[Frontispiece: "You!" she exclaimed. "You!"]
HENRY HERBERT KNIBBS
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
GROSSET & DUNLAP
COPYRIGHT, 1915, BY HENRY HERBERT KNIBBS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published May 1915
EVERETT E. HARASZTHY
ARIZONA I. SUNDOWN IN ANTELOPE II. THE JOKE III. THIRTY MILES TO THE CONCHO IV. PIE; AND SEPTEMBER MORN V. ON THE CANON TRAIL VI. THE BROTHERS VII. FADEAWAY'S HAND VIII. AT "THE LAST CHANCE" IX. SUNDOWN'S FRIEND X. THE STORM XI. CHANCE—CONQUEROR XII. A GIFT XIII. SUNDOWN, VAQUERO XIV. ON THE TRAIL TO THE BLUE XV. THEY KILLED THE BOSS! XVI. SUNDOWN ADVENTURES XVII. THE STRANGER XVIII. THE SHERIFF—AND OTHERS XIX. THE ESCAPE XX. THE WALKING MAN XXI. ON THE MESA XXII. WAIT! XXIII. THE PEACEMAKER XXIV. AN UNEXPECTED VISIT XXV. VAMOSE, EH? XXVI. THE INVADERS XXVII. "JUST ME AND HER" XXVIII. IMPROVEMENTS XXIX. A MAN'S COUNTRY
List of Illustrations
"You!" she exclaimed. "You!" . . . " . . . Frontispiece
"God A'mighty, sech things is wrong."
Across the wide, sun-swept mesas the steel trail of the railroad runs east and west, diminishing at either end to a shimmering blur of silver. South of the railroad these level immensities, rich in their season with ripe bunch-grass and grama-grass roll up to the barrier of the far blue hills of spruce and pine. The red, ragged shoulders of buttes blot the sky-line here and there; wind-worn and grotesque silhouettes of gigantic fortifications, castles and villages wrought by some volcanic Cyclops who grew tired of his labors, abandoning his unfinished task to the weird ravages of wind and weather.
In the southern hills the swart Apache hunts along historic trails o'er which red cavalcades once swept to the plundering of Sonora's herds. His sires and their flashing pintos have vanished to other hunting-grounds, and he rides the boundaries of his scant heritage, wrapped in sullen imaginings.
The canons and the hills of this broad land are of heroic mould as are its men. Sons of the open, deep-chested, tall and straight, they ride like conquerors and walk—like bears. Slow to anger and quick to act, they carry their strength and health easily and with a dignity which no worn trappings, faded shirt, or flop-brimmed hat may obscure. Speak to one of them and his level gaze will travel to your feet and back again to your eyes. He may not know what you are, but he assuredly knows what you are not. He will answer you quietly and to the point. If you have been fortunate enough to have ridden range, hunted or camped with him or his kind, ask him, as he stands with thumb in belt and wide Stetson tilted back, the trail to heaven. He will smile and point toward the mesas and the mountains of his home. Ask him the trail to that other place with which he so frequently garnishes his conversation, and he will gravely point to the mesas and the hills again. And there you have Arizona.
SUNDOWN IN ANTELOPE
Sundown Slim, who had enjoyed the un-upholstered privacy of a box-car on his journey west from Albuquerque, awakened to realize that his conveyance was no longer an integral part of the local freight which had stopped at the town of Antelope, and which was now rumbling and grumbling across the Arizona mesas. He was mildly irritated by a management that gave its passengers such negligent service. He complained to himself as he rolled and corded his blankets. However, he would disembark and leave the car to those base uses for which corporate greed, and a shipper of baled hay, intended it. He was further annoyed to find that the door of the car had been locked since he had taken possession. Hearing voices, he hammered on the door. After an exchange of compliments with an unseen rescuer, the door was pushed back and he leaped to the ground. He was a bit surprised to find, not the usual bucolic agent of a water-plug station, but a belted and booted rider of the mesas; a cowboy in all the glory of wide Stetson, wing chaps, and Mexican spurs.
"Thought you was the agent. I couldn't see out," apologized the tramp.
The cowboy laughed. "He was scared to open her up, so I took a chanct, seein' as I'm agent for the purvention of crulty to Hoboes."
"Well, you got a fine chance to make a record this evening" said Sundown, estimating with experienced eye the possibilities of Antelope and its environs. "I et at Albuquerque."
"Ain't a bad town to eat in," commented the puncher, gazing at the sky.
"I never seen one that was," the tramp offered, experimentally.
The cowboy grinned. "Well, take a look at this pueblo, then. You can see her all from here. If the station door was open you could see clean through to New Mexico. They got about as much use for a Bo in these parts as they have for raisin' posies. And this ain't no garden."
"Well, I'm raised. I got me full growth," said Sundown, straightening his elongated frame,—he stood six-feet-four in whatever he could get to stand in,—"and I raised meself."
"Good thing you stopped when you did," commented the puncher. "What's your line?"
"Me line? Well, the Santa Fe, jest now. Next comes cookin'. I been cook in everything from a hotel to a gradin'-camp. I cooked for high-collars and swalley-tails, and low-brows and jeans—till it come time to go. Incondescent to that I been poet select to the T.W.U."
"Not exactly. T.W.U. is Tie Walkers' Union. I lost me job account of a long-hair buttin' in and ramblin' round the country spielin' high-toned stuff about 'Art for her own sake'—and such. Me pals selected him animus for poet, seein' as how I just writ things nacheral; no high-fluted stuff like him. Why, say, pardner, I believe in writin' from the ground up, so folks can understand. Why, this country is sufferin' full of guys tryin' to pull all the G strings out of a harp to onct—when they ought to be practicin' scales on a mouth-organ. And it's printed ag'in' 'em in the magazines, right along. I read lots of it. But speakin' of eats and thinkin' of eats, did you ever listen to 'Them Saddest Words,'—er—one of me own competitions?"
"Not while I was awake. But come on over to 'The Last Chance' and lubricate your works. I don't mind a little po'try on a full stummick."
"Well, I'm willin', pardner."
The process of lubrication was brief; and "Have another?" queried the tramp. "I ain't all broke—only I ain't payin' dividen's, bein' hard times."
"Keep your two-bits," said the puncher. "This is on me. You're goin' to furnish the chaser, Go to it and cinch up them there 'saddest.'"
"Bein' just two-bits this side of bein' a socialist, I guess I'll keep me change. I ain't a drinkin' man—regular, but I never was scared of eatin'."
Sundown gazed about the dingy room. Like most poets, he was not averse to an audience, and like most poets he was quite willing that such audience should help defray his incidental expenses—indirectly, of course. Prospects were pretty thin just then. Two Mexican herders loafed at the other end of the bar. They appeared anything but susceptible to the blandishments of Euterpe. Sundown gazed at the ceiling, which was fly-specked and uninspiring,
"Turn her loose!" said the puncher, winking at the bartender.
Sundown folded his long arms and tilted one lean shoulder as though defying the elements to blast him where he stood:—
"Lives there a gent who has not heard, Before he died, the saddest word?
"'What word is that?' the maiden cried; 'I'd like to hear it before I died.'
"'Then come with me,' her father said, As to the stockyards her he led;
"Where layin' on the ground so low She seen a tired and weary Bo.
"But when he seen her standin' 'round, He riz up from the cold, cold ground.
"'Is this a hold-up game?' sez he. And then her pa laughed wickedly.
"'This ain't no hold-up!' loud he cried, As he stood beside the fair maiden's side.
"'But this here gal of mine ain't heard What you Boes call the saddest word.'
"'The Bo, who onct had been a gent, Took off his lid and low he bent.
"He saw the maiden was fed up good, So her father's wink he understood.
"'The saddest word,' the Bo he spoke, 'Is the dinner-bell, when you are broke.'"
And Sundown paused, gazing ceilingward, that the moral might seep through.
"You're ridin' right to home!" laughed the cow-boy. "You just light down and we'll trail over to Chola Charley's and prospect a tub of frijoles. The dinner-bell when you are broke is plumb correct. Got any more of that po'try broke to ride gentle?"
"Uhuh. Say, how far is it to the next town?"
"Comin' or goin'?"
"'Bout seventy-three miles, but there's nothin' doin' there. Worse'n this."
"Looks like me for a job, or the next rattler goin' west. Any chanct for a cook here?"
"Nope. All Mexican cooks. But say, I reckon you might tie up over to the Concho. Hearn tell that Jack Corliss wants a cook. Seems his ole stand-by Hi Wingle's gone to Phoenix on law business. Jack's a good boss to tie to. Worked for him myself."
"How far to his place?" queried Sundown.
"Sixty miles, straight south."
"Gee Gosh! Looks like the towns was scared of each other in this here country. Who'd you say raises them frijoles?"
The cowboy laughed and slapped Sundown on the back. "Come on, Bud! You eat with me this trip."
Western humor, accentuated by alcohol, is apt to broaden rapidly in proportion to the quantity of liquor consumed. After a given quantity has been consumed—varying with the individual—Western humor broadens without regard to proportion of any kind.
The jovial puncher, having enjoyed Sundown's society to the extent of six-bits' worth of Mexican provender, suggested a return to "The Last Chance," where the tramp was solemnly introduced to a newly arrived coterie of thirsty riders of the mesas. Gaunt and exceedingly tall, he loomed above the heads of the group in the barroom "like a crane in a frog-waller," as one cowboy put it. "Which ain't insinooatin' that our hind legs is good to eat, either," remarked another. "He keeps right on smilin'," asserted the first speaker. "And takin' his smile," said the other. "Wonder what's his game? He sure is the lonesomest-lookin' cuss this side of that dead pine on Bald Butte, that I ever seen." But conviviality was the order of the evening, and the punchers grouped together and told and listened to jokes, old and new, talked sagebrush politics, and threw dice for the privilege of paying rather than winning. "Says he's scoutin' for a job cookin'," remarked a young cowboy to the main group of riders. "Heard him tell Johnny."
Meanwhile, Sundown, forgetful of everything save the congeniality of the moment, was recounting, to an amused audience of three, his experiences as assistant cook in an Eastern hotel. The rest of the happy and irresponsible punchers gravitated to the far end of the bar and proposed that they "have a little fun with the tall guy." One of them drew his gun and stepped quietly behind the tramp. About to fire into the floor he hesitated, bolstered his gun and tiptoed clumsily back to his companions. "Got a better scheme," he whispered.
Presently Sundown, in the midst of his recital, was startled by a roar of laughter. He turned quickly. The laughter ceased. The cowboy who had released him from the box-car stated that he must be going, and amid protests and several challenges to have as many "one-mores," swung out into the night to ride thirty miles to his ranch. Then it was, as has been said elsewhere and oft, "the plot thickened."
A rider, leaning against the bar and puffing thoughtfully at a cigar of elephantine proportions, suddenly took his cigar from his lips, held it poised, examined it with the eye of a connoisseur—of cattle—and remarked slowly: "Now, why didn't I think of it? Wonder you fellas didn't think of it. They need a cook bad! Been without a cook for a year—and everybody fussin' 'round cookin' for himself."
Sundown caught the word "cook" and turned to, face the speaker. "I was lookin' for a job, meself," he said, apologetically. "Did you know of one?"
"You was!" exclaimed the cowboy. "Well, now, that's right queer. I know where a cook is needed bad. But say, can you honest-to-Gosh cook?"
"I cooked in everything from a hotel to a gradin'-camp. All I want is a chanct."
The cowboy shook his head. "I don' know. It'll take a pretty good man to hold down this job."
"Where is the job?" queried Sundown.
Several of the men grinned, and Sundown, eager to be friendly, grinned in return.
"Mebby you could hold it down," continued the cowboy. "But say, do you eat your own cookin'?"
"Guess you're joshin' me." And the tramp's face expressed disappointment. "I eat my own cookin' when I can't get any better," he added, cheerfully.
"Well, it ain't no joke—cookin' for that hotel," stated the puncher, gazing at the end of his cigar and shaking his head. "Is it, boys?"
"Sure ain't," they chorused.
"A man's got to shoot the good chuck to hold the trade," he continued.
"Hotel?" queried Sundown. "In this here town?"
"Naw!" exclaimed the puncher. "It's one o' them swell joints out in the desert. Kind o' what folks East calls a waterin'-place. Eh, boys?"
"That's her!" volleyed the group.
"Kind o' select-like," continued the puncher.
"Sure is!" they chorused.
"Do you know what the job pays?" asked Sundown.
"U-m-m-m, let's see. Don't know as I ever heard. But there'll be no trouble about the pay. And you'll have things your own way, if you can deliver the goods."
"That's right!" concurred a listener.
Sundown looked upon work of any kind too seriously to suspect that it could be a subject for jest. He gazed hopefully at their hard, keen faces. They all seemed interested, even eager that he should find work. "Well, if it's a job I can hold down," he said, slowly, "I'll start for her right now. I ain't afraid to work when I got to."
"That's the talk, pardner! Well, I'll tell you. You take that road at the end of the station and follow her south right plumb over the hill. Over the hill you'll see a ranch, 'way on. Keep right on fannin' it and you'll come to a sign that reads 'American Hotel.' That's her. Good water, fine scenery, quiet-like, and just the kind of a place them tourists is always lookin' for. I stopped there many a time. So has the rest of the boys."
"You was tellin' me it was select-like—" ventured Sundown.
The men roared. Even Sundown's informant relaxed and grinned. But he became grave again, flicked the ashes from his cigar and waved his hand. "It's this way, pardner. That there hotel is run on the American style; if you got the price, you can have anything in the house. And tourists kind o' like to see a bunch of punchers settin' 'round smokin' and talkin' and tellin' yarns. Why, they was a lady onct—"
"But she went back East," interrupted a listener.
"That's the way with them," said the cowboy. "They're always stickin' their irons on some other fella's stock. Don't you pay no 'tention to them."
Sundown shook hands with his informant, crossed to the corner of the room, and slung his blanket-roll across his back. "Much obliged to you fellas," he said, his lean, timorous face beaming with gratitude. "It makes a guy feel happy when a bunch of strangers does him a good turn. You see I ain't got the chanct to get a job, like you fellas, me bein' a Bo. I had a pal onct—but He crossed over. He was the only one that ever done me a good turn without my askin'. He was a college guy. I wisht he was here so he could say thanks to you fellas classy-like. I'm feeling them kind of thanks, but I can't say 'em."
The grins faded from some of the faces. "You ain't goin' to fan it to-night?" asked one.
"Guess I will. You see, I'm broke, now. I'm used to travelin' any old time, and nights ain't bad—believe me. It's mighty hot daytimes in this here country. How far did you say?"
"Just over the hill—then a piece down the trail. You can't miss it," said the cowboy who had spoken first.
"Well, so-long, gents. If I get that job and any of you boys come out to the hotel, I'll sure feed you good."
An eddy of smoke followed Sundown as he passed through the doorway. A cowboy snickered. The room became silent.
"Call the poor ramblin' lightnin'-rod back," suggested a kindly puncher.
"He'll come back fast enough," asserted the perpetrator of the "joke." "It's thirty dry and dusty miles to the water-hole ranch. When he gets a look at how far it is to-morrow mornin' he'll sure back into the fence and come flyin' for Antelope with reins draggin'. Set 'em up again, Joe."
Owing to his unaccustomed potations Sundown was perhaps a trifle over-zealous in taking the road at night. He began to realize this after he had journeyed along the dim, starlit trail for an hour or so and found no break in the level monotony of the mesa. He peered ahead, hoping to see the blur of a hill against the southern stars. The air was cool and clear and sweet. He plodded along, happy in the prospect of work. Although he was a physical coward, darkness and the solitudes held no enemies for him. He felt that the world belonged to him at night. The moon was his lantern and the stars were his friends. Circumstance and environment had wrought for him a coat of cheerful effrontery which passed for hardihood; a coat patched with slang and gaping with inconsistencies, which he put on or off at will. Out on the starlit mesas he had metaphorically shed his coat. He was at home. Here there were no men to joke about his awkwardness and his ungainly height. A wanderer by nature, he looked upon space as his kingdom. Great distances were but the highways of his heritage, each promising new vistas, new adventuring. His wayside fires were his altars, their smoke the incense to his gods. A true adventurer, albeit timid, he journeyed not knowing why, but rather because he knew no reason for not journeying. Wrapped in his vague imaginings he swung along, peering ahead from time to time until at last he saw upon the far background of the night a darker something shaped like a tiny mound. "That's her!" he exclaimed, joyously, and quickened his pace. "But Gee Gosh! I guess them fellas forgot I was afoot. That hill looks turruble far off. Mebby because it's dark." The distant hill seemed to keep pace ahead of him, sliding away into the southern night as he advanced. Having that stubbornness so frequently associated with timidity, he plodded on, determined to top the hill before morning. "Them fellas as rides don't know how far things are," he commented. "But, anyhow, the folks at that hotel will sure know I want the job, walkin' all night for it."
Gradually the outline of the hill became bolder. Sundown estimated that he had been traveling several hours, when the going stiffened to a slow grade. Presently the grade became steep and rocky. Thus far the road had led straight south. Now it swung to the west and skirted the base of the hill in a gradual ascent. Then it swung back again following a fairly easy slope to the top. His optimism waned as he saw no light ahead. The night grew colder. The stars flickered as the wind of the dawn, whispering over the grasses, touched his face. He paused for a moment on the crest of the hill, turned to look back, and then started down the slope. It was steep and rutted. He had not gone far when he stumbled and fell. His blanket-roll had pitched ahead of him. He fumbled about for it and finally found it. "Them as believes in signs would say it was about time to go to roost," he remarked, nursing his knee that had been cut on a fragment of ragged tufa. A coyote wailed. Sundown started up. "Some lonesome. But she sure is one grand old night! Guess I'll turn in."
He rolled in his blankets. Hardly had he adjusted his length of limb to the unevenness of the ground when he fell asleep. He had come twenty-five miles across the midnight mesas. Five miles below him was his destination, shrouded by the night, but visioned in his dreams as a palatial summer resort, aglow with lights and eagerly awaiting the coming of the new cook.
The dawn, edging its slow way across the mesas, struck palely on the hillside where he slept. A rabbit, huddled beneath a scrub-cedar, hopped to the middle of the road and sat up, staring with moveless eyes at the motionless hump of blanket near the road. In a flash the wide mesas were tinged with gold as the smouldering red sun rose, to march unclouded to the western sea.
Midway between the town of Antelope and the river Concho is the water-hole. The land immediately surrounding the water-hole is enclosed with a barb-wire fence. Within the enclosure is a ranch-house painted white, a scrub-cedar corral, a small stable, and a lean-to shading the water-hole from the desert sun. The place is altogether neat and habitable. It is rather a surprise to the chance wayfarer to find the ranch uninhabited. As desolate as a stranded steamer on a mud bank, it stands in the center of several hundred acres of desert, incapable, without irrigation, of producing anything more edible than lizards and horned toads. Why a homesteader should have chosen to locate there is a mystery. His reason for abandoning the place is glaringly obvious. Though failure be written in every angle and nook of the homestead, it is the failure of large-hearted enterprise, of daring to attempt, of striving to make the desert bloom, and not the failure of indolence or sloth.
Western humor like Western topography is apt to be more or less rugged. Between the high gateposts of the yard enclosure there is a great, twelve-foot sign lettered in black. It reads: "American Hotel." A band of happy cowboys appropriated the sign when on a visit to Antelope, pressed a Mexican freighter to pack it thirty miles across the desert, and nailed it above the gateway of the water-hole ranch. It is a standing joke among the cattle- and sheep-men of the Concho Valley.
Sundown sat up and gazed about. The rabbit, startled out of its ordinary resourcefulness, stiffened. The delicate nostrils ceased twitching. "Good mornin', little fella! You been travelin' all night too?" And Sundown yawned and stretched. Down the road sped a brown exclamation mark with a white dot at its visible end. "Guess he don't have to travel nights to get 'most anywhere," laughed Sundown. He kicked back his blankets and rose stiffly. The luxury of his yawn was stifled as he saw below him the ranchhouse with some strange kind of a sign above its gate. "If that's the hotel," he said as he corded his blankets, "she don't look much bigger than me own. But distances is mighty deceivin' in this here open-face country." For a moment he stood on the hillside, a gaunt, lonely figure, gazing out across the limitless mesas. Then he jogged down the grade, whistling.
As he drew near the ranch his whistling ceased and his expression changed to one of quizzical uncertainty. "That's the sign, all right,—'American Hotel,'—but the hotel part ain't livin' up to the sign. But some hotels is like that; mostly front."
He opened the ranch-house gate and strode to the door. He knocked timidly. Then he dropped his blanket-roll and stepped to a window. Through the grimy glass he saw an empty, board-walled room, a slant of sunlight across the floor, and in the sunlight a rusted stove. He walked back to the gateway and stood gazing at the sign. He peered round helplessly. Then a slow grin illumined his face. "Why," he exclaimed, "it's—it's a joke. Reckon the proprietor must be out huntin' up trade. And accordin' to that he won't be back direct."
He wandered about the place like a stray cat in a strange attic, timorous and curious. Ordinarily he would have considered himself fortunate. The house offered shelter and seclusion. There was clear cold water to drink and a stove on which to cook. As he thought of the stove the latitude and longitude of the "joke" dawned upon him with full significance. He drank at the water-hole and, gathering a few sticks, built a fire. From his blankets he took a tin can, drew a wad of newspaper from it, and made coffee. Then he cast about for something to eat. "Now, if I was a cow—" he began, when he suddenly remembered the rabbit. "Reckon he's got relations hoppin' around in them bushes." He picked up a stick and started for the gate.
Not far from the ranch he saw a rabbit crouched beneath a clump of brush. He flung his stick and missed. The rabbit ran to another bush and stopped. Encouraged by the little animal's nonchalance, he dashed after it with a wild and startling whoop. The rabbit circled the brush and set off at right angles to his pursuer's course. Sundown made the turn, but it was "on one wheel" so to speak. His foot caught in a prairie-dog hole and he dove headlong with an exclamation that sounded as much like "Whump!" as anything else. He uttered another and less forced exclamation when he discovered in the tangle of brush that had broken his fall, another rabbit that had not survived his sudden visitation. He picked up the limp, furry shape. "Asleep at the switch," he said. "He ain't much bigger than a whisper, but he's breakfast."
Rabbit, fried on a stove-lid, makes a pretty satisfying meal when eating ceases to be a pleasure and becomes a necessity. Sundown wisely reserved a portion of his kill for future consumption.
As the morning grew warmer, he fell asleep in the shade of the ranch-house. Late in the afternoon he wakened, went into the house and made coffee. After the coffee he came out, rolled a cigarette, and sat smoking and gazing out across the afternoon mesas. "I feel it comin'," he said to himself. "And it's a good one, so I guess I'll put her in me book."
He rummaged in his blankets and unearthed a grimy, tattered notebook. Lubricating the blunt point of a stubby pencil he set to work. When he had finished, the sun was close to the horizon. He sat back and gazed sideways at his effort. "I'll try her on meself," he said, drawing up his leg and resting the notebook against his lean knee. "Wish I could stand off and listen to meself," he muttered. "Kind o' get the defect better." Then he read laboriously:—
"Bo, it's goin' to be hot all right; Sun's a floodin' the eastern range. Mebby it was kind o' cold last night, But there's nothin' like havin' a little change. Money? No. Only jest room for me; Mountings and valleys and plains and such. Ain't I got eyes that was made to see? Ain't I got ears? But they don't hear much: Only a kind of a inside song, Like when the grasshopper quits his sad, And says: 'Rickety-chick! Why, there is nothin' wrong!' And after the coffee, things ain't so bad."
"Huh! Sounds all right for a starter. Ladies and them as came with you, I will now spiel the next section."
"The wind is makin' my bed for me, Smoothin' the grass where I'm goin' to flop, When the quails roost up in the live-oak tree, And my legs feel like as they want to stop. Pal or no pal, it's about the same, For nobody knows how you feel inside. Hittin' the grit is a lonesome game,— But quit it? No matter how hard I tried. But mebby I will when that inside song Stops a-buzzin' like bees that's mad, Grumblin' together: 'There's nothin' wrong!' And—after the coffee things ain't so bad."
"Bees ain't so darned happy, either. They're too busy. Guess it's a good thing I went back to me grasshopper in the last verse. And now, ladies and gents, this is posituvely the last appearance of the noted electrocutionist, Sundown Slim; so, listen."
"Ladies, I've beat it from Los to Maine. And, gents, not knowin' jest what to do, I turned and slippered it back again, Wantin' to see, jest the same as you. Ridin' rods and a-dodgin' flies; Eatin' at times when me luck was good. Spielin' the con to the easy guys, But never jest makin' it understood, Even to me, why that inside song Kep' a-handin' me out the glad, Like the grasshopper singin': 'There's nothin' wrong!' And—after the coffee things ain't so bad."
Sundown grinned with unalloyed pleasure. His mythical audience seemed to await a few words, so he rose stiffly, and struck an attitude somewhat akin to that of Henry Irving standing beside a milk-can and contemplating the village pump. "It gives me great pleasure to inform you"—he hesitated and cleared his throat—"that them there words of mine was expired by half a rabbit—small—and two cans of coffee. Had I been fed up like youse"—and he bowed grandly—"there's no tellin' what I might 'a' writ. Thankin' you for the box-office receipts, I am yours to demand, Sundown Slim, of Outdoors, Anywhere, till further notice."
Then he marched histrionically to the ranchhouse and made a fire in the rusted stove.
THIRTY MILES TO THE CONCHO
John Corliss rode up to the water-hole, dismounted, and pushed through the gate. His horse "Chinook" watched him with gently inquisitive eyes. Chinook was not accustomed to inattention when he was thirsty. He had covered the thirty miles from the Concho Ranch in five long, dry, and dusty hours. He nickered. "In a minute," said Corliss. Then he knocked at the ranch-house door. Riders of the Concho usually strode jingling into the ranch-house without formality. Corliss, however, had been gazing at the lean stovepipe for hours before he finally decided that there was smoke rising from it. He knocked a second time.
"She ain't locked," came in a rusty, smothered voice.
Corliss shoved the door open with his knee. The interior was heavy with smoke. Near the stove knelt Sundown trying to encourage the smoke to more perpendicular behavior. He coughed. "She ain't good in her intentions, this here stove. One time she goes and the next time she stays and takes a smoke. Her innards is out of gear. Whew!"
"The damper has slipped down," said Corliss.
"Her little ole chest-pertector is kind o' worked down toward her stummick. There, now she feels better a'ready."
"Cooking chuck?" queried Corliss, glancing round the bare room.
"Rabbit," replied Sundown. "When I hit this here hotel I was hungry. I seen a rabbit—not this here one, but the other one. This one was settin' in a bunch of-brush on me right-of-way. I was behind and runnin' to make up time. I kind o' seen the leetle prairie-dog give me the red to slow down, but it was too late. Hit his cyclone cellar with me right driver, and got wrecked. This here leetle wad o' cotton was under me steam-chest. No other passengers hurt, except the engineer."
Corliss laughed. "You're a railroad man, I take it. Belong in this country?"
Sundown rose from his knees and backed away from the stove. "Nope. Don't belong anywhere, I guess. My address when I'm to home is Sundown Slim, Outdoors, Anywhere, speakin' general."
"Come in afoot?"
"Uhuh. Kind o' thought I'd get a job. Fellas at Antelope told me they wanted a cook at this hotel. I reckon they do—and some boarders and somethin' to cook."
"That's one of their jokes. Pretty stiff joke, sending you in here afoot."
"Oh, I ain't sore, mister. They stole me nanny, all right, but I feel jest as good here as anywhere."
Corliss led Chinook to the water-hole. Sundown followed.
"Ever think how many kinds of water they was?" queried Sundown. "Some is jest water; then they's some got a taste; then some's jest wet, but this here is fine! Felt like jumpin' in and drinkin' from the bottom up when I lit here. Where do you live?"
"On the Concho, thirty miles south."
"Any towns in between?"
Corliss smiled. "No, there isn't a fence or a house from here to the ranch."
"Gee Gosh! Any cows in this country?"
"Yes. The Concho runs ten thousand head on the range."
"Had your supper?"
"No. I was late getting away from the ranch. Expected to make Antelope, but I guess I'll bush here to-night."
"Well, seein' you're the first boarder at me hotel, I'll pass the hash." And Sundown stepped into the house and returned with the half rabbit. "I got some coffee, too. I can cook to beat the band when I got somethin' to cook. Help yourself, pardner. What's mine is anybody's that's hungry. I et the other half."
"Don't mind if I do. Thanks. Say, you can cook?"
"Next to writin' po'try it's me long suit."
"Well, I'm no judge of poetry," said Corliss. "This rabbit tastes pretty good."
"You ain't a cop, be you?" queried Sundown.
"Nothin'. I was jest wonderin'."
"You have traveled some, I take it."
"Me? Say! I'm the ramblin' son with the nervous feet. Been round the world and back again on them same feet, and some freights. Had a pal onct. He was a college guy. Run on to him on a cattle-boat. He writ po'try that was the real thing! It's ketchin' and I guess I caught it from him. He was a good little pal."
"What became of him?"
"I dunno, pardner. They was a wreck—but guess I'll get that coffee."
"How did you cross the Beaver Dam?" inquired Corliss as Sundown reappeared with his can of coffee.
"So that's what you call that creek back there? Well, it don't need no Beaver hitched on to it to say what I'd call it. I come through last night, but I'm dry now."
The cattle-man proffered Sundown tobacco and papers. They smoked and gazed at the stars. "Said your friend was a college man. What was his name?" queried Corliss, turning to glance at Sundown.
"Well, his real name was Billy Corliss, but I called him jest Bill."
"Corliss! When did you lose track of him?"
"In that wreck, 'bout a year ago. We was ridin' a fast freight goin' west. He said he was goin' home, but he never said where it was. Hit a open switch—so they said after—and when they pulled the stitches, and took that plaster dingus off me leg, I starts out huntin' for Billy. Nobody knowed anything about him. Wasn't no signs in the wreck,—so they said. You see I was in that fadeaway joint six weeks."
"What did he look like?"
"Billy? More like a girl than a man. Slim-like, with blue eyes and kind o' bright, wavy-like hair. He never said nothin' about his folks. He was a awful quiet kid."
John Corliss studied Sundown's face. "You say he was killed in a wreck?"
"I ain't sure. But I reckon he was. It was a bad one. He was ridin' a empty, just ahead of me. Then the whole train buckled up and somethin' hit me on the lid. That's all I remember, till after."
"What are you going to do now? Go back to Antelope?"
"Me? Guess I will. I was lookin' for a job cooking but the pay ain't right here. What you lookin' at me that way for?"
"Sit still. I'm all right. My brother Will left home three years ago. Didn't say a word to any one. He'd been to school East, and he wrote some things for the magazines—poetry. I was wondering—"
"Say, mister, what's your name?"
"Gee Gosh! I knowed when I et that rabbit this mornin' that somethin' was goin' to happen. Thought it was po'try, but I was mistook."
"So you ate your half of the rabbit this morning, eh?"
"And you gave me the rest. You sure are loco."
"Mebby I be. Anyhow, I'm used to bein' hungry. They ain't so much of me to keep as you—crossways, I mean. Of course, up and down—"
"Well, I'm right sorry," said Corliss. "You're the queerest Hobo I ever saw."
"That's what they all say," said Sundown, grinning. "I ain't no common hand-out grabber, not me! I learnt things from Bill. He had class!"
"You sure Will never said anything about the Concho, or his brother, or Chance?"
"Chance? Who's he?"
"Wolf-dog that belonged to Will."
"Gee Gosh! Big, and long legs, and kind of long, rough hair, and deep in the chest and—"
"That's Chance; but how did you know?"
"Why, Billy writ a pome 'bout him onct. Sold it and we lived high—for a week. Sure as you live! It was called 'Chance of the Concher.' Gee Gosh! I thought it was jest one of them poetical dogs, like."
Corliss, who was not given to sentiment, smoked and pondered the possibility of his brother's whereabouts. He had written to all the large cities asking for information from the police as to the probability of their being able to locate his brother. The answers had not been encouraging. At the end of three years he practically gave up making inquiry and turned his whole attention to the management of the Concho. There had been trouble between the cattle and sheep interests and time had passed more swiftly than he had realized. His meeting with Sundown had awakened the old regret for his brother's uncalled-for disappearance. Had he been positive that his brother had been killed in the wreck he would have felt a kind of relief. As it was, the uncertainty as to his whereabouts, his welfare, worried and perplexed him, especially in view of the fact that he was on his way to Antelope to present to the Forest Service a petition from the cattle-men of the valley for grazing allotments. The sheep had been destroying the grazing on the west side of the river. There had been bickerings and finally an open declaration of war against David Loring, the old sheep-man of the valley. Corliss wished to avoid friction with David Loring. Their ranches were opposite each other. And as Corliss was known as level-headed and shrewd, it devolved upon him to present in person the complaint and petition of his brother cattle-men. Argument with David Loring, as he had passed the latter's homestead that morning, had delayed him on his journey to Antelope. Presently he got up and entered the ranch-house. Sundown followed and poked about in the corners of the room. He found a bundle of gunny-sacks and spreading them on the floor, laid his blankets on them.
Corliss stepped out and led Chinook to the distant mesa and picketed him for the night. As he returned, he considered the advisability of hiring the tramp to cook until his own cook returned from Phoenix. He entered the house, kicked off his leather chaps, tossed his spurs into a corner, and made a bed of his saddle-blankets and saddle. "I'll be starting early," he said as he drew off his boots. "What are you intending to do next?"
"Me? Well, I ain't got no plans. Beat it back to Antelope, I guess. Say, mister, do you think my pal was your brother?"
"I don't know. From your description I should say so. See here. I don't know you, but I need a cook. The Concho is thirty miles in. I'm headed the other way, but if you are game to walk it, I'll see if I can use you."
"Me! You ain't givin' me another josh, be you?"
"Never a josh. You won't think so when you get to punchin' dough for fifteen hungry cowboys. Want to try it?"
"Say, mister, I'm just comin' to. A guy told me in Antelope that they was a John Corliss—only he said Jack—what was needin' a cook. Just thunk of it, seein' as I was thinkin' of Billy most ever since I met you. Are you the one?"
"Guess I am," said Corliss, smiling. "It's up to you."
"Say, mister, that listens like home more'n anything I heard since I was a kid. I can sure cook, but I ain't no rider."
"How long would it take you to foot it to the Concho?"
"Oh, travelin' easy, say 'bout eight hours."
"Don't see that you need a horse, then, even if there was one handy."
"Nope. I don't need no horse. All I need is a job."
"All right. You'd have to travel thirty miles either way—to get out of here. I won't be there, but you can tell my foreman, Bud Shoop, that I sent you in."
"And I'll jest be tellin' him that 'bout twelve, to-morrow. I sure wisht Billy was here. He'd sure be glad to know his ole pal was cookin' for his brother. Me for the shavin's. And say, thanks, pardner. Reckon they ain't all jokers in Arizona."
"No. There are a few that can't make or take one," said Corliss. "Hope you'll make the ranch all right."
"I'm there! Next to cookin' and writin' po'try, walkin' is me long suit."
PIE; AND SEPTEMBER MORN
When a Westerner, a native-born son of the outlands, likes a man, he likes him. That is all there is to it. His horses, blankets, money, provender, and even his saddle are at his friend's disposal. If the friend prove worthy,—and your Westerner is shrewd,—a lifelong friendship is the result. If the friend prove unworthy, it is well for him to seek other latitudes, for the average man of the outlands has a peculiar and deep-seated pride which is apt to manifest itself in prompt and vigorous action when touched by ridicule or ingratitude. There are many Davids and Jonathans in the sagebrush country. David may have flocks and herds, and Jonathan may have naught but the care of them. David may possess lands and water-rights, and Jonathan nothing more than a pick, a shovel, a pan, and an incurable itch for placering. A Westerner likes a man for what he is and not because of his vocation. He usually proceeds cautiously in the matter of friendship, but sudden and instinctive friendships are not infrequent. It so happened that John Corliss had taken a liking to the Hobo, Sundown Slim. Knowing a great deal more about cattle than about psychology, the rancher wasted no time in trying to analyze his feelings. If the tramp had courage enough to walk another thirty miles across the mesas to get a job cooking, there must be something to him besides legs. Possibly the cattle-man felt that he was paying a tribute to the memory of his brother. In any event, he greeted Sundown next morning as the latter came to the water-hole to drink. "You can't lose your way," he said, pointing across the mesa. "Just keep to the road. The first ranch on the right is the Concho. Good luck!" And he led Chinook through the gateway. In an hour he had topped the hill. He reined Chinook round. He saw a tiny figure far to the south. Half in joke he waved his sombrero. Sundown, who had glanced back from time to time, saw the salute and answered it with a sweeping gesture of his lean arm. "And now," he said, "I got the whole works to meself. That Concho guy is a mighty fine-lookin' young fella, but he don't look like Billy. Rides that hoss easy-like jest as if he was settin' in a rockin'-chair knittin' socks. But I reckon he could flash up if you stepped on his tail. I sure ain't goin' to."
It was mid-afternoon, when Sundown, gaunt and weary, arrived at the Concho. He was faint for lack of food and water. The Mexican cook, or rather the cook's assistant, was the only one present when Sundown drifted in, for the Concho was, in the parlance of the riders, "A man's ranch from chuck to sunup, and never a skirt on the clothes-line."
Not until evening was Sundown able to make his errand known, and appreciated. A group of riders swung in in a swirl of dust, dismounted, and, as if by magic, the yard was empty of horses.
The riders disappeared in the bunk-house to wash and make ready for supper. One of the men, who had spoken to him in passing, reappeared.
"Lookin' for the boss?" he asked.
"Nope. I seen him. I'm lookin' for Mr. Shoop."
"All right, pardner. Saw off the mister and size me up. I'm him."
"The boss said I was to be cook," said Sundown, rather awed by the personality of the bluff foreman.
"Meet him at Antelope?"
"No. It was the American Hotel. He said for me to tell you if I walked in I could get a job cookin'."
"All right. What he says goes. Had anything to eat recent?"
"I et a half a rabbit yesterday mornin'."
"Well, sufferin' shucks! You fan it right in here!"
Later that evening, Sundown straggled out to the corral and stood watching the saddle-stock of the Concho pull hay from the long feed-rack and munch lazily. Suddenly he jerked up his hand and jumped round. The men, loafing in front of the bunk-house, laughed. Chance, the great wolf-dog, was critically inspecting the tramp's legs.
Sundown was a self-confessed coward, physically. Above all things he feared dogs. His reception by the men, aside from Bud Shoop's greeting, had been cool. Even the friendship of a dog seemed acceptable at that moment. Plodding along the weary miles between the water-hole and the ranch, he had, in his way, decided to turn over a new leaf: to ignore the insistent call of the road and settle down to something worth while. Childishly egotistical, he felt in a vague way that his virtuous intent was not appreciated, not reasoning that the men knew nothing of his wanderings, nor cared to know anything other than as to his ability to cook. So he timidly stroked the long muzzle of the wolf-dog, and was agreeably surprised to find that Chance seemed to like it. In fact, Chance, having an instinct superior to that of his men companions of the Concho, recognized in the gaunt and lonely figure a kindred spirit; a being that had the wander-fever in its veins; that was forever searching for the undiscoverable, the something just beyond the visible boundaries of day. The dog, part Russian wolf-hound and part Great Dane, deep-chested, swift and powerful, shook his shaggy coat and sneezed. Sundown jumped. Again the men laughed. "You and me's built about alike—for speed," he said, endeavoring to convey his friendly intent through compliment. "Did you ever ketch a rabbit?"
Chance whined. Possibly he understood. In any event, he leaped playfully against Sundown's chest and stood with his paws on the tramp's shoulders. Sundown shrunk back against the corral bars. "Go to it," he said, trying to cover his fear with a jest, "if you like bones."
From behind him came a rush of feet. "Great Scott!" exclaimed Shoop. "Come 'ere, Chance. I sure didn't know he was loose."
The dog dropped to his feet and wagged his tail inquiringly.
"Chance—there—he don't cotton to strangers," explained Shoop, slipping his hand in the wolf-dog's collar. "Did he nip you?"
"Nope. But me and him ain't strangers, mister. You see, I knowed the boss's brother Billy, what passed over in a wreck. He used to own Chance, so the boss says."
"You knew Billy! But Chance don't know that. I'll chain him up till he gets used to seein' you 'round."
Shoop led the dog to the stable. Sundown felt relieved. The solicitude of the foreman, impersonal as it was, made him happier.
Next morning he was installed as cook. He did fairly well, and the men rode away joking about the new "dough-puncher."
Then it was that Sundown had an inspiration—not to write verse, but to manufacture pies. He knew that the great American appetite is keen for pies. Finding plenty of material,—dried apples, dried prunes, and apricots,—he set to work, having in mind former experiences on the various "east-sides" of various cities. Determined that his reputation should rest not alone upon flavor, he borrowed a huge Mexican spur from his assistant and immersed it in a pan of boiling water. "And speakin' of locality color," he murmured, grinning at the possibilities before him, "how's that, Johnny?" And he rolled out a thin layer of pie-dough and taking the spur for a "pattern-wheel," he indented a free-hand sketch of the Concho brand on the immaculate dough. Next he wheeled out a rather wobbly cayuse, then an equally wobbly and ferocious cow. Each pie came from the oven with some symbol of the range printed upon it, the general effect being enhanced by the upheaval of the piecrust in the process of baking. When the punchers rode in that evening and entered the messroom, they sniffed knowingly. But not until the psychological moment did Sundown parade his pies. Then he stepped to the kitchen and, with the lordly gesture of a Michael Angelo unveiling a statue for the approval of Latin princes, commanded the assistant to "Bring forth them pies." And they were "brung."
Each astonished puncher was gravely presented with a whole pie—bubbling kine, dimpled cayuses, and sprawling spurs. Silence—as silence is wont to do in dramatic moments—reigned supreme. Then it was that the purveyor of spontaneous Western exclamations missed his opportunity, being elsewhere at the time.
"Whoop! Let 'er buck!" exclaimed Bud Shoop, swinging an imaginary hat and rocking from side to side.
"So-o, Boss!" exclaimed a puncher from the Middle West.
"Hand-made and silver mounted," remarked another. "Hate to eat 'em."
"Trade you my pinto for a steer," offered still another.
"Nothin" doin'! That hoss of yours has got colic—bad."
"Swap this here goat for that rooster of yours," said "Sinker," a youth whose early education in art had been neglected.
"Goat? You box-head! That's a calf. Kind 'a' mired down, but it's sure a calf. And this ain't no rooster. This here's a eagle settin' on his eggs. You need specs."
"Noah has sure been herdin' 'em in," said another puncher.
Meanwhile, "Noah" stood in the messroom doorway, arms folded and face beaming. His attitude invited applause, and won it. Eventually his reputation as a "pie-artist" spread far and wide. When it leaked out that he had wrought his masterpieces with a spur, there was some murmuring. Being assured by the assistant that the spur had been previously boiled, the murmuring changed to approval. "That new cook was sure a original cuss! Stickin' right to the range in his picture-work. Had them there old Hopi picture-writin's on the rocks beat a mile." And the like.
Inspired by a sense of repletion, conducive to generosity and humor, the boys presented Sundown with a pair of large-rowelled Mexican spurs, silver-mounted and altogether formidable. Like many an historic adventurer, he had won his spurs by a tour-de-force that swept his compatriots off their feet; innuendo if you will—but the average cowboy is capable of assimilating much pie.
Although Sundown was offered the use of a bunk in the men's quarters, he chose to sleep in a box-stall in the stable, explaining that he was accustomed to sleep in all kinds of places, and that the unused box-stall with fresh clean straw and blankets would make a very comfortable bedroom. His reason for declining a place with the men became apparent about midnight.
Bud Shoop had, in a bluff, offhand way, given him a flannel shirt, overalls, an old flop-brimmed Stetson, and, much to Sundown's delight, a pair of old riding-boots. Hitherto, Sundown had been too preoccupied with culinary matters to pay much attention to his clothing. Incidentally he was spending not a little time in getting accustomed to his spurs, which he wore upon all occasions, clinking and clanking about the cook-room, a veritable Don Quixote of the (kitchen) range.
The arrival of Corliss, three days after Sundown's advent, had a stimulating effect on the new cook. He determined to make the best appearance possible.
The myriad Arizona stars burned with darting radiance, in thin, unwavering shafts of splintered fire. The moon, coldly brilliant, sharp-edged and flat like a disk of silver paper, touched the twinkling aspens with a pallid glow and stamped a distorted silhouette of the low-roofed ranch-buildings on the hard-packed earth. In the corral the shadow of a restless pony drifted back and forth. Chance, chained to a post near the bunk-house, shook himself and sniffed the keen air, for just at that moment the stable door had opened and a ghostly figure appeared; a figure that shivered in the moonlight. The dog bristled and whined. "S-s-s-h!" whispered Sundown. "It's me, ain't it?"
With his bundle of clothes beneath his arm, he picked a hesitating course across the yard and deposited the bundle beside the water-trough. Chance, not altogether satisfied with Sundown's assurance, proclaimed his distrust by a long nerve-reaching howl. Some one in the bunkhouse muttered. Sundown squatted hastily in the shadow of the trough. Bud Shoop rose from his bunk and crept to the door. He saw nothing unusual, and was about to return to his bed when an apparition rose slowly from behind the water-trough. The foreman drew back in the shadow of the doorway and watched.
Sundown's bath was extensive as to territory but brief as to duration. He dried himself with a gunny-sack and slipped shivering into his new raiment. "That there September Morn ain't got nothin' on me except looks," he spluttered. "And she is welcome to the looks. Shirts and pants for mine!"
Then he crept back to his blankets and slept the sleep of one who has atoned for his sins of omission and suffered righteously in the ordeal.
Bud Shoop wanted to laugh, but forgot to do it. Instead he padded back to his bunk and lay awake pondering. "Takin' a bath sure does make a fella feel like the fella he wants to feel like—but in the drinkin'-trough, at night . . .! I reckon that there Hobo ain't right in his head."
Sundown dreamed that he was chasing an elusive rabbit over endless wastes of sand and greasewood. With him ran a phantom dog, a lean, shaggy shape that raced tirelessly. When Sundown wanted to give up the dream-hunt and rest, the dog would urge him on with whimperings and short, explosive barks of impatience. Presently the dream-dog ran ahead and disappeared beyond a rise. Sundown sank to the desert and slept. He dreamed within his dream that the dog was curled beside him. He put out his hand and stroked the dog's head. Presently a side of the box-stall took outline. A ray of sunlight filtered in; sunlight flecked with fine golden dust. The straw rustled at his side and he sat up quickly. Chance, stretching himself and yawning, showed his long, white fangs in an elaborated dog-smile. "Gee Gosh!" exclaimed Sundown, eyeing the dog sideways, "so it's you, eh? You wasn't foolin' me, then, when you said we'd be pals?"
Chance settled down in the straw again and sighed contentedly.
From the corral came the sound of horses running. The boys were catching up their ponies for the day's work. Chance pricked his ears. "I guess it's up to me and you to move lively," said Sundown, stretching and groaning. "We're sleepin' late, account of them midnight abolitions."
He rose and limped to the doorway. Chance followed him, evidently quite uninterested in the activities outside. Would this queer, ungainly man-thing saddle a horse and ride with the others, or would he now depart on foot, taking the trail to Antelope? Chance knew quite as well as did the men that something unusual was in the air. Hi Wingle, the cook, had returned unexpectedly that night. Chance had listened gravely while his master had told Bud Shoop that "the outfit" would move over to Bald Knoll in the morning. Then the dog had barked and capered about, anticipating a break in the monotony of ranch-life.
Sundown hurried to the cook-room. Chance at his heels. Hi Wingle was already installed in his old quarters, but he greeted Sundown heartily, and set him to work helping.
After breakfast, Bud Shoop, in heavy wing chaps and trailing his spurs, swaggered up to Sundown. "How you makin' it this mornin'?" he inquired. There was a note of humorous good-fellowship in his voice that did not escape Sundown.
"Doin' fine without crutches," replied Sundown, grinning.
"Well, you go eat now, and I'll catch up a cayuse for you. We're goin' to fan it for Bald Knoll in about ten minutes."
"Do I go, too?"
"Sure! Do you think we don't eat pie only onct a year? You bet you go—helpin' Hi. Boss's orders."
"Thanks—but I ain't no rider."
Shoop glanced questioningly at Sundown's legs. "Mebby not. But if I owned them legs I'd contract to ride white-lightnin' bareback. I'd just curl 'em 'round and grab holt of my feet when they showed up on the other side. Them ain't legs; them's cinchas."
"Mebby they ain't," sighed Sundown. "It's the only pair I got, and I'm kind of used to 'em."
"Did you let Chance loose?" queried the foreman.
"Me? Nix. But he was sleepin' in the stall with me this mornin'."
"Heard him goin' on last night. Thought mebby a coyote or a wolf had strayed in to get a drink."
"Get a drink! Can't they get a drink up in them hills?"
"Sure! But they kind of fancy the flavor of the water-trough. They come in frequent. But you better fan it for chuck. See you later."
Sundown hurried through breakfast. He was anxious to hear more about the habits of coyotes and wolves. When he again came to the corral, many of the riders had departed. Shoop stood waiting for John Corliss.
"You said them wolves and coyotes—" began Sundown.
"Yes, ding 'em!" interrupted Shoop. "Looks like they come down last night. Somethin' 's been monkeyin' with the water."
"Did you ever see one—at night?" queried Sundown, nervously.
"See 'em? Why, I shot droves of 'em right from the bunk-house door. I never miss a chance. Cut loose every time I see one standin' with his front paws on the trough. Get 'em every time."
"Wisht I'd knowed that."
"Uhuh. I'd 'a' borrowed a gun off you and set up and watched for 'em myself."
Bud Shoop made a pretense of tightening a cinch on Sundown's pony, that he might "blush unseen," as it were.
Presently Corliss appeared and motioned to Shoop. "How's the new cook doing?" he asked.
Sundown retired modestly to the off-side of the pony.
"Got a line on him already," said Shoop. "First thing, Chance, here, took to him. Then, next thing, he manufactures a batch of pies that ain't been matched on the Concho since she was a ranch. Then, next thing after that, Chance slips his collar and goes and bushes with the Bo—sleeps with him till this mornin'. And you can rope me for a parson if that walkin' wish-bone didn't get to ramblin' in his sleep last night and come out and take a bath in the drinkin'-trough! He's got on them clothes I give him, this mornin'. Can you copper that?"
"Bad dream, Bud."
"You wait!" said the grinning foreman. "You watch him. Don't pay no 'tention to me."
Corliss smiled. Shoop's many and devious methods of estimating character had their humorous angles. The rancher appreciated a joke quite as much as did any of his employees, but usually as a spectator and not a participant. Bud Shoop had served him well and faithfully, tiding over many a threatened quarrel among the men by a humorous suggestion or a seemingly impersonal anecdote anent disputes in general. So Corliss waited, meanwhile inspecting the ponies in the corral. He noticed a pinto with a saddle-gall and told Shoop to turn the horse out on the range.
"It's one of Fadeaway's string," said Shoop.
"I know it. Catch him up."
Shoop, who felt that his opportunity to confirm his dream-like statement about Sundown's bathing, was slipping away, suddenly evolved a plan. He knew that the horses had all been watered. "Hey!" he called to Sundown, who stood gravely inspecting his own mount. "Come over here and make this cayuse drink. He won't for me."
Shoop roped the horse and handed the rope to Sundown, who marched to the water-trough. The pony sniffed at the water and threw up his head. "I reckoned that was it!" said Shoop.
"What?" queried Corliss, meanwhile watching Sundown's face.
"Oh, some dam' coyote's been paddlin' in that trough again. No wonder the hosses won't drink this mornin'. I don't blame 'em."
Sundown rolled a frightened eye and tried to look at everything but his companions. Corliss and Shoop exploded simultaneously. Slowly the light of understanding dawned, rose, and radiated in the dull red of the new cook's face. He was hurt and a bit angry. The anticipating and performing of his midnight ablutions had cost Slim a mighty struggle, mentally and otherwise.
"If you think it's any early mornin' joke to take a wash-up in that there Chinese coffin—why, try her yourself, about midnight." Then he addressed Shoop singly. "If I was you, and you got kind of absent-minded and done likewise, and I seen you, do you think I'd go snitch to the boss? Nix, for it might set him to worryin'."
Shoop accepted the compliment good-naturedly, for he knew he had earned it. He swaggered up to Sundown and slapped him on the back. "Cheer up, pardner, and listen to the good news. I'm goin' to have that trough made three foot longer so it'll be more comfortable."
"Thanks, but never again at night. Guess if I hadn't been feelin' all-to-Gosh happy at havin' a home and a job, I'd 'a' froze stiff."
ON THE CANON TRAIL
The Loring homestead, a group of low-roofed adobe buildings blending with the abrupt red background of the hill which sheltered it from the winter winds, was a settlement in itself, providing shelter and comfort for the wives and children of the herders. Each home maintained a small garden of flowers and vegetables. Across the somber brown of the 'dobe walls hung strings of chiles drying in the sun. Gay blossoms, neatly kept garden rows, red ollas hanging in the shade of cypress and acacia, the rose-bordered plaza on which fronted the house of the patron, the gigantic windmill purring lazily and turning now to the right, now to the left, to meet the varying breeze, the entire prospect was in its pastoral quietude a reflection of Senora Loring's sweet and placid nature. Innuendo might include the windmill, and justly so, for the Senora in truth met the varying breeze of circumstance and invariably turned it to good uses, cooling the hot temper of the patron with a flow of soft Spanish utterances, and enriching the simple lives of the little colony with a charity as free and unvarying as the flow of the clear, cool water.
Far to the east, where the mesas sloped gently to the hills, grazed the sheep, some twenty bands of a thousand each, and each band guarded and cared for by a herder and an assistant who cooked and at times journeyed with the lazy burros to and from the hacienda for supplies and provisions.
David Loring, erstwhile plainsman and scout, had drifted in the early days from New Mexico to Arizona with his small band of sheep, and settled in the valley of the Concho. He had been tolerated by the cattle-men, as his flock was but a speck on the limitless mesas. As his holdings increased, the ranchers awakened to the fact that he had come to stay and that some boundary must be established to protect their grazing. The Concho River was chosen as the dividing line, which would have been well enough had Loring been a party to the agreement. But he declined to recognize any boundary. The cattle-men felt that they had given him fair warning in naming the Concho as the line of demarcation. He, in turn, considered that his right to graze his sheep on any part or all of the free range had not been circumscribed.
His neighbor—if cattle-men and sheep-men may under any circumstances be termed neighbors—was John Corliss. The Corliss rancho was just across the river opposite the Loring homestead. After the death of their parents the Corliss boys, John and his younger brother Will, had been constant visitors at the sheep-man's home, both of them enjoying the vivacious companionship of Eleanor Loring, and each, in his way, in love with the girl. Eventually the younger brother disappeared without any apparent reason. Then it was that John Corliss's visits to the Loring rancho became less frequent and the friendliness which had existed between the rival ranches became a kind of tolerant acquaintanceship, as that of neighbors who have nothing in common save the back fence.
Fernando, the oldest herder in Loring's employ, stood shading his eyes from the glare of noon as he gazed toward the distant rancho. His son was with the flock and the old man had just risen from preparing the noon meal. "The Senorita," he murmured, and his swart features were lighted by a wrinkled smile. He stepped to his tent, whipped a gay bandanna from his blankets and knotted it about his lean throat. Then he took off his hat, gazing at it speculatively. It was beyond reconstruction as to definite shape, so he tossed it to the ground, ran his fingers through his silver-streaked hair, and stepped out to await his Senorita's arrival.
The sunlight flashed on silver spur and bit as the black-and-white pinto "Challenge" swept across the mesa toward the sheep-camp. Into the camp he flung, fretting at the curb and pivoting. His rider, Eleanor Loring, about to dismount, spoke to him sharply. Still he continued to pivot uneasily. "Morning, Fernando! Challenge is fussy this morning. I'll be right back!" And she disciplined Challenge with bit and spur, wheeling him and loping him away from the camp. Down the trail she checked him and brought him around on his hind feet. Back they came, with a rush. Fernando's deep-set eyes glowed with admiration as the girl "set-up" the pinto and swung to the ground with a laugh. "Made him do it all over again, si. He is the big baby, but he pretends he is bronco. Don't you, Challenge?" She dropped the reins and rubbed his nose. The pony laid back his ears in simulated anger and nipped at her sleeve. "Straighten your ears up, pronto!" she commanded, nevertheless laughing. Then a strain of her father's blood was apparent as she seized the reins and stood back from the horse. "Because you're bluffing this morning, I'm going to make you do your latest trick. Down!" she commanded. The pony extended his foreleg and begged to shake hands. "No! Down!" With a grunt the horse dropped to his knees, rolled to his side, but still kept his head raised. "Clear down! Dead, Challenge!" The horse lay with extended neck, but switched his tail significantly. "Don't you dare roll!" she said, as he gave evidence of getting up. Then, at her gesture, he heaved himself to his feet and shook himself till the stirrups clattered. The girl dropped the reins and turned to the old herder. "I taught him that, Fernando. I didn't make him do it just to show off. He understands now, and he'll behave."
Old Fernando grinned. "He always have the good manner, being always with the Senorita," he said bowing.
"Thanks, Fernando. You always say something nice. But I can't let you get ahead of me. What a pretty scarf. It's just right. Do you wear it always, Fernando?"
"It is—I know—what the vaquero of the Concho call the 'josh' that you give me, but I am yet not too old to like it. It is muy pleasure, si! to be noticed when one is old—by the Senorita of especial."
The girl's dark eyes flashed and she laughed happily. "It's lots of fun, isn't it—to 'josh'? But I came to see if you needed anything."
"Nothing while still the Senorita is at thees camp."
"Well, you'd better think up something, for I'm going in a minute. Have to make the rounds. Dad is down with the rheumatism and as cross as a grizzly. I was glad to get away. And then, there's Madre."
Fernando smiled and nodded. He was not unfamiliar with the patron's temper when rheumatism obliged him to be inactive. "He say nothing, the patron—that we cross the sheep to the west of the river, Senorita?"
"No. Not lately. I don't know why he should want to. The feed is good here."
"I have this morning talk with the vaquero Corlees. He tell me that the South Fork is dry up."
"John Corliss is not usually interested in our sheep," said the girl.
"No. Of the sheep he knows nothing." And the old herder smiled. "But many times he look out there," he added, pointing toward the Loring rancho.
"He was afraid father would catch him talking to one of the herders," laughed the girl.
"The vaquero Corlees he afraid of not even the bear, I think, Senorita."
Eleanor Loring laughed. "Don't you let father catch you calling him a bear!" she cautioned, provoking the old herder to immediate apology and a picturesque explanation of the fact that he had referred not to the patron, but the grizzly.
"All right, Fernando. I'll not forget to tell the patron that you called him a bear."
The old herder grinned and waved farewell as she mounted and rode down the trail. Practical in everyday affairs, he untied his bandanna and neatly folded and replaced it among his effects. As he came out of the tent he picked up his hat. He was no longer the cavalier, but a stoop-shouldered, shriveled little Mexican herder. He slouched out toward the flock and called his son to dinner. No, it was not so many years—was not the Senorita but twenty years old?—since he had wooed the Senora Loring, then a slim dark girl of the people, his people, but now the wealthy Senora, wife of his patron. Ah, yes! It was good that she should have the comfortable home and the beautiful daughter. He had nothing but his beloved sheep, but did they not belong to his Senorita?
At the ford the girl took the trail to the uplands, deciding to visit the farthest camp first, and then, if she had time, to call at one or two other camps on her way back to the rancho. As the trail grew steeper, she curbed the impatient Challenge to a steadier pace and rode leisurely to the level of the timber. On the park-like level, clean-swept between the boles of the great pines, she again put Challenge to a lope until she came to the edge on the upper mesa. Then she drew up suddenly and held the horse in.
Far out on the mesa was the figure of a man, on foot. Toward him came a horse without bridle or saddle. She recognized the figure as that of John Corliss, and she wondered why he was on foot and evidently trying to coax a stray horse toward him. Presently she saw Corliss reach out slowly and give the horse something from his hand. Still she was puzzled, and urging Challenge forward, drew nearer. The stray, seeing her horse, pricked up its ears, swung round stiffly, and galloped off. Corliss turned and held up his hand, palm toward her. It was their old greeting; a greeting that they had exchanged as boy and girl long before David Loring had become recognized as a power to be reckoned with in the Concho Valley.
"Peace?" she queried, smiling, as she rode up.
"Why not, Nell?"
"Oh, cattle and sheep, I suppose. There's no other reason, is there?"
Corliss was silent, thinking of his brother Will.
"Unless—Will—" she said, reading his thought.
He shook his head, "That would be no reason for—for our quarreling, would it?"
She laughed. "Why, who has quarreled? I'm sure I haven't."
"But you don't seem the same—since Will left."
"Neither do you, John. You haven't called at the rancho for—well, about a year."
"And then I was told to stay away even longer than that."
"Oh, you mustn't mind Dad. He growls—but he won't bite."
Corliss glanced up at her. His steady gray eyes were smiling, but his lips were grave. "Would it make any difference if I did come?"
The girl's dark face flushed and her eyes sparkled. "Lots! Perhaps you and Dad could agree to stop growling altogether. But we won't talk about it. I'd like to know what you are doing up here afoot?"
"Wouldn't tell you for a dollar," he replied, smiling. "My horse is over there—near the timber. The rest of the band are at the waterhole."
"Oh, but you will tell me!" she said. "And before we get back to the canon."
"I wasn't headed that way—" he began; but she interrupted quickly.
"Of course. I'm not, either." Then she glanced at him with mischief scintillating in her dark eyes. "Fernando told me you were talking with him this morning. I don't see that it has done you much good."
His perplexity was apparent in his silence.
"Fernando is—is polite," she asserted, wheeling her horse.
Corliss stood gazing at her unsmilingly. "I want to be," he said presently.
"Oh, John! I—you always take things so seriously. I was just 'joshing' you, as Fernando says. Of course you do! Won't you shake hands?"
He strode forward. The girl drew off her gauntlet and extended her hand. "Let's begin over again," she said as he shook hands with her. "We've both been acting."
Before she was aware of his intent, he bowed his head and kissed her fingers. She drew her hand away with a little cry of surprise. She was pleased, yet he mistook her expression.
He flushed and, confused, drew back. "I—I didn't mean it," he said, as though apologizing for his gallantry.
The girl's eyes dilated for an instant. Then she laughed with all the joyous abandon of youth and absolute health. "You get worse and worse," she said, teasingly. "Do go and have another talk with Fernando, John. Then come and tell me all about it."
Despite her teasing, Corliss was beginning to enjoy the play. As a rule undemonstrative, he was when moved capable of intense feeling, and the girl knew it. She saw a light in his eyes that she recognized; a light that she remembered well, for once when they were boy and girl together she had dared him to kiss her, and had not been disappointed.
"You are cross this morning," she said, making as though to go.
"Well, I've begun over again, Nell. You wait till I get Chinook and we'll ride home together."
"Oh, but I'm—you're not going that way," she mocked.
"Yes, I am—and so are you. If you won't wait, I'll catch you up, anyway. You daren't put Challenge down the canon trail faster than a walk."
"I daren't? Then, catch me!"
She wheeled her pony and sped toward the timber. Corliss, running heavily in his high-heeled boots, caught up his own horse and leaped to the saddle as Chinook broke into a run. The young rancher knew that the girl would do her best to beat him to the canon level. He feared for her safety on the ragged trail below them.
Chinook swung down the trail taking the turns without slackening his speed and Corliss, leaning in on the curves, dodged the sweeping branches.
Arrived at the far edge of the timber, he could see the girl ahead of him, urging Challenge down the rain-gutted trail at a lope. As she pulled up at an abrupt turn, she waved to him. He accepted the challenge and, despite his better judgment, set spurs to Chinook.
Round the next turn he reined up and leaped from his horse. Below him he saw Challenge, riderless, and galloping along the edge of the hillside. On the trail lay Eleanor Loring, her black hair vivid against the gray of the shale. He plunged toward her and stooping caught her up in his arms. "Nell! Nell!" he cried, smoothing back her hair from her forehead. "God, Nell! I—I didn't mean it."
Her eyelids quivered. Then she gasped. He could feel her trembling. Presently her eyes opened and a faint smile touched her white lips. "I'm all right. Challenge fell—and I jumped clear. Struck my head. Don't look at me like that! I'm not going to die."
"I'm—I'm mighty glad, Nell!" he said, helping her to a seat on the rock against which she had fallen.
Her hands were busy with her hair. He found her hat and handed it to her. "If my head wasn't just splitting, I'd like to laugh. You are the funniest man alive! I couldn't speak, but I heard you call to me and tell me you didn't mean it! Then you say you are mighty glad I'm alive. Doesn't that sound funny enough to bring a person to life again?"
"No, it's not funny. It was a close call."
She glanced at his grave, white face. "Guess you were scared, John. I didn't know you could be scared at anything. Jack Corliss as white as a sheet and trembling like a—a girl!"
"On account of a girl," said Corliss, smiling a little.
"Now, that sounds better. What were you doing up on the mesa this afternoon?"
"I took some lump-sugar up for my old pony, Apache. He likes it."
"Well, I'll never forget it!" she exclaimed. "How the boys would laugh if they heard you'd been feeding sugar to an old broken-down cow-pony! You! Why, I feel better already."
"I'm right glad you do, Nell. But you needn't say anything about the sugar. I kind of like the old hoss. Will you promise?"
"I don't know. Oh, my head!" She went white and leaned against him. He put his arm around her, and her head lay back against his shoulder. "I'll be all right—in a minute," she murmured.
He bent above her, his eyes burning. Slowly he drew her close and kissed her lips. Her eyelids quivered and lifted. "Nell!" he whispered.
"Did you mean it?" she murmured, smiling wanly.
He drew his head back and gazed at her up-turned face. "I'm all right," she said, and drew herself up beside him. "Serves me right for putting Challenge down the trail so fast."
As they rode homeward Corliss told her of the advent of Sundown and what the latter had said about the wreck and the final disappearance of his "pal," Will Corliss.
The girl heard him silently and had nothing to say until they parted at the ford. Then she turned to him. "I don't believe Will was killed. I can't say why, but if he had been killed I think I should have known it. Don't ask me to explain, John. I have always expected that he would come back. I have been thinking about him lately."
"I can't understand it," said Corliss. "Will always had what he wanted. He owns a half-interest in the Concho. I can't do as I want to, sometimes. My hands are tied, for if I made a bad move and lost out, I'd be sinking Will's money with mine."
"I wouldn't make any bad moves if I were you," said the girl, glancing at the rancher's grave face.
"Business is business, Nell. We needn't begin that old argument. Only, understand this: I'll play square just as long as the other side plays square. There's going to be trouble before long and you know why. It won't begin on the west side of the Concho."
"Good-bye, John," said the girl, reining her pony around.
He raised his hat. Then he wheeled Chinook and loped toward the ranch.
Eleanor Loring, riding slowly, thought of what he had said. "He won't give in an inch," she said aloud. "Will would have given up the cattle business, or anything else, to please me." Then she reasoned with herself, knowing that Will Corliss had given up all interest in the Concho, not to please her but to hurt her, for the night before his disappearance he had asked her to marry him and she had very sensibly refused, telling him frankly that she liked him, but that until he had settled down to something worth while she had no other answer for him.
She was thinking of Will when she rode in to the rancho and turned her horse over to Miguel. Suddenly she flushed, remembering John Corliss's eyes as he had held her in his arms.
As Corliss rode up to the ranch gate he took the mail from the little wooden mail-box and stuffed it into his pocket with the exception of a letter which bore the postmark of Antelope and his address in a familiar handwriting. He tore the envelope open hastily and glanced at the signature, "Will."
Then he read the letter. It told of his brother's unexpected arrival in Antelope, penniless and sick. Corliss was not altogether surprised except in regard to the intuition of Eleanor, which puzzled him, coming as it had so immediately preceding the letter.
He rode to the rancho and ordered one of the men to have the buckboard at the gate early next morning. He wondered why his brother had not driven out to the ranch, being well known in Antelope and able to command credit. Then he thought of Eleanor, and surmised that his brother possibly wished to avoid meeting her. And as it happened, he was not mistaken.
On the evening of the following day he drove up to the Palace Hotel and inquired for his brother. The proprietor drew him to one side. "It's all right for you to see him, John, but I been tryin' to keep him in his room. He's—well, he ain't just feelin' right to be on the street. Sabe?"
Corliss nodded, and turning, climbed the stairs. He knocked at a door. There was no response. He knocked again.
"What you want?" came in a muffled voice.
"It's John," said Corliss. "Let me in."
The door opened, and Corliss stepped into the room to confront a dismal scene. On the washstand stood several empty whiskey bottles and murky glasses. The bedding was half on the floor, and standing with hand braced against the wall was Will Corliss, ragged, unshaven, and visibly trembling. His eyelids were red and swollen. His face was white save for the spots that burned on his emaciated cheeks.
"John!" he exclaimed, and extended his hand.
Corliss shook hands with him and then motioned him to a chair. "Well, Will, if you're sick, this isn't the way to get over it."
"Brother's keeper, eh? Glad to see me back, eh, Jack?"
"Not in this shape. What do you suppose Nell would think?"
"I don't know and I don't care. I'm sick. That's all."
"Where have you been—for the last three years?"
"A whole lot you care. Been? I have been everywhere from heaven to hell—the whole route. I'm in hell just now."
"You look it. Will, what can I do for you? You want to quit the booze and straighten up. You're killing yourself."
"Maybe I don't know it! Say, Jack, I want some dough. I'm broke."
"All right. How much?"
"A couple of hundred—for a starter."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"What do you suppose? Not going to eat it."
"No. And you're not going to drink it, either. I'll see that you have everything you need. You're of age and can do as you like. But you're not going to kill yourself with whiskey."
Will Corliss stared at his brother; then laughed.
"Have one with me, Jack. You didn't used to be afraid of it."
"I'm not now, but I'm not going to take a drink with you."
"Sorry. Well, here's looking." And the brother poured himself a half-tumblerful of whiskey and gulped it down. "Now, let's talk business."
Corliss smiled despite his disgust. "All right. You talk and I'll listen."
The brother slouched to the bed and sat down. "How's the Concho been making it?" he asked.
"We've been doing pretty fair. I've been busy."
"How's old man Loring?"
"About the same."
"Nell gone into mourning?"
Corliss frowned and straightened his shoulders.
"See here, Will, you said you'd talk business. I'm waiting."
"Touched you that time, eh? Well, you can have Nell and be damned. No Mexican blood for mine."
"If you weren't down and out—" began Corliss; then checked himself. "Go ahead. What do you want?"
"I told you—money."
"And I told you—no."
The younger man started up. "Think because I'm edged up that I don't know what's mine? You've been piling it up for three years and I've been hitting the road. Now I've come to get what belongs to me and I'm going to get it!"
"All right, Will. But don't forget that I was made guardian of your interest in the Concho until you got old enough to be responsible. The will reads, until you come of age, providing you had settled down and showed that you could take care of yourself. Father didn't leave his money to either of us to be drunk up, or wasted."
"Prodigal son, eh, Jack? Well, I'm it. What's the use of getting sore at me? All I want is a couple of hundred and I'll get out of this town mighty quick. It's the deadest burg I've struck yet."
John Corliss gazed at his brother, thinking of the bright-faced, blue-eyed lad that had ridden the mesas and the hills with him. He was touched by the other's miserable condition, and even more grieved to realize that this condition was but the outcome of a rapid lowering of the other's moral and physical well-being. He strode to him and sat beside him. "Will, I'll give anything I have to help you. You know that. Anything! You're so changed that it just makes me sick to realize it. You needn't have got where you are. I would have helped you out any time. Why didn't you write to me?"
"Write? And have you tell Nell Loring how your good little brother was whining for help? She would have enjoyed that—after what she handed me."
"I don't know what she said to you," said Corliss, glancing at his brother. "But I know this: she didn't say anything that wasn't so. If that's the reason you left home, it was a mighty poor one. You've always had your own way, Will."
"Why shouldn't I? Who's got anything to say about it? You seem to think that I always need looking after—you and Nell Loring. I can look after myself."
"Doesn't look like it," said Corliss, gesturing toward the washstand. "Had anything to eat to-day?"
"No, and I don't want anything."
"Well, wash up and we'll go and get some clothes and something to eat. I'll wait."
"You needn't. Just give me a check—and I won't bother you after that."
"No. I said wash up! Get busy now!"
The younger man demurred, but finally did as he was told. They went downstairs and out to the street. In an hour they returned, Will Corliss looking somewhat like his former self in respectable raiment. "John," he said as they entered the room again, "you've always been a good old stand-by, ever since we were kids. I guess I got in bad this time, but I'm going to quit. I don't want to go back to the Concho—you know why. If you'll give me some dough I'll take care of myself. Just forget what I said about my share of the money."