Weeks slipped by, and to Thurston they seemed but days. His world-weariness and cynicism disappeared the first time he met Mona after he had left there so unceremoniously; for Mona, not being aware of his cynicism, received him on the old, friendly footing, and seemed to have quite forgotten that she had ever called him a coward, or refused to marry him. So Thurston forgot it also—so long as he was with her.
How he filled in the hours he could scarcely have told; certain it is that he accomplished nothing at all so far as Western stories were concerned. Reeve-Howard wrote in slightly shocked phrases to ask what was keeping him so long; and assured him that he was missing much by staying away. Thurston mentally agreed with him long enough to begin packing his trunk; it was idiotic to keep staying on when he was clearly receiving no benefit thereby. When, however, he picked up a book which he had told Mona he would take over to her the next time he went, he stopped and considered:
There was the Wagner trial coming off in a month or so; he couldn't get out of attending it, for he had been subpoenaed as a witness for the prosecution. And there was the beef roundup going to start before long—he really ought to stay and take that in; there would be some fine chances for pictures. And really he didn't care so much for the Barry Wilson bunch and the long list of festivities which trailed ever in its wake; at any rate, they weren't worth rushing two-thirds across the continent for.
He sat down and wrote at length to Reeve-Howard, explaining very carefully—and not altogether convincingly—just why he could not possibly go home at present. After that he saddled and rode over to the Stevens place with the book, leaving his trunk yawning emptily in the middle of his badly jumbled belongings.
After that he spent three weeks on the beef roundup. At first he was full of enthusiasm, and worked quite as if he had need of the wages, but after two or three big drives the novelty wore off quite suddenly, and nothing then remained but a lot of hard work. For instance, standing guard on long, rainy nights when the cattle walked and walked might at first seem picturesque and all that, but must at length, cease to be amusing.
Likewise the long hours which he spent on day-herd, when the wind was raw and penetrating and like to blow him out of the saddle; also standing at the stockyard chutes and forcing an unwilling stream of rollicky, wild-eyed steers up into the cars that would carry them to Chicago.
After three weeks of it he awoke one particularly nasty morning and thanked the Lord he was not obliged to earn his bread at all, to say nothing of earning it in so distressful a fashion. There was a lull in the shipping because cars were not then available. He promptly took advantage of it and rode by the very shortest trail to the ranch—and Mona. But Mona was visiting friends in Chinook, and there was no telling when she would return. Thurston, in the next few days, owned to himself that there was no good reason for his tarrying longer in the big, un-peopled West, and that the proper thing for him to do was go back home to New York.
He had come to stay a month, and he had stayed five. He could ride and rope like an old-timer, and he was well qualified to put up a stiff gun-fight had the necessity ever arisen—which it had not.
He had three hundred and seventy-one pictures of different phases of range life, not counting as many that were over-exposed or under-exposed or out of focus. He had six unfinished stories, in each of which the heroine had big, blue-gray eyes and crimply hair, and the title and bare skeleton of a seventh, in which the same sort of eyes and hair would probably develop later. He had proposed to Mona three times, and had been three times rebuffed—though not, it must be owned, with that tone of finality which precludes hope.
He was tanned a fine brown, which became him well. His eyes had lost the dreamy, introspective look of the student and author, and had grown keen with the habit of studying objects at long range. He walked with that peculiar, stiff-legged gait which betrays long hours spent in the saddle, and he wore a silk handkerchief around his neck habitually and had forgotten the feel of a dress-suit.
He answered to the name "Bud" more readily than to his own, and he made practical use of the slang and colloquialisms of the plains without any mental quotation marks.
By all these signs and tokens he had learned his West, and should have taken himself back to civilization when came the frost. He had come to get into touch with his chosen field of fiction, that he might write as one knowing whereof he spoke. So far as he had gone, he was in touch with it; he was steeped to the eyes in local color—and there was the rub The lure of it was strong upon him, and he might not loosen its hold. He was the son of his father; he had found himself, and knew that, like him, he loved best to travel the dim trails.
Gene Wasson came in and slammed the door emphatically shut after him. "She's sure coming," he complained, while he pulled the icicles from his mustache and cast them into the fire. "She's going to be a real, old howler by the signs. What yuh doing, Bud? Writing poetry?"
Thurston nodded assent with certain mental reservations; so far the editors couldn't seem to make up their minds that it was poetry.
"Well, say, I wish you'd slap in a lot uh things about hazy, lazy, daisy days in the spring—that jingles fine!—and green grass and the sun shining and making the hills all goldy yellow, and prairie dogs chip-chip-chipping on the 'dobe flats. (Prairie dogs would go all right in poetry, wouldn't they? They're sassy little cusses, and I don't know of anything that would rhyme with 'em, but maybe you do.) And read it all out to me after supper. Maybe it'll make me kinda forget there's a blizzard on."
"Another one?" Thurston got up to scratch a trench in the half-inch layer of frost on the cabin window. "Why, it only cleared up this morning after three days of it."
"Can't help that. This is just another chapter uh that same story. When these here Klondike Chinooks gets to lapping over each other they never know when to quit. Every darn one has got to be continued tacked onto the tail of it the winter. All the difference is, you can't read the writing; but I can."
"I've got some mail for yuh, Bud. And old Hank wanted me to ask yuh if you'd like to go to Glasgow next Thursday and watch old Lauman start the Wagner boys for wherever's hot enough. He can get yuh in, you being in the writing business. He says to tell yuh it's a good chance to take notes, so yuh can write a real stylish story, with lots uh murder and sudden death in it. We don't hang folks out here very often, and yuh might have to go back East after pointers, if yuh pass this up."
"Oh, go easy. It turns me sick when I think about it; how they looked when they got their sentence, and all that. I certainly don't care to see them hanged, though they do deserve it. Where are the letters?" Thurston sprawled across the table for them. One was from Reeve-Howard; he put it by. Another had a printed address in the corner—an address that started his pulse a beat or two faster; for he had not yet reached that blase stage where he could receive a personal letter from one of the "Eight Leading" without the flicker of an eye-lash. He still gloated over his successes, and was cast into the deeps by his failures.
He held the envelope to the light, shook it tentatively, like any woman, guessed hastily and hopefully at the contents, and tore off an end impatiently. From the great fireplace Gene watched him curiously and half enviously. He wished he could get important-looking letters from New York every few days. It must make a fellow feel that he amounted to something.
"Gene, you remember that story I read to you one night—that yarn about the fellow that lived alone in the hills, and how the wolves used to come and sit on the ridge and howl o' nights—you know, the one you said was 'out uh sight'? They took it, all right, and—here, what do you think of that?" He tossed the letter over to Gene, who caught it just as it was about to be swept into the flame with the draught in Thurston, in the days which he spent one of the half-dozen Lazy Eight line-camps with Gene, down by the river, had been writing of the West—writing in fear and trembling, for now he knew how great was his subject and his ignorance of it. In the long evenings, while the fire crackled and the flames played a game they had invented, a game where they tried which could leap highest up the great chimney; while the north wind whoo-ooed around the eaves and fine, frozen snow meal swished against the one little window; while shivering, drifting range cattle tramped restlessly through the sparse willow-growth seeking comfort where was naught but cold and snow and bitter, driving wind; while the gray wolves hunted in packs and had not long to wait for their supper, Thurston had written better than he knew. He had sent the cold of the blizzards and the howl of the wolves; he had sent bits of the wind-swept plains back to New York in long, white envelopes. And the editors were beginning to watch for his white envelopes and to seize them eagerly when they came, greedy for what was within. Not every day can they look upon a few typewritten pages and see the range-land spread, now frowning, now smiling, before them.
"Gee! they say here they want a lot the same brand, and at any old price yuh might name. I wouldn't mind writing stories myself." Gene kicked a log back into the flame where it would do the most good. His big, square-shouldered figure stood out sharply against the glow.
Thurston, watching him meditatively, wanted to tell him that he was the sort of whom good stories are made. But for men like Gene—strong, purposeful, brave, the West would lose half its charm. He was like Bob in many ways, and for that Thurston liked him and, stayed with him in the line-camp when he might have been taking his ease at the home ranch.
It was wild and lonely down there between the bare hills and the frozen river, but the wildness and the loneliness appealed to him. It was primitive and at times uncomfortable. He slept in a bunk built against the wall, with hard boards under him and a sod roof over his head. There were times when the wind blew its fiercest and rattled dirt down into his face unless he covered it with a blanket. And every other day he had to wash the dishes and cook, and when it was Gene's turn to cook, Thurston chopped great armloads of wood for the fireplace to eat o' nights. Also he must fare forth, wrapped to the eyes, and help Gene drive back the cattle which drifted into the river bottom, lest they cross the river on the ice and range where they should not.
But in the evenings he could sit in the fire-glow and listen to the wind and to the coyotes and the gray wolves, and weave stories that even the most hyper-critical of editors could not fail to find convincing. By day he could push the coffee-box that held his typewriter over by the frosted window—when he had an hour or two to spare—and whang away at a rate which filled Gene with wonder. Sometimes he rode over to the home ranch for a day or two, but Mona was away studying music, so he found no inducement to remain, and drifted back to the little, sod-roofed cabin by the river, and to Gene.
The winter settled down with bared teeth like a bull-dog, and never a chinook came to temper the cold and give respite to man or beast. Blizzards that held them, in fear of their lives, close to shelter for days, came down from the north; and with them came the drifting herds. By hundreds they came, hurrying miserably before the storms. When the wind lashed them without mercy even in the bottom-land, they pushed reluctantly out upon the snow-covered ice of the Missouri. Then Gene and Thurston watching from their cabin window would ride out and turn them pitilessly back into the teeth of the storm.
They came by hundreds—thin, gaunt from cold and hunger. They came by thousands, lowing their misery as they wandered aimlessly, seeking that which none might find: food and shelter and warmth for their chilled bodies. When the Canada herds pushed down upon them the boys gave over trying to keep them north of the river; while they turned one bunch a dozen others were straggling out from shore, the timid following single file behind a leader more venturesome or more desperate than his fellows.
So the march went on and on: big, Southern-bred steer grappling the problem of his first Northern winter; thin-flanked cow with shivering, rough-coated calf trailing at her heels; humpbacked yearling with little nubs of horns telling that he was lately in his calfhood; red cattle, spotted cattle, white cattle, black cattle; white-faced Herefords, Short-horns, scrubs; Texas longhorns—of the sort invariably pictured in stampedes—still they came drifting out of the cold wilderness and on into wilderness as cold.
Through the shifting wall of the worst blizzard that season Thurston watched the weary, fruitless, endless march of the range. "Where do they all come from?" he exclaimed once when the snow-veil lifted and showed the river black with cattle.
"Lord! I dunno," Gene answered, shrugging his shoulders against the pity of it. "I seen some brands yesterday that I know belongs up in the Cypress Hills country. If things don't loosen up pretty soon, the whole darned range will be swept clean uh stock as far north as cattle run. I'm looking for reindeer next."
"Something ought to be done," Thurston declared uneasily, turning away from the sight. "I've had the bellowing of starving cattle in my ears day and night for nearly a month. The thing's getting on my nerves."
"It's getting on the nerves uh them that own 'em a heap worse," Gene told him grimly, and piled more wood on the fire; for the cold bit through even the thick walls of the cabin when the flames in the fireplace died, and the door hinges were crusted deep with ice. "There's going to be the biggest loss this range has ever known."
"It's the owners' fault," snapped Thurston, whose nerves were in that irritable state which calls loudly for a vent of some sort. Even argument with Gene, fruitless though it perforce must be, would be a relief. "It's their own fault. I don't pity them any—why don't they take care of their stock? If I owned cattle, do you think I'd sit in the house and watch them starve through the winter?"
"What if yuh owned more than yuh could feed? It'd be a case uh have-to then. There's fifty thousand Lazy Eight cattle walking the range somewhere today. How the dickens is old Hank going to feed them fifty thousand? or five thousand? It takes every spear uh hay he's got to feed his calves."
"He could buy hay," Thurston persisted.
"Buy hay for fifty thousand cattle? Where would he get it? Say, Bud, I guess yuh don't realize that's some cattle. All ails you is, yuh don't savvy the size uh the thing. I'll bet yuh there won't be less than three hundred thousand head cross this river before spring."
"Some of them belong in Canada—you said so yourself."
"I know it, but look at all the country south of us: all the other cow States. Why, Bud, when yuh talk about feeding every critter that runs the range, you're plumb foolish."
"Anyway, it's a damnable pity!" Thurston asserted petulantly.
"Sure it is. The grass is there, but it's under fourteen inches uh snow right now, and more coming; they say it's twelve feet deep up in the mountains. You'll see some great old times in the spring, Bud, if yuh stay. You will, won't yuh?"
Thurston laughed shortly. "I suppose it's safe to say I will," he answered. "I ought to have gone last fall, but I didn't. It will probably be the same thing over again; I ought to go in the spring, but I won't."
"You bet you won't. Talk about big roundups! what yuh seen last spring wasn't a commencement. Every hoof that crosses this river and lives till spring will have to be rounded up and brought back again. They'll be scattered clean down to the Yellowstone, and every Northern outfit has got to go down and help work the range from there back. I tell yuh, Bud, yuh want to lay in a car-load uh films and throw away all them little, jerk-water snap-shots yuh got. There's going to be roundups like these old Panhandle rannies tell about, when the green grass comes." Gene, thinking blissfully of the tented life, sprawled his long legs toward the snapping blaze and crooned dreamily, while without the blizzard raged more fiercely, a verse from an old camp song:
"Out on the roundup, boys, I tell yuh what yuh get
Little chunk uh bread and a little chunk uh meat;
Little black coffee, boys, chuck full uh alkali,
Dust in your throat, boys, and gravel in your eye!
So polish up your saddles, oil your slickers and your guns,
For we're bound for Lonesome Prairie when the green grass comes."