Thurston tucked the bulb of his camera down beside the bellows and closed the box with a snap. "I wonder what old Reeve would say to that view," he mused aloud.
"Oh, a fellow back in New York. Jove! he'd throw up his dry-point heads and take to oils and landscapes if he could see this."
The "this" was a panoramic view of the town and surrounding valley of Billings. The day was sunlit and still, and far objects stood up with sharp outlines in the clear atmosphere. Here and there the white tents of waiting trail-outfits splotched the bright green of the prairie. Horsemen galloped to and from the town at top speed, and a long, grimy red stock train had just snorted out on a siding by the stockyards where the bellowing of thirsty cattle came faintly like the roar of pounding surf in the distance.
Thurston—quite a different Thurston from the trim, pale young man who had followed the lure of the West two weeks before—drew a long breath and looked out over the hurrying waters of the Yellowstone. It was good to be alive and young, and to live the tented life of the plains; it was good even to be "speeding fleetly where the grassland meets the sky "—for two weeks in the saddle had changed considerably his view-point. He turned again to the dust and roar of the stockyards a mile or so away.
"Perhaps," he remarked hopefully, "the next train will be ours." Strange how soon a man may identify himself with new conditions and new aims. He had come West to look upon the life from the outside, and now his chief thought was of the coming steers, which he referred to unblushingly as "our cattle." Such is the spell of the range.
"Let's ride on over, Bud," Park proposed. "That's likely the Circle Bar shipment. Their bunch comes from the same place ours does, and I want to see how they stack up."
Thurston agreed and went to saddle up. He had mastered the art of saddling and could, on lucky days and when he was in what he called "form," rope the horse he wanted; to say nothing of the times when his loop settled unexpectedly over the wrong victim. Park Holloway, for instance, who once got it neatly under his chin, much to his disgust and the astonishment of Thurston.
"I'm going to take my Kodak," said he. "I like to watch them unload, and I can get some good pictures, with this sunlight."
"When you've hollered 'em up and down the chutes as many times as I have," Park told him, "yuh won't need no pictures to help yuh remember what it's like."
It was an old story with Park, and Thurston's enthusiasm struck him as a bit funny. He perched upon a corner of the fence out of the way, and smoked cigarettes while he watched the cattle and shouted pleasantries to the men who prodded and swore and gesticulated at the wild-eyed huddle in the pens. Soon his turn would come, but just now he was content to look on and take his ease.
"For the life of me," cried Thurston, sidling gingerly over to him, "I can't see where they all come from. For two days these yards have never been empty. The country will soon be one vast herd."
"Two days—huh! this thing'll go on for weeks, m'son. And after all is over, you'll wonder where the dickens they all went to. Montana is some bigger than you realize, I guess. And next fall, when shipping starts, you'll think you're seeing raw porterhouse steaks for the whole world. Let's drift out uh this dust; you'll have time to get a carload uh pictures before our bunch rolls in."
As a matter of fact, it was two weeks before the Lazy Eight consignment arrived. Thurston haunted the stockyards with his Kodak, but after the first two or three days he took no pictures. For every day was but a repetition of those that had gone before: a great, grimy engine shunting cars back and forth on the siding; an endless stream of weary, young cattle flowing down the steep chutes into the pens, from the pens to the branding chutes, where they were burned deep with the mark of their new owners; then out through the great gate, crowding, pushing, wild to flee from restraint, yet held in and guided by mounted cowboys; out upon the green prairie where they could feast once more upon sweet grasses and drink their fill from the river of clear, mountain water; out upon the weary march of the trail, on and on for long days until some boundary which their drivers hailed with joy was passed, and they were free at last to roam at will over the wind-brushed range land; to lie down in some cool, sweet-scented swale and chew their cuds in peace.
Two weeks, and then came a telegram for Park. In the reading of it he shuffled off his attitude of boyish irresponsibility and became in a breath the cool, business-like leader of men. Holding the envelope still in his hand he sought out Thurston, who was practicing with a rope. As Park approached him he whirled the noose and cast it neatly over the peak of the night-hawk's teepee.
"Good shot," Park encouraged, "but I'd advise yuh to take another target. You'll have the tent down over Scotty's ears, and then you'll think yuh stirred up a mess uh hornets.
"Say, Bud, our cattle are coming, and I'm going to be short uh men. If you'd like a job I'll take yuh on, and take chances on licking yuh into shape. Maybe the wages won't appeal to yuh, but I'm willing to throw in heaps uh valuable experience that won't cost yuh a cent." He lowered an eyelid toward the cook-tent, although no one was visible.
Thurston studied the matter while he coiled his rope, and no longer. Secretly he had wanted all along to be a part of the life instead of an onlooker. "I'll take the job, Park—if you think I can hold it down." The speech would doubtless have astonished Reeve-Howard in more ways than one; but Reeve-Howard was already a part of the past in Thurston's mind. He was for living the present.
"Well," Park retorted, "it'll be your own funeral if yuh get fired. Better stake yourself to a pair uh chaps; you'll need 'em on the trip."
"Also a large, rainbow-hued silk handkerchief if I want to look the part," Thurston bantered.
"If yuh don't want your darned neck blistered, yuh mean," Park flung over his shoulders. "Your wages and schooling start in to-morrow at sunup."
It was early in the morning when the first train arrived, hungry, thirsty, tired, bawling a general protest against fate and man's mode of travel. Thurston, with a long pole in his hand, stood on the narrow plank near the top of a chute wall and prodded vaguely at an endless, moving incline of backs. Incidentally he took his cue from his neighbors, and shouted till his voice was a croak-though he could not see that he accomplished anything either by his prodding or his shouting.
Below him surged the sea of hide and horns which was barely suggestive of the animals as individuals. Out in the corrals the dust-cloud hung low, just as it had hovered every day for more than two weeks; just as it would hover every day for two weeks longer. Across the yards near the big, outer gate Deacon Smith's crew was already beginning to brand. The first train was barely unloaded when the second trailed in and out on the siding; and so the third came also. Then came a lull, for the consignment had been split in two and the second section was several hours behind the first.
Thurston rode out to camp, aching with the strain and ravenously hungry, after toiling with his muscles for the first time in his life; for his had been days of physical ease. He had yet to learn the art of working so that every movement counted something accomplished, as did the others; besides, he had been in constant fear of losing his hold on the fence and plunging headlong amongst the trampling hoofs below, a fate that he shuddered to contemplate. He did not, however, mention that fear, or his muscle ache, to any man; he might be green, but he was not the man to whine.
When he went back into the dust and roar, Park ordered him curtly to tend the branding fire, since both crews would brand that afternoon and get the corrals cleared for the next shipment. Thurston thanked Park mentally; tending branding-fire sounded very much like child's play.
Soon the gray dust-cloud took on a shade of blue in places where the smoke from the fires cut through; a new tang smote the nostrils: the rank odor of burning hair and searing hides; a new note crept into the clamoring roar: the low-keyed blat of pain and fright.
Thurston turned away his head from the sight and the smell, and piled on wood until Park stopped him with. "Say, Bud, we ain't celebrating any election! It ain't a bonfire we want, it's heat; just keep her going and save wood all yuh can." After an hour of fire-tending Thurston decided that there were things more wearisome than "hollering 'em down the chutes." His eyes were smarting intolerably with smoke and heat, and the smell of the branding was not nice; but through the long afternoon he stuck to the work, shrewdly guessing that the others were not having any fun either. Park and "the Deacon" worked as hard as any, branding the steers as they were squeezed, one by one, fast in the little branding chutes. The setting sun shone redly through the smoke before Thurston was free to kick the half-burnt sticks apart and pour water upon them as directed by Park.
"Think yuh earned your little old dollar and thirty three cents, Bud?" Park asked him. And Thurston smiled a tired, sooty smile that seemed all teeth.
"I hope so; at any rate, I have a deep, inner knowledge of the joys of branding cattle."
"Wait 'till yuh burn Lazy Eights on wriggling, blatting calves for two or three hours at a stretch before yuh talk about the joys uh branding." Park rubbed eloquently his aching biceps.
At dusk Thurston crept into his blankets, feeling that he would like the night to be at least thirty six hours long. He was just settling into a luxurious, leather-upholstered dream chair preparatory to telling Reeve-Howard his Western experiences when Park's voice bellowed into the tent:
"Roll out, boys—we got a train pulling in!"
There was hurried dressing in the dark of the bed-tent, hasty mounting, and a hastier ride through the cool night air. There were long hours at the chutes, prodding down at a wavering line of moving shadows, while the "big dipper" hung bright in the sky and lighted lanterns bobbed back and forth along the train waving signals to one another. At intervals Park's voice cut crisply through the turmoil, giving orders to men whom he could not see.
The east was lightening to a pale yellow when the men climbed at last into their saddles and galloped out to camp for a hurried breakfast. Thurston had been comforting his aching body with the promise of rest and sleep; but three thousand cattle were milling impatiently in the stockyards, so presently he found himself fanning a sickly little blaze with his hat while he endeavored to keep the smoke from his tired eyes. Of a truth, Reeve-Howard would have stared mightily at sight of him.
Once Park, passing by, smiled down upon him grimly. "Here's where yuh get the real thing in local color," he taunted, but Thurston was too busy to answer. The stress of living had dimmed his eye for the picturesque.
That night, one Philip Thurston slept as sleeps the dead. But he awoke with the others and thanked the Lord there were no more cattle to unload and brand.
When he went out on day-herd that afternoon he fancied that he was getting into the midst of things and taking his place with the veterans. He would have been filled with resentment had he suspected the truth: that Park carefully eased those first days of his novitiate. That was why none of the night-guarding fell to him until they had left Billings many miles behind them.