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ARIZONA NIGHTS (part3,chapter9)

2006-08-28 22:16


    The round-up crew started early the next morning, just about sun-up. Senor Johnson rode first, merely to keep out of the dust. Then followed Torn Rich, jogging along easily in the cow-puncher's "Spanish trot" whistling soothingly to quiet the horses, giving a lead to the band of saddle animals strung out loosely behind him. These moved on gracefully and lightly in the manner of the unburdened plains horse, half decided to follow Tom's guidance, half inclined to break to right or left. Homer and Jim Lester flanked them, also riding in a slouch of apparent laziness, but every once in a while darting forward like bullets to turn back into the main herd certain individuals whom the early morning of the unwearied day had inspired to make a dash for liberty. The rear was brought up by Jerky Jones, the fourth cow-puncher, and the four-mule chuck wagon, lost in its own dust.

    The sun mounted; the desert went silently through its changes. Wind devils raised straight, true columns of dust six, eight hundred, even a thousand feet into the air. The billows of dust from the horses and men crept and crawled with them like a living creature. Glorious colour, magnificent distance, astonishing illusion, filled the world. Senor Johnson rode ahead, looking at these things. The separation from his wife, brief as it would be, left room in his soul for the heart-hunger which beauty arouses in men. He loved the charm of the desert, yet it hurt him. Behind him the punchers relieved the tedium of the march, each after his own manner. In an hour the bunch of loose horses lost its early-morning good spirits and settled down to a steady plodding, that needed no supervision. Tom Rich led them, now, in silence, his time fully occupied in rolling Mexican cigarettes with one hand. The other three dropped back together and exchanged desultory remarks. Occasionally Jim Lester sang. It was always the same song of uncounted verses, but Jim had a strange fashion of singing a single verse at a time. After a long interval he would sing another.

    "My Love is a rider And broncos he breaks, But he's given up riding And all for my sake, For he found him a horse And it suited him so That he vowed he'd ne'er ride Any other bronco!"

    he warbled, and then in the same breath:

    "Say, boys, did you get onto the pisano-looking shorthorn at Willets last week? "Nope." "He sifted in wearin' one of these hardboiled hats, and carryin' a brogue thick enough to skate on. Says he wants a job drivin' team——that he drives a truck plenty back to St. Louis, where he comes from. Goodrich sets him behind them little pinto cavallos he has. Say! that son of a gun a driver! He couldn't drive nails in a snow bank." An expressive free-hand gesture told all there was to tell of the runaway. "Th' shorthorn landed headfirst in Goldfish Charlie's horse trough. Charlie fishes him out. 'How the devil, stranger,' says Charlie, 'did you come to fall in here?' 'You blamed fool,' says the shorthorn, just cryin' mad, 'I didn't come to fall in here, I come to drive horses.'" And then, without a transitory pause:

    "Oh, my love has a gun And that gun he can use, But he's quit his gun fighting As well as his booze. And he's sold him his saddle, His spurs, and his rope, And there's no more cow-punching And that's what I hope."

    The alkali dust, swirled back by a little breeze, billowed up and choked him. Behind, the mules coughed, their coats whitening with the powder. Far ahead in the distance lay the westerly mountains. They looked an hour away, and yet every man and beast in the outfit knew that hour after hour they were doomed, by the enchantment of the land, to plod ahead without apparently getting an inch nearer. The only salvation was to forget the mountains and to fill the present moment full of little things. But Senor Johnson, to-day, found himself unable to do this. In spite of his best efforts he caught himself straining toward the distant goal, becoming impatient, trying to measure progress by landmarks——in short acting like a tenderfoot on the desert, who wears himself down and dies, not from the hardship, but from the nervous strain which he does not know how to avoid. Senor Johnson knew this as well as you and I. He cursed himself vigorously, and began with great resolution to think of something else. He was aroused from this by Tom Rich, riding alongside. "Somebody coming, Senor," said he. Senor Johnson raised his eyes to the approaching cloud of dust. Silently the two watched it until it resolved into a rider loping easily along. In fifteen minutes he drew rein, his pony dropped immediately from a gallop to immobility, he swung into a graceful at-ease attitude across his saddle, grinned amiably, and began to roll a cigarette.

    "Billy Ellis," cried Rich. "That's me," replied the newcomer. "Thought you were down to Tucson?" "I was." "Thought you wasn't comin' back for a week yet?" "Tommy," proffered Billy Ellis dreamily, "when you go to Tucson next you watch out until you sees a little, squint-eyed Britisher. Take a look at him. Then come away. He says he don't know nothin' about poker. Mebbe he don't, but he'll outhold a warehouse." But here Senor Johnson broke in: "Billy, you're just in time. Jed has hurt his foot and can't get on for a week yet. I want you to take charge. I've got a lot to do at the ranch." "Ain't got my war-bag," objected Billy. "Take my stuff. I'll send yours on when Parker goes." "All right." "Well, so long." "So long, Senor." They moved. The erratic Arizona breezes twisted the dust of their going. Senor Johnson watched them dwindle. With them seemed to go the joy in the old life. No longer did the long trail possess for him its ancient fascination. He had become a domestic man. "And I'm glad of it," commented Senor Johnson. The dust eddied aside. Plainly could be seen the swaying wagon, the loose-riding cowboys, the gleaming, naked backs of the herd. Then the veil closed over them again. But down the wind, faintly, in snatches, came the words of Jim Lester's song:

    "Oh, Sam has a gun That has gone to the bad, Which makes poor old Sammy Feel pretty, damn sad, For that gain it shoots high, And that gun it shoots low, And it wabbles about Like a bucking bronco!"

    Senor Johnson turned and struck spurs to his willing pony.

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