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Ferdinand’s Strategy

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 24, 2011

From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1937 –

Ferdinand’s Strategy

by J.S.

The sun shone like brass in the little mesa and even the herd seemed to wilt in its hot glow. Scattered along the river edge and the hillside, they grazed with their big, mellow orbs half-shut.

Ferd looked down at them from his post on the hillside. It was hard watching, these hot July days. Nothing less imperative than the strict discipline of his uncle’s establishment could keep him awake and alert, as one must be, with some of the finest stock on the ranch under his supervision, and lawless Mexican cattle thieves about everywhere wanting only a chance to drive off a stray from the herd.

Ferd prodded himself with this fact as he found himself nodding dangerously under the shade of the scrub-oak where he sat with his dog. Ferd gave an extra sharp glance around to see that none of the cattle were straying.

They were all there, even to Black Moll, the pig, who, disdaining the society of her kind, devoted herself exclusively to the company of the cows as steadfastly as Touse, only that Touse was wont to run the wanderers down and bring them back, while Moll enjoyed straying as well as any of her bovine friends.

The story of Moll’s eccentricity was the choicest bit of history going about the ranch. In trying to get some corn that had fallen through cracks in the corn-crib under the barn, she had managed to wriggle through the hole made by two broken boards, and finding food plentiful, had been in no hurry to extricate herself from her retreat, though the ranch hands had tried in every way to induce her to move.

With the water, which was shoved under the barn daily, providing against suffering in this way, she lived under the barn for two weeks; when one day she suddenly appeared, having almost broken her back in her attempt to get out. Exile had changed Moll materially; for when she came back, she displayed a lofty and grunting contempt for her companion-pigs, keeping exclusively to the society of the cows.

There were a pair of dun-colored Jerseys to which she seemed particularly attached, and the spot where these chanced to be was a certain indication of Moll’s whereabouts.

Ferd saw the threw now close together, near the outer line of cattle, and smiled as he thought of Moll’s queer partiality. But how hot it looked down there in the valley! The glaring sunlight seemed to scorch the grass. Ferd put his hand over his eyes to shut out the glare as he stretched himself out in the shade of the tree.

Ferd opened his eyes with a start. Touse was down by the river edge scampering after the cows that were making for a bridge down the stream. Ferd roused himself with an effort and with sleepy eyes watched the dog round them in. It did not take long and as Touse raced in with the strays, Ferd, who was just beginning to realize how low the sun was, stood up and began hurriedly to count the herd. When he had finished he went over it all once more. Thirty-three – there was no mistake, and before he had closed his eyes the thirty-five were all in the valley. He got up on a big boulder and looked around. Apart from the herd there was no sign of an animal anywhere in sight. He went to where his pony was tethered at the foot of the slope, and mounting her, rode swiftly around the spur of hills that cut off the view of the lower valley. His new vantage gave him command of a stretch of level plain for at least two miles on either hand, and in that area no sign of the cows was visible.

Ferd’s heart sank as he thought of the home-going. What would his uncle say when he knew that he had slept at his post? He could guess beforehand the stern look that would come into his face – and who could tell that it might not result in his being sent back home in disgrace? Ferd shuddered as he thought of it.

Affairs at home had been bad enough before his mother’s death: but with her restraining influence removed, his stepfather had made their place a reproach to the locality; and when, a month since, Uncle Jake Perly rode over form his ranch in the next county and offered Ferd a home, the change was a comparative paradise. Ferd’s instincts were of the better sort, and his uncle’s household, though ruled with stern discipline, was a haven of righteousness after Pete Rider’s lawless one.

There were no idlers permitted at his uncle’s ranch, and Ferd was given charge of the herd through the day. Uncle Jake had already suffered considerable loss through the carelessness of his hired herd-boys, and in entrusting Ferd with the charge of the cattle, he had impressed upon him a clear sense of his responsibility.

It was with sorrowful heart that Ferd reflected upon the possible outcome of his mid-day sleep. If the cows were stolen, it would mean total loss, for it was not easy to gain possession of cattle that had been rebranded. If there were only someone here to go in search of them at once it might not be too late to save them! He looked back longingly in the direction of the ranch. If only one of the hired men would appear! But there was no one in sight in that direction, though a horseman had just turned the bend the other way and was coming toward him.

It was Joe Riley, a boy who sometimes worked for Ferd’s uncle, and Ferd hailed him with eagerness.

“Have you got anything special to do, Joe?”

“No. I’ve been trying herding over at Rugby’s, but they were too tough for me and I left.”

Ferd told him about the strays.

“Won’t you stay with the herd till I take a look around? I can’t bear the thought of going back without them.”

“I don’t wonder,” said Joe with a smile. “I wouldn’t face your uncle with the news for fifty dollars, if I’d been to blame. By the way, I wonder if the animals Sam Smith told me about could have been yours. He passed our place a while ago and asked me if we’d lost any stock. Said he’d seen two cows and a black pig makin’ tracks towards the top of Hyde’s hill as fast as their legs could carry them.”

“Black Moll and the Jerseys!” exclaimed Ferd. He had not had time to notice which of the cows were gone – or that Black Moll was not among those left, but Joe’s story left him no doubt as to the identity of the strays.

“You’d better get on your horse and go after them as quick as you can,” said Joe. “I’ll stay with the herd till you get back, and if you don’t catch up with them before sundown I’ll drive the rest home.”

Ferd hurriedly proceeded to act upon this advice, and as he turned to gallop away he called out, “Tell Uncle I shan’t come back till I can bring them with me, Joe.”

Hyde’s hill was only two miles to the north. With Bess at her best, it did not take long to reach the spot, and purring the mare up to the easy ascent, Ferd passed the crest and looked eagerly around. He could see no sign of the strays, and as the valley below was broken by big clumps of timber, he was afraid his search was to be difficult.

Riding down the hill he left the road and rounded the nearest stretch of trees, hoping to gain a glimpse of them beyond, but without avail. In the clearing, a short way ahead, he espied a house, and rode up to the door. an old man answered his knock and Ferd hastened to put his question.

“Jerseys?” he repeated. “Why, I saw two Jerseys and a black pig about an hour back skirting along them trees the other side of the road. They were druv by a man a-horseback; looked like one o’ the Rugby gang, but I couldn’t make out for sure because o’ distance and the sun bein’ in my eyes. If the Rugbys have got hold of ‘em you might’s well go back home.”

“Where is Rugby’s place?” asked Ferd with sinking heart.

“It’s about five miles northwest o’ here; you keep the road till you’re clear o’ the next strip o’ woods and then take the one that turns west.”

Ferd touched Bess lightly with his spurs and galloped away. It was nearly sundown, and there was no time to lose. It was in fact just as the sun sank from sight below the hills that he came in sight of Rugby’s ranch, which was known as the haunt and refuge of outlaws throughout the country.

In his ride to the ranch Ferd had mentally formulated a daring plan. He knew Rugby’s by reputation well enough to guess that if the strays had fallen into their hands, he could not hope to regain them except by strategy. His uncle had suffered once before through their trickery; and though the clue given him by the old man was indefinite, it was the best and only one he could act upon.

Riding boldly through the gates, which were still unfastened, he spoke to a couple of men who were washing their hands and faces at a pump in the back yard.

“Is Joe Rugby here?” he asked.

“I’m Joe Rugby,” answered the elder of the two, eyeing Ferd as he wiped his hands on the rough towel.

“I’m Pete Rider’s step-son,” volunteered Ferd, his knowledge of some of his step-father’s dealings with the Rugbys making him use his name with assurance.

“You’re all right, then,” the man answered with tardy cordiality. “Pete Rider’s all right, and I’ll be glad to hear what word he has went.”

“I wanted a change, and I’ve come to see if you’d take me on the herd,” said Ferd. “I heard you was without a boy, and thought maybe you’d give the job to me.”

“You’re right about our wantin’ one, and if you think you’re fit for the job I don’t see why you shouldn’t have it.”

“I’ve herded nearly ever since I can remember,” said Ferd confidently.

“Well, I guess if you can suit Pete Rider you’ll suit us,” said Jake with a meaning laugh. “Did you come purposin’ to stay tonight?”

“Yes,” said Ferd stoutly.

“Had your supper?” Jake questioned.

“No,” Ferd answered. ‘I haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast.”

“Well, I guess you’re ready for a meal, then? Tie your horse to the fence there and come in to supper.”

Ferd did as he was bidden and was led into the kitchen, where a half dozen men were already gathered at the supper table. Jake introduced him by stating Ferd’s business, and after a few minutes’ talk among them he was left to eat his meal in silence.

After supper the rest of the men went down to the corral to do the milking, and after putting his horse in the stable, as Jake directed, Ferd eagerly followed them.

Leaning over the low bars, he made a rapid but cautious inspection of the cattle in the inclosure. There were four or five Jerseys among them; the most of them dun-colored, and having a general resemblance to the two strays.

He did not dare go close to them for fear of awakening suspicion; and though he knew that they might be driven away through the night as a precaution in case of search being made for them, he was forced to go to bred at last, without having satisfied himself with any positiveness as to the strays being at Rugby’s ranch.

The next morning he was up before five, helping with the milking; and as he sat with his head against the flank of a gentle white cow, a queer, crescent-shaped brand close up on the under side of her foreleg attracted his attention.

He had heard his uncle tell how he had tried to trace a valuable brace of cows that he had lost three years since, by that mark, but though a search had been made at Rugbys’, who were generally suspected of the theft, no animals of the color ever were found at the ranch. Ferd guessed that they had driven the two cows off in the night and sold them; but here certainly was the same brand in the identical spot as described by his uncle; and it was not unlike the Rugbys to make a bold bluff and bring the cattle back into the vicinity.

While he was busy surmising upon his chance discovery, scraps of conversation carried on between two of the men near him came to his ears.

“Seems to me ‘twas a big blunder to kill her so near home. The squealin’ must o’ been heard for miles around.”

“I didn’t hear it,” said the other.

“You wouldn’t hear a cannon fired in your ear, when you’re asleep,” laughed his companion. “All the same ‘twas enough to rouse the dead.”

“What set Jake on killin’ her?”

“Had to – she made such a row tryin’ to git to them cows. squealed and fought like mad when we put her in the pen with the rest o’ the pigs.”

Ferd’s heart begun to beat furiously.

What further proof needed he than this?

There could be no doubt they were talking of “Black Moll’ and if she were here, then, too, were the cows, and if so, probably were of those he had seen in the corral last night. After breakfast Jake came to him with detailed instructions as to the cattle.

“We don’t want you to take ‘em beyond ear-reach today,” he said. “There may be people round here makin’ trouble about strays, and if there is, just you blow three times on your whistle and we’ll come and settle ‘em. people round here seems to think we keep a free stray pound,” he went on with pretended indignation, “and go through our herd for everything in the shape of animals they lose, the year round.”

Ferd drove the cattle out of the gates hardly able to conceal his joy, as he saw the five Jerseys among the others. The spot Jake designated took him in the direction of Hyde’s Hill; and driving the cattle beyond the nearest stretch of timber, he selected a suitable place for pasturage. with the help of the dog they had sent out with him he succeeded in keeping them rounded in within “ear reach” of the ranch, as Jake had instructed him. But not within eye-reach. No sooner had the strip of woods shut him from view of the ranch, than Ferd dismounted, and fastening his horse nearby, proceeded to inspect the brands on the dun Jerseys. They were all cleverly executed, but Ferd was too familiar with the entire business not to detect the odor of the newly-singed hair on two of them, and the slight bundling that had let the iron slip short of the stem of the initial letter “P” that was to convert it into an “R.”

It had been indeed an easy chance for rebranding, as they had only to add the tail of the R to his uncle’s initial, and add the “J” with the ring, to complete the Rugby brand. The newly scorched hair was Ferd’s best proof, and so sure a one to him that he determined to lose no time in acting upon his conviction. He had already decided what to do. To attempt to drive the cows home would be madness, as they would probably miss him before half of the twelve miles could be covered with the slow-moving cows.

The only way was to ride towards home himself as swiftly as possible with his news, trusting to the chance of meeting someone who would bear his message while he could perhaps return to his charge and allay suspicion. His plans were to succeed even better than he had hoped. Keeping in the shadow of the spruce and pine trees that lined the slope of Hyde’s Hill, he had just reached its crest when he saw riding up the opposite ascent, his uncle, with two of the farm hands, who were searching both for himself and the cattle. In a few words he told them of his strategy and the discoveries he had made, and acting upon his suggestion the three men waited till Ferd rode back to the herd to report conditions.

In a few moments they saw Ferd’s red handkerchief below waving them to come forward; and a short ride brought them in sight of the herd.

It took but a short time to verify Ferd’s discoveries. Henry Perly finding among the cattle not only the white cow which Ferd had by chance identified, but also the other valuable animal that had disappeared at the same time.

Not wishing to dispose of the two valuable milch-cows, the Rugbys had boldly brought them back to their ranch, trusting to their usual luck, and the fact of the long time of their absence to guard against their being identified.

It was no easy task driving the four cows back through the trees and underbrush to the top of the hill beyond sight of the Rugbys’ ranch, but they knew if they were once seen it would mean an onset by the entire gang at Rugby’s who outnumbered them three to one.

Previous encounters with them had satisfied the little party that discretion was the better part of valor, even with right distinctly on their side. It was not yet noon when they arrived home safely with their property, and a telegram sent to the county seat brought the sheriff with a half dozen deputies to the ranch in two hours’ time.

It needed only the positive proof in Henry Perly’s possession to give the sheriff a long-yearned-for chance of arresting the members of the Rugby outfit, and breaking up an establishment and organization that had been a menace to the county for many years.

On the day following the arrest, Perly called his nephew into the best room, a spot usually reserved for state and momentous occasions.

“We have got to have a reckoning, Ferdinand,” said his uncle with one of his sternest expressions on his face. “You proved unfaithful to the trust I placed in you, and I must punish you, however much I dislike the task. I have engaged Joe Riley to take charge of my cattle henceforth, and I am going to send you away.”

The swift tears started in Ferd’s eyes.

“Where can I go if I leave you, Uncle?” he asked chokingly.

“You are to go to school in Denver for two years,” said his uncle in a surprising matter of fact tone; “and after that to Annapolis University, if you prove yourself as smart in your examinations as you have in this Rugby business.” Then his stern face relaxed into a kind smile; and though Ferd’s tears flowed unrestrainedly at his sentence of banishment, it was for joy exclusively, and with no sense of shame.



2 Comments »

  1. Positively Dickensian.

    Comment by Ellen — March 24, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  2. An interesting example of the idea that strategy is not the same as dishonesty.

    Comment by Coffinberry — March 24, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

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