The Coming of Cassidy/The norther

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VIII

THE NORTHER

JOHNNY knew I had a notebook crammed with the stories his friends had told me; but Johnny, being a wise youth, also knew that there was always room for one more. Perhaps that explains his sarcasm, for, as he calmly turned his back on his fuming friend, he winked at me and sauntered off, whistling cheerfully. Red spread his feet apart, jammed his fists against his thighs and stared after the youngster. His expression was a study and his open mouth struggled for a retort, but in vain. After a moment he shook his head and slowly turned to me. "Hear th' fool? He 's from Idyho, he is. It never gets cold nowhere else on earth. Ain't it terrible to be so ignorant?" He glanced at the bunkhouse, into which Johnny had gone for dry clothing. "So I ain't never seen no cold weather?" he mused thoughtfully. Snapping his fingers irritably, he wheeled toward the corral. "I 'm goin' down to look at th' dam—there 's been lots of water leanin' ag'in it th' last week. Throw th' leather on Saint, if you wants, an' come along. I 'll tell you about some cold weather that had th' Idyho brand faded. Cold weather! Huh!"

As he swung past the bunkhouse we saw Johnny and Billy Jordan leaning in the doorway ragging each other, as cubs will. Johnny grinned at Red and executed a one-hand phrase of the sign language that is universally known, which Red returned with a chuckle. "Wish he 'd been here th' time God took a hand in a big game on this ranch," he said. "I 'm minus two toes on each foot in consequence thereof. They can't scare me none by preachin' a red-hot hell. No, sir; not any."

He was silent a moment. "Mebby it ain't so bad when a feller is used to it; but we ain't. An' it frequent hits us goin' over th' fence, with both feet off th' ground. Anyhow, that Norther was n't no storm—it was th' attendant agitation caused by th' North Pole visitin' th' Gulf.

"Cowan had just put Buckskin on th' map by buildin' th' first shack. John Bartlett an' Shorty Jones, d—n him, was startin' th' Double Arrow with two hundred head. When th' aforementioned agitation was over they had less 'n one hundred. We lost a lot of cows, too; but our range is sheltered good, an' that rock wall down past Meeker's bunkhouse stopped our drifts, though lots of th' cows died there.

"We 'd had a mild winter for two weeks, an' a lot of rain. We was chirpin' like li'l fool birds about winter bein' over. Ever notice how many times winter is over before it is? But Buck did n't think so; an' he shore can smell weather. We was also discussin' a certain campin' party Jimmy had discovered across th' river. Jimmy was at th' bunkhouse that shift an' he was a great hand for snoopin' around kickin' up trouble. He reports there's twelve in th' party an' they 're camped back of Split Hill. Now, Split Hill is no place for a camp, even in th' summer; an' what got us was th' idea of campin' at all in th' winter. It riled Buck till he forgot to cross off three days on th' calendar, which we later discovered by help of th' almanac an' th' moon. Buck sends Hoppy over to scout around Split Hill. You know Hoppy. He scouted for two days without bein' seen, an' without discoverin' any lawful an' sane reason why twelve hard-lookin' fellers should be campin' back of Split Hill in th' winter time. He also found they had come from th' south, an' he swore there was n't no cow tracks leadin' toward them from our range. But there was lots of hoss tracks back and forth. An' when he reports that th' campers had left an' gone on north we all feel better. Then he adds they turned east below th' Double Arrow an' went back south again. That's different. It's plain to some of us they was lookin' us over for future use; learnin' our ways an' th' lay of th' land. There was seven of us at th' time, but we could 'a' licked 'em in a fair fight.

"In them days we only had two line houses. Number One was near Big Coulee, with Cowan's at th' far end of its fifteen miles of north line; th' west line was a twenty-five-mile ride south to Lookout Peak. Number Two was where th' Jumpin' Bear empties into th' river, now part of Meeker's range. From it th' riders went west twenty-five miles to th' Peak an' north from it twenty-five miles along th' east line. There was a hundred thousan' acres in Conroy Valley an' thirty thousan' in th' Meeker triangle, which made up Section Two. At that time mebby ten thousan' cows was on this section—two-thirds of all of 'em. When we built Number Three on th' Peak this section was cut down to a reasonable size. Th' third headquarters then was th' bunkhouse, with only th' east line to ride. One part, th' shortest, ran north to Cowan's; th' other run about seventeen miles south to Li'l Timber, where th' line went on as part of Number Two's. We paired off an' had two weeks in each of 'em in them days.

"When we shifted at th' end of that week Jimmy Price an' Ace Fisher got Number One; Skinny an' Lanky was in Number Two; an' me an' Buck an' Hoppy took life easy in th' bunkhouse, with th' cook to feed us. Buck, he scouted all over th' ranch between th' lines an' worked harder than any of us, spendin' his nights in th' nearest house.

"One mornin', about a week after th' campers left, Buck looked out of th' bunkhouse door an' cautions me an' Hoppy to ride prepared for cold weather. I can see he 's worried, an' to please him we straps a blanket an' a buffalo robe behind our saddles, cussin' th' size of 'em under our breath. I 've got th' short ride that day, an' Buck says he 'll wait for me to come back, after which we 'll scout around Medicine Bend. He 's still worried about them campers. In th' Valley th' cows are thicker 'n th' other parts of th' range, an' it would n't take no time to get a big herd together. He 's got a few things to mend, so he says he 'll do th' work before I get back.

"Down on Section Two things is happenin' fast, like they mostly do out here. Twelve rustlers can do a lot if they have things planned, an' 'most any fair plan will work once. They only wanted one day—after that it would be a runnin' fight, with eight or nine of 'em layin' back to hold us off while th' others drove th' cows hard. Why, Slippery Trendley an' Tamale Jose was th' only ones that ever slid across our lines with that many men.

"Three rustlers slipped up to Number Two at night an' waited. When Skinny opened th' door in th' mornin' he was drove back with a hole in his shoulder. Then there was h—l a-poppin' in that li'l mud shack. But it did n't do no good, for neither of 'em could get out alive until after dark. They learned that with sorrow, an' pain. An' they shore was het up about it. Ace Fisher, ridin' along th' west line from Number One, was dropped from ambush. Two more rustlers lay back of Medicine Bend lookin' for any of us that might ride down from the bunkhouse. An' they sent two more over to Li'l Timber to lay under that ledge of rock that sticks out of th' south side of th' bluff like a porch roof. Either me or Hoppy would be ridin' that way. They stacked th' deck clever; but Providence cut it square.

"Th' first miss-cue comes when a pert gray wolf lopes past ahead of Hoppy when he 's quite some distance above Li'l Timber. This gray wolf was a whopper, an' Hoppy was all set to get him. He wanted that sassy devil more 'n he wanted money just then, so he starts after it. Mr. Gray Wolf leads him a long chase over th' middle of th' range an' then suddenly disappears. Hoppy hunts around quite a spell, an' then heads back for th' line. While he's huntin' for th' wolf it gets cold, an' it keeps on gettin' colder fast.

"Me, I leaves later 'n usual that mornin'. An' I don't get to Cowan's until late. I 'm there when I notices how cussed cold it 's got all of a sudden. Cowan looks at his thermometer, which Jimmy later busts, an' says she has gone down thirty degrees since daylight. He gives me a bottle of liquor Buck wanted, an' I ride west along th' north line, hopin' to meet Jimmy or Ace for a short talk.

"All at once I notice somebody 's pullin' a slate-covered blanket over th' north sky, an' I drag my blanket out an' wrap it around me. I 'm gettin' blamed cold, an' also a li'l worried. Shall I go back to Cowan's or head straight for th' bunkhouse? Cowan's the nearest by three miles, but what's three miles out here? It's got a lot colder than it was when I was at Cowan's, an' while I 'm debatin' about it th' wind dies out. I look up an' see that th' slate-covered blanket has traveled fast. It's 'most over my head, an' th' light is gettin' poor. When I look down again I notice my cayuses's ears movin' back an' forth, an' he starts pawin' an' actin' restless. That settles it. I 'm backin' instinct just then, an' I head for home. I ain't cussin' that blanket none now, an' I 'm glad I got th' robe handy; an' that quart of liquor ain't bulky no more.

"All at once th' bottom falls out of that lead sky, an' flakes as big as quarters sift down so fast they hurts my eyes, an' so thick I can't see twenty feet. In ten minutes everythin' is white, an' in ten more I 'm in a strange country. My hands an' feet ache with cold, an' I 'm drawin' th' blanket closer, when there 's a puff of wind so cold it cuts into my back like a knife. It passes quick, but it don't fool me. I know what 's behind it. I reach for th' robe an' has it 'most unfastened when there 's a roar an' I 'm 'most unseated by th' wind before I can get set. I did n't know then that it's goin' to blow that hard for three days, an' it's just as well. It's full of ice—li'l slivers that are sharp as needles an' cut an' sting till they make th' skin raw. I let loose of th' robe an' tie my bandanna around my face, so my nose an' mouth is covered. My throat burns already almost to my lungs. Good Lord, but it is cold! My hands are stiff when I go back for th' robe, an' it's all I can do to keep it from blowin' away from me. It takes me a long time to get it over th' blanket, an' my hands are 'most froze when it's fastened. That was a good robe, but it did n't make much difference that day. Th' cold cuts through it an' into my back as if it was n't there. My feet are gettin' worse all th' time, an' it ain't long before I ain't got none, for th' achin' stops at th' ankles. Purty soon only my knees ache, an' I know it won't be long till they won't ache no more.

"I 'm squirmin' in my clothes tryin' to rub myself warm when I remember that flask of liquor. Th' cork was out far enough for my teeth to get at it, an' I drink a quarter of it quick. It's an awful load—any other time it would 'a' knocked me cold, for Cowan sold a lot worse stuff then than he does now. But it don't phase me, except for takin' most of th' linin' out of my mouth an' throat. It warms me a li'l, an' it makes my knees ache a li'l harder. But it don't last long—th' cold eats through me just as hard as ever a li'l later, an' then I begin to see things an' get sleepy. Cows an' cayuses float around in th' air, an' I 'm countin' money, piles of it. I get warm an' drowsy an' find myself noddin'. That scares me a li'l, an' I fight hard ag'in it. If I go to sleep it's all over. It keeps gettin' worse, an' I finds my eyes shuttin' more an' more frequent, an' more an' more frequent thinkin' I don't care, anyhow. An' so I drifts along pullin' at th' bottle till it's empty. That should 'a' killed me, then an' there—but it don't even make me real drunk. Mebby I spilled some of it, my hands bein' nothin' but sticks. I can't see more 'n five feet now, an' my eyes water, which freezes on 'em. I 've given up all hope of hearin' any shootin'. So I close th' peekhole in th' blanket an' robe, drawin' 'em tight to keep out some of th' cold. I am sittin' up stiff in th' saddle, like a soldier, just from force of habit, and after a li'l while I don't know nothin' more. Pete says I was a corpse, froze stiff as a ramrod, an' he calls me ghost for a long time in fun. But Pete was n't none too clear in his head about that time.

"Down at Li'l Timber, Hoppy managed to get under th' shelter of that projectin' ledge of rock on th' south side of th' bluff. Th' snow an' ice is whirlin' under it because of a sort of back draft, but th' wind don't hit so hard. He 's fightin' that cayuse every foot, tryin' to get to th' cave at th' west end, an' disputin' th' right of way with th' cows that are packed under it.

There 's firewood under that ledge an' there 's food on th' hoof, an' snow water for drink; so if he can make th' cave he 's safe. He 's more worried about his supply of smokin' tobacco than anythin' else, so far as he 's concerned.

"All at once he runs onto four men huddled half-froze in a bunch right ahead of him. He knows in a flash who they are, an' he draws fumblingly, an' holds th' gun in his two hands, they are so cold. One clean hit an' five clean misses in twenty feet! They're gropin' for their guns when a sudden gust of wind whirls down from th' top of th' hill, pilin' snow an' ice on 'em till they can't see nor breathe. An' a couple of old trees come down to make things nicer. Hoppy is blinded, an' when he gets so he can see again there's one rustler's arm stickin' up out of th' snow, but no signs of th' other three. They blundered out into th' open tryin' to get away from th' stuff comin' down on 'em, an' that means they won't be back no more.

"Hoppy manages to get to th' cave, tie his cayuse to a fallen tree, an' gather enough firewood for a good blaze, which he puts in front of th' cave. It takes him a long time to use up his matches one by one, an' then he pulls th' lead out of a cartridge with his teeth, shakes th' powder loose in it an' along th' barrel. Usin' his cigarette papers for tinder he gets th' fire started an' goin' good an' is feelin' some cheerful when he remembers th' three rustlers driftin' south. They was bound to hit a big arroyo that would lead 'em almost ag'in' Number Two's door. With th' wind drivin' 'em straight for it, Hoppy thinks it might mean trouble for Lanky or Skinny. He did n't think about 'em only havin' wool-lined slickers on, or he 'd 'a' knowed they couldn't live till they got halfway. They left their blankets in camp so they could work fast.

"People have called us clannish, an' said we was a lovin' bunch' because we stick together so tight. We 've faced so much together that us of th' old bunch has got th' same blood in our veins. We ain't eight men—we 're one man in eight different kinds of bodies. G—d help anybody that tries to make us less! It 's one thing to stand up an' swap shots with a gunman; but it's another to turn yore back on a cave an' a fire like that an' go out into what is purty nigh shore death on a long chance of helpin' a couple of friends that was able to take care of themselves. That 's one of th' things that explains why we made Shorty Jones an' his eleven men pay with their lives for takin' Jimmy's life. Twelve for one! That fight at Buckskin ain't generally understood, even by our friends. An' Hoppy crowns his courage twice in that one storm. Ain't he an old son-of-a-gun?

"He leaves that fire an' forces his cayuse to take him out in th' storm again, finds that th' arroyo is level full of snow, but has both banks swept bare. He passes them three rustlers in th' next ten minutes—they won't do no more cow-liftin'. Then he tries to turn back, but that's foolish. So he drifts on, gettin' a li'l loco by now. He 's purty near asleep when he thinks he hears a shot. He fights his cayuse again, but can't stop it, so he falls off an' lets it drift, an' crawls an' fights his way back to where that shot was fired from. G—d only knows how he does it, but he falls over a cow an' sees Lanky huggin' its belly for th' li'l warmth in th' carcass. An' he ought to 'a' found him, after leavin' his cayuse an' turnin' back on foot in that h—l storm! Th' drifts was beginnin' to make then—when th' storm was over I saw drifts thirty feet high in th' open; an' in th' valley there was some that run 'most to th' top of th' bluffs, an' they're near sixty feet high.

"Well, Lanky is as crazy as him, an' won't let go of that cow, an' they have a fight, which is good for both of 'em. Finally Lanky gets some sense in his head an' realizes what Hoppy is tryin' to do for him, an' they go staggerin' down wind, first one fallin' an' then th' other. But they keep fightin' like th' game boys they are, neither givin' a cuss for himself, but shore obstinate that he 's goin' to get th' other out of it. That 's our spirit; an' we 're proud of it, by G—d! Hoppy wraps th' robe around Lanky, an' so they stagger on, neither one knowin' very much by that time. Th' Lord must 'a' pitied that pair, an' admired th' stuff He 'd put in 'em, for they bump into th' line house kerslam, an' drop, all done an' exhausted.

"Meanwhile Skinny's hoppin' around inside, prayin' an' cussin' by streaks, every five minutes openin' th' door an' firin' off his Colt. He has tied th' two ropes together, an' frequent he ties one end to th' door, th' other to hisself, an' goes out pokin' around in th' snow, hopin' to stumble over his pardner. He 's plumb forgot his bad shoulder long ago. Purty soon he opens th' door again to shoot off th' gun, an' in streaks somethin' between his laigs. He slams th' door as he jumps aside, an' then looks scared at Lanky's sombrero! Mebby he's slow hoppin' outside an' diggin' them out of th' drift that's near covered 'em! Now, don't think bad of Skinny. He dass n't leave th' house to search any distance, even if he could 'a' seen anythin'. His best play is to stick there an' shoot off his gun—Lanky might drift past if he was not there to signal. Skinny thought more of Lanky any time than he did of hisself, th' emaciated match!

"It don't take long to kick in a lot of snow with that wind blowin' an' he rubs them two till he 's got tears in his eyes. Then he fills 'em with hot stew an' whisky, rolls 'em up together an' heaves 'em in th' same bunk. It ain't warm enough in that house, even with th' fire goin', to make 'em lose no arms or laigs.

"It seems that Lanky, watchin' his chance as soon as th' snow fell heavy enough to cover his movements, slipped out of th' house an' started to circle out around them festive rustlers that held him an' his friend prisoners. He made Skinny stay behind to hold th' house an' keep a gun poppin'. Lanky has worked up behind where th' rustlers was layin' when th' Norther strikes full force. It near blows him over, an', not havin' on nothin' but an old army overcoat that was wore out, th' cold gets him quick. He can't see, an' he can't hear Skinny's shots no more! He does th' best he can an' tries to fight back along his trail, but in no time there ain't no tracks to follow. Then he loses his head an' starts wanderin' until a cow blunders down on him. He shoots th' cow an' hugs its belly to keep warm an' then he don't really remember nothin' 'till he wakes up in th' bunk alongside of Hoppy, both gettin' over an awful drunk. Skinny kept feedin' liquor to 'em till it was gone, an' he had a plenty when he began.

"Jimmy Price was at Number One when th' blow started, an' Buck was in th' bunkhouse, an' it was three weeks before they could get out an' around, on account of th' snow fallin' so steady an' hard they could n't see nothin'.

"Well, getting back to me explains how Pete Wilson came to th' Bar-20. He is migratin' south, just havin' had th' pleasure of learnin' that his wife sloped with a better-lookin' man. He was scared she might get tired of th' other feller an' sift back, so he sells out his li'l store, loads a waggin with blankets, grub, an' firewood, an' starts south, winter or no winter. He moves fast for a new range, where he can make a new beginnin' an' start life fresh, with five years of burnin' matrimonial experience as his valuablest asset. Pete says he reckoned mebby he would n't have so many harness sores if he run single th' rest of his life; heretofore he 'd been so busy applyin' salve that he did n't have time to find out just what was th' trouble with th' double harness. Lots of men feel that way, but they ain't got Pete's unlovely outspoken habit of thought. We used to reckon mebby he was n't as smart as th' rest of us, him bein' slow an' blunderin' in his retorts. We 've played that with coppers lots of times since, though. While he ain't what you 'd call quick at retortin', his retorts usually is heard by th' whole county. It ain't every collar-galled husband that's got th' gumption or smartness to jump th' minute th' hat is lifted. Pete had.

"He's drivin' across our range, an' when th' wind dies out sudden an' th' snow sifts down, he 's just smart enough to get out his beddin' an' wrap it around him till he looks like a bale of cotton. An' even at that he 's near froze an' lookin' for a place to make a stand when he feels a bump. It's me, fallin' off my cayuse, against his front wheel. He emerges from his beddin', lifts me into th' waggin, puts most of his blankets around me, an' stops. Knowin' he can't save th' cayuses, he shoots 'em. That means grub for us, anyhow, if we run short of th' good stuff. Nobody but Pete could 'a' got th' canvas off that waggin in such a gale, but he did it. He busts th' arches an' slats off th' top of th' waggin an' uses 'em for firewood. Th' canvas he drapes over th' box, lettin' it hang down on both sides to th' ground. An' in about five minutes th' whole thing was covered over with snow. Pete 's the strongest man we ever saw, an' we 've seen some good ones. Wrastlin' that canvas with stiff hands was a whole lot more than what he done to Big Sandy up there on Thunder Mesa.

"Pete says I was dead when he grabbed me, an' smellin' disgraceful of liquor. But th' first thing I know is lookin' up in th' gloom at a ceilin' that's right close to my head, an' at a sorta rafter. That rafter gives me a shock. It don't even touch th' ceilin', but runs along 'most a foot below it. I close my eyes an' do a lot of thinkin'. I remember freezin' to death, but that's all. An' just then I hears a faint voice say: 'He shore was dead.' I don't know Pete then, or that he talked to hisself sometimes. An' I reckon I was a li'l off in my head, at that. I begin to wonder if he means me, an' purty soon I 'm shore of it. An' don't I sympathize with myself? I 'm dead an' gone somewhere; but no preacher I ever heard ever described no place like this. Then I smell smoke an' burnin' meat—which gives me a clew to th' range I 'm on. Mebby I 'm shelved in th' ice box, waitin' my turn, or somethin'. I knew I 'd led a sinful life. But there wasn't no use of rubbin' it in—it's awful to be dead an' know it.

"Th' next time I opens my eyes I can't see nothin'; but I can feel somethin' layin' alongside of me. It's breathin' slow an' regular, an it bothers me till I get th' idea all of a sudden. It's another dead one, cut out of th' herd an' shoved in my corral to wait for subsequent events. I felt sorry for him, an' lay there tryin' to figger it out, an' I 'm still figgerin' when it starts to get light. Th' other feller grunts an' sits up, bumpin' his head solid against that fool rafter. No dead man that was shoved in a herd consigned to heaven ever used such language, which makes me all the shorer of where I am. But if hell 's hot we 've still got a long way to go.

"He sits there rubbin' his head an' cussin' steadily, an' I 'm so moved by it that I compliments him. He jumps an' bumps his head again, an' looks at me close. 'D—d if you ain't a husky corpse,' he says. That settles it. I ain't crazy, like I was hopin', but I 'm dead. 'You an' me is on th' ragged edge of h—l,' he adds.

"'But who tipped you off?' I asks. 'They just shoved me in here an' did n't tell me nothin' at all.'

"'Crazy as th' devil,' he grunts, lookin' at me harder.

"'Yo 're a liar,' I replies. 'I may be dead, but d—d if I 'm crazy!'

"'An' I don't blame you, either,' he mused, sorrowful. 'Now you keep quiet till I gets somethin' to eat,' an' he crawls into a li'l round hole at th' other end of th' room.

"Purty soon I smell smoke again, an' after a long time he comes back with some hot coffee an' burned meat. I grab for th' grub, an' while I 'm eatin' I demands to know where I am.

"He laughs, real cheerful, an' tells me. I 'm under his waggin, surrounded by canvas an' any G—d's quantity of snow. Th' drift over us is fifteen foot high, th' wind has died down, an' it's still snowin' so hard he can't see twenty feet. It is also away down below freezin'.

"We stayed under that drift 'most three weeks, livin' on raw meat after our firewood gave out. We didn't suffer none from th' cold, though, under all that snow an' with all th' blankets we had. When it stopped snowin' we discovered a drift shamefully high about a mile northeast of us, an' from th' smoke comin' out of it I knew it was th' bunkhouse.

"Well, to cut it short, it was. An' mebby Buck wasn't glad to see me! He was worried 'most sick an' as soon as we could, we got cayuses and started out to look for th' others, scared stiff at what we expected to find."

He paused and was silent a moment. "But only Ace was missin'," he added. "We found him an' th' rustlers later, when th' snow went off."

He paused again and shook his head. "It shore was a miracle that we did n't go with 'em, all of us, except Buck. Pete was so plumb disgusted with travelin' in th' winter, an' had lost his cayuses, that when Buck offers him Ace's bunk he stays. An' he ain't never left us since. Huh! Cold? That cub don't know nothin'—mebby he will when he grows up, but I dunno, at that. Idyho!"


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.