he had a gun he could signal to these unseen would-be-helpers who were undoing the little good work he had managed to do. But for years now old Shaggy had not carried a gun. No need these days. Desperately he lashed his staggering mount, hoping to locate the cowboys.
He had got ahead of the herd when, through the swirling snow, he both saw and heard Hayward Nelson.
NELSON, dismounted, was yelling in a sort of maniacal frénzy, “You cursed dumb critters, won’t stop nor turn for a rider, but I know you’re scairt of a man on foot.” Again Shaggy tried to yell, and again the wind swept his faint voice away. Nelson was jumping up and down, waving his arms in front of the marching wall of horns and snow-plastered white faces. Under any ordinary conditions those cattle would have swerved away from a man on foot. But now they’d stop for nothing that got into their path. Furthermore, blinded by the storm, they didn’t even see the man. All of this old Shaggy had long ago realized, but not Hayward Nelson.
Straight into him the cattle walked. He tried to run, too late. Sounded a wild and fearful scream as they knocked him down and walked over his body. In that moment old Shaggy fought a battle with the two sides of his nature. Good enough for Hayward Nelson to be trampled to a pulp. Plenty good enough. He deserved it. Furthermore, if Shaggy tried to save him—and what chance had he of doing it?—the herd, already bending to the left, would be sure to hit Deep Lake. Better far to save the cattle than a man like Hayward Nelson.
But—a human life was at stake. Shaggy McPherson, by force of will as well as by physical force, drove Stepalong right into the advancing cattle. All strength and feeling in his right arm were nearly gone, and yet that right arm functioned for him once again. His rope snapped and sang and blistered, and with that rope he cleared a space, a pitifully small space, around Flay ward Nelson’s fallen body.
No hope of Shaggy’s lifting the man to his saddle. Shaggy dared not dismount anyhow or else he too was sure to go down. Only one thing to do and that he did. How desperately hard to slip the loop of his rope around Nelson’s shoulders when the man was down, unmoving, unable to help himself. The cattle were jamming against Shaggy’s horse, were stepping on Hayward Nelson before ever the rope was in place. Shaggy straightened in his saddle and turned Stepalong. Out of the herd the pony wormed its way, at its heels a dragging object. Shaggy won clear of the advancing cattle, got over on the side of the herd once again. At last he swung from his saddle to find that Nelson was unconscious. The man’s horse had vanished.
Stepalong could not possibly carry double, not and do the work he still must do. If Shaggy left Hayward Nelson here, the man would be buried under snow in a matter of minutes. But suddenly the veteran cow'hand made a discovery. Hayward Nelson wore a belt with a holstered gun attached. Shaggy’s numbed right hand snatched that gun. Then through the storm rang the rangeland's call for help, three carefully spaced shots.
Minutes later someone was yelling near to old Shaggy, and he fired one more shot to tell the man where he was. Greasy Skillet Sam, so wrapped in clothing that only by his voice did Shaggy recognize the cook of the U X Bar, loomed up through the flying snow.
“Shaggy,” he bellow'ed. “What you got thar?”
Old Shaggy clumped on frozen feet to the other man’s stirrup, looked up and hoarsely croaked, “Nelson. He got tromped. You stay with him so he won’t get buried an’ lost. Got to turn herd to the right—to the right, past lake.”
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“Hell's fry pan! Curly and Slats is turnin’ ’em to the left . . . Stay with that critter, Hayward? Naw. If he kicks the bucket, best thing as ever happened.”
Shaggy clambered to his saddle. “Stay with him or get him on your hoss, Sam.”
The cook was going on. “Never expected to see you here. You know after the storm had hit and I larnt ’bout these cattle bein’ in this field, I up and told that danged know-it-all boss jus’ what was what. How a thousand cattle was shore goin’ to drown unless . . . Wal, not one of them punks he brought out would go with us. But Hayward hisself was game. Him and me and Curly and Slats hit out and—”
Z'-'1 REASY Skillet Sam was talking to the wind. Shaggy had left him alone with Hayward Nelson. Shaggy was once more on the job. crowding the cattle all the time over to the right. Curly and Slats had not come at his signal. He’d try once more to get them. The big gun kicked back in his hand twice and then its hammer clicked on an empty shell. He had no more cartridges. and two shots held no meaning for cowboys to understand. Old Shaggy, feeling that all hope was lost, bent his every effort to pushing the moving cattle to the right, and Stepalong put his fighting heart, every ounce of his reserve strength, into this fight.
Back and forth, up and down the line, plunged the cow pony, nipping the sidesand rumps of snow-plastered cattle, rubbing the icicles from his own nostrils off on their rough coats. And Shaggy’s old rope still sang and whistled. He was shoving the herd over! But what was that sound? A piercing, ominous sound. The cracking of ice under hoofs.
Stepalong stopped and snorted with
fear. Old Shaggy peered ahead and to his left, and suddenly a great wave of relief and thankfulness flowed over his numbed worn-out body. Off there to the left only a stone’s throw distant lay the lake, its water black against the whiteness of the storm ! The cracking ice was only the ice on a small slough. The herd was passing west of the lake !
What happened immediately thereafter and within the next several hours was for always afterward almost a total blank spot in Shaggy McPherson’s mind. Therefore it was with a sense of bewildered surprise that, upon awakening from sound sleep, he discovered that he was in his own bed in the U X Bar bunkhouse.
Opening one eye wider—the other he discovered was closed by a bandage which ran across his nose and covered his cheeks as well—he peered through a window out to the yard, all white with fresh fallen snow. But it was no longer storming, nor was the wind blowing. Was he wearing mittens in bed? No, his hands were all bound up with cloth and so were his feet. Hands, feet and face stung like fury.
“I savvy.” mumbled theold-timer. “I’ve froze ’em again . . . Who's talkin’ out yonder?”
The voices were drawing nearer. “While she lasted, she was the daggondest ripsnortin’ storm ever I seen in forty years,” Greasy Skillet was saying. “Well, like I was a-tellin’ you. Jesse, after Shaggy had done saved Nelson’s hide an’ saved them cows too, he told Curly and Slats to let the herd drift on ’cause they couldn’t hold ’em nohow and we’d have to pick ’em up later after the storm.
“Then he sed, whisperin’—he couldn’t talk out loud no more he sed, ‘I'll mosey
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toward town, bovs. You take Nelson home.’ He would ha moseyed too, only I quick pointed out he was the only one of us out thar in the blizzard who could possibly find the way back to the ranch and we’d all freeze if he didn’t pilot us in.
“Which same he done, don’t never ask me how. ’cause all I know is I trailed ’long behint him. Curly an’ Slats doin’ the same. Them boys had found Hayward Nelson’s hoss an’ loaded him on the nag. Had to tie him in the saddle too, Nelson still bein’ plenty used up like . . . Huh? . . . Aw, he’s got a heap of black an’ blue spots the shape of hoofs all over his hide, twothree busted ribs, and his pretty face considerable boogered up. But he ain’t hurt none.
“My hat an’ suspenders! The wind when we come through the notch in Wil’ Cat Hogback nigh lifted us offen our hosses. But somehow ’rother we got here. Shaggy dumb outa his saddle an’ keeled over right on the bunkhouse doorstep. He sed, ‘Boys, take care of Stepalong, never mind me,’ and he tried to get up an’ couldn’t.
“Me and Curly and Slats put nim to bed an’ fixed up his friz places and he’s been snoozin’ steady, so I kinder figger he’ll be jake yet. Well, you go in an’ see how he is, Jesse. By the way, them four men Hayward brung out yere with him pulled their freight earlier today. They don’t like this wintry country.”
Shaggy McPherson saw the door open, and then he saw stocky, wide-shouldered
Jesse Wilcox walking toward his bunk. So deep was the concern on the rancher’s red face and in his blue eyes that a lump welled up in Shaggy’s throat.
“Lo, Jesse, you danged ol’ horn toad. S’pose you come for your war sack and other plunder? If you got a team, you can haul me off this ranch too.”
“Haul you off it, why?” said Jesse Wilcox.
“I was fired all same as you. Nelson said ‘Young men for war.’I ’member that.” “To heck with what Nelson said. He was considerable premature in jumpin’ in here and takin’charge on his father’s say-so ’thout the say-so of t’other directors of the Land and Cattle Company.”
“What you sayin’, Jesse?”
“ ’Twas Nelson and his son Hayward who were kicking up all the dissatisfaction. Shaggy. But when I met the other directors I sort of convinced ’em things were going about as they should on this outfit. Next thing I knew those other stockholders pooled together and bought out Nelson’s interest, thus gettin’ rid of the trouble maker. I’m still the ranch manager, Shaggy, you darned half-friz-to-death ol’ mossyhorn, and you’re still the cattle foreman. You savvy that?”
Shaggy lifted his body and held out one bandaged hand. Carefully Jesse Wilcox took that hand; carefully he gripped it. Behind the two old-timers Greasy Skillet Sam said huskily:
“Danged if this yere stormy weather don’t make a feller’s eyes cloud up somethin’ terrible.”