Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 2
Over the “Hog’s Back.”
“That’s Flying U ranch,” volunteered Chip, as they turned sharply to the right and began to descend a long grade built into the side of a steep, rocky bluff. Below them lay the ranch in a long, narrow coulee. Nearest them sprawled the house, low, white and roomy, with broad porches and wide windows; further down the coulee, at the base of a gentle slope, were the sheds, the high, round corrals and the haystacks. Great, board gates were distributed in seemingly useless profusion, while barbed wire fences stretched away in all directions. A small creek, bordered with cottonwoods and scraggly willows, wound aimlessly away down the coulee.
“J. G. doesn’t seem to have much method,” remarked Miss Whitmore, after a critical survey. “What are all those log cabins scattered down the hill for? They look as though J. G. had a handful that he didn’t want, and just threw them down toward the stable and left them lying where they happened to fall.”
“It does, all right,” conceded Chip. “They’re the bunk house—where us fellows sleep—and the mess house, where we eat, and then come the blacksmith shop and a shack we keep all kinds of truck in, and——”
A chorus of shouts and shots arose from below. A scurrying group of horsemen burst over the hill behind the house, dashed half down the slope, and surrounded the bunk house with blood-curdling yells. Chip held the creams to a walk and furtively watched his companion. Miss Whitmore’s eyes were very wide open; plainly, she was astonished beyond measure at the uproar. Whether she was also frightened, Chip could not determine.
The menacing yells increased in volume till the very hills seemed to cower in fear. Miss Whitmore gasped when a limp form was dragged from the cabin and lifted to the back of a snorting pony.
“They’ve got a rope around that man’s neck,” she breathed, in a horrified half whisper. “Are—they—going to hang him?”
“It kinda looks that way, from here,” said Chip, inwardly ashamed. All at once it struck him as mean and cowardly to frighten a lady who had traveled far among strangers and who had that tired droop to her mouth. It wasn’t a fair game; it was cheating. Only for his promise to the boys, he would have told her the truth then and there.
Miss Whitmore was not a stupid young woman; his very indifference told her all that she needed to know. She tore her eyes from the confused jumble of gesticulating men and restive steeds to look sharply at Chip. He met her eyes squarely for an instant, and the horror oozed from her and left only amused chagrin that they should try to trick her so.
“Hurry up,” she commanded, “so I can be in at the death. Remember, I’m a doctor. They’re tying him to his horse—he looks half dead with fright.”
Inwardly she added: “He overacts the part dreadfully.”
The little cavalcade in the coulee fired a spectacular volley into the air and swept down the slope like a dry-weather whirlwind across a patch of alkali ground. Through the big gate and up the road past the stables they thundered, the prisoner bound and helpless in their midst.
Then something happened. A wide-open River Press, flapping impotently in the embrace of a willow, caught the eye of Banjo, a little blaze—faced bay who bore the captive. He squatted, ducked backward so suddenly that his reins slipped from Slim’s fingers and lowered his head between his white front feet. His rider seemed stupid beyond any that Banjo had ever known—and he had known many. Snorting and pitching, he was away before the valiant band realized what was happening in their midst. The prisoner swayed drunkenly in the saddle. At the third jump his hat flew off, disclosing the jagged end of a two-by-four. The Happy Family groaned as one man and gave chase.
Banjo, with almost human maliciousness, was heading up the road straight toward Chip and the woman doctor—and she must be a poor doctor indeed, and a badly frightened one, withal, if she failed to observe a peculiarity in the horse thief’s cranium.
Cal Emmett dug his spurs into his horse and shot by Slim like a locomotive, shouting profanity as he went.
“Head him into the creek,” yelled Happy Jack, and leaned low over the neck of his sorrel.
Weary Willie stood up in his stirrups and fanned Glory with his hat. “Yip, yee—e-e! Go to it, Banjo, old boy! Watch his nibs ride, would yuh? He’s a broncho buster from away back.” Weary Willie was the only man of them all who appeared to find any enjoyment in the situation.
“If Chip only had the sense to slow up and give us a chance—or spill that old maid over the bank!” groaned Jack Bates, and plied whip and spur to overtake the runaway.
Now the captive was riding dizzily, head downward, frightening Banjo half out of his senses. What he had started as a grim jest, he now continued in deadly earnest; what was this uncanny semblance of a cow-puncher which he could not unseat, yet which clung so precariously to the saddle? He had no thought now of bucking in pure devilment—he was galloping madly, his eyes wild and staring.
Of a sudden, Chip saw danger lurking beneath the fun of it. He leaned forward a little, got a fresh grip on the reins and took the whip.
“Hang tight, now—I’m going to beat that horse to the Hog’s Back.”
Miss Whitmore, laughing till the tears stood in her eyes, braced herself mechanically. Chip had been laughing also—but that was before Banjo struck into the hill road in his wild flight from the terror that rode in the saddle.
A smart flick of the whip upon their glossy backs, and the creams sprang forward at a run. The buggy was new and strong, and if they kept the road all would be well—unless they met Banjo upon the narrow ridge between two broad-topped knolls, known as the Hog’s Back. Another tap, and the creams ran like deer. One wheel struck a cobble stone, and the buggy lurched horribly.
“Stop! There goes my coyote!” cried Miss Whitmore, as a gray object slid down under the hind wheel.
“Hang on or you’ll go next,” was all the comfort she got, as Chip braced himself for the struggle before him. The Hog’s Back was reached, but Banjo was pounding up the hill beyond, his nostrils red and flaring, his sides reeking with perspiration. Behind him tore the Flying U boys in a vain effort to head him back into the coulee before mischief was done.
Chip drew his breath sharply when the creams swerved out upon the broad hilltop, just as Banjo thundered past with nothing left of his rider but the legs, and with them shorn of their plumpness as the hay dribbled out upon the road.
A fresh danger straightway forced itself upon Chip’s consciousness. The creams, maddened by the excitement, were running away. He held them sternly to the road and left the stopping of them to Providence, inwardly thanking the Lord that Miss Whitmore did not seem to be the screaming kind of woman.
The “vigilantes” drew hastily out of the road and scudded out of sight down a gully as the creams lunged down the steep grade and across the shallow creek bed. Fortunately the great gate by the stable swung wide open and they galloped through and up the long slope to the house, coming more under control at every leap, till, by a supreme effort, Chip brought them, panting, to a stand before the porch where the Old Man stood boiling over with anxiety and excitement. James G. Whitmore was not a man who took things calmly; had he been a woman he would have been called fussy.
“What in—what was you making a race track out of the grade for,” he demanded, after he had bestowed a hasty kiss beside the nose of his sister.
Chip dropped a heavy trunk upon the porch and reached for the guitar before he answered. “I was just trying those new springs on the buggy.”
“It was very exciting,” commented Miss Whitmore, airily. “I shot a coyote, J. G., but we lost it coming down the hill. Your men were playing a funny game—hare and hounds, it looked like. Or were they breaking a new horse?”
The Old Man looked at Chip, intelligence dawning in his face. There was something back of it all, he knew. He had been asleep when the uproar began, and had reached the door only in time to see the creams come down the grade like a daylight shooting star.
“I guess they was breaking a bronk,” he said, carelessly; “you’ve got enough baggage for a trip round the world, Dell. I hope it ain’t all dope for us poor devils. Tell Shorty I want t’ see him, Chip.”
Chip took the reins from the Old Man’s hands, sprang in and drove back down the hill to the stables.
The “reception committee,” as Chip sarcastically christened them, rounded up the runaway and sneaked back to the ranch by the coulee trail. With much unseemly language, they stripped the saddle and a flapping pair of overalls off poor, disgraced Banjo, and kicked him out of the corral.
“That’s the way Jack’s schemes always pan out,” grumbled Slim. “By golly, yuh don’t get me into another jackpot like that!”
“You might explain why you let that” (several kinds of) “cayuse get away from you!” retorted Jack, fretfully. “If you’d been onto your job, things would have been smooth as silk.”
“Wonder what the old maid thought,” broke in Weary, bent on preserving peace in the Happy Family.
“I’ll bet she never saw us at all!” laughed Cal. “Old Splinter gave her all she wanted to do, hanging to the rig. The way he came down that grade wasn’t slow. He just missed running into Banjo on the Hog’s Back by the skin of the teeth. If he had, it’d be good-by, doctor—and Chip, too. Gee, that was a close shave!”
“Well,” said Happy Jack, mournfully, “if we don’t all get the bounce for this, I miss my guess. It’s a little the worst we’ve done yet.”
“Except that time we tin-canned that stray steer, last winter,” amended Weary, chuckling over the remembrance as he fastened the big gate behind them.
“Yes, that was another of Jack’s fool schemes,” put in Slim. “Go and tin-can a four-year-old steer and let him take after the Old Man and put him on the calf shed, first pass he made. Old Man was sure hot about that—by golly, it didn’t help his rheumatism none.”
“He’ll sure go straight in the air over this,” reiterated Happy Jack, with mournful conviction.
“There’s old Splinter at the bunk house—drawing our pictures, I’ll bet a dollar. Hey, Chip! How you vas, already yet?” sung out Weary, whose sunny temper no calamity could sour.
Chip glanced at them and went on cutting the leaves of a late magazine which he had purloined from the Dry Lake barber. Cal Emmett strode up and grabbed the limp, gray hat from his head and began using it for a football.
“Here! Give that back!” commanded Chip, laughing. “Don’t make a dish rag of my new John B. Stetson, Cal. It won’t be fit for the dance.”
“Gee! It don’t lack much of being a dish rag, now, if I’m any judge. Now! Great Scott!” He held it at arm’s length and regarded it derisively.
“Well, it was new two years ago,” explained Chip, making an ineffectual grab at it. Cal threw it to him and came and sat down upon his heels to peer over Chip’s arm at the magazine.
“How’s the old maid doctor?” asked Jack Bates, leaning against the door while he rolled a cigarette.
“Scared plum to death. I left the remains in the Old Man’s arms.”
“Was she scared, honest?” Cal left off studying the “Types of Fair Women.”
“What did she say when we broke loose?” Jack drew a match sharply along a log.
“Nothing. Well, yes, she said ‘Are they going to h-a-n-g that man?’” Chip’s voice quavered the words in a shrill falsetto.
“The deuce she did!” Jack indulged in a gratified laugh.
“What did she say when you put the creams under the whip, up there? I don’t suppose the old girl is wise to the fact that you saved her neck right then—but you sure did. You done yourself proud, Splinter.” Cal patted Chip’s knee approvingly.
Chip blushed under the praise and hastily answered the question.
“She hollered out: ‘Stop! There goes my coyote!’”
“What the devil was she doing with a coyote?”
The Happy Family stood transfixed, and Chip’s eyes were seen to laugh.
“Her COYOTE. Did any of you fellows happen to see a dead coyote up on the grade? Because if you did, it’s the doctor’s.”
Weary Willie walked deliberately over and seized Chip by the shoulders, bringing him to his feet with one powerful yank.
“Don’t you try throwing any loads into this crowd, young man. Answer me truly-s’help yuh. How did that old maid come by a coyote—a dead one?”
Chip squirmed loose and reached for his cigarette book. “She shot it,” he said, calmly, but with twitching lips.
“Shot it!” Five voices made up the incredulous echo.
“What with?” demanded Weary when he got his breath.
“With my rifle. I brought it out from town today. Bert Rogers had left it at the barber shop for me.”
“Gee whiz! And them creams hating a gun like poison! She didn’t shoot from the rig, did she?”
“Yes,” said Chip, “she did. The first time she didn’t know any better—and the second time she was hot at me for hinting she was scared. She’s a spunky little devil, all right. She’s busy hating me right now for running the grade—thinks I did it to scare her, I guess. That’s all some fool women know.”
“She’s a howling sport, then!” groaned Cal, who much preferred the Sweet Young Things.
“No—I sized her up as a maverick.”
“What does she look like?”
“How old is she?”
“I never asked her age,” replied Chip, his face lighting briefly in a smile. “As to her looks, she isn’t cross-eyed, and she isn’t four-eyed. That’s as much as I noticed.” After this bald lie he became busy with his cigarette. “Give me that magazine, Cal. I didn’t finish cutting the leaves.”