The Prodigal Calf

The Prodigal Calf  (1916) 
by Agnes Morley Cleaveland and Eugene Manlove Rhodes
Extracted from Silhouette magazine, April 1916, pp. 25-29.

"This un-typical Western story, written with the intimate knowledge of writers who know the West, is told in 3000 words." (Editor, Silhouette)

"Talkin' 'bout this here poetical in-justice," observed Howison, "I onc't known a case of the poeticalest brand that ever got in its crafty work."

We two, waiting in grateful juniper shade till our relief should come back from dinner, had not been speaking of justice, nor, indeed, of any subject whatsoever. I grunted. Thus encouraged, Howison went on:

"Hade Henshaw and Corky Baney bein' on day herd together stirs up a little grin inside me, as it always does when I see them two fellers workin' together, plumb amiable; and while we're waitin' I'll tell you why.

"When Corky first hit this Datil Country, Hade began to throw it into him, hard and regular. For a long time most of us were lookin' for somethin' to break loose. When Annie Sellers come out from Missouri to visit her sister at Quemado, it broke.

"Corky was drivin' stage from Datil to Quemado, so he got the first throw at her. But he hadn't hauled in his slack before Hade comes along with his loop a-swingin'. Corky was the best lookin', and Hade the slickest talker.

"None of us expected Hade to play fair, and he didn't. He seemed to be one of them humans that couldn't be open and above board if they wanted to—and then don't want to. No fun in the game for Hade, 'less he was playin' with a stacked deck or a hold-out. So he plays this here little love-game by givin' Corky continual down-country to Annie.

"Hade's trump card was alludin' at Corky as a 'granger,' which you know's a plumb insult to a cowman. 'Course a granger's all right in his place but that place sure ain't in the cow countries. Corky's folks was from New England, and Corky couldn't outlive it. Not bein' caught and put at it young enough, Corky never could be a cowman right—but he done very well, considerin' his handicap. And he warn't no cow thief. That industry ain't good form, so I surmise, in New England—leastwise, not 'mongst the front fam'lies.

"Now, Hade, he 'lowed Corky just wasn't cowman enough to steal a cow and git off with it. Hade hisself was never disparaged none, that way. He come from west Texas, where cow-stealin' was more respectable than takin' back a penny in change; and he just didn't have no respect for Corky any way you took it.

"First place, Corky come into the country with a six-mule freightin' outfit. This he traded off to an old Mexican for twenty cows with calves, three two's and four yearlin's—forty-seven head all told. Afterwards Mr. Mexican throwed in, to boot, that seep on Deadman, with the old log shack and corral. 'Twas sort-a pathetic to see how plumb satisfied Corky was with his 'ranch' and his little old milk-pen bunch. Of course they couldn't make him a livin', and because they couldn't, all the cow outfits 'round kept one peeled and hostile eye on them forty-seven head. Then Corky taken the stage drivin' contract to aid his eatin'—the government bein' the only employer that didn't object to his havin' cattle of his own.

"Hade done different; he come into the country with just a horse and saddle, a rope and a hot brandin' iron, which he holds to be a more reasonable equipment than a freightin' outfit.

"’Twas sure more suitable for goin' into the cow business with. Without even a little bunch to draw to, Hade shows up in no time with 'bout a hundred head—Mexican strays, burned, and sleepers, dogies and mavericks. From that on, his lowin' kine produced, each and every one, a calf every wash day. We kept two eyes on Hade—or tried to—but the way of that transgressor was sure hard to find out. If he hadn't been born under a cowstealin' star he'd 'a' been sent over the road long ago.

"The CY cows was right conservative, confinin' their efforts to one calf only per year each. Just one two-year-old heifer was absent at roll-call the first year—lost, strayed, or unavoidably detained. Three calves died of blackleg, and one muddied the water-supply on a lobo-wolf, or otherwise gave him causus belly.

"Comin' back to Hade: Conviction has got to rest on evidence, with a big E. Dead moral certainty won't do at all. We'd find calves necked to saplin's, calfless cows bawlin' 'round—everythin' but just Hade's connection with it. Them connections never was proved on the sagacious and painstakin' youth. Curious, ain't it, that wrong-doin', if it's only done good enough, will command admiration—for a while?

"There was some in the country that wouldn't believe Corky was honest, either. They agreed with Hade that he just warn't slick enough to steal from better cowmen than hisself. I confess I warn't convinced, havin' had dealin's with 'little men' in the neighborhood of big outfits before, and knowin' just how temptin' mavericks and big long ears are. But I meant to find out first chance I got. I was the T-Tumble-T boss then, and it was my business to know all that was goin' on in T[illustration: a hammer, representing "T," on it's side] territory.

"When it come round-up time, there was talk of barrin' Hade off the wagon, which you know is the disgracefullest thing that can happen to a cowman. But we knowed he'd be usin' his compuls'ry holiday to work a long lead with Annie Sellers, while Corky was off on the work. (Corky, he'd hired a Mexican to drive stage for him while the round-up was there, so's he could do his part of the cow work, like every owner is expected to do). So as everybody wanted to see a fair fight in the Annie Sellers racket, we let Hade work with us so's not give him any edge over Corky.

"A few days before the round-up was to meet, Corky made his last stage trip to Quemado. Hade was present, tambien. Hade made some crack 'bout Corky bein' a 'progressive cattle man whose herd de-creased at the rate of four a year.' And after supper Corky marched Annie off towards the corral and told her to say him or Hade, one, and say it quick.

"Goodness only does know what women do say in cases like this. How she done it I dunno, but what Miss Annie said wasn't neither exact nor quick, as per specifications. Yet Corky comes back in a good humor, and Hade stays with the game just the same.

"But it didn't last. Hade wouldn't let it. Corky got tired of bein' t'other dear charmer; and two days before the round-up was to meet he rode over to Quemado again, and calls time. Annie wouldn't either play or pay; just gave up, loose-head, 'bout bein' a sister or other female relative, and 'bein' unprepared to make a decision'—all that sort of rot women seem to just have to say instead of 'yes' or 'no' or 'go to.' Corky came back on a high jump, all shot to pieces, primed for a spree to drown his sorrow in. But it was too far to whiskey for a man who didn't care for it anyway; so instead, he took a long hard ride in the mountains without any dinner. 'Twas either that, or go out in the gardin and eat a worm.

"I met him just where the trail comes out of his cañon, and saw right off that he had hay on his horns. But I just asked him if he'd seen anythin' of some broncs I'd lost. He told me 'bout tracks at the south end of Sugar Loaf; and I went on. But before I cut the sign he meant I run onto the trail I was lookin' for, leadin' plumb in the opposite direction. And that's how I come to know some things.

"Well, I saw him jump a bunch of cattle which I had seen on my way over. It was a snaky bunch, with a sleeper in it as big as a bay pony. I 'lowed it was some of Hade's funny business, and I wanted it to show up on the work, hopin' it might prove to be the missin' link between Hade and the evidence we was all lookin' for. There was several cows in the bunch, but they broke for the brush before I got a square look at 'em all. Still, since the sleeper was in the T-Tumble-T earmark, it was pretty certain to belong to a T-Tumble-T cow.

"You can't always say just how another human's head-piece works; but I bet I made a mighty straight guess, when I size up that Corky was sayin' to hisself like this:

"‘Ha! There's a big calf 'bout to quit its mammy. Hade Henshaw, he's seen it, and put it's mammy's earmark on it, so any T-Tumble-T man, observin' of them ears, will s'pose the critter's branded like it ought-a be, and won't look close. When its left its maw's shelterin' wing, Hade comes along, unostentatious, changes the earmark and puts his brand on—Does he? Well, right here is where Corky Baney shows somebody he ain't the granger he looks.'

"Well, Corky lights out behind that bunch, his rope a-swingin' and desprit resolve writ all over his features. Usually Corky throws big sloppy motherhubbards; but bein' in the humor he was, makes people do things they can't. His loop was the prettiest, neatest little ketch'm you ever saw, right 'round both front feet. I was sittin' on a pinnacle watchin' (which was stric'ly my business to be doin', this bein' T-Tumble-T range). When Corky turned the yearlin' loose it had on Corky's brand, CY, big and attractive, just a-yellin' to be seen. I taken the trail right behind it and followed 'till it got back into its own bunch. I watched a while, and then come away sort-a speculatin'. Some things warn't plumb clear, but I decided that Corky was a better cowman than we'd been givin' him credit for. It had took pretty quick brand readin' to tell which cow that sleeper belonged to—that bunch movin' out as it was.

"But I wanted somebody to show a hand anyhow, and maybe the rest of the cards would come down; so I went back and stayed with Corky that night. Never did see him in such a mood before. He was sure runnin' off at the head. Stated positive 'twas all tommyrot 'bout honesty bein' the best policy, for it wasn't—not by a blame sight, not in the cow business, anyhow. He'd been called a granger as long as he meant to stand for it, and he was goin' to show this country a few things, and raise merry carajo generally. Sort-a 'Woof! I'm a wolf!' frame of mind.

"Next day I was goin' to make a round of the water holes and see if we could hold a herd at all of them. I tried to get Corky to go with me, but though I put up a strong talk, he wouldn't go. He was so plumb sot not to that I decided he had some pressin' reason, 'specially as he seemed anxious to find out just where I meant to be ridin'. I told him some misleadin' facts, and then went on with my detective work. I managed to be perched on another hill when he jumped that same bunch of cattle, after he had trailed 'em 'round 'most half a day.

"His earnest and conscientious efforts before was cool and collected compared to the way he went brush-ridin' now. I could tell by the look of him that it was a sort of life-and-death matter to him. He looked white and nerved up to somethin' desprit. From what I'd told him that mornin' he supposed I was just over the ridge—'bout the Blue Spring—and I could tell that he was plumb anxious to keep that bunch turned the opposite direction; while they, just like perverse cow-brutes, was bound that that was the only way they was goin'. I could almost hear Corky grit his teeth when he turned 'em back right on the top of the ridge and hurled his twine just as they took off down the side. Since he just had to catch that yearlin', he did; and had it hog-tied in just about record time.

"The next proceedin's had me guessin'. This is precisely what Corky done. He carved on them long-sufferin' ears some more. Then he clumb a pinon tree. By gosh, he did! When he come down he had a double handful of pinon wax, which he deposits on a flat rock and builds a fire close up to it. He sticks his brandin' iron in the fire, and then fans with his hat 'till he was plumb red in the face and give out. When that there wax is melted nice and soft, he takes a couple of sticks and smears it over the CY he had put on yesterday. Then he takes dirt and pinon needles and rubs in the wax. After all this amazin' business, he goes to work and draws a nice T-Tumble-T alongside the smudge of wax. Then he turns the yearlin' loose. And gosh! He looked ten years younger, the minute he done it.

"Then I come down off'n my pinnacle in a round'bout way and met him, just accidental-like, 'bout where I told him I would be. Information was what I was after, so I opened up:

"‘Say, Corky, did you see a bunch of cattle back there, with a big brocklefaced sleeper in it?'

"He looks wild-eyed for a minute; and then he calms down and says, quite cool:

"‘I did so. And I branded the yearlin' for you.'

"‘Good of you to take the trouble,' I says, as natural-like as I could. This was the beatin'est thing I was ever up against. 'Why didn't you leave it 'till tomorrow? We'd-a got it in the round-up?' I asks, still hopin' for light.

"He wriggled a little in his saddle, but answered plausible enough:

"'You know, grangers like me needs all the practice ropin' they can git. And I sure did turn a pretty one.' I 'most said: 'You bet you did!' but I stopped myself in time.

"It was the third day of the round-up that we worked that same country. I was runnin' the wagon, and I sent Corky out toward the edge of the plains. He was the last man back to dinner.

"When he got off his horse and sized up the outfit, he sure looked buffaloed. Nary a man cast even one glance toward him. They all looked as if their friends and families had just dropped dead—saddest set of punchers ever you laid eyes on. Corky caught right on that it was aimed at him, and he spits out:

"‘If you windbroke, locoed bunch of yaps got anythin' to say, why in link-blazes don't you say it, 'stead of sittin' there like a tub full of ripe tomatoes?'

"‘Bad business, Corky, bad business!' I says, sad-like, when I could speak without chokin'. 'I sure hates to see a good man gone wrong.'

"And then somebody else pipes up:

"‘Reckon Hade Henshaw has been gittin' credit for some things he never done.'

"Corky was turnin' kinder white 'round the gills, and I felt sorry for him—but not sorry enough to keep me from continuin':

"‘Cow-stealin' is sure reprehensible in one so young', but mebbe we c'n find some exculpritory circumstances.'

"The horse-wrangler here give a chokin' sort o' snort, and Corky started for him with full intentions of whippin' him, and doin' it pretty sudden, if somethin' didn't happen to prevent.

But somethin' happened. Somethin' had to. With a rush, the whole outfit broke for the corral where we had penned that day's drive. The horse-wrangler crawled up on the top rail and threw a stick in the middle of the cattle to stir 'em up. Suddenly we heard Corky make a little gurglin' noise in his throat, and we couldn't stand it no longer. We all reared up and fell over backwards, yellin' like a pack of coyotes. Corky just stood there gawkin' at a red brockle-faced cow. By her side, with all the same flesh marks, was that there yearlin', sportin' a big splotch of pinon wax and a T-Tumble-T alongside. The cow was branded CY. It was Corky's missin' two-year-old heifer come home after a year's gaddin', and Corky hadn't recognized her. Nor Hade neither!

"‘Now laugh, you fools, and make everybody hate you!' says Corky.

We done so. Corky's face would 'a' made a turkey-buzzard laugh. But if the turkey-buzzard knowed what I did, just what was under that pinon wax, his mirth would 'a' been fatal. The rest of the boys was squallin' because it was funny for a man to steal a calf from hisself for a big outfit like the T-Tumble-T. But that wasn't a patch on stealin' a calf from hisself, for hisself; and then takin' down with a hard attack of conscience, and smudgin' out the brand with pinon wax, hopin' 'twould last till the round-up left and then he could beef it. If he'd tried to kill it while the work was in the country, we'd 'a' run onto his tracks sure.

"Hade, he just stood there with a silly grin on his pained features. When anybody got so anybody could talk or hear what the other fellow said, Corky speaks up in a nervous sort o' way:

"'Mr. Howison,' says he to me, 'suppose we stake this outfit to a beef?'

"‘And the hide?' says I.

"‘That,' says he, 'I reckon you and me better eat first.'

"‘How 'bout lettin' Hade have a taste?' I suggests, innocent as a lamb.

Hade and Corky both directs oncertain glances my way. But what they don't know and I do won't hurt 'em. This was one of the occasions when anythin' said was too much, so I kept my head shut.

"Wherefore, when the springtime come, gentle Annie she up and married Corky, and lives happy ever after. Although a female, she's contrary. 'Cause Corky was bein' guyed to a standstill, she gets sore 'bout it. Says it was a straight case of ingrowin' honesty, and she never had no use for cow thieves nohow. Time seems to be provin' her right. Corky's sin of cow-stealin' was plumb blotted out with one smudge of wax. But nobody but just me and the Recordin' Angel knows what that smudge spelt in Corky's account on the judgment books. And it's queer, but it sort-a blotted out some things for Hade, too. Corky has seemed to feel kinder toward him since that little circumstance; and even though Annie did throw him down, Hade is real friendly with 'em both now. Corky's cows seem to be gettin' back to the good old time-honored custom of one calf per year each. Things sometimes works out queer in this old world.

. . . "Well, here they come. We don't look like we'd been talkin' 'bout 'em, do we?"

This un-typical Western story, written with the intimate knowledge of writers who know the West, is told in 3000 words.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1958, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 64 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.