Bill shook his head and growled as he scraped the mud from his face and neck. Andy, gravely solicitous, helped to remove the mud and affectionately wiped his fingers in Bill's hair.
"Here—what in hell you doin'!" snorted Bill.
"That's right! I was forgittin'! Honest, Bill!"
"I'll honest you! I'll give you somethin' to forgit." But Andy did not wait.
A little later Bill appeared at the kitchen door and plaintively asked Ma Bailey if she had any sticking-plaster.
"Sakes alive! Now what you done to yourself, William?"
"Nothin' this time, Miss Bailey. I—I done tore a book—and jest want to fix it."
When Bill returned to the bunk-house with the "sticking-plaster," Pete and Andy both said they were sorry for the occurrence, but Bill was mighty suspicious of their sincerity. They were silent while Bill laboriously patched up the book and settled himself to take up the reins where he had dropped them. The heroine had just taken her seat beside the driver—when— "It's a darned shame!" said a voice, Pete's voice.
"It sure is—and Bill jest learnin' to read. He might 'a' spelled out a whole page afore mornin'."
"I wa'n't meanin' Bill," asserted Pete.
"Oh, you won't bother Bill none. He can't hear you. His off ear is full of mud. Go on and say anything you like about him."
Bill slowly laid down his book, stepped to his bunk, and drew his six-shooter from its holster. He marched back to the table and laid the gun quite handy to him, and resumed his chair.
Bill Haskins was long-suffering—but both Andy and Pete realized that it was high time to turn their bright particular talents in some other direction. So they undressed and turned in. They had been asleep an hour or two before Bill closed his book regretfully, picked up his gun, and walked to his bunk. He stood for a moment gazing at Andy, and then turned to gaze at Pete. Then he shook his head—and a slow smile lighted his weathered face. For despite defunct mountain lions, bent nails, and other sundries, Bill Haskins liked Andy and Pete—and he knew if it came to a test of friendship that either of them would stand by him to the last dollar, or the last shot even, as he would have gladly done to help them.
THE RIDIN' KID FROM POWDER RIVER
The first thing Pete did when he arrived in Tucson was to purchase a suit as near like that which he had seen Andover wear as possible. Pete's Stetson was discarded for a soft felt of ordinary dimensions. He bought shoes, socks, and some underwear, which the storekeeper assured him was the latest thing, but which Pete said "looked more like chicken-wire than honest-to-Gosh cloth," and fortified by his new and inconspicuous apparel, he called on the principal of the high school and told him just why he had come to Tucson. "And I'd sure look queer settin' in with all the kids," Pete concluded. "If there's any way of my ketchin' up to my size, why, I reckon I kin pay."
The principal thought it might be arranged. For instance, he would be glad to give Pete—he said Mr. Annersley—an introduction to an instructor, a young Eastern scholar, who could possibly spare three or four evenings a week for private lessons. Progress would depend entirely upon Pete's efforts. Many young men had studied that way—some of them even without instruction. Henry Clay, for instance, and Lincoln. And was Mr. Annersley thinking of continuing with his studies and entering college, or did he merely wish to become conversant with the fundamentals?
"If I kin git so I can throw and hog-tie some of them fundamentals without losin' my rope, I reckon I'll be doin' all I set out to do. No—I guess I'd never make a top-hand, ridin' for you. But my rope is tied to the horn—and I sure aim to stay with whatever I git my loop on."
"I get your drift—and I admire your purpose. Incidentally and speaking from a distinctly impersonal—er—viewpoint" (no doubt a high-school principal may speak from a viewpoint, or even sit on one if he cares to), "your colloquialisms are delightful—and sufficiently forceful to leave no doubt as to your sincerity of purpose."
"Meanin' you sabe what I'm gittin' at, eh?"
The principal nodded and smiled.
"I thought that was what you was tryin' to say. Well, professor—"
"Dr. Wheeler, if you please."
"All right, Doc. But I didn't know you was a doc too."
"Doctor of letters, merely."
Pete suspected that he was being joked with, but the principal's manner was quite serious. "If you will give me your address, I will drop a line to Mr. Forbes," said the principal.
Pete gave his name and address. As Principal Wheeler wrote them down in his notebook he glanced up at Pete curiously. "You don't happen to be the young man—er—similarity of names—who was mixed up in that shooting affair in El Paso? Name seemed familiar. No doubt a coincidence."
"It wa'n't no coincidence—it was a forty-five," stated Pete.
The principal stared at Pete as though he half-expected to see him pull a gun and demand an education instanter. But Pete's smile helped the principal to pull himself together. "Most extraordinary!" he exclaimed. "I believe the courts exonerated you?"
"That ain't all they did to me," Pete assured him. "Nope. You got that wrong. But I reckon they would 'a' done it—if I hadn't 'a' hired that there lawyer from El Paso. He sure exonerated a couple o' thousand out o' me. And the judge turned me loose."
"It was that lawyer that told me I ought to git a education," exclaimed Pete.
"Of course! Of course! I had forgotten it for the moment. Well, here is Mr. Forbes's address. I think you will find him at his room almost any evening."
"I'll be there!"
"Very good! I suppose you are aware that it is illegal to carry concealed weapons inside the city limits?"
"I get you, Doc, but I ain't packin' a gun, nohow."
As the weeks went by and the winter sun swung farther south, Mr. Forbes, the young Eastern scholar, and Pete began to understand each other. Pete, who had at first considered the young Easterner affected, and rather effeminate, slowly realized that he was mistaken. Forbes was a sincere and manly fellow, who had taken his share of hard knocks and who suffered ill health uncomplainingly—an exile of his chosen environment, with little money and scarce a companion to share his loneliness.
As for Forbes, he envied Pete his abundant health and vigor and admired his unspoiled enthusiasm. Pete's humor, which somehow suggested to Forbes the startling and inexplicable antics of a healthy colt, melted Forbes's diffidence, and they became friends and finally chums. Pete really learned as much through this intimacy as he did from his books: perhaps more. It was at Pete's suggestion that Forbes took to riding a horse, and they spent many afternoons on the desert, drifting slowly along while they discussed different phases of life.
These discussions frequently led to argument, sincere on Pete's part, who never realized that Forbes's chief delight in life was to get Pete started, that he might enjoy Pete's picturesque illustration of the point, which, more often than not, was shrewdly sharp and convincing. No amount of argument, no matter how fortified by theory and example, could make Pete change his attitude toward life; but he eventually came to see life from a different angle, his vision broadening to a wider perspective as they climbed together, Forbes loitering on familiar ground that Pete might not lose the trail and find himself entangled in some unessential thicket by the way.
Forbes was not looking well. His thin face was pinched; his eyes were listless. Pete thought that Forbes stayed indoors too much. "Why don't you go get a cayuse and ride?" he suggested.
"Never was on a horse in my life."
"Uh-huh. Well, you been off one too long."
"I'd like to. But I can't afford it."
"I don't mean to buy a horse—jest hire one, from the livery. I was thinkin' of gettin' out on the dry-spot myself. I'm plumb sick of town."
"You would have to teach me."
"Shucks! There's nothin' to learn. All you got to do is to fork your cayuse and ride. I'd sure be glad to go with you."
"That's nice of you. Well, say to-morrow afternoon, then. But what about horses?"
"We got a session to-morrow. What's the matter with this afternoon? The sun's shinin', and there ain't much wind, and I can smell the ole desert, a-sizzlin'. Come on!"
They were in Forbes's room. The Easterner laid his book aside and glanced down at his shoes. "I haven't a riding-costume."
"Well, you can get one for a dollar and four-bits—copper-riveted, and sure easy and comfortable. I'll lend you a pair of boots."
"All right. I'll try it once, at least."
Forbes felt rather conspicuous in the stiff new overalls, rolled up at the bottom, over Pete's tight high-heeled boots, but nobody paid any attention to him as he stumped along beside Pete, on the way to the livery.
Pete chose the horses, and a saddle for Forbes, to whom he gave a few brief pointers anent the art of swinging up and dismounting. They set out and headed for the open. Forbes was at first nervous; but as nothing happened, he forgot his nervousness and gave himself to gazing at the great sun-swept spaces until the horses broke into a trot, when he turned his entire attention to the saddle-horn, clinging to it affectionately with his free hand.
Pete pulled up. "Say, amigo, it's ag'inst the rules to choke that there horn to death. Jest let go and clamp your knees. We'll lope 'em a spell."
Forbes was about to protest when Pete's horse, to which he had apparently done nothing, broke into a lope. Forbes's horse followed. It was a rough experience for the Easterner, but he enjoyed it until Pete pulled up suddenly. Forbes's own animal stopped abruptly, but Forbes, grabbing wildly at the horn, continued, and descended in a graceful curve which left him sitting on the sand and blinking up at the astonished animal.
"Hurt you?" queried Pete.
"I think not— But it was rather sudden. Now what do I do?"
"Well, when you git rested up, I'd say to fork him ag'in. He's sure tame."
"I—I thought he was rather wild," stammered Forbes, getting to his feet.
"Nope. It was you was wild. I reckon you like to scared him to death. Nope! Git on him from this side."
"He seems a rather intelligent animal," commented Forbes as he prepared for the worst.
"Well, we kin call him that, seein' there's nobody round to hear us. We'll walk 'em a spell."
Forbes felt relieved. And realizing that he was still alive and uninjured, he relaxed a bit. After they had turned and headed for town, he actually enjoyed himself.
Next day he was so stiff and sore that he could scarcely walk, but his eye was brighter. However, he begged off from their proposed ride the following afternoon. Pete said nothing; but when the next riding afternoon arrived, a week later, Forbes was surprised to see Pete, dressed in his range clothes. Standing near the curb were two horses, saddled and bridled. "Git on your jeans and those ole boots of mine. I fetched along a extra pair of spurs."
"I can't ride 'em both."
"It's nice of you—but really, I can't afford it."
"Look here, Doc, what you can't afford is to set in that room a-readin' all day. And the horse don't cost you a cent. I had a talk with the old-timer that runs the livery, and when he seen I was onto my job, he was plumb tickled to death for me to exercise the horses. One of 'em needs a little educatin'."
"That's all right. But how about my horse?"
"Why, I brought him along to keep the other horse company. I can't handle 'em both. Ain't you goin' to help me out?"
"Well, if you put it that way, I will this time."
"Now you're talkin' sense."
Several weeks later they were again riding out on the desert and enjoying that refreshing and restful companionship which is best expressed in silence, when Pete, who had been gazing into the distance, pulled up his restive horse and sat watching a moving something that suddenly disappeared. Forbes glanced at Pete, who turned and nodded as if acknowledging the other's unspoken question. They rode on.
A half-hour later, as they pulled up at the edge of the arroyo, Forbes was startled by Pete's "Hello, neighbor!" to an apparently empty world.
"What's the joke?" queried Forbes.
The joke appeared suddenly around the bend in the arroyo—a big, weather-bitten joke astride of a powerful horse. Forbes uttered an exclamation as the joke whipped out a gun and told them to "Put 'em up!" in a tone which caused Forbes's hands to let go the reins and rise head-high without his having realized that he had made a movement. Pete was also picking invisible peaches from the air, which further confirmed Forbes's hasty conclusion that they were both doing the right thing.
"I ain't got a gun on me, Ed." Pete had spoken slowly and distinctly, and apparently without the least shadow of trepidation. Forbes, gazing at the grim, bronzed face of the strange horseman, nervously echoed Pete's statement. Before the Easterner could realize what had actually happened, Pete and the strange rider had dismounted and were shaking hands: a transition so astonishing that Forbes forgot to lower his hands and sat with them nervously aloft as though imploring the Rain-God not to forget his duty to mankind.
Pete and the stranger were talking. Forbes could catch an occasional word, such as "The Spider—El Paso—White-Eye—Hospital—Sonora—Sanborn—Sam Brent—"
Pete turned and grinned. "I reckon you can let go the—your holt, Doc. This here is a friend of mine."
Forbes sighed thankfully. He was introduced to the friend, whom Pete called Ed, but whose name had been suddenly changed to Bill. "We used to ride together," explained Pete.
Forbes tactfully withdrew, realizing that whatever they had to talk about was more or less confidential.
Presently Pete approached Forbes and asked him if he had any money with him. Forbes had five dollars and some small change. "I'm borrowin' this till to-morrow," said Pete, as he dug into his own pocket, and without counting the sum total, gave it to the stranger.
Brevoort stuffed the money in his pocket and swung to his horse. "You better ride in with us a ways," suggested Pete. "The young fella don't know anything about you—and he won't talk if I pass the word to him. Then I kin go on ahead and fetch back some grub and some more dineros."
Forbes found the stranger rather interesting as they rode back toward Tucson; for he spoke of Mexico and affairs below the line—amazing things to speak of in such an offhand manner—in an impersonal and interesting way.
Within two miles of the town they drew up. "Bill, here," explained Pete, "is short of grub. Now, if you don't mind keepin' him company, why, I'll fan it in and git some. I'll be back right soon."
"Not at all! Go ahead!" Forbes wanted to hear more of first-hand experiences south of the line. Forbes, who knew something of Pete's history, shrewdly suspected that the stranger called "Bill" had a good reason to ride wide of Tucson—although the Easterner did not quite understand why Pete should ride into town alone. But that was merely incidental.
It was not until Pete had returned and the stranger had departed, taking his way east across the desert, that Pete offered an explanation—a rather guarded explanation, Forbes realized—of the recent happenings. "Bill's keepin' out on the desert for his health," said Pete. "And, if anybody should ask us, I reckon we ain't seen him."
"I think I understand," said Forbes.
And Forbes, recalling the event many months later, after Pete had left Tucson, thought none the less of Pete for having helped an old friend out of difficulties. Forbes was himself more than grateful to Pete—for with the riding three times a week and Pete's robust companionship, he had regained his health to an extent far beyond his hopes.
Pete rejected sixteen of the seventeen plans he had made that winter for his future, often guided by what he read in the occasional letters from Doris, wherein he found some rather practical suggestions—for he wrote frankly of his intent to better himself, but wisely refrained from saying anything that might be interpreted as more than friendship.
Pete had not planned to go to El Paso quite as soon as he did; and it was because of an unanswered letter that he went. He had written early in March and it was now May—and no reply.
If he had waited a few days longer, it is possible that he would not have gone at all, for passing him as he journeyed toward Texas was a letter from Doris Gray in which she intimated that she thought their correspondence had better cease, and for the reason—which she did not intimate—that she was a bit afraid that Pete would come to El Paso, and stay in El Paso until she had either refused to see him—it was significant that she thought of refusing to see him, for he was actually worth looking at—or until he had asked her a question to which there was but one answer, and that was "no." Just why Doris should have taken it for granted that he would ask her that question is a matter which she never explained, even to herself. Pete had never made love to her in the accepted sense of the term. He had done much better than that, although he was entirely unconscious of it. But that psychological moment—whatever that may mean—in the affairs of Doris and Pete was rapidly approaching,—a moment more often anticipated by the female of the species than by the male.
Just what kept Pete from immediately rushing to the hospital and proclaiming his presence is another question that never can be answered. Pete wanted to do just that thing—but he did not. Instead, he took a modest room at a modest hotel, bought himself some presentable clothing, dropped in to see Hodges of the Stockmen's Security, and spent several days walking about the streets mentally preparing himself to explain just why he had come to El Paso, finally arriving at the conclusion that he had come to see little Ruth. Doris had said that Ruth had missed him. Well, he had a right to drop in and see the kid. And he reckoned it was nobody's business if he did.
He had avoided going near the General Hospital in his strolls about town, viewing that building from a safe distance and imagining all sorts of things. Perhaps Miss Gray had left. Perhaps she was ill. Or she might have married! Still, she would have told him, he thought.
Doris never knew what a struggle it cost Pete—to say nothing of hard cash—to purchase that bottle of perfume. But he did it, marching into a drug-store and asking for a bottle of "the best they had," and paying for it without a quiver. Back in his room he emptied about half of the bottle on his handkerchief, wedged the handkerchief into his pocket, and marched to the street, determination in his eye, and the fumes of half a vial of Frangipanni floating in his wake.
Perhaps the Frangipanni stimulated him. Perhaps the overdose deadened his decision to stay away from the hospital. In any event, that afternoon he betook himself to the hospital, and was fortunate in finding Andover there, to whom he confided the obvious news that he was in town—and that he would like to see little Ruth for a minute, if it was all right.
Andover told him that little Ruth had been taken to her home a month ago—and Pete wondered how she could still miss him, as Miss Gray had intimated in her last letter. And as he wondered he saw light—not a great light, but a faint ray which was reflected in his face as he asked Andover when Miss Gray would be relieved from duty, and if it would be possible to see her then.
Andover thought it might be possible, and suggested that he let Miss Gray know of Pete's presence; but some happy instinct caused Pete to veto that suggestion.
"It ain't important," he told Andover. "I'll jest mosey around about six, and step in for a minute. Don't you say I'm in town!"
Andover gazed curiously after Pete as the latter marched out. The surgeon shook his head. Mixed drinks were not new to Andover, but he could not for the life of him recognize what Pete had been drinking.
Doris, who had not been thinking of Pete at all,—as she was not a spiritualist, and had always doubted that affinities were other than easy excuses for uneasy morals,—came briskly down the hospital steps, gowned in a trim gray skirt and a jacket, and a jaunty turban that hid just enough of her brown hair to make that which was visible the more alluring. She almost walked into Pete—for, as it has been stated, she was not thinking of him at all, but of the cozy evening she would spend with her sister at the latter's apartments on High Street. Incidentally Doris was thinking, just a little, of how well her gown and turban became her, for she had determined never to let herself become frowsy and slipshod—Well—she had not to look far for her antithesis.
"Why, Mr. Annersley!"
Pete flushed, the victim of several emotions. "Good-evenin', Miss Gray. I—I thought I'd jest step in and say 'Hello' to that little kid."
"Oh! Ruth?" And Doris flushed just the least bit herself. "Why, little Ruth is not here now."
"Shucks! Well, I'm right glad you are! Was you goin' somewhere?"
"Yes. Out to my sister's on High Street."
"I only been in town two or three days, so I don't know jest where High Street is, but I reckon I could find my way back all right." And Pete so far forgot the perfume as to smile in his old, boyish way.
Doris did some rapid mental calculation and concluded that her latest—or rather her last—letter had just about arrived in Tucson, and of course Pete had not read it. That made matters a little difficult. But there was no reason in the world why he should not walk with her to her sister's.
Pete saw no reason why he should not, either, but rather a very attractive reason why he should.
Without further word they turned and walked down the street, Doris wondering what in the world had induced Pete to immerse himself in Frangipanni, and Pete wondering if there was ever a prettier girl in the world than Doris Gray.
And because Pete wanted to talk about something entirely impersonal, he at once began to ask her what she thought of his latest plan, which was to purchase an interest in the Concho, spend his summers working with the men and his winters in Tucson, studying with Forbes about whom he had written to her.
Doris thought it was a splendid plan. She was sure—quite impersonally—that he would make a success of anything he attempted.
Pete was not so sure, and he told her so. She joked him for doubting himself. He promptly told her that he didn't doubt himself for a minute, but that he did doubt the willingness of the person whom he hoped to make a partner in the venture.
"Not Mr. Forbes?" she queried, glancing quickly at Pete's serious face.
"Nope. It's you."
They walked another block without speaking; then they walked still another. And they had begun to walk still another when Pete suddenly pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and threw it in the gutter. "That doggone perfume is chokin' me to death!" he blurted. And Doris, despite herself, smiled.
They were out where the streets were more open and quiet now. The sun was close to the edge of the desert, far in the west. Doris's hand trembled just the least bit as she turned to say "good-night." They had stopped in front of a house, near the edge of town. Pete's face was a bit pale; his dark eyes were intense and gloomy.
Quite unconscious of what he was doing, he pulled out his watch—a new watch that possessed no erratic tendencies. Suddenly Doris thought of Pete's old watch, and of little Ruth's extreme delight in its irresponsible hands whirling madly around, and of that night when Pete had been brought to the hospital. Suddenly there were two tears trembling on her lashes, and her hand faltered. Then, being a sensible person, she laughed away her emotion, for the time being, and invited Pete in to supper.
Pete thought Doris's sister a mighty nice girl, plumb sensible and not a bit stuck up. And later, when this "plumb sensible" person declared that she was rather tired and excused herself and disappeared, after bidding Pete good-night, he knew that she was a sensible person. He couldn't see how she could help it, being the sister of Doris.
"So I'll be sayin' good-night," stated Pete a few minutes later, as he stood by the door, proud and straight and as vital as a flame.
But he didn't say it, at least coherently. Doris's hand was on his sleeve. Pete thought she had a mighty pretty hand. And as for her eyes—they were gray and misty and warm . . . and not at all like he had ever seen them before. He laughed happily, "You look plumb lonesome!" he said.
Pete dropped his hat, but he did not know it until, well—several minutes later, when Doris gave it to him.
It was close to midnight when a solitary policeman, passing down a side street, heard a nocturnal singer inform dark and empty High Street that he was
"The Ridin' Kid from Powder River,"—
with other more or less interesting details.
Pete felt a hand on his shoulder. "You better cut that out!" said the officer.
Pete whirled and his hand flickered toward his hip. "You go plumb to—" Pete hesitated. The officer sniffed suspiciously. Pete grinned—then proffered his hand with irresistible enthusiasm.
"Sure I'll cut it out."
The Riverside Press