Thurston did not go on the horse roundup. He explained to the boys, when they clamored against his staying, that he had a host of things to write, and it would keep him busy till they were ready to start with the wagons for the big rendezvous on the Yellowstone, the exact point of which had yet to be decided upon by the Stock Association when it met. The editors were after him, he said, and if he ever expected to get anywhere, in a literary sense, it be-hooved him to keep on the smiley side of the editors.
That sounded all right as far as it went, but unfortunately it did not go far. The boys winked at one another gravely behind his back and jerked their thumbs knowingly toward Milk River; by which pantomime they reminded one another—quite unnecessarily that Mona Stevens had come home. However, they kept their skepticism from becoming obtrusive, so that Thurston believed his excuses passed on their face value. The boys, it would seem, realized that it is against human nature for a man to declare openly to his fellows his intention of laying last, desperate siege to the heart of a girl who has already refused him three times, and to ask her for the fourth time if she will reconsider her former decisions and marry him.
That is really what kept Thurston at the Lazy Eight. His writing became once more a mere incident in his life. During the winter, when he did not see her, he could bring himself to think occasionally of other things; and it is a fact that the stories he wrote with no heroine at all hit the mark the straightest.
Now, when he was once again under the spell of big, clear, blue gray eyes and crimply brown hair, his stories lost something of their virility and verged upon the sentimental in tone. And since he was not a fool he realized the falling off and chafed against it and wondered why it was. Surely a man who is in love should be well qualified to write convincingly of the obsession but Thurston did not. He came near going to the other extreme and refusing to write at all.
The wagons were out two weeks—which is quite long enough for a crisis to arise in the love affair of any man. By the time the horse roundup was over, one Philip Thurston was in pessimistic mood and quite ready to follow the wagons, the farther the better. Also, they could not start too soon to please him. His thoughts still ran to blue-gray eyes and ripply hair, but he made no attempt to put them into a story.
He packed his trunk carefully with everything he would not need on the roundup, and his typewriter he put in the middle. He told himself bitterly that he had done with crimply haired girls, and with every other sort of girl. If he could figure in something heroic—only he said melodramatic—he might possibly force her to think well of him. But heroic situations and opportunities come not every day to a man, and girls who demand that their knights shall be brave in face of death need not complain if they are left knightless at the last.
He wrote to Reeve-Howard, the night before they were to start, and apologized gracefully for having neglected him during the past three weeks and told him he would certainly be home in another month. He said that he was "in danger of being satiated with the Western tone" and would be glad to shake the hand of civilized man once more. This was distinctly unfair, because he had no quarrel with the masculine portion of the West. If he had said civilized woman it would have been more just and more illuminating to Reeve-Howard who wondered what scrape Phil had gotten himself into with those savages.
For the first few days of the trip Thurston was in that frame of mind which makes a man want to ride by himself, with shoulders hunched moodily and eyes staring straight before the nose of his horse.
But the sky was soft and seemed to smile down at him, and the clouds loitered in the blue of it and drifted aimlessly with no thought of reaching harbor on the sky-line. From under his horse's feet the prairie sod sent up sweet, earthy odors into his nostrils and the tinkle of the bells in the saddle-bunch behind him made music in his ears—the sort of music a true cowboy loves. Yellow-throated meadow larks perched swaying in the top of gray sage bushes and sang to him that the world was good. Sober gray curlews circled over his head, their long, funny bills thrust out straight as if to point the way for their bodies to follow and cried, "Kor-r-eck, kor-r-eck!"—which means just what the meadow larks sang. So Thurston, hearing it all about him, seeing it and smelling it and feeling the riot of Spring in his blood, straightened the hunch out of his shoulders and admitted that it was all true: that the world was good.
At Miles City he found himself in the midst of a small army, the regulars of the range—-which grew hourly larger as the outfits rolled in. The rattle of mess-wagons, driven by the camp cook and followed by the bed-wagon, was heard from all directions. Jingling cavvies (herds of saddle horses they were, driven and watched over by the horse wrangler) came out of the wilderness in the wake of the wagons. Thurston got out his camera and took pictures of the scene. In the first, ten different camps appeared; he mourned because two others were perforced omitted. Two hours later he snapped the Kodak upon fifteen, and there were four beyond range of the lens.
Park came along, saw what he was doing and laughed. "Yuh better wait till they commence to come," he said. "When yuh can stand on this little hill and count fifty or sixty outfits camped within two or three miles uh here, yuh might begin taking pictures."
"I think you're loading me," Thurston retorted calmly, winding up the roll for another exposure.
"All right—suit yourself about it." Park walked off and left him peering into the view-finder.
Still they came. From Swift Current to the Cypress Hills the Canadian cattlemen sent their wagons to join the big meet. From the Sweet Grass Hills to the mouth of Milk River not a stock-grower but was represented. From the upper Musselshell they came, and from out the Judith Basin; from Shellanne east to Fort Buford. Truly it was a gathering of the clans such as eastern Montana had never before seen.
For a day and a night the cowboys made merry in town while their foremen consulted and the captains appointed by the Association mapped out the different routes. At times like these, foremen such as Park and Deacon Smith were shorn of their accustomed power, and worked under orders as strict as those they gave their men.
Their future movements thoroughly understood, the army moved down upon the range in companies of five and six crews, and the long summer's work began; each rider a unit in the war against the chaos which the winter had wrought; in the fight of the stockmen to wrest back their fortunes from the wilderness, and to hold once more their sway over the range-land.
Their method called for concerted action, although it was simple enough. Two of the Lazy Eight wagons, under Park and Gene Wasson (for Hank that spring was running four crews and had promoted Gene wagon-boss of one), joined forces with the Circle-Bar, the Flying U, and a Yellowstone outfit whose wagon-boss, knowing best the range, was captain of the five crews; and drove north, gathering and holding all stock which properly ranged beyond the Missouri.
That meant day after day of "riding circle"—which is, being interpreted, riding out ten or twelve miles from camp, then turning and driving everything before them to a point near the center of the circle thus formed. When they met the cattle were bunched, and all stock which belonged on that range was cut out, leaving only those which had crossed the river during the storms of winter. These were driven on to the next camping place and held, which meant constant day-herding and night-guarding work which cowboys hate more than anything else.
There would be no calf roundup proper that spring, for all calves were branded as they were gathered. Many there were among the she-stock that would not cross the river again; their carcasses made unsightly blots in the coulee-bottoms and on the wind-swept levels. Of the calves that had followed their mothers on the long trail, hundreds had dropped out of the march and been left behind for the wolves. But not all. Range-bred cattle are blessed with rugged constitutions and can bear much of cold and hunger. The cow that can turn tail to a biting wind the while she ploughs to the eyes in snow and roots out a very satisfactory living for herself breeds calves that will in time do likewise and grow fat and strong in the doing. He is a sturdy, self-reliant little rascal, is the range-bred calf.
When fifteen hundred head of mixed stock, bearing Northern brands, were in the hands of the day-herders, Park and his crew were detailed to take them on and turn them loose upon their own range north of Milk River. Thurston felt that he had gleaned about all the experience he needed, and more than enough hard riding and short sleeping and hurried eating. He announced that he was ready to bid good-by to the range. He would help take the herd home, he told Park, and then he intended to hit the trail for little, old New York.
He still agreed with the meadow larks that the world was good, but he had made himself believe that he really thought the civilized portion of it was better, especially when the uncivilized part holds a girl who persists in saying no when she should undoubtedly say yes, and insists that a man must be a hero, else she will have none of him.