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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Phantom Herd - Chapter 3. And They Sigh For The Days That Are Gone
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The Phantom Herd - Chapter 3. And They Sigh For The Days That Are Gone Post by :samuraiwarrior Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2730

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The Phantom Herd - Chapter 3. And They Sigh For The Days That Are Gone


Just when Luck's new acquaintances first forgot to carry on their whimsical pretense of knowing little of range matters, neither of them could have told afterwards. They left town with the tacit understanding between them that they were going to have some fun with the Happy Family and with this likable little man of the movies. They rode out between long lines of hated barbed wire stretched taut, and they lied systematically and consistently to Luck Lindsay about themselves and their fellows and their particular condition of servitude to fate.

But somewhere along the trail they forgot to carry on the deception; and only Luck could have told why they forgot, and when they forgot, and how it was that, ten miles or so out from town, the two were telling how the Flying U had fought to save itself from extinction; how the "bunch" had schemed and worked and had in a measure succeeded in turning aside the tide of immigration from the Flying U range. Big issues they talked of as they rode three abreast through the warm haze of early fall; and as they talked, Luck's mind visioned the tale vividly, and his eyes swept the fence-checkered upland with a sympathetic understanding.

"Right here," said Andy at last, when they came up to a gate set across the trail, "right here is where we drawed the line--and held it. Now, half of those shacks you see speckled around are empty. The rest hold nesters too poor to get outa the country. One or two, that had a little money, have stuck and gone into sheep. But from here on to Dry Creek there's nothing ranging but the Flying U brand. Not much--compared to what the old range used to be--but still it keeps things going. We throwed a dam across the coulee, up there next the hills, and there's some fair hay land we're putting water on. We have to winter-feed practically everything these days. The range just nicely keeps the stock from snow to snow. I've got pitchfork callouses on my hands I never will outgrow if I was to fall heir to a billion dollars and never use my hands again for fifty years except to feed myself. It takes work, believe me! And if there's anything on earth a puncher hates worse than work, it's some other kind of work.

"At the Flying U," he went on, looking at Luck pensively, "you'll see the effect of too many people moved into the range country. If there's anything more distressing than a baby left without a mother, it's a bunch of cow-punchers that's outlived their range. Ain't that right?"

"Sure it's right!" Luck's sympathy was absolutely sincere. "How well I know it! Barbed wire scraped me outa the saddle in Wyoming--barbed wire and sheep. All there is left for a fellow is to forget it and start a barber shop or a cigar stand, or else make pictures of the old days, the way I've been doing. You can get a little fun out of making pictures of what used to be your everyday life. You can step up on a horse and go whoopin' over the hills and kinda forget it ain't true." A wistfulness was in Luck's tone. "You pick out the big minutes from the old days--that had a whole lot of dust and sun and thirst and hunger in between, when all's said--you pick out the big minutes, and you bring them to life again, and sort of push them up close together and leave out most of the hardships. That's why so many of the old boys drift into pictures, I reckon. They try to forget themselves in the big minutes."

The two who rode with him were silent for a space. Then the Native Son spoke drily: "About the biggest minutes we get now come about meal times."

"Oh, we can get down in the breaks on round-up time and kinda forget the world's fenced clear 'way round it with barb-wire," Andy bettered the statement. "But round-up gets shorter every year."

"My next picture," Luck observed artfully and yet with a genuine desire to unbosom himself a little to these two who would understand, "my next picture is going to be different. It's going to have a crackajack story in it, of course, but it will have something more than a story. I'm going to start it off with a trail herd coming up from Texas. You know--like it was when we were kids. I'm going to show those cattle trailing along tired--and footsore, some of them--and a drag strung out behind for a mile. I'm going to show the punchers tired and hungry, and riding half asleep in the saddle. And with that for a starter, I'm going to show the real range; the _real range--get that, boys? I'm going to cut clean away from regulation moving-picture West; clear out away from posses chasing outlaws all over a ten-acre location. I'm going to find me a real old cow-ranch; or if I can't find one, by thunder I'm going to _make me one. I'm sick of piling into a machine and driving out into Griffith Park and hunting a location for shooting scrapes to take place in. I know a place where I could produce stuff that would make people talk about it for a month after. Maybe the buildings would need some doctoring, but there's sure some round-pole corrals that would make your mouth water."

"We used to have some," sighed Andy, "at the Flying U. But they kinda went to pieces, and Chip's been replacing them with plank. By gracious, you don't see many round-pole corrals any more, come to think of it. There's remains, scattered around over the country."

"The West--the real honest-to-goodness, twelve-months-in-the-year West," Luck went on riding his hobby, "has been mighty little used in films. Ever notice that? It's all gone to shooting, and stealing the full product of all the gold mines in the world, and killing off more bad men than the Lord ever sent a flood to punish. For film purposes, the West consists of one part beautiful maiden in distress, three parts bandit, and two parts hero. Mix these to taste with plenty of swift action and gun-smoke, and serve with bandits all dead or handcuffed and beautiful maiden and hero in lover's embrace on top. That's your film West, boys--and how well I know it!" Luck stopped to light a cigarette and to heave a sigh. "I've been building film West to order for four years now, and more. Only fun I've had, and the best work I've done, I did with a bunch of Indians I've just taken back to their reservation. For the rest, it's mostly bunk."

"Not that stage-driver picture," Andy dissented. "There wasn't any bunk about that, old-timer. That was some driving!"

"Some driving, yes. Sure, it was. It was darned good driving, but the same old story doctored up a little. Same old shipment of gold, same old bandits lying in wait, same old hero doing stunts. I ought to know," he added with a grin. "I wrote the story and did the stunts myself."

"Well, they were some stunts!" admired Andy with unusual sincerity.

Luck waved aside the compliment and went back to his hobby. "Yes, but the West isn't just a setting for stunts. I've got my story--here," and he tapped his forehead, which was broad and full and not too high. "I'm going to fire my camera man and get a better one, and I'm going to round me up a bunch of real boys that can get into the story and live it so well they won't need to do any acting,--boys that can stand a panoram on their work in the saddle. I've been getting by with a bunch of freaks that think they're real riders if they can lope a horse up-grade without falling off backwards. Most of my direction of those actorines has been knowing to a hair how much footage to give 'em without showing how raw their work is.

"They say the public demands a certain grade of rottenness in Western films, but I never believed that, down deep in my heart. I believe the public stands for that stuff because they don't see any better. This four-reeler I've got in mind will sure open the eyes of some producers--or I'll buy me a five-acre tract in Burbank and raise string beans for a living."

"I've got a patch of string beans," sighed the Native Son, "that I've been sitting up nights with. I don't know what ails the cussed things. Some kind of little green bug chews on them soon as my back is turned. They ought to be ripe by now--and they aren't through blossoming. Don't go into beans, _amigo_."

Luck looked at him and laughed. The Native Son, in black and white Angora chaps and cream-colored shirt and silver-filigreed hatband as ornamental touches to his attire, did not look like a man who was greatly worried over his crop of string beans while he rode with a negligent grace away from a glowing sunset. But in these days the West is full of incongruities.

"Oh, shut up about them beans!" implored Andy Green with a bored air. "It's water they want; and a touch of the hoe now and then. You leave 'em for a month at a time and then go back and wonder why you can't pick a hatful off 'em. Same as the rest of us have been ranching," he added ruefully, turning to Luck. "With the best intentions in the world, the Lord never meant us fellers for farmers, and that's a fact. We'll drop a hoe any time of day or night to get out riding after stock. Of course, we didn't take up our claims with the idea of settling down and riding a hoe handle the rest of our lives. If we had, I guess maybe we'd have done a little better at it."

"We did what we started out to do," the Native Son pointed out lazily: "We saved the range--what little there is to save--and we kept a lot of poor yaps from starving to death on that land, didn't we?" He smiled slowly. "If I hadn't gotten gay and planted those beans," he added, "I'd be feeling fine over it. A girl gave me a handful of pinto beans and asked me to plant them--I did hoe them," he defended tardily to Andy. "I hoed them the day before the Fourth. You know I did. Same time you hoed those lemon-colored spuds of yours."

Luck let them wrangle humorously over their agricultural deficiencies, and drifted off into open-eyed dreaming. Into his picture he began to fit these two speculatively, with a purely tentative adjustment of their personalities to his requirements. They were arguing about which of the two was the worst farmer; but Luck, riding alongside them, was seeing them slouched in their saddles and riding, bone-tired, with a shuffling trail-herd hurrying to the next watering place. He was seeing them galloping hard on the flanks of a storm-lashed stampede, with cunningly placed radium flares lighting the scene brilliantly now and then. He was seeing these two plodding, heads bent, into the teeth of a blizzard. He was seeing...

"I'll have to ride home to the missus now," Andy announced the second time before Luck heard him.

"Mig will take you on down to the home ranch, and after supper I'll ride over. So long."

He swung away from them upon a faintly beaten trail, looked back once to grin and wave his hand, and touched his horse with the spurs. Luck stared after him thoughtfully, but he did not put his thoughts into words. He had been trained in the hard school of pictures. He had learned to hold his tongue upon certain matters, such as his opinion of a man's personal attributes, or criticism of his appearance, or anything which might be repeated, maliciously or otherwise, to that man. He did not say to Miguel Rapponi, for instance, what he thought of Andy Green as a man or a rider. He did not mention him at all. He had learned in bitterness how idle gossip may eat away the efficiency of a whole company.

For that reason, and also because his mind was busy with his plans and the best means of carrying them out, the two rode almost in silence to the hill that shut the Flying U coulee away from the world. Luck gave a long sigh and muttered "Great!" when the whole coulee lay spread before them. Then his quick glances took in various details of the ranch and he sighed again, from a different emotion.

"It must have been a great place twenty years ago," he amended his first unqualified enthusiasm.

"Why twenty years ago?" The Native Son gave him a quick, half-resentful glance.

"Twenty years ago there wasn't so much barb-wire trimming," Luck explained from the viewpoint of the trained producer of Western pictures. "You couldn't place a camera anywhere now for a long shot across the coulee without bringing a fence into the scene. And the log stables are too old, and the new ones too new." He pulled up and stared long at the sweep of hills beyond, and the wide spread of the meadow and the big field farther up stream, and at the lazy meandering of Flying U creek with its willow fringe just turning yellow with the first touch of autumn. He looked at the buildings sprawled out below him.

"When that log house was headquarters for the ranch, and the round-pole corrals were the only fences on the place," he said; "when those old sheds held the saddle horses on cold nights, and the wagons were out from green grass to snowfall, and the boys laid around all winter, just reportin' regular at grub-pile and catching up on sleep they'd lost in the summer--Lor-dee, what a place it must have been!"

There was something in his tone that brought the Native Son for an instant face to face with the Flying U in the old days when all the range was free. So, with faces sober, because the old days were gone and would never any more return, they rode down the grade and up to the new stable that was a monument to the dead past, even though it might also be a sign-post pointing to present prosperity. And in this wise came Luck Lindsay to the Flying U and was made welcome.

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