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   Chapter 6 THE BIG DIVIDE

The Lure of the Dim Trails By B. M. Bower Characters: 14882

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


The long drive was nearly over. Even Thurston's eyes brightened when he saw, away upon the sky-line, the hills that squatted behind the home ranch of the Lazy Eight. The past month had been one of rapid living under new conditions, and at sight of them it seemed only a few days since he had first glimpsed that broken line of hills and the bachelor household in the coulee below.

As the travel-weary herd swung down the long hill into the valley of the Milk River, stepping out briskly as they sighted the cool water in the near distance, the past month dropped away from Thurston, and what had gone just before came back fresh as the happenings of the morning. There was the Stevens ranch, a scant half mile away from where the tents already gleamed on their last camp of the long trail; the smoke from the cook-tent telling of savory meats and puddings, the bare thought of which made one hurry his horse.

His eyes dwelt longest, however, upon the Stevens house half hidden among the giant cottonwoods, and he wondered if Mona would still smile at him with that unpleasant uplift at the corner of her red mouth. He would take care that she did not get the chance to smile at him in any fashion, he told himself with decision.

He wondered if those train-robbers had been captured, and if the one Park wounded was still alive. He shivered when he thought of the dead man in the aisle, and hoped he would never witness another death; involuntarily he glanced down at his right stirrup, half expecting to see his boot red with human blood. It was not nice to remember that scene, and he gave his shoulders an impatient hitch and tried to think of something else.

Mindful of his vow, he had bought a gun in Billings, but he had not yet learned to hit anything he aimed at; for firearms are hushed in roundup camps, except when dire necessity breeds a law of its own. Range cattle do not take kindly to the popping of pistols. So Thurston's revolver was yet unstained with powder grime, and was packed away inside his bed. He was promising his pride that he would go up on the hill, back of the Lazy Eight corrals, and shoot until even Mona Stevens must respect his marksmanship, when Park galloped back to him-"The world has moved some while we was gone," he announced in the tone of one who has news to tell and enjoys thoroughly the telling. "Yuh mind the fellow I laid out in the hold-up? He got all right again, and they stuck him in jail along with another one old Lauman, the sheriff, glommed a week ago. Well, they didn't do a thing last night but knock a deputy in the head, annex his gun, swipe a Winchester and a box uh shells out uh the office and hit the high places. Old Lauman is hot on their trail, but he ain't met up with 'em yet, that anybody's heard. When he does, there'll sure be something doing! They say the deputy's about all in; they smashed his skull with a big iron poker."

"I wish I could handle a gun," Thurston said between his teeth. "I'd go after them myself. I wish I'd been left to grow up out here where I belong. I'm all West but the training-and I never knew it till a month ago! I ought to ride and rope and shoot with the best of you, and I can't do a thing. All I know is books. I can criticize an opera and a new play, and I'm considered something of an authority on clothes, but I can't shoot."

"Aw, go easy," Park laughed at him. "What if yuh can't do the double-roll? Riding and shooting and roping's all right-we couldn't very well get along without them accomplishments. But that's all they are; just accomplishments. We know a man when we see him, and it don't matter whether he can ride a bronk straight up, or don't know which way a saddle sets on a horse. If he's a man he gets as square a deal as we can give him." Park reached for his cigarette book. "And as for hunting outlaws," he finished, "we've got old Lauman paid to do that. And he's dead onto his job, you bet; when he goes out after a man he comes pretty near getting him, m'son. But I sure do wish I'd killed that jasper while I was about it; it would have saved Lauman a lot uh hard riding."

Thurston could scarcely explain to Park that his desire to hunt train-robbers was born of a half-defiant wish to vindicate to Mona Stevens his courage, and so he said nothing at all. He wondered if Park had heard her whisper, that day, and knew how he had failed to obey her commands; and if he had heard her call him a coward. He had often wondered that, but Park had a way of keeping things to himself, and Thurston could never quite bring himself to open the subject boldly. At any rate, if Park had heard, he hoped that he understood how it was and did not secretly despise him for it. Women, he told himself bitterly, are never quite just.

After the four o'clock supper he and Bob MacGregor went up the valley to relieve the men on herd. There was one nice thing about Park as a foreman: he tried to pair off his crew according to their congeniality. That was why Thurston usually stood guard with Bob, whom he liked better than any of the others-always excepting Park himself.

"I brought my gun along," Bob told him apologetically when they were left to themselves. "It's a habit I've got when I know there's bad men rampaging around the country. The boys kinda gave me the laugh when they seen me haul it out uh my war bag, but I just told 'em to go to thunder."

"Do you think those-"

"Naw. Uh course not. I just pack it on general principles, same as an old woman packs her umbrella."

"Say, this is dead easy! The bunch is pretty well broke, ain't it? I'm sure glad to see old Milk River again; this here trailing cattle gets plumb monotonous." He got down and settled his back comfortably against a rock. Below them spread the herd, feeding quietly. "Yes, sir, this is sure a snap," he repeated, after he had made himself a smoke. "They's only two ways a bunch could drift if they wanted to which they don't-up the river, or down. This hill's a little too steep for 'em to tackle unless they was crowded hard. Good feed here, too.

"Too bad yuh don't smoke, Bud. There's nothing like a good, smooth rock to your back and a cigarette in your face, on a nice, lazy day like this. It's the only kind uh day-herding I got any use for."

"I'll take the rock to my back, if you'll just slide along and make room," Thurston laughed. "I don't hanker for a cigarette, but I do wish I had my Kodak."

"Aw, t'ell with your Kodak!" Bob snorted. "Can't yuh carry this layout in your head? I've got a picture gallery in mine that I wouldn't trade for a farm; I don't need no Kodak in mine, thankye. You just let this here view soak into your system, Bud, where yuh can't lose it."

Thurston did. Long after he could close his eyes and see it in every detail; the long, green slope with hundreds of cattle loitering in the rank grass-growth; the winding sweep of the river and the green, rolling hills beyond; and Bob leaning against the rock beside him, smoking luxuriously with half-closed eyes, while their horses dozed with drooping heads a rein-length away.

"Say, Bud," Bob's voice drawled sleepily, "I wisht you'd sing that Jerusalem song. I want to learn the words to it; I'm plumb stuck on that piece. It's different from the general run uh songs, don't yuh think? Most of 'em's about your old home that yuh left in boyhood's happy days, and go back to find your girl dead and sleeping in

a little church-yard or else it's your mother; or your girl marries the other man and you get it handed to yuh right along-and they make a fellow kinda sick to his stomach when he's got to sing 'em two or three hours at a stretch on night-guard, just because he's plumb ignorant of anything better. This here Jerusalem one sounds kinda grand, and-the cattle seems to like it, too, for a change."

"The composer would feel flattered if he heard that," Thurston laughed. He wanted to be left alone to day-dream and watch the clouds trail lazily across to meet the hills; and there was an embryonic poem forming, phrase by phrase, in his mind. But he couldn't refuse Bob anything, so he sat a bit straighter and cleared his throat. He sang well-well enough indeed to be sought after at informal affairs among his set at home. When he came to the refrain Bob took his cigarette from between his lips and held it in his fingers while he joined his voice lustily to Thurston's:

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem,

Lift up your gates and sing

Hosanna in the high-est.

Hosanna to your King!"

The near cattle lifted their heads to stare stupidly a moment, then moved a few steps slowly, nosing for the sweetest grass-tufts. The horses shifted their weight, resting one leg with the hoof barely touching the earth, twitched their ears at the flies and slept again.

"And then me thought my dream was changed,

The streets no longer rang,

Hushed were the glad Hosannas

The little children sang-"

Tamale lifted his head and gazed inquiringly up the hill; but Bob was not observant of signs just then. He was Striving with his recreant memory for the words that came after:

"The sun grew dark with mystery,

The morn was cold and still,

As the shadow of a cross arose

Upon a lonely hill."

Tamale stirred restlessly with head uplifted and ears pointed straight before up the steep bluff. Old Ironsides, Thurston's mount, was not the sort to worry about anything but his feed, and paid no attention. Bob turned and glanced the way Tamale was looking; saw nothing, and settled down again on the small of his back.

"He sees a badger or something," he Said. "Go on, Bud, with the chorus."

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem,

Lift up your gates and sing."

"Lift up your hands damn quick!" mimicked a voice just behind. "If yuh ain't got anything to do but lay in the shade of a rock and yawp, we'll borrow your cayuses. You ain't needin' 'em, by the looks!"

They squirmed around until they could stare into two black gun-barrels-and then their hands went up; their faces held a particularly foolish expression that must have been amusing to the men behind the guns.

One of the gun-barrels lowered and a hand reached out and quietly took possession of Tamale's reins; the owner of the hand got calmly into Bob's saddle. Bob gritted his teeth. It was evident their movements had been planned minutely in advance, for, once settled to his liking, the fellow tested the stirrups to make sure they were the right length, and raising his gun pointed it at the two in a business-like manner that left no doubt of his meaning. Whereupon the man behind them came forward and appropriated Old Ironsides to his own use.

"Too bad we had to interrupt Sunday-school," he remarked ironically. "You can go ahead with the meetin' now-the collection has been took up." He laughed without any real mirth in his voice and gathered up the reins. "If yuh want our horses, they're up on the bench. I don't reckon they'll ever turn another cow, but such as they are you're quite welcome. Better set still, boys, till we get out uh sight; one of us'll keep an eye peeled for yuh. So long, and much obliged." They turned and rode warily down the slope.

"Now, wouldn't that jar yuh?" asked Bob in deep disgust His hands dropped to his sides; in another second he was up and shooting savagely. "Get behind the rock, Bud," he commanded.

Just then a rifle cracked, and Bob toppled drunkenly and went limply to the grass.

"My God!" cried Thurston, and didn't know that he spoke. He snatched up Bob's revolver and fired shot after shot at the galloping figures. Not one seemed to do any good; the first shot hit a two-year-old square in the ribs. After that there were no cattle within rifle range.

One of the outlaws stopped, took deliberate aim with the stolen Winchester and fired, meaning to kill; but he miscalculated the range a bit and Thurston crumpled down with a bullet in his thigh. The revolver was empty now and fell smoking at his feet. So he lay and cursed impotently while he watched the marauders ride out of sight up the valley.

When the rank timber-growth hid their flying figures he crawled over to where Bob lay and tried to lift him.

"Art you hurt?" was the idiotic question he asked.

Bob opened his eyes and waited a breath, as if to steady his thought. "Did I get one, Bud?"

"I'm afraid not," Thurston confessed, and immediately after wished that he had lied and said yes. "Are you hurt?" he repeated senselessly.

"Who, me?" Bob's eyes wavered in their directness. "Don't yuh bother none about me," evasively.

"But you've got to tell me. You-they-" He choked over the words.

"Well-I guess they got me, all right. But don't let that worry yuh; it don't me." He tried to speak carelessly and convincingly, but it was a miserable failure. He did not want to die, did Bob, however much he might try to hide the fact.

Thurston was not in the least imposed upon. He turned away his head, pretending to look after the outlaws, and set his teeth together tight. He did not want to act a fool. All at once he grew dizzy and sick, and lay down heavily till the faintness passed.

Bob tried to lift himself to his elbow; failing that, he put out a hand and laid it on Thurston's shoulder. "Did they-get you-too?" he queried anxiously.

"The damn coyotes!"

"It's nothing; just a leg put out of business," Thurston hurried to assure him. "Where are you hurt, Bob?"

"Aw, I ain't any X-ray," Bob retorted weakly but gamely. "Somewheres inside uh me. It went in my side but the Lord knows where it wound up. It hurts, like the devil." He lay quiet a minute. "I wish-do yuh feel-like finishing-that song, Bud?"

Thurston gulped down a lump that was making his throat ache. When he answered, his voice was very gentle:

"I'll try a verse, old man."

"The last one-we'd just come to the last. It's most like church. I-I never went-much on religion, Bud; but when a fellow's-going out over the Big Divide."

"You're not!" Thurston contradicted fiercely, as if that could make it different. He thought he could not bear those jerky sentences.

"All right-Bud. We won't fight over it. Go ahead. The last verse."

Thurston eased his leg to a better position, drew himself up till his shoulders rested against the rock and began, with an occasional, odd break in his voice:

"I saw the holy city

Beside the tideless Sea;

The light of God was on its street

The gates were open wide.

And all who would might enter

And no one was denied."

"Wonder if that there-applies-to bone-headed-cowpunchers," Bob muttered drowsily. "'And all-who would-" Thurston glanced quickly at his face; caught his breath sharply at what he saw there written, and dropped his head upon his arms.

And so Park and his men, hurrying to the sound of the shooting, found them in the shadow of the rock.

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