“A LITTLE more beef, please!’ said the fat man with the grey whiskers and the spattered waistcoat. “You can’t eat too much o’ good beef—not even when the prices are going up hoof over hock.” And he settled himself down to load in a fresh cargo.
Now, this is how the fat man had come by his meal. One thousand miles away, a red Texan steer was preparing to go to bed for the night in the company of his fellows—myriads of his fellows. From dawn till late dusk he had loafed across the leagues of grass and grunted savagely as each mouthful proved to his mind that grass was not what he had known it in his youth. But the steer was wrong. That summer had brought great drought to Montana and Northern Dakota. The cattle feed was withering day by day, and the more prudent stock owners had written to the East for manufactured provender. Only the little cactus that grows with the grasses appeared to enjoy itself. The cattle certainly did not; and the cowboys from the very beginning of spring had used language considered profane even for the cowboy. What their ponies said has never been recorded. The ponies had the worst time of all, and at each nightly camp whispered to each other their longings for the winter, when they would be turned out on the freezing ranges—galled from wither to croup, but riderless—thank Heaven, riderless. On these various miseries the sun looked down impartial. His business was to cake the ground and ruin the grasses.
The cattle—the acres of huddled cattle—were restless. In the first place, they were forced to scatter for graze; and in the second, the heat told on their tempers and made them prod each other with their long horns. In the heart of the herd you would have thought men were fighting with single-sticks. On the outskirts, posted at quarter-mile intervals, sat the cowboys on their ponies, the brims of their hats tilted over their sun-skinned noses, their feet out of the big brown-leather hooded stirrups, and their hands gripping the horn of the heavy saddle to keep themselves from falling on to the ground—asleep. A cowboy can sleep at full gallop; on the other hand, he can keep awake also at full gallop for eight and forty hours and wear down six unamiable bronchos in the process.
Lafe Parmalee; Shwink, the German who could not ride but had a blind affection for cattle from the branding-yard to the butcher’s block; Michigan, so called because he said he came from California but spoke not the Califomian tongue; Jim from San Diego, to distinguish him from other Jims, and The Corpse, were the outposts of the herd. The Corpse had won his name from a statement, made in the fulness of much McBrayer whisky, that he had once been a graduate of Corpus Christi. He spoke truth, but to the wrong audience. The inhabitants of the Elite Saloon, after several attempts to get the hang of the name, dubbed the speaker The Corpse, and as long as he cinched a broncho or jingled a spur within four hundred miles of Livingston—yea, far in the south, even to the unexplored borders of the sheep-eater Indians—he was known by that unlovely name. How he had passed from college to cattle no man knew, and, according to the etiquette of the West, no man asked. He was not by any means a tenderfoot—had no unmanly weakness for washing, did not in the least object to appearing at the wild and wonderful reunions held nightly in “Miss Minnie’s parlour,’’ whose flaring advertisement did not in the least disturb the proprieties of Wachoma Junction, and, in common with his associates, was, when drunk, ready to shoot at anything or anybody. He was not proud. He had condescended to take in hand and educate a young and promising Chicago drummer, who by evil fate had wandered into that wilderness, where all his cunning was of no account; and from that youth’s quivering hand—outstretched hy command—had shot away the top of a wineglass. The Corpse was recognised in the freemasonry of the craft as “one of the C.M.R.’s boys, and tough at that.”
The C.M.R. controlled much cattle, and their slaughter-houses in Chicago bubbled the blood of beeves all day long. Their salt-beef fed the sailor on the sea, and their iced, best firsts, the housekeeper in the London suburbs. Not even the firm knew how many cowboys they employed, but all the firm knew that on the fourteenth day of July their stockyards at Wachoma Junction were to be filled with two thousand head of cattle, ready for immediate shipment to Chicago while prices yet ruled high, and before the grass had withered utterly. Lafe, Michigan, Jim, The Corpse and the others knew this too, and were heartily glad of it, because they would be paid up in Chicago for their half-year’s work, and would then do their best towards painting that town in purest vermilion. They would get drunk; they would gamble, and would otherwise enjoy themselves till they were broke; and then they would hire out again.
The sun dropped behind the rolling hills; and the cattle halted for the night, cheered and cooled by a little wandering breeze. The red steer’s mother had been caught in a hailstorm five years ago. Till she went the way of all cow-flesh she missed no opportunity of telling her son to beware of the hot day and the cold wind that does not know its own mind. “When it blows five ways at once,” said she, “and makes your horns feel creepy, get away, my son. Follow the time-honoured instinct of our tribe, and run. I ran”—she looked ruefully at the scars on her side—“but that was in a barbwire country, and it hurt me. None the less, run.” The red steer chewed his cud, and the little wind out of the darkness played round his horns—all five ways at once. The cowboys lifted up their voices in unmelodious song, that the cattle might know where they were, and began slowly walking round the recumbent herd. “Do anybody’s horns feel creepy?” queried the red steer of his neighbours. “My mother told me”—and he repeated the tale, to the edification of the yearlings and the three-year olds breathing heavlly at his side.
The song of the cowboys rose higher. The cattle bowed their heads. Their men were at hand. They were safe. Something had happened to the quiet stars. They were dying out one by one. and the wind was freshening. “Bless my hoofs!” muttered a yearling, “my horns are beginning to feel creepy.” Softly the red steer lifted himself from the ground. “Come away,” quoth he to the yearling. “Come away to the outskirts, and we’ll move. My mother said . . . ” The innocent fool followed, and a white heifer saw them move. Being a woman she naturally bellowed “Timber wolves!” and ran forward blindly into a dun steer dreaming over clover. Followed the thunder of cattle rising to their feet, and the triple crack of a whip. The little wind had dropped for a moment, only to fall on the herd with a shriek and a few stinging drops of hail, that stung as keenly as the whips. The herd broke into a trot, a canter, and then a mad gallop. Black fear was behind them, black night in front. They headed into the night, bellowing with terror; and at their side rode the men with the whips. The ponies grunted as they felt the raking spurs. They knew that, an all-night gallop lay before them, and woe betide the luckless cayuse that stumbled in that ride. Then fell the hail—blinding and choking and flogging in one and the same stroke. The herd opened like a fan. The red steer headed a contingent he knew not whither. A man with a whip rode at his right flank. Behind him the lightning showed a field of glimmering horns, and of muzzles flecked with foam; a field of red terror-strained eyes and shaggy frontlets. The man looked back also, and his terror was greater than that of the beasts. The herd had surrounded him in the darkness. His salvation lay in the legs of Whisky Peat—and Whisky Peat knew it— knew it until an unseen gopher hole received his near forefoot as he strained every nerve—in the heart of the flying herd, with the red steer at his flanks. Then, being only an over-worked cayuse. Whisky Peat fell, and the red steer fancied that there was something soft on the ground.
It was Michigan, Jim and Lafe who at last brought the herd to a standstill as the dawn was breaking. “What’s come to The Corpse?” quoth Lafe. Jim loosened the girths of his quivering pony and made answer slowly: “Onless I’m a blamed fool, the gentleman is now livin’ up to his durned appellation ’bout fifteen miles back—what there is of him and the cayuse.” “Let’s go and look,” said Lafe, shuddering slightly, for the morning air, you must understand, was raw. “Let’s go to—a much hotter place than Texas,” responded Jim. “Get the steers to the Junction first. Guess what’s left of The Corpse will keep.”
And it did. And that was how the fat man in Chicago got his beef. It belonged to the red steer.