THE equinoctial line itself is not more imaginary than the line which divided the estates of the three Johns. The herds of the three Johns roamed at will, and nibbled the short grass far and near without let or hindrance; and the three Johns themselves were utterly indifferent as to boundary lines. Each of them had filed his application at the office of the government land-agent; each was engaged in the tedious task of “proving up;” and each owned one-third of the L-shaped cabin which stood at the point where the three ranches touched. The hundred and sixty acres which would have completed this quadrangle had not yet been “taken up.”
The three Johns were not anxious to have a neighbor. Indeed, they had made up their minds that if one appeared on that adjoining “hun’erd an’ sixty,” it would go hard with him. For they did not deal in justice very much–the three Johns. They considered it effete. It belonged in the East along with other outgrown superstitions. And they had given it out widely that it would be healthier for land applicants to give them elbow-room. It took a good many miles of sunburnt prairie to afford elbow-room for the three Johns.
They met by accident in Hamilton at the land-office. John Henderson, fresh from Cincinnati, manifestly unused to the ways of the country, looked at John Gillispie with a lurking smile. Gillispie wore a sombrero, fresh, white, and expansive. His boots had high heels, and were of elegant leather and finely arched at the instep. His corduroys disappeared in them half-way up the thigh. About his waist a sash of blue held a laced shirt of the same color in place. Henderson puffed at his cigarette, and continued to look a trifle quizzical.
Suddenly Gillispie walked up to him and said, in a voice of complete suavity, “Damn yeh, smoke a pipe!”
“Eh?” said Henderson, stupidly.
“Smoke a pipe,” said the other. “That thing you have is bad for your complexion.”
“I can take care of my complexion,” said Henderson, firmly.
The two looked each other straight in the eye.
“You don’t go on smoking that thing till you have apologized for that grin you had on your phiz a moment ago.”
“I laugh when I please, and I smoke what I please,” said Henderson, hotly, his face flaming as he realized that he was in for his first “row.”
That was how it began. How it would have ended is not known–probably there would have been only one John–if it had not been for the almost miraculous appearance at this moment of the third John. For just then the two belligerents found themselves prostrate, their pistols only half-cocked, and between them stood a man all gnarled and squat, like one of those wind-torn oaks which grow on the arid heights. He was no older than the others, but the lines in his face were deep, and his large mouth twitched as he said:–
“Hold on here, yeh fools! There’s too much blood in you to spill. You’ll spile th’ floor, and waste good stuff. We need blood out here!”
Gillispie bounced to his feet. Henderson arose suspiciously, keeping his eyes on his assailants.
“Oh, get up!” cried the intercessor. “We don’t shoot men hereabouts till they git on their feet in fightin’ trim.”
“What do you know about what we do here?” interrupted Gillispie. “This is the first time I ever saw you around.”
“That’s so,” the other admitted. “I’m just down from Montana. Came to take up a quarter section. Where I come from we give men a show, an’ I thought perhaps yeh did th’ same here.”
“Why, yes,” admitted Gillispie, “we do. But I don’t want folks to laugh too much–not when I’m around–unless they tell me what the joke is. I was just mentioning it to the gentleman,” he added, dryly.
“So I saw,” said the other; “you’re kind a emphatic in yer remarks. Yeh ought to give the gentleman a chance to git used to the ways of th’ country. He’ll be as tough as th’ rest of us if you’ll give him a chance. I kin see it in him.”