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The Flying U Ranch By B. M. Bower Characters: 18844

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Slim rising first from dinner on the next day but one opened the door of the mess-house, and stood there idly picking his teeth before he went about his work. After a minute of listening to the boys "joshing" old Patsy about some gooseberry pies he had baked without sugar, he turned his face outward, threw up his head like a startled bull, and began to sniff.

"Say, I smell sheep, by golly!" he announced in the bellowing tone which was his conversational voice, and sniffed again.

"Oh, that's just a left-over in your system from the dose yuh got in town Sunday," Weary explained soothingly. "I've smelled sheep, and tasted sheep, and dreamed sheep, ever since."

"No, by golly, it's sheep! It ain't no memory. I-I b'hieve I hear 'em, too, by golly." Slim stepped out away from the building and faced suspiciously down the coulee.

"Slim, I never suspected you of imagination before," the Native Son drawled, and loitered out to where Slim stood still sniffing. "I wonder if you're catching it from Andy and me. Don't you think you ought to be vaccinated?"

"That ain't imagination," Pink called out from within. "When anybody claims there's sheep in Flying U coulee, that's straight loco."

"Come on out here and smell 'em yourself, then!" Slim bawled indignantly. "I never seen such an outfit as this is gittin' to be; you fellers don't believe nobody, no more. We ain't all Andy Greens."

Upon hearing this Andy pushed back his chair and strolled outside. He clapped his hand down upon Slim's fat-cushioned shoulder and swayed him gently. "Never mind, Slim; you can't all be famous," he comforted. "Some day, maybe, I'll teach yuh the fine art of lying more convincingly than the ordinary man can tell the truth. It is a fine art; it takes a genius to put it across. Now, the only time anybody doubts my word is when I'm sticking to the truth hike a sand burr to a dog's tail."

From away to the west, borne on the wind which swept steadily down the coulee, came that faint, humming sing-song, which can be made only by a herd of a thousand or more sheep, all blatting in different keys-or by a distant band playing monotonously upon the middle octave of their varied instruments.

"Slim's right, by gracious! It's sheep, sure as yuh live." Andy did not wait for more, but started at a fast walk for the stable and his horse. After him went the Native Son, who had not been with the Flying U long enough to sense the magnitude of the affront, and Slim, who knew to a nicety just what "cowmen" considered the unpardonable sin, and the rest of the Happy Family, who were rather incredulous still.

"Must be some fool herder just crossing the coulee, on the move somewhere," Weary gave as a solution. "Half of 'em don't know a fence when they see it."

As they galloped toward the sound and the smell, they expressed freely their opinion of sheep, the men who owned them, and the lunatics who watched over the blatting things. They were cattlemen to the marrow in their bones, and they gloried in their prejudice against the woolly despoilers of the range.

All these years had the Flying U been immune from the nuisance, save for an occasional trespasser, who was quickly sent about his business. The Flying U range had been kept in the main inviolate from the little, gray vandals, which ate the grass clean to the sod, and trampled with their sharp-pointed hoofs the very roots into lifelessness; which polluted the water-holes and creeks until cattle and horses went thirsty rather than drink; which, in that land of scant rainfall, devastated the range where they fed so that a long-established prairie-dog town was not more barren. What wonder if the men who owned cattle, and those who tended them, hated sheep? So does the farmer dread an invasion of grasshoppers.

A mile down the coulee they came upon the band with two herders and four dogs keeping watch. Across the coulee and up the hillsides they spread like a noisome gray blanket. "Maa-aa, maa-aa, maa-aa," two thousand strong they blatted a strident medley while they hurried here and there after sweeter bunches of grass, very much like a disturbed ant-hill.

The herders loitered upon either slope, their dogs lying close beside them. There was good grass in that part of the coulee; the Flying U had saved it for the saddle horses that were to be gathered and held temporarily at the ranch; for it would save herding, and a week in that pasture would put a keen edge on their spirits for the hard work of the calf roundup. A dozen or two that ranged close had already been driven into the field and were feeding disdainfully in a corner as far away from the sheep as the fence would permit.

The Happy Family, riding close-grouped, stiffened in their saddles and stared amazed at the outrage.

"Sheepherders never did have any nerve," Irish observed after a minute. "They keep their places fine! They'll drive their sheep right into your dooryard and tell 'en to help themselves to anything that happens to look good to them. Oh, they're sure modest and retiring!"

Weary, who had charge of the outfit during Chip's absence, was making straight for the nearest herder. Pink and Andy went with him, as a matter of course.

"You fellows ride up around that side, and put the run on them sheep," Weary shouted back to the others. "We'll start the other side moving. Make 'em travel-back where they came from." He jerked his head toward the north. He knew, just as they all knew, that there had been no sheep to the south, unless one counted those that ranged across the Missouri river.

As the three forced their horses up the steep slope, the herder, sitting slouched upon a rock, glanced up at them dully. He had a long stick, with which he was apathetically turning over the smaller stones within his reach, and as apathetically killing the black bugs that scuttled out from the moist earth beneath. He desisted from this unexciting pastime as they drew near, and eyed them with the sullenness that comes of long isolation when the person's nature forbids that other extreme of babbling garrulity, for no man can live long months alone and remain perfectly normal. Nature, that stern mistress, always exacts a penalty from us foolish mortals who would ignore the instincts she has wisely implanted within us for our good.

"Maybe," Weary began mildly and without preface, "you don't know this is private property. Get busy with your dogs, and haze these sheep back on the bench." He waved his hand to the north. "And, when you get a good start in that direction," he added, "yuh better keep right on going."

The herder surveyed him morosely, but he said nothing; neither did he rise from the rock to obey the command. The dogs sat upon their haunches and perked their ears inquiringly, as if they understood better than did their master that these men were not to be quite overlooked.

"I meant to-day," Weary hinted, with the manner of one who deliberately holds his voice quiet.

"I never asked yuh what yuh meant," the herder mumbled, scowling. "We got to keep 'em on water another hour, yet." He went back to turning over the small rocks and to pursuing with his stick the bugs, as if the whole subject were squeezed dry of interest.

For a minute Weary stared unwinkingly down at him, uncertain whether to resent this as pure insolence, or to condone it as imbecility. "Mamma!" he breathed eloquently, and grinned at Andy and Pink. "This is a real talkative cuss, and obliging, too. Come on, boys; he's too busy to bother with a little thing like sheep."

He led the way around to the far side of the band, the nearest sheep scuttling away from then as they passed. "I don't suppose we could work the combination on those dogs-what?" he considered aloud, glancing back at them where they still sat upon their haunches and watched the strange riders. "Say, Cadwalloper, you took a few lessons in sheepherding, a couple of years ago, when you was stuck on that girl-remember? Whistle 'em up here and set 'en to work."

"You go to the devil," Pink's curved hips replied amiably to his boss. "I've got loss-uh-memory on the sheep business."

Whereat Weary grinned and said no more about it.

On the opposite side of the coulee, the boys seemed to be laboring quite as fruitlessly with the other herder. They heard Big Medicine's truculent bellow, as he leaned from the saddle and waved a fist close to the face of the herder, but, though they rode with their eyes fixed upon the group, they failed to see any resultant movement of dogs, sheep or man.

There is, at times, a certain safety in being the hopeless minority. Though seven indignant cowpunchers surrounded him, that herder was secure from any personal molestation-and he knew it. They were seven against one; therefore, after making some caustic remarks, which produced as little effect as had Weary's command upon the first man, the seven were constrained to ride here and there along the wavering, gray line, and, with shouts and swinging ropes, themselves drive the sheep from the coulee.

There was much clamor and dust and riding to and fro. There was language which would have made the mothers of then weep, and there were faces grown crimson from wrath. Eventually, however, the Happy Family faced the north fence of the Flying U boundary, and saw the last woolly back scrape under the lower wire, leaving a toll of g

reasy wool hanging from the barbs.

The herders had drawn together, and were looking on from a distance, and the four dogs were yelping uneasily over their enforced inaction. The Happy Family went back and rounded up the herders, and by sheer weight of numbers forced them to the fence without laying so much as a finger upon then. The one who had been killing black bugs gave then an ugly look as he crawled through, but even he did not say anything.

"Snap them wires down where they belong," Weary commanded tersely.

The man hesitated a minute, then sullenly unhooked the barbs of the two lower strands, so that the wires, which had thus been lifted to permit the passing of the sheep, twanged apart and once more stretched straight from post to post.

"Now, just keep in mind the fact that fences are built for use. This is a private ranch, and sheep are just about as welcome as smallpox. Haze them stinking things as far north as they'll travel before dark, and at daylight start 'em going again. Where's your camp, anyhow?"

"None of your business," mumbled the bugkiller sourly.

Weary scanned the undulating slope beyond the fence, saw no sign of a camp, and glanced uncertainly at his fellows. "Well, it don't matter much where it is; you see to it you don't sleep within five miles of here, or you're liable to have bad dreams. Hit the trail, now!"

They waited inside the fence until the retreating sheep lost their individuality as blatting animals, ambling erratically here and there, while they moved toward the brow of the hill, and merged into a great, gray blotch against the faint green of the new grass-a blotch from which rose again that vibrant, sing-song humming of many voices mingled. Then they rode back down the coulee to their own work, taking it for granted that the trespassing was an incident which would not be repeated-by those particular sheep, at any rate.

It was, therefore, with something of a shock that the Happy Family awoke the next morning to hear Pink's melodious treble shouting in the bunk-house at sunrise next morning:

"'G'wa-a-y round' 'em, Shep! Seven black ones in the coulee!" Men who know well the West are familiar with that facetious call.

"Ah, what's the matter with yuh?" Irish raised a rumpled, brown head from his pillow, and blinked sleepily at him. "I've been dreaming I was a sheepherder, all night."

"Well, you've got the swellest chance in the world to 'make every dream cone true, dearie,'" Pink retorted. "The whole blamed coulee's full uh sheep. I woke up a while ago and thought I just imagined I heard 'en again; so I went out to take a look-or a smell, it was-and they're sure enough there!"

Weary swung one long leg out from under his blankets and reached for his clothes. He did not say anything, but his face portended trouble for the invaders.

"Say!" cried Big Medicine, coming out of his bunk as if it were afire, "I tell yuh right now then blattin' human apes wouldn't git gay around here if I was runnin' this outfit. The way I'd have of puttin' them sheep on the run wouldn't be slow, by cripes! I'll guarantee-"

By then the bunk-house was buzzing with voices, and there was none to give heed to Big Medicine s blatant boasting. Others there were who seemed rather inclined to give Weary good advice while they pulled on their boots and sought for their gloves and rolled early-morning cigarettes, and otherwise prepared themselves for what Fate might have waiting for then outside the door.

"Are you sure they're in the coulee, Cadwalloper?" Weary asked, during a brief lull. "They could be up on the hill-"

"Hell, yes!" was Pink's forceful answer. "They could be on the hill, but they ain't. Why, darn it, they're straggling into the little pasture! I could see 'em from the stable. They-"

"Come and eat your breakfast first, boys, anyway." Weary had his hand upon the door-knob. "A few minutes more won't make any difference, one way or the other." He went out and over to the mess-house to see if Patsy had the coffee ready; for this was a good three-quarters of an hour earlier than the Flying U outfit usually bestirred themselves on these days of preparation for roundup and waiting for good grass.

"I'll be darned if I'd be as calm as he is," Cal Emmett muttered while the door was being closed. "Good thing the Old Man ain't here, now. He'd go straight up in the air. He wouldn't wait for no breakfast."

"I betche there'll be a killin' yet, before we're through with them sheep," gloomed Happy Jack. "When sheepherders starts in once to be ornery, there ain't no way uh stoppin' 'em except by killin' 'em off. And that'll mean the pen for a lot of us fellers-"

"Well, by golly, it won't be me," Slim declared loudly. "Yuh wouldn't ketch me goin' t' jail for no doggone sheepherder. They oughta be a bounty on 'en by rights."

"Seems queer they'd be right back here this morning, after being hazed out yesterday afternoon," said Andy Green thoughtfully. "Looks like they're plumb anxious to build a lot of trouble for themselves."

Patsy, thumping energetically the bottom of a tin pan, sent them trooping to the mess-house. There it was evident that the breakfast had been unduly hurried; there were no biscuits in sight, for one thing, though Patsy was lumbering about the stove frying hot-cakes. They were in too great a hurry to wait for them, however. They swallowed their coffee hurriedly, bolted a few mouthfuls of meat and fried eggs, and let it go at that.

Weary looked at then with a faint smile. "I'm going to give a few of you fellows a chance to herd sheep to-day," he announced, cooling his coffee so that it would not actually scald his palate. "That's why I wanted you to get some grub into you. Some of you fellows will have to take the trail up on the hill, and meet us outside the fence, so when we chase 'em through you can make a good job of it this time. I wonder-"

"You don't need to call out the troops for that job; one man is enough to put the fear uh the Lord into then herders," Andy remarked slightingly. "Once they're on the move-"

"All right, my boy; we'll let you be the man," Weary told him promptly. "I was going to have a bunch of you take a packadero outfit down toward Boiler Bottom and comb the breaks along there for horses-and I sure do hate to spend the whole day chasing sheepherders around over the country. So we'll haze 'em through the fence again, and, seeing you feel that way about it, I'll let you go around and keep 'em going. And, if you locate their camp, kinda impress it on the tender, if you can round him up, that the Flying U ain't pasturing sheep this spring. No matter what kinda talk he puts up, you put the run on 'em till you see 'em across One-Man coulee. Better have Patsy put you up a lunch-unless you're fond of mutton."

Andy twisted his mouth disgustedly. "Say, I'm going to quit handing out any valuable advice to you, Weary," he expostulated.

"Haw-haw-haw-w-w!" laughed Big Medicine, and slapped Andy on the shoulder so that his face almost came in contact with his plate. "Yuh will try to work some innercent man into sheepherdin', will yuh? Haw-haw-haw-w! You'll come in tonight blattin'-if yuh don't stay out on the range tryin' t' eat grass, by cripes! Andy had a little lamb that follered him around-"

"Better let Bud take that herdin' job, Weary," Andy suggested. "It won't hurt him-he's blattin' already."

"If you think you're liable to need somebody along," Weary began, soft-heartedly relenting, "why, I guess-"

"If I can't handle two crazy sheepherders without any help, by gracious, I'll get me a job holdin' yarn in an old ladies' hone," Andy cut in hastily, and got up from the table. "Being a truthful man, I can't say I'm stuck on the job; but I'm game for it. And I'll promise you there won't be no more sheep of that brand lickin' our doorsteps. What darned outfit is it, anyway? I never bumped into any Dot sheep before, to my knowledge."

"It's a new one on me," Weary testified, heading the procession down to the stable. "If they belonged anywhere in this part of the country, though, they wouldn't be acting the way they are. They'd be wise to the fact that it ain't healthy."

Even while he spoke his eyes were fixed with cold intensity upon a fringe of gray across the coulee below the little pasture. To the nostrils of the outraged Happy Family was borne that indescribable aroma which betrays the presence of sheep; that aroma which sheepmen love and which cattlemen hate, and which a favorable wind will carry a long way.

They slapped saddles on their horses in record time that morning, and raced down the coulee ironically shouting commiserating sentences to the unfortunate Andy, who rode slowly up to the mess-house for the lunch which Patsy had waiting for him in a flour sack, and afterward climbed the grade and loped along outside the line fence to a point opposite the sheep and the shouting horsemen, who forced them back by weight of numbers.

This morning the herders were not quite so passive. The bug-killer still scowled, but he spoke without the preliminary sulky silence of the day before,

"We're goin' across the coulee," he growled. "Them's orders. We range south uh here."

"No, you don't," Weary dissented calmly. "Not by a long shot, you don't. You're going back where you come from-if you ask me. And you're going quick!"

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