Lure of the Dim Trails, The


The third night he was detailed to stand with Bob MacGregor on the middle guard, which lasts from eleven o'clock until two. The outfit had camped near the head of a long, shallow basin that had a creek running through; down the winding banks of it lay the white-tented camps of seven other trail-herds, the cattle making great brown blotches against the green at sundown. Thurston hoped they would all be there in the morning when the sun came up, so that he could get a picture.

"Aw, they'll be miles away by then," Bob assured him unfeelingly. "By the signs, you can take snap-shots by lightning in another hour. Got your slicker, Bud?"

Thurston said he hadn't, and Bob shook his head prophetically. "You'll sure wish yuh had it before yuh hit camp again; when yuh get wise, you'll ride with your slicker behind the cantle, rain or shine. They'll need singing to, to-night."

Thurston prudently kept silent, since he knew nothing whatever about it, and Bob gave him minute directions about riding his rounds, and how to turn a stray animal back into the herd without disturbing the others.

The man they relieved met them silently and rode away to camp. Off to the right an animal coughed, and a black shape moved out from the shadows.

Bob swung towards it, and the shape melted again into the splotch of shade which was the sleeping herd. He motioned to the left. "Yuh can go that way; and yuh want to sing something, or whistle, so they'll know what yuh are." His tone was subdued, as it had not been before. He seemed to drift away into the darkness, and soon his voice rose, away across the herd, singing. As he drew nearer Thurston caught the words, at first disjointed and indistinct, then plainer as they met. It was a song he had never heard before, because its first popularity had swept far below his social plane.

"She's o-only a bird in a gil-ded cage,
A beautiful sight to see-e-e;
You may think she seems ha-a-aappy and free from ca-a-re.."

The singer passed on and away, and only the high notes floated across to Thurston, who whistled softly under his breath while he listened. Then, as they neared again on the second round, the words came pensively:

"Her beauty was so-o-old
For an old man's go-o-old, She's a bird in a gilded ca-a-age."

Thurston rode slowly like one in a dream, and the lure of the range-land was strong upon him. The deep breathing of three thousand sleeping cattle; the strong, animal odor; the black night which grew each moment blacker, and the rhythmic ebb and flow of the clear, untrained voice of a cowboy singing to his charge. If he could put it into words; if he could but picture the broody stillness, with frogs cr-ekk, er-ekking along the reedy creek-bank and a coyote yapping weirdly upon a distant hilltop! From the southwest came mutterings half-defiant and ominous. A breeze whispered something to the grasses as it crept away down the valley.

"I stood in a church-yard just at ee-eve,
While the sunset adorned the west."

It was Bob, drawing close out of the night. "You're doing fine, Kid; keep her a-going," he commended, in an undertone as he passed, and Thurston moistened his unaccustomed lips and began industriously whistling "The Heart Bowed Down," and from that jumped to Faust. Fifteen minutes exhausted his memory of the whistleable parts, and he was not given to tiresome repetitions. He stopped for a moment, and Bob's voice chanted admonishingly from somewhere, "Keep her a-go-o-ing, Bud, old boy!" So Thurston took breath and began on "The Holy City," and came near laughing at the incongruity of the song; only he remembered that he must not frighten the cattle, and checked the impulse.

"Say," Bob began when he came near enough, "do yuh know the words uh that piece? It's a peach; I wisht you'd sing it." He rode on, still humming the woes of the lady who married for gold.

Thurston obeyed while the high-piled thunder-heads rumbled deep accompaniment, like the resonant lower tones of a bass viol.

"Last night I lay a-sleeping, there came a dream so fair;
I stood in old Jerusalem, beside the temple there."

A steer stepped restlessly out of the herd, and Thurston's horse, trained to the work, of his own accord turned him gently back.

"I heard the children singing; and ever as they sang,
Me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang."

From the west the thunder boomed, drowning the words in its deep-throated growl.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing."

"Hit her up a little faster, Bud, or we'll lose some. They're getting on their feet with that thunder."

Sunfish, in answer to Thurston's touch on the reins, quickened to a trot. The joggling was not conducive to the best vocal expression, but the singer persevered:

"Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna to your King!"

Flash! the lightning cut through the storm-clouds, and Bob, who had contented himself with a subdued whistling while he listened, took up the refrain:

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem."

It was as if a battery of heavy field pieces boomed overhead. The entire herd was on its feet and stood close-huddled, their tails to the coming storm. Now the horses were loping steadily in their endless circling—a pace they could hold for hours if need be. For one blinding instant Thurston saw far down the valley; then the black curtain dropped as suddenly as it had lifted.

"Keep a-hollering, Bud!" came the command, and after it Bob's voice trilled high above the thunder-growl:

"Hosanna in the high-est.
Hosanna to your King!"

A strange thrill of excitement came to Thurston. It was all new to him; for his life had been sheltered from the rages of nature. He had never before been out under the night sky when it was threatening as now. He flinched when came an ear-splitting crash that once again lifted the black curtain and showed him, white-lighted, the plain. In the dark that followed came a rhythmic thud of hoofs far up the creek, and the rattle of living castanets. Sunfish threw up his head and listened, muscles a-quiver.

"There's a bunch a-running," called Bob from across the frightened herd. "If they hit us, give Sunfish his head, he's been there before—and keep on the outside!"

Thurston yelled "All right!" but the pounding roar of the stampede drowned his voice. A whirlwind of frenzied steers bore down upon him—twenty-five hundred Panhandle two-year-olds, though he did not know it then, his mind was all a daze, with one sentence zigzagging through it like the lightning over his head, "Give Sunfish his head, and keep on the outside!"

That was what saved him, for he had the sense to obey. After a few minutes of breathless racing, with a roar as of breakers in his ears and the crackle of clashing horns and the gleaming of rolling eyeballs close upon his horse's heels, he found himself washed high and dry, as it were, while the tumult swept by. Presently he was galloping along behind and wondering dully how he got there, though perhaps Sunfish knew well enough.

In his story of the West—the one that had failed to be convincing—he had in his ignorance described a stampede, and it had not been in the least like this one. He blushed at the memory, and wondered if he should ever again feel qualified to write of these things.

Great drops of rain pounded him on the back as he rode—chill drops, that went to the skin. He thought of his new canary-colored slicker in the bed-tent, and before he knew it swore just as any of the other men would have done under similar provocation; it was the first real, able-bodied oath he had ever uttered. He was becoming assimilated with the raw conditions of life.

He heard a man's voice calling to him, and distinguished the dim shape of a rider close by. He shouted that password of the range, "Hello!"

"What outfit is this?" the man cried again.

"The Lazy Eight!" snapped Thurston, sure that the other had come with the stampede. Then, feeling the anger of temporary authority, "What in hell are you up to, letting your cattle run?" If Park could have heard him say that for Reeve-Howard!

Down the long length of the valley they swept, gathering to themselves other herds and other riders as incensed as were themselves. It is not pretty work, nor amusing, to gallop madly in the wake of a stampede at night, keeping up the stragglers and taking the chance of a broken neck with the rain to make matters worse.

Bob MacGregor sought Thurston with much shouting, and having found him they rode side by side. And always the thunder boomed overhead, and by the lightning flashes they glimpsed the turbulent sea of cattle fleeing, they knew not where or why, with blind fear crowding their heels.

The noise of it roused the camps as they thundered by; men rose up, peered out from bed-tents as the stampede swept past, cursed the delay it would probably make, hoped none of the boys got hurt, and thanked the Lord the tents were pitched close to the creek and out of the track of the maddened herds.

Then they went back to bed to wait philosophically for daylight.

When Sunfish, between flashes, stumbled into a shallow washout, and sent Thurston sailing unbeautifully over his head, Bob pulled up and slid off his horse in a hurry.

"Yuh hurt, Bud?" he cried anxiously, bending over him. For Thurston, from the very frankness of his verdant ignorance, had won for himself the indulgent protectiveness of the whole outfit; not a man but watched unobtrusively over his welfare—and Bob MacGregor went farther and loved him whole-heartedly. His voice, when he spoke, was unequivocally frightened.

Thurston sat up and wiped a handful of mud off his face; if it had not been so dark Bob would have shouted at the spectacle. "I'm 'kinda sorter shuck up like,"' he quoted ruefully. "And my nose is skinned, thank you. Where's that devil of a horse?"

Bob stood over him and grinned. "My, I'm surprised at yuh, Bud! What would your Sunday-school teacher say if she heard yuh? Anyway, yuh ain't got any call to cuss Sunfish; he ain't to blame. He's used to fellows that can ride."

"Shut up!" Thurston commanded inelegantly. "I'd like to see you ride a horse when he's upside down!"

"Aw, come on," urged Bob, giving up the argument. "We'll be plumb lost from the herd if we don't hustle."

They got into their saddles again and went on, riding by sound and the rare glimpses the lightning gave them as it flared through the storm away to the east.

"Wet?" Bob sung out sympathetically from the streaming shelter of his slicker. Thurston, wriggling away from his soaked clothing, grunted a sarcastic negative.

The cattle were drifting now before the storm which had settled to a monotonous downpour. The riders—two or three men for every herd that had joined in the panic—circled, a veritable picket line without the password. There would be no relief ride out to them that night, and they knew it and settled to the long wait for morning.

Thurston took up his station next to Bob; rode until he met the next man, and then retraced his steps till he faced Bob again; rode until the world seemed unreal and far away, with nothing left but the night and the riding back and forth on his beat, and the rain that oozed through his clothes and trickled uncomfortably down inside his collar. He lost all count of time, and was startled when at last came gray dawn.

As the light grew brighter his eyes widened and forgot their sleep-hunger; he had not thought it would be like this. He was riding part way across one end of a herd larger than his imagination had ever pictured; three thousand cattle had seemed to him a multitude—yet here were more than twenty thousand, wet, draggled, their backs humped miserably from the rain which but a half hour since had ceased. He was still gazing and wondering when Park rode up to him.

"Lord! Bud, you're a sight! Did the bunch walk over yuh?" he greeted.

"No, only Sunfish," snapped Thurston crossly. Time was when Philip Thurston would not have answered any man abruptly, however great the provocation. He was only lately getting down to the real, elemental man of him; to the son of Bill Thurston, bull-whacker, prospector, follower of dim trails. He rode silently back to camp with Bob, ate his breakfast, got into dry clothes and went out and tied his slicker deliberately and securely behind the cantle of his saddle, though the sun was shining straight into his eyes and the sky fairly twinkled, it was so clean of clouds.

Bob watched him with eyes that laughed. "My, you're an ambitious son-of-a-gun," he chuckled. "And you've got the slicker question settled in your mind, I see; yuh learn easy; it takes two or three soakings to learn some folks."

"We've got to go back and help with the herd, haven't we?" Thurston asked. "The horses are all out."

"Yep. They'll stay out, too, till noon, m'son. We hike to bed, if anybody should ask yuh."

So it was not till after dinner that he rode back to the great herd—with his Kodak in his pocket—to find the cattle split up into several bunches. The riders at once went to work separating the different brands. He was too green a hand to do anything but help hold the "cut," and that was so much like ordinary herd-ing that his interest flagged. He wanted, more than anything, to ride into the bunch and single out a Lazy Eight steer, skillfully hazing him down the slope to the cut, as he saw the others do.

Bob told him it was the biggest mix-up he had ever seen, and Bob had ridden the range in every State where beef grows wild. He was in the thickest of the huddle, was Bob, working as if he did not know the meaning of fatigue. Thurston, watching him thread his way in and out of the restless, milling herd, only to reappear unexpectedly at the edge with a steer just before the nose of his horse, rush it out from among the others—wheeling, darting this way and that, as it tried to dodge back, and always coming off victor, wondered if he could ever learn to do it.

Being in pessimistic mood, he told himself that he would probably always remain a greenhorn, to be borne with and coached and given boy's work to do; all because he had been cheated of his legacy of the dim trails and forced to grow up in a city, hedged about all his life by artificial conditions, his conscience wedded to convention.

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