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"THE NORTHERN CHEYENNES cleaned out his Pop, an' druv all their stock into the Big Horns," said Big Jim Haskins, gruffly apologetic. "So—well, put him on the payroll at thirty, an' see that he earns it."

Sam Hardy, the lean foreman of the V Up and V Down, grunted and held out a calloused paw.

"Shake, kid," he boomed. "Yo're a hoss wrangler now. W'atcher name, didja say? Joe—an' f'm the Rosebud? Rosebud Joe. Waal, yuh may fill out, give yuh time, but right now yuh look kinda light for wrasslin' Morgans. Yuh know a Morgan f'm a Percheron an' a barb? Sure yuh do."

"I've set hosses, snatchin' calves, but I don't know one kind f'm t'other," said the hollow eyed kid. "I kin learn, though."

"Sure yuh can," boomed Sam Hardy, chuckling dryly as he watched the owner of the horse ranch disappearing into the house. Every time Big Jim went to Miles City, or even over to Roundup on the Musselshell, he brought back some kind of a pet or curiosity. "But yuh look hungry. C'mon an' I'll give yuh a knockdown to Louie Lee. He's the most important jigger 'round here. He's cook."

"Thanks," said the kid huskily. "I aim to—to make yuh glad yuh hired me. Sometime."

The V Up and V Down specialized in Morgans—and Indian trouble. The Northern Cheyennes and the Crows were supposed to be subdued and living happily on their reservations to the south. But now and then raiding bands of them came. Then there was some quick, grim work with Winchesters, or else a band of valuable horses vanished never to be seen again.

BESIDES this chronic trouble, there were a few white rustlers operating in Montana. And then there was Redbird.

Redbird was a four year old stallion, probably a cross of Morgan and Spanish barb. He was a reddish glistening chestnut in color, magnificent in his young strength and sleekness in summer; shaggy and hirsute in winter. He ran a harem of thirty-odd mares, and was always trumpeting and snorting and luring more valuable brood mares away from the ranches.

Big Jim Haskins had a standing offer of a thousand dollars for Redbird alive, and one hundred for him dead. He was a menace, and cost more money than wolves. Just the same no waddy in Montana who ever had set eyes on him, coveted the hundred.

Rosebud Joe, as a button, fetched and carried, spread hay on the snow in winter, and often accompanied the foreman, Sam Hardy, when the latter thought he might need a messenger. The two of them were riding the breaks beyond Thunder Butte one June day, when with a snort, a squealing whinny and a thumping of hoofs the Redbird flew past them, mane and tail bannering as pennons for his troop of mares.

With a gasped oath, Sam Hardy went for the carbine in his saddle boot. But with a choked cry the button rammed the shoulder of his mount into Sam's pony, spoiling any chance to ?re.

"I—kick me if yuh wanta," said Rosebud Joe then, dropping his brown eyes before the foreman's glare. "He—he's too damn purty to kill. He's—"

"All right, kid," chuckled Sam ruefully after a moment. "I'd give six months pay to lay a rope on him, my own self. Only—he costs the ranch plenty. Didja see them three brood mares close up at his heels? The boss paid plenty for them."

WITH the spring of that year, 1898, wild tales had come from the Klondike. Gold. Bonanza Creek. Candle. Gold lying in the black sand just a few feet underground. And three riders from the V Up and V Down left to try their luck in the northland. Others were restive, thinking how long they'd have to draw forty a month to have a stake, when they could pick up a fortune in a single summer if they were lucky hunting gold.

That was the first and mildest of the misfortunes which came to the horse range that year. Without saying much of anything, the United States Government combed the Indian reservations for choice saddle stock—and the Indians quietly let themselves out the back doors of the reservation bound for replenishments.

Brushes with the redskin rustlers became frequent. Rosebud Joe, now turned eighteen, was given a rifle and made ride night guard same as his elders. And the elders now were too few in number.

There came a night when more than sixty fine Morgans were run off. Haskins, Hardy, and their two remaining seasoned men took the plain trail with Rosebud Joe trailing along.

The trail led southwest. It all happened so suddenly the button scarcely had a chance to know it was an ambush at all. From willows and jackpine came a sudden volley of black powder rifles—oldtime weapons, but deadly enough at eighty yard range.

With a choked scream Pete Yardley fell, and his horse galloped straight ahead into the group of redskin rustlers. Haskins, the ranchman, was badly hit in the thigh. Sam Hardy was cursing with a left foot from which a big toe was hanging with shreds of boot.

A waddy named Gleason, Poke for short, had his horse felled like an axed steer, with a .50-110 slug in his forehead. Poke wrenched a leg getting clear as the animal went down.

Rosebud Joe, making his horse lie down while he fired methodically at the moving branches—getting one whoop of pain to tell of a hit—was the only one unharmed.

The redskins fled with their stolen horses. The white men made a slow and painful way back to the ranch. Big Jim Haskins was suffering extreme agony, beads of sweat coming forth on his bronzed forehead.

"It's m' hip, boys," he said from between set teeth. "Get me a down mattress an' lay it in the spring wagon. I got to get me to Miles City an' have Doc Tindall set it in a cast. Busted hips are damn bad medicine."

He waited only until they buried Pete Yardley. Then Haskins got Poke Gleason to drive the spring wagon. "I hate to leave yuh with a bum foot, Sam," Haskins told the foreman, holding out a hand. "But when yo're able, gather up the stock an' sell it. The Government wants hosses now. There's some talk about a war with Spain, over that Maine sinkin'.

"Yuh know all about the bank, an' they know you. So long. It mebbe will be six months or more till I'm back, but I'm countin' on yuh, Sam Hardy."

"I'll be waitin', Jim," said the foreman, shaking hands.

"Would yuh-shake with me, too—Boss?" asked a youthful voice. Rosebud Joe was there beside the wagon, hat off. His face was red, but he was sort of wistful, too. Big Jim was just about the whole horizon and moon and stars to Joe in those days.

"You bet," said Big Jim, holding out his immense hand, and clasping the thinner but more calloused paw of the boy. "You stick with the old ranch, and with Sam, youngster. "I'll make yuh a tophand when I come back!"

WITH the Chinese cook, Rosebud Joe started then to run the big ranch. Fortunately it was summer. Also fortunately the horse herd was smaller than it had been for years. For misfortune continued to mount. Big Jim had promised to send out two or three hands to help Sam Hardy. The owner actually paid three men, bar loungers at Miles City, to go to the ranch. The three promptly took train for Seattle, hungry for a look at the land of gold far north. With their meager capital and more meager mental equipment, they probably got nowhere, but the ranch never heard of them.

And Sam Hardy was a sick man. Somehow his foot had developed an infection, in spite of the caustics applied to the stump of toe. The flesh of the foot swelled, turned red, then green and black.

Rosebud Joe swore softly in horror the first time he saw it without bandages, as Sam was soaking it in hot water.

"You gotta go to a doc, too, Sam!" breathed the button. "C'mon, I wouldn't waste no time. That looks bad. Yuh might lose a foot!"

"The ranch can't run itself," denied Sam Hardy doggedly.

But next morning his whole leg ached. He took a look at the foot, groaned, and gave up. Ride in with me, Joe," he asked. "I—I cain't stand this no longer. Yuh'll have to do best yuh can with the hosses. Drive in an' sell what yuh can get together. The rest 'll go to the Injuns, I guess."

When after that long and painful trip, during which the foreman began to talk wildly in fever delirium, Rosebud Joe found he would have to leave the foreman in the cottage hospital. Sam Hardy was sure to lose at least his foot. Maybe his whole leg—or his life. Shaken, grim faced, but resolutely facing a future which must have struck terror into even his soul of loyalty, Rosebud Joe rode back to the ranch which six months before had employed seven men and a cook, besides himself.

Now even the Chinaman had taken his departure. Rosebud Joe was alone, at the age of eighteen, upon a ranch which still represented an investment of more than fifty thousand dollars—twenty-five thousand of which was left in valuable brood mares and stallions.

Left, that is, if the Indians or Redbird had made no new depredations in his absence!

"I gotta do m' best—for Big Jim an' Sam," he said often aloud as he went about the manifold duties. That was his credo. From that time on he heard nothing at all from the two men. But Joe knew he was not likely to see Sam again ever; and the big boss surely would be away three months or more. Something had to be done at once with the horse herd remnant, or it would vanish.

"I'll gather the poorer 'ns fust, an' sell 'em. Then the good ones. The broodies an' stallions last... iffen Big Jim ain't come by then..." he decided.

He had accompanied Sam Hardy once to the market at Fort Dickerson, where army buyers haggled and bought—and sometimes split prices with men who could be bribed. So Rosebud Joe knew about what the ordinary grade of Morgan saddlers should bring. Also he expected to have to bargain a long time when he offered animals for sale.

But almost unknown to this horse range, bugles were blowing. Great ships of the navy were plowing the deep, bound for Santiago and Manila Bay. Transports were carrying troops to Cuba. Rough Riders were gathering under the beloved Teddy. Down at Chickamauga twenty thousand soldiers were stricken with yellow jack. A war was on...

SO IT was that when two weeks later a saddle stained and tired looking waddy came into the Fort with thirty-three splendid, well—fed Morgans—the culls they were, at that—the army buyers fairly mobbed Rosebud Joe. They asked no questions, but demanded the horses. The rate they mentioned made the lad's brown eyes bulge. But he had a certain duty to Big Jim, he thought. He refused the first offer—and got one fifty percent higher.

He accepted that, took the paymaster'a check, and went to the bank at Marysville. With complete candor he went to the bank president and told his simple story; how this money belonged to Big Jim Haskins, and there would be more. How could he keep it safe for his boss?

Matt Halleck was a straight shooter. As soon as he found out the kid was square, he helped. He fixed up the account in Big Jim's name, giving the boy a hundred dollars for grub, out of it. Then Matt sat down and wrote a dry sort of letter to Big Jim at the hospital in Miles City, enclosing the deposit slip and saying he thought Big Jim had considerable trust in humanity to load this responsibility on a kid's shoulders.

Big Jim cursed and squirmed in his cast. He managed to write a long letter of directions to Rosebud Joe and Sam Hardy, whom he supposed to be at the ranch. The letter never was delivered, for the simple reason that Rosebud Joe never had got a letter in his life, and did not think to go to a post-office and enquire for one now.

It was nearly a month later that the young waddy rode into the Fort with his next herd of horses. Then it was he learned of the death by blood poisoning, of Sam Hardy. There was nothing to do but set his jaw. Sam had been a friend. Now he was gone. Rosebud Joe sold the thirty-seven horses and went back for more.

One more trip was made in safety; and then there were just three extremely valuable stallions, and fifteen brood mares left. These stallions had to be hoppled; and even then, with their flaring nostrils blood red, their mating and fighting passions aroused, they would be extremely troublesome on the trail.

It took the kid five days to get them V—stalled, hoppled, and turned into the holding corral. Then Rosebud Joe forked in bluejoint hay, filled the water trough, and turned in for twelve hours sleep.

He didn't get it. Three hours after sundown there came squealing and snorting from the corral. Joe came running out in the moonlight with his rifle. He saw dark figures—Indians. He let go with a shot, ran to the corral, fired again. and again—and the marauders evidently thought they had the whole ranch after them. They dashed for their horses and escaped. Joe was left with one dark huddle on the ground, a Crow Indian buck who now had a black, round eye in the middle of his forehead. It was the first man of any sort Rosebud Joe had killed.

Joe dug a shallow grave. Before throwing back the dirt on top of the body, he got the ranch Bible, and gravely, with many pauses and brow wrinklings in the lantern light, he read out a chapter selected at random. It happened to concern the casting overboard of an unpopular fisherman named Jonah, and vaguely seemed appropriate to Joe.

That finished, he planed a pine board which he nailed to a stake at the head of the grave. Lettered in black was the terse legend:


NEXT morning he found the pole corral had been opened by the marauders, and though they had not taken any horses. all the stock had wandered Out. The stallions were still hoppled, so it did not take very long to recapture them. But Joe had to delay his start for the Fort another two days.

Three trips to Dickerson apparently had finished his luck. He was halfway on the fourth and last trip when real trouble caught him. The horse range lay behind. This was the Broken Butte country, forty miles or so south of the Yellowstone River and Forsythe, and about fifteen miles from the Fort. The bed of Sundown Creek was dry when the little herd passed. Ahead was a downslant of country where jagged rocks blistered under the September sun.

Here Rosebud Joe had been forced to drive the animals down a boulder-strewn hardpan wash which once had been a stage road. It had not been used for years, save by stray riders. It formed a defile that narrowed, with rocks on both sides. It was only three miles long, though, and below the country looked green with the knee-high buffalo grass.

Peering ahead Joe caught sight of a moving figure. An Indian on horseback! The Indian vanished. But Joe frowned. He halted the thirsty herd and rode a little way forward. Then he saw the trouble prepared—though probably not meant for him.

Where the narrow slant of defile met the floor of the valley, three Indians had rigged up a corral of brush and rawhide. It was a horse trap. Any wild horses or tame stock coming down the defile would enter the corral. The Indians, lying there hidden in a pit, would yank rawhide ropes, closing the way back. Then they would rope and take their prizes at leisure, since even a wild horse will not often question even as flimsy a barrier as a brush hedge.

With considerable trouble, Joe headed the herd back uphill the way he had come. But he did not go very far. Back up there sounded far away whoops; and he saw tiny black dots moving. Indians!

In a few moments Joe understood, and his heart sank. The Indian raiders, balked at the V Up and V Down, had started one of their two or three-day relay hunts of wild horses. They might even have Redbird there. They would drive the band now into the defile, and down into the trap prepared. The wild stallion and his mares, ii it could really be Redbird, would be so winded, tired out and thirsty, that they all would be near collapse. The Indians would be tired out, too, though not so greatly, since they knew how wild horses travel in circles, and would have spelled each other in relays. This, though, was the coup. And Rosebud Joe was caught, with the valuable Morgans, between the horse drivers and the three Indians waiting down there at the trap.

Joe dismounted, snatching out his carbine—then slowly thrusting it back and examining his single-action Colt. A sort of desperate plan to save the horses had sprung into his mind. But only the revolver would be of any use. And if he failed—well, not only would the ranch and Big Jim lose these most valuable of the Morgans, but Rosebud Joe would lose his life.

He thought of that all right, but he was running as he thought. Running for a fissure in the rocks, which might let him climb and belly around, so as to take the three Indians below somewhat by surprise. They had to be eliminated or captured, and before the other part of the raiding band got down there with the horses.

Joe hurried. The way was rough, and for a few moments he thought it barred by a vertical cliff face. Then he saw a way around, a slide of rubble, and then the floor of the valley. He made it, hurrying, muttering a sort of half prayer with his lips, that finding the Morgans there in the defile would slow up the oncoming horse-drivers a few minutes.

He was snaking up on his belly now, the six-shooter out in front as he rested weight on a corded wrist. He had the keen bowie he used for skinning, clasped in his teeth. After the alarm there would be little chance to reload the revolver.

Now he heard voices. There it was, the shallow hole where the three Indians had hidden themselves. A black topknot raised. Then came a grunt of surprise. Black, beady eyes in a red-brown face swivelled toward Joe. A rifle came up, as the jabbered alarm brought the buck's two companions into sight.

Joe shot and scrambled to his feet. His side stung waspishly, as the black powder bloomed from the observation hole. Joe dodged and ran forward. He shot down now as two men diverged from the smoke, rising to meet him.

One yelled and shot. Joe staggered around, with a stinging there high at the left of his neck, where he realized the warm red flood was coming from a wound—probably a shattered collarbone, since his left arm was hard to use.

He shot twice, and saw the two braves fall away. One kicked and yowled, then choked as red foam slobbered on his mouth. The other was still. And between them as Joe came right on, was a buck kneeling. His head had fallen down in front, though, and there was a wide gray-red blob of brains and blood exposed to the air.

Joe had no idea of burial service this time. He dashed ahead, and to the back of the corral trap. There he slashed the sustaining rawhides with his bowie, till a section twenty feet wide fell down. Then he crouched, and thumbed in fresh shells fast. into the Colt.

Then the horses came. Three of them, pressed madly by those behind, stumbled and fell, got up snorting, fell again. It was confusion, but into it, barely escaping being knocked down and trampled a dozen times, darted Joe.

He had glimpsed the trouble; and despite his numb left arm and the aching tear in his side, he had to venture. Those hoppled stallions! He slashed at the rawhide hopples, freed them. With the other horses, at least thirty of them mares and bearing the burrs and signs of range freedom on their coats, the stallions snorted and made for the gap in the brush corral.

Now angry yells from fatigue hoarsened redskins told that Joe himself was seen. A rifle cracked, and a portion of his Stetson brim was torn away. He ?red twice-and then, as he thought the end had come, he saw a saddled and bridle-trailing pony at his side. His own horse, brought with the tide of equines!

Abandoning the fight, he raced for the pony, flung himself to his back, leaned forward to shield himself and gather the reins, and then dug spurred heels into the animal's flanks. It jumped ahead, and followed the Morgans and the wild herd through the break in the corral.

The Indians, tired to the marrow by their relay chase, disappointed, and probably shocked by sight of their three dead comrades, did not even pursue. Four hours later, seeing the back country free of dust clouds, Rosebud Joe detached his lariat and built himself a loop. Up there ahead was a horse he had been watching for hours, a staggering, almost collapsed wild stallion taller than the Morgans. A horse that breathed loudly through blood-red nostrils, and whose mane and tail were limp pennons now with the lather of exhaustion.

Joe came close, and tossed his loop over Redbird, prize wild horse of the Montana range. And the wild stallion rolled his eyes, but did not fight at all.

* * *

THE first sifting of powder snow had come down in the night from the Big Horns. The November range was iron hard with frost. The spring wagon which had brought a man with crutches from the railway at Forsythe, rattled and bounced as it came to the fence and gate of the V Up and V Down.

The halfbreed hostler who drove, got down and opened the gate. Big Jim drove through, then waited, though his frowning face was twitching with gloom, worry and impatience. Ahead there, through the bare cottonwoods, he could see the huddle of buildings of his ranch. Not a horse in sight. Not a living creature. No smoke from the ranch-house or cook shack.

"Well, anyway, they ain't burned," he said halt' aloud. He had learned of the death of his foreman, and expected nothing at all. It was a bitter homecoming for the ranchman. He had written to Matt Halleck, the banker, asking the latter to transfer the money in his savings account to a checking account, but the banker had written back tersely, saying the bankbook in the hands of Rosebud Joe, was necessary. Big Jim had written Rosebud Joe several times, but there had been no answer. Matt Halleck, evidently assuming that the ranchman knew what his button had been doing, had said nothing more. So Big Jim had come back home thinking himself probably close to cleaned out, happy even to find the buildings waiting him. Of course he could never make much of a horse ranch of this again. Lucky if he could sell out to somebody with capital to start a herd....

"If there ain't a soul here, yuh'll have to take me back to town. So, when I git down, wait," Big Jim told the halfbreed. "I can't ride a hoss yet, an' I don't care about bein' here on crutches alone."

He managed to get down, and get the crutches under his arms. Then he started for the porch. A sudden shout of gladness and welcome made him turn toward the bunkhouse. A long-legged, broad-shouldered man in overalls that were tattered and patched, came running. With difficulty Big Jim recognized the half-starved, runty youth he had left here with Sam Hardy only five months earlier.

"Boss! Big Jim!" cried Rosebud Joe. His benefactor and hero had come home. "I'm so glad—my Lord—I—I—" and then he flushed and became a little embarrassed. "I—ain't got much, but come on in. I'll wrastle some grub. It's on'y beans, but—"

"Hm. Livin' on beans, eh?" said Big Jim. "An' yuh stuck here all alone? Not anybody a-tall? Not them three men I sent?"

"Nobody's been here—not sence Sam—died," said Joe, and helped the big man with the crutches, as he came up the three stairs to the porch.

"It needs airin', I guess," said Joe. "I been livin' in the bunkhouse. But c'mon in, Boss. Lordy, I'm glad to see yuh!"

"I'm kinda glad to be back—kinda," said Big Jim. "On'y, I ain't got a thing left but the land an' buildings now, kid. Oh, an' the money yuh got for sellin' them hosses. That was good, on'y—I owe plenty of that back to the docs an' hospital at Miles City."

That was when Joe, a little flustered but rather proud just the same, brought out the little bankbook.

"Yuh got this, Boss," he said. "I didn't take out none, after the hundred Matt Halleck give me—'cept I did take fifteen, so's I c'd get a bag of oats an' a bar'l of apples. I had to have them, uh, f'r a kinda personal reason."

Big Jim stared down at the carried-forward total in the bankbook. His eyes widened. They started to bulge. The figures there said more than thirty-one thousand dollars. And he had figured all his stock, even if sold by himself, to have been worth in the neighborhood of twenty-five thousand!

"Yuh—yuh got this!" he managed to whisper.

"Yeah, it's in the bank in yore name. I had some luck, an' got some wild hosses too, asides the Morgans. The army needed 'em. I got pretty good prices."

"Hm. Not bad," said Big Jim in a voice that suddenly was hoarse. He reached shaking fingers inside his coat, and brought out makin's. He built a quirly with difficulty, and lighted it.

"An' yuh ain't paid yoreself wages, eh?" he said half to himself. "Livin' on apples an' a hundred dollars in beans... hell!"

"I—I tell yuh, Big Jim," said Joe almost breathlessly. "I was hopin' somp'n. I s'pose he—he b'longs to yuh, really, but I was hopin' yuh'd let me keep him, 'stead of wages. I—I was lucky, an' caught the redbird, and' now I got him gentled—"

"Uh—yuh—yuh caught the Redbird?" Big Jim almost choked.

But Rosebud Joe had run to the door. Out there on the porch he put two fingers to his mouth and screeched a peculiar whistle. From out back of the bunkhouse a tall, proud chestnut—a horse curried and brushed till he shone burnished copper in the sunshine—came singlefooting. He whinnied at sight of Joe, and came straight to the railing. He was so tall he could reach over and nose right into Joe's overalls pocket. He got the apple that always waited there for him, and tossed his head three times in acknowledgment as he ate it with relish.

Big Jim had clumped to the doorway on his crutches. He was swearing admiration and wonderment.

"Yeah, he's yours all right, son," he almost whispered. "What a hoss! An'—what a kid!" He turned back to the table, eyes shining.

"Hrmph. Say, Joe," he said gruffly, when the button returned smiling happily, "go out an' tell that halfbreed to wait f'r us. You'n me are goin' into town. Iffen he'll have me, I got myself a new pardner on the V Up and V Down—an' Rosebud Joe has got himself a last name, Haskins!"

"I—don't understand," puzzled the boy.

"Well, nemmind right now. I'm goin' to get a lot of pleasure teachin' yuh that in the years to come, Joe!"