Read CHAPTER XXII - THE USE OF PHOTOGRAPHY of The Free Range , free online book, by Francis William Sullivan, on ReadCentral.com.

It was noon and the great column of parched animals and hot, dusty men had come to a halt under their alkali cloud beside a little stream. The foot-weary sheep and cattle, without the usual preliminaries, lay down where they stood, relieved for once from the incessant nipping of the dogs and proddings of the men.

Sims, walking among the sheep with down-drawn brows, noted their condition, how gaunt they were, how dirty and weary, and shook his head in commiseration. Had he but known it he was as gaunt and worn-looking as the weakest of them. Returning to where Larkin had dropped in the shade of the cook-wagon, he said:

“We’ve got to make it to-night if the Old Boy himself is in the way.”

Larkin realized the seriousness of the situation. Water and feed were plentiful, but owing to the hurry of the drive the animals were starving on their feet. Less than five miles away was the Gray Bull River, the goal of their march. Once across that and they would be out of the Bar T range and free to continue north, for the next ranch-owner had gone in for sheep himself (one of the first to see the handwriting on the wall), and had gladly granted Larkin’s flocks a passage across his range.

“What I can’t understand is where all those cowpunchers are,” continued Sims. “I’m plenty sure they wouldn’t let us through if we was within a foot of the river, they’re that cussed.”

He had hardly got the words out of his mouth when from ahead of the herd appeared a horseman at a hard gallop, quirting his pony at every few jumps.

Pulling the animal back on its haunches at the cook-wagon, the rider vaulted out of the saddle and was blurting out his story almost before he had touched the ground.

“Up ahead there!” he gasped. “Cow-punchers! Looks like a hundred of ’em. I seen ’em from a butte. I ’low they’ve dug fifty pits and they’ve stuck sharp stakes into the ground pointed this way. They’re ready fer us, an’ don’t yuh ferget it.”

Sims and Larkin looked at each other without speaking. Now it was plain that the punchers had had plenty of reason for not molesting them; they had been preparing a surprise.

“An’ that ain’t all, boss,” went on the rider. “I took a slant through my glasses, and what d’yuh suppose I seen? There, as big as life, was old Beef Bissell an’ Red Tarken, and a lot more o’ them cowmen. How they ever got there I dunno, but it’s worth figurín’ out of a cold winter’s evenin’.”

This information came as a knockdown. The two men questioned their informant closely, unable to credit their ears, but the man described the ranch-owners so accurately that there was no room left for doubt.

“Then what’s become o’ Jimmie Welsh and his nine men?” asked Sims wonderingly.

“Mebbe they’re captured; but I couldn’t see anythin’ of ’em.”

“Nope,” said Bud slowly, “they aren’t captured. They’re dead. I know Jimmie and his men, and I picked them for that job because I knew how they would act. Poor boys! If I get through here alive I’ll put a monument where they died.”

He ceased speaking, and a sudden silence descended on all the company, for the other men had been listening to this report. Each man’s thoughts in that one instant were with Jimmie and his nine men in their last extremity at Welsh’s Butte, although the site of the tragedy was as yet unknown to them.

“What about the lay of the country?” Sims finally asked of the scout.

“Dead ahead is the big ford, but that is what the punchers have protected. I could see that either up or down from the ford the water’s deep, because there ain’t no bottoms there the bank’s right on top of the river.”

“Where is the next nearest ford?”

“Ten miles northeast, this season of the year,” was the reply.

“Thunderation, boss, what’ll we do?” inquired Sims petulantly.

“Call Lester, and we three will talk it over,” said Bud, a half-formed plan already in his mind.

Presently the three were alone and discussing the situation. Bud proposed his scheme and outlined it clearly. For perhaps a quarter of an hour he talked, interrupted by the eager, enthusiastic exclamations of Lester. When he had finished, Sims lay back on his two elbows and regarded his employer.

“If yuh keep on this-a-way, boss,” he remarked, “I allow we might let yuh herd a few lambs next spring, seein’ yuh will learn the sheep business.”

Bud grinned at the other’s compliment and noted Lester’s enthusiasm. Then they plunged into the details.

“Better ride your horse around by way of the ford ten miles away,” were the instructions as Lester saddled up. “Then you can come at ’em by the rear.”

No word of young Larkin’s intention had passed about the camp, and the sheepmen watched with considerable wonder the departure of the boy, placing it to Bud’s fear of his receiving an injury in the trouble that was almost surely bound to happen that night.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, or thereabouts, Lester, with his outfit strapped on his dejected horse, rode slowly away from the sheepmen’s camp.

Meanwhile, behind the various defenses that had been erected against the coming of Bud Larkin and his animals, the cowmen and their punchers were making ready for their night’s battle. The chief actor in these fevered preparations was Beef Bissell, whose hatred of Larkin was something to frighten babies with at night.

Since the gallant battle at Welsh’s Butte, Bissell had changed some of his ideas regarding sheepmen in general; but he had changed none regarding Larkin in particular. It was now a matter of pride and determination, almost of oath with him, to fight this matter of the range to the finish. The other cowmen stood by him out of principle and because of the need of a unified stand by men of their association.

So here in the last ditch, ready to sacrifice men, animals, and money, wrong and knowing it, these beef barons prepared to dispute the last inch of their territory. It should never be said, they had sworn, that sheep had crossed the cattle-range of any of them. On this elevating platform they proposed to make their fight.

To be perfectly just to all concerned, it is only right to add that all who did not choose to remain, either owners or punchers, were perfectly free to withdraw, but in doing so they forfeited their membership in the association. But one man had taken advantage of this Billy Speaker.

“If there’s any damage to be done, those sheep have already done it. Why don’t yuh let ’em through, yuh ol’ fat-head?” said Speaker to Bissell as, with his cowboys, he threw his leg over the saddle and started homeward.

Despite the havoc to their numbers occasioned by the battle with Jimmie Welsh, all the others stood by. With the cowboys this matter of war and its hazards was a decided improvement over the dangerous monotony of spring round-ups. Moreover, as long as one remained able to collect it, five dollars a day was several pegs better than forty dollars a month and all found.

To-day as the late sun drooped low toward the horizon revolvers and guns were being oiled, and other preparations made for a vigorous campaign. The camp backed directly on the river at the only fordable spot within ten miles, the stream forming the fourth side to a square, the other three sides of which were breastworks of earth and trenches.

A rope stretched from the three cook-wagons served as a coral for the horses, and in it were gathered fully sixty-five animals, waiting impatiently to be hobbled, and turned out to feed. They waited in vain, however, for it was a matter of course that they should stand saddled and ready for instant use.

Directly before the front of these earthworks were the pits and chevaux de frise of sharp stakes that had been reported to Bud. The intention was to stampede the animals if possible, and run them into the pits and upon the stakes while a force of men, protected by the trenches, poured a withering and continuous fire into the on-surging mass. Meanwhile the greater force on horseback would be engaging the sheepmen.

That the cowboys knew the location of the flocks goes without saying, for had they not had spies on the lookout, the telltale pillar of dust that ever floated above the marching thousands would have betrayed their exact position.

The sun had just dropped below the horizon, when a man in the cowpunchers’ camp discerned a weary horse bearing a hump-shouldered rider disconsolately in the direction of the ford. The man, bore strange-looking paraphernalia, and could be classified as neither fish, flesh, nor fowl that is, cowboy, sheepman, or granger.

Without pausing the man urged his horse into the water at the ford, where it drank deeply. The man flung himself off the saddle and, scooping the water in his hands, imitated the horse’s eagerness. When he had apparently satisfied an inordinate thirst he looked up at the man across the river and said:

“Say, could I git some grub in yore camp?”

“Yuh better move on, pardner. This here’s resky territory,” replied the other, his Winchester swinging idly back and forth across the stranger’s middle.

“I’m hungry enough to take a chance,” was the reply as Lester walked his mount deliberately across the stream. “Besides, I want to do business with yuh.”

Another man, hearing the controversy, came up and ordered the newcomer away. Lester asked him who he was.

“My name’s Bissell,” snorted the man.

Lester advanced the rest of the way to shore his hand outstretched.

“I’m plumb glad to know yuh,” he said. “My name’s Skidmore, an’ I’ve just come from the Bar T. I take pitchers, I do yessir, the best in the business; an’ if yuh don’t believe me, just look at these.”

From somewhere in his saddle-bags Skidmore whipped out two photographs and handed them to Bissell.

There, looking at him, sat Martha, in some of her long-unused finery, and Juliet, the daughter who had until now been the greatest blessing of his life.

Bissell started back as though he had seen a ghost, so excellent and speaking were the likenesses.

“Yes, they asked me to come an’ take one of yuh, Mr. Bissell,” went on the photographer.

“They did?” snapped Beef suspiciously. “How’d they know where I was?”

“Stelton told ’em. I was there when he got home.”

“Oh, yes Stelton, of course,” apologized the owner. “How d’ye take the blame things? With that contraption yuh’ve got there?”

“Yes, and I think there is still light enough for me to get you!” cried Skidmore, snatching his outfit from the back of his horse and starting hurriedly to set it up.

By this time quite a crowd had gathered, some of whom had never seen a camera in operation, and none of whom had seen such pictures as Skidmore was able to pass around.

Bissell posed with the embarrassed air of a schoolboy saying his first piece, and after that Skidmore was busy arranging his subjects long after it was too dark to make an impression on the plates. Finally, affecting utter weariness, he asked for food, and the best in the camp was laid before him.

“Can’t do any more to-night,” he said when he had finished. “But to-morrow I can take a few; I have about half-a-dozen plates left.”

“I may not look as tidy to-morrow morning as I do now,” remarked one puncher suggestively. “Too bad yuh can’t take pictures at night as well as in the daytime.”

“I can,” announced Skidmore, quite complacently.

“Well, didn’t yuh just tell me,” demanded an irate cowboy who vainly undertook to grasp the science of photography, “that the light actin’ on the plate made the pitcher?”

“Yes.”

“Well, how in the road to hell can yuh take ’em when it’s dark?”

“He rents a star, yuh fool!” volunteered another.

“I make my own light,” explained Skidmore.

“How? With a wood-fire?” asked the curious puncher.

“No. Shall I show yuh?”

“Yes.”

The reply came in a chorus, for the arrival of this man with his strange apparatus had created a stir among his hosts that one cannot conceive in these days of perfect pictures. The cowpunchers were not worrying about attack, for they had outposts on duty who could warn them of the advance of the enemy in plenty of time. The amusement of the camera was a fine thing with which to pass the lagging hours.

“All right,” said Skidmore. “By George,” he cried, “I’ve just the idea! My plates are low, and I’ll take a picture of the whole outfit together.”

“What! Get seventy men on the same thing that’ll only hold one?” cried another puncher, furious that these wonders eluded him. “If yuh’re foolin’ with me, son, I’ll shoot yer contraption into a thousand pieces.”

“Easiest thing in the world,” said the photographer carelessly. “Only I’ll have to ask yuh to move away from the fire; that’ll spoil the plate. I think over here is a good place.” He led the way to a spot directly in front of the horse corral.

Then he caused the lowest row to sit on the ground, the one behind it kneel, and the last stand up, and after peering through his camera made them close up tightly so that all could get into the picture. By the glow from the camp-fire it was a wonderful scene. The light showed broad hats, knotted neckerchiefs, and weather-beaten, grinning faces. It glanced dully from holsters and brightly from guns and buckles.

On a piece of board Skidmore carefully arranged his flashlight powder and took the cap off the lens. Then he ran to the fire and picked up a burning splinter, telling them all to watch it.

“Steady, now!” he commanded. “All quiet.”

He thrust the lighted spill into the powder, and there was a blinding flash, accompanied by a hollow roar like a sudden gust of wind.

The next instant a terrific commotion arose in the corral. There were squeals of terror, and before the men could catch their breath the sixty-five cow ponies had bolted in a mad stampede, overturning the cook-wagons and thundering across the prairie.

The punchers, absolutely sightless for the instant from looking at the flash of the powder, broke into horrible cursing, and ran blindly here and there, colliding with one another and adding to the already great confusion. Their one desire was to lay hands on the wretched photographer, but that desire was never fulfilled.

For Lester Larkin, having shut his eyes during the flash, easily evaded the men and made his way to his horse that had been tethered to a tree near the river. With his instrument under his arm he untied the animal, climbed on his back, and dug in the spurs. A moment later, during the height of the confusion, he was galloping along parallel to the river. A mile and a half from the camp he turned his horse’s head and sped at full speed toward the advancing herds.