Harper's Round Table, March 3, 1896, Vol. XVII., No. 853
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
|published weekly.||NEW YORK, TUESDAY, MARCH 3, 1896.||five cents a copy.|
|vol. xvii.—no. 853.||two dollars a year.|
A STOLEN COURT-HOUSE.
BY GEORGE MEASON WHICHER.
Father limped across the dirt floor of our sod house, and painfully satdown on the edge of his bunk. "Boys," he said, with a little groan, "Iguess you'll have to go after that Durham bull. My rheumatism is so badI can't stir!"
"To-night?" asked Barney, eagerly, giving his book a shove.
"Who told you where he is?" I asked, hoping for time enough to look upone more word.
"They've sent word from Hermann's that he's been around there ever sincethat last herd came in from the South. They're going to move on earlyto-morrow, and I'm afraid we'll never see him if we don't get himto-night. Those drovers don't frighten off cattle that insist on goingalong."
"Which Hermann's is it?" I asked again. "The ranch south of Alkali?"
"You'd better not be caught calling their town Alkali," interruptedBarney. "They're touchier than ever about it since we got thecounty-seat away from them last election."
"That's the place," answered father; "and I reckon it doesn't take muchof the potash out of their land to quit calling the town Alkali. No morewill they get their county-seat back again by calling the placeFairlands."
I thrust my Cśsar under the brush thatch of our house where it joinedthe sod wall. Barney was rummaging in his bunk and preparing for thetrip with unmistakable pleasure. He had not mourned greatly whenfather's health had compelled us to leave our home in far-off Illinoisand settle in western Nebraska. But I had disliked to fall out of myclass in the Pana High-school, and now, after working all summer on ourclaim, I was spending the fall and winter evenings in making up some ofthe neglected studies, with the secret hope that father would be wellenough to spare me the next year.
"You can get Otto to lend you his ponies and go with you," went onfather. "Take the lower trail to the ranch, so's not to go throughAlkali. They've been feeling pretty ugly toward people from up hereanyway since election, and I hear there's been a row about it this weekand another of their men killed. And you be careful, Milton, and don'tlet Barney get into any trouble with the cowboys at the ranch. They're adare-devil set; I wouldn't let you boys go if I could help it."
We did not hear all of this speech, I am afraid, for Barney was tryingto get his revolver into his pocket without attracting father'sattention, and I was still struggling with a subjunctive in the speechof Ariovistus. But we were soon ready for our short walk to Otto's claimin the section adjoining ours, and slightly nearer the little town ofGarfield. Otto was our nearest neighbor, an honest, hard-working German,who had given us much assistance in the difficult work of settling onour claim, and had now promised father to go with us and recover ourprecious but troublesome Durham bull.
It must have been ten o'clock when we clattered across[Pg 422] the long boardbridge over the Platte, and rode on through the short main street inGarfield, the newly chosen capital of Black Ash County. We reached theend of the street and were about to turn west into the wagon-trailleading to Fairlands, or Alkali, as her triumphant rival persisted incalling the town.
"What's that new shanty?" asked Barney, pointing to a small building aswe rode past. It could not have been more than twelve feet wide andtwenty feet long, but the gable end facing the street was masked by thehideous square front of pioneer architecture, and from the top of theunpainted pine cornice fluttered three or four cheap flags.
"T'at's t'e new court-house," explained Otto, proudly. "T'e sheriff isalreaty yesterday mit his posse to Alkali gone, und pring t'e gountypooks pack."
"Did he bring back his posse?" asked Barney.
"Mostly," said Otto, with a grin; "some, t'ey ko on weiter."
The county-seat feud was a serious matter to the settlers in the townsconcerned, but Otto, like ourselves, could see a ludicrous side to it.
"I'll wager the Alkali gang burn it down," said Barney, as we left thecourt-house behind us. "They're bound to do something to get even."
Otto did not reply. On we cantered over the long swells of the prairie,the night wind blowing fresh and cold in our faces, while the frostsparkled on the russet and brown grasses along the hard trail. Far offwe caught the shimmer of the moonlight on a "blow-out," where the lightsoil showed at the crumbling edge of a bluff, and nearer at hand, on thelowlands, we could see the straggling line of telegraph poles thatmarked the line of the railroad.
We had ridden about half of our eight miles when Otto, who was leading,suddenly halted. Before us lay a deep draw, as the dry hollows betweenthe ridges of the prairie are called. At the bottom of the slope, justwhere the trail to Hermann's ranch joined the main road, stood a groupof men and horses. The latter were mostly harnessed to two elongatedlumber wagons, while their drivers and one or two horsemen were gatheredaround a small fire of cattle chips and sage-brush. We could hear theirloud talk and laughter as we stood looking down upon them. Suddenly theybecame silent.
"T'ey see us alreaty," said Otto. "Kome on, poys."
"Whar you'uns goin' this time o' day?" demanded one of the men, as werode up and saluted them. We recognized the speaker as Arkansaw Joe, asaloon-keeper in Fairlands of no particular reputation. Most of hiscompanions evidently belonged to the same profession, though not soeminent as their leader; but the horsemen, I felt sure, were cowboysfrom the ranch to which we were going. Otto briefly explained ourerrand.
"It's only that Dutchman from beyond Garfield and the two tenderfootkids," spoke another of the group. "I reckon they're all right."
Any foreigner is a Dutchman to a certain class of Americans. Otto hadlong since grown tired of explaining that he came from Bavaria, and nolonger chafed against the classification. We were not so satisfied, butit did not seem wise to argue about it just then.
"You'll have a dandy time with that critter of yourn," remarked one ofthe ranchmen. "Hermann's picketed him for you, and he's tearin' mad.It'll be a regular circus to see you git him back."
"Wat you t'ink, Milt?" said Otto. "We ko pack for t'e fat'er—nit?"
"I 'low you'uns'll go straight on," interposed Arkansaw, meaningly."We'uns are usin' this here trail to the east to-night, and it's allneeded. 'Sides, the kids 'ud miss the fun with the Durham."
There was no mistaking this hint, and we took the trail for the ranch,Otto evidently worried, and Barney boiling over with indignation.
"Kids!" he exclaimed, scornfully, as we rode up the other side of thedraw. "I'd like to show them—"
The rest remained unsaid, for down the trail came a jingling crowd ofcowboys, and looking back as they rode past us, we saw them join thegroup around the fire.
"What on earth are they up to, Otto?" I asked. He shook his headsoberly. Mischief was brewing, and we longed to ride back and see whatwas about to happen, but Otto and I at least recognized the danger ofsuch a plan after the warning we had received.
Our thoughts were effectually diverted from this topic when we reachedthe ranch. The bull was not an amiable beast on ordinary occasions, andwe found him in one of his wildest moods. His bellowings had attracted ascore of stray cattle from the outskirts of the ranch, and they werestanding beyond the reach of his horns as he strained on his picketrope, and they were pawing the ground, pretending to gore one another,until the bull was wild with rage. It took Otto a long time to get asecond rope around his horns, and meanwhile Barney and I, by thevigorous use of our quirts, scattered the mavericks over the prairie.The end of the picket rope was then fastened to my saddle, and we beganour struggle toward home. Again and again the bull would lower his hornsand make a desperate charge at one of his captors, only to be jerked tohis knees by the other. At times he would stand bellowing and snortinguntil Barney rode up and plied the lash, when he would plunge ahead likea runaway locomotive. Only the nimble-footed, long-suffering broncoscould or would have endured the wild work. To increase our trouble thestray cattle kept close behind us. Many times they came so close thatOtto and I were compelled to halt and hold the bull, while Barney, withhoarse shouts and language as abusive as he dared use, drove them back.
It was nearly dawn when we halted for this purpose on the edge of thelarge draw where we had seen the mysterious gathering. As I watchedBarney dispersing our troublesome followers, I heard Otto muttering tohimself some polysyllabic imprecation on cattle in general and theDurham bull in particular, and then he stopped short with a gasp ofsurprise. Over the ridge on the other side of the draw there struggledinto sight two parallel columns of puffing horses, and then there slowlyclimbed against the ruddy eastern sky the outlines of a building. Evenin that imperfect light we recognized it at the first glance as thecourt-house deprived of its flags.
"Ach, du liebe Zeit!" gasped Otto. "T'ey shteal t'e gourt-house!"
It had been an easy task to shift it from its flimsy under-pinning tothe lumber wagons, and the horses had dragged it with little difficultyover the smooth prairie. When necessary, the cowboys had helped pull byfastening their lariats to the sill, and the party had probably reachedthe draw with less exertion than we. I heard the sharp clank of thedrag-chains as they prepared to descend the slope.
"Where on earth are the Garfielders?" said I, and as I spoke we heardthe crack of a revolver from beyond the ridge. The cowboys unfastenedtheir ropes, and hurried back yelling like fiends and firing theirsix-shooters into the air. Afar off the solitary church bell at Garfieldbegan to jingle wildly.
"Sound the tocsin!" shouted Barney, abandoning his chase and riding backto see the fun. "What ho! Garfield to the rescue!"
But it was only too apparent that the town had been taken by surprise,and had few champions in the field as yet. The shots grew fainter, andin another minute the cowboys came over the ridge laughing and swearingat the top of their voices, and rode down to help the teams up theslope.
"Good-by court-house, if they once get her past the draw!" I exclaimed.
"Geewilikins!" said Barney, "I'd like to give 'm a shot," and he begantugging at his pocket.
"Shtop t'at!" shrieked Otto. "You fool poy, mint t'em shteers!"
But it was too late. Down the trail behind us thundered the cattle. Thebull gave a bellow, and started down into the draw. Taken off our guard,Otto and I were dragged helplessly after him, while Barney, giving anOgallalla war-whoop, fired his revolver as rapidly as he could. The airfairly quivered with Otto's expostulations, addressed now to the bulland now to the "verfluchte kid." On we swept[Pg 423] in a mad race, andyielding to a wild impulse, I gave forth my most blood-curdling yells. Isaw, rather than heard, the startled oaths of the teamsters. In the nextmoment their horses were plunging and kicking as they heard the roar ofthe angry Durham charging down upon them. There was a snapping ofharness and a breaking of axles as the teams swerved sharply apart, andthe new court-house rolled majestically over on its side with a crash