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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Eagle's Heart - Part 1 - Chapter 9. War On The Cannon Ball
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The Eagle's Heart - Part 1 - Chapter 9. War On The Cannon Ball Post by :pcmarket Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1328

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The Eagle's Heart - Part 1 - Chapter 9. War On The Cannon Ball


The autumn was very dry, and as the feed grew short on his side of the Cannon Ball, Delmar said to his boss herder, "Drive the herd over the trail, keeping as close to the boundary as you can. The valley through which the road runs will keep us till November, I reckon."

Of this Mose knew nothing, and when he saw the sheep drifting across the line he set forth to turn them. The herder shouted, "Hold on, Mose; let 'em go."

Mose did as he was ordered, but looked around nervously, expecting a charge of cattlemen. Delmar laughed. "Don't worry; they won't make any trouble."

A couple of days later a squad of cowboys came riding furiously over the hill. "See here!" they called to Mose, "you turn that stinkin' river of sheep back over the line."

Mose shouted a reply: "I'm not the boss; go talk to him. And, say! you'd better change your tune when you whistle into his ear."

"Oh, hell!" said one contemptuously. "It's that tenderfoot of Pratt's." They rode to the older herder, who laughed at them. "Settle with the 'old man,'" he said. "I'm under orders to feed these sheep and I'm goin' to do it."

"You take them sheep back on your range or you won't have any to feed," said one of the cowboys.

The herder blew a whiff from his lips as if blowing away thistle down. "Run away, little ones, you disturb my siesta."

With blistering curses on him and his sheep, the cowboys rode to the top of the hill, and there, turning, fired twice at the herder, wounding him in the arm. The Mexican returned the fire, but to no effect.

When Mose reported this, Delmar's eyebrows drew down over his hawklike eyes. "That's all right," he said ominously. "If they want war they'll get it."

A few days later he rode over toward the Circle Bar Ranch house. On the way he overtook Williams, riding along alone. Williams did not hear Delmar till he called sharply, "Throw up your hands."

Williams quickly complied. "Don't shoot--for God's sake!" he called, with his hands quivering above his head. He had heard of Delmar's skill with weapons.

"Mr. Williams," Delmar began with sinister formality, "your men have been shooting my herders."

"Not by my orders, Mr. Delmar; I never sanction----"

"See here, Williams, you are responsible for your cowboys, just as I am for my Mexicans. It's low-down business for you to shoot my men who are working for me at fifteen dollars a month. I'm the responsible party--I'm the man to kill. I want to say right here that I hold you accountable, and if your men maim one of my herders or open fire on 'em again I'll hunt you down and kill you like a wolf. Now ride on, and if you look back before you top that divide I'll put a bullet through you. Good-day."

Williams rode away furiously and was not curious at all; he topped the divide without stopping. Delmar smiled grimly as he wheeled his horse and started homeward.

On the same day, as Mose was lying on the point of a grassy mesa, watching the sheep swarming about a water hole in the valley below, he saw a cloud of dust rising far up to the north. While he wondered, he heard a wild, rumbling, trampling sound. Could it be a herd of buffalo? His blood thrilled with the hope of it. His sheep were forgotten as the roar increased and wild yells came faintly to his ears. As he jerked his revolver from its holder, around the end of the mesa a herd of wild horses swept, swift as antelope, with tails streaming, with eyes flashing, and behind them, urging them on, whooping, yelling, shooting, came a band of cowboys, their arms flopping, their kerchiefs streaming.

A gasping shout arose from below. "The sheep! the sheep!" Mose turned and saw the other herders rushing for their horses. He realized then the danger to the flock. The horses were sweeping like a railway train straight down upon the gray, dusty, hot river of woolly flesh. Mose shuddered with horror and pity--a moment later and the drove, led by a powerful and vicious brown mare, drove like a wedge straight into the helpless herd, and, leaping, plunging, kicking, stumbling, the powerful and swift little bronchos crossed, careering on down the valley, leaving hundreds of dead, wounded, and mangled sheep in their path. The cowboys swept on after them with exultant whooping, firing their revolvers at the Mexican herders, who stood in a daze over their torn and mangled herd.

When Mose recovered from his stupefaction, his own horse was galloping in circles, his picket rope dragging, and the boss herder was swearing with a belated malignity which was ludicrous. He swept together into one steady outpour all the native and alien oaths he had ever heard in a long and eventful career among profane persons. When Mose recovered his horse and rode up to him, Jose was still swearing. He was walking among the wounded sheep, shooting those which he considered helplessly injured. His mouth was dry, his voice husky, and on his lips foam lay in yellow flecks. He ceased to imprecate only when, by repetition, his oaths became too inexpressive to be worth while.

Mose's heart was boyishly tender for any animal, and to see the gentle creatures mangled, writhing and tumbling, uttering most piteous cries, touched him so deeply that he wept. He had no inclination to swear until afterward, when the full knowledge that it was a trick and not an accident came to him. He started at once for the camp to carry the black news.

Delmar did not swear when Mose told him what had happened. He saddled his horse, and, buckling his revolvers about him said, "Come on, youngster; I'm going over to see about this."

Mose felt the blood of his heart thicken and grow cold. There was a deadly resolution in Delmar's deliberate action. Prevision of a bloody fray filled the boy's mind, but he could not retreat. He could not let his boss go alone into an enemy's country; therefore he rode silently after.

Delmar galloped steadily on toward the Circle Bar Ranch house. Mile after mile was traversed at steady gallop till the powerful little ponies streamed with salty sweat. At last Delmar drew rein and allowed Mose to ride by his side.

"You needn't be alarmed," he said in a kindly tone; "these hounds won't shoot; they're going to evade it, but I shall hold 'em to it--trust me, my boy."

As they topped a ridge and looked down into Willow Creek, where the Ranch house stood, several horsemen could be seen riding in from the opposite side, and quite a group of men waited Delmar's approach, and every man was armed. Each face wore a look of constraint, though one man advanced hospitably. "Good afternoon, gentlemen; ride your horses right into the corral, and the boys'll take the saddles off."

"Where is Williams?" asked Delmar as he slid from his horse.

"Gone to town; anything I can do for you? I'm his boss."

"You tell Mr. Williams," said Delmar, with menacing calm, "I came to tell him that a drove of horses belonging partly to you and partly to Hartley, of The Horseshoe, were stampeded through my sheep yesterday, killing over two hundred of them."

Conrad replied softly: "I know, I know! I just heard of it. Too bad! but you understand how it is. Herds get going that way, and you can't stop 'em nor head 'em off."

"Your men didn't try to head 'em off."

"How about that, boys?" inquired Conrad, turning to the younger men.

A long, freckled, grinning ape stepped forward.

"Well, it was this way: we was a-tryin' to head the herd off, and we didn't see the sheep till we was right into 'em----"

"That's a lie!" said Mose. "You drove the horses right down the valley into the sheep. I saw you do it."

"You call me a liar and I'll blow your heart out," shouted the cowboy, dropping his hand to his revolver.

"Halt!" said Delmar. "Easy now, you young cockalorum. It ain't useful to start shooting where Andrew Delmar is."

Conrad spoke sharply: "Jim, shut up." Turning to Mose, "Where did it happen?"

"In Boulder Creek, just south of the road."

Conrad turned to Delmar in mock surprise. "_South of the road! Your sheep must o' strayed over the line, Mr. Delmar. As they was on our side of the range I don't see that I can do anything for you. If they'd been on the north side----"

"That'll do," interrupted Delmar. "I told you that so long as the north side fed my sheep I would keep them there to accommodate your stockmen. I give notice now that I shall feed where I please, and I shall be with my sheep night and day, and the next man that crosses my sheep will leave his bones in the grass with the dead sheep, and likely a horse or two besides." He stepped toward Conrad. "Williams has had his warning; I give you yours. I hold you responsible for every shot fired at my men. If one of my men is shot I'll kill you and Williams at sight. Good-day."

"What'll _we do?" called one of the cowboys.

Delmar turned, and his eyes took on a wild glare.

"I'll send you to hell so quick you won't be able to open your mouth. Throw up your hands!" The man's hands went up. "Why, I'd ear-mark ye and slit each nostril for a leather button----"

Conrad strove for peace. "Be easy on him, Delmar; he's a crazy fool, anyway; he don't know you."

"He will after this," said Delmar. "I'll trouble you, Mr. Conrad, to collect all the guns from your men." Mose drew his revolver. "My boy here is handy too. I don't care to be shot in the back as I ride away. Drop your guns, every scab of ye!"

"I'll be d----d if I do."

"Drop it!" snapped out Delmar, and the tone of his voice was terrible to hear. Mose's heart stopped beating; he held his breath, expecting the shooting to begin.

Conrad was white with fear as he said: "Give 'em up, boys. He's a desperate man. Don't shoot, you fools!"

One by one, with a certain amount of bluster on the part of two, the cowboys dropped their guns, and Delmar said: "Gather 'em in, Mose."

Mose leaped from his horse and gathered the weapons up. Delmar thrust the revolvers into his pockets, and handed one Winchester to Mose.

"You'll find your guns on that rise beside yon rock," said Delmar, "and when we meet again, it will be Merry War. Good-day!"

An angry man knows no line of moderation. Delmar, having declared war, carried it to the door of the enemy. Accompanying the sheep himself, he drove them into the fairest feeding-places beside the clearest streams. He spared no pains to irritate the cattlemen, and Mose, who alone of all the outsiders realized to the full his terrible skill with weapons, looked forward with profound dread to the fight which was sure to follow.

He dreaded the encounter for another reason. He had no definite plan of action to follow in his own case. A dozen times a day he said to himself: "Am I a coward?" His stomach failed him, and he ate so sparingly that it was commented upon by the more hardened men. He was the greater troubled because a letter from Jack came during this stormy time, wherein occurred this paragraph: "Mary came back to the autumn term. Her mother is dead, and she looks very pale and sad. She asked where you were and said: 'Please tell him that I hope he will come home safe, and that I am sorry I could not see him before he went away.'"

All the bitterness in his heart long stored up against her passed away in a moment, and sitting there on the wide plain, under the burning sun, he closed his eyes in order to see once more, in the cold gray light of the prison, that pale, grave girl with the glorious eyes. He saw her, too, as Jack saw her, her gravity turned into sadness, her pallor into the paleness of grief and ill health. He admitted now that no reason existed why she should write to him while her mother lay dying. All cause for hardness of heart was passed away. The tears came to his eyes and he longed for the sight of her face. For a moment the boy's wild heart grew tender.

He wrote her a letter that night, and it ran as well as he could hope for, as he re-read it next day on his way to the post office twenty miles away.

"DEAR MARY: Jack has just sent me a long letter and has told me what you said. I hope you will forgive me. I thought you didn't want to see me or write to me. I didn't know your mother was sick. I thought you ought to have written to me, but, of course, I understand now. I hope you will write in answer to this and send your picture to me. You see I never saw you in daylight and I'm afraid I'll forget how you look.

"Well, I'm out in the wild country, but it ain't what I want. I don't like it here. The cowboys are all the time rowin'. There ain't much game here neither. I kill an antelope once in a while, or a deer down on the bottoms, but I haven't seen a bear or a buffalo yet. I want to go to the mountains now. This country is too tame for me. They say you can see the Rockies from a place about one hundred miles from here. Some day I'm going to ride over there and take a look. I haven't seen any Indians yet. We are likely to have shooting soon.

"If you write, address to Running Bear, Cheyenne County, and I'll get it. I'll go down again in two weeks. Since Jack wrote I want to see you awful bad, but of course it can't be done, so write me a long letter.

"Yours respectfully,

"Address your letter to Mose Harding,
they don't know my real name out here.
I'll try to keep out of trouble."

He arrived in Running Bear just at dusk, and went straight to the post office, which was in an ill-smelling grocery. Nothing more forlornly disreputable than "the Beast" (as the cowboys called the town) existed in the State. It was built on the low flat of the Big Sandy, and was composed of log huts (beginning already to rot at the corners) and unpainted shanties of pine, gray as granite, under wind and sun. There were two "hotels," where for "two bits" one could secure a dish of evil-smelling ham and eggs and some fried potatoes, and there were six saloons, where one could secure equally evil-minded whisky at ten cents a glass. A couple of rude groceries completed the necessary equipment of a "cow-town."

There was no allurement to vice in such a place as this so far as Mose was concerned, but a bunch of cowboys had just ridden in for "a good time," and to reach the post office he was forced to pass them. They studied him narrowly in the dusk, and one fellow said:

"That's Delmar's sheep herder; let's have some fun with him. Let's convert him."

"Oh, let him alone; he's only a kid."

"Kid! He's big as he'll ever be. I'm goin' to string him a few when he comes out."

Mose's breath was very short as he posted his letter, for trouble was in the air. He tried his revolvers to see that they were free in their holsters, and wiped the sweat from his hands and face with his big bandanna. He entered into conversation with the storekeeper, hoping the belligerent gang would ride away. They had no such intention, but went into a saloon next door to drink, keeping watch for Mose. One of them, a slim, consumptive-chested man, grew drunk first. He was entirely harmless when sober, and served as the butt of all jokes, but the evil liquor paralyzed the small knot of gray matter over his eyes and set loose his irresponsible lower centers. He threw his hat on the ground and defied the world in a voice absurdly large and strenuous.

His thin arms swung aimlessly, and his roaring voice had no more heart in it than the blare of a tin horn. His eyes wandered from face to face in the circle of his grinning companions who egged him on.

His insane, reeling capers vastly amused them. One or two, almost as drunk as he, occasionally wrestled with him, and they rolled in the dust like dirty bear cubs. They were helpless so far as physical struggle went, but, unfortunately, shooting was a second nature to them, and their hands were deadly.

As Mose came out to mount his horse the crowd saw him, and one vicious voice called out:

"Here, Bill, here's a sheep walker can do you up."

The crowd whooped with keen delight, and streaming over, surrounded Mose, who stood at bay not far from his horse in the darkness--a sudden numbness in his limbs.

"What do you want o' me?" he asked. "I've nothing to do with you." He knew that this crowd would have no mercy on him and his heart almost failed him.

"Here's a man wants to lick you," replied one of the herders.

The drunken man was calling somewhere in the crowd, "Where is he? Lemme get at him." The ring opened and he reeled through and up to Mose, who was standing ominously quiet beside his horse. Bill seized him by the collar and said: "You want 'o fight?"

"No," said Mose, too angry at the crowd to humor the drunken fool. "You take him away or he'll get hurt."

"Oh, he will, will he?"

"Go for him, Bill," yelled the crowd in glee.

The drunken fool gave Mose a tug. "Come 'ere!" he said with an oath.

"Let go o' me," said Mose, his heart swelling with wrath.

The drunken one aimlessly cuffed him. Then the blood-red film dropped over the young eagle's eyes. He struck out and his assailant went down. Then his revolvers began to speak and the crowd fell back. They rolled, leaped, or crawled to shelter, and when the bloody mist cleared away from his brain, Mose found himself in his saddle, his swift pony galloping hard up the street, with pistols cracking behind him. His blood was still hot with the murderous rage which had blinded his eyes. He did not know whether he had begun to shoot first or not, he did not know whether he had killed any of the ruffians or not, but he had a smarting wound in the shoulder, from which he could feel the wet, warm blood trickling down.

Once he drew his horse to a walk, and half turned him to go back and face the mob, which he could hear shouting behind him, but the thought of his wound, and the fear that his horse had also been hit, led him to ride on. He made a detour on the plain, and entered a ravine which concealed him from the town, and there alighted to feel of his horse's limbs, fearing each moment to come upon a wound, but he was unhurt, and as the blood had ceased to flow from his own wound, the youth swung into his saddle and made off into the darkness.

He heard no sound of his pursuers, but, nevertheless, rode on rapidly, keeping the west wind in his face and watching sharply for fences. At length he found his way back to the river trail and the horse galloped steadily homeward. As he rode the boy grew very sad and discouraged. He had again given away to the spirit of murder. Again he had intended to kill, and he seemed to see two falling figures; one, the man he had smitten with his fist, the other one whose revolver was flashing fire as he fell.

Then he thought of Mary and the sad look in her eyes when she should hear of his fighting again. She would not be able to get at the true story. She would not know that these men attacked him first and that he fought in self-defense. He thought of his father, also, with a certain tenderness, remembering how he had stood by him in his trial. "Who will stand by me now?" he asked himself, and the thought of the Pratts helped him. Delmar, he felt sure, would defend him, but he knew the customs of the cattle country too well to think the matter ended there. He must hereafter shoot or be shot. If these men met him again he must disable them instantly or die. "Hadn't I better just keep right on riding?" he kept asking some sense within him, but decided at last to return to Delmar.

It was deep night when he reached the camp, and his horse was covered with foam. Delmar was sitting by the camp fire as he came in from the dark.

"Hello, boy, what's up?"

Mose told him the whole story in a few incoherent phrases. The old man examined and dressed his wound, but remained curiously silent throughout the story. At last he said: "See here, my lad; let me tell you, this is serious business. I don't mean this scratch of a bullet--don't you be uneasy about that; but this whole row is mine. They haven't any grudge against you, but you're a sheep herder for me, and that is bad business just now. If you've killed a man they'll come a-rippin' up here about daylight with a warrant. You can't get justice in this country. You'll face a cowboy jury and it'll go hard with you. There's just one thing to do: you've got to git right close to where the west winds come from and do it quick. Throw the saddles on Bone and Rusty, and we'll hit the trail. I know a man who'll take care of you."

He whistled a signal and one of the herders came in: "Send Pablo here," he said. "Now, roll up any little trinkets that you want to take with you," he said a few minutes later as they were saddling the two bronchos. "You can't afford to stay here and face this thing; I had no business to set you on the wrong side. I knew better all the time, but I liked you, and----"

The herder came in. "Pablo, I'm going across country on a little business. If anybody comes asking for me or Mose here, say you don't know where we went, but that you expect us back about noon. Be ready to shoot to-day; some of these cowboys may try to stampede you again while I'm gone."

"You better stay and look after the sheep," began Mose as they started away, "you can't afford----"

"Oh, to hell with the sheep. I got you into this scrape and I'll see you out of it."

As they galloped away, leading Mose's worn pony, Delmar continued: "You're too young to start in as a killer. You've got somebody back in the States who thinks you're out here making a man of yourself, and I like you too well to see you done up by these dirty cow-country lawyers. I'm going to quit the country myself after this fall shipment, and I want you to come down my way some time. You better stay up here till spring."

They rode steadily till daylight, and then Delmar said: "Now I think you're perfectly safe, for this reason: These cusses know you came into the country with Pratt, and they'll likely ride over and search the Cannon Ball settlement. I'll ride around that way and detain 'em awhile and make 'em think you're hiding out, while you make tracks for upper country. You keep this river trail. Don't ride too hard, as if you was runnin' away, but keep a steady gait, and give your horse one hour out o' four to feed. Here's a little snack: don't waste time, but slide along without sleeping as long as you can.

"You'll come in sight of the mountains about noon, and you'll see a big bunch o' snowpeaks off to the left. Make straight for that, and after you go about one day bear sharp to the left, begin to inquire for Bob Reynolds on the Arickaree--everybody knows Bob. Just give him this note and tell him the whole business; he'll look out for you. Now, good-by, boy. I'm sorry--but my intentions were good."

Mose opened his heart at last. "I don't like to desert you this way, Mr. Delmar," he said; "it ain't right; I'd rather stay and fight it out."

"I won't have it," replied Delmar.

"You're going to have a lot of trouble."

"Don't you worry about me, and don't you feel streaked about pulling your freight. You started wrong on the Cannon Ball. Bob will put you right. The cattlemen will rule there for some years yet, and you keep on their side. Now, good-by, lad, and take care of yourself."

Mose's voice trembled as he took Delmar's hand and said: "Good-by, Mr. Delmar, I'm awfully obliged to you."

"That's all right--now git."

Mose, once more on his own horse, galloped off to the West, his heart big with love for his stern benefactor. Delmar sat on his horse and watched the boy till he was diminished to a minute spot on the dim swells of the plain. Then he wiped a little moisture from his eye with the back of his brown, small hand, and turned his horse's head to the East.

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