The Day the Cowboys Quitby Elmer Kelton
The time is 1883,the place is the Texas Panhandle. Cowboys refuse to be stigmatized as drinkers and exploited by the wealthy cattle owners who don't pay liveable wages. Those very same ranchers want to take away the cowboys' right to own cattle because this ownership, the ranchers believe, would lead to thieving. So, in 1883, the dictum is set: If you're a cowboy,… See more details below
The time is 1883,the place is the Texas Panhandle. Cowboys refuse to be stigmatized as drinkers and exploited by the wealthy cattle owners who don't pay liveable wages. Those very same ranchers want to take away the cowboys' right to own cattle because this ownership, the ranchers believe, would lead to thieving. So, in 1883, the dictum is set: If you're a cowboy, you can't own a cow. When rumors of such legislation travel from wagon to wagon, the cowboys decided to rally and fight for their rights--they gather together and strike.
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 307 KB
Read an Excerpt
In later years people often asked Hugh Hitchcock about the Canadian River cowboy strike of 1883. If they were strangers he looked them over carefully before he answered, and sometimes he did not answer at all; he figured there was no way of explaining it to anyone who did not understand the mature of the old-time cowboy.
It irritated him like a prickly pear thorn imbedded under his hide that some people seemed to think cowboys spent their time loping around aimlessly on horseback and firing their pistols. Many of the men he had known in the Texas Panhandle never owned a pistol, and probably half the cowboys between the Canadian and the Pecos could not have shot themselves in the foot if they had tried. What they did most in those days was work, from before they could see in the morning until they could no longer see in the evening.
Those days, Hitch always said, a man proved himself with horsemanship. A rider a cut above average was looked up to, even by the sourest wagon cook. If a man's saddle did not have a shine to it, they knew nothing good would come of him.
Next to his way with a horse, a cowboy was proudest of his independence. He worked for other men, but they owned nothing of him except his time. He was a free soul. He could ride from the Rio Grande to the Powder River and seldom see a fence. He could start that ride with five dollars in his pocket and have three left when he finished, if that was the way he wanted to travel. Money did rule him.
The Canadian River region of Texas then was less than ten years settled, the sandy-bottomed river cutting a deep, rough gash across the heart of that uplifted tableland known to the Spanish as Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains. It was a grand plateau, larger than some Eastern states, a vast treeless ocean of grass often flat to the eye but gently rolling when a man tested it in a wagon, finding himself alternately easing downward or putting forth extra effort to climb. A decade before, this prairie had teemed with grazing buffalo, fleet white-rumped antelope and the roving packs of gray wolves which lived among them, pulling down the halt and the lame. Across this unmapped sunny land had roamed the Comanche and the Kiowa, brothers to the wolf. they had known its hidden watering places, its changing seasons, its hunger, its bounty, its angry storms, and its quiet peace.
Now the buffalo were gone, and with them the Indian. White men's cattle by the hundreds of thousands had plodded and bawled up the long trails from South Texas, and down through Raton Pass from Colorado, spreading out over these seemingly infinite miles of open grasslands, finding water in occasional creeks and streams fringed with cottonwood and hackberry and back walnut, almost the only timber from the eastern caprock to the New Mexico breaks. Out in open country, wood was so rare that men gathered dry buffalo and cow chips for fuel wherever they found them, hoarding, them in sagging cowhides lashed loosely beneath their wagonboxes.
Now most of the plains grass was claimed by right of occupancy, and already the more observant cowboys could see that it grew less tall. Dust stirred easier now, a sign of overgrazing because these great herds of longhorned cattle did not migrate with the rains and the changing seasons as had their wild and shaggy predecessors. Already men in their eagerness for gain foreshadowed their own defeat by demanding more from the land than it could produce. And those in a position to hire demanded more of other men.
Hugh Hitchcock always said cowboy independence triggered the cowboy strike. There came a time that some men decide independence was too costly when the wrong people had it, so they tried to mold others to a pattern of their own cutting. And when you crowd a man too far, he may do something in self defense that is not sensible either.
Old cowboys in later years argued no end over the causes of the strike, and starting of it. To each it began in a different place and a different way. To Hugh Hitchcock, looking back, it started the day Rascal McGinty and the Figure 4 rep went to their guns over ownership of a roan cow.
He always remembered the kind of day it was--the sun bright over the gentle roll of the open plains, sky blue as a pretty woman's eyes, the brown winter grass starting to show tinges of springtime green, the first prairie flowers bursting scarlet and yellow and white. He remembered Rascal McGinty and that face of his and red hair and a temper to match them both. Rascal was riding Sweetheart, an ill-named mustang bay he had traded for, a long-tailed pony ugly as a mud fence but able to stay with a man to the last crossing--an honest horse that would work his heart out, but only after he had done his damnedest to bust the rider first. That bay was a lot like Rascal.
Hitch always recalled that Dayton Brumley was riding a Figure 4 sorrel called Blaze for the crooked streak that ran from forelock down to a snip nose. Blaze had fox ears and three stocking feet and an R Slash branded on his left hip, and moved with as smooth a saddle gait as Hitch ever saw.
He forgot in later years just what Dayton Brumley looked like. After all that time a man couldn't be expected to remember details.
* * *
She wasn't much of a cow; she had seen too many hard winters, and the scrubby calf punching its long nose futilely at her near-dry udder showed she had been less than choosy in the bull she associated with. But to a syndicate outfit like the Figure 4, its bookkeepers dreading each encounter with the Kansas City board of directors, every calf branded meant dollars of capital gain on the ledger. To a wage-working cowboy like Rascal McGinty or his brother Law, trying to build a shirttail herd for themselves, even a crippled cow or a blind one was of value so long as she could yet conceive and deliver. When Dayton Brumley rode into the "stray" herd and called the cow's brand a Figure 4, Rascal stood straight up in his stirrups. His voice carried halfway across the gather.
"The hell you say! That cow's an LR, sure as ever was."
Hugh Hitchcock heard, and the voice was a warning flag. Hitch was wagon boss on the W's "river division," that part of the ranch which lay nearest the Canadian, and the McGinty brothers worked under him. He knew Rascal's emotions lay always near the surface, the volatile cowboy quick to laugh or quick to explode like the Sharps Big Fifty that had cleared these plains and river breaks of buffalo. No one could ever judge which direction Rascal would jump.
A cowboy came spurring. "Hitch, you better git over yonder. There's apt to be trouble." Instinctively they always looked to Hugh Hitchcock; that was why he was wagon boss.
Dayton Brumley Rascal and again called the pair as property of the Figure 4. On open range before barbed wire cut all of Texas into pastures, cattle of many brands mixed together. Boundary lines were an invisible thing; the cattle drifted wherever they found the grass green and the water good. At roundup time the big ranches sent their chuckwagons and teams of men to the various divisions, and they sent cowboy representatives to neighboring outfits' wagons, each to watch out for the interests of the brand that paid him. The claves were branded according to the marks of ownership on their mothers, and when a calf became weaned and still had no brand, it was by custom considered a maverick, belonging to the man on whose range it was found. In practice it more often belonged to the man whose loop caught it first. One purpose of the roundup, then, was to leave as few mavericks as possible for the quick-loop men.
Identification of the cow was usually easy, for a cowboy who couldn't read his own soon learned the brands of the ranches around him. But sometimes a brand healed poorly or haired over heavily. That was a time when someone must arbitrarily play the role of judge and declare ownership by reasoning, instinct or favor.
Rascal McGinty's nose was slightly flattened. He always claimed the damage had been done by a horse, but Hugh Hitchcock had long suspected it happened in a fistfight.
"Go slow, Rascal," Hitch said quietly as he pushed his gray horse between the two men. A young W rider named Joe Sands had a rope around the calf's neck and was waiting for Hitchcock's judgment before he dragged the animal out to the men afoot by the branding fire. The roan cow was bawling and making as much fuss over her offspring as if it had been blueblooded Durham stock brought down from the east.
Hitch expected to find Rascal crackling in anger; instead the unpredictable cowboy was grinning like a possum. "The Figure 4s need to buy ol' Dayton a set of eyeglasses, Hitch." Nobody ever called Hitchcock Hugh except his mother."I know that old cow," Rascal claimed. "I can recollect the color of every calf she's given to me and Law."
Hitch's natural inclination was to accept Rascal's word because they had been friends so long, but he knew that was not the right and proper way. "Let's have a look at her." He rode slowly around the cow, frowning at the earmarks. She had more than one. He leaned from the saddle for a close look at the brand. "Somebody done a bad job with the iron. Way it's haired over, she could be either one or neither one. I been tellin' you, Rascal, your, LR brand is too much like the Figure 4."
"Tell them," Rascal grinned. "Me and Law, we had our brand first. Let the Figure 4 change theirs." The thought pleased him because the Figure 4 outfit was reputed to own forty or fifty thousand head.
Dayton Brumley, crowding forty, was an employee too far removed from policy-making to comment. Stubbornly he said, "I call her a Figure 4."
Another cowboy trotted up on a nervous-eyed dun. Law McGinty, four or five years younger than Rascal, demanded, "What is it, Rascal? That rich damnyankee outfit tryin' to steal our cow?"
Brumley colored. At least Rascal hadn't accused him of stealing. "Boy…" he said threateningly.
Rascal made a placating gesture to his brother. "Don't bust your cinch, button. Hitch is fixin' to set things straight."
Hitch had an uncomfortable feeling Rascal was taking advantages of friendship, putting Hitch in a position where he must stand up for a preconceived judgment. He said, "We'll stretch her and take a good look." He dropped his loop over her horns and took up the slack, then motioned for Law to catch her hind feet. They laid her down helpless on the ground, and Hitch dismounted. He depended on the gray, Walking Jack, to keep the rope taut. He purposely had put Law on the heels because that obliged the cowboy to stay in his saddle and out of trouble; if law allowed any slack on the heels, the cow could kick from the rope and get up. She would not be in good humor.
On his knees Hitch carefully ran his fingers over the brand, trying to feel through the hair any scar that didn't show to the eye. This was complicated by the fact that he was missing the tip of one finger, pinched off between a rope and a saddlehorn a long time ago. A missing finger or a gimby leg were marks of a working cowboy. He shook his head. "Still can't tell."
Rascal stepped from his saddle, fishing in his shirt pocket. "I said I know that old cow, and I'll prove it." He brought out a pair of tweezers and began plucking hair.
Hitch came near smiling despite the potential seriousness of the matter. Probably not another man on the roundup was so certain of argument that he would carry tweezers. Though Rascal was a W cowhand, he was also an owner of sorts whose nature called for him to protect his interests with whatever degree of belligerence seemed appropriate.
It bothered Hitch, assuming responsibility for a dispute like this. No court could consider him completely neutral. He and Rascal and Law McGinty had known each other before they had come to the Panhandle. They had helped Charlie Waide bring his W herd up here from cattle-poor South Texas brush country in the late '70s. At thirty, Hitch was a little younger than Rascal, older than Law. Rascal was as good a roper as Hitch and unquestionably a better bronc rider. Yet Rascal had evidenced no hard feelings when Charlie Waide set Hitch up as second in command only to himself. Rascal had seemed to accept it as proper, for there was an indefinable character in Hugh Hitchcock that caused cowboys--even better ones--instinctively to follow him. Law McGinty, then a kid of eighteen or so, had taken a sour view of Rascal's being passed by and temporarily fell out with Hitch over it, but Rascal had told him flatly, "Charlie knows what he's doin'."
Dayton Brumley hunched over Rascal, critically watching his work with the tweezers. If he saved them a hundred such cows the Figure 4 would not raise his wages a dollar, but he had an old-time cowboy loyalty: when you worked for a ranch and accepted its pay, you stood up for it to the turn of the final card. If you couldn't be loyal to an outfit, you called for your time and rode away.
Rascal's tweezers caused a definite outline to begin showing through the hair. "Like I told you, Hitch, she's comin' up an LR, plain as the tobacco in ol' Dayton' mus-tache."
Brumley grunted angrily. "Because he's got the tweezers."
Hitch could tell the thing was still dangerous. "Settle down, boys. One cow ain't worth a fight."
In his saddle, Law McGinty said, "Not to an outfit that's got fifty thousands like her. But to a little man grindin' himself to the bone for thirty dollars a month she's worth a fight. You ought to know."
Hitch knew; he had a brand too. Many of the cowboys who had first come north onto these plains had established small herds of their own to run on the free grass with those of the men they worked for. Charlie Waide had been so nearly broke when he came here that he had been able to keep only those men willing to take pay in calves instead of cash. Hitch had owned two shirts and one pair of ragged britches then; he hadn't even had enough money to get a blacksmith to make a branding iron for him. So he had taken Charlie's W iron, branded it, then turned it upside down and stamped it again to make a combination he called the Two Diamonds. Now he had a little one-section claim over on a creek where he had built a dugout he almost never used. He had a hundred and thirty or forty Two Diamond cows and their calves grazing the red clay breaks and the short-grass prairies. Most of it was still state land, the grass belonging to the man whose cow happened to eat it.
Hitch decided Rascal had picked long enough. He ran his fingers over the brand and was seventy-five percent sure. "Dayton, it looks like an LR to me."
He saw triumph in the McGinty brothers' faces. But Brumley was adamant. "It looked like a Figure 4 till he took the tweezers to it. If I'd of had the tweezers it'd still be a Figure 4."
Rascal's hands knotted into fists. "You callin' me a cheat?" Brumley didn't say so out loud, but the answer lay plain in his eyes. Rascal took a step toward him, and Law swung a leg over the cantle.
Hitch moved quickly. "Law, you stay up there and keep that rope tight. Rascal, you and Dayton go cool off. In opposite directions. We got work to do here."
Rascal gave no ground. "Whichaway you callin' that calf?"
Hitch thought he had made it plain enough. He saw a heavyish man riding around the herd toward them, and he felt relief. "Yonder comes Charlie. We'll have him confirm it, then we'll hear no more about this cow."
Solemn-faced, Charlie Waide climbed down from the saddle. He took his time as if he were older even than his late fifties. He was careful in bringing his left hand from the saddlehorn, for his arm had been stiff since a Yankee saber had slashed it in the war. There hadn't been a day in eighteen years that it hadn't brought him pain. "I come in after ridin' twenty miles from the eastern division and find somebody pawin' sand," he said irritably. "What in hell's the matter here?"
"No trouble, Charlie." Hitch wanted to spare him worry; Charlie had enough of that. "Just been a little question come up over the brand of this cow."
Charlie Waide glanced impatiently at Rascal and Brumley, then knelt and ran his fingers over the brand. "I'd call her an LR."
The red-haired cowboy laughed. Rascal could afford to, now that the judgment had gone his way. But Hitch took no chances. "Rascal, I'll see that the calf is branded for you. I want you to go to the wagon and find out how much Trump lacks havin' dinner ready."
It was a useless errand, for Trump Tatum always had dinner ready at straight-up noon and would be cussing if he didn't see cowboys on the way. But Rascal took the order without question. He rode off, his back straight, his hat cocked a little to one side, a picture of justice triumphant.
Dissatisfied, Brumley said, "Charlie, I'll have to talk to the company about this."
Waide's eyes narrowed. He had been boss too long to be crossed. "You do that."
"It ain't the cow, Charlie, it's the principle." Brumley rode into the herd to seek out Figure 4 cattle that had strayed into W country. Waide stared after him balefully, running a big rough hand through hair that had turned gray years too early. "One damned cow," he grumbled. "The Figure 4s will lose more than that between the barn and the haylot."
"He could get himself killed someday," Hitch said. "Reckon they know it?"
Waide shook his head. "He's just a name on the payroll." Hitch nodded at the cowboy who still held the calf on the far end of the rope. "Tell them to put an LR on him, Joe." Hitch waited for Charlie to get to his horse, then he took the rope off the cow's horns. She would come up looking for a fight, and he didn't want Charlie caught on the ground. Hitch's own father had not come home from the war. Charlie was as near a father as he had had since.
Law McGinty gave slack on the rope, and the cow shook her heels loose. She got up rump first, slinging her head and trying to choose between several targets. But her calf blatted in fear as it was dragged unceremoniously toward the branding fire, and her motherly instincts sent her trotting and bawling in its dusty wake.
Charlie paid no attention to the cow. He still watched Brumley.
Hitch said, "He'll cool off; so'll Rascal."
Charlie's bewildered face was furrowed. "Ain't nothin' like it was, Hitch. This was a cowman's country once. A cowman gave his word and another cowman took it. Now it's different breed…syndicates, Yankee bankers, English money and all that. Ain't enough anymore just to know the cow."
Charlie Waide knew the cow. But he found himself ill at ease among a new kind of ranchers who knew cows as figures on a ledger rather than flesh and blood creatures of leg and long horn; who thought of a herd of cattle as a large sum written in black at the bottom of a page rather than as a teeming mass of bawling beasts, strung majestically across a mile or more of God's green the brown dust rising and swirling above them like some living thing, the air sharp with the bite of hoof-flung dirt and the mingled smells of trampled green grass and calves' milky breath and fresh manure.
Hitch had accompanied Charlie last year on a trip to Kansas City to try to float a loan. Charlie had been in a cold sweat the whole time, going from bank to bank with a new white hat crushed awkwardly in his big hands, trying to talk the language of men he couldn't understand, men measuring him for what he owned and not for what he knew or what he was. Charlie had finally obtained an expansion loan, smaller than he wanted, and he had to sign over everything but his own blood to get it.
Charlie Waide had always been strict about liquor; he didn't allow the cowboys to drink on the place. But he stayed drunk all the way home, downing whisky as a purgative to cleanse away the stain of humiliation. He told Hitch at the time, "I felt like a crippled horse penned up amongst a pack of gray lobo wolves. I was fishin' in deep waters against that crew." Hitch had felt that Charlie's time in Kansas City had scarred him deeper than his encounter with the Yankee saber. The Yankees at least had been an enemy he could see and understand and shoot at. To Charlie Waide--at heart basically still a cowboy--the world of finance was the Tower of Babel. But he was in it to the gray tips of his mustache. To remain a cowman of major proportions these days, a man had to be.
The roan cow was the only one that day whose ownership caused any dispute. Most cows in the gather clearly showed the W brand. A few carried small-owner brands like the Two Diamonds of Hugh Hitchcock, or the LR of Rascal and Law McGinty. Some carried the syndicate's Figure 4. When one appeared questionable, Dayton Brumley took a careful look for the benefit of the company he worked for, but earmarks or a quick clipping of hair were enough to establish ownership. Hitch made it a main-order of business to be sure the McGinty brothers and Brumley were kept far apart. He hoped by dark they would be too tired to do anything more about their grudge.
Late in the afternoon Law McGinty asked Hitch if it would be all right for him to drop out and ride over into the breaks to see his wife. "I'd be much obliged, Hitch. I'll be back by daylight. Her bein' in a family way and all, I like to look in on her pretty regular."
That suited Hitch fine for, it got Law out of the way awhile. "I wish you'd take Rascal with you."
Law made a weak smile. He had never been open and easy with Hitch the way Rascal was. "If you was married, Hitch, you'd know not to ask a man a thing like that."
Law rode away without supper. Kate McGinty would cook him a better meal than he would get at the chuckwagon. Watching, Hitch pictured the loving reception Law would receive from his handsome young bride, and the thought brought him an empty feeling of something missed. Kate McGinty was a farm girl happy to live in a rude dugout on the small claim her husband and brother-in-law had made, for never in her life had she known anything better. On the contrary, this might be the best home she had ever had.
If ever I have a woman of my own, I'd want to give her something better than that, Hitch thought. His chance of having such a woman was slim; they were scarce. This was a man's country.
* * *
Trump Tatum's chin was fuzzy, but he had more hair on one joint of his index finger than on all of his head. He had been Charlie Waide's wagon cook fifteen years or so. Before that he had cowboyed while Charlie was struggling to rebuild a South Texas ranch that had gone to ruin during the time they were all off trying to save the South for Jefferson Davis. Bad horses had forced Trump to hang up his saddle in favor of the pots and Dutch ovens, Except for broken bones that precipitated the change, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing; a wagon cook drew a better wage than a working cowboy; and he ruled his tiny domain with an autocracy that not even a ranch owner often challenged. Trump Tatum had his rules, and the cowboys either knew them or learned them damned quick. A minor infraction could spark sarcasm bitter as gypwater, and a major breach could send Trump into a glorious case of the "rings" that would spoil coffee for three or four days.
At the same time, he had a protective feeling for the cowboys whose digestion he was slowly ruining. He seemed to sense the tension resulting over the roan cow, and a benevolent gleam shone in his wrinkle-edged eyes like the welcome glow of a lantern to a man lost at night on the open prairie. "Boys," he said, "I figured this evenin' would be a good time to use up that dried fruit Miz Waide brung to the wagon. I fixed you-all a nice cobbler for supper."
Cobbler pie was an infrequent treat in a plains cowcamp, for there wasn't decently bearing fruit tree in perhaps two hundred miles. Beef and beans were the mainstays, and it was little wonder that now and again the average cowboy developed a painful case of boils. In such events it was usually Trump Tatum who lanced them, which was only proper because his cooking had helped create them in the first place. His chuckbox was a combination commissary and medicine chest, carrying some remedy for everything from hemorrhoids to snake-bite.
Trump grinned at Rascal. "I know how partial you are to cobbler."
Suspiciously Rascal said, "If you're tryin' to sweet-do me into draggin' you up some firewood.…"
"You know I never had no such notion."
"The hell you didn't" Rascal was pleased as he looked at the cobbler in the deep Dutch oven.
Why shouldn't he be pleased? Hitch asked himself. Rascal had won his dispute. Hitch felt almost a resentment against his friend, for he harbored a nagging suspicion he had been used. He disliked having to feel even a twinge of guilt toward Dayton Brumley and the Figure 4, for he had no particular respect for the outfit. But that, he supposed, was what a man put up with to earn the extra twenty dollars a month as wagon boss instead of being a straight cowboy. Sometime he wished he had stayed where he used to be, for it had been more fun and no worry. Sometimes responsibility had an uncomfortable fir, like a right boot on a left foot. But men delegated responsibility to Hitch whether he wanted it or not.
Dayton Brumley still brooded over the roan cow. As rep for the Figure 4 he enjoyed the privileges--such as they were--of the regular W cowboys, as did reps for the other brands. But tonight he kept to himself, taking a long time unsaddling his horse. He waited until the W men and the other company reps had all filled their plates before he went to the chuckbox and got one for himself. Spooning into it quietly, he strode out to his bedroll and squatted down alone.
Trump Tatum leaned his thin old frame against the wagonwheel, his uneasy gaze touching Brumley first, then Rascal. In contrast to Brumley's somber mien, Rascal was laughing and talking as if no roan cow had ever been born. Rascal had always loved to talk.
It was not customary for a wagon cook to carry food to anybody; a man came to the fire and helped himself or by God did without. But when the rest of the men were through, Trump took the Dutch oven to Brimley "Wouldn't want it said the W wagon didn't feed its neighbors."
"The Ws is all right," Brumley said. "It's just one or two of them that works for it who bother me some."
Rascal was too busy talking to hear.
Supper done, Trump began rattling the tin plates and cups in his washtub, then dropping them into a second tub of scalding hot water. A kid horse jingler--low man of the outfit--fished them out gingerly with his fingers and dried them to put them back into the chuckbox. He caught some caustic comment from Trump when he let a hot one drop to the sand at his feet.
Charlie Waide walked away from the wagon, out where the night horse had been staked. He stood a long time staring into the starlight, his hand reaching up and rubbing his bad left arm. Hitch finished his coffee and joined him. "Arm hurtin' you tonight, Charlie?"
"Arm hurts me every night. Nothin' new about that."
"You got somethin' else on your mind, then."
"There's always worries enough to go around. That damned roan cow is apt to bring trouble to camp even yet; been better if she'd died last winter. Then, I owe enough to break two Kansas City banks. And finally, there's ugly talk goin' around some of the wagons."
"Discontent. I can't find out enough to get to the guts of it. Heard any talk around this wagon, Hitch?"
"Only about horses and cattle and women."
For an hour or two before they crawled into their blankets the cowboys usually sat near the campfire, feeding it just enough to keep it from dying. By turns they told yarns, sometimes of things which had happened on drive that day, more often of things from other years, other outfits. Times they talked of badmen like Billy the Kid, who had stolen cows up and down this Canadian River country and was hardly more than a year in his grave. Times they talked of other cowboys they had known, or of women encountered in the cowtowns and at the railheads. Most often the conversation centered around horses, for to the cowboy the horse was more than a tool of the trade, he was a friend; a servant, yet something of god; an occasional tormentor, yet a creature deserving admiration that bordered on deification The cowboy was prone to invest the horse with a super intelligence it never really had, and a code of honor invented in the mind of the rider. Small wonder, then, that a man was judged more on his horsemanship than on whatever personal vices or virtues he might possess. The most notorious cow thief in the Perhandle since passing of the Kid was a man named Cato Bramlett. In speaking of him the cowboys gave less attention to his being a rogue than to the fact that he handled a horse unusually well.
Charlie Waide drifted to the fire, listening, and finally he seated himself in the circle. It was not an accustomed place to him anymore, for in the pressure of the times he seemed to have lost the gift of laughter. The younger men who had not known Charlie in an olden day stood a little in awe of him, and perhaps a little afraid. But for a while then Charlie was not an owner, he was another cowboy reaching back into memory. For a while the hunch seemed gone from his shoulders, and he was as young as any man here.
It pleasured Hitch to see this rare transformation in Charlie Waide, to see him for a little while the way he had been in another time when he wasn't big and struggling to be come bigger, when he ran two hundred cows instead of twenty thousand. It seemed a pity, in a way, that he had ever changed. Charlie began telling fondly about a bay horse he once had traded from a Mexican and the ridden off to war, only to lose him in battle. "Many's the good horse I've ridden before and after," he said wistfully, "but never one I thought more of than that bay. When the war was over I went lookin' for the Mexican, thinkin' he might have some more horses of the same blood. But he'd got himself killed in some war down in Mexico, so I reckon the blood was scattered and lost. They sure had good horses in them days, the likes we'll never see again."
Rascal McGinty fidgeted to talk, and the moment Charlie finished, Rascal grabbed his chance. He told about a horse he had gotten once from a Mexican. Stolen; no, stolen wasn't the word for it because down in that Rio Grande country in those days you didn't steal when you took from a Mexican, you only exacted vengeance for the Alamo and other atrocities. So, for that matter, did the Mexican when he stole from you. Thieving took on the aura of patriotism. The way Rascal told it, that horse could do almost anything except count cattle. Upshot of the story was that the Mexican was a lowdown scoundrel who came one night in the dark of the moon and stole the horse back. "We'd of hung that thief if we could've caught him," Rascal laughed, "but the horse was so fast that nothin' we had could get close enough to give us the smell of his dust."
From the distance came the sound of horse-drawn vehicle bouncing across the tufted prairie grass. Trump Tatum lifted the lantern from the chuckbox lid up onto the top, so it might better serve as guide. Hitch pushed to his feet and dropped extra wood on the fire so it would blaze up. The cowboys had to move on the away from its heat. He heard the driver curse this God-forsaken country as a wheel dropped into a hole, and he knew the voice. He frowned at Rascal, then at Dayton Brumley. The general manager and major stockholder of the Figure 4 was coming; Hitch could have done without him very well.
He had no inclination to walk out and meet the man, but Charlie Waide arose stiffly, grunting a complaint against arthritis, and stepped forward to extend the hand of hospitality from one owner to another. Brumley went too, for this man was his boss.
Prosper Selkirk was not by birth or training a range man, but he had been in cow country long enough that he knew better than to ride up into the wagon cook's domain and raise dust. He stopped at the edge of the firelight. A saddled horse was tied to the rear of the buckboard. Charlie Waide stuck out his hand. "You're travelin' late, Prosper. But Trump's still got some supper left."
Selkirk nodded, leaving any thank-yous implied rather than spoken, and perhaps none were even thought of. He jerked a thumb toward three sleek greyhounds tied in the back of the buckboard. "Take care of the hounds, Brumley." He did no more than glance at the man, the way he might glance at company horse. To Charlie he said, "The dogs ran themselves down chasing loboes, and dark caught us. I'm just making a visit to all the neighbors' wagons in the interest of the Figure 4."
Charlie Waide was never at ease in the company of Prosper Selkirk, for he considered him one of Kansas City crowd. But he made a show of hospitality. "Everybody gets treated fair and square at the Ws." He motioned toward Hitch. "You know my wagon boss, Hugh Hitchcock."
Selkirk said simply, "Nice to see you again, Hitchcock."
Hitch felt a nudge of resentment. Selkirk didn't offer to shake hands. He knew well enough to address him as Hugh or Hitch if he had chosen, and he hadn't enough respect to call him Mister Hitchcock. So, it was just Hitchcock. Hitch thought, The hell with him.
If this had been some luckless cowboy stumbling in late, Trump Tatum would have chewed him up and spit him out, but he deferred to Selkirk. "Biscuits is cold, Mister Selkirk, and the steak is apt to be a little greasy now."
Selkirk's offhand reply was made without thought to the way it might sound to Tatum. "I never count on much around these chuck-wagons. I'll survive until I get home to something better."
Tatum had fetched a plate and utensils out wooden drawers for him, but now he left them sitting on the chuckbox lid and jerked his thumb toward the wagon. "Cups is in yonder," he said and turned his back.
Selkirk hit him with another unconscious insult. "I suppose the leftovers would be good enough for the dogs?"
Tatum neither turned nor tried to answer. He stalked off towards his bedroll in angry silence. It wasn't enough having to take this treatment from Selkirk; he would catch hell for the next week from the cowboys, for they would hurrah him until he crowned somebody with a skillet or starved them into submission.
Selkirk was in his late forties, basically an indoor man whose aptitude at figures in a banking institution had earned him the confidence of men owning substantial fortunes and wanting more. Selkirk knew how to make money for them, and incidentally for himself as well. The Figure 4 to him was a beef factory, little different from a shoe factory or a plant for the manufacture of farm implements. The Figure 4 was basically a set a ledgers that must always show a comfortable figure in black at the bottom of every page. Under his direction it usually did. The neighboring ranches were regarded as competitors for the beef buyers' dollar and the cowboys were names on a payroll book that seemed always to show too much money paid out for the service rendered.
Hitch knew Dayton Brumley was still fretting over that roan cow. He watched Brumley talking as Selkirk ate the cold supper without enthusiasm. In the muffled conversation he heard his own name and stood up, glancing at Charlie and finding Charlie watching him. Charlie motioned for Hitch to join him beside Selkirk.
Charlie told the Figure 4 manager, "You know Hitch is a good man with cattle. He called that brand an LR and so did I."
Selkirk stopped chewing and frowned at Hitch, measuring him. "Charles, if you say she was an LR, I'll accept that as the world of one gentleman to another."
Charlie seemed to want to settle it beyond any question. "She belonged to Rascal and Law McGinty; they been cowboyin' for me a long time. They're as honest as the day is long."
Selkirk put down his plate and took a long sip of black coffee, face creasing in the dislike of it. "Never seems civilized to take it without cream," he remarked. "Pity with all these cattle there is never any milk." He seemed inclined to throw the coffee out but didn't. "Charles, that bring up a point I've wanted to talk to you about, that you let some of your men run cattle of their own."
"I always have."
"It's a bad practice. We don't allow it at the Figure 4."
"So I've heard"
"Have you ever thought what such a practice can lead to?"
"It leads to me bein' able to keep good men here when some outfits have to scratch to find men that know which end of the cow eats grass."
"There are always men looking for jobs. We can hire all the cowhands we even need at twenty-five dollars a month and turn others away. We don't have to grant special favors."
Charlie said, "There was a time I couldn't pay twenty-five dollars. I gave my men cattle."
"An expedient of the time. When times change, a business enterprise should change with them. Has it ever occurred to you, Charles, how easy it would be for some of your men to brand your cattle with their own irons? And When one of them finds an unbranded maverick out on your range, how do you know he puts your brand on it and not his own? You can't watch them everywhere they go."
"I hire men I can trust."
"No man can be trusted if the stakes are high enough. I've heard rumors, Charles even about your men."
Charlie Waide began to anger. "If rumors was cattle, this whole country would be overstocked and the grass grazed down to the roots." He didn't look at Selkirk, nor did he glance at Hitch.
Hitch had sat still as long he could. "Charlie's right, Mister Selkirk. Treat a man fair and you can trust him."
Selkirk had not asked for Hitch's opinion. "You have some cattle in a brand of your own, don't you, Hitchcock?"
Hitch's teeth ground together. He didn't know whether the man was implying anything or nor; Selkirk had an unfortunate habit of saying a thing in its worst possible way. "Charlie Waide has personally watched me brand most every cow I own."
"I wasn't singling you out, Hitchcock. I was only pointing out that your position might prevent your being altogether the best judge of what I consider to be a bad practice." He switched his attention to Charlie. "I've been in conference with some other major owners. Most of us agree it would be a healthy thing on this range if we made a blanket order that no man employed for wages be allowed to own cattle."
By now every cowboy was listening. Even Trump Tatum had come back from his bedroll, barefoot and in his underwear.
Charlie Waide said, "Some of these men stuck with me through cruel hard times, and they been years buildin' up a shirttail outfit of their own. What kind of a man would take that away from them?"
"I'm not suggesting you take anything away, Charles. Nobody advocates cheating any man out of his rightful due. We would all agree to buy such cattle at a fair market price and vent the brands to our own. Then, after a specified date no man on a ranch payroll would be allowed to own cattle. That would take away the incentive for brand changing and maverick chasing and all these other evils that stand in the way of sound business practices on these ranches."
Charlie Waide stood up and rubbed his bad arm where the night air had brought the ache again. "You do as you please on the Figure 4s. This here is the Ws."
"Youìre not alone on this range. You owe the rest of us something, too."
Charlie scowled. "I don't know how you figure that. Was You here helpin' me when my herd was dyin' of the Texas fever? No, you wasn't. Was you here when the Indians kept comin' back off the reservations and cuttin' across this country, takin' cattle, shootin' at whoever got in their way? No, you wasn't. But there's men here that was, like Hitch and the McGintys and some of the others. I don't take nothin' away from them and they won't take nothin' away from me."
Selkirk retreated a little. "Perhaps youìre right; perhaps no one in your employ would take cattle from you. But they might not be so scrupulous in respecting the property rights of the rest of us. How do you know, for instance, that they would not take Figure 4 cattle if the opportunity presented itself? And on a range as large as this one, there is always opportunity."
Dayton Brumley took a stick and began to sketch in the sand. "Like that cow this mornin', Charlie. You and Hitch called her an LR, and maybe you was right. But can you say for sure she was always an LR?" Brumley drew a Figure 4 brand in the sand. It was open-topped for easy healing.
"Now looky here," he said. "All a man has to do is add a little at the top and bottom. He's got an LR."
* * *
Rascal McGinty came around the fire in a rush. Before Brumley could get to his feet, Rascal hit him. Brumley stagered and fell on his back. Cursing, Rascal grabbed him and tried to pull him to his feet. Hitch threw his arms around McGinty and wrenched him loose. "Rascal…"
Rascal fought free. "Ain't no boot-lickin' Figure 4 puncher goin' to call me a thief!" His eyes wide, he ran for the chuckbox.
Trump Tatum said hoarsely, "I got a pistol in there!"
Dayton Brumley scurried desperately for his bedroll and rammed his hand down into his canvas warbag. Hitch knew he kept a .45. Hitch ran for Rascal. As Rascal fished the cook's pistol out of the chuckbox, Hitch grabbed his arm. "Rascal, let of it!"
"He called me a thief."
"I want that gun, Rascal, before somebody gets killed."
They struggled for possession. Hitch lunged forward, jamming Rascal against the wagonwheel and trying to bend him backward over it. He had a tight grip on Rascal's wrist and tried to slam it against the corner of the chuckbox. The cowboys scattered like quail. Resisting, Rascal pulled the trigger. The pistol went off with a roar like a cannon. Glass shattered from the lantern atop the chuckbox. The lantern tumbled to the ground, spilling coal oil into the sand and setting it ablaze. Rascal tried to step away from the flames at his feet, and as he did, Hitch wrenched the pistol from his hand. Turning quickly, he saw Dayton Brumley crouched by his bedroll, pistol ready.
Prosper Selkirk's voice was crisp with authority. "Put it back, Brumley. There'll be no fight."
Brumley seemed not to hear until Selkirk spoke again, sharper. Seeing that Hitch had the other pistol, Brumley slowly let his own sag and finally placed it back into the canvas sack. He was on hands and knees.
Most of the cowboys had hit the ground in their bellies. Now some pushed to their feet, but others lay still. The kid horse jingler called querulously, "Is it all over, Hitch?"
"It's over," Hitch said, shaking a little. "You can get up." He moved partway to Brumley. "Dayton, you own Rascal an apology."
Brumley was in no mood to apologize. Hitch thought it probable the man couldn't even speak. Selkirk spoke for him. "He apologizes. It wasn't meant the way your man took it; it was only meant to show what could happen."
Hitch knew better. Brumley had meant it, but it would be foolish to say so in this atmosphere.
Charlie Waide found his voice. "And you, Prosper, you've seen what can happen, too. Better go slow in makin' implications against a man."
Selkirk turned to his rep. "Brumley, it's best you leave this wagon tonight…now. Gather your things and go over to our east wagon: send Estep to rep for us here."
The cowboys went quietly to their blankets, though nobody would sleep much. Rascal sat by himself on the wagon tongue, trembling in delayed reaction. Old Trump Tatum scratched himself through the long underwear. "Hitch, maybe we ought to go talk to him."
"And say what? Best thing is to leave him alone."
Trump picked up the shattered lantern. It was beyond repair. He stepped gingerly, trying to avoid broken glass with his bare feet. "Hell of a note, is all I can say. I'm glad it's over with."
Is it over? Hitch asked himself.
Prosper Selkirk stood beside Charlie Waide. "If this doesn't change your mind, Charles, I'll find something that will. You've got to be with us; we won't have you against us."
Charlie gave Selkirk a long, harsh frown. "Goodnight, Prosper."
As the Figure 4 manager moved toward his buckboard and the bedroll he carried there. Charlie Waide walked stiffly to Trump's chuckbox. He reached deep into it and came out with a bottle Tatum kept for medicinal purposes. He walked around to the wagon tongue, nudged Rascal and without saying anything handed him the bottle. Rascal looked up at him, blinking in surprise. He uncorked the bottle and took a long double swallow, draining much of the whiskey.
Charlie retrieved the bottle, took a swing that finished it, then growled, "Go to bed now, Rascal. Go to bed before I haul off and kick your butt!"
Copyright © 1971 by Elmer Kelton
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
This was my first Elmer Kelton book and I really enjoyed it. Reading books has never been real easy for me but this one never lost my interest. He has a style that is so easy to read. I'm definitely going to try another one!