He thought of the letter from Bailey, and, sitting up, re-read it slowly. So Steve Gary had survived, only to meet the inevitable end of his kind. Well, Gary was always hunting trouble . . . Roth, the storekeeper at Concho, ought to have the number of that gun which Pete packed. If the sheriff of Sanborn was an old-timer he would know that a man who packed a gun for business reasons did not go round the country experimenting with different makes and calibers. Only the "showcase" boys in the towns swapped guns. Ed Brevoort had always used a Luger. Pete wondered if there had been any evidence of the caliber of the bullet which had killed Brent. If the sheriff were an old-timer such evidence would not be overlooked.
Pete got up and wandered out to the veranda. The place was deserted. He suddenly realized that those who were able had gone to their noon meal. He had forgotten about that. He walked back to his room and sat on the edge of his cot. He was lonesome and dispirited. He was not hungry, but he felt decidedly empty. This was the first time that Doris had allowed him to miss a meal, and it was her fault! She might have called him. But what did she care? In raw justice to her—why should she care?
Pete's brooding eyes brightened as Doris came in with a tray. She had thought that he had rather have his dinner there. "I noticed that you did not come down with the others," she said.
Pete was angry with himself. Adam-like he said he wasn't hungry anyhow.
"Then I'll take it back," said Doris sweetly,
Adam-like, Pete decided that he was hungry. "Miss Gray," he blurted, "I—I'm a doggone short-horn! I'm goin' to eat. I sure want to square myself."
Doris was gazing at him with a serene directness that made him feel that his clothing was several sizes too large for him. He realized that generalities would hardly serve his turn just then.
"I was settin' here feelin' sore at the whole doggone outfit," he explained. "Sore at you—and everybody."
"Well?" said Doris unsmilingly.
"I'm askin' you to forgit that I was sore at you." Pete was not ordinarily of an apologetic turn, and he felt that he pretty thoroughly squared himself.
"It really doesn't matter," said Doris, as she placed his tray on the table and turned to go.
"I reckon you're right." And his dark eyes grew moody again.
"There's a man in the reception-room waiting to see you," said Doris. "I told him you were having your dinner."
"Another one, eh? Oh, I was forgittin'. I got a letter from Jim Bailey"—Pete fumbled in his shirt—"and I thought mebby—"
"I hope it's good news."
"It sure is! Would you mind readin' it—to yourself—sometime?"
"I—think I'd rather not," said Doris hesitatingly.
Pete's face showed so plainly that he was hurt that Doris regretted her refusal to read the letter. To make matters worse—for himself—Pete asked that exceedingly irritating and youthful question, "Why?" which elicits that distinctly unsatisfactory feminine answer, "Because." That lively team "Why" and "Because" have run away with more chariots of romance, upset more matrimonial bandwagons, and spilled more beans than all the other questions and answers men and women have uttered since that immemorial hour when Adam made the mistake of asking Eve why she insisted upon his eating an apple right after breakfast.
Doris was not indifferent to his request that she read the letter, but she was unwilling to let Pete know it, and a little fearful that he might interpret her interest for just what it was—the evidence of a greater solicitude for his welfare than she cared to have him know.
Pete, like most lusty sons of saddle-leather, shied at even the shadow of sentiment—in this instance shying at his own shadow. He rode wide of the issue, turning from the pleasant vista of who knows what imaginings, to face the imperative challenge of immediate necessity, which was, first, to eat something, and then to meet the man who waited for him downstairs who, Pete surmised, was the sheriff of Sanborn County.
"If you don't mind tellin' him I'll come down as soon as I eat," said Pete as he pulled up a chair.
Doris nodded and turned to leave. Pete glanced up. She had not gone. "Your letter,"—and Doris proffered the letter which he had left on the cot. Pete was about to take it when he glanced up at her. She was smiling at him. "You don't know how funny you look when you frown and act—like—like a spoiled child," she laughed. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
"I—I reckon I am," said Pete, grinning boyishly.
"Ashamed of yourself?"
"Nope! A spoiled kid, like you said. And I ain't forgittin' who spoiled me."
The letter, the man downstairs and all that his presence implied, past and future possibilities, were forgotten in the brief glance that Doris gave him as she turned in the doorway. And glory-be, she had taken the letter with her! Pete gazed about the room to make sure that he was not dreaming. No, the letter had disappeared—and but a moment ago Doris had had it. And she still had it. "Well, she'll know I got one or two friends, anyhow," reflected Pete as he ate his dinner. "When she sees how Jim talks—and what he said Ma Bailey has to say to me—mebby she'll—mebby—Doggone it! Most like she'll just hand it back and smile and say she's mighty glad—and—but that ain't no sign that I'm the only guy that ever got shot up, and fixed up, and turned loose by a sure-enough angel . . . Nope! She ain't a angel—she's real folks, like Ma Bailey and Andy and Jim. If I ain't darned careful I'm like to find I done rid my hoss into a gopher-hole and got throwed bad."
Meanwhile "the man downstairs" was doing some thinking himself. That morning he had visited police headquarters and inspected Pete's gun and belongings—noting especially the hand-carved holster and the heavy-caliber gun, the factory number of which he jotted down in his notebook. Incidentally he had borrowed a Luger automatic from the miscellaneous collection of weapons taken from criminals, assured himself that it was not loaded, and slipped it into his coat-pocket. Later he had talked with the officials, visited the Mexican lodging-house, where he had obtained a description of the man who had occupied the room with Pete, and stopping at a restaurant for coffee and doughnuts, had finally arrived at the hospital prepared to hear what young Annersley had to say for himself.
Sheriff Jim Owen, unofficially designated as "Sunny Jim" because of an amiable disposition, which in no way affected his official responsibilities, was a dyed-in-the-wool, hair-cinched, range-branded, double-fisted official, who scorned nickel-plated firearms, hard-boiled hats, fancy drinks, and smiled his contempt for the rubber-heeled methods of the city police. Sheriff Owen had no rubber-heeled tendencies. He was frankness itself, both in peace and in war. It was once said of him, by a lank humorist of Sanborn, that Jim Owen never wasted any time palaverin' when he was flirtin' with death. That he just met you with a gun in one hand and a smile in the other, and you could take your choice—or both, if you was wishful.
The sheriff was thinking, his hands crossed upon his rotund stomach and his bowed legs as near crossed as they could ever be without an operation. He was pretty well satisfied that the man upstairs, who that pretty little nurse had said would be down in a few minutes, had not killed Sam Brent. He had a few pertinent reasons for this conclusion. First, Brent had been killed by a thirty-caliber, soft-nosed bullet, which the sheriff had in his vest-pocket. Then, from what he had been told, he judged that the man who actually killed Brent would not have remained in plain sight in the lodging-house window while his companion made his get-away. This act alone seemed to indicate that of the two the man who had escaped was in the greater danger if apprehended, and that young Annersley had generously offered to cover his retreat so far as possible. Then, from the lodging-house keeper's description of the other man, Jim Owen concluded that he was either Ed Brevoort or Slim Harper, both of whom were known to have been riding for the Olla. And the sheriff knew something of Brevoort's record.
Incidentally Sheriff Owen also looked up Pete's record. He determined to get Pete's story and compare it with what the newspapers said and see how close this combined evidence came to his own theory of the killing of Brent. He was mentally piecing together possibilities and probabilities, and the exact evidence he had, when Pete walked into the reception-room.
"Have a chair," said Sheriff Owen. "I got one."
"I'm Pete Annersley," said Pete. "Did you want to see me?"
"Thought I'd call and introduce myself. I'm Jim Owen to my friends. I'm sheriff of Sanborn County to others."
"All right, Mr. Owen," said Pete, smiling in spite of himself.
"That's the idea—only make it Jim. Did you ever use one of these?" And suddenly Sheriff Owen had a Luger automatic in his hand. Pete wondered that a man as fat as the little sheriff could pull a gun so quickly.
"Why—no. I ain't got no use for one of them doggone stutterin' smoke-wagons."
"Here, too," said Owen, slipping the Luger back into his pocket. "Never shot one of 'em in my life. Ever try one?"
"I—" Pete caught himself on the verge of saying that he had tried Ed Brevoort's Luger once. He realized in a flash how close the sheriff had come to trapping him. "I never took to them automatics," he asserted lamely.
Pete had dodged the question. On the face of it this looked as though Pete might have been trying to shield himself by disclaiming any knowledge of that kind of weapon. But Owen knew the type of man he was talking to—knew that he would shield a companion even more quickly than he would shield himself.
"Sam Brent was killed by a bullet from a Luger," stated Owen.
Pete's face expressed just the faintest shade of relief, but he said nothing.
"I got the bullet here in my pocket. Want to see it?" And before Pete could reply, the sheriff fished out the flattened and twisted bullet and handed it to Pete, who turned it over and over, gazing at it curiously.
"Spreads out most as big as a forty-five," said Pete, handing it back.
"Yes—but it acts different. Travels faster—and takes more along with it. Lot of 'em used in Texas and across the line. Ever have words with Sam Brent?"
"No. Got along with him all right."
"Did he pay your wages reg'lar?"
"Ever have any trouble with a man named Steve Gary?"
"Yes, but he's—"
"I know. Used to know the man that got him. Wizard with a gun. Meaner than dirt—"
"Hold on!" said Pete. "He was my friend."
"—to most folks," continued the rotund sheriff. "But I've heard said he'd do anything for a man he liked. Trouble with him was he didn't like anybody."
"Mebby he didn't," said Pete indifferently.
"Because he couldn't trust anybody. Ever eat ice-cream?"
The sheriff smiled and nodded.
"Nope. Ma Bailey made some onct, but—"
"Let's go out and get some. It's cooling and refreshing and it's—ice-cream. Got a hat?"
"Up in my room."
"Go get it. I'll wait."
"You mean?"—and Pete hesitated.
"I don't mean anything. Heard you was going for a walk this afternoon. Thought I'd come along. Want to get acquainted. Lonesome. Nobody to talk to. Get your hat."
"Suppose I was to make a break—when we git outside?" said Pete.
Sheriff Owen smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "That little nurse, the one with the gray eyes—that said you were having dinner—is she your reg'lar nurse?"
"Well, you won't," said the sheriff.
"How's that?" queried Pete.
"I talked with her. Sensible girl. Break her all up if her patient was to make a break:—because"—and the sheriff's eyes ceased to twinkle, although he still smiled—"because I'd have to break you all up. Hate to do it. Hate to make her feel bad."
"Oh, shucks," said Pete.
"You're right—shucks. That's what you'd look like. I pack a forty-five—same as you. We can buy a hat—"
"I'll get it." And Pete left the room.
He could not quite understand Sheriff Owen. In fact Pete did not come half so close to understanding him as the sheriff came to understanding Pete. But Pete understood one thing—and that was that Jim Owen was not an easy proposition to fool with.
"Now where do we head for?" said Owen as they stood at the foot of the hospital steps.
"I was goin' to the bank—the Stockmen's Security."
"Good bank. You couldn't do better. Know old E.H. myself. Used to know him better—before he got rich. No—this way. Short cut. You got to get acquainted with your legs again, eh? Had a close call. A little shaky?"
"I reckon I kin make it."
"Call a cab if you say the word."
"I—I figured I could walk," said Pete, biting his lips. But a few more steps convinced him that the sheriff was taking no risk whatever in allowing him his liberty.
"Like to see old E.H. myself," stated the sheriff. "Never rode in a cab in my life. Let's try one."
And the sprightly sheriff of Sanborn County straightway hailed a languorous cabby who sat dozing on the "high seat" of a coupe to which was attached the most voluptuous-looking white horse that Pete had ever seen. Evidently the "hospital stand" was a prosperous center.
"We want to go to the Stockmen's Security Bank," said the sheriff, as the coupe drew up to the curb. The driver nodded.
Pete leaned back against the cushions and closed his eyes. Owen glanced at him and shook his head. There was nothing vicious or brutal in that face. It was not the face of a killer.
Pete sat up suddenly. "I was forgittin' I was broke," and he turned to Owen.
"No. There's sixty-seven dollars and two-bits of yours over at the station, along with your gun and a bundle of range clothes."
"I forgot that."
"Fine—when I'm settin' still."
"Well, we're here. Go right in. I'll wait."
Pete entered the bank and inquired for the president, giving the attendant his name in lieu of the card for which he was asked. He was shown in almost immediately, and a man somewhat of The Spider's type assured him that he was the president and, as he spoke, handed Pete a slip of paper such as Pete had never before seen.
"You're Peter Annersley?" queried Hodges.
"Yes. What's this here?"
"It's more money than I'd want to carry with me on the street," said Hodges. "Have you anything that might identify you?"
"What's the idee?"
"Mr. Ewell had some money with us that he wished transferred to you, in case anything happened to him. I guess you know what happened." Then reflectively, "Jim was a queer one."
"You mean The Spider wanted me to have this?"
"Yes. That slip of paper represents just twenty-four thousand dollars in currency. If you'll just endorse it—"
"But it ain't my money!" said Pete.
"You're a fool if you don't take it, young man. From what I have heard you'll need it. It seems that Jim took a fancy to you. Said you had played square with him—about that last deposit, I suppose. You don't happen to have a letter with you, from him, I suppose, do you?"
"I got this,"—and Pete showed President Hodges The Spider's note, which Hodges read and returned. "That was like Jim. He wouldn't listen to me."
"And this was his money?" Pete was unable to realize the significance of it all.
"Yes. Now it's yours. You're lucky! Mighty lucky! Just endorse the draft—right here. I'll have it cashed for you."
"Write my name?"
"Yes, your full name, here."
"And I git twenty-four thousand dollars for this?"
"If you want to carry that much around with you. I'd advise you to deposit the draft and draw against it."
"If it's mine, I reckon I'd like to jest git it in my hands onct, anyhow. I'd like to see what that much money feels like."
Pete slowly wrote his name, thinking of The Spider and Pop Annersley as he did so. Hodges took the draft, pressed a button, and a clerk appeared, took the draft, and presently returned with the money in gold and bank-notes of large denomination.
When he had gone out, Hodges turned to Pete. "What are you going to do with it? It's none of my business—now. But Jim and I were friends—and if I can do anything—"
"I reckon I'll put it back in—to my name," said Pete. "I sure ain't scared to leave it with you—for The Spider he weren't."
Hodges smiled grimly, and pressed a button on his desk. "New account," he told the clerk.
Pete sighed heavily when the matter had been adjusted, the identification signature slips signed, and the bank-book made out in his name.
Hodges himself introduced Pete at the teller's window, thanked Pete officially for patronizing the bank, and shook hands with him. "Any time you need funds, just come in—or write to me," said Hodges. "Good-bye, and good luck."
Pete stumbled out of the bank and down the steps to the sidewalk. He was rich—worth twenty-four thousand dollars! But why had The Spider left this money to him? Surely The Spider had had some other friend—or some relative . . . ?
"Step right in," said Sheriff Owen. "You look kind of white. Feeling shaky?"
"We want to go to the General Hospital," said the sheriff.
Pete listened to the deliberate plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk of the white mare's large and capable feet as the cab whirred softly along the pavement. "I suppose you'll be takin' me over to Sanborn right soon," he said finally.
"Well, I expect I ought to get back to my family," said the sheriff.
"I didn't kill Sam Brent," asserted Pete.
"I never thought you did," said the sheriff, much to Pete's surprise.
"Then what's the idee of doggin' me around like I was a blame coyote?"
"Because you have been traveling in bad company, son. And some one in that said company killed Sam Brent."
"And I got to stand for it?"
"Looks that way. I been all kinds of a fool at different times, but I'm not fool enough to ask you who killed Sam Brent. But I advise you to tell the judge and jury when the time comes."
"That the only way I kin square myself?"
"I don't say that. But it will help."
"Then I don't say."
"Thought you wouldn't. It's a case of circumstantial evidence. Brent was found in that cactus forest near the station. The same night two men rode into Sanborn and left their horses at the livery-stable. These men took the train for El Paso, but jumped it at the crossing. Later they were trailed to a rooming-house on Aliso Street. One of them—and this is the queer part of it—got away after shooting his pardner. The rubber heels in this town say these two men quarreled about money—"
"That's about all they know. Ed and me never—"
"You don't mean Ed Brevoort, do you?"
"There's more 'n one Ed in this country."
"There sure is. Old E.H. Hodges—he's Ed; and there's Ed Smally on the force here, and Ed Cummings, the preacher over to Sanborn. Lots of Eds. See here, son. If you want to get out of a bad hole, the quickest way is for you to tell a straight story. Save us both time. Been visiting with you quite a spell."
"Reckon we're here," said Pete as the cab stopped.
"And I reckon you're glad of it. As I was saying, we been having quite a visit—getting acquainted. Now if you haven't done anything the law can hold you for, the more I know about what you have done the better it will be for you. Think that over. If you can prove you didn't kill Brent, then it's up to me to find out who did. Get a good sleep. I'll drift round sometime to-morrow."
Back in his room Pete lay trying to grasp the full significance of the little bank-book in his pocket. He wondered who would stop him if he were to walk out of the hospital that evening or the next morning, and leave town. He got up and strode nervously back and forth, fighting a recurrent temptation to make his escape.
He happened to glance in the mirror above the washstand. "That's the only fella that kin stop me," he told himself. And he thought of Ed Brevoort and wondered where Brevoort was, and if he were in need of money.
Dr. Andover, making his afternoon rounds, stepped in briskly, glanced at Pete's flushed face, and sitting beside him on the cot, took his pulse and temperature with that professional celerity that makes the busy physician. "A little temperature. Been out today?"
"For a couple of hours."
Andover nodded. "Well, young man, you get right into bed."
The surgeon closed the door. Pete undressed grumblingly.
"Now turn over. I want to look at your back. M-mm! Thought so. A little feverish. Did you walk much?"
"Nope! We took a rig. I was with the sheriff."
"I see! Excitement was a little too much for you. You'll have to go slow for a few days."
"I'm feelin' all right," asserted Pete.
"You think you are. How's your appetite?"
"I ain't hungry."
Andover nodded. "You'd better keep off your feet to-morrow."
"Shucks, Doc! I'm sick of this here place!"
Andover smiled. "Well, just between ourselves, so am I. I've been here eight years. By the way, how would you like to take a ride with me, next Thursday? I expect to motor out to Sanborn."
"In that machine I seen you in the other day?"
"Yes. New car. I'd like to try her out on a good straightaway—and there's a pretty fair road up on this end of the mesa."
"I'd sure like to go! Say, Doc, how much does one of them automobiles cost?"
"Oh, about three thousand, without extras."
"How fast kin you go?"
"Depends on the road. My car is guaranteed to do seventy-five on the level."
"Some stepper! You could git to Sanborn and back in a couple of hours."
"Not quite. I figure it about a four-hour trip. I'd be glad to have you along. Friend of mine tells me there's a thoroughbred saddle-horse there that is going to be sold at auction. I've been advertising for a horse for my daughter. You might look him over and tell me what you think of him."
"I reckon I know him already," said Pete.
"'Cause they's no thoroughbred stock around Sanborn. If it's the one I'm thinkin' about, it was left there by a friend of mine."
"Oh—I see! I remember, now. Sanborn is where you—er—took the train for El Paso?"
"We left our hosses there—same as the paper said."
"H-mm! Well, I suppose the horse is to be sold for charges. Sheriff's sale, I understand."
"Oh, you're safe in buyin' him all right. And he sure is a good one."
"Well, I'll speak to the chief. I imagine he'll let you go with me."
Pete shook his head. "Nope. He wouldn't even if he had the say. But the sheriff of Sanborn County has kind of invited me to go over there for a spell. I guess he figured on leavin' here in a couple of days."
"He can't take you till I certify that you're able to stand the journey," said Andover brusquely.
"Well, he's comin' to-morrow. I'm dead sick of stayin' here. Can't you tell him I kin travel?"
"We'll see how you feel to-morrow. Hello! Here's Miss Gray. What, six o'clock! I had no idea . . . Yes, a little temperature, Miss Gray. Too much excitement. A little surface inflammation—nothing serious. A good night's rest and he'll be a new man. Good-night."
Pete was glad to see Doris. Her mere presence was restful. He sighed heavily, glanced up at her and smiled. "A little soup, Miss Gray. It's awful excitin'. Slight surface inflammation on them boiled beets. Nothin' serious—they ain't scorched. A good night's rest and the cook'll be a new man tomorrow. Doc Andover is sure all right—but I always feel like he was wearin' kid gloves and was afraid of gittin' 'em dirty, every time he comes in."
Doris was not altogether pleased by Pete's levity and her face showed it. She did not smile, but rearranged the things on the tray in a preoccupied manner, and asked him if there was anything else he wanted.
"Lemme see?" Pete frowned prodigiously. "Got salt and pepper and butter and sugar; but I reckon you forgot somethin' that I'm wantin' a whole lot."
"What is it?"
"You're forgittin' to smile."
"I read that letter from Mr. Bailey."
"I'm mighty glad you did, Miss Gray. I wanted you to know what was in that letter. You'd sure like Ma Bailey, and Jim and Andy. Andy was my pardner—when—afore I had that trouble with Steve Gary. No use tryin' to step round it now. I reckon you know all about it."
"And you will be going back to them—to your friends on the ranch?"
"Well—I aim to. I got to go over to Sanborn first."
"Sanborn? Do you mean—?"
"Jest what you're thinkin', Miss Gray. I seen a spell back how you was wonderin' that I could josh about my grub, and Doc Andover. Well, I got in bad, and I ain't blamin' nobody—and I ain't blamin' myself—and that's why I ain't hangin' my head about anything I done. And I ain't kickin' because I got started on the wrong foot. I'm figurin' how I kin git started on the other foot—and keep a-goin'."
"But why should you tell me about these things? I can't help you. And it seems terrible to think about them. If I were a man—like Dr. Andover—"
"I reckon you're right," said Pete. "I got no business loadin' you up with all my troubles. I'm goin' to quit it. Only you been kind o' like a pardner—and it sure was lonesome, layin' here and thinkin' about everything, and not sayin' a word to nobody. But I jest want you to know that I didn't kill Sam Brent—but I sure would 'a' got him—if somebody hadn't been a flash quicker than me, that night. Brent was after the money we was packin', and he meant business."
"You mean that—some one killed him in self-defense?"
"That's the idee. It was him or us."
"Then why don't you tell the police that?"
"I sure aim to. But what they want to know is who the fella was that got Brent."
"But the papers say that the other man escaped."
"Which is right."
"And you won't tell who he is?"
"But why not—if it means your own freedom?"
"Mebby because they wouldn't believe me anyhow."
"I don't think that is your real reason. Oh, I forgot to return your letter. I'll bring it next time."
"I'll be goin' Thursday. Doc Andover he's goin' over to Sanborn and he ast me to go along with him."
"You mean—to stay?"
"For a spell, anyhow. But I'm comin' back."
Doris glanced at her wrist watch and realized that it was long past the hour for the evening meal. "I'm going out to my sister's to-morrow, for the day. I may not see you before you leave,"
Pete sat up. "Shucks! Well, I ain't sayin' thanks for what you done for me, Miss Gray. 'Thanks' sounds plumb starvin' poor and rattlin', side of what I want to tell you. I'd be a'most willin' to git shot ag'in—"
"Don't say that!" exclaimed Doris.
"I would be shakin' hands with you," said Pete. "But this here is just 'Adios,' for I'm sure comin' back."
"A LAND FAMILIAR"
The following day Pete had a long talk with Sheriff Owen, a talk which resulted in the sheriff's accompanying Andover and Pete on their desert journey to Sanborn.
Incidentally Pete gave his word that he would not try to escape. It was significant, however, that the little sheriff expressed a preference for the back seat, even before Andover, who had invited him to make the journey, asked him if he cared to ride in front. The sheriff's choice was more a matter of habit than preference, for, alone upon the ample seat of the touring-car, he was shuttled ignominiously from side to side and bounced and jolted until, during a stop for water, he informed Andover that "he sure would have to pull leather to stay with the car."
The surgeon, a bit inclined to show off, did not hesitate to "step on her," when the going was at all good. And any one familiar with the road from El Paso to Sanborn is aware of just how good even the best going is. Any one unfamiliar with that road is to be congratulated.
Pete enjoyed the ride, as it brought him once more into the open country. The car whirred on and on. It seemed to him as though he were speeding from a nightmare of brick and stone and clamor into the wide and sun-swept spaces of a land familiar and yet strange.
They reached Sanborn about noon, having made about one hundred and fifty miles in something like four hours.
After a wash and a meal at the hotel, they strolled over to the livery-stable to inspect the horse that Andover thought of buying. A small crowd had collected at the stables, as the auction was advertised to take place that afternoon. The sheriff himself started the bidding on the thoroughbred, followed by the liveryman, who knew about what he could get for the horse in El Paso. Andover raised his bid, which was quickly raised in turn by the sheriff. Pete realized that Andover really wanted the horse and told him quietly to drop out when the bidding reached two hundred, shrewdly estimating that neither the liveryman nor the sheriff would go beyond that figure, as neither of them really wanted the horse save as a speculation. "Then, if you want him, raise twenty-five, and you get a mighty good horse for a hundred less than he's worth. I know him. He's no good workin' cattle—but he's one fine trail horse for straight goin'. And he's as gentle as your gran'-mother."
The bidding ran to one hundred and seventy-five, when there was a pause. The sheriff had dropped out. The liveryman, conferring with his partner, was about to bid when Andover jumped the price to two hundred and fifty.
"I'm through," said the liveryman.
"Sold to—name, please—sold to Doctor John Andover for two hundred and fifty dollars," said the auctioneer. Then, after a facetious dissertation on thoroughbreds as against cow-ponies, Blue Smoke was led out. Pete's face went red. Then he paled. He had not forgotten that Blue Smoke was to be sold, but he had taken it for granted that he would be allowed to reclaim him. Pete stepped over to the sheriff and was about to enter a protest—offer to pay the board-bill against Blue Smoke, when the bidding began with an offer of twenty-five dollars. This was quickly run up to seventy-five when Pete promptly bid one hundred, which was a fair auction price, although every man there knew that Blue Smoke was worth more.
"I'm bid one hundred twenty-five," cried the auctioneer, as a young, bow-legged cowboy raised Pete's bid.
"One-fifty," said Pete without hesitation.
The sheriff glanced at Pete, wondering if he would borrow the money from Andover to make good his bid. But Pete was watching the auctioneer's gavel—which happened to be a short piece of rubber garden-hose. "Third and last chance!" said the auctioneer. "Nobody want that pony as a present? All right—goin', I say! Goin', I say ag'in! Gone! B' Gosh! at one hundred an' fifty dollars, to that young gent over there that looks like he could ride him. What's the name?"
Several in the crowd turned and gazed curiously at Pete. But Pete's eyes were upon Blue Smoke—his horse—the horse that had carried him faithfully so many desert miles—a cow-pony that could "follow a mountain trail all day and finish, a-steppin' high."
"Much obliged for your advice about the thoroughbred," said Andover as he stepped close to Pete. "Is that the pony you used to ride?"
"He sure is. Say, Doc, I got the money to pay for him, but would you mind writin' out a check. I ain't wise to this bankin' business yet."
"Why—no. I'll do that. I—er—of course—I'm a little short myself. New car—and this horse for my daughter. But I think I can manage. You want to borrow a hundred and fifty?"
"Say, Doc, you got me wrong! I got the makin's all right, but I don't jest sabe rollin' 'em." Pete dug into his coat-pocket and fetched up a check-book. "Same as you paid for your hoss with."
"This is Stockmen's Security. You have an account there?"
"That's what the president was callin' it. I call it dough. I got the book." And Pete dug into his pocket again, watching Andover's face as that astonished individual glanced at the deposit to Pete's credit.
"Well, you're the limit!"—and the doctor whistled. "What will you spring next?"
"Oh, it's mine, all right. A friend was leavin' it to me. He's crossed over."
"I s-e-e. Twenty-four thousand dollars! Young man, that's more money than I ever had at one time in my life."
"Same here,"—and Pete grinned. "But it don't worry me none."
"I'll make out the check for you." And Andover pulled out his fountain pen and stepped over to the auctioneer's stand. Pete signed the check and handed it to the auctioneer.
"Don't know this man," said the auctioneer, as he glanced at the signature.
"I'll endorse it," volunteered Andover quickly.
"All right, Doc."
And Andover, whose account was as close to being overdrawn as it could be and still remain an account, endorsed the check of a man worth twenty-four thousand-odd dollars, and his endorsement was satisfactory to the auctioneer. So much for professional egoism and six-cylinder prestige.
Sheriff Owen, who had kept a mild eye on Pete, had noted this transaction. After Blue Smoke had been returned to the stables, he took occasion to ask Pete if he were still a partner to the understanding that he was on his honor not to attempt to escape.
"I figured that deal was good till I got here," said Pete bluntly.
"Just so, son. That's where my figuring stopped, likewise. Too much open country. If you once threw a leg over that blue roan, I can see where some of us would do some riding."
"If I'd been thinkin' of leavin' you, it would 'a' been afore we got here, sheriff."
"So it's 'sheriff' now, and not Jim, eh?"
"It sure is—if you're thinkin' o' lockin' me up. You treated me white back there in El Paso—so I'm tellin' you that if you lock me up—and I git a chanct, I'll sure vamose."
Pete's assertion did not seem to displease the sheriff in the least. To the contrary, he smiled affably.
"That's fair enough. And if I don't lock you up, but let you stay over to the hotel, you'll hang around town till this thing is settled, eh?"
"I sure will."
"Will you shake on that?"
Pete thrust out his hand. "That goes, Jim."
"Now you're talking sense, Pete. Reckon you better run along and see what the Doc wants. He's waving to you."
Andover sat in his car, drawing on his gloves. "I've arranged to have the horse shipped to me by express. If you don't mind, I wish you would see that he is loaded properly and that he has food and water before the car leaves—that is"—and Andover cleared his throat—"if you're around town tomorrow. The sheriff seems to allow you a pretty free hand—possibly because I assured him that you were not physically fit to—er—ride a horse. Since I saw that bank-book of yours, I've been thinking more about your case. If I were you I would hire the best legal talent in El Paso, and fight that case to a finish. You can pay for it."
"You mean for me to hire a lawyer to tell 'em I didn't kill Sam Brent?"
"Not exactly that—but hire a lawyer to prove to the judge and jury that you didn't kill him."
"Then a fella's got to pay to prove he didn't do somethin' that he's arrested for, and never done?"
"Often enough. And he's lucky if he has the money to do it. Think it over—and let me know how you are getting along. Miss Gray will be interested also."
"All right. Thanks, Doc. I ain't forgittin' you folks."
Andover waved his hand as he swung the car round and swept out of town. Pete watched him as he sped out across the mesa.
Sheriff Owen was standing in the livery-stable door across the street as Pete turned and started toward him. Midway across the street Pete felt a sharp pain shoot through his chest. It seemed as though the air had been suddenly shut from his lungs and that he could neither speak nor breathe. He heard an exclamation and saw Owen coming toward him. Owen, who had seen him stop and sway, was asking a question. A dim blur of faces—an endless journey along a street and up a narrow stairway—and Pete lay staring at yellow wall-paper heavily sprinkled with impossible blue roses. Owen was giving him whiskey—a sip at a time.
"How do you feel now?" queried the sheriff.
"I'm all right. Somethin' caught me quick—out there."
"Your lungs have been working overtime. Too much fresh air all at once. You'll feel better tomorrow."
"I reckon you won't have to set up and watch the front door," said Pete, smiling faintly.
"Or the back door. You're in the Sanborn House—room 11, second floor, and there's only one other floor and that's downstairs. If you want any thing—just pound on the floor. They'll understand."
"About payin' for my board—"
"That's all right. I got your money—and your other stuff that I might need for evidence. Take it easy."
"Reckon I'll git up," said Pete. "I'm all right now."
"Better wait till I come back from the office. Be back about six. Got to write some letters. Your case—called next Thursday." And Sheriff Owen departed, leaving Pete staring at yellow wallpaper sprinkled with blue roses.
"OH, SAY TWO THOUSAND"
Just one week from the day on which Pete arrived in Sanborn he was sitting in the witness chair, telling an interested judge and jury, and a more than interested attorney for the defense, the story of his life—"every hour of which," the attorney for the defense shrewdly observed in addressing the court, "has had a bearing upon the case."
Pete spoke quietly and at times with considerable unconscious humor. He held back nothing save the name of the man who had killed Brent, positively refusing to divulge Brevoort's name. His attitude was convincing—and his story straightforward and apparently without a flaw, despite a spirited cross-examination by the State. The trial was brief, brisk, and marked by no wrangling. Sheriff Owen's testimony, while impartial, rather favored the prisoner than otherwise.
In his address to the jury, Pete's attorney made no appeal in respect to the defendant's youth, his struggle for existence, or the defendant's willingness to stand trial, for Pete had unwittingly made that appeal himself in telling his story. The attorney for the defense summed up briefly, thanking the jury for listening to him—and then suddenly whirled and pointed his finger at the sheriff.
"I ask you as sheriff of Sanborn County why you allowed the defendant his personal liberty, unguarded and unattended, pending this trial."
"Because he gave his word that he would not attempt to escape," said Sheriff Owen.
"That's it!" cried the attorney. "The defendant gave his word. And if Sheriff Owen, accustomed as he is to reading character in a man, was willing to take this boy's word as a guarantee of his presence here, on trial for his life, is there a man among us who (having heard the defendant testify) is willing to stand up and say that he doubts the defendant's word? If there is I should like to look at that man! No!
"Gentlemen, I would ask you to recall the evidence contained in the letter written by former employers of the defendant, substantiating my assertion that this boy has been the victim of circumstances, and not the victim of perverse or vicious tendencies. Does he look like a criminal? Does he act like a criminal? I ask you to decide."
The jury was out but a few minutes, when they filed into court and returned a verdict of "Not guilty."
The attorney for the defense shook hands with Pete, and gathered up his papers.
Outside the courtroom several of the jury expressed a desire to make Pete's acquaintance, curiously anxious to meet the man who had known the notorious Spider personally. Pete was asked many questions. One juror, a big, bluff cattleman, even offered Pete a job—"in case he thought of punchin' cattle again, instead of studyin' law"—averring that Pete "was already a better lawyer than that shark from El Paso, at any turn of the trial."
Finally the crowd dwindled to Owen, the El Paso lawyer, two of Owen's deputies, and Pete, who suggested that they go over to the hotel until train-time.
When Pete came to pay the attorney, whom Andover had secured following a letter from Pete, the attorney asked Pete how much he could afford. Pete, too proud to express ignorance, and feeling mightily impressed by the other's ability, said he would leave that to him.
"Well, including expenses, say two thousand dollars," said the attorney.
Pete wrote the check and managed to conceal his surprise at the amount, which the attorney had mentioned in such an offhand way. "I'm thankin' you for what you done," said Pete.
"Don't mention it. Now, I'm no longer your legal adviser, Annersley, and I guess you're glad of it. But if I were I'd suggest that you go to some school and get an education. No matter what you intend to do later, you will find that an education will be extremely useful, to say the least. I worked my way through college—tended furnaces in winter and cut lawns in summer. And from what Andover tells me, you won't have to do that. Well, I think I'll step over to the station; train's due about now."
"You'll tell Doc Andover how it come out?"
"Of course. He'll want to know. Take care of yourself. Good-bye!"
Owen and his deputies strolled over to the station with the El Paso attorney. Pete, standing out in front of the hotel, saw the train pull in and watched the attorney step aboard.
"First, Doc Andover says to hire a good lawyer, which I done, and good ones sure come high." Pete sighed heavily—then grinned. "Well, say two thousand—jest like that! Then the lawyer says to git a education. Wonder if I was to git a education what the professor would be tellin' me to do next. Most like he'd be tellin' me to learn preachin' or somethin'. Then if I was to git to be a preacher, I reckon all I could do next would be to go to heaven. Shucks! Arizona's good enough for me."
But Pete was not thinking of Arizona alone—of the desert, the hills and the mesas, the canons and arroyos, the illimitable vistas and the color and vigor of that land. Persistently there rose before his vision the trim, young figure of a nurse who had wonderful gray eyes . . . "I'm sure goin' loco," he told himself. "But I ain't so loco that she's goin' to know it."
"I suppose you'll be hitting the trail over the hill right soon," said Owen as he returned from the station and seated himself in one of the ample chairs on the hotel veranda. "Have a cigar."
Pete shook his head.
"They're all right. That El Paso lawyer smokes 'em."
"They ought to be all right," asserted Pete.
"Did he touch you pretty hard?"
"Oh, say two thousand, jest like that!"
The sheriff whistled. "Shooting-scrapes come high."
"Oh, I ain't sore at him. What makes me sore is this here law that sticks a fella up and takes his money—makin' him pay for somethin' he never done. A poor man would have a fine chance, fightin' a rich man in court, now, wouldn't he?"
"There's something in that. The Law, as it stands, is all right."
"Mebby. But she don't stand any too steady when a poor man wants to fork her and ride out of trouble. He's got to have a morral full of grain to git her to stand—and even then she's like to pitch him if she gits a chanct. I figure she's a bronco that never was broke right."
"Well,"—and Owen smiled,—"we got pitched this time. We lost our case."
"You kind o' stepped up on the wrong side," laughed Pete.
"I don't know about that. Somebody killed Sam Brent."
"I reckon they did. But supposin'—'speakin' kind o' offhand'—that you had the fella—and say I was witness, and swore the fella killed Brent in self-defense—where would he git off?"
"That would depend entirely on his reputation—and yours."
"How about the reputation of the fella that was killed?"
"Well, it was Brent's reputation that got you off to-day, as much as your own. Brent was foreman for The Spider, which put him in bad from the start, and he was a much older man than you. He was the kind to do just what you said he did—try to hold you up and get The Spider's money. It was a mighty lucky thing for you that you managed to get that money to the bank before they got you. You were riding straight all right, only you were on the wrong side of the fence, and I guess you knew it."
"I sure did."
"Well, it ain't for me to tell you which way to head in. You know what you're doing. You've got what some folks call Character, and plenty of it. But you're wearin' a reputation that don't fit."
"Same as clothes, eh?"—and Pete grinned.
"Yes. And you can change them—if you want to change 'em."
"But that there character part stays jest the same, eh?"
"Yes. You can't change that."
"Don't know as I want to. But I'm sure goin' to git into my other clothes, and take the trail over the hill that you was talkin' about."
"There are six ways to travel from here,"—and the sheriff's eyes twinkled.
"Six? Now I figured about four."
"Six. When it comes to direction, the old Hopis had us beat by a couple of trails. They figured east, west, north, and south, straight down and straight up."
"I git you, Jim. Well, minin' never did interest me none—and as for flyin', I sure been popped as high as I want to go. I reckon I'll jest let my hoss have his head. I reckon him and me has got about the same idee of what looks good."
"That pony of yours has never been in El Paso, has he?" queried the sheriff.
"Nope. Reckon it would be mighty interestin' for him—and the folks that always figured a sidewalk was jest for folks and not for hosses—but I ain't lookin' for excitement, nohow."
"Reckon that blue roan will give you all you want, any way you ride. He hasn't been ridden since you left him here."
"Yes—and it sure makes me sore. Doc Andover said I was to keep off a hoss for a week yet. Sanborn is all right—but settin' on that hotel porch lookin' at it ain't."
"Well, I'd do what the Doc says, just the same. He ought to know."
"I see—he ought to. He sure prospected round inside me enough to know how things are."
"You might come over to my office when you get tired of sitting around here. There ain't anything much to do—but I've got a couple of old law books that might interest you—and a few novels—and if you want some real excitement I got an old dictionary—"
"That El Paso lawyer was tellin' me I ought to git a education. Don't know but what this is a good chanct. But I reckon I'll try one of them novels first. Mebby when I git that broke to gentle I can kind o' ride over and fork one of them law books without gittin' throwed afore I git my spurs hooked in good. But I sure don't aim to take no quick chances, even if you are ridin' herd for me."
"That lawyer was right, Pete. And if I had had your chance, money, and no responsibilities—at your age, I wouldn't have waited to pack my war-bag to go to college."
"Well, I figured you was educated, all right. Why, that there lawyer was sayin' right out in court about you bein' intelligent and well-informed, and readin' character."
"He was spreading it on thick, Pete. Regular stuff. What little I know I got from observation—and a little reading."
"Well, I aim to do some lookin' around myself. But when it comes to readin' books—"
"Reckon I'll let you take 'Robinson Crusoe'—it's a bed-rock story. And if you finish that before you leave, I'll bet you a new Stetson that you'll ask for another."
"I could easy win that hat,"—and Pete grinned.
"Not half as easy as you could afford to lose it."
"Meanin' I could buy one 'most any time?"
"No. I'll let you figure out what I meant." And the sturdy little sheriff heaved himself out of a most comfortable chair and waddled up the street, while Pete stared after him trying to reconcile bow-legs and reading books, finally arriving at the conclusion that education, which he had hitherto associated with high collars and helplessness, might perhaps be acquired without loss of self-respect. "It sure hadn't spoiled Jim Owen," who was "as much of a real man as any of 'em"—and could handle talk a whole lot better than most men who boasted legs like his. Why, even that El Paso lawyer had complimented Owen on his "concise and eloquent summary of his findings against the defendant." And Pete reflected that his lawyer had not thrown any bouquets at any one else in that courtroom.
Just how much a little gray-eyed nurse in El Paso had to do with Pete's determination to browse in those alien pastures is a matter for speculation—but a matter which did not trouble Pete in the least, because it never occurred to him; evident in his confession to Andy White, months later: "I sure went to it with my head down and my ears laid back, takin' the fences jest as they come, without stoppin' to look for no gate. I sure jagged myself on the top-wire, frequent, but I never let that there Robinson Crusoe cuss git out of sight till I run him into his a home-corral along with that there man-eatin' nigger of his'n."
So it would seem that not even the rustle of skirts was heard in the land as Pete made his first wild ride across the pleasant pastures of Romance—for Doris had no share in this adventure, and, we are told, the dusky ladies of that carnivorous isle did not wear them.
A NEW HAT—A NEW TRAIL
The day before Pete left Sanborn he strolled over to the sheriff's office and returned the old and battered copy of "Robinson Crusoe," which he had finished reading the night previous. "I read her, clean through," asserted Pete, "but I'd never made the grade if you hadn't put me wise to that there dictionary. Gosh! I never knowed there was so many ornery words bedded down in that there book."
"What do you think of the story?" queried the sheriff.
"If that Robinson Crusoe guy had only had a hoss instead of a bunch of goats, he sure could have made them natives ramble. And he sure took a whole lot of time blamin' himself for his hard luck—always a-settin' back, kind o' waitin' for somethin'—instead of layin' out in the brush and poppin' at them niggers. He wa'n't any too handy at readin' a trail, neither. But he made the grade—and that there Friday was sure one white nigger."
"Want to tackle another story?" queried Owen, as he put the book back on the shelf.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd jest as soon read this one over ag'in. I was trailin' that old Crusoe hombre so clost I didn't git time to set up and take in the scenery."
In his eagerness to re-read the story Pete had forgotten about the wager. Owen's eyes twinkled as he studied Pete's face. "We had a bet—" said Owen.
"That's right! I plumb forgot about that. You said you bet me a new hat that I'd ask you for another book. Well—what you grinnin' at, anyhow? 'Cause you done stuck me for a new lid? Oh, I git you! You said another book, and I'm wantin' to read the same one over again. Shucks! I ain't goin' to fore-foot you jest because you rid into a loop layin' in the tall grass where neither of us seen it."
"I lose on a technicality. I ought to lose. Now if I had bet you a new hat that you would want to keep on reading instead of that you'd ask for another book—"
"But this ain't no law court, Jim. It was what you was meanin' that counts."
"Serves me right. I was preaching to you about education—and I'm game to back up the idea—even if I did let my foot slip. Come on over to Jennings's with me and I'll get that hat."
"All right!" And Pete rolled a smoke as the sheriff picked up several addressed letters and tucked them in his pocket. "I was goin' over to the post-office, anyway."
They crossed to the shady side of the street, the short, ruddy little sheriff and the tall, dark cowboy, each more noticeable by contrast, yet neither consciously aware of the curious glances cast at them by occasional townsfolk, some of whom were small enough to suspect that Pete and the sheriff had collaborated in presenting the evidence which had made Pete a free man; and that they were still collaborating, as they seemed very friendly toward each other.
Pete tried on several hats and finally selected one. "Let's see how it looks on you," he said, handing it to the sheriff. "I don't know how she looks."
Owen tried the hat on, turning to look into the mirror at the end of the counter. Pete casually picked up the sheriff's old hat and glanced at the size.
"Reckon I'll take it," said Pete, as Owen returned it. "This here one of mine never did fit too good. It was Andy's hat."
Certain male gossips who infested the groceries, pool-halls, and post-office of Sanborn, shook their heads and talked gravely about bribery and corruption and politics and what not, when they learned that the sheriff had actually bought a hat for that young outlaw that he was so mighty thick with. "And it weren't no fairy-story neither. Bill Jennings sold the hat hisself, and the sheriff paid for it, and that young Annersley walked out of the store with said hat on his head. Yes, sir! Things looked mighty queer."
"Things would 'a' looked a mighty sight queerer if he'd 'a' walked out with it on his foot," suggested a friend of Owen's who had been buttonholed and told the alarming news.
Meanwhile Pete attended to his own business, which was to get his few things together, pay his hotel-bill, settle his account with the sheriff—which included cab-hire in El Paso—and write a letter to Doris Gray—the latter about the most difficult task he had ever faced. He thought of making her some kind of present—but his innate good sense cautioned him to forego that pleasure for a while, for in making her a present he might also make a mistake—and Pete was becoming a bit cautious about making mistakes, even though he did think that that green velvet hat with a yellow feather, in the millinery store in Sanborn, was about the most high-toned ladies' sky-piece that he had ever beheld. Pete contented himself with buying a new Stetson for Sheriff Owen—to be delivered after Pete had left town.
Next morning, long before the inhabitants of Sanborn had thrown back their blankets, Pete was saddling Blue Smoke, frankly amazed that the pony had shown no evidence of his erstwhile early-morning activities. He wondered if the horse were sick. Blue Smoke looked a bit fat, and his eye was dull—but it was the dullness of resentment rather than of poor physical condition. Well fed, and without exercise, Blue Smoke had become more or less logy, and he looked decidedly disinterested in life as Pete cautiously pulled up the front cinch.
"He's too doggone quiet to suit me," Pete told the stable-man.
"He's thinkin'," suggested that worthy facetiously.
"So am I," asserted Pete, not at all facetiously.
Out in the street Pete "cheeked" Blue Smoke, and swung up quickly, expecting the pony to go to it, but Smoke merely turned his head and gazed at the livery with a sullen eye.
"He's sad to leave his boardin'-house,"—and Pete touched Smoke with the spur. Smoke further surprised Pete by striking into a mild cow-trot, as they turned the corner and headed down the long road at the end of which glimmered the far brown spaces, slowly changing in color as the morning light ran slanting toward the west.
"Nothin' to do but go," reflected Pete, still a trifle suspicious of Blue Smoke's gentlemanly behavior. The sun felt warm to Pete's back. The rein-chains jingled softly. The saddle creaked a rhythmic complaint of recent disuse.
Pete, who had said good-bye to the sheriff the night before, turned his face toward the open with a good, an almost too good, horse between his knees and a new outlook upon the old familiar ranges and their devious trails.
Past a somber forest of cacti, shot with myriad angling shadows, desolate and forbidding, despite the open sky and the morning sun, Pete rode slowly, peering with eyes aslant at the dense growth close to the road, struggling to ignore the spot. Despite his determination, he could not pass without glancing fearsomely as though he half-expected to see something there—something to identify the spot as that shadowy place where Brent had stood that night . . .
Blue Smoke, hitherto as amiably disposed to take his time as was Pete himself, shied suddenly. Through habit, Pete jabbed him with the spur, to straighten him back in the road again. Pete had barely time to mutter an audible "I thought so!" when Blue Smoke humped himself. Pete slackened to the first wild lunge, grabbed off his hat and swung it as Blue Smoke struck at the air with his fore feet, as though trying to climb an invisible ladder. Pete swayed back as the horse came down in a mighty leap forward, and hooking his spurs in the cinch, rocked to each leap and lunge like a leaf caught up in a desert whirlwind. When Pete saw that Smoke's first fine frenzy had about evaporated, he urged him to further endeavors with the spurs, but Blue Smoke only grunted and dropped off into a most becoming and gentlemanly lope. And Pete was not altogether displeased. His back felt as though it had been seared with a branding-iron, and the range to the west was heaving most indecorously, cavorting around the horizon as though strangely excited by Blue Smoke's sudden and seemingly unaccountable behavior.
"I reckon we're both feelin' better!" Pete told the pony. "I needed jest that kind of a jolt to feel like I was livin' ag'in. But you needn't be in such a doggone hurry to go and tell your friends how good you're feelin'. Jest come down off that lope. We got all day to git there."
Blue Smoke shook his head as Pete pulled him to a trot. The cactus forest was behind them. Ahead lay the open, warm brown in the sun, and across it ran a dwindling grayish line, the road that ran east and west across the desert,—a good enough road as desert roads go, but Pete, despite his satisfaction in being out in the open again, grew somewhat tired of its monotonously even wagon-rutted width, and longed for a trail—a faint, meandering trail that would swing from the road, dip into a sand arroyo, edge slanting up the farther bank, wriggle round a cluster of small hills, shoot out across a mesa, and climb slowly toward those hills to the west, finally to contort itself into serpentine switchbacks as it sought the crest—and once on the crest (which was in reality but the visible edge of another great mesa), there would be grass for a horse and cedar-wood for a fire, and water with which to make coffee.
Pete had planned that his first night should be spent in the open, with no other companions than the friendly stars. As for Blue Smoke, well, a horse is the best kind of a pal for a man who wishes to be alone, a pal who takes care of himself, never complains of weariness, and eats what he finds to eat with soulful satisfaction.
Pete made his first night's camp as he had planned, hobbled Blue Smoke, and, having eaten, he lay resting, his head on his saddle and his gaze fixed upon the far glory of the descending sun. The sweet, acrid fragrance of cedar smoke, the feel of the wind upon his face, the contented munching of his pony, the white radiance of the stars that came quickly, and that indescribable sense of being at one with the silences, awakened memories of many an outland camp-fire, when as a boy he had journeyed with the horse-trader, or when Pop Annersley and he had hunted deer in the Blue Range. And it seemed to Pete that that had been but yesterday—"with a pretty onnery kind of a dream in between," he told himself.
As the last faint light faded from the west and the stars grew big, Pete thanked those same friendly stars that there would be a To-morrow—with sunlight, silence, and a lone trail to ride. Another day and he would reach old Flores's place in the canon—but Boca would not be there. Then he would ride to Showdown.—Some one would be at The Spider's place . . . He could get feed for his horse . . . And the next day he would ride to the Blue and camp at the old cabin. Another day and he would be at the Concho . . . Andy, and Jim, and Ma Bailey would be surprised . . . No, he hadn't come back to stay . . . Just dropped in to say "Hello!" . . .
Pete smiled faintly as a coyote shrilled his eternal plaint. This was something like it. The trembling Pleiades grew blurred.
THE OLD TRAIL
The following afternoon Pete, stiff and weary from his two days' ride, entered the southern end of Flores's canon and followed the trail along the stream-bed—now dry and edged with crusted alkali—until he came within sight of the adobe. In the half-light of the late afternoon he could not distinguish objects clearly, but he thought he could discern the posts of the pole corral and the roof of the meager stable. Nearer he saw that there was no smoke coming from the mud chimney of the adobe, and that the garden-patch was overgrown with weeds.
No one answered his call as he rode up and dismounted. He found the place deserted and he recalled the Mexican woman's prophecy.
He pushed open the sagging door and entered. There was the oilcloth-covered table and the chairs—a broken box in the middle of the room, an old installment-house catalogue, from which the colored prints had been torn, an empty bottle—and in the kitchen were the rusted stove and a few battered and useless cooking-utensils. An odor of stale grease pervaded the place. In the narrow bedroom—Boca's room—-was a colored fashion-plate pinned on the wall.
Pete shrugged his shoulders and stepped out. Night was coming swiftly. He unsaddled Blue Smoke and hobbled him. The pony strayed off up the stream-bed. Pete made a fire by the corral, ate some beans which he warmed in the can, drank a cup of coffee, and, raking together some coarse dried grass, turned in and slept until the sound of his pony's feet on the rocks of the stream-bed awakened him. He smelt dawn in the air, although it was still dark in the canon, and having in mind the arid stretch between the canon and Showdown, he made breakfast. He caught up his horse and rode up the trail toward the desert. On the mesa-edge he re-cinched his saddle and turned toward the north.
Flores, who with his wife was living at The Spider's place, recognized him at once and invited him in.
"What hit this here town, anyhow?" queried Pete. "I didn't see a soul as I come through."
Flores shrugged his shoulders. "The vaqueros from over there"—and he pointed toward the north—"they came—and now there is but this left"—and he indicated the saloon. "The others they have gone."
"Cleaned out the town, eh? Reckon that was the T-Bar-T and the boys from the Blue and the Concho. How'd they come to miss you?"
"I am old—and my wife is old—and after they had drank the wine—leaving but little for us—they laughed and said that we might stay and be dam': that we were too old to steal cattle."
"Uh-huh. Cleaned her out reg'lar! How's the senora?"
Flores touched his forehead. "She is thinking of Boca—and no one else does she know."
"Gone loco, eh? Well, she ain't so bad off at that—seein' as you're livin' yet. No, I ain't comin' in. But you can sell me some tortillas, if you got any."
"It will be night soon. If the senor—"
"Go ask the Senora if she has got any tortillas to sell. I wouldn't bush in there on a bet. Don't you worry about my health."
"We are poor, senor! We have this place, and the things—but of the money I know nothing. My wife she has hidden it."
"She ain't so crazy as you think, if that's so. Do you run this place—or are you jest starvin' to death here?"
"There is still a little wine—and we buy what we may need of Mescalero. If you will come in—"
"So they missed old Mescalero! Well, he's lucky. No, I don't come in. I tried boardin' at your house onct."
"Then I will get the tortillas." And Flores shuffled into the saloon. Presently he returned with a half-dozen tortillas wrapped up in an old newspaper. Pete tossed him a dollar, and packing the tortillas in his saddle-pockets, gazed round at the town, the silent and deserted houses, the empty street, and finally at The Spider's place.
Old Flores stood in the doorway staring at Pete with drink-blurred eyes. Pete hesitated. He thought of dismounting and going in and speaking to Flores's wife. But no! It would do neither of them any good. Flores had intimated that she had gone crazy. And Pete did not want to talk of Boca—nor hear her name mentioned. "Boca's where she ain't worryin' about anybody," he reflected as he swung round and rode out of town.
Once before he had camped in the same draw, a few miles west of Showdown, and Blue Smoke seemed to know the place, for he had swung from the trail of his own accord, striding straight to the water-hole.
"And if you keep on actin' polite," Pete told the pony as he hobbled him that evening, "you'll get a good reputation, like Jim Owen said; which is plumb necessary, if you an' me's goin' to be pals. But if gettin' a good reputation is goin' to spoil your wind or legs any—why, jest keep on bein' onnery—which Jim was tellin' me is called 'Character.'"
As Pete hardened to the saddle and Blue Smoke hardened to the trail, they traveled faster and farther each day, until, on the Blue Mesa, where the pony grazed and Pete squatted beside his night-fire in the open, they were but a half-day's journey from the Concho. Pete almost regretted that their journey must come to an end. But he could not go on meandering about the country without a home and without an object in life: that was pure loafing.
Pete might have excused himself on the ground that he needed just this sort of thing after his serious operation; but he was honest with himself, admitting that he felt fit to tackle almost any kind of hard work, except perhaps writing letters—for he now thought well enough of himself to believe that Doris Gray would answer his letter to her from Sanborn. And of course he would answer her letter—and if he answered that, she would naturally answer . . . Shucks! Why should she write to him? All he had ever done for her was to make her a lot of bother and hard work. And what good was his money to him? He couldn't just walk into a store and buy an education and have it wrapped up in paper and take it to her and say, "Here, Miss Gray. I got a education—the best they had in the outfit. Now if you'll take it as a kind of present—and me along with it . . ."
Pete was camping within fifty yards of the spot where old Pop Annersley had tried to teach him to read and write—it seemed a long time ago, and Annersley himself seemed more vague in Pete's memory, as he tried to recall the kindly features and the slow, deliberate movements of the old man. It irritated Pete that he could not recall old man Annersley's face distinctly. He could remember his voice, and one or two characteristic gestures—but his face—
Pete stared into the camp-fire, dreaming back along that trail over which he had struggled and fought and blundered; back to the time when he was a waif in Enright, his only companion a lean yellow dog . . . Pete nodded and his eyes closed. He turned lazily and leaned back against his saddle.
The mesa, carpeted with sod-grass, gave no warning of the approaching horseman, who had seen the tiny fire and had ridden toward it. Just within the circle of firelight he reined in and was about to call out when that inexplicable sense inherent in animals, the Indian, and in some cases the white man, brought Pete to his feet. In that same lightning-swift, lithe movement he struck his gun from the holster and stood tense as a buck that scents danger on the wind.
Pete blinked the sleep from his eyes. "Keep your hands right where they be and step down off that hoss—"
The rider obeyed. Pete moved from the fire that his own shadow might not fall upon the other. "Pete!" exclaimed the horseman in a sort of choking whisper.
The gun sagged in Peter's hand. "Andy! For God's sake!—I come clost to killin' you!" And he leaped and caught Andy White's hand, shook it, flung his arm about his shoulders, stepped back and struck him playfully on the chest, grabbed him and shook him—and then suddenly he turned and walked back to the fire and sat down, blinking into the flames, and trying to swallow nothing, harder than he had ever tried to swallow anything in his life.
He heard Andy's step behind him, and heard his own name spoken again. "It was my fault, Pete. I ought to 'a' hollered. I saw your fire and rode over—" Andy's hand was on Pete's shoulder, and that shoulder was shaking queerly. Andy drew back. "There goes that dam' cayuse," cried Andy. "I'll go catch him up, and let him drag a rope."
When Andy returned from putting an unnecessary rope on a decidedly tired horse that was quite willing to stand right where he was, Pete had pulled himself together and was rolling a cigarette.
"Well, you ole sun-of-a-gun!" said Pete; "want to swap hats? Say, how'll you swap?"
Andy grinned, but his grin faded to a boyish seriousness as he took off his own Stetson and handed it to Pete, who turned it round and tentatively poked his fingers through the two holes in the crown. "You got my ole hat yet, eh? Doggone if it ain't my ole hat. And she's ventilated some, too. Well, I'm listenin'."
"And you sure are lookin' fine, Pete. Say, is it you? Or did my hoss pitch me—and I'm dreamin'—back there on the flat? No. I reckon it's you all right. I ain't done shakin' yet from the way you come at me when I rode in. Say, did you git Jim's letter? Why didn't you write to a guy, and say you was comin'? Reg'lar ole Injun, same as ever. Quicker 'n a singed bob-cat gittin' off a stove-lid. That Blue Smoke 'way over there? Thought I knowed him. When did they turn you loose down to El Paso? Ma Bailey was worryin' that they wasn't feedin' you good. When did you get here? Was you in the gun-fight when The Spider got bumped off?"
Pete was still gazing at the little round holes in Andy's hat. "Andy, did you ever try to ride a hoss down the ole mesa trail backwards?"
"Why, no, you sufferin' coyote! What you drivin' at?"
"Here's your hat. Now if you got anything under it, go ahead and talk up. Which way did you ride when we split, over by the timber there?"
Andy reached over and put a stick of wood on the fire. "Well, seein' it's your hat, I reckon you got a right to know how them holes come in it." And he told Pete of his ride, and how he had misled the posse, and he spoke jestingly, as though it had been a little thing to do; hardly worth repeating. Then he told of a ride he had made to Showdown to let Pete know that Gary would live, and how The Spider had said that he knew nothing of Pete—had never seen him. And of how Ma Bailey upheld Pete, despite all local gossip and the lurid newspaper screeds. And that the boys would be mighty glad to see him again; concluding with an explanation of his own presence there—that he had been over to the T-Bar-T to see Houck about some of his stock that had strayed through some "down-fence"—"She's all fenced now," he explained—and had run into a bunch of wild turkeys, chased them to a rim-rock and had managed to shoot one, but had had to climb down a canon to recover the bird, which had set him back considerably on his home journey. "And that there bird is hangin' right on my saddle now!" he concluded. "And I ain't et since mornin'."
"Then we eat," asserted Pete. "You go git that turkey, and I'll do the rest."
Wild turkey, spitted on a cedar limb and broiled over a wood fire, a bannock or two with hot coffee in an empty bean-can (Pete insisted on Andy using the one cup), tastes just a little better than anything else in the world, especially if one has ridden far in the high country—and most folk do, before they get the wild turkey.
It was three o'clock when they turned in, to share Pete's one blanket, and then Andy was too full of Pete's adventures to sleep, asking an occasional question which Pete answered, until Andy, suddenly recalling that Pete had told him The Spider had left him his money, asked Pete if he had packed all that dough with him, or banked it in El Paso. To which Pete had replied drowsily, "Sure thing, Miss Gray." Whereupon Andy straightway decided that he would wait till morning before asking any further questions of an intimate nature.
Pete was strangely quiet the next morning, in fact almost taciturn, and Andy noticed that he went into the saddle a bit stiffly. "That—where you got hurt botherin' you, Pete?" he asked with real solicitude.
"Some." And realizing that he had scarcely spoken to his old chum since they awakened, he asked him many questions about the ranch, and the boys, as they drifted across the mesa and down the trail that led to the Concho.
But it was not the twinge of his old wound that made Pete so silent. He was suffering a disappointment. He had believed sincerely that what he had been through, in the past six months especially, had changed him—that he would have to have a mighty stern cause to pull a gun on a man again; and at the first hint of danger he had been ready to kill. He wondered if he would ever lose that hunted feeling that had brought him to his feet and all but crooked his trigger-finger before he had actually realized what had startled him. But one thing was certain—Andy would never know just how close he had come to being killed; Andy, who had joked lightly about his own ride into the desert with an angry posse trailing him, as he wore Pete's black Stetson, "that he might give them a good run for their money," he had laughingly said.
"You're jest the same ornery, yella-headed, blue-eyed singin'-bird you always was," declared Pete as they slithered along down the trail.
Andy turned in the saddle and grinned at Pete. "Now that you've give the blessing parson, will you please and go plumb to hell?"
Pete felt a lot better.
A loose rock slipped from the edge of the trail, and went bounding down the steep hillside, crashing through a thicket of aspens and landing with a dull clunk amid a pile of rock that slid a little, and grumbled sullenly. Blue Smoke had also slipped as his footing gave way unexpectedly. Pete felt still better. This was something like it!
Noon found them within sight of the ranch-house. In an hour they were unsaddling at the corral, having ridden in the back way, at Andy's suggestion, that they might surprise the folks. But it did not take them long to discover that there were no folks to surprise. The bunk-house was open, but the house across from it was locked, and Andy knew immediately that the Baileys had driven to town, because the pup was gone, and he always followed the buckboard.
Pete was not displeased, for he wanted to shave and "slick up a bit" after his long journey. "They'll see my hoss and know that I'm back," said Andy, as he filled the kettle on the box-stove in the bunk-house. "But we can put Blue Smoke in a stall and keep him out of sight till you walk in right from nowhere. I can see Ma Bailey and Jim and the boys! 'Course Ma's like to be back in time to get supper, so mebby you'll have to hide out in the barn till you hear the bell."
"I ain't awful strong on that conquerin' hero stuff, Andy. I jest as soon set right here—"
"And spoil the whole darn show! Look here, Pete,—you leave it to me and if we don't surprise Ma Bailey clean out of her—specs, why, I'll quit and go to herdin' sheep."
"A11 right. I'm willin'. Only you might see if you kin git in the back way and lift a piece of pie, or somethin'." Which Andy managed to do while Pete shaved himself and put on a clean shirt.
They sat in the bunk-house doorway chatting about the various happenings during Pete's absence until they saw the buckboard top the distant edge of the mesa. Pete immediately secluded himself in the barn, while Andy hazed Blue Smoke into a box stall and hid Pete's saddle.
Ma Bailey, alighting from the buckboard, heard Andy's brief explanation of his absence with indifference most unusual in her, and glanced sharply at him when he mentioned having shot a wild turkey.
"I suppose you picked it and cleaned it and got it all ready to roast," she inquired. "Or have you just been loafing around waiting for me to do it?"
"I et it," asserted Andy.
Ma Bailey glared at him, shook her head, and marched into the house while Andy helped Bailey put up the horses.
"Ma's upset about somethin'," explained Bailey. "Seems a letter came for Pete—"
"Letter from Pete! Why, he ain't comin' back, is he?"
"A letter for Pete. Ma says it looks like a lady's writin' on the envelope. She says she'd like to know what female is writin' to Pete, and him goodness knows where, and not a word to say whether he's sick or broke, or anything."
"I sure would like to see him," said Andy fervently.
"Well, if somebody's writin' to him here at the Concho, looks like he might drift in one of these days. I'd sure like to know how the kid's makin' it."
And Bailey strode to the house, while Andy led the team to the corral.
Later Andy appeared in the kitchen and asked Mrs. Bailey if he couldn't help her set the table, or peel potatoes, or something. Ma Bailey gazed at him suspiciously over her glasses. "I don't know what's ailin' you, Andy, but you ain't actin' right. First you tell me that you had to camp at the Blue last night account o' killin' a turkey. Then you tell me that you et the whole of it. Was you scared you wouldn't get your share if you fetched it home? Then you want to help me get supper. You been up to something! You just keep me plumb wore out worrying about you. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"For why, Ma? What have I done?"
"I don't know, but it'll come to the top. There's the boys now—and me a-standing here— Run along and set the table if you ain't so full of whatever is got into you that you can't count straight. Bill won't be in to-night. Leastwise, Jim don't expect him." And Ma Bailey flapped her apron at him and shooed him out as though he were a chicken that had dared to poke its inquisitive neck into the kitchen.
"Count straight!" chuckled Andy. "Mebby I know more about how many's here than Ma does."
Meanwhile Ma Bailey busied herself preparing supper, and it was evident to the boys in the bunkhouse that Ma had something on her mind from the sounds which came from the kitchen. Ma scolded the potatoes as she fried them, rebuked the biscuits because they had browned a little too soon, censured the stove for its misbehavior in having scorched the biscuits, accused the wood of being a factor in the conspiracy, reprimanded the mammoth coffee-pot that threatened to deluge the steak, and finally chased Andy from the premises when she discovered that he had laid the table with her best set of dishes.
"Ma's steamin' about somethin'," remarked Andy as he entered the bunk-house.
This information was received with characteristic silence as each and every cowboy mentally straightened up, vowing silently that he wasn't goin' to take any chances of Ma b'ilin' over on him.
The clatter of the pack-horse bell brought the men to their feet and they filed across to the house, a preternaturally silent aggregation that confirmed Ma Bailey's suspicion that there was something afoot.
Andy, loitering behind them, saw Pete coming from the stables, tried to compose himself, but could not get rid of the boyish grin, which provoked Ma Bailey to mutter something which sounded like "idiot," to which the cowboys nodded in cheerful concurrence, without other comment.
Hank Barley, the silent, was gazing surreptitiously at Ma's face when he saw her eyes widen, saw her rise, and stand staring at the doorway as Andy clumped in, followed by Pete.
Ma Bailey sat down suddenly.
"It's all right, Ma," laughed Andy, alarmed at the expression on her face. "It's just Pete."
"Just Pete!" echoed Ma Bailey faintly. And then, "Goodness alive, child, where you been?"
Pete's reply was lost in the shuffle of feet as the men rose and shook hands with him, asking him a dozen questions in as many seconds, asserting that he was looking fine, and generally behaving like a crowd of schoolboys, as they welcomed him to their midst again.
Pete sat in the absent Bill Haskins's place. And "You must 'a' knowed he was coming" asserted Avery. "Bill is over to the line shack."
"I got a letter," asserted Ma Bailey mysteriously.
"And you jest said nothin' and sprung him on us! Well, Ma, you sure fooled me," said Andy, grinning.
"You go 'long." Mrs. Bailey smiled at Andy, who had earned her forgiveness by crediting her—rather wisely—with having originated the surprise.
They were chatting and joking when Bill Haskins appeared in the door-way, his hand wrapped in a handkerchief.
Ma Bailey glared at him over her spectacles. "Got any stickin'-plaster?" he asked plaintively, as though he had committed some misdemeanor. She rose and placed a plate and chair for him as he shook hands with Pete, led him to the kitchen and inspected and bandaged his hand, which he had jagged on a wire gate, and finally reinstated him at the table, where he proved himself quite as efficient as most men are with two hands. "Give Bill all the coffee he wants and plenty stickin'-plaster, and I reckon he never would do no work," suggested Hank Barley.
Bill Haskins grinned good-naturedly. "I see Pete's got back," he ventured, as a sort of mild intimation that there were other subjects worth discussing. He accompanied this brilliant observation by a modest request for another cup of coffee, his fourth. The men rose, leaving Bill engaged in his favorite indoor pastime, and intimated that Pete should go with them. But Ma Bailey would not bear of it. Pete was going to help her with the dishes. Andy could go, however, and Bill Haskins, as soon as he was convinced that the coffee-pot was empty. Ma Bailey's chief interest in life at the moment was to get the dishes put away, the men out of the way, and Pete in the most comfortable rocking-chair in the room, that she might hear his account of how it all happened.
And Pete told her—omitting no circumstance, albeit he did not accentuate that part of his recital having to do with Doris Gray, merely mentioning her as "that little gray-eyed nurse in El Paso"—and in such an offhand manner that Ma Bailey began to suspect that Pete was keeping something to himself. Finally, by a series of cross-questioning, comment, and sympathetic concurrence, she arrived at the feminine conclusion that the gray-eyed nurse in El Paso had set her cap for Pete—of course Pete was innocent of any such adjustment of headgear—to substantiate which she rose, and, stepping to the bedroom, returned with the letter which had caused her so much speculation as to who was writing to Pete, and why the letter had been directed to the Concho.
Pete glanced at the letter, and thanked Ma Bailey as he tucked it in his pocket.
"I don't mind if you open it, Pete," she told him. "Goodness knows how long it's been laying in the post-office! And it, mebby, is important—from that doctor, or that lawyer, mebby. Oh, mebby it's from the bank. Sakes alive! To think of that man leaving you all that money! Mebby that bank has failed!"
"Well, I'd be right where I started when I first come here—broke—lookin' for a job."
"And the boys'll worry you most to death if you try to read any letters in the bunk-house to-night. They're waitin' to hear you talk."
"Guess the letter can wait. I ain't such a fast reader, anyhow."
"And you're like to lose it, carryin' it round."
"I—I—reckon I better read it," stammered Pete helplessly.
He felt somehow that Ma would feel slighted if he didn't. Ma Bailey watched his face as he read the rather brief note from Doris, thanking him for his letter to her and congratulating him on the outcome of his trial, and assuring him of her confidence in his ultimate success in life. "Little Ruth," wrote Doris, "cried bitterly when I told her that you had gone and would not come back. She said that when you said 'good-bye' to her you promised to come back—and of course I had to tell her that you would, just to make her happy. She has lost all interest in the puzzle game since you left, but that queer watch that you gave her, that has to be shaken before taken—and then not taken seriously—amuses her quite a bit. She gets me to wind it up—her fingers are not strong enough—and then she laughs as the hands race around. When they stop she puts her finger on the hour and says, 'Pitty soon Pete come back.' Little Ruth misses you very much."
Pete folded the letter and put it in his pocket. "From a friend of mine," he said, flushing slightly.
Ma Bailey sighed, smiled, and sighed again. "You're just itching to go see the boys. Well, run along, and tell Jim not to set up all night." Ma Bailey rose, and stepping to the bedroom returned with some blankets. "You'll have your old bunk. It's yours just as long as you want to stay, Pete. And—and I hope that girl in El Paso—is a—a nice—sensible—"
"Why, Ma! What's the matter?—" as Mrs. Bailey blinked and showed unmistakable signs of emotion.
"Nothing, Pete. I reckon your coming back so sudden and all you been through, and that letter, kind of upset me. D-does she powder her face, Pete?"
"Who? You mean Miss Gray? Why, what would she do that for?"
"Does she wear clothes that—that cost lots of money?"
"Great snakes, Ma! I dunno. I never seen her except in the hospital, dressed jest like all the nurses."
"Is—is she handsome?"
"Say, Ma, you let me hold them blankets. They're gittin' you all sagged down. Why, she ain't what I'd say was handsome, but she sure got pretty eyes and hair—and complexion—and the smoothest little hands—and she's built right neat. She steps easy—like a thoroughbred filly—and she's plumb sensible, jest like you folks."
This latter assurance did not seem to comfort Ma Bailey as much as the implied compliment might intimate.
"And there's only one other woman I ever saw that made me feel right to home and kind o' glad to have her round, like her. And she's got gray eyes and the same kind of hair, and—"
"Sakes alive, Pete Annersley! Another?"
"Uh-huh. And I'm kissin' her good-night—right now." And Pete grabbed the blankets and as much of Ma Bailey as could be included in that large armful, and kissed her heartily.
"He's changed," Ma Bailey confided to herself, after Pete had disappeared. "Actin' like a boy—to cheer me up. But it weren't no boy that set there readin' that letter. It was a growed man, and no wonder. Yes, Pete's changed, bless his heart!"
Ma Bailey did not bless Pete's heart because he had changed, however, nor because he had suffered, nor yet because he was unconsciously in love with a little nurse in El Paso, nor yet because he kissed her, but because she liked him: and because no amount of money or misfortune, blame or praise, could really change him toward his friends. What Ma Bailey meant was that he had grown a little more serious, a little more gentle in his manner of addressing her—aside from saying good-night—and a little more intense in a quiet way. To sum it all up, Pete had just begun to think—something that few people do on the verdant side of forty, and rather dread having to do on the other side of that mile-post.
A week later, as they sat at table asking one another whether Ma Bailey had took to makin' pies ag'in jest for practice or for Pete, and plaguing that good woman considerably with their good-natured banter, it occurred to Bill Haskins to ask Pete if he were going to become a permanent member of the family or if he were simply visiting; only Bill said, "Are you aimin' to throw in with us—or are you goin' to curl your tail and drift, when the snow flies?"
"I reckon I'll drift," said Pete.
This was news. Andy White demurred forcibly. Bailey himself seemed surprised, and even old Hank Barley, the silent, expressed himself as mildly astonished.
"We figured you'd stay till after the round-up, anyhow," said Bailey.
"Reckon it's too tame for Pete here," growled Andy.
"That's no fault of yours, Andrew," observed Ma Bailey.
"You're always peckin' at me," grumbled Andy, who detested being called "Andrew" quite as much as that robust individual known to his friends as Bill detests being called "Willie"—and Ma Bailey knew it.
"So you aim to leave us," said Haskins, quite unaware of Ma Bailey's eye which glared disapproval of the subject.
"Pete's going—next Tuesday—and just to set your mind at rest and give you a chance to eat your supper"—Bill had been doing scarcely anything else since he sat down—"Pete has a right good reason to go."
"Kin I have another cup of coffee?" queried Bill.
"Sakes alive, yes! I reckon that's what's ailing you."
"I only had three, Ma."
"Pete is going away on business," asserted Ma Bailey.
"Huh," snorted Andy.
Bailey glanced at his wife, who telegraphed to him to change the subject. And that good man, who had been married twenty-five years, changed the subject immediately.
But Andy did not let it drop. After supper he cornered Pete in the bunk-house, and following some wordy fencing, ascertained that Pete was going to Tucson for the winter to get an education. Pete blushingly admitted that that was his sole intent, swore Andy to secrecy, and told him that he had discussed the subject with Ma Bailey, who had advised him to go.
"So you're quittin' the game," mourned Andy.
"Nope, jest beginnin'."
"Well, you might 'a' said somethin', anyhow."
Pete put his hand on Andy's shoulder. "I wa'n't sure—till yesterday. I was goin' to tell you, Andy. Shucks! Didn't I tell you about the money and everything—and you didn't say a word to the boys. I ain't forgittin'."
"Oh, I knowed havin' money wouldn't swell you up. It ain't that. Only, I was wonderin'—"
"So was I, Andy. And I been wonderin' for quite a spell. Come on out and let's go set on the corral bars and smoke and—jest smoke."
But they did more than just smoke. The Arizona stars shot wondrous shafts of white fire through the nipping air as the chums sensed the comfortable companionship of horses moving slowly about the corral; and they heard the far, faint call of the coyote as a drift of wind brought the keen tang of the distant timberlands. They talked together as only youth may talk with youth, when Romance lights the trail, when the heart speaks from itself to heart in sympathy. Yet their chat was not without humor or they would not have been Pete and Andy.
"You always was a wise one," asserted Andy; "pickin' out a professional nurse for your girl ain't a bad idee."
"I had a whole lot to do with pickin' her out, didn't I?"
"Well, you can't make me believe that she did the pickin', for you was tellin' me she had good eyes."
"I reckon it was the Doc that did the pickin',"' suggested Pete.
"Well, I suppose the next thing you'll be givin' the preacher a chanct."
"Nope. Next thing I'll be givin' Miss Gray a chanct to tell me I'm a doggone idiot—only she don't talk like that."
"Then it'll be because she don't know you like I do. But you're lucky— No tellin'—" Andy climbed down from the bars.
"No tellin' what?" queried Pete.
"No tellin' you how much I sure want you to win, pardner—because you know it."
Pete leapt from the top rail square on to Andy, who, taken off his guard, toppled and fell. They rolled over and over, not even trying to miss the puddle of water beside the drinking-trough. Andy managed to get his free hand in the mud and thought of feeding some of it to Pete, but Pete was too quick for him, squirming loose and making for the bunkhouse at top speed.
Pete entrenched himself in the far corner of the room where Bill Haskins was reading a novel,—exceedingly popular, if the debilitated condition of the pages and covers were any criterion,—when Andy entered, holding one hand behind him in a suspicious manner. Pete wondered what was coming when it came. Andy swung his arm and plugged a fair-sized mud-ball at Pete, which missed him and hit the innocent and unsuspecting Bill on the ear, and stayed there. Bill Haskins, who was at the moment helping the hero hold a spirited pair of horses while the heroine climbed to a seat in the romantic buckboard, promptly pulled on the reins and shouted "Whoa!" and the debilitated novel came apart in his hands with a soft, ripping sound. It took Bill several seconds to think of something to say, and several more to realize just what had happened. He opened his mouth—but Andy interrupted with "Honest, Bill, I wasn't meanin' to hit you. I was pluggin' at Pete, there. It was his fault; he went and hid out behind you. Honest, Bill—wait and I'll help you dig that there mud out of your ear."