"I'm going to see if he can do it again," declared Patches grimly.
"Not to-day, you ain't," returned the Dean. "You're workin' for me now, an' you're too good a man to be killed tryin' any more crazy experiments."
At the Dean's words the look of gratitude in the man's eyes was almost pathetic.
"I wonder if I am," he said, so low that only the Dean and Phil heard.
"If you are what?" asked the Dean, puzzled by his manner.
"Worth anything—as a man—you know," came the strange reply.
The Dean chuckled. "You'll be all right when you get your growth. Come on over here now, out of the way, while Phil takes some of the cussedness out of that fool horse."
Together they watched Phil ride the bay and return him to his mates a very tired and a much wiser pupil. Then, while Patches remained to watch further operations in the corral, the Dean went to the house to tell Stella all about it.
"And what do you think he really is?" she asked, as the last of a long list of questions and comments.
The Dean shook his head. "There's no tellin'. A man like that is liable to be anything." Then he added, with his usual philosophy: "He acts, though, like a genuine thoroughbred that's been badly mishandled an' has just found it out."
When the day's work was finished and supper was over Little Billy found Patches where he stood looking across the valley toward Granite Mountain that loomed so boldly against the soft light of the evening sky. The man greeted the boy awkwardly, as though unaccustomed to children. But Little Billy, very much at ease, signified his readiness to help the stranger to an intimate acquaintance with the world of which he knew so much more than this big man.
He began with no waste of time on mere preliminaries.
"See that mountain over there? That's Granite Mountain. There's wild horses live around there, an' sometimes we catch 'em. Bet you don't know that Phil's name is 'Wild Horse Phil'."
Patches smiled. "That's a good name for him, isn't it?"
"You bet." He turned and pointed eagerly to the west. "There's another mountain over there I bet you don't know the name of."
"Which one do you mean? I see several."
"That long, black lookin' one. Do you know about it?"
"I'm really afraid that I don't."
"Well, I'll tell you," said Billy, proud of his superior knowledge. "That there's Tailholt Mountain."
"Yes, and Nick Cambert and Yavapai Joe lives over there. Do you know about them?"
The tall man shook his head. "No, I don't believe that I do."
Little Billy lowered his voice to a mysterious whisper. "Well, I'll tell you. Only you mus'n't ever say anything 'bout it out loud. Nick and Yavapai is cattle thieves. They been a-brandin' our calves, an' Phil, he's goin' to catch 'em at it some day, an' then they'll wish they hadn't. Phil, he's my pardner, you know."
"And a fine pardner, too, I'll bet," returned the stranger, as if not wishing to acquire further information about the men of Tailholt Mountain.
"You bet he is," came the instant response. "Only Jim Reid, he don't like him very well."
"That's too bad, isn't it?"
"Yes. You see, Jim Reid is Kitty's daddy. They live over there." He pointed across the meadow to where, a mile away, a light twinkled in the window of the Pot-Hook-S ranch house. "Kitty Reid's a mighty nice girl, I tell you, but Jim, he says that there needn't no cow-puncher come around tryin' to get her, 'cause she's been away to school, you know, an' I think Phil—"
"Whoa! Hold on a minute, sonny," interrupted Patches hastily.
"What's the matter?" questioned Little Billy.
"Why, it strikes me that a boy with a pardner like 'Wild Horse Phil' ought to be mighty careful about how he talked over that pardner's private affairs with a stranger. Don't you think so?"
"Mebby so," agreed Billy. "But you see, I know that Phil wants Kitty 'cause—"
"Sh! What in the world is that?" whispered Patches in great fear, catching his small companion by the arm.
"That! Don't you know an owl when you hear one? Gee! but you're a tenderfoot, ain't you?" Catching sight of the Dean who was coming toward them, he shouted gleefully. "Uncle Will, Mr. Patches is scared of an owl. What do you know about that; Patches is scared of an owl!"
"Your Aunt Stella wants you," laughed the Dean.
And Billy ran off to the house to share his joke on the tenderfoot with his Aunt Stella and his "pardner," Phil.
"I've got to go to town to-morrow," said the Dean. "I expect you better go along and get your trunk, or whatever you have and some sort of an outfit. You can't work in them clothes."
Patches answered hesitatingly. "Why, I think I can get along all right, Mr. Baldwin."
"But you'll want your stuff—your trunk or grip—or whatever you've got," returned the Dean.
"But I have nothing in Prescott," said the stranger slowly.
"You haven't? Well, you'll need an outfit anyway," persisted the cattleman.
"Really, I think I can get along for a while," Patches returned diffidently.
The Dean considered for a little; then he said with straightforward bluntness, but not at all unkindly, "Look here, young man, you ain't afraid to go to Prescott, are you?"
The other laughed. "Not at all, sir. It's not that. I suppose I must tell you now, though. All the clothes I have are on my back, and I haven't a cent in the world with which to buy an outfit, as you call it."
The Dean chuckled. "So that's it? I thought mebby you was dodgin' the sheriff. If it's just plain broke that's the matter, why you'll go to town with me in the mornin', an' we'll get what you need. I'll hold it out of your wages until it's paid." As though the matter were settled, he turned back toward the house, adding, "Phil will show you where you're to sleep."
When the foreman had shown the new man to his room, the cowboy asked casually, "Found the goat ranch, all right, night before last, did you?"
The other hesitated; then he said gravely, "I didn't look for it, Mr. Acton."
"You didn't look for it?"
"Do you mean to say that you spent the night up there on the Divide without blankets or anything?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
"And where did you stop last night?"
"Walked, I suppose?"
The stranger smiled. "Yes."
"But, look here," said the puzzled cowboy, "I don't mean to be asking questions about what is none of my business, but I can't figure it out. If you were coming out here to get a job on the Cross-Triangle, why didn't you go to Mr. Baldwin in town? Anybody could have pointed him out to you. Or, why didn't you say something to me, when we were talking back there on the Divide?"
"Why, you see," explained the other lamely, "I didn't exactly want to work on the Cross-Triangle, or anywhere."
"But you told Uncle Will that you wanted to work here, and you were on your way when I met you."
"Yes, I know, but you see—oh, hang it all, Mr. Acton, haven't you ever wanted to do something that you didn't want to do? Haven't you ever been caught in a corner that you were simply forced to get out of when you didn't like the only way that would get you out? I don't mean anything criminal," he added, with a short laugh.
"Yes, I have," returned the other seriously, "and if you don't mind there's no handle to my name. Around here I'm just plain Phil, Mr. Patches."
"Thanks. Neither does Patches need decorating."
"And now, one more," said Phil, with his winning smile. "Why in the name of all the obstinate fools that roam at large did you walk out here when you must have had plenty of chances to ride?"
"Well, you see," said Patches slowly, "I fear I can't explain, but it was just a part of my job."
"Your job! But you didn't have any job until this afternoon."
"Oh, yes, I did. I had the biggest kind of a job. You see, that's what I was doing on the Divide all night; trying to find some other way to do it."
"And do you mind telling me what that job is?" asked Phil curiously.
Patches laughed as though at himself. "I don't know that I can, exactly," he said. "I think, perhaps, it's just to ride that big bay horse out there."
Phil laughed aloud—a hearty laugh of good-fellowship. "You'll do that all right."
"Do you think so, really," asked Patches, eagerly.
"Sure; I know it."
"I wish I could be sure," returned the strange man doubtfully—and the cowboy, wondering, saw that wistful look in his eyes.
"That big devil is a man's horse, all right," mused Phil.
"Why, of course—and that's just it—don't you see?" cried the other impulsively. Then, as if he regretted his words, he asked quickly, "Do you name your horses?"
"Sure," answered the cowboy; "we generally find something to call them."
"And have you named the big bay yet?"
Phil laughed. "I named him yesterday, when he broke away as we were bringing the bunch in, and I had to rope him to get him back."
"And what did you name him?"
"Stranger! And why Stranger?"
"Oh, I don't know. Just one of my fool notions," returned Phil. "Good-night!"
A BIT OF THE PAST.
The next morning Mr. Baldwin and Patches set out for town.
"I suppose," said the Dean, and a slightly curious tone colored the remark, "that mebby you've been used to automobiles. Buck and Prince here, an' this old buckboard will seem sort of slow to you."
Patches was stepping into the rig as the Dean spoke. As the young man took his seat by the cattleman's side, the Dean nodded to Phil who was holding the team. At the signal Phil released the horses' heads and stepped aside, whereupon Buck and Prince, of one mind, looked back over their shoulders, made a few playful attempts to twist themselves out of the harness, lunged forward their length, stood straight up on their hind feet, then sprang away as if they were fully determined to land that buckboard in Prescott within the next fifteen minutes.
"Did you say slow?" questioned Patches, as he clung to his seat.
The Dean chuckled and favored his new man with a twinkling glance of approval.
A few seconds later, on the other side of the sandy wash, the Dean skillfully checked their headlong career, with a narrow margin of safety between the team and the gate.
"I reckon we'll get through with less fuss if you'll open it," he said to Patches. Then to Buck and Prince: "Whoa! you blamed fools. Can't you stand a minute?"
"Stella's been devilin' me to get a machine ever since Jim Reid got his," he continued, while the horses were repeating their preliminary contortions, and Patches was regaining his seat. "But I told her I'd be scared to death to ride in the fool contraption."
At this Buck and Prince, in a wild riot of animal strength and spirit, leaped a slight depression in the road with such vigor that the front wheels of the buckboard left the ground. Patches glanced sidewise at his employer, with a smile of delighted appreciation, but said nothing.
The Dean liked him for that. The Dean always insists that the hardest man in the world to talk to is the one who always has something to say for himself.
"Why," he continued, with a burst of honest feeling, "if I was ever to bring one of them things home to the Cross-Triangle, I'd be ashamed to look a horse or steer in the face."
They dashed through a patch of wild sunflowers that in the bottom lands grow thick and rank; whirled past the tumble-down corner of an old fence that enclosed a long neglected garden; and dashed recklessly through a deserted and weed-grown yard. On one side of the road was the ancient barn and stable, with sagging, weather-beaten roof, leaning walls and battered doors that hung dejectedly on their rusty and broken hinges. The corral stockade was breached in many places by the years that had rotted the posts. The old-time windlass pump that, operated by a blind burro, once lifted water for the long vanished herds, was a pathetic old wreck, incapable now of offering drink to a thirsty sparrow. On their other hand, beneath the wide branches of giant sycamores and walnuts, and backed by a tangled orchard wilderness, stood an old house, empty and neglected, as if in the shadowy gloom of the untrimmed trees it awaited, lonely and forlorn, the kindly hand of oblivion.
"This is the old Acton homestead," said the Dean quietly, as one might speak beside an ancient grave.
Then as they were driving through the narrow lane that crosses the great meadow, he indicated with a nod of his head group of buildings on the other side of the green fields, and something less than a mile to the south.
"That's Jim Reid's place. His iron is the Pot-Hook-S. Jim's stock runs on the old Acton range, but the homestead belongs to Phil yet. Jim Reid's a fine man." The Dean spoke stoutly, almost as though he were making the assertion to convince himself. "Yes, sir, Jim's all right. Good neighbor; good cowman; square as they make 'em. Some folks seem to think he's a mite over-bearin' an' rough-spoken sometimes, and he's kind of quick at suspicionin' everybody; but Jim and me have always got along the best kind."
Again the Dean was silent, as though he had forgotten the man beside him in his occupation with thoughts that he could not share.
When they had crossed the valley meadows and, climbing the hill on the other side, could see the road for several miles ahead, the Dean pointed to a black object on the next ridge.
"There's Jim's automobile now. They're headin' for Prescott, too. Kitty's drivin', I reckon. I tell Stella that that machine and Kitty's learnin' to run the thing is about all the returns that Jim can show for the money he's spent in educatin' her. I don't mean," he added, with a quick look at Patches, as though he feared to be misunderstood, "that Kitty's one of them good-for-nothin' butterfly girls. She ain't that by a good deal. Why, she was raised right here in this neighborhood, an' we love her the same as if she was our own. She can cook a meal or make a dress 'bout as well as her mother, an' does it, too; an' she can ride a horse or throw a rope better'n some punchers I've seen, but—" The Dean stopped, seemingly for want of words to express exactly his thought.
"It seems to me," offered Patches abstractedly, "that education, as we call it, is a benefit only when it adds to one's life. If schooling or culture, or whatever you choose to term it, is permitted to rob one of the fundamental and essential elements of life, it is most certainly an evil."
"That's the idea," exclaimed the Dean, with frank admiration for his companion's ability to say that which he himself thought. "You say it like a book. But that's it. It ain't the learnin' an' all the stuff that Kitty got while she was at school that's worryin' us. It's what she's likely to lose through gettin' 'em. This here modern, down-to-the-minute, higher livin', loftier sphere, intellectual supremacy idea is all right if folks'll just keep their feet on the ground.
"You take Stella an' me now. I know we're old fashioned an' slow an' all that, an' we've seen a lot of hardships since we was married over in Skull Valley where she was born an' raised. She was just a girl then, an' I was only a kid, punchin' steers for a livin'. I suppose we've seen about as hard times as anybody. At least that's what they would be called now. But, hell, we didn't think nothin' of it then; we was happy, sir, and we've been happy for over forty year. I tell you, sir, we've lived—just lived every minute, and that's a blamed sight more than a lot of these higher-cultured, top-lofty, half-dead couples that marry and separate, and separate and marry again now-a-days can say.
"No, sir, 'tain't what a man gets that makes him rich; it's what he keeps. And these folks that are swoppin' the old-fashioned sort of love that builds homes and raises families and lets man and wife work together, an' meet trouble together, an' be happy together, an' grow old bein' happy together—if they're swoppin' all that for these here new, down-to-date ideas of such things, they're makin' a damned poor bargain, accordin' to my way of thinkin'. There is such a thing, sir, as educatin' a man or woman plumb out of reach of happiness.
"Look at our Phil," the Dean continued, for the man beside him was a wonderful listener. "There just naturally couldn't be a better all round man than Phil Acton. He's healthy; don't know what it is to have an hour's sickness; strong as a young bull; clean, honest, square, no bad habits, a fine worker, an' a fine thinker, too—even if he ain't had much schoolin', he's read a lot. Take him any way you like—just as a man, I mean—an' that's the way you got to take 'em—there ain't a better man that Phil livin'. Yet a lot of these folks would say he's nothin' but a cow-puncher. As for that, Jim Reid ain't much more than a cow-puncher himself. I tell you, I've seen cow-punchers that was mighty good men, an' I've seen graduates from them there universities that was plumb good for nothin'—with no more real man about 'em than there is about one of these here wax dummies that they hang clothes on in the store windows. What any self-respectin' woman can see in one of them that would make her want to marry him is more than I've ever been able to figger out."
If the Dean had not been so engrossed in his own thoughts, he would have wondered at the strange effect of his words upon his companion. The young man's face flushed scarlet, then paled as though with sudden illness, and he looked sidewise at the older man with an expression of shame and humiliation, while his eyes, wistful and pleading, were filled with pain. Honorable Patches who had won the admiration of those men in the Cross-Triangle corrals was again the troubled, shamefaced, half-frightened creature whom Phil met on the Divide.
But the good Dean did not see, and so, encouraged by the other's silence, he continued his dissertation. "Of course, I don't mean to say that education and that sort of thing spoils every man. Now, there's young Stanford Manning—"
If the Dean had suddenly fired a gun at Patches, the young man could not have shown greater surprise and consternation. "Stanford Manning!" he gasped.
At his tone the Dean turned to look at him curiously. "I mean Stanford Manning, the mining engineer," he explained. "Do you know him?"
"I have heard of him," Patches managed to reply.
"Well," continued the Dean, "he came out to this country about three years ago—straight from college—and he has sure made good. He's got the education an' culture an' polish an' all that, an' with it he can hold his own among any kind or sort of men livin'. There ain't a man—cow-puncher, miner or anything else—in Yavapai County that don't take off his hat to Stanford Manning."
"Is he in this country now?" asked Patches, with an effort at self-control that the Dean did not notice.
"No, I understand his Company called him back East about a month ago. Goin' to send him to some of their properties up in Montana, I heard."
When his companion made no comment, the Dean said reflectively, as Buck and Prince climbed slowly up the grade to the summit of the Divide, "I'll tell you, son, I've seen a good many changes in this country. I can remember when there wasn't a fence in all Yavapai County—hardly in the Territory. And now—why the last time I drove over to Skull Valley I got so tangled up in 'em that I plumb lost myself. When Phil's daddy an' me was youngsters we used to ride from Camp Verde and Flagstaff clean to Date Creek without ever openin' a gate. But I can't see that men change much, though. They're good and bad, just like they've always been—an' I reckon always will be. There's been leaders and weaklin's and just betwixt and betweens in every herd of cattle or band of horses that ever I owned. You take Phil, now. He's exactly like his daddy was before him."
"His father must have been a fine man," said Patches, with quiet earnestness.
The Dean looked at him with an approving twinkle. "Fine?" For a few minutes, as they were rounding the turn of the road on the summit of the Divide where Phil and the stranger had met, the Dean looked away toward Granite Mountain. Then, as if thinking aloud, rather than purposely addressing his companion, he said, "John Acton—Honest John, as everybody called him—and I came to this country together when we were boys. Walked in, sir, with some pioneers from Kansas. We kept in touch with each other all the while we was growin' to be men; punched cattle for the same outfits most of the time; even did most of our courtin' together, for Phil's mother an' Stella were neighbors an' great friends over in Skull Valley. When we'd finally saved enough to get started we located homesteads close together back there in the Valley, an' as soon as we could get some sort of shacks built we married the girls and set up housekeepin'. Our stock ranged together, of course, but John sort of took care of the east side of the meadows an' I kept more to the west. When the children came along—John an' Mary had three before Phil, but only Phil lived—an' the stock had increased an' we'd built some decent houses, things seemed to be about as fine as possible. Then John went on a note for a man in Prescott. I tried my best to keep him out of it, but, shucks! he just laughed at me. You see, he was one of the best hearted men that ever lived—one of those men, you know, that just naturally believes in everybody.
"Well, it wound up after a-while by John losin' mighty nigh everything. We managed to save the homestead, but practically all the stock had to go. An' it wasn't more than a year after that till Mary died. We never did know just what was the matter with her—an' after that it seemed like John never was the same. He got killed in the rodeo that same fall—just wasn't himself somehow. I was with him when he died.
"Stella and me raised Phil—we don't know any difference between him and one of our own boys. The old homestead is his, of course, but Jim Reid's stock runs on the old range. Phil's got a few head that he works with mine—a pretty good bunch by now—for he's kept addin' to what his father left, an' I've paid him wages ever since he was big enough. Phil don't say much, even to Stella an' me, but I know he's figurin' on fixin' up the old home place some day."
After a long silence the Dean said again, as if voicing some conclusion of his unspoken thoughts: "Jim Reid is pretty well fixed, you see, an' Kitty bein' the only girl, it's natural, I reckon, that they should have ideas about her future, an' all that. I reckon it's natural, too, that the girl should find ranch life away out here so far from anywhere, a little slow after her three years at school in the East. She never says it, but somehow you can most always tell what Kitty's thinkin' without her speakin' a word."
"I have known people like that," said Patches, probably because there was so little that he could say.
"Yes, an' when you know Kitty, you'll say, like I always have, that if there's a man in Yavapai County that wouldn't ride the hoofs off the best horse in his outfit, night or day, to win a smile from her, he ought to be lynched."
That afternoon in Prescott they purchased an outfit for Patches, and the following day set out for the long return drive to the ranch.
They had reached the top of the hill at the western end of the meadow lane, when they saw a young woman, on a black horse, riding away from the gate that opens from the lane into the Pot-Hook-S meadow pasture, toward the ranch buildings on the farther side of the field.
As they drove into the yard at home, it was nearly supper time, and the men were coming from the corrals.
"Kitty's been over all the afternoon," Little Billy informed them promptly. "I told her all about you, Patches. She says she's just dyin' to see you."
Phil joined in the laugh, but Patches fancied that there was a shadow in the cowboy's usually sunny eyes as the young man looked at him to say, "That big horse of yours sure made me ride some to-day."
THE DRIFT FENCE.
The education of Honorable Patches was begun without further delay. Because Phil's time was so fully occupied with his four-footed pupils, the Dean himself became the stranger's teacher, and all sorts of odd jobs about the ranch, from cleaning the pig pen to weeding the garden, were the text books. The man balked at nothing. Indeed, he seemed to find a curious, grim satisfaction in accomplishing the most menial and disagreeable tasks; and when he made mistakes, as he often did, he laughed at himself with such bitter, mocking humor that the Dean wondered.
"He's got me beat," the Dean confided to Stella. "There ain't nothin' that he won't tackle, an' I'm satisfied that the man never did a stroke of work before in his life. But he seems to be always tryin' experiments with himself, like he expected himself to play the fool one way or another, an' wanted to see if he would, an' then when he don't he's as surprised and tickled as a kid."
The Dean himself was not at all above assisting his new man in those experiments, and so it happened that day when Patches had been set to repairing the meadow pasture fence near the lower corrals.
The Dean, riding out that way to see how his pupil was progressing, noticed a particularly cross-tempered shorthorn bull that had wandered in from the near-by range to water at the house corral. But Phil and his helpers were in possession of the premises near the watering trough, and his shorthorn majesty was therefore even more than usual out of patience with the whole world. The corrals were between the bull and Patches, so that the animal had not noticed the man, and the Dean, chuckling to himself, and without attracting Patches' attention, quietly drove the ill-tempered beast into the enclosure and shut the gate.
Then, riding around the corral, the Dean called to the young man. When Patches stood beside his employer, the cattleman said, "Here's a blamed old bull that don't seem to be feelin' very well. I got him into the corral all right, but I'm so fat I can't reach him from the saddle. I wish you'd just halter him with this rope, so I can lead him up to the house and let Phil and the boys see what's wrong with him."
Patches took the rope and started toward the corral gate. "Shall I put it around his neck and make a hitch over his nose, like you do a horse?" he asked, glad for the opportunity to exhibit his newly acquired knowledge of ropes and horses and things.
"No, just tie it around his horns," the Dean answered. "He'll come, all right."
The bull, seeing a man on foot at the entrance to his prison, rumbled a deep-voiced threat, and pawed the earth with angry strength.
For an instant, Patches, with his hand on the latch of the gate, paused to glance from the dangerous-looking animal, that awaited his coming, to the Dean who sat on his horse just outside the fence. Then he slipped inside the corral and closed the gate behind him. The bull gazed at him a moment as if amazed at the audacity of this mere human, then lowered his head for the charge.
"Climb that gate, quick," yelled the Dean at the critical moment.
And Patches climbed—not a second too soon.
From his position of safety he smiled cheerfully at the Dean. "He came all right, didn't he?"
The Dean's full rounded front and thick shoulders shook with laughter, while Senor Bull dared the man on the gate to come down.
"You crazy fool," said the Dean admiringly, when he could speak. "Didn't you know any better than to go in there on foot?"
"But you said you wanted him," returned the chagrined Patches.
"What I wanted," chuckled the Dean, "was to see if you had nerve enough to tackle him."
"To tell the truth," returned Patches, with a happy laugh, "that's exactly what interested me."
But, while the work assigned to Patches during those first days of his stay on the Cross-Triangle was chiefly those odd jobs which called for little or no experience, his higher education was by no means neglected. A wise and gentle old cow-horse was assigned to him, and the Dean taught him the various parts of his equipment, their proper use, and how to care for them. And every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes late in the afternoon, the master found some errand or business that would necessitate his pupil riding with him. When Phil or Mrs. Baldwin would inquire about the Dean's kindergarten, as they called it, the Dean would laugh with them, but always he would say stoutly, "Just you wait. He'll be as near ready for the rodeo this fall as them pupils in that kindergarten of Phil's. He takes to ridin' like the good Lord had made him specially for that particular job. He's just a natural-born horseman, or I don't know men. He's got the sense, he's got the nerve, an' he's got the disposition. He's goin' to make a top hand in a few months, if"—he always added with twinkling eyes—"he don't get himself killed tryin' some fool experiment on himself."
"I notice just the same that he always has plenty of help in his experimentin'," Mrs. Baldwin would return dryly, which saying indicted not only the Dean but Phil and every man on the Cross-Triangle, including Little Billy.
Then came that day when Patches was given a task that—the Dean assured him—is one of the duties of even the oldest and best qualified cowboys. Patches was assigned to the work of fenceriding. But when the Dean rode out with his pupil early that morning to where the drift fence begins at the corner of the big pasture, and explained that "riding a fence" meant, in ranch language, looking for breaks and repairing any such when found, he did not explain the peculiarities of that particular kind of fence.
"I told him to be sure and be back by night," he chuckled, as he explained Patches' absence at dinner to the other members of the household.
"That was downright mean of you, Will Baldwin," chided Stella, with her usual motherly interest in the comfort of her boys. "You know the poor fellow will lose himself, sure, out in that wild Tailholt Mountain country."
The boys laughed.
"We'll find him in the morning, all right, mother," reassured Phil.
"He can follow the fence back, can't he?" retorted the Dean. "Or, as far as that goes, old Snip will bring him home."
"If he knows enough to figger it out, or to let Snip have his head," said Curly.
"At any rate," the Dean maintained, "he'll learn somethin' about the country, an' he'll learn somethin' about fences, an' mebby he'll learn somethin' about horses. An' we'll see whether he can use his own head or not. There's nothin' like givin' a man a chance to find out things for himself sometimes. Besides, think what a chance he'll have for some of his experiments! I'll bet a yearling steer that when we do see him again, he'll be tickled to death at himself an' wonderin' how he had the nerve to do it."
"To do what?" asked Mrs. Baldwin.
"I don't know what," chuckled the Dean; "but he's bound to do some fool thing or other just to see if he can, and it'll be somethin' that nobody but him would ever think of doin', too."
But Honorable Patches did not get lost that day—that is, not too badly lost. There was a time, though—but that does not belong just here.
Patches was very well pleased with the task assigned to him that morning. For the first time he found himself trusted alone with a horse, on a mission that would keep him the full day in the saddle, and would take him beyond sight of the ranch house. Very bravely he set out, equipped with his cowboy regalia—except the riata, which the Dean, fearing experiments, had, at the last moment, thoughtfully borrowed—and armed with a fencing tool and staples. He was armed, too, with a brand-new "six-gun" in a spick and span holster, on a shiny belt of bright cartridges. The Dean had insisted on this, alleging that the embryo cowboy might want it to kill a sick cow or something.
Patches wondered if he would know a sick cow if he should meet one, or how he was to diagnose the case to ascertain if she were sick enough to kill.
The first thing he did, when the Dean was safely out of sight, was to dismount and examine his saddle girth. Always your real king of the cattle range is careful for the foundation of his throne. But there was no awkwardness, now, when he again swung to his seat. The young man was in reality a natural athlete. His work had already taken the soreness and stiffness out of his unaccustomed muscles, and he seemed, as the Dean had said, a born horseman. And as he rode, he looked about over the surrounding country with an expression on independence, freedom and fearlessness very different from the manner of the troubled man who had faced Phil Acton that night on the Divide. It was as though the spirit of the land was already working its magic within this man, too. He patted the holster at his side, felt the handle of the gun, lovingly fingered the bright cartridges in his shiny belt, leaned sidewise to look admiringly down at his fringed, leather chaps and spur ornamented boot heels, and wished for his riata—not forgetting, meanwhile, to scan the fence for places that might need his attention.
The guardian angel who cares for the "tenderfoot" was good to Patches that day, and favored him with many sagging wires and leaning or broken posts, so that he could not ride far. Being painstaking and conscientious in his work, he had made not more than four miles by the beginning of the afternoon. Then he found a break that would occupy him for two hours at least. With rueful eyes he surveyed the long stretch of dilapidated fence. It was time, he reflected, that the Dean sent someone to look after his property, and dismounting, he went to work, forgetting, in his interest in the fencing problem, to insure his horse's near-by attendance. Now, the best of cow-horses are not above taking advantage of their opportunities. Perhaps Snip felt that fenceriding with a tenderfoot was a little beneath the dignity of his cattle-punching years. Perhaps he reasoned that this man who was always doing such strange things was purposely dismissing him. Perhaps he was thinking of the long watering trough and the rich meadow grass at home. Or, perhaps again, the wise old Snip, feeling the responsibility of his part in training the Dean's pupil, merely thought to give his inexperienced master a lesson. However it happened, Patches looked up from his work some time later to find himself alone. In consternation, he stood looking about, striving to catch a glimpse of the vanished Snip. Save a lone buzzard that wheeled in curious circles above his head there was no living thing in sight.
As fast as his heavy, leather chaps and high-heeled, spur-ornamented boots would permit, he ran to the top of a knoll a hundred yards or so away. The wider range of country that came thus within the circle of his vision was as empty as it was silent. The buzzard wheeled nearer—the strange looking creature beneath it seemed so helpless that there might be in the situation something of vital interest to the tribe. Even buzzards must be about their business.
There are few things more humiliating to professional riders of the range than to be left afoot; and while Patches was far too much a novice to have acquired the peculiar and traditional tastes and habits of the clan of which he had that morning felt himself a member, he was, in this, the equal of the best of them. He thought of himself walking shamefaced into the presence of the Dean and reporting the loss of the horse. The animal might be recovered, he supposed, for he was still, Patches thought, inside the pasture which that fence enclosed. Still there was a chance that the runaway would escape through some break and never be found. In any case the vision of the grinning cowboys was not an attractive one. But at least, thought the amateur cowboy, he would finish the work entrusted to him. He might lose a horse for the Dean, but the Dean's fence should be repaired. So he set to work with a will, and, finishing that particular break, set out on foot to follow the fence around the field and so back to the lane that would lead him to the buildings and corrals of the home ranch.
For an hour he trudged along, making hard work of it in his chaps, boots, and spurs, stopping now and then to drive a staple or brace a post. The country was growing wilder and more broken, with cedar timber on the ridges and here and there a pine. Occasionally he could catch a glimpse of the black, forbidding walls of Tailholt Mountain. But Patches did not know that it was Tailholt. He only thought that he knew in which direction the home ranch lay. It seemed to him that it was a long, long way to the corner of the field—it must be a big pasture, indeed. The afternoon was well on when he paused on the summit of another ridge to rest. It, seemed to him that he had never in all his life been quite so warm. His legs ached. He was tired and thirsty and hungry. It was so still that the silence hurt, and that fence corner was nowhere in sight. He could not, now reach home before dark, even should he turn back; which, he decided grimly, he would not do. He would ride that fence if he camped three nights on the journey.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet, waving his hat, hallooing and yelling like a madman. Two horsemen were riding on the other side of the fence, along the slope of the next ridge, at the edge of the timber. In vain Patches strove to attract their attention. If they heard him, they gave no sign, and presently he saw them turn, ride in among the cedars, and disappear. In desperation he ran along the fence, down the hill, across the narrow little valley, and up the ridge over which the riders had gone. On the top of the ridge he stopped again, to spend the last of his breath in another series of wild shouts. But there was no answer. Nor could he be sure, even, which way the horsemen had gone.
Dropping down in the shade of a cedar, exhausted by his strenuous exertion, and wet with honest perspiration, he struggled for breath and fanned his hot face with his hat. Perhaps he even used some of the cowboy words that he had heard Curly and Bob employ when Little Billy was not around After the noise of his frantic efforts, the silence was more oppressive than ever. The Cross-Triangle ranch house was, somewhere, endless miles away.
Then a faint sound in the narrow valley below him caught his ear. Turning quickly, he looked back the way he had come. Was he dreaming, or was it all just a part of the magic of that wonderful land? A young woman was riding toward him—coming at an easy swinging lope—and, following, at the end of a riata, was the cheerfully wise and philosophic Snip.
Patches' first thought—when he had sufficiently recovered I from his amazement to think at all—was that the woman rode as he had never seen a woman ride before. Dressed in the divided skirt of corduroy, the loose, soft, gray shirt, gauntleted gloves, mannish felt hat, and boots, usual to Arizona horsewomen, she seemed as much at ease in the saddle as any cowboy in the land; and, indeed, she was.
As she came up the slope, the man in the shade of the cedar saw that she was young. Her lithe, beautifully developed body yielded to the movement of the spirited horse she rode with the unspoiled grace of health and youth. Still nearer, and he saw her clear cheeks glowing with the exercise and excitement, her soft, brown hair under the wide brim of the gray sombrero, and her dark eyes, shining with the fun of her adventure. Then she saw him, and smiled; and Patches remembered what the Dean had said: "If there's a man in Yavapai County who wouldn't ride the hoofs off the best horse in his outfit to win a smile from Kitty Reid, he ought to be lynched."
As the man stood, hat in hand, she checked her horse, and, in a voice that matched the smile so full of fun and the clean joy of living greeted him.
"You are Mr. Honorable Patches, are you not?"
Patches bowed. "Miss Reid, I believe?"
She frankly looked her surprise. "Why, how did you know me?"
"Your good friend, Mr. Baldwin, described you," he smiled.
She colored and laughed to hide her slight embarrassment. "The dear old Dean is prejudiced, I fear."
"Prejudiced he may be," Patches admitted, "but his judgement is unquestionable. And," he added gently, as her face grew grave and her chin lifted slightly, "his confidence in any man might be considered an endorsement, don't you think?"
"Indeed, yes," she agreed heartily, her slight coldness vanishing instantly. "The Dean and Stella told me all about you this afternoon, or I should not have ventured to introduce myself. I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Patches," she finished with a mock formality that was delightful.
"And I am delighted to meet you, Miss Reid, for so many reasons that I can't begin to tell you of them," he responded laughing. "And now, may I ask what good magic brings you like a fairy in the story book to the rescue of a poor stranger in the hour of his despair? Where did you find my faithless Snip? How did you know where to find me? Where is the Cross-Triangle Ranch? How many miles is it to the nearest water? Is it possible for me to get home in time for supper?" Looking down at him she laughed as only Kitty Reid could laugh.
"You're making fun of me," he charged; "they all do. And I don't blame them in the least; I have been laughing at myself all day."
"I'll answer your last question first," she returned. "Yes, you can easily reach the Cross-Triangle in time for supper, if you start at once. I will explain the magic as we ride."
"You are going to show me the way?" he cried eagerly, starting toward his horse.
"I really think it would be best," she said demurely.
"Now I know you are a good fairy, or a guardian angel, or something like that," he returned, setting his foot in the stirrup to mount. Then suddenly he paused, with, "Wait a minute, please. I nearly forgot." And very carefully he examined the saddle girth to see that it was tight.
"If you had remembered to throw your bridle rein over Snip's head when you left him, you wouldn't have needed a guardian angel this time," she said.
He looked at her blankly over the patient Snip's back.
"And so that was what made him go away? I knew I had done some silly thing that I ought not. That's the only thing about myself that I am always perfectly sure of," he added as he mounted. "You see I can always depend upon myself to make a fool of myself. It was that bad place in the fence that did it." He pulled up his horse suddenly as they were starting. "And that reminds me; there is one thing you positively must tell me before I can go a foot, even toward supper. How much farther is it to the corner of this field?"
She looked at him in pretty amazement. "To the corner of this field?"
"Yes, I knew, of course, that if I followed the fence it was bound to lead me around the field and so back to where I started. That's why I kept on; I thought I could finish the job and get home, even if Snip did compel me to ride the fence on foot."
"But don't you know that this is a drift fence?" she asked, her eyes dancing with fun.
"That's what the Dean called it," he admitted. "But if it's drifting anywhere, it's going end on. Perhaps that's why I couldn't catch the corner."
"But there is no corner to a drift fence," she cried.
She shook her head as if not trusting herself to speak.
"And it doesn't go around anything—there is no field?" Again she shook her head.
"Just runs away out in the country somewhere and stops?"
She nodded. "It must be eighteen or twenty miles from here to the end."
"Well, of all the silly fences!" he exclaimed, looking away to the mountain peaks toward which he had been so laboriously making his way. "Honestly, now, do you think that is any way for a respectable fence to act? And the Dean told me to be sure and get home before dark!"
Then they laughed together—laughed until their horses must have wondered.
As they rode on, she explained the purpose of the drift fence, and how it came to an end so many miles away and so far from water that the cattle do not usually find their way around it.
"And now the magic!" he said. "You have made a most unreasonable, unconventional and altogether foolish fence appear reasonable, proper and perfectly sane. Please explain your coming with Snip to my relief."
"Which was also unreasonable, unconventional and altogether foolish?" she questioned.
"Which was altogether wonderful, unexpected and delightful," he retorted.
"It is all perfectly simple," she explained. "Being rather—" She hesitated. "Well, rather sick of too much of nothing at all, you know, I went over to the Cross-Triangle right after dinner to visit a little with Stella—professionally."
"Professionally?" he asked.
She nodded brightly. "For the good of my soul. Stella's a famous soul doctor. The best ever except one, and she lives far away—away back east in Cleveland, Ohio."
"Yes, I know her, too," he said gravely.
And while they laughed at the absurdity of his assertion, they did not know until long afterward how literally true it was.
"Of course, I knew about you," she continued. "Phil told me how you tried to ride that unbroken horse, the last time he was at our house. Phil thinks you are quite a wonderful man."
"No doubt," said Patches mockingly. "I must have given a remarkable exhibition on that occasion." He was wondering just how much Phil had told her.
"And so, you see," she continued, "I couldn't very well help being interested in the welfare of the stranger who had come among us. Besides, our traditional western hospitality demanded it; don't you think?"
"Oh, certainly, certainly. You could really do nothing less than inquire about me," he agreed politely.
"And so, you see, Stella quite restored my soul health; or at least afforded me temporary relief."
He met the quizzing, teasing, laughing look in her eyes blankly. "You are making fun of me again," he said humbly. "I know I ought to laugh at myself, but—"
"Why, don't you understand?" she cried. "Dr. Stella administered a generous dose of talk about the only new thing that has happened in this neighborhood for months and months and months."
"Meaning me?" he asked.
"Well, are you not?" she retorted.
"I guess I am," he smiled. "Well, and then what?"
"Why, then I came away, feeling much better, of course."
"I was feeling so much better I decided I would go home a roundabout way; perhaps to the top of Black Hill; perhaps up Horse Wash, where I might meet father, who would be on his way home from Fair Oaks where he went this morning."
"Well, so I met Snip, who was on his way to the Cross-Triangle. I knew, of course, that old Snip would be your horse." She smiled, as though to rob her words of any implied criticism of his horsemanship.
"Exactly," he agreed understandingly.
"And I was afraid that something might have happened; though I couldn't see how that could be, either, with Snip. And so I caught him—"
He interrupted eagerly. "How?"
"Why, with my riata," she returned, in a matter-of-fact tone, wondering at his question.
"You caught my horse with your riata?" he repeated slowly.
"And pray how should I have caught him?" she asked.
"But—but, didn't he run?"
She laughed. "Of course he ran. They all do that once they get away from you. But Snip never could outrun my Midnight," she retorted.
He shook his head slowly, looking at her with frank admiration, as though, for the first time, he understood what a rare and wonderful creature she was.
"And you can ride and rope like that?" he said doubtfully.
She flushed hotly, and there was a spark of fire in the brown eyes. "I suppose you are thinking that I am coarse and mannish and all that," she said with spirit. "By your standards, Mr. Patches, I should have ridden back to the house, screaming, ladylike, for help."
"No, no," he protested. "That's not fair. I was thinking how wonderful you are. Why, I would give—what wouldn't I give to be able to do a thing like that!"
There was no mistaking his earnestness, and Kitty was all sunshine again, pardoning him with a smile.
"You see," she explained, "I have always lived here, except my three years at school. Father taught me to use a riata, as he taught me to ride and shoot, because—well—because it's all a part of this life, and very useful sometimes; just as it is useful to know about hotels and time-tables and taxicabs, in that other part of the world."
"I understand," he said gently. "It was stupid of me to notice it. I beg your pardon for interrupting the story of my rescue. You had just roped Snip while he was doing his best to outrun Midnight—simple and easy as calling a taxi—'Number Two Thousand Euclid Avenue, please'—and there you are."
"Oh, do you know Cleveland?" she cried.
For an instant he was confused. Then he said easily, "Everybody has heard of the famous Euclid Avenue. But how did you guess where Snip had left me?"
"Why, Stella had told me that you were riding the drift fence," she answered, tactfully ignoring the evasion of her question. "I just followed the fence. So there was no magic about it at all, you see."
"I'm not so sure about the magic," he returned slowly.
"This is such a wonderful country—to me—that one can never be quite sure about anything. At least, I can't. But perhaps that's because I am such a new thing."
"And do you like it?" she asked, frankly curious about him.
"Like being a new thing?" he parried. "Yes and No."
"I mean do you like this wonderful country, as you call it?"
"I admire the people who belong to it tremendously," he returned. "I never met such men before—or such women," he finished with a smile.
"But, do you like it?" she persisted. "Do you like the life—your work—would you be satisfied to live here always?"
"Yes and No," he answered again, hesitatingly.
"Oh, well," she said, with, he thought, a little bitterness and rebellion, "it doesn't really matter to you whether you like it or not, because you are a man. If you are not satisfied with your environment, you can leave it—go away somewhere else—make yourself a part of some other life."
He shook his head, wondering a little at her earnestness. "That does not always follow. Can a man, just because he is a man, always have or do just what he likes?"
"If he's strong enough," she insisted. "But a woman must always do what other people like."
He was sure now that she was speaking rebelliously.
She continued, "Can't you, if you are not satisfied with this life here, go away?"
"Yes, but not necessarily to any life I might desire. Perhaps some sheriff wants me. Perhaps I am an escaped convict. Perhaps—oh, a thousand things."
She laughed aloud in spite of her serious mood. "What nonsense!"
"But, why nonsense? What do you and your friends know of me?"
"We know that you are not that kind of a man," she retorted warmly, "because"—she hesitated—"well, because you are not that sort of a man."
"Are you sure you don't mean because I am not man enough to make myself wanted very badly, even by the sheriff?" he asked, and Kitty could not mistake the bitterness in his voice.
"Why, Mr. Patches!" she cried. "How could you think I meant such a thing? Forgive me! I was only wondering foolishly what you, a man of education and culture, could find in this rough life that would appeal to you in any way. My curiosity is unpardonable, I suppose, but you must know that we are all wondering why you are here."
"I do not blame you," he returned, with that self-mocking smile, as though he were laughing at himself. "I told you I could always be depended upon to make a fool of myself. You see I am doing it now. I don't mind telling you this much—that I am here for the same reason that you went to visit Mrs. Baldwin this afternoon."
"For the good of your soul?" she asked gently.
"Exactly," he returned gravely. "For the good of my soul."
"Well, then, Mr. Honorable Patches, here's to your soul's good health!" she cried brightly, checking her horse and holding out her hand. "We part here. You can see the Cross-Triangle buildings yonder. I go this way."
He looked his pleasure, as he clasped her hand in hearty understanding of the friendship offered.
"Thank you, Miss Reid. I still maintain that the Dean's judgment is unquestionable."
She was not at all displeased with his reply.
"By the way," she said, as if to prove her friendship. "I suppose you know what to expect from Uncle Will and the boys when they learn of your little adventure?"
"I do," he answered, as if resigned to anything.
"And do you enjoy making fun for them?"
"I assure you, Miss Reid, I am very human."
"Well, then, why don't you turn the laugh on them?"
"They are expecting you to get into some sort of a scrape, don't you think?"
"They are always expecting that. And," he added, with that droll touch in his voice, "I must say I rarely disappoint them."
"I suspect," she continued, thoughtfully, "that the Dean purposely did not explain that drift fence to you."
"He has established precedents that would justify my thinking so, I'll admit."
"Well, then, why don't you ride cheerfully home and report the progress of your work as though nothing had happened?"
"You mean that you won't tell?" he cried.
She nodded gaily. "I told them this afternoon that it wasn't fair for you to have no one but Stella on your side."
"What a good Samaritan you are! You put me under an everlasting obligation to you."
"All right," she laughed. "I'm glad you feel that way about it. I shall hold that debt against you until some day when I am in dreadful need, and then I shall demand payment in full. Good-by!"
And once again Kitty had spoken, in jest, words that held for them both, had they but known, great significance.
Patches watched until she was out of sight. Then he made his way happily to the house to receive, with a guilty conscience but with a light heart, congratulations and compliments upon his safe return.
That evening Phil disappeared somewhere, in the twilight. And a little later Jim Reid rode into the Cross-Triangle dooryard.
The owner of the Pot-Hook-S was a big man, tall and heavy, outspoken and somewhat gruff, with a manner that to strangers often seemed near to overbearing. When Patches was introduced, the big cattleman looked him over suspiciously, spoke a short word in response to Patches' commonplace, and abruptly turned his back to converse with the better-known members of the household.
For an hour, perhaps, they chatted about matters of general interest, as neighbors will; then the caller arose to go, and the Dean walked with him to his horse. When the two men were out of hearing of the people on the porch Reid asked in a low voice, "Noticed any stock that didn't look right lately, Will?"
"No. You see, we haven't been ridin' scarcely any since the Fourth. Phil and the boys have been busy with the horses every day, an' this new man don't count, you know."
"Who is he, anyway?" asked Reid bluntly.
"I don't know any more than that he says his name is Patches."
"Funny name," grunted Jim.
"Yes, but there's a lot of funny names, Jim," the Dean answered quietly. "I don't know as Patches is any funnier than Skinner or Foote or Hogg, or a hundred other names, when you come to think about it. We ain't just never happened to hear it before, that's all."
"Where did you pick him up?"
"He just came along an' wanted work. He's green as they make 'em, but willin', an' he's got good sense, too."
"I'd go slow 'bout takin' strangers in," said the big man bluntly.
"Shucks!" retorted the Dean. "Some of the best men I ever had was strangers when I hired 'em. Bein' a stranger ain't nothin' against a man. You and me would be strangers if we was to go many miles from Williamson Valley. Patches is a good man, I tell you. I'll stand for him, all right. Why, he's been out all day, alone, ridin' the drift fence, just as good any old-timer."
"The drift fence!"
"Yes, it's in pretty bad shape in places."
"Yes, an' I ran onto a calf over in Horse Wash, this afternoon, not four hundred yards from the fence on the Tailholt side, fresh-branded with the Tailholt iron, an' I'll bet a thousand dollars it belongs to a Cross-Triangle cow."
"What makes you think it was mine?" asked the Dean calmly.
"Because it looked mighty like some of your Hereford stock, an' because I came on through the Horse Wash gate, an' about a half mile on this side, I found one of your cows that had just lost her calf."
"They know we're busy an' ain't ridin' much, I reckon," mused the Dean.
"If I was you, I'd put some hand that I knew to ridin' that drift fence," returned Jim significantly, as he mounted his horse to go.
"You're plumb wrong, Jim," returned the Dean earnestly. "Why, the man don't know a Cross-Triangle from a Five-Bar, or a Pot-Hook-S."
"It's your business, Will; I just thought I'd tell you," growled Reid. "Good-night!"
"Good-night, Jim! I'm much obliged to you for ridin' over."
THINGS THAT ENDURE.
When Kitty Reid told Patches that it was her soul sickness, from too much of nothing at all, that had sent her to visit Mrs. Baldwin that afternoon, she had spoken more in earnest than in jest. More than this, she had gone to the Cross-Triangle hoping to meet the stranger, of whom she had heard so much. Phil had told Kitty that she would like Patches. As Phil had put it, the man spoke her language; he could talk to her of people and books and those things of which the Williamson Valley folk knew so little.
But as she rode slowly homeward after leaving Patches, she found herself of two minds regarding the incident. She had enjoyed meeting the man; he had interested and amused her; had taken her out of herself, for she was not slow to recognize that the man really did belong to that world which was so far from the world of her childhood. And she was glad for the little adventure that, for one afternoon, at least, had broken the dull, wearying monotony of her daily life. But the stranger, by the very fact of his belonging to that other world, had stimulated her desire for those things which in her home life and environment she so greatly missed. He had somehow seemed to magnify the almost unbearable commonplace narrowness of her daily routine. He had made her even more restless, disturbed and dissatisfied. It had been to her as when one in some foreign country meets a citizen from one's old home town. And for this Kitty was genuinely sorry. She did not wish to feel as she did about her home and the things that made the world of those she loved. She had tried honestly to still the unrest and to deny the longing. She had wished many times, since her return from the East, that she had never left her home for those three years in school. And yet, those years had meant much to her; they had been wonderful years; but they seemed, somehow—now that they were past and she was home again—to have brought her only that unrest and longing.
From the beginning of her years until that first great crisis in her life—her going away to school—this world into which she was born had been to Kitty an all-sufficient world. The days of her childhood had been as carefree and joyous, almost, as the days of the young things of her father's roaming herds. As her girlhood years advanced, under her mother's wise companionship and careful teaching, she had grown into her share of the household duties and into a knowledge of woman's part in the life to which she belonged, as naturally as her girlish form had put on the graces of young womanhood. The things that filled the days of her father and mother, and the days of her neighbors and friends, had filled her days. The things that were all in all to those she loved had been all in all to her. And always, through those years, from her earliest childhood to her young womanhood, there was Phil, her playmate, schoolmate, protector, hero, slave. That Phil should be her boy sweetheart and young man lover had seemed as natural to Kitty as her relation to her parents. There had never been anyone else but Phil. There never could be—she was sure, in those days—anyone else.
In Kitty's heart that afternoon, as she rode, so indifferent to the life that called from every bush and tree and grassy hill and distant mountain, there was sweet regret, deep and sincere, for those years that were now, to her, so irrevocably gone. Kitty did not know how impossible it was for her to ever wholly escape the things that belonged to her childhood and youth. Those things of her girlhood, out of which her heart and soul had been fashioned, were as interwoven in the fabric of her being as the vitality, strength and purity of the clean, wholesome, outdoor life of those same years were wrought into the glowing health and vigor and beauty of her physical womanhood.
And then had come those other years—the maturing, ripening years—when, from the simple, primitive and enduring elements of life, she had gone to live amid complex, cultivated and largely fanciful standards and values. In that land of Kitty's birth a man is measured by the measure of his manhood; a woman is ranked by the quality of her womanhood. Strength and courage, sincerity, honesty, usefulness—these were the prime essentials of the man life that Kitty had, in those years of her girlhood, known; and these, too, in their feminine expressions, were the essentials of the woman life. But from these the young woman had gone to be educated in a world where other things are of first importance. She had gone to be taught that these are not the essential elements of manhood and womanhood. Or, at least, if she was not to be deliberately so taught, these things would be so ignored and neglected and overlooked in her training, that the effect on her character would be the same. In that new world she was to learn that men and women are not to be measured by the standards of manhood and womanhood—that they were to be rated, not for strength, but for culture; not for courage, but for intellectual cleverness; not for sincerity, but for manners; not for honesty, but for success; not for usefulness, but for social position, which is most often determined by the degree of uselessness. It was as though the handler of gems were to attach no value whatever to the weight of the diamond itself, but to fix the worth of the stone wholly by the cutting and polish that the crystal might receive.
At first, Kitty had been excited, bewildered and fascinated by the glittering, sparkling, ever-changing, many-faceted life. Then she had grown weary and homesick. And then, as the months had passed, and she had been drawn more and more by association and environment into the world of down-to-dateism she, too, began to regard the sparkle of the diamond as the determining factor in the value of the gem. And when the young woman had achieved this, they called her education finished, and sent her back to the land over which Granite Mountain, gray and grim and fortress-like, with its ranks of sentinel bills? keeps enduring and unchanging watch.
During those first glad days of Kitty's homecoming she had been eagerly interested in everything. The trivial bits of news about the small doings of her old friends had been delightful. The home life, with its simple routine and its sweet companionship, had been restful and satisfying. The very scenes of her girlhood had seemed to welcome her with a spirit of genuineness and steadfastness that had made her feel as one entering a safe home harbor after a long and adventurous voyage to far-away and little-known lands. And Phil, in the virile strength of his manhood, in the simple bigness of his character, and in his enduring and unchanging love, had made her feel his likeness to the primitive land of his birth.
But when the glad excitement of those first days of her return were past, when the meetings with old friends were over and the tales of their doings exhausted, then Kitty began to realize what her education, as they called it, really meant. The lessons of those three years were not to be erased from her life as one would erase a mistake in a problem or a misspelled word. The tastes, habits of thought and standards of life, the acquirement of which constituted her culture, would not be denied. It was inevitable that there should be a clash between the claims of her home life and the claims of that life to which she now felt that she also belonged.
However odious comparisons may be, they are many times inevitable. Loyally, Kitty tried to magnify the worth of those things that in her girlhood had been the supreme things in her life, but, try as she might, they were now, in comparison with those things which her culture placed first, of trivial importance. The virile strength and glowing health of Phil's unspoiled manhood—beautiful as the vigorous life of one of the wild horses from which he had his nickname—were overshadowed, now, by the young man's inability to clothe his splendid body in that fashion which her culture demanded. His simple and primitive views of life—as natural as the instinct which governs all creatures in his God-cultivated world—were now unrefined, ignoble, inelegant. His fine nature and unembarrassed intelligence, which found in the wealth of realities amid which he lived abundant food for his intellectual life, and which enabled him to see clearly, observe closely and think with such clean-cut directness, beside the intellectuality of those schooled in the thoughts of others, appeared as ignorance and illiteracy. The very fineness and gentleness of his nature were now the distinguishing marks of an uncouth and awkward rustic.
With all her woman heart Kitty had fought against these comparisons—and continued to make them. Everything in her nature that belonged to Granite Mountain—that was, in short, the product of that land—answered to Phil's call, as instinctively as the life of that land calls and answers Its mating calls. Everything that she had acquired in those three years of a more advanced civilization denied and repulsed him. And now her meeting with Patches had stirred the warring forces to renewed activity, and in the distracting turmoil of her thoughts she found herself hating the land she loved, loathing the life that appealed to her with such insistent power, despising those whom she so dearly esteemed and honored, and denying the affection of which she was proud with a true woman's tender pride.
Kitty was aroused from her absorption by the shrill boyish yells of her two younger brothers, who, catching sight of their sister from the top of one of the low hills that edge the meadow bottom lands, were charging recklessly down upon her.
As the clatter and rumble of those eight flying hoofs drew nearer and nearer, Midnight, too, "came alive," as the cowboys say, and tossed his head and pranced with eager impatience.
"Where in the world have you been all the afternoon?" demanded Jimmy, with twelve-year-old authority, as his pony slid to a halt within a foot or two of his sister's horse.
And, "We wanted you to go with us, to see our coyote traps," reproved Conny—two years younger than his brother—as his pinto executed a like maneuver on the other side of the excited Midnight.
"And where is Jack?" asked the young woman mischievously, as she smilingly welcomed the vigorous lads.
"Couldn't he help?"
Jack was the other member of the Reid trio of boys—a lusty four-year-old who felt himself equal to any venture that interested his brothers.
Jimmy grinned. "Aw, mama coaxed him into the kitchen with something to eat while me and Conny sneaked down to the corral and saddled up and beat it."
Big sister's dark eyebrows arched in shocked inquiry, "Me and Conny?"
"That is, Conny and I," amended Jimmy, with good-natured tolerance of his sister's whims.
"You see, Kitty," put in Conny, "this hero coyote traps pin' ain't just fun. It's business. Dad's promised us three dollars for every scalp, an' we're aimin' to make a stake. We didn't git a blamed thing, to-day, though."
Sister's painful and despairing expression was blissfully ignored as Jimmy stealthily flicked the long romal at the end of his bridle reins against Midnight's flank.
"Gee!" observed the tickled youngster, as Kitty gave all her attention to restraining the fretting and indignant horse, "ol' Midnight is sure some festive, ain't he?"
"I'll race you both to the big gate," challenged Kitty.
"For how much?" demanded Jimmy quickly.
"You got to give us fifty yards start," declared Conny, leaning forward in his saddle and shortening his reins.
"If I win, you boys go straight to bed to-night, when it's time, without fussing," said Kitty, "and I'll give you to that oak bush yonder."
"Good enough! You're on!" they shouted in chorus, and loped away.
As they passed the handicap mark, another shrill, defiant yell came floating back to where Kitty sat reining in her impatient Midnight. At the signal, the two ponies leaped from a lope into a full run, while Kitty loosed the restraining rein and the black horse stretched away in pursuit. Spurs ring, shouting, entreating, the two lads urged their sturdy mounts toward the goal, and the pintos answered gamely with all that they had. Over knolls and washes, across arroyos and gullies they flew, sure-footed and eager, neck and neck, while behind them, drawing nearer and nearer, came the black, with body low, head outstretched and limbs that moved apparently with the timed regularity and driving power of a locomotive's piston rod. As she passed them, Kitty shouted a merry "Come on!" which they answered with redoubled exertion and another yell of hearty boyish admiration for the victorious Midnight and his beautiful rider.
"Doggone that black streak!" exclaimed Jimmy, his eyes dancing with fun as they pulled up at the corral gate.
"He opens and shuts like a blamed ol' jack rabbit," commented Conny. "Seemed like we was just a-sittin' still watchin' you go by."
Kitty laughed, teasingly, and unconsciously slipped into the vernacular as she returned, "Did you kids think you were a-horseback?"
"You just wait, Miss," retorted the grinning Jimmy, as he opened the big gate. "I'll get a horse some day that'll run circles around that ol' black scound'el."
And then, as they dismounted at the door of the saddle room in the big barn, he added generously, "You scoot on up to the house, Kitty; I'll take care of Midnight. It must be gettin' near supper time, an' I'm hungry enough to eat a raw dog."
At which alarming statement Kitty promptly scooted, stopping only long enough at the windmill pump for a cool, refreshing drink.
Mrs. Reid, with sturdy little Jack helping, was already busy in the kitchen. She was a motherly woman, rather below Kitty's height, and inclined somewhat to a comfortable stoutness. In her face was the gentle strength and patience of those whose years have been spent in home-making, without the hardness that is sometimes seen in the faces of those whose love is not great enough to soften their tail. One knew by the light in her eyes whenever she spoke of Kitty, or, indeed, whenever the girl's name was mentioned, how large a place her only daughter held in her mother heart.
While the two worked together at their homely task, the girl related in trivial detail the news of the neighborhood, and repeated faithfully the talk she had had with the mistress of the Cross-Triangle, answering all her mother's questions, replying with careful interest to the older woman's comments, relating all that was known or guessed, or observed regarding the stranger. But of her meeting with Patches, Kitty said little; only that she had met him as she was coming home. All during the evening meal, too, Patches was the principal topic of the conversation, though Mr. Reid, who had arrived home just in time for supper, said little.
When supper was over, and the evening work finished, Kitty sat on the porch in the twilight, looking away across the wide valley meadows, toward the light that shone where the walnut trees about the Cross-Triangle ranch house made a darker mass in the gathering gloom. Her father had gone to call upon the Dean. The men were at the bunk-house, from which their voices came low and indistinct. Within the house the mother was coaxing little Jack to bed. Jimmy and Conny, at the farther end of the porch, were planning an extensive campaign against coyotes, and investing the unearned profits of their proposed industry.
Kitty's thoughts were many miles away. In that bright and stirring life—so far from the gloomy stillness of her home land, where she sat so alone—what gay pleasures held her friends? Amid what brilliant scenes were they spending the evening, while she sat in her dark and silent world alone? As her memory pictured the lights, the stirring movement, the music, the merry-voiced talk, the laughter, the gaiety, the excitement, the companionship of those whose lives were so full of interest, her heart rebelled at the dull emptiness of her days. As she watched the evening dusk deepen into the darkness of the night, and the outlines of the familiar landscape fade and vanish in the thickening gloom, she felt the dreary monotony of the days and years that were to come, blotting out of her life all tone and color and forms of brightness and beauty.
Then she saw, slowly emerging from the shadows of the meadow below, a darker shadow—mysterious, formless—that seemed, as it approached, to shape itself out of the very darkness through which it came, until, still dim and indistinct, a horseman was opening the meadow gate. Before the cowboy answered Jimmy's boyish "Hello!" Kitty knew that it was Phil.
The young woman's first impulse was to retreat to the safe seclusion of her own room. But, even as she arose to her feet, she knew how that would hurt the man who had always been so good to her; and so she went generously down the walk to meet him where he would dismount and leave his horse.
"Did you see father?" she asked, thinking as she spoke how little there was for them to talk about.
"Why, no. What's the matter?" he returned quickly, pausing as if ready to ride again at her word.
She laughed a little at his manner. "There is nothing the matter. He just went over to see the Dean, that's all."
"I must have missed him crossing the meadow," returned Phil. "He always goes around by the road."
Then, when he stood beside her, he added gently, "But there is something the matter, Kitty. What is it? Lonesome for the bright lights?"
That was always Phil's way, she thought. He seemed always to know instinctively her every mood and wish.
"Perhaps I was a little lonely," she admitted. "I am glad that you came."
Then they were at the porch, and her ambitious brothers were telling Phil in detail their all-absorbing designs against the peace of the coyote tribe, and asking his advice. Mrs. Reid came to sit with them a-while, and again the talk followed around the narrow circle of their lives, until Kitty felt that she could bear no more. Then Mrs. Reid, more merciful than she knew, sent the boys to bed and retired to her own room.
"And so you are tired of us all, and want to go back," mused Phil, breaking one of the long, silent periods that in these days seemed so often to fall upon them when they found themselves alone.
"That's not quite fair, Phil," she returned gently. "You know it's not that."
"Well, then, tired of this"—his gesture indicated the sweep of the wide land—"tired of what we are and what we do?"
The girl stirred uneasily, but did not speak.
"I don't blame you," he continued, as if thinking aloud. "It must seem mighty empty to those who don't really know it."
"And don't I know it?" challenged Kitty. "You seem to forget that I was born here—that I have lived here almost as many years as you."
"But just the same you don't know," returned Phil gently. "You see, dear, you knew it as a girl, the same as I did when I was a boy. But now—well, I know it as a man, and you as a woman know something that you think is very different."
Again that long silence lay a barrier between them. Then Kitty made the effort, hesitatingly. "Do you love the life so very, very much, Phil?"
He answered quickly. "Yes, but I could love any life that suited you."
"No—no," she returned hurriedly, "that's not—I mean—Phil, why are you so satisfied here? There is so little for a man like you."
"So little!" His voice told her that her words had stung. "I told you that you did not know. Why, everything that a man has a right to want is here. All that life can give anywhere is here—I mean all of life that is worth having. But I suppose," he finished lamely, "that it's hard for you to see it that way—now. It's like trying to make a city man understand why a fellow is never lonesome just because there's no crowd around. I guess I love this life and am satisfied with it just as the wild horses over there at the foot of old Granite love it and are satisfied."
"But don't you feel, sometimes, that if you had greater opportunities—don't you sometimes wish that you could live where—" She paused at a loss for words. Phil somehow always made the things she craved seem so trivial.
"I know what you mean," he answered. "You mean, don't the wild horses wish that they could live in a fine stable, and have a lot of men to feed and take care of them, and rig them out with fancy, gold-mounted harness, and let them prance down the streets for the crowds to see? No; horses have more sense than that. It takes a human to make that kind of a fool of himself. There's only one thing in the world that would make me want to try it, and I guess you know what that is."
His last words robbed his answer of its sting, and she said gently, "You are bitter to-night, Phil. It is not like you."
He did not answer.
"Did something go wrong to-day?" she persisted.
He turned suddenly to face her, and spoke with a passion unusual to him. "I saw you at the ranch this afternoon—as you were riding away. You did not even look toward the corral where you knew I was at work; and it seemed like all the heart went clear out of me. Oh, Kitty, girl, can't we bring back the old days as they were before you went away?"
"Hush, Phil," she said, almost as she would have spoken to one of her boy brothers.
But he went on recklessly. "No, I'm going to speak to-night. Ever since you came home you have refused to listen to me—you have put me off—made me keep still. I want you to tell me, Kitty, if I were like Honorable Patches, would it make any difference?"
"I do not know Mr. Patches," she answered.
"You met him to-day; and you know what I mean. Would it make any difference if I were like him?"
"Why, Phil, dear, how can I answer such a question? I do not know."
"Then it's not because I belong here in this country instead of back East in some city that has made you change?"
"I have changed, I suppose, because I have become a woman, Phil, as you have become a man."
"Yes, I have become a man," he returned, "but I have not changed, except that the boy's love has become a man's love. Would it make any difference, Kitty, if you cared more for the life here—I mean if you were contented here—if these things that mean so much to us all, satisfied you?"
Again she answered, "I do not know, Phil. How can I know?"
"Will you try, Kitty—I mean try to like your old home as you used to like it?"
"Oh, Phil, I have tried. I do try," she cried. "But I don't think it's the life that I like or do not like that makes the difference. I am sure, Phil, that if I could"—she hesitated, then went on bravely—"if I could give you the love you want, nothing else would matter. You said you could like any life that suited me. Don't you think that I could be satisfied with any life that suited the man I loved?"
"Yes," he said, "you could; and that's the answer."
"What is the answer?" she asked.
"Love, just love, Kitty—any place with love is a good place, and without love no life can satisfy. I am glad you said that. It was what I wanted you to say. I know now what I have to do. I am like Patches. I have found my job." There was no bitterness in his voice now.
The girl was deeply moved, but—"I don't think I quite understand, Phil," she said.
"Why, don't you see?" he returned. "My job is to win your love—to make you love me—for myself—for just what I am—as a man—and not to try to be something or to live some way that I think you would like. It's the man that you must love, and not what he does or where he lives. Isn't that it?"
"Yes," she answered slowly. "I am sure that is so. It must be so, Phil."
He rose to his feet abruptly. "All right," he said, almost roughly. "I'll go now. But don't make any mistake, Kitty. You're mine, girl, mine, by laws that are higher than the things they taught you at school. And you are going to find it out. I am going to win you—just as the wild things out there win their mates. You are going to come to me, girl, because you are mine—because you are my mate."
And then, as she, too, arose, and they stood for a silent moment facing each other, the woman felt his strength, and in her woman heart was glad—glad and proud, though she could not give all that he asked.
As she watched him ride away into the night, and the soft mystery of the darkness out of which he had come seemed to take his shadowy form again to itself, she wondered—wondered with regret in the thought—would he, perhaps, go thus out of her life? Would he?
When Phil turned his horse into the meadow pasture at home the big bay, from somewhere in the darkness, trumpeted his challenge. A low laugh came from near by, and in the light of the stars Phil saw a man standing by the pasture fence. As he went toward the shadowy figure the voice of Patches followed the laugh.
"I'll bet that was Stranger."
"I know it was," answered Phil. "What's the matter that you're not in bed?"
"Oh, I was just listening to the horses out there, and thinking," returned Patches.
"Thinking about your job?" asked Phil quietly.
"Perhaps," admitted the other.
"Well, you have no reason to worry; you'll ride him all right," said the cowboy.
"I wish I could be as sure," the other returned doubt fully.
And they both knew that they were using the big bay horse as a symbol.
"And I wish I was as sure of making good at my job, as I am that you will win out with yours," returned Phil.
Patches' voice was very kind as he said reflectively, "So, you have a job, too. I am glad for that."
"Yes," the tall man placed a hand on the other's shoulder as they turned to walk toward the house, "because, Phil, I have come to the conclusion that this old world is a mighty empty place for the man who has nothing to do."
"But there seems to be a lot of fellows who manage to keep fairly busy doing nothing, just the same, don't you think?" replied Phil with a low laugh.
"I said man'," retorted Patches, with emphasis.
"That's right," agreed Phil. "A man just naturally requires a man's job."
"And," mused Patches, "when it's all said and done, I suppose there's only one genuine, simon-pure, full-sized man's job in the world."
"And I reckon that's right, too," returned the cowboy.
A few days after Jim Reid's evening visit to the Dean two cowboys from the Diamond-and-a-Half outfit, on their way to Cherry Creek, stopped at the ranch for dinner.
The well-known, open-handed Baldwin hospitality led many a passing rider thus aside from the main valley road and through the long meadow lane to the Cross-Triangle table. Always there was good food for man and horse, with a bed for those who came late in the day; and always there was a hearty welcome and talk under the walnut trees with the Dean. And in all that broad land there was scarce a cowboy who, when riding the range, would not look out for the Dean's cattle with almost the same interest and care that he gave to the animals bearing the brand of his own employer.
So it was that these riders from the Tonto Flats country told the Dean that in looking over the Cross-Triangle cattle watering at Toohey they had seen several cases of screwworms.
"We doped a couple of the worst, and branded a calf for you," said "Shorty" Myers.
And his companion, Bert Wilson, added, as though apologizing, "We couldn't stop any longer because we got to make it over to Wheeler's before mornin'."
"Much obliged, boys," returned the Dean. Then, with his ever-ready jest, "Sure you put the right brand on that calf?"
"We-all ain't ridin' for no Tailholt Mountain outfit this season," retorted Bert dryly, as they all laughed at the Dean's question.
And at the cowboy's words Patches, wondering, saw the laughing faces change and looks of grim significance flash from man to man.
"Anybody seen anything over your way lately?" asked the Dean quietly.
In the moment of silence that followed the visitors looked questioningly from the face of Patches to the Dean and then to Phil. Phil smiled his endorsement of the stranger, and "Shorty" said, "We found a couple of fresh-branded calves what didn't seem to have no mothers last week, and Bud Stillwell says some things look kind o' funny over in the D.1 neighborhood."
Another significant silence followed. To Patches, it seemed as the brooding hush that often precedes a storm. He had not missed those questioning looks of the visitors, and had seen Phil's smiling endorsement, but he could not, of course, understand. He could only wonder and wait, for he felt intuitively that he must not speak. It was as though these strong men who had received him so generously into their lives put him, now, outside their circle, while they considered business of grave moment to themselves.
"Well, boys," said the Dean, as if to dismiss the subject, "I've been in this cow business a good many years, now, an' I've seen all kinds of men come an' go, but I ain't never seen the man yet that could get ahead very far without payin' for what he got. Some time, one way or another, whether he's so minded or not, a man's just naturally got to pay."
"That law is not peculiar to the cattle business, either, is it, Mr. Baldwin?" The words came from Patches, and as they saw his face, it was their turn to wonder.
The Dean looked straight into the dark eyes that were so filled with painful memories, and wistful desire. "Sir?"
"I mean," said Patches, embarrassed, as though he had spoken involuntarily, "that what you say applies to those who live idly—doing no useful work whatever—as well as to those who are dishonest in business of any kind, or who deliberately steal outright. Don't you think so?"
The Dean—his eyes still fixed on the face of the new man—answered slowly, "I reckon that's so, Patches. When you come to think about it, it must be so. One way or another every man that takes what he ain't earned has to pay for it."
"Who is he?" asked the visitors of Curly and Bob, as they went for their horses, when the meal was over.
The Cross-Triangle men shook their heads.
"Just blew in one day, and the Dean hired him," said Bob.
"But he's the handiest man with his fists that's ever been in this neck of the woods. If you don't believe it, just you start something," added Curly with enthusiasm.
"Found it out, did you?" laughed Bert.
"In something less than a minute," admitted Curly.
"Funny name!" mused "Shorty."
Bob grinned. "That's what Curly thought—at first."
"And then he took another think, huh?"
"Yep," agreed Curly, "he sure carries the proper credentials to make any name that he wants to wear good enough for me."
The visitors mounted their horses, and sat looking appraisingly at the tall figure of Honorable Patches, as that gentleman passed them at a little distance, on his way to the barn.