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ERNEST HAYCOX

BORN TO CONQUER

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First published in Collier's, 21 Mar 1936

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-29
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PETER SKENE was standing at the runway of the stockyards in Sacramento when a new batch of steers came through, bigger and heavier than anything he'd ever seen before. Beef was his life, beef and horseflesh; and he had to know about those cattle. He didn't have to ask, for the gate tender saw the sharpness of his interest and said, "This stuff came from Oregon."

Next day when he got back to the ranch he went directly to old Henry Marr, whose foreman he was. Henry Marr sat on his front porch because his worn-out legs would let him do little else; there was an understanding between them that one day it would be Peter Skene's place. Nothing had ever been said about it, for neither man was a talker. Yet they both knew perfectly how it was to be.

It was a hard thing for Peter Skene to say. All that he now was he could thank Henry Man for, who had taken him as an orphan boy of seven and had raised him in the way he would have raised the son he never had. Yet the memory of those wild, bulky steers in the Sacramento yards wouldn't let him alone. And so he stood there in the hot golden afternoon light, looking up to Marr on the porch—and seeing Man's daughter come to the house doorway and stand very quietly there.

He said, "I'm going up to Oregon, Henry."

Taciturnity covered Man's face, as it always did. He might have said a good deal but it wasn't his way, and he knew it wasn't Peter Skene's way to listen. There was something hard and impetuous and self-willed in Peter Skene that, at twenty, had made him foreman over riders twice his age. He was small and light and many of those riders could have broken him with their hands had they wished to counter the temper suggesting itself always in his brilliant black eyes. They never had.

To think a thing was to do it. That was Peter Skene's way even then, as it was to be his way through the length of his life. So the next morning five hundred cows and six of Man's vaqueros were on the way north, with Peter Skene tarrying behind to say good-by. Henry Marr shook his hand and drawled, "Good luck," and the sense of regret and loss stirred powerfully between them. Afterward Man went into the house, leaving his daughter alone with Peter Skene.

There was a silence in this girl covering more than Peter Skene knew then, or ever did know. And there was a silence in him that, as long as he had been on this ranch, made him still a stranger to her. They were to have been married in the fall, but there was no talk of this now. Peter Skene held his hat carefully in his hand.

"When I get settled up there—when I find the range I want—I'll write."

She said, "I'll wait to hear from you."

"It may be a year. Might even be two years."

"I can wait two years, Pete."

That was all there was to be said between this man so filled with his thoughts and this girl who had no way of giving voice to hers. He bowed to Helen Man and climbed to his saddle and rode away. At the end of the ranch yard he turned briefly to lift his arm, and then was soon lost in the dust of that out-venturing herd. This was in May and north from the Marr ranch lay the vast sweep of desert and barren range and little alkali lakes and high pine hills.


In August, having traveled eight hundred miles over a country he had never seen before, toward some destination he could not foretell, he came around the base of a long, low mountain and arrived at the edge of a rim dropping three hundred feet to the floor of a valley footed along the mountain's base. There was a river flowing down the flats of the valley in lazy loops, flowing on as far as his eye could reach, melting away into the heat haze of a hot day. And standing there on the rim, seeing the valley so long and narrow and self-contained, seeing the lazy river nourish its bottoms, seeing the miles of graze reach back up into the hill slopes, Peter Skene knew he had at last reached the land he sought. There was in him even then a prescience about those things in his life which mattered. Land and water and grass, and cattle and horses. He only pointed to the valley's bottom. That night the caravan, so long on the road, had reached its home.

In him were two compulsions he could never escape: an impatience to be a-doing; a patience that could permit him to look on through the years and see what there was for him to achieve. It was the impatience that set him off the next morning down the length of the Bitter Valley, all along its narrow way for the matter of two days' riding, until finally he stood at a spot where the mouth of the valley widened out before a mile-wide lake overclouded by the wheeling hordes of wildfowl. Beyond the lake the flat plain of South Central Oregon ran on and on. It was impatience that took him on this trip; but when he returned up the valley it was patience that whispered to him what he could do, what he would do. He knew his destiny then more surely than any man ever knew it. Looking at this landlocked Bitter Valley and the river, and the rising slopes of the Bitter Hills, he saw what all the rest of his life was to be like.

That fall he had his first log houses raised and his first corrals built, thus establishing his right. For it was a new land without title or the need of title, the squatter possessing what he squatted on. Far up beyond the lake, Andy McKee had laid his claim to Silver River. Over west in the direction of Wagontire, Bill Turlock was establishing the XX. In the east, beyond the Bitter Mountains, Ed Overton and a few others were spreading out their herds. Elsewhere the land was open and free to the small settlers creeping in. There was enough for all.

Twenty miles down the Bitter Valley two families arrived. Peter Skene saw them settle and said nothing. There would come a day when his own cattle would graze that far—and on that day he knew he would have their land. Until then he could wait.


It was the following spring that Egan took his Piutes on the war trail. Sweeping up out of Nevada with a thousand warriors, women and children, Egan struck the base of Bitter Mountains and cut his swath around it, burning and killing and stealing as he came. Peter Skene saw them coming and fought them from his log houses. When they had passed by he had saved his houses and nothing else. All his horses and all his cattle were gone. For a hundred miles the country was bare and every other settler and cattleman had retreated to the shelter of Fort Harney, eighty miles away.

For Peter Skene it was life or death. There was for him, with his ambitions, no other way. And so, with his six vaqueros he took Egan's trail, not to fight but to get his cattle back. All that spring he scoured the country, never hesitating to kill when he found isolated warriors, never hesitating to take the cattle he found and the horses he found. When he was finished with them he had his cattle again—and more horses than he originally had owned. Up north Egan was killed and the Piutes came straggling back, defeated and sullen, and dangerous to lonely settlers. The two families at the lower end of the Bitter River moved out; other settlers moved out and some of the newly established ranchers lost their courage. Whenever they left, Peter Skene was there to buy what they wished to sell. Along the slopes of the Bitter Mountains and along the winding course of the Bitter River, his herds began to spread under the amber desert sunshine. At the end of his third year he made his first drive to the nearest shipping point, at Winnemucca, three hundred miles away.

He was twenty-three then—a man established, already one of the big figures of the country. At roundup time beyond the lakes he sat with Andy McKee and Bill Turlock and Ed Overton and between them they made the law. There was a thousand miles of space around them and some of the little outfits were coming back and a town was breaking the dust near Fort Harney. But they made the law. He was proud of that and he often thought of it as he stood at the head of the Bitter and watched the slow growth of his own home quarters. He was hauling lumber two hundred miles for his main house; he had planted long rows of poplars to shade that house in time to come. His barns sat beside the winding Bitter, his willow and juniper hay fences made round dots all down the valley; and his cattle grazed on the high slopes. He thought of that and was proud; and then it occurred to him he had made his settlement and that three years had run by since he had written to Henry Marr's daughter.

That day he wrote the letter, and sent one of his vaqueros all the way to Fort Harney to get it on the stage mail. And that day, too, he stumbled upon something that was to change the course of his life. Riding out into the upper defiles of the Bitter Mountains he came upon the lone tracks of a cow, and followed it and presently tipped over into a little meadow where an old trapper named Nick LeStang and his Piute squaw holed up. The beef was there, slaughtered and strung to a tree. LeStang saw him come, and walked into the yard, quietly sucking at his pipe. The squaw went back into the cabin; but a dark boy, no more than nine, came to stand at LeStang's side and to let his round half-breed eyes pour distrust on Peter Skene.

Skene said, "Eatin' beef now, Nick?"

LeStang said, "Your beef. I was in this country before you came to claim it, Skene. You can consider that steer in the light of rent money for the use of my land."

Skene always rode with a gun and he could have killed LeStang then. Often in later times, he wondered why he had not, for this was rustling and toward rustlers Skene practiced a terrible and condign retribution. But it was the way LeStang faced him, so cool and so blunt and so nervy. Skene had to admire that; he could not help himself. He said, "All right, Nick. As long as you've got to eat, it's there for you. But never let it be more than eatin.'" The boy looked on, his Indian eyes round and restless.

Skene had, a few months later, his answer from Helen Marr. She said, "I waited two years, as you asked. I'm sorry."

He was to think of that often. He had lost her by a year. Time had done that to him. It was a thing that was to make him bitter against time, to resent the swift run of the days, to hate the sight of a calendar, until at last he lived only by the turn of the seasons, disregarding all else.

But he was a man, with a need that had to be satisfied. He knew no other way to explain it to himself. And shortly thereafter he hitched up his fastest team of horses to a rig and drove seventy miles out to the new town of Prairie growing up near the fort. There was a saloon and a blacksmith shop, and a store; and the storekeeper had two daughters. Peter Skene had seen them once, no more. When he reached Prairie he found one of those daughters tending store for her father, who slept dead drunk in the adjoining saloon. He returned to the Bitter River ranch two days later with his new wife.

It was like that with him—the brusque and impatient consummation of a thing that had to be done. Women were scarce in the country and he thought himself lucky to get her; but in his own realistic mind he knew why she had made the bargain: he was Peter Skene, of the Bitter. It was the way he looked at it, hard-minded and unsentimental, but fair enough to respect her part of the bargain.

Yet there was a strangeness about her that sometimes made him stop to think; and there was a part of her he never did understand. She was afraid of him—for that first night she stood at the bedroom door and watched him with her knees trembling beneath her nightgown and her eyes so wide that he had no recourse but to leave the house entirely and sleep in the crew's quarters. It was the last time she ever let him see that fear, but the memory of it was always there. Never afterward did he really get behind the settled composure she adopted; though once, when their boy was born, he saw something in her eyes that took him all the way back to the day he had left Helen Marr. The same look—like hunger, or hope, or hurt. He didn't know.

She was lucky for him. He was on a rising tide now, flush with the power of his ambition. Whatever he touched seemed to make money; and others knew it and came to him. The poplars were growing up around the house and his irrigation ditches crawled slowly down the valley and his cattle grazed higher and higher in the hills. Skene's Glen, he called the place. It was the center of that long, deep and empty land. Stages stopped here, bound from Harney all the way to Lakeview. Cattlemen, driving to Winnemucca, came here. Around his table he might have as many as twenty visitors and never know himself to be crowded. New settlers, out of money and out of food, came. He gave them food, but never any encouragement, for his grip on the Bitter Valley was a surer thing and he wanted no neighbors in it. He had partitioned the country with McKee and Bill Turlock and Ed Overton and this was his piece of it. To be bought, or to be claimed, or to be seized. It didn't matter how; but always to be held.


More houses went up along the river to shelter those who came to work for him. His men went away and came back with their new wives, and in a little time youngsters were crawling underfoot, playing with his own boy, who learned to walk late—and never learned to hold his own.

It might have been his fault; he could never decide that. For these were the days when he was driving himself, when the picture he had first seen from the rim was growing on him and cutting its pattern deeper and deeper into his mind. The Bitter Valley—all of it, clear down to the lake; all of it, high up to the crown of the mountains. This was his dream, as he had seen it from the very beginning. It had its way with him until it came to be the central fact of his life, diminishing the importance of all those other loyalties that a man grows to have.

So it might have been his fault that he had little understanding of this pale, shy little boy. Sometimes at night, camped out on his long swings around the high desert, he had his moments of reflection—and then remembered; and sometimes, when he swung back to the Glen, he had time to sit before the boy and to judge him in silence. He wanted a riding son—another Skene to stand at the edge of the rim and see the Bitter as he saw it and to feel that same hungry ambition.

He knew, presently, that this was not to be. One gray, windy evening he stood in the Glen yard and watched his son fighting with the foreman's boy. He stood there, his black eyes glittering a little, trying to throw his own fiery, fighting instincts across the yard. But he could not; and young Pete put his arms across his face to stop the other boy's blows and sat down in the dust, crying in a strangling way.

Peter Skene went over to the milk barn and found his wife with the cows. It was one of her chores, for none of the riders would milk. Skene said:

"What's the matter with Pete?"

He wasn't able to know what her thoughts were. She looked up from the milk pail, composed and strange-eyed, and beyond the point of asking anything of him. She said, "He's had asthma for the last year."

"Didn't know it."

She said quietly, "You've been busy with other things."

To think was to act. He knew no other way. That night he sent a man to Fort Harney for a doctor. Four days later the doctor came down and had his look at the boy. "Nothing," he said afterward, "I can do for your son. It's the dust or the hay—or some kind of weed around here. There's no cure."

Peter Skene hated the doctor for that fatalism. It was something he could not brook. He said, "No cure?"

"Maybe one thing would cure him," said the doctor. "To move out of this country to a different climate."


After the doctor had gone Peter Skene saw his wife sitting there in the front room with the boy on her lap, rocking him; his little arms were around her neck; and Peter Skene knew he had no son then. He had nothing to say. The next morning he was on the road, traveling down the Bitter in his light rig wagon driven by a pair of fast gray mares.

It was this way with him always. Energy drove him and the needs of the ranch filled his head. All down that valley his eyes roved the meadows and saw where they were to be ditched, and scanned the rims and saw where they were to be fenced. Crouched beside his campfire that night his thoughts kept reaching outward; they kept pushing the barriers back. Next day he was at Fort Harney. A week later he crossed the Wagontire country; in another four days he was at Lakeview, buying cattle. A month later he returned to the Glen. The day of his return his wife packed her luggage.

She was calm about it, calm and beyond argument. "I'm taking Pete to Portland. He's got to have the change."

She had been a good wife and a loyal one. But there were times when she was a thousand miles away from him and no part of his will could touch her. It was like this now. When she was ready to leave, packed in a wagon with a Glen driver, he stood a moment by the rig and carefully searched himself for something he wanted to say. But, as on the first day he had met this woman, he could only be casual. "Portland will probably do him good. Stay long enough to find out. Write me your address and I'll see that you are kept in money. Tell me when you get ready to come back." He shook the boy's hand and said, "Be good, son," and waited for a smile that never came. His wife looked down at him and he thought her eyes were gentler than they had been. It reminded him of something unseen brushing past, just outside his grasp. But it was soon gone. He stood in the yard and watched them drive away.

He thought about that scene—the shape of it clear and strange before him—when she wrote back to give him her address. In their years together he had taught her to be laconic; and now, because of that teaching, she had nothing to tell him. He considered that for a while, and walked around the house, its emptiness touching him in a faint way. When he answered the letter a month later it was only to say that winter had come to the Bitter and that she would find money placed in the Portland First National at her disposal. He hoped the boy was better.

And then he put the matter temporarily out of his mind, for winter struck the desert wickedly that year, sweeping it with a destroying wind and burying it in snow. During the three months that followed he could remember no time when he had as much as six hours' sleep. He was in truth fighting for his life—with the blizzards threatening to wipe him out of existence.

In the middle of it, Nick LeStang died and Pete Skene went up to the old-timer's hill cabin to conduct the funeral services. LeStang's squaw was getting old. And LeStang's boy had become a man, at nineteen, to remind Pete Skene that eleven years had gone by since his first entry into Oregon. Over LeStang's grave he remembered that and for a moment the horizons of his mind opened up and he saw himself as a youngster riding away from Henry Marr's ranch; and remembered Helen Man standing in the sunlight, saying good-by to him. It was only a brief flash, soon gone. He stood by LeStang's grave and recited David's Psalm, and watched his vaqueros cover LeStang up. Afterward he spoke to LeStang's boy, feeling an obligation toward him as he had felt toward the elder LeStang.

"Billy," he said, "there's a place for you down on the ranch. I'll be expectin' you."

Bill LeStang looked at him out of dark, smoldering, half-breed eyes. It was as long ago when he had first seen Peter Skene. That same instant hatred was there, beyond explanation. "I don't want your damned job, or your damned charity," he said, and turned away.


That winter Peter Skene butchered many cows to support the little settlers who hovered along the rim overlooking his valley. In a way he was a lord of the district; he could let no man starve.


When spring came most of them were too disheartened to stick. He bought their little chattels and their few cows and was glad to see them go. He had come through the winter with small loss while all around him men were ruined. Over east of the Bitter Mountains, Ed Overton announced his intention of quitting and going back to California. Peter Skene hitched up his rig and started that way. He bought out Overton's stock, and began a long swing that carried him through the Malheur country and far up into the north, toward the John Day. Wherever he found a discouraged man, he bought. And presently the gaunt, winter-starved cattle began pouring into the Bitter.

In after years he was to remember that time as another one of the turning points of his life. He stripped himself of money; but he was Peter Skene, whose credit was good, whose luck had always held. It was his audacity that carried him on when other men had no courage.

That spring he wrote to his wife, suddenly remembering he had not heard from her. The weather was mild and when was she returning? He had his answer a month later. The boy had improved, but she was afraid that it was too early to think of coming back. She had started him to school and he was doing well. Peter Skene wrote back that he was glad to hear the boy did well. She would find what money she needed at the First National.

This was the last letter he ever wrote to her; nor did he ever get another from her. That summer the First National informed him she was no longer drawing on the account he had established for her. When he got the news he went to his desk and read the little pile of letters he had saved, and afterward saddled his horse and took a ride into the hills. It was late fall before he went to Portland. She wasn't at any address she had ever given him. At the bank he found a small package from her containing her wedding ring and a little silver drinking cup he recalled having given the boy on the latter's second birthday. There was no explanation. He never heard from them again.


These were the years that silence came on him and pride stiffened him. Gray came into the coal-black surface of his hair and the line of his mouth was set past changing. Neat in his dress and exact in his talk, he could travel five hundred miles from the Glen and have his bare word accepted as bond. And five years from the time he lost trace of his wife and boy he climbed the rim of the Bitter to stand on the point from which he first had seen this valley, and told himself his ambition was achieved. From the beginning of the valley to the lake sixty miles north, from this rim to the crest of the Bitter Mountains—this was his ranch, completed and held.

But the country was changing and the great days of open range and lordly partition were going by. Title trouble was developing and settlers were coming in to make dry-land farms, and resentment was rising against the great owners and the cattle rustler was having his turn. And the dry cycle came on, burning the graze and shallowing the lakes and streams.

Against these things Peter Skene fought with all his resources and all his unchangeable will. Long ago he had known the dry spell would come, and had dug his irrigation canals against it. As for the rustlers, he dealt with them as he had dealt with the Piutes; impelled by the same merciless need for survival. His vaqueros were loyal to him, they knew his will. Wherever he found rustlers he showed them no charity. Out on the lonely rimrock or up in the high pines—they died there.

But the settlers kept coming on. He had fenced his valley and his cattle ranged it. But there were spots he had not bothered to buy; in the old days occupation was sufficient. And the settlers, seeing these pieces on the government map, came in and squatted. Peter Skene had one policy. He went to them with an offer which he thought fair. If they refused it, his vaqueros did the chore that had to be done, shooting them off, burning them off, starving them off.

The prairie town had grown to twenty buildings; and guns flashed out along that town's street. And out in the sagebrush cattlemen and settlers fought their own fight while the buzzards looked on. Up on Silver River, Andy McKee was slowly pulling in his borders, making concessions to the settlers; on Wagontire, Jim Turlock took his fences down from sections he didn't own, and began to run sheep on his own rightful land.

The day of the great outfit thus slowly faded before the dawn of the small man's day. Of this Peter Skene was dimly, stubbornly aware...


He rode down the valley one fall day and came upon the lake, whose borders had receded a good half mile. In that new strip of dry land he saw a little pine shack. He went toward it instantly, because he could not help himself. Nick LeStang's son stood in the doorway, watching him out of black, surly eyes.

"Billy," said Peter Skene, "there's always a job for you in the Glen. But you're squattin' on my land."

Billy LeStang said carefully, "Your land ends where the border of the lake used to be. This strip is lake bed—and open to entry."

"No, Billy," said Peter Skene. "My right goes out to the middle of the lake. It always has."

"Listen," said Billy LeStang. "My old man lived off you like a pauper. But I don't. I'll stick here."

When Peter Skene returned to the Glen he sent a crew back to the lake with a load of wire. "Run the fence out to the water."

They did that. But the next time one of his riders passed the lake the fence was cut. The rider came back to tell Peter Skene; and old Diego, his foreman, said, "We'll go down there. He's a kid and he ain't learned much."

"No," said Peter Skene. "Never mind."

It wasn't like him. Diego, who had been a Skene man for all those years, looked at him, not understanding. But Peter Skene was remembering all the way back to that time when he had known Billy LeStang as a little boy. He was the son of a man who had been a Glen pioneer and there was that sense of duty in Peter Skene that wouldn't go down. The Glen was a world by itself and every living thing nourished by the Glen had a kinship. Sitting in the shadows of the poplars, Peter Skene saw the twilight flowing like water across his valley. The liquid echo of the Bitter clucked beside the willows; and a child laughed pleasantly in Diego's house—Diego's grandson and the third generation in the Glen.

Completely alone, Peter Skene walked back into his own house, and stood in the front room a little while as though he were listening for an expected voice to come down the hall. There was a mark cut in the edge of the fireplace which he remembered as being the height of his own boy at four years. He had backed young Pete up to the wall and had made that mark with his knife. But the boy hadn't understood his purpose and had cried until his mother came out of the kitchen. It was a strange thing the way a man's mind backtracked to earlier times. He didn't like it and didn't believe in it. Yet his thoughts were all clear, and of the past. And when he thought of Helen Marr, whom he had known so long ago, and of his wife and boy sitting in the wagon that took them away forever from the Glen, there was a queer feeling in him—as though something brushed past him, just beyond his reach.


At first light next morning he got on his horse and headed down the valley. Late in the day he came to the lake and Billy LeStang's house. Billy had cut the fences; and Billy stood across from the gap, watching him ride up.

Peter Skene got down from his horse and walked forward.

LeStang said, "Don't cross that wire."

Peter Skene stared, a whip-figured man who never had known fear of another man. He said, "Billy, you said the wrong thing," and walked forward deliberately across the wire.

He hadn't noticed a gun on Billy LeStang. But the younger man reached inside his coat and whipped out a revolver. He raised it carefully and aimed it at Peter Skene's chest; and fired once.

Skene fell slowly, his arms reaching forward to break his fall. There was one black and desperate thought in him as he died—one thought that shoved its way through the whole history of his life to speak for him at this last interval: What will become of the Glen? And then he was dead; and an era had closed.


THE END