Read CHAPTER V - STRATEGY AND A SURPRISE of The Free Range , free online book, by Francis William Sullivan, on ReadCentral.com.

“Gub pi-i-i-!” yelled the cook at the top of his voice.

The weary herders with Sims and Larkin answered the cry as one man, for they were spent with the exertions of the night, and heavy-eyed from want of sleep. The meal of mutton, camp-bread, beans, and Spanish onions was dispatched with the speed that usually accompanied such ceremonies, and Sims told off the herders to watch the flock while the others slept.

A general commanding soldiers would have pressed forward, thus increasing the advantage gained in the enemy’s country, but when sheep compose the marching column, human desires are the last thing consulted. After their long thirst and forced drive it was necessary that the animals recover their strength for a day amid abundant feed and water.

Immediately after breakfast Larkin called a small, close-knit herder to him.

“Can you ride a horse?” he asked.

Si, senor,” replied the man, who came originally from the southern range.

“Then saddle that piebald mare and take provisions for four days. Travel day and night until you reach the Larkin ranch in Montana, and give this letter to the man who is in charge there.”

Bud drew a penciled note from the pocket of his shirt and handed it to the other. Then he produced a rough map of the country he had drawn and added it to the letter, explaining a number of times the distances from point to point, and tracing the route with his pencil. At last the herder understood.

“Tell them to hurry,” was Larkin’s parting injunction, as the other turned away to saddle the mare.

Si, senor. Hurry like blazes, eh?” said Miguel, comprehending, with a flash of white teeth.

“Exactly.”

Hardly had the man galloped away north, following the bank of the river for the better concealment past the Bar T range, when Sims languidly approached.

“I reckon we’re in for trouble, boss,” he remarked, yawning sleepily, “an’ I’m plumb dyin’ for rest, but I s’pose I better look over the country ahead if we’re goin’ to get these muttons out o’ here.”

“I was just going to suggest it,” said Larkin. “I am going to stay by the camp and meet some friends of mine that I expect very shortly. Come back pronto, Hardy, for there’s no telling what we may have to do before night.”

Larkin’s predictions of a visit were soon enough fulfilled. It was barely ten o’clock when several horsemen were seen riding toward the banks of the Big Horn. Bud mounted Pinte and advanced to meet them.

First came Beef Bissell, closely attended by Stelton, and after them, four or five of the Bar T punchers. The actual encounter took place half a mile from the camp. Looking back, Larkin could see his sheep feeding in plain sight amid the green of the river bottoms.

“Howdy,” snapped Bissell, by way of greeting. And then, without waiting for a reply: “What does this mean?” He indicated the placid sheep.

“My flock was dying of thirst, and I brought them up last night,” said Bud. “They crossed the river early this morning.”

“Why didn’t you keep them on the other side? I warned you about this.”

“I warned you first, Mr. Bissell. My sheep have got to go north, and the range west of the Big Horn is the only practicable way to drive them. They would never come through if I started them through the mountains. You ought to know that.”

“Never mind what I ought to know,” cried Bissell angrily, his red face flaming with fury. “There’s one thing I do know, and that is, that those range-killers don’t go a step farther north on my side of the river.”

“If you can show me clear title to ownership of this part of the range I will risk them in the mountains; otherwise not,” replied Bud, imperturbably. “This range is free, and as much mine as yours. There’s no use going into this question again.”

“That’s the first true thing you’ve said,” snarled the cowman. “Now, you listen here. I don’t go hunting trouble nowhere, but there ain’t a man between the Rio Grande and the Columbia that can say I don’t meet it half-way when I see it headed in my direction. Now, I’ve given you fair warnin’ before. I’ll give it to you again, but this is the last time. Either you have them sheep t’other side of the river by this time to-morrow, or you take the consequences.”

“Is that your final word on the matter?”

“Yes. An’ I’ve got witnesses to prove that you were given a chance to clear out.”

“Then you give me only twenty-four hours?”

“Yes.”

Bud’s face took on a look of discouragement and failure, and he sat for a time as though seeking a loophole of escape from his ultimatum. At last he lifted his head and looked at the cowman with a listless eye.

“All right,” he said, hopelessly; “I’ll be gone by that time.”

And, without further words, he wheeled his horse slowly and rode back to the camp. As he rode he maintained his dejected attitude, but his mind was actively laying plans for the overthrow of Bissell. Under the mask of seeming defeat he sought to find means for an unexpected victory.

Though his whole being rose in revolt against the arbitrary claims of the cattle king, he had become so hardened to this injustice everywhere that he no longer wasted his time or strength in vain railings against it. Instinctively he felt that this was to be a struggle of strength against cunning, for the very thought of physical resistance to thirty fighting cowboys by half a dozen herders was ridiculous.

Many similar skirmishes, both on his home ranch and on the trail, had sharpened Larkin’s wits for emergencies, and it was with really no spirit of humble complaisance that he faced the future. Much, however, depended on the result of Sim’s explorations.

By the time Larkin arrived at the camp the visiting cowmen had disappeared. But this did not mean for a moment that they had all returned to the Bar T ranch house. Merely to top the first hill would have been to see a horse with hanging bridle, and a cow-puncher near by camped on the trail that led to the north.

As fortune would have it, Sims slunk into camp just at the dinner hour.

“What’d they say to yuh?” he asked abruptly. “I seen the confab from over on that hogback yonder.”

The herder’s respect for his employer sometimes diminished to the vanishing point.

“Got to clear out in twenty-four hours or take what’s comin’.”

“What’d’ye tell ’em?”

“I said we would.”

The lank herder started back in amazement.

“Oh, blazes!” he grieved. “That I should’ve ever took on with a milksop boss. I’m plumb disgraced ” His voice trailed off into silence as he recognized the twinkle in Larkin’s eye. “Oh, I see what yuh mean,” he apologized, with a wide grin. “We’ll clear out all right. Oh, yes! Sure!”

He sat down.

“Depends on you a good deal,” remarked Bud, shoving the beans toward him. “What did you find this morning?”

“Found a new way north,” was the muffled and laconic reply. “Yaas,” he continued presently, after regarding his reflection in the bottom of a tin cup that had been full of coffee the moment before, “an’ it’s over on that hogback.”

A “hogback,” be it understood, is a rugged rocky mound, carved by weather erosion. It is the result of the level rock strata of the plains suddenly bending upward and protruding out of the earth.

“That ridge runs north for about two mile, and at the end seems to turn east into the Big Horn foothills. So far as I can see, no man or critter has ever been there, for there ain’t any water in that crotch, and nothin’ else but heat and rattlers. The point of the thing is this: Spring rains for a couple of million years have wore a regular watercourse down that crotch, and I think we can run the sheep over it, single file.”

“Yes, but won’t they be out on the open Bar T range when we get them over?”

“No, boss. D’ye think I’d do a thing like that? Honest, the way you misjudge a man! Well, across that hogback, where it turns to the east, there is a string of range hills covered with good feed, and leadin’ north, for twenty miles. My idea’s this:

“I’ll send Pedro with about a hundred rams and wethers directly north from here, as they’re expecting we will. All of them will have bells on, and Pedro’ll have to prod ’em some to make ’em bawl. While he is drawing all the trouble, we’ll hustle the rest of the flock along behind the hogback, over the pass, and north behind the shelter of the hills.”

“Fine, Sims; just the thing!” exclaimed Larkin, taking up with the idea enthusiastically. “It will be a thundering brute of a man who won’t let the flock north once it has gone twenty miles.”

“I allow that perhaps the Bar T punchers will be watchin’ that hogback, although I couldn’t find tracks there, new or old. If they ever catch the sheep in that gully, you’re due to wish you’d stayed East.”

“Well, that’s our risk, and we’ve got to take it. Now, I think we’d better roll up for a few hours this afternoon, for we didn’t sleep last night, and I don’t believe we will to-night. Have Pedro call us at half-past four, and have him round up the sheep about five.”

Sheep, because of some perverse twist in their natures, cannot graze standing still. They must walk slowly forward a few steps every few moments. To-day, however, because of the luxuriant grass along the river, the progress of the flock had been comparatively slow. Their day’s “walk” would bring them, Larkin figured, to a point less than a mile distant from the hogback, and an ideal spot from which to start the march.

Pedro called the two men at the appointed hour, and they reached the flock just in time for the bedding down. Immediately all hands went through the sheep, removing bells from the animals that usually wore them, and fastening them about the necks of those delegated to act as a blind and cover the advance of the main body.

To a Bar T cow-puncher who knew anything about sheep, the evening scene would have exhibited nothing out of the ordinary. From the reclining hundreds came the soft bleating of ewes calling their young, which is only heard at the daily bedding, the low-toned blethering of the others of the flock, and the tinkle of bells.

Beside the cook wagon the fire glowed in the trench, and everything seemed to be progressing normally.

Twilight came early among the trees and brush near the river, but it was not until absolute darkness had descended over the vast expanse of prairie that Larkin gave the order to march. Then the main body of the herd, with Sims at its head, the dogs flanking and Bud bringing up the rear on horseback, moved silently out toward the unknown hazards of the hogback pass.

Pedro and his hundred had been ordered to wait fifteen minutes, until the head of the column should have almost reached the shelter of the hogback. This he did, and then headed his small flock straight up the open prairie of the range, amid a chorus of bells and loud-voiced protest. Larkin, half a mile away, heard these sounds and smiled grimly, for the flocks before him made scarcely any sound at all.

In the darkness ahead he could hear the low voices of the men talking to the dogs and encouraging the unresponsive sheep. Overhead were the brilliant, low-swinging stars that gave just enough light to show him the trend of the long, heaving line.

For another half-hour there was silence. The sounds of Pedro and his flock became fainter as the two bodies diverged from each other. Now the dark wall of the hogback rose up on Larkin’s left; the last of the flock was behind shelter. The going was rough and Pinte chose each step carefully, but the sheep made good progress, because there was no grass to tempt them.

After another long space, broken only by the clatter of hard little feet on stone, distant shots rang out, accompanied by faint yells, and Larkin knew that Pedro had met with the first of the Bar T outfit.

The sheepman was resigned to losing the hundred, just as cattlemen do not hesitate to cut out and abandon all weak animals on a long drive. It is a loss credited to the ultimate good of the business, but Bud had not consented to this sacrifice if it meant also the sacrifice of the herder.

Pedro had, however, with many winks and glintings of teeth, made it clear that he did not expect to depart this life yet a while, hinting mysteriously at certain charms, amulets and saints that made it a business to keep him among the living.

Pedro, to Bud’s knowledge, had been in numerous seamy affairs before, and had always reappeared, rather the worse for wear, but perfectly sound in all respects. He did not doubt but what the Spaniard would turn up at the cook wagon for breakfast.

The sounds of distant conflict continued for perhaps five or ten minutes, at the end of which time perfect silence reigned again. Larkin wondered how many of the animals had been killed, or whether they had been merely scattered the equivalent of death, for a sheep is unable to find water, and if frightened, will back against a face of rock and starve to death.

Another half-hour passed, and now Larkin could see the dim white backs of the herd rising before him as they climbed the steep watercourse. He judged that more than half the flock must be down the precipitous other side, and his heart beat with exultation at the success of Sim’s strategy. The plan was to hide the sheep in some little green valley during the day and march them at night until discovered or until the upper range was reached.

Suddenly, just as the last of the flock was mounting the ascent, Larkin drew Pinte up short and listened intently. Then he quickly dismounted and placed his ear to the ground only to leap into the saddle again, swing his horse quickly and ride back along the trail.

He had heard the unmistakable pounding of feet, and an instant’s sickening fear flashed before him the possibility that the Bar T cowboys had discovered the ruse after all; either that or they had extorted the secret of it from Pedro.

Larkin loosened the pistol in his holster, one of those big, single-action wooden-handled forty-fives that have settled so many unrecorded disputes, and prepared to cover the rear of the herd until it had safely crossed the hogback.

Pinte’s ears twitched forward. The sound of galloping feet was nearer now. Larkin clapped on spurs and trotted to meet it.

Closer and closer it came, a mingled clatter of hoofs. Then suddenly there rang out the frightened bawl of a bewildered calf.

The aspects of the situation took on another hue. If these had been cattle stampeded by the shots and shouting on the plain, they would have made a vastly different thundering along the earth. Cattle never ran this way by themselves; therefore the obvious inference was that they were driven.

Again, the Bar T punchers had no call to drive cattle at night, particularly this night. Who, then, was driving them? In an instant Larkin’s mind had leaped these various steps of reasoning and recalled old Beef Bissell’s vehement arraignment of rustlers in the State. The answer was plain. The calves were being driven off the range into concealment by cattle-thieves.

Larkin knew that all the sheep had not yet passed the top of the hogback. It was absolutely necessary that their passage be unknown and unobserved. There was but one thing to do.

Spurring his horse, he charged toward the oncoming animals, whose dark forms he could now discern a hundred yards away. As he rode, he shouted and drew his revolver, firing into their faces. When at last it seemed that he must come into violent collision with them, they turned, snorting, to the east and made off in the direction of the river.

His purpose accomplished, Larkin wheeled Pinte sharply and dug in his spurs, but at that instant two dark forms loomed close, one on each side, and seized the bridle.

“Hands up!” said a gruff voice. “You’re covered.”