Pete took an almost vicious delight in perfecting himself in this trick. He knew of most of the other methods—but shooting with the gun in the holster was difficult and for close-range work, and just in proportion to its difficulty Pete persevered.
He was fond of Montoya in an offhand way, but with the lessons in gunmanship his fondness became almost reverence for the old man's easy skill and accuracy. Despite their increasing friendliness, Pete could never get Montoya to admit that he had killed a man—and Pete thought this strange, at that time.
Pete's lessons were not always without grief. Montoya, ordinarily genial, was a hard master to please. Finally, when Pete was allowed to use ammunition in his practice, and insisted on sighting at an object, Montoya reproved him sharply for wasting time. "It is like this," he would say; illustrating on the instant he would throw a shot into the chance target without apparent aim. Once he made Pete put down his gun and take up a handful of stones. "Now shoot," he said. Pete, much chagrined, pelted the stones rapidly at the empty can target. To his surprise he missed it only once. "Now shoot him like that," said Montoya. Pete, chafing because of this "kid stuff," as he called the stone-throwing, picked up his gun and "threw" five shots at the can. He was angry and he shot fast, but he hit the can twice. From that minute he "caught on." Speed tended toward accuracy, premising one was used to the "feel" of a gun. And accuracy tended toward speed, giving one assurance. Even as one must throw a stone with speed to be accurate, so one must shoot with speed. It was all easy enough—like everything else—when you had the hang of it.
How often a hero of fiction steps into a story—or rides into it—whose deadly accuracy, lightning-like swiftness, appalling freedom from accident, ostrich-like stomach and camel-like ability to go without water, earn him the plaudits of a legion of admiring readers. Apropos of such a hero, your old-timer will tell you, "that there ain't no such animal." If your old-timer is a friend—perchance carrying the never-mentioned scars of cattle-wars and frontier raids—he may tell you that many of the greatest gunmen practiced early and late, spent all their spare money on ammunition, never "showed-off" before an audience, always took careful advantage of every fighting chance, saved their horses and themselves from undue fatigue when possible, never killed a man when they could avoid killing him, bore themselves quietly, didn't know the meaning of Romance, but were strong for utility, and withal worked as hard and suffered as much in becoming proficient in their vocation as the veriest artisan of the cities. Circumstances, hazard, untoward event, even inclination toward excitement, made some of these men heroes, but never in their own eyes. There were exceptions, of course, but most of the exceptions were buried.
And Young Pete, least of all, dreamed of becoming a hero. He liked guns and all that pertained to them. The feel of a six-shooter in his hand gave him absolute pleasure. The sound of a six-shooter was music to him, and the potency contained in the polished cylinder filled with blunt-nosed slugs was something that he could appreciate. He was a born gunman, as yet only in love with the tools of his trade, interested more in the manipulation than in eventual results. He wished to become expert, but in becoming expert he forgot for the time being his original intent of eventually becoming the avenger of Annersley. Pride in his ability to draw quick and shoot straight, with an occasional word of praise from old Montoya, pretty well satisfied him. When he was not practicing he was working, and thought only of the task at hand.
Pete was generally liked in the towns where he occasionally bought provisions. He was known as "Montoya's boy," and the townsfolk had a high respect for the old Mexican. One circumstance, however, ruffled the placid tenor of his way and tended to give him the reputation of being a "bronco muchacho"—a rough boy; literally a bad boy, as white folks would have called him.
Montoya sent him into town for some supplies. As usual, Pete rode one of the burros. It was customary for Pete to leave his gun in camp when going to town. Montoya had suggested that he do this, as much for Pete's sake as for anything else. The old man knew that slightly older boys were apt to make fun of Pete for packing such a disproportionately large gun—or, in fact, for packing any gun at all. And Montoya also feared that Pete might get into trouble. Pete was pugnacious, independent, and while always possessing enough humor to hold his own in a wordy argument, he had much pride, considering himself the equal of any man and quite above the run of youths of the towns. And he disliked Mexicans—Montoya being the one exception. This morning he did not pack his gun, but hung it on the cross-tree of the pack-saddle. There were many brush rabbits on the mesa, and they made interesting targets.
About noon he arrived at the town—Laguna. He bought the few provisions necessary and piled them on the ground near his burros. He had brought some cold meat and bread with him which he ate, squatted out in front of the store. Several young loafers gathered round and held high argument among themselves as to whether Pete was a Mexican or not. This in itself was not altogether pleasing to Pete. He knew that he was tanned to a swarthy hue, was naturally of a dark complexion, and possessed black hair and eyes. But his blood rebelled at even the suggestion that he was a Mexican. He munched his bread and meat, tossed the crumbs to a stray dog and rolled a cigarette. One of the Mexican boys asked him for tobacco and papers. Pete gladly proffered "the makings." The Mexican youth rolled a cigarette and passed the sack of tobacco to his companions. Pete eyed this breach of etiquette sternly, and received the sack back, all but empty. But still he said nothing, but rose and entering the store—a rambling, flat-roofed adobe—bought another sack of tobacco. When he came out the boys were laughing. He caught a word or two which drove the jest home. In the vernacular, he was "an easy mark."
"Mebby I am," he said in Mexican. "But I got the price to buy my smokes. I ain't no doggone loafer."
The Mexican youth who had asked for the tobacco retorted with some more or less vile language, intimating that Pete was neither Mexican nor white—an insult compared to which mere anathema was as nothing. Pete knew that if he started a row he would get properly licked—that the boys would all pile on him and chase him out of town. So he turned his back on the group and proceeded to pack the burros. The Mexican boys forgot the recent unpleasantness in watching him pack. They realized that he knew his business. But Pete was not through with them yet. When he had the burros in shape to travel he picked up the stick with which he hazed them and faced the group. What he said to them was enough with some to spare for future cogitation. He surpassed mere invective with flaming innuendos as to the ancestry, habits, and appearance of these special gentlemen and of Mexicans in general. He knew Mexicans and knew where he could hit hardest. He wound up with gentle intimation that the town would have made a respectable pigsty, but that a decent pig would have a hard time keeping his self-respect among so many descendants of the canine tribe. It was a beautiful, an eloquent piece of work, and even as he delivered it he felt rather proud of his command of the Mexican idiom. Then he made a mistake. He promptly turned his back and started the burros toward the distant camp. Had he kept half an eye on the boys he might have avoided trouble. But he had turned his back. They thought that he was both angry and afraid. They also made a slight mistake. The youth who had borrowed the tobacco and who had taken most of Pete's eloquence to heart—for he had inspired it—called the dog that lay back of them in the shade and set him on Pete and the burros. If a burro hates anything it is to be attacked by a dog. Pete whirled and swung his stick. The dog, a huge, lean, coyote-faced animal, dodged and snapped at the nearest burro's heels. That placid animal promptly bucked and ran. His brother burro took the cue and did likewise. Presently the immediate half-mile square was decorated with loose provisions—sugar, beans, flour, a few cans of tomatoes, and chiles broken from the sack and strung out in every direction. The burros became a seething cloud of dust in the distance. Pete chased the dog which naturally circled and ran back of the group of the store. Older Mexicans gathered and laughed. The boys, feeling secure in the presence of their seniors, added their shrill yelps of pleasure. Pete, boiling internally, white-faced and altogether too quiet, slowly gathered up what provisions were usable. Presently he came upon his gun, which had been bucked from the pack-saddle. The Mexicans were still laughing when he strode back to the store. The dog, scenting trouble, bristled and snarled, baring his long fangs and standing with one forefoot raised. Before the assembly realized what had happened, Pete had whipped out his gun. With the crash of the shot the dog doubled up and dropped in his tracks. The boys scattered and ran. Pete cut loose in their general direction. They ran faster. The older folk, chattering and scolding, backed into the store. "Montoya's boy was loco. He would kill somebody!" Some of the women crossed themselves. The storekeeper, who knew Pete slightly, ventured out. He argued with Pete, who blinked and nodded, but would not put up his gun. The Mexicans feared him for the very fact that he was a boy and might do anything. Had he been a man he might have been shot. But this did not occur to Pete. He was fighting mad. His burros were gone and his provisions scattered, save a few canned tomatoes that had not suffered damage. The storekeeper started toward him. Pete centered on that worthy's belt-buckle and told him to stay where he was.
"I'll blow a hole in you that you can drive a team through if you come near me!" asserted Pete. "I come in here peaceful, and you doggone Cholas wrecked my outfit and stampeded my burros; but they ain't no Mexican can run a whizzer on me twict. I'm white—see!"
"It is not I that did this thing," said the storekeeper.
"No, but the doggone town did! I reckon when Jose Montoya comes in and wants his grub, you'll settle all right. And he's comin'!"
"Then you will go and not shoot any one?"
"When I git ready. But you kin tell your outfit that the first Chola that follows me is goin' to run up ag'inst a slug that'll bust him wide open. I'm goin'—but I'm comin' back."
Pete, satisfied that he had conducted himself in a manner befitting the occasion, backed away a few steps and finally turned and marched across the mesa. They had wrecked his outfit. He'd show 'em! Old Montoya knew that something was wrong when the burros drifted in with their pack-saddles askew. He thought that possibly some coyote had stampeded them. He righted the pack-saddles and drove the burros back toward Laguna. Halfway across the mesa he met Pete, who told him what had happened. Montoya said nothing. Pete had hoped that his master would rave and threaten all sorts of vengeance. But the old man simply nodded, and plodding along back of the burros, finally entered Laguna and strode up to the store. All sorts of stories were afloat, stories which Montoya discounted liberally, because he knew Pete. The owner of the dog claimed damages. Montoya, smiling inwardly, referred that gentleman to Pete, who stood close to his employer, hoping that he would start a real row, but pretty certain that he would not. That was Montoya's way. The scattered provisions as far as possible were salvaged and fresh supplies loaded on the burros. When Montoya was ready to leave he turned to the few Mexicans in front of the store: "When I send my boy in here for flour and the beans and the sugar, it will be well to keep the dogs away—and to remember that it is Jose de la Crux that has sent him. For the new provisions I do not pay. Adios, senors."
Pete thought that this was rather tame—but still Montoya's manner was decidedly business-like. No one controverted him—not even the storekeeper, who was the loser.
A small crowd had assembled. Excitement such as this was rare in Laguna. While still in plain sight of the group about the store, and as Montoya plodded slowly along behind the burros, Pete turned and launched his parthian shot—that eloquently expressive gesture of contempt and scorn wherein is employed the thumb, the nose, and the outspread fingers of one hand. He was still very much a boy.
About a year later—after drifting across a big territory of grazing land, winter-feeding the sheep near Largo, and while preparing to drive south again and into the high country—Pete met young Andy White, a clean-cut, sprightly cowboy riding for the Concho outfit. Andy had ridden down to Largo on some errand or other and had tied his pony in front of the store when Montoya's sheep billowed down the street and frightened the pony. Young Pete, hazing the burros, saw the pony pull back and break the reins, whirl and dash out into the open and circle the mesa with head and tail up. It was a young horse, not actually wild, but decidedly frisky. Pete had not been on a horse for many months. The beautiful pony, stamping and snorting in the morning sun, thrilled Pete clear to his toes. To ride—anywhere—what a contrast to plodding along with the burros! To feel a horse between his knees again! To swing up and ride—ride across the mesa to that dim line of hills where the sun touched the blue of the timber and the gold of the quaking-asp and burned softly on the far woodland trail that led south and south across the silent ranges! Pete snatched a rope from the pack and walked out toward the pony. That good animal, a bit afraid of the queer figure in the flapping overalls and flop-brimmed sombrero, snorted and swung around facing him. Dragging his rope, Pete walked slowly forward. The pony stopped and flung up its head. Pete flipped the loop and set back on his heels. The rope ran taut. Pete was prepared for the usual battle, but the pony, instead, "came to the rope" and sniffed curiously at Pete, who patted his nose and talked to him. Assured that his strange captor knew horses, the pony allowed him to slip the rope round his nose and mount without even sidling. Pete was happy. This was something like! As for Montoya and the sheep—they were drifting on in a cloud of dust, the burros following placidly.
"You sure caught him slick."
Pete nodded to the bright-faced young cowboy who had stepped up to him. Andy White was older than Pete, heavier and taller, with keen blue eyes and an expression as frank and fearless as the morning itself. In contrast, Young Pete was lithe and dark, his face was more mature, more serious, and his black eyes seemed to see everything at a glance—a quick, indifferent glance that told no one what was behind the expression. Andy was light-skinned and ruddy. Pete was swarthy and black-haired. For a second or so they stood, then White genially thrust out his hand. "Thanks!" he said heartily. "You sabe 'em."
It was a little thing to say and yet it touched Pete's pride. Deep in his heart he was a bit ashamed of consorting with a sheep-herder—a Mexican; and to be recognized as being familiar with horses pleased him more than his countenance showed. "Yes. I handled 'em some—tradin'—when I was a kid."
Andy glanced at the boyish figure and smiled. "You're wastin' good time with that outfit,"—and he gestured with his thumb toward the sheep.
"Oh, I dunno. Jose Montoya ain't so slow—with a gun."
Andy White laughed. "Old Crux ain't a bad old scout—but you ain't a Mexican. Anybody can see that!"
"Well, just for fun—suppose I was."
"It would be different," said Andy. "You're white, all right!"
"Meanin' my catchin' your cayuse. Well, anybody'd do that."
"They ain't nothin' to drink but belly-wash in this town," said Andy boyishly. "But you come along down to the store an' I'll buy."
"I'll go you! I see you're ridin' for the Concho."
"Uh-huh, a year."
Pete walked beside this new companion and Pete was thinking hard. "What's your name?" he queried suddenly.
"White—Andy White. What's yours?"
"Pete Annersley," he replied proudly.
They sat outside the store and drank bottled pop and swapped youthful yarns of the range and camp until Pete decided that he had better go. But his heart was no longer with the sheep.
He rose and shook hands with Andy. "If you git a chanct, ride over to our camp sometime. I'm goin' up the Largo. You can find us. Mebby"—and he hesitated, eying the pony—"mebby I might git a chanct to tie up to your outfit. I'm sick of the woolies."
"Don't blame you, amigo. If I hear of anything I'll come a-fannin' and tell you. So-long. She's one lovely mornin'."
Pete turned and plodded down the dusty road. Far ahead the sheep shuffled along, the dogs on either side of the band and old Montoya trudging behind and driving the burros. Pete said nothing as he caught up with Montoya, merely taking his place and hazing the burros toward their first camp in the canon.
It was an aimless life, with little chance of excitement; but riding range—that was worth while! Already Pete had outgrown any sense of dependency on the old Mexican. He felt that he was his own man. He had been literally raised with the horses and until this morning he had not missed them so much. But the pony and the sprightly young cowboy, with his keen, smiling face and swinging chaps, had stirred longings in Young Pete's heart that no amount of ease or outdoor freedom with the sheep could satisfy. He wanted action. His life with Montoya had made him careless but not indolent. He felt a touch of shame, realizing that such a thought was disloyal to Montoya, who had done so much for him. But what sentiment Pete had, ceased immediately, however, when the main chance loomed, and he thought he saw his fortune shaping toward the range and the cow-ponies. He had liked Andy White from the beginning. Perhaps they could arrange to ride together if he (Pete) could get work with the Concho outfit. The gist of it all was that Pete was lonely and did not realize it. Montoya was much older, grave, and often silent for days. He seemed satisfied with the life. Pete, in his way, had aspirations—vague as yet, but slowly shaping toward a higher plane than the herding of sheep. He had had experiences enough for a man twice his age, and he knew that he had ability. As Andy White had said, it was wasting good time, this sheep-herding. Well, perhaps something would turn up. In the meantime there was camp to make, water to pack, and plenty of easy detail to take up his immediate time. Perhaps he would talk with Montoya after supper about making a change. Perhaps not. It might be better to wait until he saw Andy White again.
In camp that night Montoya asked Pete if he were sick. Pete shook his head; "Jest thinkin'," he replied.
Old Montoya, wise in his way, knew that something had occurred, yet he asked no further questions, but rolled a cigarette and smoked, wondering whether Young Pete were dissatisfied with the pay he gave him—for Pete now got two dollars a week and his meals. Montoya thought of offering him more. The boy was worth more. But he would wait. If Pete showed any disposition to leave, then would be time enough to speak. So they sat by the fire in the keen evening air, each busy with his own thoughts, while the restless sheep bedded down, bleating and shuffling, and the dogs lay with noses toward the fire, apparently dozing, but ever alert for a stampede; alert for any possibility—even as were Montoya and Pete, although outwardly placid and silent.
Next morning, after the sheep were out, Pete picked up a pack-rope and amused himself by flipping the loop on the burros, the clumps of brush, stubs, and limbs, keeping at it until the old herder noticed and nodded. "He is thinking of the cattle," soliloquized Montoya. "I will have to get a new boy some day. But he will speak, and then I shall know."
While Pete practiced with the rope he was figuring how long it would take him to save exactly eighteen dollars and a half, for that was the price of a Colt's gun such as he had taken from the store at Concho. Why he should think of saving the money for a gun is not quite clear. He already had one. Possibly because they were drifting back toward the town of Concho, Pete wished to be prepared in case Roth asked him about the gun. Pete had eleven dollars pinned in the watch-pocket of his overalls. In three weeks, at most, they would drive past Concho. He would then have seventeen dollars. Among his personal effects he had two bobcat skins and a coyote-hide. Perhaps he could sell them for a dollar or two. How often did Andy White ride the Largo Canon? The Concho cattle grazed to the east. Perhaps White had forgotten his promise to ride over some evening. Pete swung his loop and roped a clump of brush. "I'll sure forefoot you, you doggone longhorn!" he said. "I'll git my iron on you, you maverick! I'm the Ridin' Kid from Powder River, and I ride 'em straight up an' comin'." So he romanced, his feet on the ground, but his heart with the bawling herd and the charging ponies. "Like to rope a lion," he told himself as he swung his rope again. "Same as High-Chin Bob." Just then one of the dogs, attracted by Pete's unusual behavior, trotted up.
Pete's rope shot out and dropped. The dog had never been roped. His dignity was assaulted. He yelped and started straightway for Montoya, who stood near the band, gazing, as ever, into space. Just as the rope came taut, Pete's foot slipped and he lost the rope. The dog, frightened out of his wits, charged down on the sheep. The trailing rope startled them. They sagged in, crowding away from the terror-stricken dog. Fear, among sheep, spreads like fire in dry grass. In five seconds the band was running, with Montoya calling to the dogs and Pete trying to capture the flying cause of the trouble.
When the sheep were turned and had resumed their grazing, Montoya, who had caught the roped dog, strode to Pete. "It was a bad thing to do," he said easily. "Why did you rope him?"
Pete scowled and stammered. "Thought he was a lion. He came a-tearin' up, and I was thinkin' o' lions. So, I jest nacherally loops him. I was praticin'."
"First it was the gun. Now it is the rope," said Montoya, smiling. "You make a vaquero, some day, I think."
"Oh, mebby. But I sure won't quit you till you get 'em over the range, even if I do git a chanct to ride for some outfit. But I ain't got a job, yet."
"I would not like to have you go," said Montoya. "You are a good boy."
Pete had nothing to say. He wished Montoya had not called him "a good boy." That hurt. If Montoya had only scolded him for stampeding the sheep. . . . But Montoya had spoken in a kindly way.
Several nights later a horseman rode into Montoya's camp. Pete, getting supper, pretended great indifference until he heard the horseman's voice. It was young Andy White who had come to visit, as he had promised. Pete's heart went warm, and he immediately found an extra tin plate and put more coffee in the pot. He was glad to see White, but he was not going to let White know how glad. He greeted the young cowboy in an offhand way, taking the attitude of being so engrossed with cooking that he could not pay great attention to a stray horseman just then. But later in the evening, after they had eaten, the two youths chatted and smoked while Montoya listened and gazed out across the evening mesa. He understood. Pete was tired of the sheep and would sooner or later take up with the cattle. That was natural enough. He liked Pete; really felt as a father toward him. And the old Mexican, who was skilled in working leather, thought of the hand-carved holster and belt that he had been working on during his spare time—a present that he had intended giving Pete when it was completed. There was still a little work to do on the holster; the flower pattern in the center was not quite finished. To-morrow he would finish it—for he wanted to have it ready. If Pete stayed with him, he would have it—and if Pete left he should have something by which to remember Jose de la Crux Montoya—something to remember him by, and something useful—for even then Montoya realized that if Young Pete survived the present hazards that challenged youth and an adventurous heart, some day, as a man grown, Pete would thoroughly appreciate the gift. A good holster, built on the right lines and one from which a gun came easily, would be very useful to a man of Pete's inclinations. And when it came to the fit and hang of a holster, Montoya knew his business.
Three weeks later, almost to a day, the sheep were grazing below the town of Concho, near the camp where Pete had first visited Montoya and elected to work for him. On the higher levels several miles to the east was the great cattle outfit of the Concho; the home-buildings, corrals, and stables. Pete had seen some of the Concho boys—chance visitors at the homestead on the Blue—and he had been thinking of these as the sheep drifted toward Concho. After all, he was not equipped to ride, as he had no saddle, bridle, chaps, boots, and not even a first-class rope. Pete had too much pride to acknowledge his lack of riding-gear or the wherewithal to purchase it, even should he tie up with the Concho boys. So when Andy White, again visiting the sheep-camp, told Pete that the Concho foreman had offered no encouragement in regard to an extra hand, Pete nodded as though the matter were of slight consequence, which had the effect of stirring Andy to renewed eloquence anent the subject—as Pete had hoped. The boys discussed ways and means. There was much discussion, but no visible ways and means. Andy's entire wealth was invested in his own gay trappings. Pete possessed something like seventeen dollars. But there is nothing impossible to youth—for when youth realizes the impossible, youth has grown a beard and fears the fire.
Both boys knew that there were many poor Mexicans in the town of Concho who, when under the expansive influence of wine, would part with almost anything they or their neighbors possessed, for a consideration. There were Mexicans who would sell horse, saddle, and bridle for that amount, especially when thirsty—for seventeen dollars meant unlimited vino and a swaggering good time—for a time. Pete knew this only too well. He suggested the idea to Andy, who concurred with enthusiasm.
"Cholas is no good anyhow," blurted Andy. "You ain't robbin' nobody when you buy a Chola outfit. Let's go!"
Montoya, who sat by the fire, coughed.
"'Course, I was meanin' some Cholas," said Andy.
The old herder smiled to himself. The boys amused him. He had been young once—and very poor. And he had ridden range in his youthful days. A mild fatalist, he knew that Pete would not stay long, and Montoya was big enough not to begrudge the muchacho any happiness.
"I'm goin' over to town for a spell," explained Pete.
"I'm comin' back," Pete added, a bit embarrassed.
"Bueno. I shall be here."
Pete, a bit flustered, did not quite catch the mild sarcasm, but he breathed more freely when they were out of sight of camp. "He's sure a white Mexican," he told Andy. "I kind o' hate to leave him, at that."
"You ain't left him yet," suggested Andy with the blunt candor of youth.
Pete pondered. Tucked under his arm were the two bobcat skins and the coyote-hide. He would try to sell them to the storekeeper, Roth. All told, he would then have about twenty dollars. That was quite a lot of money—in Concho.
Roth was closing shop when they entered town. He greeted Pete heartily, remarked at his growth and invited him in. Pete introduced Andy, quite unnecessarily, for Andy knew the storekeeper. Pete gazed at the familiar shelves, boxes and barrels, the new saddles and rigs, and in fact at everything in the store save the showcase which contained the cheap watches, trinkets, and six-shooters.
"I got a couple o' skins here," he said presently. "Mebby you could buy 'em."
"Let's see 'em, Pete."
Pete unfolded the stiff skins on the counter.
"Why, I'll give you two dollars for the lot. The cat-skins are all right. The coyote ain't worth much."
"All right. I—I'm needin' the money right now," stammered Pete—"or I'd give 'em to you."
"How you making it?" queried Roth.
"Fine! But I was thinkin' o' makin' a change. Sheep is all right—but I'm sick o' the smell of 'em. Montoya is all right, too. It ain't that."
Roth gazed at the boy, wondering if he would say anything about the six-gun. He liked Pete and yet he felt a little disappointed that Pete should have taken him altogether for granted.
"Montoya was in—yesterday," said Roth.
"Uh-huh? Said he was comin' over here. He's back in camp. Me and Andy was lookin' for a Chola that wants to sell a hoss."
"Mighty poor lot of cayuses round here, Pete. What you want with a horse?"
"'T ain't the hoss. It's the saddle an' bridle I'm after. If I were to offer to buy a saddle an' bridle I'd git stuck jest as much for 'em as I would if I was to buy the whole works. Might jest as well have the hoss. I could trade him for a pair of chaps, mebby."
"Goin' to quit the sheep business?"
"Mebby—if I can git a job ridin'."
"Well, good luck. I got to close up. Come over and see me before you break camp."
"I sure will! Thank you for the—for buyin' them hides."
Pete felt relieved—and yet not satisfied. He had wanted to speak about the six-shooter he had taken—but Andy was there, and, besides, it was a hard subject to approach gracefully even under the most favorable auspices. Perhaps, in the morning . . .
"Come on over to Tony's Place and mebby we can run into a Mex that wants to sell out," suggested Andy.
Pete said good-night to Roth.
"Don't you boys get into trouble," laughed Roth, as they left. He had not even hinted about the six-shooter. Pete thought that the storekeeper was "sure white."
The inevitable gaunt, ribby, dejected pony stood at the hitching-rail of the saloon. Pete knew it at once for a Mexican's pony. No white man would ride such a horse. The boys inspected the saddle, which was not worth much, but they thought it would do. "We could steal 'im," suggested Andy, laughing. "Then we could swipe the rig and turn the cayuse loose."
For a moment this idea appealed to Pete. He had a supreme contempt for Mexicans. But suddenly he seemed to see himself surreptitiously taking the six-shooter from Roth's showcase—and he recalled vividly how he had felt at the time—"jest plumb mean," as he put it. Roth had been mighty decent to him. . . . The Mexican, a wizened little man, cross-eyed and wrinkled, stumbled from the saloon.
"Want to sell your hoss?" Pete asked in Mexican.
"Si! How much you give?" said the other, coming right to the point.
"He is a good horse—very fast. He is worth much more. I sell him for twenty dollars."
Andy White put his hand on Pete's shoulder. "Say, Pete," he whispered, "I know this hombre. The poor cuss ain't hardly got enough sense to die. He comes into town reg'lar and gits drunk and he's got a whole corral full of kids and a wife, over to the Flats. I'm game, but it's kinda tough, takin' his hoss. It's about all he's got, exceptin' a measly ole dog and a shack and the clothes on his back. That saddle ain't worth much, anyhow."
Pete thought it over. "It's his funeral," he said presently.
"That's all right—but dam' if I want to bury him." And Andy, the sprightly, rolled a cigarette and eyed Pete, who stood pondering.
Presently Pete turned to the Mexican. "I was only joshin' you, amigo. You fork your cayuse and fan it for home."
Pete felt that his chance of buying cheap equipment had gone glimmering, but he was not unhappy. He gestured to Andy. Together they strode across to the store and sat on the rough wood platform. Pete kicked his heels and whistled a range tune. Andy smoked and wondered what Pete had in mind. Suddenly Pete rose and pulled up his belt. "Come on over to Roth's house," he said. "I want to see him."
"He's turned in," suggested Andy.
"That's all right. I got to see him."
"I'm on! You're goin' to pay somethin' down on a rig, and git him to let you take it on time. Great idee! Go to it!"
"You got me wrong," said Pete.
Roth had gone to bed, but he rose and answered the door when he heard Pete's voice. "Kin I see you alone?" queried Pete.
"I reckon so. Come right in."
Pete blinked in the glare of the lamp, shuffled his feet as he slowly counted out eighteen dollars and a half. "It's for the gun I took," he explained.
Roth hesitated, then took the money.
"All right, Pete. I'll give you a receipt. Just wait a minute."
Pete gazed curiously at the crumpled bit of paper that Roth fetched from the bedroom. "I took a gun an' cartriges for Wagges. You never giv me Wages."
Pete heaved a sigh. "I reckon we're square."
Roth grinned. "Knowed you'd come back some day. Reckon you didn't find a Mexican with a horse to sell, eh?"
"Yep. But I changed my mind."
"What made you change your mind?"
"Well, I reckon I do. Now, see here, Pete. You been up against it 'most all your life. You ain't so bad off with old Montoya, but I sabe how you feel about herding sheep. You want to get to riding. But first you want to get a job. Now you go over to the Concho and tell Bailey—'he's the foreman—that I sent you, and that if he'll give you a job, I'll outfit you. You can take your time paying for it."
Pete blinked and choked a little. "I ain't askin' nobody to give me nothin'," he said brusquely.
"Yes, you be. You're asking Bailey for a job. It's all right to ask for something you mean to pay for, and you'll pay for your job by workin'. That there rig you can pay for out of your wages. I was always intending to do something for you—only you didn't stay. I reckon I'm kind o' slow. 'Most everybody is in Concho. And seeing as you come back and paid up like a man—I'm going to charge that gun up against wages you earned when you was working for me, and credit you with the eighteen-fifty on the new rig. Now you fan it back to Montoya and tell him what you aim to do and then if you got time, come over to-morrow and pick out your rig. You don't have to take it till you get your job."
Pete twisted his hat in his hands. He did not know what to say. Slowly he backed from the room, turned, and strode out to Andy White. Andy wondered what Pete had been up to, but waited for him to speak.
Presently Pete cleared his throat. "I'm coming over to your wickiup to-morrow and strike for a job. I got the promise of a rig, all right. Don't want no second-hand rig, anyhow! I'm the Ridin' Kid from Powder River and I'm comin' with head up and tail a-rollin'."
"Whoopee!" sang Andy, and swung to his pony.
"I'm a-comin'!" called Pete as Andy clattered away into the night.
Pete felt happy and yet strangely subdued. The dim road flickered before him as he trudged back to the sheep-camp. "Pop would 'a' done it that way," he said aloud. And for a space, down the darkening road he walked in that realm where the invisible walk, and beside him trudged the great, rugged shape of Annersley, the spirit of the old man who always "played square," feared no man, and fulfilled a purpose in the immeasurable scheme of things. Pete knew that Annersley would have been pleased. So it was that Young Pete paid the most honorable debt of all, the debt to memory that the debtor's own free hand may pay or not—and none be the wiser, save the debtor. Pete had "played square." It was all the more to his credit that he hated like the dickens to give up his eighteen dollars and a half, and yet had done so.
While it is possible to approach the foreman of a cattle outfit on foot and apply for work, it is—as a certain Ulysses of the outlands once said—not considered good form in the best families in Arizona. Pete was only too keenly conscious of this. There is a prestige recognized by both employer and tentative employee in riding in, swinging to the ground in that deliberate and easy fashion of the Western rider, and sauntering up as though on a friendly visit wherein the weather and grazing furnish themes for introduction, discussion, and the eventual wedge that may open up the way to employment. The foreman knows by the way you sit your horse, dismount, and generally handle yourself, just where you stand in the scale of ability. He does not need to be told. Nor does he care what you have been. Your saddle-tree is much more significant than your family tree. Still, if you have graduated in some Far Eastern riding academy, and are, perchance, ambitious to learn the gentle art of roping, riding them as they come, and incidentally preserving your anatomy as an undislocated whole, it is not a bad idea to approach the foreman on foot and clothed in unpretentious garb. For, as this same Ulysses of the outlands said:
"Rub grease on your chaps and look wise if you will, But the odor of tan-bark will cling round you still."
This information alone is worth considerably more than twenty cents.
Young Pete, who had not slept much, arose and prepared breakfast, making the coffee extra strong. Montoya liked strong coffee. After breakfast Pete made a diagonal approach to the subject of leaving. Could he go to Concho? Montoya nodded. Would it be all right if he made a visit to the Concho outfit over on the mesa? It would be all right. This was too easy. Pete squirmed internally. If Montoya would only ask why he wanted to go. Did Montoya think he could get another boy to help with the sheep? The old herder, who had a quiet sense of humor, said he didn't need another boy: that Pete did very well. Young Pete felt, as he expressed it to himself, "jest plumb mean." Metaphorically he had thrown his rope three times and missed each time. This time he made a wider loop.
"What I'm gittin' at is, Roth over to Concho said last night if I was to go over to Bailey—he's the fo'man of the Concho outfit—and ask him for a job, I could mebby land one. Roth, he said he'd outfit me and leave me to pay for it from my wages. Andy White, he's pluggin' for me over to the ranch. I ain't said nothin' to you, for I wa'n't sure—but Roth he says mebby I could git a job. I reckon I'm gettin' kind of old to herd sheep."
Montoya smiled. "Si; I am sixty years old."
"I know—but—doggone it! I want to ride a hoss and go somewhere!"
"I will pay you three dollars a week," said Montoya, and his eyes twinkled. He was enjoying Pete's embarrassment.
"It ain't the money. You sure been square. It ain't that. I reckon I jest got to go."
"Then it is that you go. I will find another to help. You have been a good boy. You do not like the sheep—but the horses. I know that you have been saving the money. You have not bought cartridges. I would give you—"
"Hold on—you give me my money day before yesterday."
"Then you have a little till you get your wages from the Concho. It is good."
"Oh, I'm broke all right," said Pete. "But that don't bother me none. I paid Roth for that gun I swiped—"
"You steal the gun?"
"Well, it wa'n't jest stealin' it. Roth he never paid me no wages, so when I lit out I took her along and writ him it was for wages."
"Then why did you pay him?"
Pete frowned. "I dunno."
Montoya nodded. He stooped and fumbled in a pack. Pete wondered what the old man was hunting for.
Presently, Montoya drew out the hand-carved belt and holster, held it up, and inspected it critically. He felt of it with his calloused hands, and finally gestured to Pete. "It is for you, muchacho. I made it. Stand so. There, it should hang this way." Montoya buckled the belt around Pete and stepped back. "A little to the front. Bueno! Tie the thong round your leg—so. That is well! It is the present from Jose Montoya. Sometimes you will remember—"
Montoya glanced at Pete's face. Pete was frowning prodigiously.
"Hah!" laughed Montoya. "You do not like it, eh?"
Pete scowled and blinked. "It's the best doggone holster in the world! I—I'm goin' to keep that there holster as long as I live! I—"
Montoya patted Pete's shoulder. "With the sheep it is quiet, so!"—and Montoya gestured to the band that grazed near by. "Where you will go there will be the hard riding and the fighting, perhaps. It is not good to kill a man. But it is not good to be killed. The hot word—the quarrel—and some day a man will try to kill you. See! I have left the holster open at the end. I have taught you that trick—but do not tie the holster down if you would shoot that way. There is no more to say."
Pete thought so, so far as he was concerned. He was angry with himself for having felt emotion and yet happy in that his break with Montoya had terminated so pleasantly withal. "I'm goin' to town," he said, "and git a boy to come out here. If I can't git a boy, I'll come back and stay till you git one."
Montoya nodded and strode out to where the sheep had drifted. The dogs jumped up and welcomed him. It was not customary for their master to leave them for so long alone with the flock. Their wagging tails and general attitude expressed relief.
Pete, topping the rise that hides the town of Concho from the northern vistas, turned and looked back. Far below, on a slightly rounded knoll stood the old herder, a solitary figure in the wide expanse of mesa and morning sunlight. Pete swung his hat. Montoya raised his arm in a gesture of good-will and farewell. Pete might have to come back, but Montoya doubted it. He knew Pete. If there was anything that looked like a boy available in Concho, Pete would induce that boy to take his place with Montoya, if he had to resort to force to do so.
Youth on the hilltop! Youth pausing to gaze back for a moment on a pleasant vista of sunshine and long, lazy days—Pete brushed his arm across his eyes. One of the dogs had left the sheep, and came frisking toward the hill where Pete stood. Pete had never paid much attention to the dogs, and was surprised that either of them should note his going, at this time. "Mebby the doggone cuss knows that I'm quittin' for good," he thought. The dog circled Pete and barked ingratiatingly. Pete, touched by unexpected interest, squatted down and called the dog to him. The sharp-muzzled, keen-eyed animal trotted up and nosed Pete's hand. "You 're sure wise!" said Pete affectionately. Pete was even more astonished to realize that it was the dog he had roped recently. "Knowed I was only foolin'," said Pete, patting the dog's head. The sheep-dog gazed up into Pete's face with bright, unblinking eyes that questioned, "Why was Pete leaving camp early in the morning—and without the burros?"
"I'm quittin' for good," said Pete.
The dog's waving tail grew still.
"That's right—honest!"—and Pete rose.
The sheep-dog's quivering joy ceased at the word. His alertness vanished. A veritable statue of dejection he stood as though pondering the situation. Then he lifted his head and howled—the long, lugubrious howl of the wolf that hungers.
"You said it all," muttered Pete, turning swiftly and trudging down the road. He would have liked to howl himself. Montoya's kindliness at parting—and his gift—had touched Pete deeply, but he had fought his emotion then, too proud to show it. Now he felt a hot something spatter on his hand. His mouth quivered. "Doggone the dog!" he exclaimed. "Doggone the whole doggone outfit!" And to cheat his emotion he began to sing, in a ludicrous, choked way, that sprightly and inimitable range ballad;
"'Way high up in the Mokiones, among the mountain-tops, A lion cleaned a yearlin's bones and licked his thankful chops, When who upon the scene should ride, a-trippin' down the slope,"
"Doggone the slope!" blurted Pete as he stubbed his toe on a rock.
But when he reached Concho his eyes had cleared. Like all good Americans he "turned a keen, untroubled face home to the instant need of things," and after visiting Roth at the store, and though sorely tempted to loiter and inspect saddlery, he set out to hunt up a boy—for Montoya.
None of the Mexican boys he approached cared to leave home. Things looked pretty blue for Pete. The finding of the right boy meant his own freedom. His contempt for the youth of Concho grew apace. The Mexicans were a lazy lot, who either did not want to work or were loath to leave home and follow the sheep. "Jest kids!" he remarked contemptuously as his fifth attempt failed. "I could lick the whole bunch!"
Finally he located a half-grown youth who said he was willing to go. Pete told him where to find Montoya and exacted a promise from the youth to go at once and apply for the place. Pete hastened to the store and immediately forgot time, place, and even the fact that he had yet to get a job riding for the Concho outfit, in the eager joy of choosing a saddle, bridle, blanket, spurs, boots and chaps, to say nothing of a new Stetson and rope. The sum total of these unpaid-for purchases rather staggered him. His eighteen-odd dollars was as a fly-speck on the credit side of the ledger. He had chosen the best of everything that Roth had in stock. A little figuring convinced him that he would have to work several months before his outfit was paid for. "If I git a job I'll give you an order for my wages," he told Roth.
"That's all right, Pete; I ain't worryin'."
"Well—I be, some," said Pete. "Lemme see—fifty for the saddle, seven for the bridle—-and she's some bridle!—and eighteen for the chaps—fifteen for the boots—that's ninety dollars. Gee whizz! Then there's four for that blanket and ten for them spurs. That's a hundred and four. 'Course I could git along without a new lid. Rope is three-fifty, and lid is ten. One hundred and seventeen dollars for four bits. Guess I'll make it a hundred and twenty. No use botherin' about small change. Gimme that pair of gloves."
Roth had no hesitation in outfitting Pete. The Concho cattlemen traded at his store. He had extended credit to many a rider whom he trusted less than he did Pete. Moreover, he was fond of the boy and wanted to see him placed where he could better himself. "I've got you on the books for a hundred and twenty," he told Pete, and Pete felt very proud and important. "Now, if I could borrow a hoss for a spell, I'd jest fork him and ride over to see Bailey," he asserted. "I sure can't pack this outfit over there."
Roth grinned. "Well, we might as well let the tail go with the hide. There's old Rowdy. He ain't much of a horse, but he's got three good legs yet. He starched a little forward, but he'll make the trip over and back. You can take him."
Pete tingled with joyful anticipation as he strode from the store, his new rope in his hand. He would rope that cayuse and just about burn the ground for the Concho! Maybe he wouldn't make young Andy White sit up! The Ridin' Kid from Powder River was walking on air when—
"Thought you was goin' over to see Montoya!" he challenged as he saw the Mexican youth, whom he had tentatively hired, sitting placidly on the store veranda, employed solely in gazing at the road as though it were a most interesting spectacle. "Oh, manana," drawled the Mexican.
"Manana, nothin'!" volleyed Pete. "You're goin' now! Git a-movin'—if you have to take your hands and lift your doggone feet off the ground. Git a-goin'!"
"Oh, maybe I go manana."
"You're dreamin', hombre." Pete was desperate. Again he saw his chance of an immediate job go glimmering down the vague vistas of many to-morrows.
"See here! What kind of a guy are you, anyhow? I come in here yesterday and offered you a job and you promised you'd git to work right away. You—"
"It was to-day you speak of Montoya," corrected the Mexican.
"You're dreamin'," reiterated Pete. "It was yesterday you said you would go manana. Well, it's to-morrow, ain't it? You been asleep an' don't know it."
An expression of childish wonder crossed the Mexican youth's stolid face. Of a certainty it was but this very morning that Montoya's boy had spoken to him! Or was it yesterday morning? Montoya's boy had said it was yesterday morning. It must be so. The youth rose and gazed about him. Pete stood aggressively potent, frowning down on the other's hesitation.
"I go," said the Mexican.
Pete heaved a sigh of relief. "A fella's got to know how to handle 'em," he told the immediate vicinity. And because Pete knew something about "handlin' 'em," he did not at once go for the horse, but stood staring after the Mexican, who had paused to glance back. Pete waved his hand in a gesture which meant, "Keep goin'." The Mexican youth kept going.
"I ain't wishin' old Jose any hard luck," muttered Pete, "but I said I'd send a boy—and that there walkin' dream looks like one, anyhow. 'Oh, manana!'" he snorted. "Mexicans is mostly figurin' out to-day what they 're goin' to do to-morrow, and they never git through figurin'. I dunno who my father and mother was, but I know one thing—they wa'n't Mexicans."
ROWDY—AND BLUE SMOKE
It has been said that Necessity is the mother of Invention—well, it goes without saying that the cowboy is the father, and Pete was closely related to these progenitors of that most necessary adjunct of success. Moreover, he could have boasted a coat of arms had he been at all familiar with heraldry and obliged to declare himself.
A pinto cayuse rampant; a longhorn steer regardant; two sad-eyed, unbranded calves couchant—one in each corner of the shield to kind of balance her up; gules, several clumps of something representing sagebrush; and possibly a rattlesnake coiled beneath the sagebrush and described as "repellent" and holding in his open jaws a streaming motto reading, "I'm a-comin'."
Had it been essential that Pete's escutcheon should bear the bar sinister, doubtless he would have explained its presence with the easy assertion that the dark diagonal represented the vague ancestry of the two sad-eyed calves couchant. Anybody could see that the calves were part longhorn and part Hereford!
Pete rode out of Concho glittering in his new-found glory of shining bit and spur, wide-brimmed Stetson, and chaps studded with nickel-plated conchas. The creak of the stiff saddle-leather was music to him. His brand-new and really good equipment almost made up for the horse—an ancient pensioner that never seemed to be just certain when he would take his next step and seemed a trifle surprised when he had taken it. He was old, amiable, and willing, internally, but his legs, somewhat of the Chippendale order, had seen better days. Ease and good feeding had failed to fill him out. He was past taking on flesh. Roth kept him about the place for short trips. Roth's lively team of pintos were at the time grazing in a distant summer pasture.
Rowdy—the horse—seemed to feel that the occasion demanded something of him. He pricked his ears as they crossed the canon bottom and breasted the ascent as bravely as his three good legs would let him. At the top he puffed hard. Despite Pete's urging, he stood stolidly until he had gathered enough ozone to propel him farther. "Git along, you doggone ole cockroach!" said Pete. But Rowdy was firm. He turned his head and gazed sadly at his rider with one mournful eye that said plainly, "I'm doing my level best." Pete realized that the ground just traveled was anything but level, and curbed his impatience. "I'll jest kind o' save him for the finish," he told himself. "Then I'll hook the spurs into him and ride in a-boilin'. Don't care what he does after that. He can set down and rest if he wants to. Git along, old soap-foot," he cried—"soap-foot" possibly because Rowdy occasionally slipped. His antique legs didn't always do just what he wanted them to do.
Topping the mesa edge, Pete saw the distant green that fringed the Concho home-ranch, topped by a curl of smoke that drifted lazily across the gold of the morning. Without urging, Rowdy broke into a stiff trot, that sounded Pete's inmost depths, despite his natural good seat in the saddle. "Quit it!" cried Pete presently. "You'll be goin' on crutches afore night if you keep that up.—And so'll I," he added. Rowdy immediately stopped and turned his mournful eye on Pete.
If the trot had been the rhythmic one, two, three, four, Pete could have ridden and rolled cigarettes without spilling a flake of tobacco; but the trot was a sort of one, two—almost three, then, whump! three and a quick four, and so on, a decidedly irregular meter in Pete's lyrical journey toward new fields and fairer fortune. "I'll sure make Andy sit up!" he declared as the Concho buildings loomed beneath the cool, dark-green outline of the trees. He dismounted to open and close a gate. A half-mile farther he again dismounted to open and close another gate. From there on was a straightaway road to the ranch-buildings. Pete gathered himself together, pushed his hat down firmly—it was new and stiff—and put Rowdy to a high lope. This was something like it! Possibly Rowdy anticipated a good rest, and hay. In any event, he did his best, rounding into the yard and up to the house like a true cow-pony. All would have been well, as Pete realized later, had it not been for the pup. The pup saw in Rowdy a new playfellow, and charged from the door-step just as that good steed was mentally preparing to come to a stop. The pup was not mentally prepared in any way, and in his excitement he overshot the mark. He caromed into Rowdy's one recalcitrant leg—it usually happens that way—and Rowdy stepped on him. Pete was also not mentally prepared to dismount at the moment, but he did so as Rowdy crashed down in a cloud of dust. The pup, who imagined himself killed, shrieked shrilly and ran as hard as he could to the distant stables to find out if it were not so.
Pete picked up his hat. Rowdy scrambled up and shook himself. Pete was mad. Over on the edge of the bunk-house veranda sat four or five of the Concho boys. They rocked back and forth and slapped their legs and shouted. It was a trying situation.
The foreman, Bailey, rose as Pete limped up. "We're livin' over here," said Bailey. "Did you want to see some one?"
Pete wet his lips. "The fo'man. I—I—jest rid over to see how you was makin' it."
"Why, we 're doin' right fair. How you makin' it yourself?"
"I'm here," said Pete succinctly and without a smile.
"So we noticed," said the foreman mildly, too mildly, for one of the punchers began to laugh, and the rest joined in.
"Wisht I had a hoss like that," said a cowboy. "Always did hate to climb offen a hoss. I like to have 'em set down and kind o' let me step off easy-like."
Pete sorely wanted to make a sharp retort, but he had learned the wisdom of silence. He knew that he had made himself ridiculous before these men. It would be hard to live down this thing. He deemed himself sadly out of luck, but he never lost sight of the main chance for an instant.
Bailey, through young Andy White, knew of Pete and was studying him. The boy had self-possession, and he had not cursed the horse for stumbling. He saw that Pete was making a fight to keep his temper.
"You lookin' for work?" he said kindly.
"I was headed that way," replied Pete.
"Can you rope?"
"Oh, some. I kin keep from tanglin' my feet in a rope when it's hangin' on the horn and I'm standin' off a piece."
"Well, things are slack right now. Don't know as I could use you. What's your name, anyhow?"
"I'm Pete Annersley. I reckon you know who my pop was."
Bailey nodded. "The T-Bar-T," he said, turning toward the men. They shook their heads and were silent, gazing curiously at the boy, of whom it was said that he had "bumped off" two T-Bar-T boys in a raid some years ago. Young Pete felt his ground firmer beneath him. The men had ceased laughing. If it had not been for that unfortunate stumble . . .
"You're sportin' a right good rig," said the foreman.
"I aim to," said Pete quickly. "If I hadn't gone broke buyin' it, I'd ride up here on a real hoss."
"Things are pretty slack right now," said Bailey. "Glad to see you—but they won't be nothin' doin' till fall. Won't you set down? We're goin' to eat right soon."
"Thanks. I ain't a-missin' a chanct to eat. And I reckon ole Rowdy there could do somethin' in that line hisself."
Bailey smiled. "Turn your horse into the corral. Better pack your saddle over here. That pup will chew them new latigos if he gets near it."
"That doggone pup come mighty nigh bustin' me,"—and Pete smiled for the first time since arriving. "But the pup was havin' a good time, anyhow."
"Say, I want to shake with you!" said a big puncher, rising and sticking out a strong, hairy hand.
Pete's face expressed surprise. "Why—sure!" he stammered, not realizing that his smiling reference to the pup had won him a friend.
"He's sure a hard-boiled kid," said one of the men as Pete unsaddled and led Rowdy to the corral. "Did you catch his eye? Black—and shinin'; plumb full of deviltry—down in deep. That kid's had to hit some hard spots afore he growed to where he is."
"And he can take his medicine," asserted another cowboy. "He was mad enough to kill that hoss and the bunch of us—but he held her down and bellied up to us like a real one. Looks like he had kind of a Injun streak in him."
Bailey nodded. "Wish I had a job for the kid. He would make good. He's been driftin' round the country with old man Montoya for a couple of years. Old man Annersley picked him up down to Concho. The kid was with a horse-trader. He would have been all right with Annersley, but you boys know what happened. This ain't no orphan asylum, but—well, anyhow—did you size up the rig he's sportin'?"
"And he says he went broke to buy her."
"Goin' to string him along?" queried another cowboy.
"Nope," replied Bailey. "The pup strung him plenty. Mebby we'll give him a whirl at a real horse after dinner. He's itchin' to climb a real one and show us, and likewise to break in that new rig."
"Or git busted," suggested one of the men.
"By his eye, I'd say he'll stick," said Bailey. "Don't you boys go to raggin' him too strong about ridin', for I ain't aimin' to kill the kid. If he can stick on Blue Smoke, I've a good mind to give him a job. I told Andy to tell him there wa'n't no chanct up here—but the kid comes to look-see for hisself. I kind o' like that."
"You 're gettin' soft in your haid, Bud," said a cowboy affectionately.
"Mebby, but I don't have to put cotton in my ears to keep my brains in," Bailey retorted mildly.
The cowboy who had spoken was suffering from earache and had an ear plugged with cotton.
Pete swaggered up and sat down. "Who's ridin' that blue out there?" he queried, gesturing toward the corral.
"He's a pet," said Bailey. Nobody rides him."
"Uh-huh. Well, I reckon the man who tries 'll be one of ole Abraham's pets right off soon after," commented Pete. "He don't look good to me."
"You sabe 'em?" queried Bailey and winked at a companion.
"Nope," replied Pete. "I can't tell a hoss from a hitchin'-rail, 'less he kicks me."
"Well, Blue Smoke ain't a hitchin'-rail," asserted Bailey. "What do you say if we go over and tell the missis we're starvin' to death?"
"Send Pete over," suggested a cowboy.
Bailey liked a joke. As he had said, things were dull, just then. "Lope over and tell my missis we're settin' out here starvin' to death," he suggested to Pete.
Pete strode to the house and entered, hat in hand. The foreman's wife, a plump, cheery woman, liked nothing better than to joke with the men. Presently Pete came out bearing the half of a large, thick, juicy pie in his hands. He marched to the bunkhouse and sat down near the men—but not too near. He ate pie and said nothing. When he had finished the pie, he rolled a cigarette and smoked, in huge content. The cowboys glanced at one another and grinned.
"Well," said Bailey presently; "what's the answer?"
Pete grinned. "Misses Bailey says to tell you fellas to keep on starvin' to death. It'll save cookin'."
"I move that we get one square before we cross over," said Bailey, rising. "Come on, boys. I can smell twelve o'clock comin' from the kitchen."
"TURN HIM LOOSE!"
Blue Smoke was one of those unfortunate animals known as an outlaw. He was a blue roan with a black stripe down his back, a tough, strong pony, with a white-rimmed eye as uncompromising as the muzzle of a cocked gun. He was of no special use as a cow-pony and was kept about the ranch merely because he happened to belong to the Concho caviayard. It took a wise horse and two good men to get a saddle on him when some aspiring newcomer intimated that he could ride anything with hair on it. He was the inevitable test of the new man. No one as yet had ridden him to a finish; nor was it expected. The man who could stand a brief ten seconds' punishment astride of the outlaw was considered a pretty fair rider. It was customary to time the performance, as one would time a race, but in the instance of riding Blue Smoke the man was timed rather than the horse. So far, Bailey himself held the record. He had stayed with the outlaw fifteen seconds.
Pete learned this, and much more, about Blue Smoke's disposition while the men ate and joked with Mrs. Bailey. And Mrs. Bailey, good woman, was no less eloquent than the men in describing the outlaw's unenviable temperament, never dreaming that the men would allow a boy of Pete's years to ride the horse. Pete, a bit embarrassed in this lively company, attended heartily to his plate. He gathered, indirectly, that he was expected to demonstrate his ability as a rider, sooner or later. He hoped that it would be later.
After dinner the men loafed out and gravitated lazily toward the corral, where they stood eying the horses and commenting on this and that pony. Pete had eyes for no horse but Blue Smoke. He admitted to himself that he did not want to ride that horse. He knew that his rise would be sudden and that his fall would be great. Still, he sported the habiliments of a full-fledged buckaroo, and he would have to live up to them. A man who could not sit the hurricane-deck of a pitching horse was of little use to the ranch. In the busy season each man caught up his string of ponies and rode them as he needed them. There was neither time nor disposition to choose.
Pete wished that Blue Smoke had a little more of Rowdy's equable disposition. It was typical of Pete, however, that he absolutely hated to leave an unpleasant task to an indefinite future. Moreover, he rather liked the Concho boys and the foreman. He wanted to ride with them. That was the main thing. Any hesitancy he had in regard to riding the outlaw was the outcome of discretion rather than of fear. Bailey had said there was no work for him. Pete felt that he had rather risk his neck a dozen times than to return to the town of Concho and tell Roth that he had been unsuccessful in getting work. Yet Pete did not forget his shrewdness. He would bargain with the foreman.
"How long kin a fella stick on that there Blue Smoke hoss?" he queried presently.
"Depends on the man," said Bailey, grinning.
"Bailey here stayed with him fifteen seconds onct," said a cowboy.
Pete pushed hack his hat. "Well, I ain't no bronco-twister, but I reckon I could ride him a couple o' jumps. Who's keepin' time on the dog-gone cayuse?"
"Anybody that's got a watch," replied Bailey.
Pete hitched up his chaps. "I got a watch and I'd hate to bust her. If you'll hold her till I git through"—and he handed the watch to the nearest cowboy. "If you'll throw my saddle on 'im, I reckon I'll walk him round a little and see what kind of action he's got."
"Shucks!" exclaimed Bailey; "that hoss would jest nacherally pitch you so high you wouldn't git back in time for the fall round-up, kid. He's bad."
"Well, you said they wa'n't no job till fall, anyhow," said Pete. "Mebby I'd git back in time for a job."
Bailey shook his head. "I was joshin'—this mornin'."
"'Bout my ridin' that hoss? Well, I ain't. I'm kind of a stranger up here, and I reckon you fellas think, because that doggone ole soap-foot fell down with me, that I can't ride 'em."
"Oh, mebby some of 'em," laughed Bailey.
Pete's black eyes flashed. To him the matter was anything but a joke. "You give me a job if I stick on that hoss for fifteen seconds? Why, I'm game to crawl him and see who wins out. If I git pitched, I lose. And I'm taking all the chances."
"Throw a saddle on him and give the kid a chanct," suggested a cowboy.
Bailey turned and looked at Pete, whose eyes were alight with the hope of winning out—not for the sake of any brief glory, Pete's compressed lips denied that, but for the sake of demonstrating his ability to hold down a job on the ranch.
"Rope him, Monte," said Bailey. "Take the sorrel. I'll throw the kid's saddle on him."
"Do I git the job if I stick?" queried Pete nervously.
"Mebby," said Bailey.
Now Pete's watch was a long-suffering dollar watch that went when it wanted to and ceased to go when it felt like resting. At present the watch was on furlough and had been for several days. A good shake would start it going—and once started it seemed anxious to make up for lost time by racing at a delirious pace that ignored the sun, the stars, and all that makes the deliberate progress of the hours. If Pete could arrange it so that his riding could be timed by his own watch, he thought he could win, with something to spare. After a wild battle with the punchers, Blue Smoke was saddled with Pete's saddle. He still fought the men. There was no time for discussion if Pete intended to ride.
"Go to 'im!" cried Bailey.
Pete hitched up his chaps and crawled over the bars. "Jest time him for me," said Pete, turning to the cowboy who held his watch.
The cowboy glanced at the watch, put it to his ear, then glanced at it again. "The durn thing's stopped!" he asserted.
"Shake her," said Pete.
Pete slipped into the saddle. "Turn 'im loose!" he cried.
The men jumped back. Blue Smoke lunged and went at it. Pete gritted his teeth and hung to the rope. The corral revolved and the buildings teetered drunkenly. Blue Smoke was not a running bucker, but did his pitching in a small area—and viciously. Pete's head snapped back and forth. He lost all sense of time, direction, and place. He was jolted and jarred by a grunting cyclone that flung him up and sideways, met him coming down and racked every muscle in his body. Pete dully hoped that it would soon be over. He was bleeding at the nose. His neck felt as though it had been broken. He wanted to let go and fall. Anything was better than this terrible punishment.
He heard shouting, and then a woman's shrill voice. Blue Smoke gave a quick pitch and twist. Pete felt something crash up against him. Suddenly it was night. All motion had ceased.
When he came to, Mrs. Bailey was kneeling beside him and ringed around were the curious faces of the cowboys.
"I'm the Ridin' Kid from Powder River," muttered Pete. "Did I make it?"
"That horse liked to killed you," said Mrs. Bailey. "If I'd 'a' knew the boys was up to this . . . and him just a boy! Jim Bailey, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" Ma Bailey wiped Pete's face with her apron and put her motherly arm beneath his head. "If he was my boy, Jim Bailey, I'd—I'd—show you!"
Pete raised on his elbow. "I'm all right, mam. It wa'n't his fault. I said I could ride that hoss. Did I make it?"
"Accordin' to your watch here," said the puncher who held Pete's irresponsible timepiece, "you rid him for four hours and sixteen minutes. The hands was a-fannin' it round like a windmill in a cyclone. But she's quit, now."
"Do I git the job?" queried Pete.
"You get right to bed! It's a wonder every bone in your body ain't broke!" exclaimed Ma Bailey.
"Bed!" snorted Pete. He rose stiffly. His hat was gone and one spur was missing. His legs felt heavy. His neck ached; but his black eyes were bright and blinking.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Mrs. Bailey. "Why, the boy is comin' to all right!"
"You bet!" said Pete, grinning, although he felt far from all right. He realized that he rather owed Mrs. Bailey something in the way of an expression of gratitude for her interest. "I—you, you sure can make the best pie ever turned loose!" he asserted.
"Pie!" gasped the foreman's wife, "and him almost killed by that blue devil there! You come right in the house, wash your face, and I'll fix you up."
"The kid's all right, mother," said Bailey placatingly.
Mrs. Bailey turned on her husband. "That's not your fault, Jim Bailey. Such goin's-on! You great, lazy hulk, you, to go set a boy to ridin' that hoss that you dassent ride yourself. If he was my boy—"
"Well, I'm willin'," said Pete, who began to realize the power behind the throne.
"Bless his heart!" Mrs. Bailey put her arm about his shoulders. Pete was mightily embarrassed. No woman had ever caressed him, so far as he could remember. The men would sure think him a softy, to allow all this strange mothering; but he could not help himself. Evidently the foreman's wife was a power in the land, for the men had taken her berating silently and respectfully. But before they reached the house Pete was only too glad to feel Mrs. Bailey's arm round his shoulders, for the ground seemed unnecessarily uneven, and the trees had a strange way of rocking back and forth, although there was no wind.
Mrs. Bailey insisted that he lie down, and she spread a blanket on her own white bed. Pete did not want to lie down. But Mrs. Bailey insisted, helping him to unbuckle his chaps and even to pull off his boots. The bed felt soft and comfortable to his aching body. The room was darkened. Mrs. Bailey tiptoed through the doorway. Pete gazed drowsily at a flaming lithograph on the wall; a basket of fruit such as was never known on land or sea, placed on a highly polished table such as was never made by human hands. The colors of the chromo grew dimmer and dimmer. Pete sighed and fell asleep.
Mrs. Bailey, like most folk in that locality, knew something of Pete's earlier life. Rumor had it that Pete was a bad one—a tough kid—that he had even killed two cowboys of the T-Bar-T. Mrs. Bailey had never seen Pete until that morning. Yet she immediately formed her own opinion of him, intuition guiding her aright. Young Pete was simply unfortunate—not vicious. She could see that at a glance. And he was a manly youngster with a quick, direct eye. He had come to the Concho looking for work. The men had played their usual pranks, fortunately with no serious consequences. But Bailey should have known better, and she told him so that afternoon in the kitchen, while Pete slumbered blissfully in the next room. "And he can help around the place, even if it is slack times," she concluded.
That evening was one of the happiest evenings of Pete's life. He had never known the tender solicitude of a woman. Mrs. Bailey treated him as a sort of semi-invalid, waiting on him, silencing the men's good-natured joshing with her sharp tongue, feeding him canned peaches—a rare treat—and finally enthroning him in her own ample rocking-chair, somewhat to Pete's embarrassment, and much to the amusement of the men.
"He sure can ride it!" said a cowboy, indicating the rocking-chair.
"Bill Haskins, you need a shave!" said Mrs. Bailey.
The aforesaid Bill Haskins, unable to see any connection between his remark and the condition of his beard, stared from one to another of his blank-faced companions, grew red, stammered, and felt of his chin.
"I reckon I do," he said weakly, and rising he plodded to the bunk-house.
"And if you want to smoke," said Mrs. Bailey, indicating another of the boys who had just rolled and lighted a cigarette, "there's all outdoors to do it in."
This puncher also grew red, rose, and sauntered out.
Bailey and the two remaining cowboys shuffled their feet, wondering who would be the next to suffer the slings and arrows of Ma Bailey's indignation. They considered the Blue Smoke episode closed. Evidently Ma Bailey did not. Bailey himself wisely suggested that they go over to the bunk-house. It would be cooler there. The cowboys rose promptly and departed. But they were cowboys and not to be silenced so easily.
They loved Ma Bailey and they dearly loved to tease her. Strong, rugged, and used to activity, they could not be quiet long. Mrs. Bailey hitched a chair close to Pete and had learned much of his early history—for Pete felt that the least he could do was to answer her kindly questions—and he, in turn, had been feeling quite at home in her evident sympathy, when an unearthly yell shattered the quiet of the summer evening. More yells—and a voice from the darkness stated that some one was hurt bad; to bring a light. Groans, heartrending and hoarse, punctuated the succeeding silence. "It's Jim," the voice asserted. "Guess his leg's bruk."
The groaning continued. Mrs. Bailey rose and seized the lamp. Pete got up stiffly and followed her out. One of the men was down on all fours, jumping about in ludicrous imitation of a bucking horse; and another was astride him, beating him not too gently with a quirt. As Ma Bailey came in sight the other cowboys swung their hats and shouted encouragement to the rider. Bailey was not visible.
"Stay with 'im!" cried one. "Rake 'im! He's gittin' played out! Look out! He's goin' to sunfish! Bust 'im wide open!"
It was a huge parody of the afternoon performance, staged for Ma Bailey's special benefit. Suddenly the cowboy who represented Blue Smoke made an astounding buck and his rider bit the dust.
Ma Bailey held the lamp aloft and gazed sternly at the two sweating, puffing cowboys. "Where's Bailey?" she queried sharply.
One of the men stepped forward and doffing his hat assumed an attitude of profound gravity. "Blue there, he done pitched your husband, mam, and broke his leg. Your husband done loped off on three laigs, to git the doctor to fix it."
"Let me catch sight of him and I'll fix it!" she snorted. "Jim, if you're hidin' in that bunk-house you come out here—and behave yourself. Lord knows you are old enough to know better."
"That's right, mam. Jim is sure old enough to know better 'n to behave hisself. You feed us so plumb good, mam, that we jest can't set still nohow. I reckon it was the pie that done it. Reckon them dried apples kind of turned to cider."
Mrs. Bailey swung around with all the dignity of a liner leaving harbor, and headed for the house.
"Is she gone?" came in a hoarse whisper.
"You come near this house to-night and you'll find out!" Mrs. Bailey advised from the doorway.
"It's the hay for yours, Jim," comforted a cowboy.
Pete hesitated as to which course were better. Finally he decided to "throw in" with the men.
Bailey lighted the hanging lamp in the bunk-house, and the boys shuffled in, grinning sheepishly. "You're sure a he-widder to-night," said Bill Haskins sympathetically.
Bailey grinned. His good wife was used to such pranks. In fact the altogether unexpected and amusing carryings on of the boys did much toward lightening the monotony when times were dull, as they were just then. Had the boys ceased to cut up for any length of time, Ma Bailey would have thought them ill and would have doctored them accordingly.
Pete became interested in watching Bill Haskins endeavor to shave himself with cold water by the light of the hanging lamp.
Presently Pete's attention was diverted to the cowboy whom Mrs. Bailey had sent outdoors to smoke. He had fished up from somewhere a piece of cardboard and a blue pencil. He was diligently lettering a sign which he eventually showed to his companions with no little pride. It read:
"NO SMOKING ALOUD."
Pete did not see the joke, but he laughed heartily with the rest. The laughter had just about subsided when a voice came from across the way: "Jim, you come right straight to bed!"
Bailey indicated a bunk for Pete and stepped from the bunk-house.
Presently the boys heard Mrs. Bailey's voice. "Good-night, boys."
"Good-night, Ma!" they chorused heartily.
And "Good-night, Pete," came from the house.
"Good-night, Ma!" shrilled Pete, blushing.
"I'm plumb sore!" asserted Haskins. "'Good-night, boys,' is good enough for us. But did you hear what come after! I kin see who gits all the extra pie around this here ranch! I've half a mind to quit."
"Nope! Joshin' Ma. She allus gits the best of us."
POP ANNERSLEY'S BOY
Several days after Pete's arrival at the Concho ranch, Andy White rode in with a companion, dusty, tired, and hungry from a sojourn over near the Apache line. White made his report to the foreman, unsaddled, and was washing with a great deal of splutter and elbow-motion, when some one slapped him on the back. He turned a dripping face to behold Pete grinning at him.
Andy's eyes lighted with pleasure. He stuck out a wet hand. "Did you land a job?"
"With both feet."
"Good! I was so darned tired I clean forgot you was livin'. Say, I saw ole Jose this afternoon. We was crossin' the bottom and rode into his camp. He said you had quit him. I asked him if you come up here, but he only shook his head and handed me the usual 'Quien sabe?' He'll never git a sore throat from talkin' too much. Say, wait till I git some of this here alkali out of my ears and we'll go and eat and then have a smoke and talk it out. Gee! But I'm glad you landed! How'd you work it?"
"Easy. I rid that there Blue Smoke hoss—give 'em an exhibition of real ridin' and the fo'man sure fell for my style."
"Uh-huh. What kind of a fall did you make?"
"Well, I wasn't in shape to know—till I come to. The fellas said I done all right till ole Smoke done that little double twist and left me standin' in the air—only with my feet up. I ain't jest lovin' that hoss a whole lot."
Andy nodded sagely. "I tried him onct. So Bailey give you a job, eh?"
"Kind of a job. Mostly peelin' potatoes and helpin' round the house. Ma Bailey says I'm worth any two of the men helpin' round the house. And I found out one thing—what Ma Bailey says round here goes."
"You bet! She's the boss. If Ma don't like a guy, he don't work long for the Concho. I recollect when Steve Gary quit over the T-Bar-T and come over here lookin' for a job. Ma she sized him up, but didn't say nothin' right away. But Gary he didn't stay long enough to git a saddle warm. Ma didn't like him, nohow. He sure was a top-hand—but that didn't help him none. He's over to the T-Bar-T now. Seen him the other day. He's got some kind of a drag there, for they took him back. Folks says—say, what's bitin' you?"
"Nothin'. You said Gary?"
"I was jest thinkin'."
Young Andy dried his face on the community towel, emptied the basin with a flourish which drenched the pup and sent him yelping toward the house, attempted to shy the basin so that it would land right-side up on the bench—but the basin was wet and soapy and slipped. It sailed through the door of the bunk-house and caromed off Bill Haskins's head. Andy saw what had happened and, seizing Pete's arm, rushed him across the clearing and into the house, where he grabbed Ma Bailey and kissed her heartily, scrambled backward as she pretended to threaten him with the mammoth coffee-pot, and sat down at the table with the remark that he was "powerful tired."
"You act like it," scoffed Mrs. Bailey.
Bill Haskins, with a face like black thunder, clumped in and asked Mrs. Bailey if she had any "stickin'-plaster."
"Cut you, Bill?"
"Bad!" said Bill, exhibiting a cut above the ear—the result of Andy's basin-throwing.
"Oh, you go 'long!" said Mrs. Bailey, pushing him away. "Askin' for stickin'-plaster for a scratch like that!"
Bill Haskins growled and grumbled as he took his place at the table. He kept shaking his head like a dog with a sore ear, vowing that if he found out "who thrun that basin" there would be an empty chair at the Concho board before many days had passed.
Andy White glanced at Pete and snickered. Bill Haskins glowered and felt of his head. "Liked to skelp me," he asserted. "Ma, I jest ask you what you would do now, if you was settin' peaceful in the bunk-house pawin' over your war-bag, lookin' for a clean shirt, and all of a sudden whing! along comes a warsh-basin and takes you right over the ear. Wouldn't you feel like killin' somebody?"
"Lookin' for a clean shirt!" whispered Andy to Pete. "Did you git that?"
Bill "got" it—and flushed amazingly. "I was meanin' a clean—clean dress, Mrs. Bailey. A clean dress or stockin's, mebby."
"Bill was lookin' for a clean dress," snickered Andy. Pete grinned.
"Bill, I reckon it ain't your ear that needs that sticking-plaster. A clean shirt, indeed! I'm surprised at you, William."
"Gee, Ma called him Willum!" whispered Andy. "Bill better fade."
The men tramped in, nodded to Mrs. Bailey, and sat down. Eating was a serious matter with them. They said little. It was toward the end of the meal, during a lull in the clatter of knives and forks, that Andy White suggested, sotto voce, but intended for the assemblage, "That Bill always was scared of a wash-basin." This gentle innuendo was lost on the men, but Bill Haskins vowed mighty vengeance.
It was evident from the start that Pete and Andy would run in double harness. They were the youngsters of the outfit, liked each other, and as the months went by became known—Ma Bailey had read the book—as "The Heavenly Twins." Bailey asked his good wife why "heavenly." He averred that "twins was all right—but as for 'heavenly'—"
Mrs. Bailey chuckled. "I'm callin' 'em 'heavenly,' Jim, to kind of even up for what the boys call 'em. I don't use that kind of language."
Pete graduated from peeling potatoes and helping about the house to riding line with young Andy, until the fall round-up called for all hands, the loading of the chuck-wagon and a farewell to the lazy days at the home ranch. The air was keen with the tang of autumn. The hillside blue of spruce and pine was splashed here and there with the rich gold of the quaking asp. Far vistas grew clearer as the haze of summer heat waned and fled before the stealthy harbingers of winter. In the lower levels of the distant desert, heat waves still pulsed above the grayish brown reaches of sand and brush—but the desert was fifty, sixty, eighty miles away, spoken of as "down there" by the riders of the high country. And Young Pete, detailed to help "gather" in some of the most rugged timberland of the Blue, would not have changed places with any man. He had been allotted a string of ponies, placed under the supervision of an old hand, entered on the pay-roll at the nominal salary of thirty dollars a month, and turned out to do his share in the big round-up, wherein riders from the T-Bar-T, the Blue, the Eight-O-Eight, and the Concho rode with a loose rein and a quick spur, gathering and bunching the large herds over the high country.
There was a fly in Pete's coffee, however. Young Andy White had been detailed to ride another section of the country. Bailey had wisely separated these young hopefuls, fearing that competition—for they were always striving to outdo each other—might lead to a hard fall for one or both. Moreover, they were always up to some mischief or other—Andy working the schemes that Pete usually invented for the occasion. Up to the time that he arrived at the Concho ranch, Young Pete had never known the joy of good-natured, rough-and-tumble horseplay, that wholesome diversion that tries a man out, and either rubs off the ragged edges of his temper or marks him as an undesirable and to-be-let-alone. Pete, while possessing a workable sense of humor, was intense—somewhat quick on the trigger, so to speak. The frequent roughings he experienced served to steady him, and also taught him to distinguish the tentative line between good-natured banter and the veiled insult.
Unconsciously he studied his fellows, until he thought he pretty well knew their peculiarities and preferences. Unrealized by Pete, and by themselves, this set him apart from them. They never studied him, but took him for just what he seemed—a bright, quick, and withal industrious youngster, rather quiet at times, but never sullen. Bailey, whose business it was to know and handle men, confided to his wife that he did not quite understand Pete. And Mrs. Bailey, who was really fond of Pete, was consistently feminine when she averred that it wasn't necessary to understand him so long as he attended to his work and behaved himself, which was Mrs. Bailey's way of dodging the issue. She did not understand Pete herself. "He does a heap of thinking—for a boy," she told Bailey. "He's got something' besides cattle on his mind," Bailey asserted. Mrs. Bailey had closed the question for the time being with the rather vague assertion, "I should hope so."
The first real inkling that Andy White had of Pete's deeper nature was occasioned by an incident during the round-up.
The cutting-out and branding were about over. The Concho men, camped round their wagon, were fraternizing with visitors from the Blue and T-Bar-T. Every kind of gossip was afloat. The Government was going to make a game preserve of the Blue Range. Old man Dobson, of the Eight-O-Eight, had fired one of his men for packing whiskey into the camp: "Dobson was drunk hisself!" was asserted. One sprightly and inventive son-of-saddle-leather had brought a pair of horse-clippers to the round-up. Every suffering puncher in the outfit had been thrown and clipped, including the foreman, and even the cattle inspector. Rumor had it that the boys from the Blue intended to widen their scope of operation and clip everybody. The "gentleman [described in the vernacular] who started to clip my [also described] head'll think he's tackled a tree-kitty," stated a husky cowboy from the T-Bar-T.
Old Montoya's name was mentioned by another rider from the T-Bar-T. Andy who was lying beside Pete, just within the circle of firelight, nudged him.
"We run every nester out of this country; and it's about time we started in on the sheep," said this individual, and he spoke not jestingly, but with a vicious meaning in his voice, that silenced the talk.
Bailey was there and Houck, the T-Bar-T foreman, Bud Long, foreman of the Blue, and possibly some fifteen or eighteen visiting cowboys. The strident ill-nature of the speaker challenged argument, but the boys were in good-humor.
"What you pickin' on Montoya for?" queried a cowboy, laughing. "He ain't here."
Pete sat up, naturally interested in the answer.
"He's lucky he ain't," retorted the cow-puncher.
"You're lucky he ain't," came from Pete's vicinity.
"Who says so?"
Andy White tugged at Pete's sleeve. "Shut up, Pete! That's Steve Gary talkin'. Don't you go mixin' with Gary. He's right quick with his gun. What's a-bitin' you, anyhow?"
"Who'd you say?" queried Pete.
"Gary—Steve Gary. Reckon you heard of him."
"Who says I'm lucky he ain't here?" again challenged Gary.
"Shut up, Steve," said a friendly cowboy. "Can't you take a josh?"
"Who's lookin' for a row, anyhow?" queried another cowboy. "I ain't."
The men laughed. Pete's face was somber in the firelight. Gary! The man who had led the raid on Pop Annersley's homestead. Pete knew that he would meet Gary some day, and he was curious to see the man who was responsible for the killing of Annersley. He had no definite plan—did not know just what he would do when he met him. Time had dulled the edge of Pete's earlier hatred and experience had taught him to leave well enough alone. But that strident voice, edged with malice, had stirred bitter memories. Pete felt that should he keep silent it would reflect on his loyalty to both Montoya and Annersley. There were men there who knew he had worked for Montoya. They knew, but hardly expected that Pete would take up Gary's general challenge. He was but a youth—hardly more than a boy. The camp was somewhat surprised when Pete got to his feet and stepped toward the fire.
"I'm the one that said you was lucky Montoya wasn't here," he asserted. "And I'm leavin' it to my boss, or Bud Long, or your own boss"—and he indicated Houck with a gesture—"if I ain't right."
"Who in hell are you, anyhow?" queried Gary,
"Me? I'm Pop Annersley's boy, Pete. Mebby you recollec' you said you'd kill me if I talked about that shootin'. I was a kid then—and I was sure scared of the bunch that busted into the shack—three growed men ag'in' a kid—a-threatenin' what they'd do to the man that bumped off two of their braves. You was askin' who talked up awhile back. It was me."
Gary was on his feet and took a step toward Pete when young Andy rose. Pete was his bunkie. Andy didn't want to fight, but if Gary pulled his gun . . .
Bailey got up quietly, and turning his back on Gary told Pete and Andy to saddle up and ride out to relieve two of the boys on night-herd.
It was Bud Long who broke the tension. "It's right late for young roosters to be crowin' that way," he chuckled.
Everybody laughed except Gary. "But it ain't too late for full-growed roosters to crow!" he asserted.
Long chuckled again. "Nope. I jest crowed."
Not a man present missed the double-meaning, including Gary. And Gary did not want any of Long's game. The genial Bud had delicately intimated that his sympathies were with the Concho boys. Then there were Bailey and Bill Haskins and several others among the Concho outfit who would never see one of their own get the worst of it. Gary turned and slunk away toward his own wagon. One after another the T-Bar-T boys rose and followed. The Annersley raid was not a popular subject with them.
Bailey turned to Long. "Thanks, Bud."
"'Mornin', Jim," said Long facetiously. "When 'd you git here?"
Two exceedingly disgruntled young cowboys saddled up and rode out to the night-herd. They had worked all day, and now they would have to ride herd the rest of the night, for it was nearing twelve. As relief men they would have to hold their end of the herd until daybreak.
"I told you to shut up," complained Andy.
"I wasn't listenin' to you," said Pete,
"Yes! And this is what we git for your gittin' red-headed about a ole Mexican sheep-herder. But, honest, Pete, you sure come clost to gittin' yours. Gary mebby wouldn't 'a' pulled on you—but he'd 'a' sure trimmed you if Bailey hadn't stepped in."
"He'd never put a hand on me," stated Pete.
"You mean you'd 'a' plugged 'im?"
"I'm meanin' I would."
"But, hell, Pete, you ain't no killer! And they's no use gettin' started that way. They's plenty as would like to see Gary bumped off—but I don't want to be the man to do it. Suppose Gary did lead that raid on ole man Annersley? That's over and done. Annersley is dead. You're livin'—and sure two dead men don't make a live one. What's the good o' takin' chances like that?"
"I dunno, Andy. All I know is that when Gary started talkin' about Montoya I commenced to git hot inside. I knowed I was a fool—but I jest had to stand up and tell him what he was. It wa'n't me doin' it. It was jest like somethin' big a-pullin' me onto my feet and makin' me talk like I did. It was jest like you was ridin' the edge of some steep and bad goin' and a maverick takes over and you know you got no business to put your hoss down after him. But your saddle is a-creakin' and a-sayin', 'Go git 'im!'—and you jest nacherally go. Kin you tell me what makes a fella do the like of that?"
"I dunno, Pete. But chasin' mavericks is different."
"Mebby. But the idee is jest the same."
"Well, I'm hopin' you don't git many more of them idees right soon. I'm sure with you to the finish, but I ain't wishful to git mine that way."
"I ain't askin' you to," said Pete, for he was angry with himself despite the logic of his own argument.
They were near the herd. Andy, who had flushed hotly at Pete's rather ungenerous intimation, spurred his pony round and rode toward a dim figure that nodded in the starlight. Pete whirled his own pony and rode in the opposite direction.
Toward dawn, as they circled, they met again.
"Got the makin's?" queried Pete.
"Right here," said Andy.
As Pete took the little sack of tobacco, their hands touched and gripped. "I seen you standin' side of me," said Pete, "when I was talkin' to Gary."
"You was dreaming" laughed Andy. "That was your shadow."
"Mebby," asserted Pete succinctly. "But I seen out of the corner of my eye that that there shadow had its hand on its gun. And I sure didn't."
IN THE PIT
The round-up was over. A trainload of Concho steers was on its way East, accompanied by four of the Concho boys. The season had been a good one and prices were fair. Bailey was feeling well. There was no obvious reason for his restlessness. He had eaten a hearty breakfast. The sky was clear, and a thin, fragrant wind ran over the high mesa, a wind as refreshing as a drink of cold mountain water on a hot day. Suddenly it occurred to Bailey that the deer season was open—that "the hunting winds were loose." Somewhere in the far hills the bucks were running again. A little venison would be a welcome change from a fairly steady diet of beef.
Bailey saddled up, and hung his rifle under the stirrup-leather. He tucked a compact lunch in his saddle-pockets, filled a morral with grain and set off in the direction of the Blue Range.
Once on the way and his restlessness evaporated. He did not realize that deer-hunting was an excuse to be alone.
Jim Bailey, however, was not altogether happy. He was worried about Young Pete. The incident at the round-up had set him thinking. The T-Bar-T and the Concho men were not over-friendly. There were certain questions of grazing and water that had never been definitely settled. The Concho had always claimed the right to run their cattle on the Blue Mesa with the Blue Range as a tentative line of demarcation. The T-Bar-T always claimed the Blue as part of their range. There had been some bickering until the killing of Annersley, when Bailey promptly issued word to his men to keep the Concho cattle north of the homestead. He had refused to have anything to do with the raid, nor did he now intend that his cattle should be an evidence that he had even countenanced it.
Young Pete had unwittingly stirred up the old enmity. Any untoward act of a cowboy under such circumstances would be taken as expressive of the policy of the foreman. Even if Pete's quarrel was purely a personal matter there was no telling to what it might lead. The right or wrong of the matter, personally, was not for Bailey to decide. His duty was to keep his cattle where they belonged and his men out of trouble. And because he was known as level-headed and capable he held the position of actual manager of the Concho—owned by an Eastern syndicate—but he was too modest and sensible to assume any such title, realizing that as foreman he was in closer touch with his men. They told him things, as foreman, that as manager he would have heard indirectly through a foreman—qualified or elaborated as that official might choose.