Florence Finch Kelly
With Hoops of Steel
Owen Wister’s The Virginian and Florence Finch Kelly’s With Hoops of Steel were the first of the modern cow-boy novels. Twenty-five years have passed since Mrs. Kelly’s enthralling story first appeared – September, 1900. Most of the novels published then and since, are dead and forgotten. Not so With Hoops of Steel. It was in continuous demand from its first friendly welcome by the critics until the World War turned public attention to Europe. Even so its vitality persisted, justified this new edition, and seems to warrant the belief that the present generation will find its story interest as vivid and as exciting as did the past, and its value even greater, for it presents an authentic portrait of the old southwestern cattlemen and a fascinating picture of a phase of national development now passed into history.
The soft, muffling dusk settled slowly downward from the darkening blue sky and little by little smothered the weird gleam that rose from the gray-white plain. Away toward the east a range of mountains gloomed faintly, rimming the distance. Another towered against the western horizon. Cactus clumps and bunches of mesquite and greasewood blotted the whitely gleaming earth. In and out among these dark spots a man was slowly riding. Now and then he leaned forward and looked keenly through the growing darkness as though searching for some familiar landmark. The horse lagged across the heavy sand, with drooping head and ears. The rider patted its neck with a buckskin gloved hand and spoke cheerily to the tired animal:
“Hot and tired, ain’t you, old fellow? You want your supper and a big drink of water. Well, you oughtn’t to have wandered off the road while I was asleep. Now, I sure reckon we’ve got to bunk on a sand heap to-night and wait till daylight to find out where we are.”
Again he peered through the dusk, and a little ray of light came glimmering from far away toward the right. He knew that it must come from either a ranch house or a camp-fire.
“I don’t remember any ranch as far up toward the White Sands as that seems to be,” he thought. “It must be a camp-fire. We don’t know whose it is, old pard, but we’re goin’ to take chances on it.”
He rode on in silence, the bridle lying loosely on the horse’s neck. All the senses of the plainsman were on the alert, his ears were strained to catch the faintest sound that might come from the direction of the fire, while his eyes alternately swept the darkened plain and fastened themselves on the light. His horse pricked up its ears and gave a loud whinny, which was answered in kind from the direction of the fire. Presently the man shouted a loud “hello,” but there was no reply. “That’s queer!” he thought. “My voice ought to carry that far, sure!” He waited a few moments, listening intently, then, drawing in a deep breath, he sent out another long, loud call that bellowed across the plain and sank into the far darkness. Still there was no reply, but when his horse neighed again there was instant response. The animal had quickened its pace and with head up and ears bent forward was rapidly lessening the distance between them and the light. The rider could see that it was a camp-fire, and soon could distinguish the flickering of the flames, but, in the illuminated circle around it there was no sign of human beings nor shadow of moving life. He drew rein and again sent a full lunged, far-reaching “hello-o-o” across the distance. The moon, just showing a silver edge above the mountain tops, threw a faint glimmer of light across the plain, making visible the nearest clumps of bushes.
“I guess that would mighty near wake a dead man. If there’s anybody alive around that camp they sure heard me this time,” he thought, as he looked and listened with straining eyes and ears. But there was no movement about the fire, and another whinny was the only sound that came from its direction. “Mighty queer!” was his inward comment, as his hand sought the revolver which hung by his side, while a light pressure of spurs started his horse forward again. Suddenly there was a swift rustle of the bushes beside him.
“Stop! Throw up your hands!”
A man had sprung from a tall clump of mesquite, and the traveler saw the faint light reflected from a gun barrel pointed straight at his breast. He stopped his horse, but did not respond to the other summons; instead, his fingers closed quickly over the butt of his revolver.
“Throw up your hands, or I’ll blow a hole through you!”
“Well, the drop’s yours, stranger, so here goes,” and the traveler’s hands went straight above his head.
“That’s better! Now, what do you want here?”
“I saw your camp-fire and I reckoned I might get some water for my horse and some supper for myself.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Thomson Tuttle.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Attendin’ to my own affairs and lettin’ other people’s alone.”
“You allowed just now it was my drop.” There was a note of warning in the man’s voice. The traveler hesitated a moment. The click of a trigger quickened his discretion.
“I am on my way from Muletown to Las Plumas, but I lost the road this afternoon and I’ve no idea where I am now. As soon as I saw your camp-fire I came straight for it, for my horse needs water mighty bad.”
There was a moment of silence. The moon was well above the mountains, and in its brightening light the form of the traveler stood out in ridiculous silhouette, his hands held high above his head. He could see plainly the figure of the man and the gun leveled at his breast.
“How long had you been in Muletown?”
“I got in this forenoon, and I guess I stopped an hour. I left about noon.”
“I started yesterday morning from Millbank. I had been there two days. I went there from Santa Fe. I’ve been in New Mexico about ten years, and I was born – ”
“Never mind about that. You can have some supper. Unfasten your belt with your left hand, and be sure to keep your right hand where it is.” Tuttle’s left hand fumbled a moment with his cartridge belt, and revolver and belt dropped to the ground.
“Put up your hands again until I fix these things.”
Again the traveler lifted his hands above his head, while the other buckled the belt around his own body, which it circled above another already heavy with cartridges and revolver. This latter weapon he drew from his holster, and, coming close beside Tuttle, held it at cock while he passed his hand lightly over the rider’s person.
“I guess you spoke the truth,” he said, returning the pistol to his belt, and again leveling the shot-gun. “Now, Mr. Thomson Tuttle, you’ve been a gentleman so far, and as long as you keep up that play you’ll be all right. You won’t be hurt if you don’t make any breaks. Take down your hands and we’ll go into camp and have some supper.”
Tuttle held his hands motionless in the air a moment longer as he said:
“Any objection to my askin’ who you are?”
“You said yourself that the drop’s mine.”
“All right, pard.”
As they neared the camp, the man called to him to dismount, walk forward and sit down in a wagon seat near the fire. Tuttle could see the wagon from which the seat had been taken, a small, light affair, standing back in the shadow, and near it two horses feeding. Another man stood a little way off with leveled gun, apparently relieving guard for the first. He was in the shade of a tall mesquite bush, but Tuttle could see that he was of medium height and build and was dressed in a Mexican suit of closely fitting, braided trousers and jacket. The wide brim of his Mexican sombrero was pulled low over his eyes, so that only the lower part of his face could be seen, and that dimly. But it was evidently dark-skinned, and the mouth was shaded by a black mustache. “Some Greaser scalawag,” was Tuttle’s immediate decision. The other unsaddled, watered and fed the horse, and then returned to the fire and began making coffee.
“We haven’t much to eat,” he said apologetically, “but you’re welcome to a share of whatever we’ve got.”
Soon he put beside Tuttle a supper of hot coffee, fried bacon, canned baked beans, and a loaf of bread. Then he sat on the ground near by and talked cheerfully while Tuttle ate, now and then urging him, in hospitable fashion, to eat heartily. But all the time he held his revolver in his hand, and the other man stood in the shadow with his Winchester ready to fire at a second’s notice. Tuttle and his captor talked on in a friendly way for half an hour after supper, while the other still kept guard from the shadow of the mesquite bush. At last the first man got up leisurely, took a flask from his pocket and handed it to Tuttle with the request, “Drink hearty, pard.” With a little flourish and a kindly “Here’s luck,” he took a long pull himself, then, telling Tuttle he could use his saddle for a pillow and lie down near the fire, he picked up his shot-gun and sat down on the wagon seat and the man who had stood beside the mesquite walked away into the bushes.
“Now,” said the man with the shot-gun, “you can sleep just as sound as a baby in its cradle, for I’m going to watch here and see that the coyotes don’t bite you. You’ll be safe,” and the note of warning filled his voice again, “as long as you don’t make any breaks.”
“I’m not a fool,” responded Tuttle, stretching out on the ground and resting his head against the saddle. Whenever he awoke during the night he saw his guard keeping alert watch, gun in hand and revolver by his side. Just before daybreak the other man returned and held guard while the first watered and saddled Tuttle’s horse and prepared breakfast. The captive was dimly conscious of the change, and then slept again until he was awakened at sunrise.
“I had a mind to wake you by shooting a button off your coat, just to see if that would do the business,” said his host, smiling pleasantly, as he handed Tuttle the flask which had done duty the night before. “I reckon you’re about the soundest sleeper I ever saw.”
By daylight Tuttle saw that the man was well along in middle life and that his face was smoothly shaven. Tuttle himself looked to be less than thirty years old. He was tall, broad of shoulder and big of girth, with large hands and great, round, well-muscled wrists that told of arms like limbs of oak and of legs like iron pillars.
The young man ate his breakfast alone, his captor standing near by and talking pleasantly with him, but holding alertly a shot-gun at half cock, while crouching behind a bunch of greasewood was the Mexican with a drawn pistol in his hands. As Tuttle mounted, the tall man called out sternly:
“Hold up your hands!”
Tuttle hesitated for a moment, looking at him in surprise.