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30,000 on the Hoof

Country of origin: USA USA
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter 9

   One warm, sunny day afterwards, when the snow was melting swiftly, Logan was nailing the grey wolf hide up on the wall of the cabin.
   George was not interested. He had had enough of wolves. But Abe stood by with shining eyes.
   "Paw, where'd you hit him?" asked the lad, sticking his finger in a hole in the raw skin.
   "Not there, son. That's where your mother stuck him with the pitchfork. Here's where I hit him, Abe."
   "Plumb centre," marvelled Abe. He never forgot any words his father used pertaining to guns, animals, and the forest.
   "Sure, son. But it wasn't a running shot, and your mother had crippled him. So I don't deserve a lot of credit...Now we'll rub some salt on...Luce, fetch me a cup full of salt."
   Lucinda came out, followed by the younger children. "Wife, you broke my only pitchfork on this hombre," complained Logan.
   "Did I?" shuddered Lucinda. She had only begun to recover from the devastating horror of the wolves' attack.
   "Look ahere, Paw," spoke up Abe, who always took his mother's side. "Maw kept two of 'em from gettin' in the corral. They'd et all your calves."
   "I reckon, son. And chewed you up besides. That bunch was starved all right...Luce, this hide, will make a fine rug. We'll have to get use out of it. Old Gray cost us dearly. He and his pack cleaned out our herd, except the bull, and our young stock in the corrals."
   "Oh, Logan! That is a terrible misfortune. I'm afraid we can never start a herd in this wild canyon."
   "Yes, we can--and we will," he replied grimly, then..."Youngsters, I'm sorry to say Coyote went off with the pack."
   They were grieved and amazed. Abe said: "What'd she do thet for, Paw?"
   "Well, she's half-wolf anyway. I always distrusted her, but I took her with me three mornings before daylight. I hid in the pines and watched. About daylight this morning I heard them. They'd killed something. They came out of a side canyon--must have got Coyote's scent Anyway, they stopped to nose around...Then's when I shot old Gray. I crippled another before the rest got out of sight. There were only six left. I reckon we've seen the last of them...Coyote double-crossed you, youngsters. She ran out to where old Gray lay, and then she went kind of wild, and let out the queerest yelps. She trailed the pack, looked back at me. I yelled. But she went on...And that's the end of your pet."
   Barbara wept. Abe tried to console her by averring he would catch her another pet.
   "It's too bad," said Lucinda, with a sigh. "I always felt easier when Coyote was with the children."
   "Things happen. We've got to make the best of it," said Logan imperturbably. "I'll get another dog...and some more cattle."
   "Where and how, Logan?" asked Lucinda.
   "Ha!--We'll see."
   In a few more days the snow was gone. The brook again ran bank full, and Logan was forced to fell another tree to make a higher bridge. Spring was at hand, with its manifold tasks.' The wild turkeys began to gobble from the ridges. Logan took Abe, and with his rifle climbed the slope. When they returned, Abe packed a turkey larger than himself, holding its feet over his shoulder and dragging it behind, head and wings on the ground. Barbara had an eye for the beautiful bronze-and-black feathers. Grant remembered turkey from the preceding fall, and whooped: "Maw, can I have the drum-stick?"
   Another day Logan trudged down the hill with a little bear cub under each arm. Then there was pandemonium in Sycamore Canyon. The children went wild with delight.
   "Doggone!" ejaculated Logan. "I didn't know they loved pets so well. That's one thing I can get them."
   "Such dear little black shiny things! Not at all afraid!" exclaimed Lucinda. "They can't be very old."
   "I should smile not. You'll have to feed them with a bottle."
   "And their mother?" asked Lucinda, with a ghost of that old shock which would not wholly vanish.
   "She's up on the hill. I'll go back up there, skin out some meat, and pack it down. Hide's not so good."
   Not long after that Lucinda at her work heard the children talking about their kittens. At first she thought Barbara and Grant meant the little bears. But she soon ascertained that they did not. When Logan came in from the fields she told him. It was noonday, and the two youngsters were not in sight...
   "Little imps! They're up to something...Abe, what about these kittens? Your mother heard Grant and Barbara talking."
   "I know, Paw. But I'm not gonna tell," replied Abe.
   "Well! I'll be damned," ejaculated the nonplussed father. Whereupon he set off up the canyon in search of the two youngsters.
   Lucinda observed that Abe watched with great interest, and this stimulated her own. "They're comin', Maw," he said, intensely. "An' Paw's got 'em."
   It developed that Abe did not mean Barbara and Grant. They came ahead, running, babbling, too excited to be coherent. Logan followed carrying two furry tan-coloured little cats.
   "For heaven's sake, what now?" ejaculated Lucinda mildly.
   "Cougar kittens, Luce!--The-kids are making friends with my bitterest enemies," replied Logan, in grim humour. "Barbara said Abe found them in a cave. He took her and Grant up there. They've been playing with these kittens every day. While the old cougar mother sat up on the ledge above and watched them. I saw her tracks."
   "Why, Logan! I think that's wonderful. She wouldn't harm our children because they didn't harm hers."
   "Yeah. It's wonderful how quick they'll grow up and eat my calves. I'll have to kill their maw. But we'll keep the kittens for a while...Never heard of cougar pets."
   He built a pen for the little cats. These pets, added to bear cubs, interfered with work and lessons, but Lucinda had not the heart to refuse the children. What else had they to play with? A few primitive bits of stone, some pine cones, and queer knots.
   Logan must have reacted in the same way, to Barbara's and Grant's rapture, for from that day onwards he kept bringing home pets from the woods. Lucinda suspected that he went purposely to hunt for wild creatures, taking Abe with him. Before hot weather set in two baby chipmunks, a black squirrel, a white-spotted fawn, and a blinking little grey owl had been added to the menagerie.
   Having but little stock to tend, Logan put most of his labours into the fields, cultivating more land. This season he tried alfalfa. It seemed to Lucinda that her husband worked harder than ever, if such a thing was possible, but without the old cheer and all-satisfying hope for the future. Without cattle his precious ambition languished. He deferred the trip to town until fall. Holbert drove back with him, and it took little perspicuity for Lucinda to see that the rancher was interested in Sycamore Canyon. He appeared friendly as usual, but he bluntly told Huett that in the spring he would require the amount of money he held as a mortgage or he would be compelled to take over the property.
   "Luce, the alfalfa crop is what fetched him," said Logan, after the neighbour had gone. "He sees the possibilities in this ranch. And he'd like to get it...I'd just about croak to lose this place. And I can't see how in hell I can save it."
   "Well, I can," returned Lucinda, vigorously. "There was a time when I'd have been glad to lose it. But not any more. It's home. The children love it. They will grow up somehow all the more wonderful for this lonely place...Don't worry, Logan."
   Logan shook his head grimly. "I owe Holbert three hundred dollars. He's been decent about it, although when I took the cattle I had an idea he'd give me all the time I needed to pay."
   "He was amazed at your alfalfa and potato crops," said Lucinda, thoughtfully. "What did Babbitt say?"
   "Humph! A lot. He'd take a hundred tons of alfalfa and all the potatoes I could raise. Big talk. But he might as well ask me to cut and haul the lumber off my range."
   "Nevertheless we do have an asset here."
   "We do. I always saw it. We can live off the land. We can make money on our farm products. We can raise and run thirty thousand head of stock here."
   "But, Logan, admitting this may be true, we are farther away from that than when we started."
   "So far as cattle are concerned. Why, if I ever get a wedge in here, my herd will double--quadruple--multiply beyond calculation."
   "You have convinced me," said Lucinda. "But without capital and help you have undertaken the impossible...Logan, we must approach the problem from another angle."
   "Angle? Wife, what do you mean?" he asked, with dubious interest.
   "I don't know that I can answer yet. But my mind is working. The facts are simple. We have the land and water and grass. We will not starve. Our boys are growing like weeds....It's something like a problem I used to give my school class."
   "Luce, I never was any good at arithmetic."
   "You let me do the figuring," she suggested.
   Lucinda pondered over their situation for days. Holbert's wanting their ranch inspired her as it had alarmed Logan. One night, after the tired children had gone to bed, and she and Logan were sitting out on the porch in the soft simmer night, Lucinda broached the subject that had become so important to her.
   "Logan, I've worked it out."
   "What?" he queried.
   "Our problem. But let me ask a question or so before I tell you. How long can you keep alfalfa?"
   "I reckon as long as I could keep it dry."
   "How much can you raise a summer?"
   "I don't know. Two cuttings, sure. I'm beginning to see that alfalfa does amazing good here, same as your potatoes."
   "We can't haul alfalfa to town, not in quantity to pay us. But we can haul enough potatoes to trade for the flour, sugar, dried fruit--all that we need to live on. Our wants will grow as the children grow. We must have clothes, and shoes, books, and many things."
   "Luce, don't forget guns, ponies, and saddles. We've got to have them soon."
   "Oh, I never thought of them. Indeed the boys are growing up...But is there immediate need for those things?"
   "No. Only the sooner the better. Abe can ride bareback like an Indian now. And George's not so bad."
   "Perhaps an open winter, such as you've been hoping for, will give you good luck with the beaver hides."
   "It would help out wonderful."
   "Let's hope for that. Now here's my plan. You've got ten acres of alfalfa in, almost ready to cut. And room in the cowsheds to store it. Build a large shed--just a peaked roof on posts. Something you can store tons and tons of alfalfa in."
   "Wife, that's a great idea," replied Logan, enthusiastically. "With George and Abe, and a little help from you, I can throw that up in a week...Well, go on."
   "Run a high pole fence out from that deep break in the wall below the road, just two lines of fence meeting across the brook. That will enclose four or five acres of pasture."
   "I can do that before the snow flies. But what for? I don't need it."
   "You will need it. Let us begin to raise our calves to save them. Let's keep them penned in till they are grown. Feed alfalfa as well as fodder in the winter. In summer have the boys graze them like Indian boys do flocks of sheep. All to start a herd while you're killing off these cougars and wolves. In a few years we can turn them loose in the canyon."
   "Wife, that's another good idea," declared Logan, thoughtfully. "But so much work--so slow in results!"
   "Logan, you're in too much of a hurry. Remember the fable of the hare and the tortoise. We really don't need a big herd of cattle until the boys are old enough to ride with you."
   "That's so. Never occurred to me...If I had five thousand head, say in ten years, when George is eighteen, why in five years more I'd have my thirty thousand head."
   "Yes. Meanwhile we'd be living. By then the children will have as good an education as I can give them. They'd be growing up with our herd...It all means prodigious labour, much poverty, perhaps some hard setbacks, but in the end success...Logan, that is absolutely the only way we can attain it here in Sycamore."
   "Years--years--years!" ejaculated Logan, hollowly, shaking his shaggy head.
   "We can count on them. The rest depends upon our preparation and our unremitting toil...Now as to Holbert's lien on our property. I have the money to pay that off."
   "Lucinda!" he exclaimed, hoarsely. By that she saw how this debt had dogged him.
   "Yes. It'll take almost all of the money I saved out of my wedding-gift. We'll get rid of it all in one swoop...I'll go to town with you this fall, taking the children. We'll pay Holbert on the way. Then buy things for the children and myself--we're sadly in need, and so are you, for that matter. Come home and never go in debt again!"
   "Lucinda, you're a pioneer wife!" he burst out huskily, as if that was the greatest compliment he could pay her, and with this rare exhibition of feeling, he left her. Lucinda made a mental note of the fact that he had not promised never to go in debt again.
   She sat there in the darkness, listening to the babble of the brook, the chirp of crickets, the weird cries of the nighthawks--sounds that seemed to have become a part of her. The stars burned white in the velvety-dark sky. All around, the black fringe of pines on the rims loomed protestingly. The white Sycamore that had given the canyon its name gleamed like wan marble in the starlight. From the great forest breathed down the leagues on leagues of pine and spruce--the warm, sweet, dry tang of the evergreens. How strange for Lucinda to realize that her horror of the wilderness had vanished! Only one dread, one threatening, haunting drawback to this pioneer life remained to vex her, and that was winter--the storm-demon who roared in the pines and brought the terror of a white change to the wilderness, the drifting palls of snow, the cold, ghastly windrows down the canyon.
   The days went by, too short by hours for the tasks of the housewife of the pioneer, the helper in the fields, the milkmaid and the teacher. Winter fled apace and the seasons rolled on.
   Lucinda's vision of the unremitting toil and the setbacks, with their consequent poverty, had been a true presagement of the future. But the toil and the privation did not obscure the rest of that vision--the crown of success in the years to come, the reward and the blessing of the boys and the girl.
   Huett lost sight of that. Like a galley-slave he toiled at his round of endless tasks. The bitter pill for him was that he had become a farmer, living from hand to mouth, when his heart was set on cattle. If he had any happiness, it was in the way his boys took to hunting, woodcraft, riding. Lucinda always felt glad for Logan when the fall season rolled around, and he could follow the game trails with the boys.
   For three autumns Logan had upward of fifty head of stock in the fenced pasture--cows, steers, heifers, calves; and as many times that fair start towards a herd had been ruined by the cougars, deep snows and cold of this inhospitable wilderness. Always after a setback like one of these, it took time to make another beginning. During another instance a sudden thaw and spring flood depleted his herd of their calves. He deserted that pasture and enclosed another on higher ground, taking up acres of slope where browsing on the oak thickets was good all winter.
   Still, no matter what he gained in bitter experience, no matter how unflaggingly he carried on, Lucinda saw the hard years wresting the heart of hope out of his life. Once a year he went to Flagg, traded his produce for supplies, and returned sick and brooding for days over the progress of the Arizona ranges, the influx of new settlers.
   Then followed several years--just as swift, but harder than ever--which tried Lucinda's soul. Towards the close of that period they had no flour, no sugar, and very few of the necessities of life. They lived on meat and beans--the stable product of that wilderness when all else, even the potato yield, failed. The boys went barefoot in all seasons except winter, when they wore moccasins. In fringed buckskin Barbara was a delight to Lucinda's eyes. She grew up strong, brown, beautiful despite poverty, happy at study as at work, loving the boys she believed to be her brothers, and worshipping the dark, silent, grey-eyed Abe, who had become straight and lithe; handsome as a young pine. They were all of the woodland, and they loved and kept wilderness pets, as they had when they were children. Lucinda's compensation lay in the fact that she had been Able to give them an elementary education, to instil in them ideals and loyalties, and belief in God. No poverty, no suffering, not even a permanent failure of Huett, could have robbed Lucinda of that joy. She had given them of herself, of her mind and heart. For the rest, for that physical prowess Logan put such store in, their infinite labours from childhood to youth, Lucinda thrilled to her depths at what she saw they would grow to be.
   But Huett sustained a growing bitterness as great as his pride, and it was that he could not give this wonderful family the bare necessities of life, let alone the pretty things a girl loved, and the implements, the guns, the equipment that boys should have had in wild country.
   Lucinda watched Logan with misgivings that she had to fight with all her courage and intelligence. She feared the iron that might enter his soul. She saw the hair whiten over his temples. She saw his great frame, grown heavier with the years, begin to bow a little across the broad shoulders. She saw him sit beside the hearth without the pipe of tobacco that had been his one extravagance, and ponder everlastingly over the problem of his cattle.
   His vigour and his will seemed to withstand all inroads of, toil and defeat. With the boys he planted more corn, more potatoes, more alfalfa, more beans each succeeding summer. Lucinda had worked with him until the boys laughingly, yet imperiously, had sent her, back to her manifold tasks at the homestead.
   Still she saw Logan at his work. She saw him from afar, and when he came stamping in at sunset, smelling of the earth and wiping the sweat from his furrowed brow, she was there to greet him. She often carried his lunch into the forest where it appeared he could cut wood faster than his sons could drag and stack it behind the cabin. The flashing axe, the ring of steel, the odorous, flying chips, the stalwart backwoodsman at his best--these, with the grey windfalls all around, the brown, fragrant mats under the junipers, the giant pines towering black-stemmed to spread into a canopy of green far overhead, the patches of gold-and-white aspens, and the scarlet maples--how these at last satisfied a nameless longing in Lucinda's heart! This wilderness was Logan's place. He fitted it. And he would have been happy save for that obsession of the cattle herd.
   Lucinda at last faced a winter which daunted even her fortitude. Logan's load of potatoes went to apply on a past debt and future credit was denied. He had come home without the supplies so necessary to any semblance of good living. She really worried more about her husband's gloom that time than about the lack of food and other supplies. A long, hard winter would reduce the Huetts to wretched condition.
   But Logan went into the woods with his rifle and returned to say there were signs foretelling a mild and open winter. That night, while talking to the boys, he seemed changed, more like he used to be. Lucinda took heart. Her prayers, her hopes, her visions could not be utterly futile.
   Indian summer held on long, a lovely interval, with frost at night and warm sun all day--the still, dreamy, smoky autumn time that Lucinda loved. Snow did not whiten the ridges until Christmas. And there was a merry Christmas at last for the Huetts! Logan and the boys had already tacked up a hundred beaver hides on the cabin walls, and marten, mink, and skunk hides too numerous to count. These already assured Huett of money to pay his debts and have some left over. Then there was the prospect of still better hunting and trapping during the balance of the winter.
   That belated stroke of good fortune carried on to great fulfilment. The wilderness yielded much to Logan Huett that mild winter. It paid him back in fur for much of his loss. In the spring, before the road was dry, he started for Flagg on the last trip for the faithful old oxen. He returned driving a new team of sturdy farm horses, drawing a new wagon loaded and piled high, with three mustangs haltered behind. His weather-beaten face wore the happiest mien Lucinda had seen there since the day she married him.
   The boys, whom he had not taken with him to Flagg, stood around the wagon wide-eyed, staring at the shaggy mustangs, fat and woolly from a winter pasture. Barbara forgot herself in awe and joy over the ponies she had heard the boys talk about for years. And Lucinda could have wept.
   "Well, you moon-eyed Huetts," said Logan, "from this day on you're cowboys!"
   "Aw, Paw, which is mine?" queried Grant, eagerly.
   "Grant, yours is the buckskin. And that's his name...Abe, the wild sorrel there, rarin' back on that rope, is yours...George, the bay belongs to you--if you can ride him."
   "Huh! I'll ride him all right," declared George, raptly. Abe did not have anything to say, but the look in his grey eyes was enough.
   "Tie them to the fence, there, and help me unpack this wagon," went on Logan, practically.
   Presently Logan lifted a huge pack, sewed up in burlap, and threw it at Lucinda's feet.
   "For you and Barbara. Every item on your list--and every doggone thing I could think of!"
   Barbara squealed with delight and pounced upon the pack, but she could not even budge it. Lucinda was not speechless so much from surprise and pleasure as she was at the unusual feeling exhibited by her husband. She watched him.
   "Saddles and bridles and spurs and chaps--all Mexican. Navajo saddle-blankets. Manila ropes. Rifle-sheaths and gun-belts...Here, cowboys, lift down this heavy one. Shells, plenty! I haven't seen so many since I was Indian scout for General Crook...Look at these. Colts. Forty-fives!...And here. Ha! ha!--Winchester rifles!--Forty-fours! Light, hard-shooting, easy to pack on a saddle!...Now, cowboys first and hunters second, the Huett outfit starts this day. And it's a bad day for varmints of this range. Cougars, lofers, grizzlies, cinnamons, take notice!...And Outfit, listen to this news from Flagg. Rustlers have come in from New Mexico. Cattle-thieves! They're working the ranges east of Flagg. And rustling will grow in Arizona as the cattle increase. It's hard lines. Something I never reckoned on. I've fought the four-footed meat-eaters all these years. And snow and ice and blizzards and heat and drought and flood. But now comes the worst enemy of the cattlemen. The maverick hunter--the calf thief...Let that sink in deep, sons. But rustlers won't stop us. We've got this walled range, and grass and water. Nothing shall ever stop us from raising that thirty thousand head!"

Chapter 10 >