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   Chapter 18 No.18

A Man Four-Square By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 15665

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

A Stampede

Clanton took his turn at night herding for the first time the day of Warren's visit to the camp. Under a star-strewn sky he circled the sleeping herd, humming softly a stanza of a cowboy song. Occasionally he met Billie Prince or Tim McGrath circling in the opposite direction. The scene was peaceful as old age and beautiful as a fairy tale. For under the silvery light of night the Southwest takes on a loveliness foreign to it in the glare of the sun. The harsh details of day are lost in a luminous glow of mystic charm.

Jim had just ridden past Billie when the silence was shattered by a sudden fury of sound. The popping of revolvers, the clanging of cow bells, the clash of tin boilers-all that medley of discord which lends volume to the horror known as a charivari-tore to shreds the harmony of the night.

"What's that?" called Billie.

The hideous dissonance came from the side of the herd farthest from the camp. Together the two riders galloped toward it.

"Peg-Leg Warren's work," guessed Clanton.

"Sure," agreed Billie. "Trying to stampede the herd."

Already the cattle were bawling in wild terror, surging toward the camp to escape this unknown danger. Both of the punchers drew their revolvers and fired rapidly into the herd. It was impossible to check the rush, but they succeeded in deflecting it from the sleeping men. Before the weapons were empty, the ground shook with a thunder of hoofs as the herd fled into the darkness.

Billie found himself in the van of the stampede. He was caught in the rush and to save himself from being trampled down was forced to join the flight. He was the center of a moving sea of backs, so hemmed in that if his pony stumbled life would be trodden out of him in an instant. Except for occasional buffalo wallows the ground was level, but at any moment his mount might break a leg in a prairie-dog hole.

For the first mile or two the cattle were packed in a dense mass, shoulder to shoulder, all lumbering forward in wild-eyed panic. The noise of their hoofs was like the continuous roll of thunder and the cloud of dust so thick that the throat of Prince was swollen with it. It was only after the stampeded cattle had covered several miles that the formation of their aimless charge grew looser. The pace slackened as the steers became leg-weary. Now and again small bunches dropped from the drag or from one of the flanks. Gradually Billie was able to work toward the outskirts. His chance came when the herd poured into a swale and from it emerged into a more broken terrain. Directly in front of the leaders was a mesa with a sharp incline. Instead of taking the hill, the stampede split, part flowing to the right and part to the left. The cow-puncher urged his flagged horse straight up the hill.

He had escaped with his life, but the bronco was completely exhausted. Billie unsaddled and freed the cowpony. He knew it would not wander far now. Stretched out at full length on the buffalo grass, the cowboy drank into his lungs the clean, cold night air. His tongue was swollen, his lips cracked and bleeding. The alkali dust, sifting into His eyes, had left them red and sore. Every inch of his unshaven face, his hands, and his clothes was covered with a fine, white powder. For a long drink of mountain water he would gladly have given a month's pay.

Within the hour Billie resaddled and took the back trail. There was no time to lose. He must get back to camp, notify Webb where the stampede was moving, and join the other riders in an all-night and all-day round-up of the scattered herd. Since daybreak he had been in the saddle, and he knew that for at least twenty-four hours longer he would not leave it except to change from a worn-out horse to a fresh one.

When Prince reached camp shortly after midnight he found that the stampede of the cattle had for the moment fallen into second place in the minds of his companions. They were digging a grave for the body of Tim McGrath. The young Irishman had been shot down just as the attack on the herd began. It was a reasonable guess to suppose that he had come face to face with the raiders, who had shot him on the theory that dead men tell no tales.

But the cowpuncher had lived till his friends reached him. He had told them with his dying breath that Mysterious Pete had shot him without a word of warning and that after he fell from his horse Peg-Leg Warren rode up and fired into his body.

Jim Clanton called his friend to one side. "I'm goin' to sneak out an' take a lick at them fellows, Billie. Want to go along?"

"What's yore notion? How're you goin' to manage it?"

"Me, I'm goin' to bushwhack Warren or some of his killers from the chaparral."

Prince had seen once before that cold glitter in the eyes of the hill man. It was the look that comes into the face of the gunman when he is intent on the kill.

"I wouldn't do that if I was you, Jim," Billie advised. "This ain't our personal fight. We're under orders. We'd better wait an' see what the old man wants us to do. An? I don't reckon I would shoot from ambush anyhow."

"Wouldn't you? I would," The jaw of the younger man snapped tight. "What chance did they give poor Tim, I'd like to know? He was one of the best-hearted pilgrims ever rode up the trail, an' they shot him down like a coyote. I'm goin' to even the score."

"Don't you, Jim; don't you." Billie laid a hand on the shoulder of his partner in adventure. "Because they don't fight in the open is no reason for us to bushwhack too. That's no way for a white man to attack his enemies."

But the inheritance from feudist ancestors was strong in young Clanton. He had seen a comrade murdered in cold blood. All the training of his primitive and elemental nature called for vengeance.

"No use beefin', Billie. You don't have to go if you don't want to. But

I'm goin'. I didn't christen myself Jimmie-Go-Get-'Em for nothin'."

"Put it up to Webb first. Let's hear what he has got to say about it," urged Prince. "We've all got to pull together. You can't play a lone hand in this."

"I'll put it up to Webb when I've done the job. He won't be responsible for it then. He can cut loose from me if he wants to. So long, Billie. I'll sleep on Peg-Leg Warren's trail till I git him."

"Give up that fool notion, Jim. I can't let you go. It wouldn't be fair to you or to Webb either. We're all in this together."

"What'll you do to prevent my goin'?"

"I'll tell the old man if I have to. Sho, kid! Let's not you an' me have trouble." Billie's gentle smile pleaded for their friendship. "We've been pals ever since we first met up. Don't go off on this crazy idea like a half-cocked hogleg."

"We're not goin' to quarrel, Billie. Nothin' to that. But I'm goin' through." The boyish jaw clamped tight again. The eyes that looked at his friend might have been of tempered steel for hardness.



Clanton was leaning against the rump of his horse. He turned, indolently, gathered his body suddenly, and vaulted to the saddle. Like a shot he was off into the night.

Billie, startled at the swiftness of his going, could only stare after him impotently. He knew that it would be impossible to find one lone rider in the darkness.

Slowly he walked back to the grave. The riders of the Flying V Y were gathered round in a quiet and silent group. They were burying the body of him who had been the gayest and lightest-hearted of their circle only a few hours before.

As soon as the last shovelful of earth had been pressed down upon the mound, Webb turned to business. The herd scattered over thirty miles of country must be gathered at once and he set about the round-up. He had had bad runs on the trail before and he knew the job before his men was no easy one.

They jogged out on

a Spanish trot in the trail of the stampede. The chuck wagon was to meet them at Spring River next morning, where the first gather of beeves would be brought and held. All night they rode, tough as hickory, strong as whip-cord. Into the desert sky sifted the gray light which preceded the coming of day. Banners of mauve and amethyst and topaz were flung across the horizon, to give place to glorious splashes of purple and pink and crimson. The sun, a flaming ball of fire, rose big as a washtub from the edge of the desert.

In that early morning light crept over the plain little bunches of cattle followed by brown, lithe riders. Like spokes of a wheel each group moved to a hub. Old Black Ned, the cook, was the focus of their travel. For at Spring River he had waiting for them hot coffee, flaky biscuits, steaks hot from the coals. Each rider seized a tin cup, a tin plate, a knife and fork, and was ready for the best Uncle Ned had to offer.

The remuda had been brought up by the wranglers. While the horses milled about in a cloud of dust, each puncher selected another mount. He moved forward, his loop trailing, eye fixed on the one pony, out of one hundred and fifty, that he wanted for the day's work. Suddenly a rope would snake forward past half a dozen broncos and drop about the neck of an animal near the heart of the herd. The twisting, dodging cowpony would surrender instantly and submit to being cut out from the band. Saddles were slapped on in a hurry and the riders were again on their way.

Through the mesquite they rode, slackening speed for neither gullies nor barrancas. Webb gave orders crisply, disposed of his men in such a way as to make of them a drag-net through which no cattle could escape, and began to tighten the loops for the drive back to camp.

By the middle of the afternoon the chuck wagon was in sight. The ponies were fagged, the men weary. For thirty-six hours these riders, whose muscles seemed tough as whalebone, had been almost steadily in the saddle. They slouched along now easily, always in a gray cloud of dust raised by the bellowing cattle.

The new gather of cattle was thrown in with those that had been rounded up during the night. The punchers unsaddled their worn mounts and drifted to the camp-fire one by one. Ravenously they ate, then rolled up in their blankets and fell asleep at once. To-night they had neither heart nor energy for the gay badinage that usually flew back and forth.

Night was still heavy over the land when Uncle Ned's gong wakened them. The moon was disappearing behind a scudding cloud, but stars could be seen by thousands. Across the open plain a chill wind blew.

All was bustle and confusion, but out of the turmoil emerged order. The wranglers, already fed, moved into the darkness to bring up the remuda. Tin cups and plates rattled merrily. Tongues wagged. Bits of repartee, which are the salt of the cowpuncher's life, were flung across the fire from one; to another. Already the death of Tim McGrath was falling into the background of their swift, turbulent lives. After all the cowboy dies young. Tim's soul had wandered out across the great divide only a few months before that of others among them.

Out of the mist emerged the desert, still gray and vague and without detail. The day's work was astir once more. With the nickering of horses, the bawling of cattle, and the shouts of men as an orchestral accompaniment, light filtered into the valley for the drama of the new sunrise. Once more the tireless riders swept into the mesquite through the clutching cholla to comb another segment of country in search of the beeves not yet reclaimed.

That day's drive brought practically the entire herd together again. A few had not been recovered, but Webb set these down to profit and loss. What he regretted most was that the cattle were not in as good condition as they had been before the stampede.

The drover spent the next day cutting out the animals that did not belong to him. Of these a good many had been collected in the round-up. It was close to evening before the job was finished and the outfit returned to camp.

Billie rode up to the wagon with the old man. Leaning against a saddle on the ground, a flank steak in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, lounged Jim Clanton.

Webb, hard-eyed and stiff, looked at the young man, "Had a pleasant vacation, Clanton?"

"I don't know as I would call it a vacation, Mr. Webb. I been attending to some business," explained Jim.

"Yours or mine?"

"Yours an' mine."

"You've been gone forty-eight hours. The rest of us have worked our heads off gettin' together the herd. I reckon you can explain why you weren't with us."

Yellow with dust, unshaven, mud caked in his hair, hands torn by the cat-claw, Homer Webb was red-eyed from lack of sleep and from the irritation of the alkali powder. This young rider had broken the first law of the cowpuncher, to be on the job in time of trouble and to stay there as long as he could back a horse. The owner of the Flying V Y was angry clear through at his desertion and he intended to let the boy know it.

"I went out to look for Peg-Leg Warren" said Clanton apologetically.

Webb stopped in his stride. "You did? Who told you to do that?"

"I didn't need to be told. I've got horse sense myself." Jim spoke a little sulkily. He knew that he ought to have stayed with his employer.

"Well, what did you do when you found Peg-Leg-make him a visit for a couple of days?" demanded the drover with sarcasm.

"No, I don't know him well enough to visit-only well enough to shoot at."

"What's that?" asked Webb sharply.

"Think I was goin' to let 'em plug Tim McGrath an' get away with it?" snapped Jim.

"That's my business-not yours. What did you do? Come clean."

"Laid out in the chaparral till I got a chance to gun him," the young fellow answered sullenly.

"And then?"

"Plugged a hole through him an' made my get-away."

"You mean you've killed Peg-Leg Warren?"

"He'll never be any deader," said Clanton coolly.

The dark blood flushed into Webb's face. He wasted no pity on Warren. The man was a cold-hearted murderer and had reaped only what he had sowed. But this was no excuse for Clanton, who had deliberately dragged the Flying V Y into trouble without giving its owner a chance to determine what form retribution should take. The cowpuncher had gone back to primitive instincts and elected the blood feud as the necessary form of reprisal. He had plunged Webb and the other drovers into war without even a by-your-leave. His answer to murder had been murder. To encourage this sort of thing would be subversive of all authority and would lead to anarchy.

"Get yore time from Yankie, Clanton," said his employer harshly. "Sleep in camp to-night if you like, but hit the trail in the mornin'. I can't use men like you."

He turned away and left the two friends alone.

Prince was sick at heart. He had warned the young fellow and it had done no good. His regret was for Jim, not for Warren. He blamed himself for not having prevented the killing of Peg-Leg. Yet he knew he had done all that he could.

"I'm sorry, Jim," he said at last.

"Oh, well! What's done is done."

But Billie could not dismiss the matter casually. He saw clearly that Clanton had come to the parting of the ways and had unconsciously made his choice for life. From this time he would be known as a bad man. The brand of the killer would be on him and he would have to make good his reputation. He would have to live without friends, without love, in the dreadful isolation of one who is watched and feared by all. Prince felt a great wave of sympathy for him, of regret for so young a soul gone so totally astray. Surely the cards had been marked against Jim Clanton.

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