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The Settling of the Sage

Hal G. Evarts

  Produced by Al Haines

  [Frontispiece: His knees sagged under him as a forty-five slug struckhim an inch above the buckle of his belt.]




  "The Cross Pull," "The Yellow Horde," etc.


  Publishers -------- New York

  Published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company

  Printed in U. S. A.

  Copyright, 1922,


  All rights reserved

  Published January, 1922

  Reprinted February, 1922

  Reprinted March, 1922

  The Settling of the Sage


  A rider jogged northward along the road on a big pinto horse, a ledbuckskin, packed, trailing a half-length behind. The horseman traveledwith the regulation outfit of the roaming range dweller--saddle, bedroll and canvas war bag containing personal treasures and extraarticles of attire--but this was supplemented by two panniers of foodand cooking equipment and a one-man teepee that was lashed on top inlieu of canvas pack cover. A ranch road branched off to the left andthe man pulled up his horse to view a sign that stood at the forks.

  "Squatter, don't let the sun go down on you," he read. "That's thethird one of those reminders, Calico," he told the horse. "The wordinga little different but the sentiment all the same."

  Fifty yards off the trail the charred and blackened fragments of awagon showed in sharp contrast to the bleached white bones of twohorses.

  "They downed his team and torched his worldly goods," the rider said."All his hopes gone up in smoke."

  He turned in his saddle and looked off across the unending expanse ofsage. Coldriver--probably so named from the fact that the three wellsin the town constituted the only source of water within an hour'sride--lay thirty miles to the south, a cluster of some forty buildingsnestling on a wind-swept flat. Seventy miles beyond it, and with buttwo more such centers of civilization between, the railroad stretchedacross the rolling desolation. North of him the hills lifted above thesage, angling with the directions so that four miles along the ThreeBar road that branched off to the left would bring him to their footand a like distance along the main fork saw its termination at Brill'sstore, situated in a dent in the base of the hills, the end of theColdriver Trail.

  The man took one more look at the evidence left behind to prove thatthe sign was no empty threat before heading the paint-horse along theleft-hand fork. The crisp cool of early spring was blown down from theslope of the hills. Old drifts, their tops gray-streaked with dust,lay banked in the gulches and on sheltered east slopes, but the newgrass had claimed the range to the very foot of the drifts, the greenof it intensified in patches watered by the trickle that seeped fromthe downhill extremities of the snow banks. He noted that the rangecows along his route were poor and lean, their hip bones showinglumpily through sagging skin, giving them the appearance of milkersrather than of beef stock. The preceding summer had been hot and dry,browning the range six weeks before its time, and the stock had goneinto the winter in poor shape. Heavy snowfalls had completed the havocand ten per cent. of the range stock had been winter-killed. Thosethat had pulled through were slow in putting on weight and recoveringtheir strength.

  A big red steer stood broadside to him, the Three Bar brand looming onits side, and the man once more pulled up his horse and lost himself inretrospection as he gazed at the brand.

  "The old Three Bar, Calico," he remarked to the horse. "The old homebrand. It's been many a moon since last I laid an eye on a Three Barcow."

  The man was gazing directly at the steer but he no longer saw it.Instead he was picturing the old-time scenes that the sight of thebrand recalled. Step by step he visioned the long trail of the ThreeBar cows from Dodge City to the Platte, from the Platte to the rollingsage-clad hills round old Fort Laramie and from Laramie to the presentrange. Many times he had heard the tale, and though most of the sceneshad been enacted before his birth, they were impressed so firmly uponhis mind by repetition that it seemed as if he himself had been a partof them.

  His mind pictured two boys of somewhere round eighteen years of agesetting forth from the little home town of Kansas City, nestling at theconfluence of the Missouri and the Kaw. A year later Cal Warren waswhacking bulls on the Santa Fe Trail while the other, William Harris,was holding the reins over four plunging horses as he tooled alumbering Concord stage over the trail from Omaha to the little campcalled Denver.

  It was five years before their trails crossed again. Cal Warren wasthe first of the two to wed, and he had established a post along thetrail, a rambling structure of 'dobe, poles and sod, and thereconducted the business of "Two for One," a calling impossible andunknown in any other than that day and place.

  The long bull trains were in sight from horizon to horizon every hourof the day. The grind of the gravel wore down the hoofs of the unshodoxen, and when footsore they could not go on. One sound bull for twowith tender feet was Warren's rule of trade. These crippled ones weresoon made sound in the puddle pen, a sod corral flooded with sufficientwater to puddle the yellow clay into a six-inch layer of stiff, healingmud, then thrown out on the open range to fatten and grow strong. Buttransitions were swift and sweeping. Steel rails were crowding closebehind the prairie schooners and the ox-bows. Bull trains grew fewerevery year and eventually Cal Warren made his last trade of two for one.

  Bill Harris had come back to view the railroad of which he had heard somuch and he remained to witness and to be a part of the wild days ofAbilene, Hays and Dodge, as each attained the apex of its glory as therailroad's end and the consequent destination of the Texas trail herds.The sight of these droves of thousands implanted a desire to run cowshimself and when he was wed in Dodge he broached this project to hisboyhood pal.

  It was the sincere wish of each to gain the other as a partner in allfuture enterprise, but this was not to be. Warren had seen the bottomdrop out of the bull trade and he would not relinquish the suspicionthat any business dealing in four-footed stock was hazardous in theextreme and he insisted that the solution of all their financialproblems rested upon owning land, not cows. Harris could not beinduced to farm the soil while steers were selling round eight dollarsa head.

  Warren squatted on a quarter of land. Harris bought a few head ofshe-stock and grazed his cows north and west across the Kansas lineinto the edge of the great unknown that was styled Nebraska andNorthwest District. At first his range was limitless, but in a fewshort years he could stand on the roof of his sod hut and see the whitepoints of light which were squatters' wagons dotting the range to thefar horizon in any direction he chose to look. The first of these toinvade his range had been Cal Warren, moving on before the swarm ofsettlers flocking into the locality of his first choice in suchalarming numbers that he feared an unhealthy congestion of humanity inthe near future. The debate of farming versus cows was resumed betweenthe two, but each held doggedly to his own particular views and thelonged-for partnership was again postponed.

  Harris moved once more--and then again--and it was something over twodecades after his departure from Dodge with the Three Bar cows that hemade one final shift, faring on in search of that land where nesterswere unknown. He made a dry march that cost him a fourth of his cows,skirted the Colorado Desert and made his stand under the first rim ofthe hills. Those others who came to share this range were men whoseviews were identical with his own, whose watchword was: "Our cows shallrun free on a thousand hills." They sought for a spot where the rangewas untouched by the plow and the water holes unfenced. They hadmoved, then moved again, driven on before the invasion of the sett
lers.These men banded together and swore that here conditions should bereversed, that it was the squatter who should move, and on thisprinciple they grimly rested.

  Cal Warren had been the vanguard of each new rush of settlers that hadpushed Bill Harris on to another range, and the cowman had come to seethe hand of fate in this persistence. The nesters streamed westward onall the trails, filing their rights on the fertile valleys and pushingthose who would be cattle barons undisputed back into the more aridregions. When the Warren family found him out again and halted theirwhite-topped wagon before his door, Bill Harris gave it up.

  "I've come up to see about getting that partnership fixed up, Bill,"Warren greeted. "You know--the one we talked over in Dodge a whileago, about our going in together when either of us changed his mind.Well, I've changed mine. I've come to see that running cows is a goodgame, Bill, so let's fix it up. I've changed my mind."

  "That was twenty years ago, Cal," Harris said. "But it still holdsgood--only I've changed my mind too. You was dead right from thefirst. Squatters will come to roost on every foot of ground andthere'll come a day when I'll have to turn squatter myself--so I mightas well start now. The way to get used to crowds, Cal, is to go wherethe crowds are at. I'm headed back for Kansas and you better comealong. We'll get that partnership fixed up."

  A single child had come to bless each union in the parents' late middleage. The Harris heir, a boy of eight, had been named Calvin in honorof his father's friend. Cal Warren had as nearly returned thecompliment as circumstances would permit, and his three-year-olddaughter bore the name of Williamette Ann for both father and mother ofthe boy who was his namesake, and Warren styled her Billie for short.

  Each man was as stubbornly set in his new views as he had been in theold. The Harrises came into possession of the Warrens' prairieschooner and drove off to the east. The Warrens took over the ThreeBar brand and the little Williamette Ann slept in the tiny bunk builtfor the son of the Harris household.

  For a space of minutes these old pictures occupied the mind of the manon the pinto horse. The led buckskin moved fretfully and tugged on thelead rope, rousing the man from his abstraction. Distant strings ofprairie schooners and ox-bows faded from his mind's eye and he way oncemore conscious of the red steer with the Three Bar brand that hadstirred up the train of reflections. He turned for another glimpse ofthe distant sign as he headed the paint-horse along the road.

  "All that was quite a spell back, Calico," he said. "Old Bill Harrisplanted the first one of those signs, and it served a good purposethen. It's a sign that stands for lack of progress to-day. Timeschange, and it's been eighteen years or so since old Bill Harris left."

  The road traversed the bench, angled down a side hill to a valleysomewhat more than a mile across. Calico pricked his ears sharplytoward the Three Bar buildings that stood at the upper end of it.

  Curious eyes peered from the bunk house as he neared it, for thepaint-horse and the buckskin were not without fame even if the manhimself were a stranger to them all. For the better part of a year thetwo high-colored horses had been seen on the range,--south to therailroad, west to the Idaho line. The man had kept to himself and whenseen by approaching riders he had always been angling on a course thatwould miss their own. Those who had, out of curiosity, deliberatelyridden out to intercept him reported that he seemed a decent sort ofcitizen, willing to converse on any known topics except those whichconcerned himself.

  He dropped from the saddle before the bunk house and as he stood in thedoor he noted half a dozen men lounging on the bunks. This indolenceapprised him of the fact that they were extra men signed on for thesummer season and that their pay had not yet started, for the cowhand,when on the pay roll, works sixteen hours daily and when he rests orfrolics it is, except in rare instances, on his own time and at his ownexpense.

  A tall, lean individual, who sat cross-legged on a bunk, engaged inmending a spur strap, was the first to answer his inquiry for theforeman.

  "Billie Warren is the big he-coon of the Three Bar," he informed."You'll likely find the boss at the blacksmith shop." The lanky onegrinned as the stranger turned back through the litter of logoutbuildings, guided by the hissing squeak of bellows and the clang ofa sledge on hot iron. Several men pressed close to the windows inanticipation of viewing the newcomer's surprise at greeting the ThreeBar boss. But the man did not seem surprised when a young girl emergedfrom the open door of the shop as he neared it.

  She was clad in a gray flannel skirt and black Angora chaps. The heavybrown hair was concealed beneath the broad hat that was pulled low overher eyes after the fashion of those who live much in the open. The manremoved his hat and stood before her.

  "Miss Warren?" he inquired. The girl nodded and waited for him tostate his purpose.

  "What are the chances of my riding for the Three Bar?" he asked.

  "We're full-handed," said the girl. "I'm sorry."

  "You'll be breaking out the remuda right soon now," he suggested. "I'mreal handy round a breaking corral."

  "They're all handy at that," she said. Then she noted the two horsesbefore the bunk house and frowned. Her eyes searched the stranger'sface and found no fault with it; she liked his level gaze. But shewondered what manner of man this was who had so aimlessly wanderedalone for a year and avoided all other men.

  "Since you've finally decided to work, how does it happen that youchoose the Three Bar?" she asked, then flushed under his eyes as sheremembered that so many men had wished to ride for her brand more thanfor another, their reasons in each case the same.

  "Because the Three Bar needs a man that has prowled this country andgathered a few points about what's going on," he returned.

  "And that information is for sale to any brand that hires you!" saidthe girl. "Is that what you mean?"

  "If it was, there would be nothing wrong with a man's schooling himselfto know all points of his job before he asked for it," he said. "Butit happens that wasn't exactly my reason."

  A shade of weariness passed over her face. During the two years thather father had been confined to the house after being caved in by ahorse and in the one year that had elapsed since his death the sixthousand cows that had worn the Three Bar brand on the range haddecreased by almost half under her management.

  "I'll put you on," she said. "But you'll probably be insulted at whatI have to offer. The men start out after the horses to-morrow. I wanta man to stay here and do tinkering jobs round the place till they getback."

  "That'll suit me as well as any," he accepted promptly. "I'm a greatlittle hand at tinkering round."

  The clang of the sledge had ceased and a huge, fat man loomed in thedoor of the shop and mopped his dripping face with a bandanna.

  "I'm glad you've come," he assured the new-comer. "A man that's notabove doing a little fixing up! A cowhand is the most overworked andunderpaid saphead that ever lost three nights' sleep hand running andworked seventy-two hours on end; sleep in the rain or not at all--tohold a job at forty per for six months in the year. The other six he'sthrowed loose like a range horse to rustle or starve. Hardest work inthe world--but he don't know it, or money wouldn't hire him to lift hishand. He thinks it's play. Not one out of ten but what prides himselfthat he can't be browbeat into doing a tap of work. Ask him to cut astick of firewood and he'll arch his back and laugh at you scornfullike. Don't that beat hell?"

  "It do," said the stranger.

  "I'm the best wagon cook that ever sloshed dishwater over thetail-gate, and even better than that in a ranch-house kitchen," theloquacious one modestly assured him. "But I can't do justice to themeals when I lay out to do all the chores within four miles and runmyself thin collecting scraps and squaw wood to keep the stove het up.Now since Billie has hired you, I trust you'll work up a pile of woodthat will keep me going--and folks call me Waddles," he added as anafterthought.

  "Very good, Mr. Waddles," the newcomer smiled. "You shall have yourfuel."

  The bi
g man grinned.

  "That title is derived from my shape and gait," he informed. "Myregular name is Smith--if you're set on tacking a Mister on behind it."

  The girl waved the talkative cook aside and turned to the new hand.

  "You'll take it then."

  He nodded.

  "Could you spare me about ten minutes some time to-day?" he asked.

  "Yes," she said. "I'll send for you when I have time."

  The man headed back for his horses and unlashed the buckskin'stop-pack, dropping it to the ground, then led the two of them backtoward the corral, stripped the saddle from the pinto, the sidepanniers and packsaddle from the buckskin and turned them into thecorral. He rambled among the outbuildings on a tour of inspection andthe girl saw him stand long in one spot before the solid log cabin, nowused as a storeroom for odds and ends, that had been the first oneerected on the Three Bar and had sheltered the Harrises before herfather took over their brand.