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Jigger Bunts

Max Brand


  A Western Story

  Max Brand®

  Copyright © 2019 by Golden West Literary Agency.

  The name Max Brand® is a registered trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and cannot be used for any purpose without express written permission.

  E-book published in 2019 by Blackstone Publishing

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-9825-9488-6

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-9825-9487-9

  Fiction / Westerns

  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520

  Editor’s Note

  While it was believed that all the Western stories Frederick Faust had written had been published in some form, a number of stories set in the West were recently discovered among his unpublished works. The two connected stories appearing here were among them.

  Part One

  The Man Who

  Never Was

  Chapter One

  Enough time has gone by to make the telling of this possible, I guess. Although, you never can be sure, and as old Doc Lawson used to say: “Where there has been a shooting, the best thing is to keep your mouth shut and act as though nothing had ever happened.”

  Doc was probably right. He had a way of being right.

  But what keeps me from following his advice here is partly because these things happened such a while ago that by changing names, I don’t think that I’ll be stepping on sore toes. And partly I think that I have to tell it because I want to get it off of my conscience. You can’t have a thing like this eating in you for long years without wanting to talk about it. Confession is what a man needs, and confession is what I’ve never had a chance to have. Until now.

  Because suppose that I step out and say to some of my friends: “Look here, till this and this happened, long ago … what do you think of the part I played in it … and how wrong was I?”

  Well, my friend is apt to say: “If you were lowdown enough to ever do a thing like that, you’re a good deal too lowdown for me to take any pleasure in knowing you right now.”

  And a man can’t afford to shuffle the spots off of his friends. Particularly when you get to my time of life. Along about when a fellow is twenty years old or a bit more, friends are luxuries, you might say, because he’s so full of ginger and so willing to take what’s coming to him in his life that friends don’t seem to matter, particularly. But you shake along to the other side of seventy and see how many different slants come into your head! I have got about five real friends now, but if you were to offer me a million dollars in cash for each one of them, I would only sit down and laugh.

  However, this confession had to be made.

  And since I didn’t want to lose myself any friends, I thought that I might as well try the stuff with queer names in print and let the readers vote on how wrong I was.

  Because I know that I was wrong. It’s only a question of how wrong.

  But I’m going to leave you to decide that for yourselves.

  Chapter Two

  To start right in at the beginning.

  My job was sort of straw boss to what we’ll call the Bar L outfit. Or rather, I straw-bossed the gang that ran the Bar L cows in the north all winter long. Which was about as raw and mean a job as I ever tackled in my life.

  I can locate the place for you in a general way by stating that it was up near a reservation, and when I tell you that most of the redskins on that reservation were Sioux, I suppose that you can work out for yourself about which reservation I mean.

  Or, if you want any further location, I could tell you that it was part of the country where the ground was all ripped apart and plowed up by the rains, when they came. And where trees didn’t thrive particularly; the soil was that mean and clayey.

  All summer, it was dust that swarmed all over you and crawled down your neck and fair choked you. And all winter it was mud. God-awful mud! Mud that collected together. Mud that was cemented with glue. So when you put down your foot, most of the country tried to stick to the boot when you tried to lift it. Mud so bad that when the snow heaped up and then battered down flat and hard, it was a mighty relief. Mud so mighty bad that we used to hate the coming of spring, because it meant the thaw, and the end of the snow, and that wet, soaked, sticky ground—billions of tons of it all hankering to get onto your shoes or your clothes and dry off inside of your shack.

  So by this you ought to know about when this happened, and also with half an eye at any old map, you could tell about where.

  When the fall came along toward the close, and the sky got blacker and blacker and the clouds blew lower and lower with a wet feel in them that you have in your lungs and on your skin before you can understand, we all got pretty mournful, because we knew that pretty soon, part of us would have to travel north and start in on that job which we hated.

  The Bar L outfit worked out a scheme like this.

  It ranged cows right alongside of the reservation lands. And of course it wasn’t supposed to range cows on the reservation lands. But a few would be bound to mix over. That was natural. And a few of the reservation cattle would be bound to mix over on our side of the line, and everything was just the way it should be, and nobody could find any fault, because cows have got a natural way of wandering when the feed gets poor or when the wind is blowing hard and long.

  But the Bar L outfit beat that game all hollow.

  The reservation lands were cracking good ones, and there was pasture that would have made the mouth of any cattleman water. And what was to keep the Bar L from just drifting a few more thousands onto that reservation, and then a few more thousands still?

  The Indians didn’t care much. All winter long, an Indian is interested in almost anything more than in how his cows are getting along in the snow. He likes to sit inside and swap lies unless his belly gets so empty that he has to take in his belt a lot of notches.

  In the old days, the Indians used to get out and raise the devil now and then in the winter. We figured it that they had a reason behind what they did, because they wanted nothing so much as lots of chuck and lots of sleep in the cold weather, and when they went on the rampage, we knew it was because some rascal of an Indian agent had been cheating them out of nine-tenths of their provisions. Which was what happened all the time.

  However, that didn’t make them any better neighbors. It was like living on thin ice all the time. You never knew when that ice was going to crack and let you through to kingdom come.

  In the meantime, here we were drifting the Bar L cattle in on the reservation lands as fast as we could.

  And when the spring came—or maybe it was in the autumn—along would come an inspector or two, sent out by the government to count the cows to see whether or not the avaricious cattlemen were taking advantage of the poor Indians by using up their pasture.

  Well, that was always a funny performance.

  Mostly those inspectors were honest men. But they didn’t know any more about cattle than they did about the man in the moon. You’d think that wouldn’t keep them from being able to count brands. When you start out and have to travel around a circle for five or six days, you begin by being very conscientious. But after a while, you get tired of riding up and looking at the brand, and you ask the cowpuncher along with you if those are new cattle or ones that they’
ve already counted on the other side of the range. And then the honest cowpunchers ride out and take a look and they come back and tell you that those cows had already been counted on the far side of the range and that with the wind where it is now, the cows are bound to do a lot of drifting from one part of the range to the other.

  Well, sir, I’ve seen inspectors go out and look fifty thousand cows fairly in the eye and come back and write a conscientious report that they had seen only five thousand. And willing to swear by what they report. And willing to fight for what they’ve said. Because a man hates to think that he has been made a fool of.

  If it hadn’t been that there is this element in our human nature, I would not have to make this confession now!

  Let that go for the present.

  You can see by the layout as I show it to you that we had a nasty job on our hands, up there in those bleak badlands. And about the only chance we had to liven things up was when we had a whack at pulling the wool over the eyes of those inspectors. And we did that not because we were particularly devoted to the Bar L, or because we disliked the inspectors, but simply because it is a lot of fun to make a fool of the other fellow. Which ties right in with the other half of what I’ve just been saying.

  However, it takes a lot of swallows to make a summer, and there weren’t enough inspectors in the business to give us a happy time and keep us amused at that camp. And every autumn it was harder and harder to get the boys to stick it out and volunteer to tackle the job.

  I had a new crew nearly every season for that work. And it was hard work that needed experience. I got fifteen dollars a month extra, which was enough to sweeten the work for me. Besides, I was boss, and a man likes to have a little responsibility. I knew that the men who ran the Bar L didn’t give a proverbial damn about me, but still it was sort of nice to have the running of that little batch of men and that great big batch of cows every winter.

  The bosses let me do everything and even order all the provisions, except the bacon. They had their own bacon which they used to buy wholesale, and they used to get a firm that managed to raise hogs that were all fat and no muscle at all. That bacon was a mighty disgusting lot of stuff. It was just white grease and there was no way of slicing it up or cooking it that would make it anything but white grease. And a poor article of bacon is a bad thing to feed to cowhands in a camp where bacon simply has to be the biggest thing in the diet. However, I could put up with the diet. And once we got into camp, I could do everything exactly as I pleased. I could fire and hire. Which is about all the authority that you can expect to have placed in your hands by any outfit. And away out there, seventy miles from anything that had the nerve to call itself a town, being kingpin of the gang was quite an inducement.

  However, what was an inducement for me was no particular inducement for any of the others. And, as I’ve said, every year we had to make up a new bunch to take north for the winter work. We had to give up all attempts to get experienced hands. Anything that was willing to ride bucking horses and eat that filthy bacon was good enough to be called cowpuncher in my camp.

  And that was how I came to hire Jigger Bunts.

  However, since he is what my confession is about, he deserves a new chapter off by himself, I suppose.

  Chapter Three

  He came in at the end of the time that I had laid out for the hiring of my crew. And if I hadn’t been desperate, I should not have taken him, because I could see at one look that he was at the awkward age of boys. That is, he was about eighteen.

  When a boy is eighteen, he is sure to be all wrong. Either he has a bigger body than he knows what to do with, or else he has more head and less beam than he needs. He’s sure to be out of proportion. He’s got to the age when he doesn’t fall down stairs any more, but he just falls into scrapes all the time.

  You see, he can’t understand the right place for himself. Where he should really be is off at a school somewhere along with the other young lunatics about his same age. Or if there’s war, you’ll find that he’s at the front. Somebody told me that a third of the soldiers in the Civil War were sixteen years old or under that age.

  Well, if there has to be a war, I suppose that the army is a good place for a boy about that time of life. Because he doesn’t know what to make of himself. He’s got his full height and within a few pounds of his full weight and within a jump or two of his full strength. If he gets tired a little quicker than a grown man does, he gets rested a lot easier. And he has this advantage—that no matter what sort of a load he carries on his back, he never carries nothing on his mind. Mentally, you might say, he is always in light marching order.

  He has a goal, yes, but that goal is just to find a good time, no matter where he has to look for it. Also, he wants to find out everything that’s worthwhile in the whole world, and he can’t rest until he’s got to it. He doesn’t want any delays. Make him sit down in a corner for five whole minutes, and he’ll up and start a revolution. Put up a fence, or a mountain, and tell him that he can do anything that he wants except to climb over that fence or that mountain, and right off there is nothing that he really wants to do and nothing that puts any sauce in life except to climb up that mountain and stand on his head at the top of it.

  Yes, doing what he’s told not to is his idea of perfect happiness. And even when he does try to do something right, God has planted in him an instinct for doing it wrong. Or, if you take it the other way, he has an instinct for doing wrong things the right way.

  Same time, you can’t put him in his place the way you can with a little boy. Nothing makes him fire up more than suspecting for a minute that he’s not being treated as respectfully as a man had ought to be treated. Because being a man is a new job with him, he’s like a cow on a new range—got to go sniffing around in every corner of the new place and show fight whenever anybody puts a hoof nearby. That’s the way with a boy. If you just smile at him, he feels that he’s morally dead to all honor unless he ups and hits you on the chin.

  I had seen quite a bit about boys, and I could remember pretty clear when I was a boy myself. So I knew that hiring an eighteen-year-old was most likely laying out work for two grown-up men.

  However, I was already two men short. And the winter had all the signs of being a whopper. The beavers were laying in great big stores, and the dogs had coats about twice as thick and silky as they had had the year before. So we all knew that we were in for a mighty bad season up there on the edge of the reservation lands. Also, if the bad weather started working hardships on the Sioux, they were apt to start running amuck. And all of these reasons dovetailed in together most beautifully, so that I only had to look at a man to make him turn and look the other way.

  All I could get were some fellows so old and so tough that they didn’t care what happened to them. Most of them had been anything you’re pleased to name, from coal muckers to sailors before the mast. And two of them, by my own knowledge, had worked on big square-riggers.

  Those were the days, you understand, when the sailing ship was having her last classy fling at the world, and the square-riggers were howling around the world with their decks half underwater all the time, and the skippers standing around with guns in their hands, threatening to shoot the first man that dared to let go a rope to shorten sail. And a man who had sailed under a skipper like that was ready for almost anything.

  After laying out on a yard and reefing in a sail that was covered stiff with a solid inch of ice, hanging onto the yard with his teeth and reefing the sail in with both hands and both feet—after doing work like that, around the Horn, a man didn’t really mind nothing else. And even a winter up there doing the work that we had to do was sort of a party.

  By those two specimens, you can judge the rest of the gang that I had hired. Most of them had raised so much ruction in the world that they were pretty glad to get off there where nobody was apt to hear of them for a while. And they were so hard that they d
idn’t even talk, mostly. They would just sit around and think, and every man’s face was a study. You could see that they were chatting with themselves and their past.

  They were so hard, that though I had lived all my days out where the boys grew like iron, I used to wake up in a sweat, dreaming bad dreams, all that winter long.

  At any rate, when I saw the sort of material I had to work with that season, and the boy came along and said that he heard I wanted men and that he would be glad to work for me, I just looked him over and grunted to myself. As I’ve said, I knew that a boy at that time of life can’t help being no good to anybody, beginning with himself. But I had to have him—and so I took him. And I couldn’t help asking him why he wanted to come out and work for me, and if he thought that maybe my camp was a sort of winter vacation trip for invalids.

  As cool as you please, he stood up there, and he looked me in the eye, and he says to me: “I know that it’s a hard life, but I’d consider it an honor to serve under a man like you, Tom Reynard.”

  I thought that he was sure joking, of course. And I tried to smile in sympathy with the joke, which is always a lopsided smile when you know that the joke is on you. I wanted to knock him down, of course, but I held myself back.

  I was in my late thirties myself. That is to say, I had a sense.

  “You are a great joker, I see,” I said to him. “And what might you be driving at?”

  “Oh, I’m not joking at all,” he said. “But I’ve heard all about you, Reynard! And I’ve heard about your Indian fighting, too.”

  I give him a pretty straight look. My Indian fighting was something that the boys all sort of enjoyed laughing about, from time to time. Because, about five years back, some of the boys with the devil in them trailed me back from town when I was headed toward the ranch that I was working on, and they rode all bunched over in the saddle, like Indians, and pretty soon they came whooping at me.