"Rufus Hardy," cried Miss Lucy indignantly, "if you mention those sheep again until you are asked about them, I'll have you attended to. Do you realize how far I have come to see your poems and hear you talk the way you used to talk? And then to hear you go on in this way! I thought at first that Mr. Creede was a nice man, but I am beginning to change my opinion of him. But you have just got to be nice to me and Kitty while we are here. I had so many things to tell you about your father, and Tupper Browne, and The Circle, but you just sit around so kind of close-mouthed and silent and never ask a question! Wouldn't you like to know how your father is?" she asked.
"Why, yes," responded Hardy meekly. "Have you seen him lately?"
"I saw him just before we came away. He is dreadfully lonely, I know, but he wouldn't send any message. He never says anything when I tell him what you are doing, just sits and twists his mustache and listens; but I could tell by the way he said good-bye that he was glad I was coming. I am sorry you can't agree—isn't there something you could do to make him happier?"
Hardy looked up from his dish-washing with a slow smile.
"Which do you think is more important?" he asked, "for a man to please his father or his best friend?"
Lucy suspected a trap and she made no reply.
"Did you ever quote any of my poetry to father?" inquired Hardy casually. "No? Then please don't. But I'll bet if you told him I was catching wild horses, or talking reason to these Mexican herders, you'd have the old man coming. He's a fighter, my father, and if you want to make him happy when you go back, tell him his son has just about given up literature and is the champion bronco-twister of the Four Peaks range."
"But Rufus—would that be the truth?"
Hardy laughed. "Well, pretty near it—but I'm trying to please my best friend now."
"Oh," said Lucy, blushing. "Will—will that make much difference?" she asked.
"All the difference in the world," declared Hardy warmly. "You want me to become a poet—he wants me to become a fighter. Well now, since I haven't been able to please him, I'm going to try to please you for a while."
"Oh, Rufus," cried Lucy, "am I really—your best friend?"
"Why sure! Didn't you know that?" He spoke the words with a bluff good-fellowship which pleased her, in a way, but at the same time left her silent. And he, too, realized that there was a false note, a rift such as often creeps in between friends and if not perceived and checked widens into a breach.
"You know," he said, quietly making his amends, "when I was a boy my father always told me I talked too much; and after mother died I—well, I didn't talk so much. I was intended for a soldier, you know, and good officers have to keep their own counsel. But—well, I guess the habit struck in—so if I don't always thank you, or tell you things, you will understand, won't you? I wasn't raised to please folks, you know, but just to fight Indians, and all that. How would you like to be a soldier's wife?"
"Not very well, I am afraid," she said. "All the fear and anxiety, and—well, I'm afraid I couldn't love my husband if he killed anybody." She paused and glanced up at him, but he was deep in thought.
"My mother was a soldier's wife," he said, at last; and Lucy, seeing where his thoughts had strayed, respected his silence. It was something she had learned long before, for while Rufus would sometimes mention his mother he would never talk about her, even to Lucy Ware. So they finished their housework, deep in their own thoughts. But when at last they stepped out into the sunshine Lucy touched him on the arm.
"Wouldn't you like to bring your poems with you?" she suggested. "We can read them when we have found the spring. Is it very beautiful up there?"
"Yes," answered Hardy, "I often go there to write, when nobody is around. You know Jeff and all these cowboys around here don't know that I write verse. They just think I'm a little fellow from somewhere up in California that can ride horses pretty good. But if I had handed it out to them that I was a poet, or even a college man, they would have gone to tucking snakes into my blankets and dropping chili bravos into my beans until they got a rise out of me, sure. I learned that much before I ever came up here. But I've got a little place I call my garden—up in the canyon, above Hidden Water—and sometimes I sneak off up there, and write. Would you like to see a poem I wrote up there? All right, you can have the rest some other time." He stepped into the storeroom, extracted a little bundle from his war bag, and then they passed on up the valley together.
The canyon of the Alamo is like most Arizona stream beds, a strait-jacket of rocky walls, opening out at intervals into pocket-like valleys, such as the broad and fertile flat which lay below Hidden Water. On either side of the stream the banks rise in benches, each a little higher and broader and more heavily covered: the first pure sand, laid on by the last freshet; the next grown over with grass and weeds; the next bushed up with baby willows and arrow weed; and then, the high bench, studded with mesquite and palo verdes; and at the base of the solid rim perhaps a higher level, strewn with the rocks which time and the elements have hurled down from the cliff, and crested with ancient trees. Upon such a high bench stood the Dos S ranch house, with trails leading off up and down the flat or plunging down the bank, the striated cliff behind it and the water-torn valley below.
Up the canyon a deep-worn path led along the base of the bluff; and as the two best friends followed along its windings Hardy pointed out the mysteries of the land: strange trees and shrubs, bristling with thorns; cactus in its myriad forms; the birds which flashed past them or sang in the wild gladness of springtime; lizards, slipping about in the sands or pouring from cracks in the rocks—all the curious things which his eyes had seen and his mind taken note of in the long days of solitary riding, and which his poet's soul now interpreted into a higher meaning for the woman who could understand. So intent were they upon the wonders of that great display that Lucy hardly noticed where they were, until the trail swung abruptly in toward the cliff and they seemed to be entering a cleft in the solid rock.
"Where do we go now?" she asked, and Hardy laughed at her confusion.
"This is the gate to Hidden Water," he said, lowering his voice to its old-time poetic cadence. "And strait is the way thereof," he added, as he led her through the narrow pass, "but within are tall trees and running water, and the eagle nests undisturbed among the crags."
"What are you quoting?" exclaimed Miss Lucy, and for an answer Rufus beckoned her in and pointed with his hand. Before them stood the tall trees with running water at their feet, and a great nest of sticks among the crags.
"Hidden Water!" he said, and smiled again mysteriously.
Then he led the way along the side of the stream, which slipped softly over the water-worn bowlders, dimpling in pool after pool, until at the very gate of the valley it sank into the sand and was lost. Higher and higher mounted the path; and then, at the foot of a smooth ledge which rose like a bulwark across the gorge, it ended suddenly by the side of a cattle-tracked pool.
"This is the wall to my garden," said Hardy, pointing to the huge granite dyke, "beyond which only the elect may pass." He paused, and glanced over at her quizzically. "The path was not made for ladies, I am afraid," he added, pointing to a series of foot holes which ran up the face of the ledge. "Do you think you can climb it?"
Lucy Ware studied his face for a moment; then, turning to the Indian stairway, she measured it with a practised eye.
"You go up first," she suggested, and when he had scaled the slippery height and turned he found her close behind, following carefully in his steps.
"Well, you are a climber!" he cried admiringly. "Here, give me your hand." And when he had helped her up he still held it—or perhaps she clung to his.
Before them lay a little glade, shut in by painted rocks, upon whose black sides were engraved many curious pictures, the mystic symbols of the Indians; and as they stood gazing at it an eagle with pointed wings wheeled slowly above them, gazing with clear eyes down into the sunlit vale. From her round nest in the crotch of a sycamore a great horned owl plunged out at their approach and glided noiselessly away; and in the stillness the zooning of bees among the rocks came to their ears like distant music. Beneath their feet the grass grew long and matted, shot here and there with the blue and gold of flowers, like the rich meadows of the East; and clustering along the hillsides, great bunches of grama grass waved their plumes proudly, the last remnant of all that world of feed which had clothed the land like a garment before the days of the sheep. For here, at least, there came no nibbling wethers, nor starving cattle; and the mountain sheep which had browsed there in the old days were now hiding on the topmost crags of the Superstitions to escape the rifles of the destroyers. All the world without was laid waste and trampled by hurrying feet, but the garden of Hidden Water was still kept inviolate, a secret shrine consecrated to Nature and Nature's God.
As she stood in the presence of all its beauty a mist came into Lucy's eyes and she turned away.
"Oh, Rufus," she cried, "why don't you live up here always instead of wasting your life in that awful struggle with the sheep? You could—why, you could do anything up here!"
"Yes," assented Hardy, "it is a beautiful spot—I often come up here when I am weary with it all—but a man must do a man's work, you know; and my work is with the sheep. When I first came to Hidden Water I knew nothing of the sheep. I thought the little lambs were pretty; the ewes were mothers, the herders human beings. I tried to be friends with them, to keep the peace and abide by the law; but now that I've come to know them I agree with Jeff, who has been fighting them for twenty years. There is something about the smell of sheep which robs men of their humanity; they become greedy and avaricious; the more they make the more they want. Of all the sheepmen that I know there isn't one who would go around me out of friendship or pity—and I have done favors for them all. But they're no friends of mine now," he added ominously. "I have to respect my friends, and I can't respect a man who is all hog. There's no pretence on either side now, though—they're trying to sheep us out and we are trying to fight them off, and if it ever comes to a show-down—well—"
He paused, and his eyes glowed with a strange light.
"You know I haven't very much to live for, Miss Lucy," he said earnestly, "but if I had all that God could give me I'd stand by Jeff against the sheep. It's all right to be a poet or an artist, a lover of truth and beauty, and all that, but if a man won't stand up for his friends when they're in trouble he's a kind of closet philosopher that shrinks from all the realities of life—a poor, puny creature, at the best."
He stood up very straight as he poured out this torrent of words, gazing at her intently, but with his eyes set, as if he beheld some vision. Yet whether it was of himself and Jeff, fighting their hopeless battle against the sheep, or of his life as it might have been if Kitty had been as gentle with him as this woman by his side, there was no telling. His old habit of reticence fell back upon him as suddenly as it had been cast aside, and he led the way up the little stream in silence. As he walked, the ardor of his passion cooled, and he began to point out things with his eloquent hands—the minnows, wheeling around in the middle of a glassy pool; a striped bullfrog, squatting within the spray of a waterfall; huge combs of honey, hanging from shelving caverns along the cliff where the wild bees had stored their plunder for years. At last, as they stood before a drooping elder whose creamy blossoms swayed beneath the weight of bees, he halted and motioned to a shady seat against the canyon wall.
"There are gardens in every desert," he said, as she sank down upon the grassy bank, "but this is ours."
They sat for a while, gazing contentedly at the clusters of elder blossoms which hung above them, filling the air with a rich fragrance which was spiced by the tang of sage. A ruby-throated humming-bird flashed suddenly past them and was gone; a red-shafted woodpecker, still more gorgeous in his scarlet plumage, descended in uneven flights from the sahuaros that clung against the cliff and, fastening upon a hollow tree, set up a mysterious rapping.
"He is hunting for grubs," explained Hardy. "Does that inspire you?"
"Why, no," answered Lucy, puzzled.
"The Mexicans call him pajaro corazon—pah-hah-ro cor-ah-sone," continued the poet. "Does that appeal to your soul?"
"Why, no. What does it mean—woodpecker?"
Hardy smiled. "No," he said, "a woodpecker with them is called carpintero—carpenter, you understand—because he hammers on trees; but my friend up on the stump yonder is Pajaro Corazon—bird of the heart. I have a poem dedicated to him." Then, as if to excuse himself from the reading, he hastened on: "Of course, no true poet would commit such a breach—he would write a sonnet to his lady's eyebrow, a poem in memory of a broken dream, or some sad lament for Love, which has died simultaneously with his own blasted hopes. But a sense of my own unimportance has saved me—or the world, at any rate—from such laments. Pajaro Corazon and Chupa Rosa, a little humming-bird who lives in that elder tree, have been my only friends and companions in the muse, until you came. I wouldn't abuse Chupa Rosa's confidence by reading my poem to her. Her lover has turned out a worthless fellow and left her—that was him you saw flying past just now, going up the canyon to sport around with the other hummers—but here is my poem to Pajaro Corazon."
He drew forth his bundle of papers and in a shamefaced way handed one of them to Lucy. It was a slip of yellow note paper, checked along the margin with groups of rhyming words and scansion marks, and in the middle this single verse.
"Pajaro Corazon! Bird of the Heart! Some knight of honor in those bygone days Of dreams and gold and quests through desert lands, Seeing thy blood-red heart flash in the rays Of setting sun—which lured him far from Spain— Lifted his face and, reading there a sign From his dear lady, crossed himself and spake Then first, the name which still is thine."
Lucy folded the paper and gazed across at him rapturously.
"Oh, Rufus," she cried, "why didn't you send it to me?"
"Is it good?" asked Hardy, forgetting his pose; and when she nodded solemnly he said:
"There is another verse—look on the other side."
Lucy turned the paper over quickly and read again:
"Pajaro Corazon! Bird of the Heart! Some Padre, wayworn, stooping towards his grave, Whom God by devious ways had sent so far, So far from Spain—still pressing on to save The souls He loved, now, raising up his eyes And seeing on thy breast the bleeding heart Of Jesus, cast his robes aside and spake Thy name—and set that place apart."
As she followed the lines Hardy watched her face with eyes that grew strangely soft and gentle. It was Lucy Ware of all the world who understood him. Others laughed, or pitied, or overdid it, or remained unmoved, but Lucy with her trusting blue eyes and broad poet's brow—a brow which always made him think of Mrs. Browning who was a poet indeed, she always read his heart, in her he could safely trust. And now, when those dear eyes filled up with tears he could have taken her hand, yes, he could have kissed her—if he had not been afraid.
"Rufus," she said at last, "you are a poet." And then she dried her eyes and smiled.
"Let me read some more," she pleaded; but Hardy held the bundle resolutely away.
"No," he said gently, "it is enough to have pleased you once. You know poetry is like music; it is an expression of thoughts which are more than thoughts. They come up out of the great sea of our inner soul like the breath of flowers from a hidden garden, like the sound of breakers from the ocean cliffs; but not every one can scent their fragrance, and some ears are too dull to hear music in the rush of waters. And when one has caught the music of another's song then it is best to stop before—before some discord comes. Lucy," he began, as his soul within him rose up and clamored for it knew not what, "Lucy—"
He paused, and the woman hung upon his lips to catch the words.
"Yes?" she said, but the thought had suddenly left him. It was a great longing—that he knew—a great desire, unsensed because unknown—but deep, deep.
"Yes—Rufus?" she breathed, leaning over; but the light had gone out of his eyes and he gazed at her strangely.
"It is nothing," he murmured, "nothing. I—I have forgotten what I was going to say." He sighed, and looked moodily at his feet. "The thoughts of a would-be poet," he mused, cynically. "How valuable they are—how the world must long for them—when he even forgets them himself! I guess I'd better keep still and let you talk a while," he ended, absently. But Lucy Ware sat gazing before her in silence.
"Isn't it time we returned?" she asked, after a while. "You know I have a great deal to do."
"Oh, that's all right," said Hardy, easily, "I'll help you. What do you want to do—clean house?"
Lucy could have cried at her hero's sudden lapse—from Parnassus to the scullery, from love to the commonplaces of living; but she had schooled herself to bear with him, since patience is a woman's part. Yet her honest blue eyes were not adapted to concealment and, furtively taking note of her distress, Hardy fell into the role of a penitent.
"Is my garden such a poor place," he inquired gravely, "that you must leave it the moment we have come? You have not even seen Chupa Rosa."
"Well, show me Chupa Rosa—and then we will go."
She spoke the words reluctantly, rising slowly to her feet; and Hardy knew that in some hidden way he had hurt her, yet in what regard he could not tell. A vague uneasiness came over him and he tried awkwardly to make amends for his fault, but good intentions never yet crossed a river or healed a breach.
"Here is her nest," he said, "almost above our seat. Look, Lucy, it is made out of willow down and spider webs, bound round and round the twig. Don't you want to see the eggs? Look!" He bent the limb until the dainty white treasures, half buried in the fluffy down, were revealed—but still she did not smile.
"Oh, stop, Rufus!" she cried, "what will the mother-bird think? She might be frightened at us and leave her nest. Come, let's hurry away before she sees us!"
She turned and walked quickly down the valley, never pausing to look back, even when Rufus stopped to pluck a flower from among the rocks.
"Here," he said, after he had helped her down the Indian stairway; and when she held up her hand, passively, he dropped a forget-me-not into it.
"Oh!" she cried, carried away for a moment, "do they grow down here?"
"Yes," he said, soberly, "even here. And they—sometimes you find them where you wouldn't expect—in rough places, you know, and among the stones. I—I hope you will keep it," he said, simply. And Lucy divined what was in his heart, better perhaps than he himself; but when at last she was alone she buried her face in the pillow, and for a long time the house was very still.
There was a big fire out under the mesquite that night and a band of cowboys, in all the bravery of spurs, shaps, and pistols, romped around it in a stage-struck exuberance of spirits. The night was hardly cold enough to call for fringed leather chaparejos, and their guns should have been left in their blankets; nor are long-shanked Texas spurs quite the proper thing about camp, having a dirty way of catching and tripping their wearers; but the rodeo outfit felt that it was on dress parade and was trying its best to look the cowboy part. Bill Lightfoot even had a red silk handkerchief draped about his neck, with the slack in front, like a German napkin; and his cartridge belt was slung so low that it threatened every moment to drop his huge Colt's revolver into the dirt—but who could say a word?
The news of Judge Ware's visit had passed through the Four Peaks country like the rumor of an Indian uprising and every man rode into Hidden Water with an eye out for calico, some with a foolish grin, some downcast and reserved, some swaggering in the natural pride of the lady's man. But a becoming modesty had kept Lucy Ware indoors, and Kitty had limited herself to a furtive survey of the scene from behind what was left of Sallie Winship's lace curtains. With the subtle wisdom of a rodeo boss Jefferson Creede had excused himself to the ladies at the first sound of jangling horse-bells, and now he kept resolutely away from the house, busying himself with the manifold duties of his position. To the leading questions of Bill Lightfoot and the "fly bunch" which followed his lead he turned a deaf ear or replied in unsatisfying monosyllables; and at last, as the fire lit up the trees and flickered upon their guns and silver-mounted trappings and no fair maids sallied forth to admire them, the overwrought emotions of the cowboys sought expression in song.
"Oh my little girl she lives in the town,"
chanted Lightfoot, and the fly bunch, catching the contagion, joined promptly in on the refrain:
"A toodle link, a toodle link, a too—oo-dle a day!"
At this sudden and suggestive outbreak Jeff Creede surveyed Bill Lightfoot coldly and puffed on his cigarette. Bill was always trying to make trouble.
"And every time I see 'er, she asts me f'r a gown,"
carolled the leading cowboy; and the bunch, not to seem faint-hearted, chimed in again:
"Reladin to reladin, and reladin to relate!"
Now they were verging toward the sensational part of the ballad, the place where a real gentleman would quit, but Lightfoot only tossed his head defiantly.
"O-Oh—" he began, and then he stopped with his mouth open. The rodeo boss had suddenly risen to an upright position and fixed him with his eye.
"I like to see you boys enjoyin' yourselves," he observed, quietly, "but please don't discuss politics or religion while them ladies is over at the house. You better switch off onto 'My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,' Bill." And Bill switched.
"What's the matter?" he demanded aggrieved, "ain't anybody but you got any rights and privileges around here? You go sportin' around and havin' a good time all day, but as soon as one of us punchers opens his mouth you want to jump down his throat. What do we know about ladies—I ain't seen none!"
The discussion of the moral code which followed was becoming acrimonious and personal to a degree when a peal of girlish laughter echoed from the ranch house and the cowboys beheld Judge Ware and Hardy, accompanied by Miss Lucy and Kitty Bonnair, coming towards their fire. A less tactful man might have taken advantage of the hush to utter a final word of warning to his rebellious subjects, but Creede knew Kitty Bonnair and the human heart too well. As the party came into camp he rose quietly and introduced the judge and the ladies to every man present, without deviation and without exception, and then, having offered Miss Ware his cracker box, he moved over a man or two and sat down.
In the bulk of his mighty frame, the rugged power of his countenance, and the unconscious authority of his words he was easily master of them all; but though he had the voice of Mars and a head like Olympian Zeus he must needs abase his proud spirit to the demands of the occasion, for the jealousy of mortal man is a proverb. Where the punchers that he hired for thirty dollars a month were decked out in shaps and handkerchiefs he sat in his shirt-sleeves and overalls, with only his high-heeled boots and the enormous black sombrero which he always wore, to mark him for their king. And the first merry question which Miss Kitty asked he allowed to pass unnoticed, until Bill Lightfoot—to save the credit of the bunch—answered it himself.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied politely. "That was a genuwine cowboy song we was singin'—we sing 'em to keep the cattle awake at night."
"Oh, how interesting!" exclaimed Kitty, leaning forward in her eagerness. "But why do you try to keep them awake? I should think they would be so tired, after travelling all day."
"Yes, ma'am," responded Bill, twisting his silk handkerchief nervously, "but if they go to sleep and anything wakes 'em up quick they stompede—so we ride through 'em and sing songs."
"Just think of that, Lucy!" cried Miss Kitty enthusiastically. "And it was such a pretty tune, too! Won't you sing it again, Mr. Lightfoot? I'd just love to hear it!"
Here was a facer for Mr. Lightfoot, and Jefferson Creede, to whom all eyes were turned in the crisis, smiled maliciously and let him sweat.
"Bill ain't in very good voice to-night," he observed at last, as the suspense became unbearable, "and we're kinder bashful about singin' to company, anyway. But if you want to hear somethin' good, you want to git Bill goin' about Coloraydo. Sure, Mr. Lightfoot is our best story-teller; and he's had some mighty excitin' times up there in them parts, hain't you, Bill?"
Bill cast a baleful glance at his rival and thrust out his chin insolently. His Coloraydo experiences were a matter of jest with Jeff Creede, but with the ladies it might be different. His courage rose before the flattering solicitude of Kitty Bonnair and he resolved then and there to fool Mr. Creede or know the reason why.
"Well," he replied, stoutly, "they may look kinder tame alongside of your Arizona lies, but—"
"Oh, Mr. Lightfoot, do tell me all about it!" broke in Kitty, with an alluring smile. "Colorado is an awfully wild country, isn't it? And did you ever have any adventures with bears?"
"Bears!" exclaimed Bill contemptuously. "Bears! Huh, we don't take no more account of ordinary bears up in Coloraydo than they do of coons down here. But them big silver-tips—ump-um—excuse me!" He paused and swaggered a little on the precarious support of his cracker box. "And yet, Miss Bunnair," he said, lowering his voice to a confidential key, "I slept a whole night with one of them big fellers and never turned a hair. I could've killed him the next day, too, but I was so grateful to him I spared his life."
This was the regular "come-on" for Lightfoot's snow-storm story, and Creede showed his white teeth scornfully as Bill leaned back and began the yarn.
"You see, Miss Bunnair," began the Colorado cowboy, rolling his eyes about the circle to quell any tendency to give him away, "Coloraydo is an altogether different country from this here. The mountains is mighty steep and brushy, with snow on the peaks, and the cactus ain't more 'n a inch high out on the perairie. But they's plenty of feed and water—you betcher life I wisht I was back there now instead of fightin' sheep down here! The only thing aginst that country up there is the blizzards. Them storms is very destructive to life. Yes, ma'am. They's never any notice given but suddenly the wind will begin to blow and the cattle will begin to drift, and then about the time your horse is give out and your ears frozen it'll begin to snow!
"Well, this time I'm tellin' about I was up on the Canadian River west of the Medicine Bow Mountains and she came on to snow—and snow, I thought it would bury me alive! I was lost in a big park—a kind of plain or perairie among the mountains. Yes'm, they have'm there—big level places—and it was thirty miles across this here level perairie. The wind was blowin' something awful and the snow just piled up on my hat like somebody was shovellin' it off a roof, but I kept strugglin' on and tryin' to git to the other side, or maybe find some sheltered place, until it was like walkin' in your sleep. And that light fluffy snow jest closed in over me until I was covered up ten feet deep. Of course my horse had give out long ago, and I was jest beginnin' to despair when I come across one of them big piles of rocks they have up there, scattered around promiscus-like on the face of nature; and I begin crawlin' in and crawlin' in, hopin' to find some cave or somethin', and jest as I was despairin' my feet fell into a kind of trail, kinder smooth and worn, but old, you know, and stomped hard under the snow. Well, I follers along this path with my feet until it come to a hole in the rocks; and when I come to that hole I went right in, fer I was desprit; and I crawled in and crawled in until I come to a big nest of leaves, and then I begin to burrow down into them leaves. And as soon as I had made a hole I pulled them leaves over me and fell to sleep, I was that exhausted.
"But after a while I had some awful bad dreams, and when I woke up I felt somethin' kickin' under me. Yes 'm, that's right; I felt somethin' kinder movin' around and squirmin', and when I begin to investergate I found I was layin' down right square on top of a tremenjous big grizzly bear! Well, you fellers can laugh, but I was, all the same. What do you know about it, you woolies, punchin' cows down here in the rocks and cactus?
"How's that, Miss Bunnair? W'y sure, he was hibernatin'! They all hibernate up in them cold countries. Well, the funny part of this was that Old Brin had gone to sleep suckin' his off fore foot, jest like a little baby, and when I had piled in on top of him I had knocked his paw out of his mouth and he was tryin' to git it back. But he was all quilled up with himself under them leaves, and his claws was so long he couldn't git that foot back into his mouth nohow. He snooped and grabbed and fumbled, and every minute he was gittin' madder and madder, a-suckin' and slobberin' like a calf tryin' to draw milk out of the hired man's thumb, and a-gruntin' and groanin' somethin' awful.
"Well, I see my finish in about a minute if he ever got good an' woke up, so I resolved to do somethin' desprit. I jest naturally grabbed onto that foot and twisted it around and stuck it into his mouth myself! Afraid? Ump-um, not me—the only thing I was afraid of was that he'd git my hand and go to suckin' it by mistake. But when I steered his paw around in front of him he jest grabbed onto that big black pad on the bottom of his foot like it was m'lasses candy, and went off to sleep again as peaceful as a kitten."
The man from Coloraydo ended his tale abruptly, with an air of suspense, and Kitty Bonnair took the cue.
"What did I do then?" demanded Lightfoot, with a reminiscent smile. "Well, it was a ground-hog case with me—if I moved I'd freeze to death and if I knocked his paw out'n his mouth again he'd mash my face in with it—so I jest snuggled down against him, tucked my head under his chin, and went to sleep, holdin' that paw in his mouth with both hands."
"Oh, Mr. Lightfoot," exclaimed Kitty, "how could you? Why, that's the most remarkable experience I ever heard of! Lucy, I'm going to put that story in my book when I get home, and—but what are you laughing at, Mr. Creede?"
"Who? Me?" inquired Jeff, who had been rocking about as if helpless with laughter. "W'y, I ain't laughin'!"
"Yes, you are too!" accused Miss Kitty. "And I want you to tell me what it is. Don't you think Mr. Lightfoot's story is true?"
"True?" echoed Creede, soberly. "W'y, sure it's true. I ain't never been up in those parts; but if Bill says so, that settles it. I never knew a feller from Coloraydo yet that could tell a lie. No, I was jest laughin' to think of that old bear suckin' his paw that way."
He added this last with such an air of subterfuge and evasion that Kitty was not deceived for a moment.
"No, you're not, Mr. Creede," she cried, "you're just making fun of me—so there!"
She stamped her foot and pouted prettily, and the big cowboy's face took on a look of great concern.
"Oh, no, ma'am," he protested, "but since it's gone so far I reckon I'll have to come through now in order to square myself. Of course I never had no real adventures, you know,—nothin' that you would care to write down or put in a book, like Bill's,—but jest hearin' him tell that story of gittin' snowed in reminded me of a little experience I had up north here in Coconino County. You know Arizona ain't all sand and cactus—not by no means. Them San Francisco Mountains up above Flag are sure snow-crested and covered with tall timber and it gits so cold up there in the winter-time that it breaks rocks. No, that's straight! Them prospectors up there when they run short of powder jest drill a line of holes in a rock and when one of them awful cold snaps comes on they run out and fill the holes up with hot water out of the tea-kittle. Well, sir, when that water freezes, which it does in about a minute, it jest naturally busts them rocks wide open—but that ain't what I started to tell you about."
He paused and contemplated his hearers with impressive dignity.
"Cold ain't nothin'," he continued gravely, "after you git used to it; but once in a while, ladies, she snows up there. And when I say 'snows' I don't refer to such phenominer as Bill was tellin' about up in Coloraydo, but the real genuwine Arizona article—the kind that gits started and can't stop, no more 'n a cloudburst. Well, one time I was knockin' around up there in Coconino when I ought to've been at home, and I come to a big plain or perairie that was seventy miles across, and I got lost on that big plain, right in the dead of winter. They was an awful cold wind blowin' at the time, but I could see the mountains on the other side and so I struck out for 'em. But jest as I got in the middle of that great plain or perairie, she come on to snow. At first she come straight down, kinder soft and fluffy; then she began to beat in from the sides, and the flakes began to git bigger and bigger, until I felt like the Chinaman that walked down Main Street when they had that snow-storm in Tucson. Yes, sir, it was jest like havin' every old whiskey bum in town soakin' you with snow-balls—and all the kids thrown in.
"My horse he began to puff and blow and the snow began to bank up higher and higher in front of us and on top of us until, bymeby, he couldn't stand no more, and he jest laid down and died. Well, of course that put me afoot and I was almost despairin'. The snow was stacked up on top of me about ten feet deep and I was desprit, but I kept surgin' right ahead, punchin' a hole through that fluffy stuff, until she was twenty foot deep. But I wasn't afraid none—ump-um, not me—I jest kept a-crawlin' and a-crawlin', hopin' to find some rocks or shelter, until she stacked up on top of me thirty foot deep. Thirty foot—and slumped down on top o' me until I felt like a horny-toad under a haystack. Well, I was gittin' powerful weak and puny, but jest as I was despairin' I come across a big rock, right out there in the middle of that great plain or perairie. I tried to crawl around that old rock but the snow was pushin' down so heavy on top o' me I couldn't do nothin', and so when she was fif-ty-two foot deep by actual measurement I jest give out an' laid down to die."
He paused and fixed a speculative eye on Bill Lightfoot.
"I reckon that would be considered pretty deep up in Coloraydo," he suggested, and then he began to roll a cigarette. Sitting in rigid postures before the fire the punchers surveyed his face with slow and suspicious glances; and for once Kitty Bonnair was silent, watching his deliberate motions with a troubled frown. Balanced rakishly upon his cracker box Bill Lightfoot regarded his rival with a sneering smile, a retort trembling on his lips, but Creede only leaned forward and picked a smoking brand from the fire—he was waiting for the "come-on."
Now to ask the expected question at the end of such a story was to take a big chance. Having been bitten a time or two all around, the rodeo hands were wary of Jeff Creede and his barbed jests; the visitors, being ignorant, were still gaping expectantly; it was up to Bill Lightfoot to spring the mine. For a moment he hesitated, and then his red-hot impetuosity, which had often got him into trouble before, carried him away.
"W'y, sure it would be deep for Coloraydo," he answered, guardedly.
Jefferson Creede glanced up at him, smoking luxuriously, holding the cigarette to his lips with his hand as if concealing a smile.
"Aw, rats," snapped out Lightfoot at last, "why don't you finish up and quit? What happened then?"
"Then?" drawled Creede, with a slow smile. "W'y, nothin', Bill—I died!"
"Ah-hah-hah!" yelled the punchers, throwing up handfuls of dirt in the extravagance of their delight, and before Bill could realize the enormity of the sell one of his own partisans rose up and kicked the cracker box out from under him in token of utter defeat. For an hour after their precipitate retreat the visitors could hear the whoops and gibes of the cowboys, the loud-mouthed and indignant retorts of Lightfoot, and the soothing remonstrances of Jefferson Creede—and from the house Kitty the irrepressible, added to their merriment a shriek of silvery laughter. But after it was all over and he had won, the round-up boss swore soberly at himself and sighed, for he discerned on the morrow's horizon the Indian signs of trouble.
To the Eastern eye, blinded by local color, the Four Peaks country looked like a large and pleasantly variegated cactus garden, sparsely populated with rollicking, fun-loving cowboys who wore their interesting six-shooters solely to keep their balance in the saddle. The new grass stood untrampled beneath the bushes on Bronco Mesa, there were buds and flowers everywhere, and the wind was as sweet and untainted as if it drew out of Eden. But somewhere, somewhere in that great wilderness of peaks which lay to the south and through which only the dogged sheepmen could fight their way, stealthily hidden, yet watching, lay Jasper Swope and his sheep. And not only Jasper with his pet man-killing Chihuahuano and all those low-browed compadres whom he called by circumlocution "brothers," but Jim, sore with his defeat, and many others—and every man armed.
After the first rain they had disappeared from the desert absolutely, their tracks pointing toward the east. The drought had hit them hard, and the cold of Winter; yet the ewes had lambed in the springtime, and as if by magic the tender grass shot up to feed their little ones. Surely, God was good to the sheep. They were ranging far, now that the shearing was over, but though they fed to the topmost peaks of the Superstitions, driving the crooked-horned mountain sheep from their pastures, their destiny lay to the north, in the cool valleys of the Sierra Blancas; and there in the end they would go, though they left havoc in their wake. Once before the sheep had vanished in this same way, mysteriously; and at last, travelling circuitous ways and dealing misery to many Tonto cowmen, they had poured over the very summit of the Four Peaks and down upon Bronco Mesa. And now, though they were hidden, every man on the round-up felt their presence and knew that the upper range was in jeopardy.
After amusing the ladies with inconsequential tales, the rodeo outfit therefore rose up and was gone before the light, raking the exposed lowland for its toll of half-fed steers; and even Rufus Hardy, the parlor-broke friend and lover, slipped away before any of them were stirring and rode far up along the river. What a river it was now, this unbridled Salagua which had been their moat and rampart for so many years! Its waters flowed thin and impotent over the rapids, lying in clear pools against the base of the black cliffs, and the current that had uprooted trees like feathers was turned aside by a snag. Where before the sheep had hung upon its flank hoping at last to swim at Hidden Water, the old ewes now strayed along its sandy bed, browsing upon the willows. From the towering black buttes that walled in Hell's Hip Pocket to the Rio Verde it was passable for a spring lamb, and though the thin grass stood up fresh and green on the mesas the river showed nothing but drought. Drought and the sheep, those were the twin evils of the Four Peaks country; they lowered the price of cattle and set men to riding the range restlessly. For the drought is a visitation of God, to be accepted and endured, but sheep may be turned back.
As he rode rapidly along the river trail, halting on each ridge to search the landscape for sheep, Hardy's conscience smote him for the single day he had spent in camp, dallying within sight of Kitty or talking with Lucy Ware. One such day, if the sheepmen were prepared, and Bronco Mesa would be a desert. Threats, violence, strategy, would be of no avail, once the evil was done; the sheep must be turned back at the river or they would swarm in upon the whole upper range. One man could turn them there, for it was the dead line; but once across they would scatter like quail before a hawk, crouching and hiding in the gulches, refusing to move, yet creeping with brutish stubbornness toward the north and leaving a clean swath behind. There were four passes that cut their way down from the southern mountains to the banks of the river, old trails of Apaches and wild game, and to quiet his mind Hardy looked for tracks at every crossing before he turned Chapuli's head toward camp.
The smoke was drifting from the chimney when, late in the afternoon, he rode past the door and saw Lucy Ware inside, struggling with an iron kettle before the fireplace. Poor Lucy, she had undertaken a hard problem, for there is as much difference between camp cooking and home cooking as there is between a Dutch oven and a steel range, and a cooking-school graduate has to forget a whole lot before she can catch the knack of the open fire. For the second time that day Rufus Hardy's conscience, so lately exercised over his neglect of the sheep, rose up and rebuked him. Throwing Chapuli into the corral he kicked off his spurs and shaps and gave Lucy her first lesson in frontier cookery; taught her by the force of his example how to waste her wood and save her back; and at the end of the short demonstration he sat down without ceremony, and fell to eating.
"Excuse me," he said, "if I seem to be greedy, but I had my breakfast before sun-up. Where's your father, and Kitty?"
"Oh, they had the Mexican boy catch their horses for them and have ridden up the valley to watch for the cattle. I stayed behind to make my first water color, and then—I thought you would be coming back soon, so I tried to cook supper instead. I'm a pretty good housekeeper—at home," she said apologetically.
Hardy watched her as she experimented painstakingly with the fire, scooping out shovelfuls of coal from beneath the glowing logs and planting her pots and kettles upon them with a hooked stick, according to instructions.
"You look like a picture of one of our sainted Puritan ancestors," he observed, at last, "and that's just exactly the way they cooked, too—over an open fire. How does it feel to be Priscilla?"
"Well, if Priscilla's hands looked like mine," exclaimed Lucy despairingly, "John Alden must have been madly in love with her. How do you keep yours clean?"
"That's a secret," replied Hardy, "but I'll tell you. I never touch the outside of a pot—and I scour them with sandsoap. But I wish you'd stop cooking, Lucy; it makes me feel conscience-stricken. You are my guests, remember, even if I do go off and neglect you for a whole day; and when you go back to Berkeley I want you to have something more interesting than housekeeping to talk about. Didn't I see two ladies' saddles out in the wagon?"
Miss Lucy's eyes lighted up with pleasure as, anticipating his drift, she nodded her head.
"Well then," said Hardy, with finality, "if you'll get up early in the morning, I'll catch you a little pony that I gentled myself, and we can ride up the river together. How does that strike you?"
"Fine!" exclaimed Lucy, with sudden enthusiasm.
"Oh, Rufus," she cried impulsively, "if you only knew how weak and helpless a thing it is to be a woman—and how glad we are to be noticed! Why, I was just thinking before you came in that about the only really helpful thing a woman could do in this world was just to stay around home and cook the meals."
"Well, you just let me cook those meals for a while," said Rufus, with brotherly authority, "and come out and be a man for a change. Can you ride pretty well?"
Lucy glanced at him questioningly, and thought she read what was in his mind.
"Yes," she said, "I can ride, but—but I just couldn't bring myself to dress like Kitty!" she burst out. "I know it's foolish, but I can't bear to have people notice me so. But I'll be a man in everything else, if you'll only give me a chance." She stood before him, radiant, eager, her eyes sparkling like a child's, and suddenly Hardy realized how much she lost by being always with Kitty. Seen by herself she was as lithe and graceful as a fairy, with a steady gaze very rare in women, and eyes which changed like the shadows in a pool, answering every mood in wind and sky, yet always with their own true light. Her cheeks glowed with the fresh color which her father's still retained, and she had inherited his generous nature, too; but in mind and stature she took after her dainty mother, whose exquisite grace and beauty had made her one of the elect. Perhaps it was this quality of the petite in her which appealed to him—for a little man cannot endure to be laughed at for his size, even in secret—or perhaps it was only the intuitive response to a something which in his prepossession he only vaguely sensed, but Rufus Hardy felt his heart go out to her in a moment and his voice sank once more to the caressing fulness which she most loved to hear.
"Ah, Lucy," he said, "you need never try to be a man in order to ride with me. It would be hard luck if a woman like you had to ask twice for anything. Will you go out with me every day? No? Then I shall ask you every day, and you shall go whenever you please! But you know how it is. The sheepmen are hiding along the river waiting for a chance to sneak across, and if I should stay in camp for a single day they might make a break—and then we would have a war. Your father doesn't understand that, but I do; and I know that Jeff will never submit to being sheeped out without a fight. Can't you see how it is? I should like to stay here and entertain you, and yet I must protect your father's cattle, and I must protect Jeff. But if you will ride out with me when it is not too hot, I—it—well, you'll go to-morrow, won't you?"
He rose and took her hand impulsively, and then as quickly dropped it and turned away. The muffled chuck, chuck, of a horse's feet stepping past the door smote upon his ear, and a moment later a clear voice hailed them.
"What are you children chattering about in there?" cried Kitty Bonnair, and Hardy, after a guilty silence, replied:
"The ways of the weary world. Won't you come in and have the last word?"
He stepped out and held Pinto by the head, and Kitty dropped off and sank wearily into a rawhide chair.
"Oh, I'm too tired to talk, riding around trying to find those cattle—and just as I was tired out we saw them coming, away out on The Rolls. Lucy, do put on your riding habit and go back on Pinto—you haven't been out of the house to-day!"
As half an hour later Lucy Ware trotted obediently away, riding up the canyon toward the distant bawling of cattle, Kitty turned suddenly upon Hardy with half-closed, accusing eyes.
"You seem to be very happy with Lucy," she said, with an aggrieved smile. "But why," she continued, with quickening animus, "why should you seek to avoid me? Isn't it enough that I should come clear down here to see you? But when I want to have a word with you after our long silence I have to scheme and manage like a gypsy!"
She paused, and flicked her booted leg with the lash of a horsehair quirt, glancing at him furtively with eyes that drooped with an appealing sadness.
"If I had known how hard-hearted you could be," she said, after a silence, "I should never have spoken as I did, if the words choked me. But now that I have come part way and offered my poor friendship again, you might—oh Rufus, how could you be so inconsiderate! No one can ever know what I suffered when you left that way. Every one knew we were the best of friends, and several people even knew that you had been to see me. And then, without a word, without a sign, with no explanation, to leave and be gone for years—think what they must have thought! Oh, it was too humiliating!"
She paused again, and to Hardy's apprehensive eyes she seemed on the verge of tears. So he spoke, blindly and without consideration, filled with a man's anxiety to stave off this final catastrophe.
"I'm sorry," he began, though he had never meant to say it, "but—but there was nothing else to do! You—you told me to go. You said you never wanted to see me again, and—you were not very kind to me, then." He paused, and at the memory of those last words of hers, uttered long ago, the flush of shame mantled his cheeks.
"Every man has his limit," he said bluntly, "and I am no dog, to be scolded and punished and sent away. I have been ashamed many times for what I did, but I had to keep my own respect—and so I left. Is it too much for a man to go away when he is told?"
Kitty Bonnair fixed him with her dark eyes and shook her head sadly.
"Ah, Rufus," she sighed, "when will you ever learn that a woman does not always mean all she says? When you had made me so happy by your tender consideration—for you could be considerate when you chose—I said that I loved you; and I did, but not in the way you thought. I did mean it at the moment, from my heart, but not for life—it was no surrender, no promise—I just loved you for being so good and kind. But when, taking advantage of what I said in a moment of weakness, you tried to claim that which I had never given, I—I said more than I meant again. Don't you understand? I was hurt, and disappointed, and I spoke without thinking, but you must not hold that against me forever! And after I have come clear down here—to avoid me—to always go out with Lucy and leave me alone—to force me to arrange a meeting—"
She stopped, and Hardy shifted uneasily in his seat. In his heart of hearts he had realized from the first his inequality in this losing battle. He was like a man who goes into a contest conquered already by his ineptitude at arms—and Kitty would have her way! Never but once had he defied her power, and that had been more a flight than a victory. There was fighting blood in his veins, but it turned to water before her. He despised himself for it; but all the while, in a shifting, browbeaten way, he was seeking for an excuse to capitulate.
"But, Kitty," he pleaded, "be reasonable. I have my duties down here—the sheep are trying to come in on us—I have to patrol the river. This morning before you were awake I was in the saddle, and now I have just returned. To-morrow I shall be off again, so how can I arrange a meeting?"
He held out his hands to her appealingly, carried away by the force of his own logic.
"You might at least invite me to go with you," she said. "Unless you expect me to spend all my time getting lost with Judge Ware," she added, with a plaintive break in her voice.
"Why, yes—yes," began Hardy haltingly. "I—I have asked Lucy to go with me to-morrow, but—"
"Oh, thank you—thank you!" burst out Kitty mockingly. "But what?"
"Why, I thought you might like to come along too," suggested Hardy awkwardly.
"What? And rob her of all her pleasure?" Kitty smiled bitterly as she turned upon him. "Why, Rufus Hardy," she exclaimed, indignantly, "and she just dotes on every word you say! Yes, she does—any one can see that she simply adores you. I declare, Rufus, your lack of perception would make an angel weep—especially if it was a lady angel. But you may as well understand once and for all that I will never deprive dear, patient, long-suffering Lucy of anything she sets her heart on. No, I will not go with you the next day. If you haven't consideration enough to invite me first, I have sense enough to stay away. It was only yesterday that you took Lucy up to Hidden Water, and to-day I find you with her again; and to-morrow—well, I perceive that I must amuse myself down here. But—oh, look, look! There's a cowboy—up on that high cliff!"
She started up, pointing at a horseman who was spurring furiously along the side of the canyon after a runaway steer.
"Oh, look!" she cried again, as Hardy surveyed him indifferently. "He is whirling his lasso. Oh! He has thrown it over that big cow's horns! Goodness me, where is my horse? No, I am going on foot, then! Oh, Lucy—Lucy dear," she screamed, waving her hand wildly, "do let me have Pinto, just for a moment! All right—and Lucy—wasn't that Mr. Creede?" She lingered on the ground long enough to give her an ecstatic kiss and then swung up into the saddle. "Yes, I knew it—and isn't he just perfectly grand on that big horse? Oh, I've been wanting to see this all my life—and I owe it all to you!"
With a smile and a gay salutation, she leaned forward and galloped out into the riot and confusion of the rodeo, skirting the edge of the bellowing herd until she disappeared in the dust. And somehow, even by the childlike obliviousness with which she scampered away, she managed to convey a pang to her errant lover which clutched at his heart for days.
And what days those were for Jefferson Creede! Deep and devious as was his knowledge of men in the rough, the ways of a woman in love were as cryptic to him as the poems of Browning. The first day that Miss Kitty rode forth to be a cowboy it was the rodeo boss, indulgent, but aware of the tenderfoot's ability to make trouble, who soberly assigned his fair disciple to guard a pass over which no cow could possibly come. And Kitty, sensing the deceit, had as soberly amused herself by gathering flowers among the rocks. But the next day, having learned her first lesson, she struck for a job to ride, and it was the giddy-headed lover who permitted her to accompany him—although not from any obvious or selfish motives.
Miss Bonnair was the guest of the ranch, her life and welfare being placed for the time in the keeping of the boss. What kind of a foreman would it be who would turn her over to a hireling or intrust her innocent mind to a depraved individual like Bill Lightfoot? And all the decent cowmen were scared of her, so who was naturally indicated and elected but Jefferson D. Creede?
There wasn't any branding at the round corral that night. The gather was a fizzle, for some reason, though Miss Kitty rode Pinto to a finish and killed a rattlesnake with Creede's own gun. Well, they never did catch many cattle the first few days,—after they had picked up the tame bunch that hung around the water,—and the dry weather seemed to have driven the cows in from The Rolls. But when they came in the second afternoon, with only a half of their gather, Creede rode out from the hold-up herd to meet them, looking pretty black.
It is the duty of a rodeo boss to know what is going on, if he has to ride a horse to death to find out; and the next day, after sending every man down his ridge, Jeff left Kitty Bonnair talking lion hunt with old Bill Johnson who had ridden clear over from Hell's Hip Pocket to gaze upon this horse-riding Diana, and disappeared. As a result, Bat Wings was lathered to a fine dirt-color and there was one man in particular that the boss wanted to see.
"Jim," he said, riding up to where one of the Clark boys was sullenly lashing the drag with his reata, "what in the hell do you mean by lettin' all them cattle get away? Yes, you did too. I saw you tryin' to turn 'em back, so don't try to hand me anything like that. I used to think you was a good puncher, Jim, but a man that can't keep a herd of cows from goin' through a box pass ought to be smokin' cigarettes on the day herd. You bet ye! All you had to do was be there—and that's jest exactly where you wasn't! I was up on top of that rocky butte, and I know. You was half a mile up the canyon mousin' around in them cliffs, that's where you was, and the only question I want to ask is, Did you find the Lost Dutchman? No? Then what in hell was you doin'?"
The rodeo boss crowded his horse in close and thrust his face forward until he could look him squarely in the eye, and Clark jerked back his head resentfully.
"What is it to you?" he demanded belligerently.
"Oh, nawthin'," returned the boss lightly, "jest wanted to know."
"Uhr!" grunted the cowboy contemptuously. "Well, I was killin' snakes, then! What ye goin' to do about it?"
"Snakes!" cried Creede incredulously. "Killin' snakes! Since when did you call a feud on them?"
"Since thet young lady come," replied Clark, glancing around to see if any one had the nerve to laugh. "I heerd her say she was collectin' rattles; an' I thought, while I was waitin', I might as well rustle up a few. Oh, you don't need to look pop-eyed—they's others!"
He rolled his eyes significantly at the group of assembled cowboys, and Creede took it all in at a flash. There were others—he himself had a set of rattles in his shap pocket that were not two hours from the stump. The situation called for diplomacy.
"Well," he drawled, scratching his bushy head to cover his confusion, "this reflects great credit on your bringin' up, Jim, and I'm sure Miss Bonnair will appreciate what you've done for her, especially as I happened to notice a couple o' head of your own cows in that bunch, but it's a mighty expensive way to collect snake-tails. We ain't gittin' the cattle, boys; that's the size of it, and they're as much yours as they are mine. Now I suggest that we run these few we've got down to the corral and brand 'em quick—and then the whole shootin'-match goes over to the big white cliff and rounds up every rattlesnake in the rock pile! Is it a go?"
"Sure!" yelled the bunch impetuously, and as they charged down upon the herd Creede quietly fished out his snake-tail and dropped it in the dirt.
If he lacked a virtue he could feign it, anyhow—but there was no doubt about it, Miss Kitty was putting his rodeo on the bum. There had never been so many men to feed and so few calves to brand in the history of Hidden Water. Even old Bill Johnson had got the fever from hearing the boys talk and was hanging around the fire. But then, what were a few head of cows compared to—well, what was it, anyway? The only man who could stay away was Rufe, and he was in good company.
Yet Creede was not satisfied with this explanation. Miss Kitty was always asking questions about Rufe—they had known each other well in Berkeley—and at the same time the little partner with whom he had been so friendly never came around any more. He was always very polite, and she called him by his first name—and then one of them rode up the river and the other followed the round-up.
The night after the big snake-killing Jefferson Creede picked up his blankets and moved quietly back to the ramada with Hardy.
"Them locoed punchers have been skinnin' rattlers and stretchin' their hides," he said, "until the camp stinks like a buzzard roost. I'm due to have some bad dreams to-night anyhow, on the strength of this snake-killin', but it'd give me the jumpin' jimjams if I had to sleep next to them remains. Didn't git back in time to join in, did ye? Well, no great loss. I always did intend to clean out that snake hole over'n the cliff, and the boys was stoppin' every time they heard one sing, anyhow, in order to git the rattles for Miss Bonnair, so I thought we might as well git it off our minds before somethin' worse turned up. See any sheep tracks?"
He kicked off his boots, poked his six-shooter under his pillow, and settled down comfortably for the night.
"Nary one, eh?" he repeated musingly. "Well, when you see one you'll see a million—that's been my experience. But say, Rufe, why don't you come and ride with the boys once in a while? The rodeo has been goin' rotten this year—we ain't gittin' half of 'em—and you'd come in mighty handy. Besides, I've been braggin' you up to Miss Bonnair."
He dropped this last as a bait, but Hardy did not respond.
"I told her you was the best bronco-buster in the Four Peaks country," continued Creede deliberately, "and that you could drift Chapuli over the rocks like a sand lizard; but I'm too heavy for anything like that now, and Bill Lightfoot has been puttin' up the fancy work, so far. You know how I like Bill."
Once more he waited for an answer, but Hardy was wrestling with those elementary passions which have been making trouble since Helen of Troy left home, and he received the remark in silence.
"I'll tell you, Rufe," said Creede, lowering his voice confidentially. "Of course I see how it is with you and Miss Ware, and I'm glad of it; but things ain't goin' so lovely for me. It ain't my fault if Miss Bonnair happens to like my company, but Bill and some of the other boys have got their backs up over it, and they've practically gone on a strike. Leastwise we ain't gittin' the cattle, and God knows the range won't more 'n carry what's left. I've got to git out and do some ridin', and at the same time I want to do the right thing by Miss Bonnair, so if you could jest kindly come along with us to-morrow I'll be much obliged."
The elemental passions—man-love, jealousy, the lust for possession—are ugly things at best, even when locked in the bosom of a poet. In their simplest terms they make for treachery and stealth; but when complicated with the higher call of friendship and duty they gall a man like the chains of Prometheus and send the dragon-clawed eagles of Jove to tear at his vitals. Never until this naive confession had Hardy suspected the sanity of his friend nor the constancy of Kitty Bonnair. That she was capable of such an adventure he had never dreamed—and yet—and yet—where was there a more masterful man than Jeff? Anything can happen in love; and who was there more capable of winning a romantic woman's regard than good-natured, impulsive, domineering Jeff?
The thoughts flashed through his brain with the rapidity of lightning, and only his instinct of reserve protected him from his blundering tongue.
"I—I was—" he began, and stopped short. The idea of loyalty had ruled his mind so long that it had become a habit, ill suited to the cause of a jealous lover; and Jeff had confided to him as a child might run to its mother. Should a man take advantage of his friend's innocence to deprive him of that for which they both strove? Hardy fought the devil away and spoke again, quietly.
"I was going up the river to-morrow, Jeff," he said. "Seemed to me I saw a kind of smoke, or dust, over south of Hell's Hip Pocket this afternoon—and we can't take any chances now. That would take all day, you know."
He lay still after that, his brain whirling with contending emotions. Each evening as he listened to the music of her laughter he had resolved to quit his lonely watch and snatch from life the pleasure of a single day with Kitty, such days as they used to have when he was her unacknowledged lover and all the world was young. Then he could always please her. He could bend to her moods like a willow, braving the storms of her displeasure, which only drew them closer in the end, secure in the hope of her ultimate yielding. But now the two barren years lay between; years which had stiffened his jaw and left him rough in his ways; years which had wrought some change in her, he knew not what. A single day might solve the crux—nay, it might bring the great happiness of which he dreamed. But each morning as he woke with the dawn he saw that mighty army without banners, the sheep, marching upon their stronghold, the broad mesa which fed the last of Jeff's cows, and Judge Ware's, and Lucy's—and sprang from his blankets. And when the sun rose and Kitty came forth he was far away. But now—
He was awakened from his dreams by the voice of Creede, low, vibrant, full of brotherly love.
"Rufe," he was saying, "Miss Bonnair has told me a lot about you—a lot I didn't know. She likes you, boy, and she's a good woman. I never knowed but one like her, and that was Sallie Winship. You mustn't let anything that's happened stand between you. Of course she never said anything—never said a word—but I'm wise that way; I can tell by their voice, and all that. You want to let them dam' sheep go for a day or two and git this thing patched up."
He paused, and Hardy's mind whirled backward, upsetting his fears, unmaking his conclusions. It was Jeff the friend who spoke, Jeff the peacemaker, who had stampeded him by the equivocation of his words. But now the voice broke in again, apologetic, solicitous, self-seeking.
"Besides, that son-of-a-gun, Bill Lightfoot, has been tryin' to cut me out."
God! There it hit him hard. Kitty, the immaculate, the exquisite, the friend of poets and artists, the woman he had loved and cherished in his dreams—striven for by Jeff and Bill, revelling in the homage of Mexicans and hard-drinking round-up hands, whose natural language was astench with uncleanliness. It was like beholding a dainty flower in the grime and brutality of the branding pen.
"I'm sorry, Jeff," he said, in a far-away voice. "I—I'd do anything I could for you—but I'm afraid of those sheep."
He dragged miserably through the remnant of their conversation and then lay staring at the stars while his hulk of a partner, this great bear who in his awkward good nature had trampled upon holy ground, slept peacefully by his side. The Pleiades fled away before Orion, the Scorpion rose up in the south and sank again, the Morning Star blinked and blazed like a distant fire, such as shepherds kindle upon the ridges, and still Hardy lay in his blankets, fighting with himself. The great blackness which precedes the first glow of dawn found him haggard and weary of the struggle. He rose and threw wood on the coals of last night's fire, cooked and ate in silence, and rode away. There was a great burden upon his soul, a great fire and anger in his heart, and he questioned the verities of life. He rode up the river gloomily, searching the southern wilderness with frowning, bloodshot eyes, and once more, far to the east where the jagged cliffs of the Superstitions sweep down to the gorge of the Salagua and Hell's Hip Pocket bars the river's sweep, he saw that vague, impalpable haze—a smoke, a dust, a veil of the lightest skein, stirred idly by some wandering wind, perhaps, or marking the trail of sheep. And as he looked upon it his melancholy gaze changed to a staring, hawk-like intentness; he leaned forward in the saddle and Chapuli stepped eagerly down the slope, head up, as if he sniffed the battle.
A demon of unrest, twin devil to that which had so clutched and torn at the sensitive spirit of Rufus Hardy, seemed to rise up with the dawn of that ill-omened day and seize upon the camp at Hidden Water. It was like a touch of the north wind, which rumples the cat's back, sets the horses to fighting in the corrals, and makes men mean and generally contrary. Bill Johnson's hounds were the first to feel the madness. They left before sun-up, heading for the wooded heights of the Juate, and led him a weary chase. At the last moment Creede abandoned the unprofitable working of The Rolls and ordered the rodeo up onto Bronco Mesa; and Kitty Bonnair, taking advantage of his preoccupation, quietly gave him the slip at the end of their long eastern detour, and turned her pinto's head toward the river.
As for Kitty, her will was the wind's will, which changes with the times and seasons but is accountable to no universal law. Never in her life had she met a man who could quarrel like Rufus Hardy. Beneath her eye he was as clay in the hands of the potter; every glance spoke love, and for her alone. And yet it was something more than a smouldering resentment which made him avoid her, riding out before the dawn; more than the tremulous bashfulness which had stayed his hand when at times he might have taken hers. There was something deep, hidden, mysterious, lurking in those fawnlike eyes, and it made him insurgent against her will. It was a secret, hidden from all the world, which he must yield to her. And then she would forgive him for all the unhappiness he had caused her and teach him what a thing it is for a woman to love and be misunderstood. But first—first she must see him alone; she must burst upon him suddenly, taking his heart by storm as she had on that first day, and leave the rest to fate. So she lingered to gather some flowers which nodded among the rocks, the shy and dainty forget-me-nots which they had picked together at home; and when Creede was over the first ridge she struck out boldly up a side canyon, tucking the miniature bouquet into the shadows of her hair.
The southern flank of Bronco Mesa breaks off sharply above the Salagua, rising slowly by slopes and terraced benches to the heights, and giving way before the river in a succession of broken ridges. Along these summits run winding trails, led high to escape the rougher ground. Urged on by the slashings of her quirt, Pinto galloped recklessly through this maze of cow paths until as if by magic the great valley lay before them. There in its deep canyon was the river and the river trail—and a man, mounted upon a sorrel horse, savagely intent upon his way. For a minute Kitty studied him curiously as he hustled along, favoring his horse up the hills but swinging to the stirrup as he dodged bushes across the flats; then she flung out her hand impulsively, and called his name. In a flash he was up in his saddle, looking. Chapuli tossed his head and in the act caught a glimpse of the other horse—then they both stood rigid, gazing in astonishment at the living statue against the sky. At sight of that witching figure, beckoning him from the mountain top, Hardy's heart leaped within him and stopped. Once more the little hand was thrown out against the sky and a merry voice floated down to him from the sun-touched heights.
"Hello, Rufus!" it called teasingly, and still he sat gazing up at her. All the untamed passions of his being surged up and choked his voice—he could not answer. His head turned and he gazed furtively over his shoulder to the east, where his duty lay. Then of his own accord Chapuli stepped from the trail and began to pick his way soberly up the hill.
From the high summit of the butte all the world lay spread out like a panorama,—the slopes and canyons of Bronco Mesa, picketed with giant sahuaros; the silvery course of the river flowing below; the unpeopled peaks and cliffs of the Superstitions; and a faint haze-like zephyr, floating upon the eastern horizon. And there at last the eyes of Rufus Hardy and Kitty Bonnair met, questioning each other, and the world below them took on a soft, dreamy veil of beauty.
"Why, how did you come here?" he asked, looking down upon her wonderingly. "Were you lost?"
And Kitty smiled wistfully as she answered:
"Yes—till I found you."
"Oh!" said Hardy, and he studied her face warily, as if doubtful of her intent.
"But how could you be lost," he asked again, "and travel so far? This is a rough country, and you got here before I did."
He swung down from his horse and stood beside her, but Kitty only laughed mischievously and shook her head—at which, by some lover's magic, the dainty forget-me-nots fell from her hair in a shower of snowy blossoms.
"I was lost," she reiterated, smiling into his eyes, and in her gaze Hardy could read—"without you."
For a moment the stern sorrow of the night withheld him. His eyes narrowed, and he opened his lips to speak. Then, bowing his head, he knelt and gathered up the flowers.
"Yes," he said gently, "I understand. I—I have been lost, too."
They smiled and sat down together in the shadow of a great rock, gazing out over the peaks and pinnacles of the mountains which wall in Hidden Water and talking placidly of the old days—until at last, when the spell of the past was on him, Kitty fell silent, waiting for him to speak his heart.
But instantly the spell of her laughter was broken an uneasy thought came upon Hardy, and he glanced up at the soaring sun.
"Jeff will be worried about you," he said at last. "He will think you are lost and give up the rodeo to hunt for you. We must not stay here so long."
He turned his head instinctively as he spoke, and Kitty knew he was thinking of the sheep.
"Cattle and sheep—cattle and sheep," she repeated slowly. "Is there nothing else that counts, Rufus, in all this broad land? Must friendship, love, companionship, all go down before cattle and sheep? I never knew before what a poor creature a woman was until I came to Arizona."
She glanced at him from beneath her drooping lashes, and saw his jaws set tense.
"And yet only yesterday," he said, with a sombre smile, "you had twenty men risking their lives to give you some snake-tails for playthings."
"But my old friend Rufus was not among them," rejoined Kitty quietly; and once more she watched the venom working in his blood.
"No," he replied, "he refuses to compete with Bill Lightfoot at any price."
"Oh, Rufus," cried Kitty, turning upon him angrily, "aren't you ashamed? I want you to stop being jealous of all my friends. It is the meanest and most contemptible thing a man can do. I—I won't stand it!"
He glanced at her again with the same set look of disapproval still upon his face.
"Kitty," he said, "if you knew what lives some of those men lead—the thoughts they think, the language they speak—you—you would not—" He stopped, for the sudden tears were in her eyes. Kitty was crying.
"Oh, Rufus," she sobbed, "if—if you only knew! Who else could I go with—how—how else—Oh, I cannot bear to be scolded and—I only did it to make you jealous!" She bowed her head against her knees and Hardy gazed at her in awe, shame and compassion sweeping over him as he realized what she had done.
"Kitty—dear," he stammered, striving to unlock the twisted fingers, "I—I didn't understand. Look, here are your flowers and—I love you, Kitty, if I am a brute." He took one hand and held it, stroking the little fingers which he had so often longed to caress. But with a sudden wilfulness she turned her face away.
"Don't you love me, Kitty?" he pleaded. "Couldn't you, if I should try to be good and kind? I—I don't understand women—I know I have hurt you—but I loved you all the time. Can't you forgive me, Kitty?"
But Kitty only shook her head. "The man I love must be my master," she said, in a far-away voice, not looking at him. "He must value me above all the world."
"But, Kitty," protested Hardy, "I do—"
"No," said Kitty, "you do not love me."
There was a lash to the words that cut him—a scorn half-spoken, half-expressed by the slant of her eye. As he hesitated he felt the hot blood burn at his brow.
"Rufus," she cried, turning upon him quickly, "do you love me? Then take me in your arms and kiss me!" She spoke the words fiercely, almost as a command, and Hardy started back as if he had been shot.
"Take me in your arms and kiss me!" she repeated evenly, a flash of scorn in her eyes. But the man who had said he loved her faltered and looked away.
"Kitty," he said gently, "you know I love you. But—"
"But what?" she demanded sharply.
"I—I have never—"
"Well," said Kitty briefly, "it's all over—you don't have to! I just wanted to show you—" She paused, and her lip curled as she gazed at him from a distance. "Look at my horse," she exclaimed suddenly, pointing to where Pinto was pawing and jerking at his bridle rein. When Hardy leapt up to free his foot she frowned again, for that is not the way of lovers.
He came back slowly, leading the horse, his face very pale, his eyes set.
"You were right," he said. "Shall we go?"
There was no apology in his voice, no appeal. It had grown suddenly firm and resonant, and he fixed her with his great honest eyes steadfastly. Something in the man seemed to rise up suddenly and rebuke her—nay, to declare her unworthy of him. The thought of those two years—two years without a word—came upon Kitty and left her sober, filled with misgivings for the future. She cast about for some excuse, some reason for delay, and still those masterful eyes were fixed upon her—sad, wistful, yet steadfast; and like a child she obeyed them.
It was a long ride to camp, long for both of them. When he had turned her horse into the corral Hardy wheeled and rode off up the canyon, where the hold-up herd was bellowing and there was a man's work to do. There was wild riding that day, such as Judge Ware and Lucy had never seen before, and more than one outlaw, loping for the hills, was roped and thrown, and then lashed back to his place in the herd. The sensitive spirit of Chapuli responded like a twin being to the sudden madness of his master, and the lagging rodeo hands were galvanized into action by his impetuous ardor. And at the end, when the roping and branding were over, Hardy rode down to the pasture for a fresh mount, his eyes still burning with a feverish light and his lips close-drawn and silent.
The outfit was huddled about the fire eating greedily after the long day, when Creede, furtively watching his partner, saw his eyes fixed curiously upon some object in the outer darkness. He followed the glance and beheld a hound—gaunt, lame, beseeching—limping about among the mesquite trees which lined the edge of the flat.
"There's one of Bill's dogs," he remarked sociably, speaking to the crowd in general. "Must've got sore-footed and come back. Here, Rock! Here, Rye! Here, Ring!" he called, trying the most likely names. "Here, puppy—come on, boy!" And he scraped a plate in that inviting way which is supposed to suggest feed to a dog. But Hardy rose up quietly from his place and went out to the dog. A moment later he called to Jeff and, after a hurried conference, the two of them brought the wanderer up to the fire.
"Hey!" called Bill Lightfoot, "that ain't one of Bill's pack—that's old Turco, his home dog."
"Don't you think I know Bill's dogs yet?" inquired Creede scathingly. "Now if you'll jest kindly keep your face shet a minute, I'll see what's the matter with this leg."
He clamped Turco between his knees and picked up his fore leg, while the old dog whined and licked his hands anxiously. There was a stain of blood from the shoulder down, and above it, cut neatly through the muscles, a gaping wound.
"That was a thirty-thirty," said Creede grimly, and every man looked up. Thirty-thirty was a sinister number on the range—it was the calibre of a sheep-herder's carbine.
"Aw, go on," scoffed Bill Lightfoot, rushing over to examine the wound. "Who could have shot him—away over in Hell's Hip Pocket?"
"Um—that's it," observed Creede significantly. "What you goin' to do, Rufe?"
"I'm going over there," answered Hardy, throwing the saddle on his horse. He looked over his shoulder as he heaved on the cinch. "That's where that dust was," he said, and as the outfit stood gaping he swung up and was off into the darkness.
"Hey, take my gun!" yelled Jeff, but the clatter of hoofs never faltered—he was going it blind and unarmed. Late that night another horseman on a flea-bitten gray dashed madly after him over the Pocket trail. It was Old Bill Johnson, crazed with apprehension; and behind him straggled his hounds, worn from their long chase after the lion, but following dutifully on their master's scent. The rest of the outfit rode over in the morning—the punchers with their pistols thrust into the legs of their shaps; Creede black and staring with anger; the judge asking a thousand unanswered questions and protesting against any resort to violence; the women tagging along helplessly, simply because they could not be left alone. And there, pouring forth from the mouth of Hell's Hip Pocket, came the sheep, a solid phalanx, urged on by plunging herders and spreading out over the broad mesa like an invading army. Upon the peaks and ridges round about stood groups of men, like skirmishers—camp rustlers with their packs and burros; herders, whose sheep had already passed through—every man with his gun in his hand. The solid earth of the trail was worn down and stamped to dust beneath the myriad feet, rising in a cloud above them as they scrambled through the pass; and above all other sounds there rose the high, sustained tremolo of the sheep:
"Blay-ay-ay-ay! Blay-ay-ay-ay! Blay-ay-ay-ay!"
To the ears of the herders it was music, like the thunder of stamps to a miner or the rumble of a waterfall to a lonely fisher; the old, unlistened music of their calling, above which the clamor of the world must fight its way. But to the cowmen it was like all hell broken loose, a confusion, a madness, a babel which roused every passion in their being and filled them with a lust to kill.
Without looking to the right or to the left, Jefferson Creede fixed his eyes upon one man in that riot of workers and rode for him as a corral hand marks down a steer. It was Jasper Swope, hustling the last of a herd through the narrow defile, and as his Chihuahuanos caught sight of the burly figure bearing down upon the padron they abandoned their work to help him. From the hill above, Jim Swope, his face set like iron for the conflict, rode in to back up his brother; and from far down the canyon Rufus Hardy came spurring like the wind to take his place by Creede.
In the elemental clangor of the sheep they faced each other, Creede towering on his horse, his face furious with rage; Swope gray with the dust of his driving but undaunted by the assault.
"Stop where you are!" shouted Swope, holding out a warning hand as the cowman showed no sign of halting. But Creede came straight on, never flinching, until he had almost ridden him down.
"You low-lived, sheep-eatin' hound," he hissed, piling in the wickedest of his range epithets, "you and me have had it comin' fer quite a while, and now I've got you. I've never yet seen a sheepman that would fight in the open, but you've got to or take that!" He leaned over suddenly and slapped him with his open hand, laughing recklessly at the Mexicans as they brandished their guns and shouted.
"Quite se, cabrones," he jeered, sorting out the worst of his fighting Spanish for their benefit, "you are all gutter pups—you are afraid to shoot!"
"Here," rasped out Jim Swope, spurring his horse in between them, "what are you fellers tryin' to do? Git out of here, umbre—go on now! Never mind, Jasp, I'll do the talkin'. You go on away, will ye! Now what's the matter with you, Mr. Creede, and what can I do for you?"
Jasper Swope had whirled back from the blow as a rattler throws his coils. His gray eyes gleamed and he showed all his broken teeth as he spat back hate and defiance at Creede; but Jim was his elder brother and had bested him more than once since the days of their boyish quarrels. Slowly and grudgingly he made way, backing sullenly off with his Mexicans; and Jim stood alone, opposing his cold resolution to the white-hot wrath of Creede.
"You can turn back them sheep and git off my range!" yelled Creede. "Turn 'em back, I say, or I'll leave my mark on some of you!"
"How can I turn 'em back?" argued Swope, throwing out his hands. "They's ninety thousand more behind me, and all headin' through this pass."
"You know very well that this is a put-up job," retorted Creede hotly. "You sheepmen have been crawlin' around on your bellies for a month to get a chanst to sheep us out, and now you say you can't help yourself! You're the crookedest, lyingest sheep-puller in the bunch, Jim Swope. You'd rob a graveyard and show up for prayers the next mornin'. I can lick you, you big Mormon-faced stiff, with one hand tied behind me, and what's more—"
"Here now—here no-ow—" protested Swope, holding out his hand for peace, "they ain't no call for no such talk. Mebbe you can lick me, and mebbe you can't, but it won't do you any good to try. My sheep is here, and here they'll stay, until I git good and ready to move 'em. This is a free range and a free country, and the man ain't born that can make me stop."
He paused, and fixed his keen eyes upon Creede, searching him to the heart; and before that cold, remorseless gaze the fighting frenzy in his brain died away. Meanwhile Hardy had come up from where he had been turning back sheep, and as he rode in Jeff instinctively made way for him.
"No," replied Hardy, fastening his stern eyes upon the iron visage of the sheepman, "not if the lives of a thousand cattle and the last possessions of a dozen men lay in your way. You and your legal rights! It is men like you who make the law worse than nothing and turn honest cowmen into criminals. If there is anything in it you will lie to the assessor or rob a poor man's cabin with the best of them, but when it comes to your legal right to sheep us out you are all for law and order. Sure, you will uphold the statutes with your life! Look at those renegade Mexicans, every man armed by you with a rifle and a revolver! Is that the way to come onto another man's range? If you are going to sheep us out, you can try it on; but for God's sake cut it out about your sacred rights!"
He rose up in his saddle, haranguing the assembly as he spoke, and once more Jim Swope felt his cause being weakened by the attacks of this vehement little cowman.
"Well, what kin I do about it?" he cried, throwing out his hands in virtuous appeal. "My sheep has got to eat, hain't they?"
"Sure," assented Hardy, "and so have our cattle. But I tell you what you can do—you can go out through that pass yonder!"
He pointed at the canyon down which the sheep had come in the Fall, the great middle fork which led up over the Four Peaks; but the sheepman's only reply was a snarl of refusal.
"Not if I know myself," he muttered spitefully. "How'd do, Judge!" He fixed his eyes eagerly upon Judge Ware, who was hastening to join in the struggle. "You're just the man I want to see," he continued, advancing briskly to meet him, "and I want to ask you, here and now before these witnesses, do you claim any right to the exclusive use of this land?"
"Why, certainly not, certainly not," answered the judge warmly, "but at the same time I do claim an equity which rises from prior and undisputed possession, and which has always and ought now to protect my range from any outside invasion."
"Very likely, very likely," remarked Swope dryly. "And now, Judge, I want to ask you another question before these witnesses. Did you or did you not authorize your superintendent and foreman to threaten and intimidate my men and me, with the idea of driving us off this public land?"
"I did not," replied the judge, his mind suddenly filled with visions of criminal proceedings. "On the contrary, I have repeatedly warned them against any such action."
"At the same time," echoed Swope, quick to follow up his advantage, "these men, who are your agents and employees, have systematically moved my herders off this range by armed violence, and your foreman has just now struck my brother, besides threatening to kill some of us if we don't turn back. I want to tell you right now, Mr. Ware, that I have consulted the best lawyers in this Territory as to my rights on public lands, and you will be held personally responsible for any acts of violence on the part of your employees. Now I want to ask you one more question: Do you deny my right to pass through this range on my way to the Sierra Blancas? You don't? Well then, call off these men!"
He paused and jerked his thumb toward Creede and Hardy, grinning evilly, and as he spoke Creede crowded forward, his brow black as a thunder cloud.
"I don't take orders from nobody," he cried vehemently, "not now, and never will. I've got a few hundred head of cows on this range myself and I intend to protect 'em if I have to kill somebody. You'll have to git another foreman, Judge,—I've quit."
He shot a glance of pitying contempt at the man who had so stupidly marred their fortunes, then he turned and fixed his burning eyes upon his archenemy.
"Jim," he said, speaking quietly at last, "my father had ten thousand head of cattle on this range before you sheepmen came—and that's all I've got left. If you think you can sheep me out, go to it!"
He turned his horse's head toward Hidden Water, never looking back at the sheep; and the cowmen fell in behind him, glad of an excuse to retreat. What were a bunch of cowboys, armed with six-shooters, to half a hundred sheepmen armed with repeating rifles and automatic revolvers? No, it was better to let the sheep come, let them spread out and scatter, and then jump the herders at night, if it came to that. But what, reasoned the cautious ones, were a few hundred head of cows anyhow, in a losing fight against the law itself? What was a petty revenge upon some low-browed Mexican to the years of imprisonment in Yuma which might follow? There were some among that little band of cowmen who yelled for action, others who were disgusted enough to quit, and others yet who said nothing, riding by themselves or exchanging furtive glances with Creede. The Clark boys, Ben Reavis, and Juan Ortega—these were the men whom the rodeo boss knew he could trust, and none of them spoke a word.
Worn and haggard from his night's riding, Rufus Hardy rode along with Judge Ware and the ladies, explaining the situation to them. The sheep had come in from the far east, crossing where sheep had never crossed before, at the junction of Hell's Hip Pocket Creek and the drought-shrunk Salagua. They had poured into the Pocket in solid columns, sheeping it to the rocks, and had taken the pass before either he or Bill Johnson could get to it. All through the night the sheepmen had been crowding their flocks through the defile until there were already twenty or thirty thousand on Bronco Mesa, with fifty thousand to follow. Bill Johnson had shot his way through the jam and disappeared into the Pocket, but he could do nothing now—his little valley was ruined. There would not be a spear of grass left for his cattle, and his burros had already come out with the pack animals of the sheepmen. No one knew what had happened when he reached his home, but the Mexican herders seemed to be badly scared, and Johnson had probably tried to drive them out of the valley.
All this Hardy explained in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, free from apprehension or excitement; he listened in respectful silence to Judge Ware's protests against violence and threats of instant departure; and even humored Kitty's curiosity by admitting that Mr. Johnson, who was apparently out of his head when he shot the sheep, had probably taken a shot or two at the herders, as well. But Lucy Ware was not deceived by his repose; she saw the cold light in his eyes, the careful avoidance of any allusion to his own actions, and the studied concealment of his future intent. But even then she was not prepared when, after supper, her father came into the ranch house and told her that Mr. Hardy had just resigned.
"I can't imagine why he should leave me at this time," exclaimed the judge, mopping the sweat from his brow, and groaning with vexation, "but a man who will desert his own father in the way he has done is capable of anything, I suppose. Just because he doesn't approve of my policies in regard to these sheep he coolly says he won't embarrass me further by staying in my employ! I declare, Lucy, I'm afraid I'm going to lose everything I have down here if both he and Creede desert me. Don't you think you could persuade Rufus to stay? Go out and see him and tell him I will consent to anything—except this unlawful harrying of the sheep."
The old judge, still perspiring with excitement, sank wearily down into a chair and Lucy came over and sat upon his knee.
"Father," she said, "do you remember that you once told me you would give me this ranch if I wanted it? Well, I want it now, and perhaps if you give it to me Rufus will consent to stay."
"But, daughter—" protested the judge, and then he sat quiet, pondering upon the matter.
"Perhaps you are right," he said at last. "But tell me one thing—there is nothing between you and Rufus, is there?"
He turned her face so that he could look into her honest eyes, but Lucy twisted her head away, blushing.
"No," she said faintly. "He—he is in love with Kitty."
"With Kitty!" cried Judge Ware, outraged at the idea. "Why, he—but never mind, never mind, darling. I am glad at least that it is not with you. We must be going home soon now, anyway, and that will break off this—er—But I don't remember having seen them together much!"
"No," said Lucy demurely, "he has been very discreet. But you haven't answered my question, father. Will you give me the ranch if I get Rufus to stay? Oh, you're a dear! Now you just leave everything in my hands and see what a good business woman I am!"
She skipped lightly out the door and hurried over to where Hardy and Jefferson Creede were sitting under a tree, talking gravely together. They stopped as she approached and Hardy looked up a little sullenly from where he sat. Then he rose, and took off his hat.
"May I have a few words with you on a matter of business, Rufus?" she asked, with her friendliest smile. "No, don't go, Mr. Creede; you are interested in this, too. In fact," she added mysteriously, "I need your assistance."
A slow smile crept into the rough cowboy's eyes as he sat watching her.
"What can I do for you?" he inquired guardedly.
"Well," answered Lucy, "the situation is like this—and I'm not trying to rope you in on anything, as you say, so you needn't look suspicious. My father has become so discouraged with the way things are going that he has given the entire Dos S Ranch to me—if I can manage it. Now I know that you both have quit because you don't approve of my father's orders about the sheep. I don't know what your plans are but I want to get a new superintendent, and that's where I need your assistance, Mr. Creede."
She paused long enough to bestow a confiding smile upon the rodeo boss, and then hurried on to explain her position.
"Of course you understand how it is with father. He has been a judge, and it wouldn't do for a man in his position to break the laws. But I want you two men to tell me before you go just what you think I ought to do to save my cattle, and you can say whatever you please. Mr. Creede, if you were a woman and owned the Dos S outfit, what would you do about the sheep?"
For a minute Creede sat silent, surveying the little lady from beneath his shaggy hair.
"Well," he said judicially, "I think I'd do one of two things: I'd either marry some nice kind man whose judgment I could trust, and turn the job over to him,"—he glanced sideways at Hardy as he spoke,—"or I'd hire some real mean, plug-ugly feller to wade in and clean 'em out. Failin' in that, I think I'd turn the whole outfit over to Rufe here and go away and fergit about it."
He added these last words with a frank directness which left no doubt as to his own convictions in the matter, and Lucy turned an inquiring eye upon Hardy. He was busily engaged in pounding a hole in the ground with a rock, and Lucy noted for the first time a trace of silver in his hair. The setting sun cast deep shadows in the set lines of his face and when he finally looked up his eyes were bloodshot and haggard.
"There's no use in talking to me about that job," he said morosely. "I've got tired of taking orders from a man that doesn't know what he's talking about, and I want to use my own judgment for a while. We won't let anything happen to your cattle, Miss Lucy, and I thank you very much, but I'm afraid I can't do it."
He stopped, and bowed his head, hammering moodily away at his hole in the rocky ground.
"Excuse me a minute, Miss Ware," said Creede, rising to his feet as the silence became oppressive. "Come over here, Rufe, I want to talk with you."
They stood with their heads together, Jeff tapping the little man on the chest with every word, and still there was the same dogged resistance. "Well, come on and let's find out," protested Creede at last, impatiently dragging him back.
"Miss Ware," he said politely, "what do you expect of this here supe? I might want that job myself, later on," he observed importantly.
Lucy smiled at the bare-faced fraud and hastened to abet it.
"I expect him to look after my cattle," she responded promptly, "and to protect my best interests according to his own judgment. The only thing I insist upon is that he leave his gun at home."
"I'm sorry," said Creede briefly. "And I needed the job, too," he added lugubriously. "How about your foreman?" he inquired, as if snatching at a straw. "Same thing, eh? Well, I'll go you—next month."
He laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and crowded his big black sombrero down over his eyes until it gave him a comical air of despair.
"Luck's gone," he remarked, reaching parenthetically for a cigarette paper. "See you later." And, with a last roguish twinkle at Miss Lucy, he slouched off toward the fire.
His luck indeed had gone, but somewhere in that giant carcass which harbored the vindictive hate of an Apache, and the restless energy of a Texano, there still lingered the exuberant joyousness of a boy, the indomitable spirit of the pioneer, resigned to any fate so long as there is a laugh in it. As he drifted into the crowd Lucy's heart went out to him; he was so big and strong and manly in this, the final eclipse of his waning fortunes.