THE RAMBLIN' KID
BY EARL WAYLAND BOWMAN
FRONTISPIECE BY W.H.D. KOERNER
I A NIGHT LETTER
II A BLUFF CALLED
III WHICH ONE'S WHICH
IV THE UNUSED PLATE
V A DUEL OF ENDURANCE
VI YOU'RE A BRUTE
VII THE GREEDY SANDS
VIII QUICK WITH A VENGEANCE
IX OLD HECK'S STRATEGY
X FIXING FIXERS
XI A DANCE AND A RIDE
XII YOU'LL GET YOUR WISH
XIII THE ELITE AMUSEMENT PARLOR
XIV THE GRAND PARADE
XV MOCHA AND JAVA
XVI THE SWEEPSTAKES
XVII OLD HECK GOES TO TOWN
XVIII A SHAME TO WASTE IT
XIX THE GREEK GETS HIS
XX MOSTLY SKINNY
XXI A GIRL LIKE YOU
THE RAMBLIN' KID
A NIGHT LETTER
Sand and gravel slithered and slid under the heels of Old Pie Face as Skinny Rawlins whirled the broncho into the open space in front of the low-built, sprawling, adobe ranch house of the Quarter Circle KT and reined the pinto to a sudden stop. Skinny had been to Eagle Butte and with other things brought back the mail. It was hot, late June, the time between cutting the first crop of alfalfa and gathering, from the open range, the beef steers ready for the summer market. Regardless of the heat Skinny had ridden hard and his horse was a lather of sweat. A number of cowboys lounged, indolently, in the shade of the bunk-house, smoking cigarettes and contentedly enjoying the hour of rest after the noon-day dinner. Another, lean-built, slender, boyish in appearance and with strangely black, inscrutable eyes, stepped from around the corner of the house as Skinny jerked Old Pie Face to a standstill.
"Where's Old Heck?" Skinny asked excitedly. "I brought the mail—here, take it to him!"
The other, known on the Kiowa and the range of western Texas and Mexico only as "the Ramblin' Kid," strolled leisurely out through the sagging, weight-swung gate and up to the panting horse from which Skinny had not yet dismounted.
"Asleep, I reckon," he replied in a voice peculiarly low and deliberate, "—what's your spontaneousness about? You act like a special d'livery or somethin'."
"Old Heck's got a letter," Skinny said, jerkily; "maybe's it's bad news an' he ought to have it quick," as the Ramblin' Kid reached for a yellow envelope held in the outstretched hand.
At that instant Old Heck, owner and boss of the Quarter Circle KT cow outfit, stepped from the shadow of the open ranch-house door. He was short and stocky, red-faced, somewhere near the fifties, and a yellowish-gray mustache hung over tobacco blackened lips. Overalls, a checked blue and white shirt, open at the throat, boots into which the trousers legs were loosely jammed comprised his attire. He was bareheaded and the sun glistened on a wrinkly forehead, topped by a thin sprinkling of hair.
"What's the matter?" he asked drowsily, his small, gray-blue eyes blinking in the yellow sun-glare and still sluggish from the nap disturbed by the noise of Skinny's arrival.
"Nothin'. Skinny's just got a letter an' is excited about it," the Ramblin' Kid said, handing the envelope to him. "It's for you."
"My Gawd!" Old Heck exclaimed, "it's a telegram!"
The cowboys resting in the shade of the bunk-house rose to their feet, sauntered over and surrounded Old Heck and the Ramblin' Kid, commenting meanwhile, frankly and caustically, on the fagged condition of the broncho Skinny was on:
"Must 'a' been scared, the way you run that horse," Parker, range foreman of the Quarter Circle KT, a heavy-built, sandy-complexioned man in the forties, remarked witheringly to Skinny as the cow-puncher climbed from the saddle and slid to the ground.
"He's mine, I reckon," Skinny retorted, "an' I figure it's nobody's darn' business how I ride him—anyhow I brought Old Heck a telegram!" he added triumphantly.
"Blamed if he didn't!" Charley Saunders, with a trifle of awe, pretended or real, in his tone, said. "It sure is!"
"My Gawd!" Old Heck repeated, slowly turning the envelope over in his hand, "it's a telegram! Wonder what it's about?"
"Why don't you open it and see?" Parker suggested.
"Yes, open th' blamed thing and find out," Skinny encouraged.
"I—I've a notion to," Old Heck whispered.
"Go on and do it, it won't take but a minute," Charley Saunders entreated.
"Maybe he's one of these mind-readers and can read it through the envelope," Bert Lilly volunteered.
"Aw, shut up and give him a chance!"
Trembling, Old Heck tore open the envelope and silently read the message.
"My Gawd!" he groaned again. "The worst has come to the worst!"
"That ought to make it middlin' bad," Charley remarked soberly.
"Ought to," Bert added sententiously.
Parker crowded forward on sympathy bent.
"Tell us what's in it," he said; "if it's sorrowful we'll be plumb glad to condole!"
"It's worse than sorrowful—"
"Melancholical?" Skinny inquired.
"My Gawd!" Old Heck said again, his weatherworn features working convulsively, "it's more than a mortal man can endure and stand!"
"Bet somebody's dead!" Bert whispered to the Ramblin' Kid.
"Probably. Most everybody gets to be sooner or later," was the answer without emotion.
Sing Pete, Chinese cook for the outfit, dish-rag over his shoulder, edged out of the kitchen door and shuffled around to the group. Glimpsing the yellow slip of paper held in the shaking hand of Old Heck and the awed interest of the cowboys gathered about the boss, he queried:
"Teleglam? Maybe alle samee somebody sickee?" he continued, cheerfully confident that questions enough would ultimately bring a reply. He was rewarded:
"What do you know about 'teleglams'? You slant-eyed burner of beef-steaks!"
"Who's it from?" Charley asked. "Anybody we know—"
"My Gawd," Old Heck mourned once more, "she's comin'!"
"Who's she?" Parker coaxed.
"A female," Old Heck replied, "she's a female!"
"The darned old cuss has had a wife sometime and run off from her and deserted her and she's pursuing him and trailing him down to earth!" Chuck Slithers, doubting Thomas of the outfit and student of Sherlock Holmes, cunningly suggested. "I always imagined he was a varmint with a past—a' ex-heart breaker of innocent women or a train-robber or—"
"Aw, hell," the Ramblin' Kid rebuked, "him have a wife? Don't insult th' female population!"
"Carramba!" exclaimed Pedro Valencia, Mexican line-rider for the Quarter Circle KT, "perhaps she will stick him with the dagger, or shoot him with the gun when she arrive! The ladies with love kill quick when the love is—what you call him?—the jilt?"
"And I'd almost forgot I ever had one!" Old Heck continued talking as if to himself.
"What'd I tell you?" Chuck exulted.
"Shut up! He's confessin'—let him alone an' he'll get it out of his conscience sooner or later!"
"Had a what?" Parker urged sympathetically. "Maybe you didn't have one—maybe you only imagined you did!"
"Had a brother—anyhow a half a one—our mothers was the same but different fathers on account of mine dyin' when I was little and his marrying our mother again; we was playmates together in our innocent childhood and infancy until I run away and went to sea and finally anchored on the Kiowa and got to raisin' cattle—"
"Where does he come in at?" Parker questioned.
"He said it was a female, to start with," Skinny added.
"—and his name is Simeon Dixon on account of his father's being the same thing, and he went in the street railroad business in a place named Hartville in Connecticut, and he got married and had a wife—she was Zithia Forbes, and she's dead, and I knowed that, and he's rich I reckon and—"
"An' Amrak begat Meshak an' Meshak begat Zimri an' Zimri was th' founder of th' House of Old Heck," the Ramblin' Kid chanted. "What in thunder does details amount to, anyhow?"
"But you was mournin' about a she!" Parker insisted.
"Well, I reckon it ain't a wife—at least not the one I was thinking about," Chuck murmured disappointedly, "but I bet he's had one somewhere in his vari'gated career and is hiding out from her in fear an' tremblin'—"
"And there will not be the grand, the beautiful murder?" Pedro sighed, questioningly.
"Wait a minute," Skinny pleaded, "—give him air!"
"—and he's got a female daughter—and I didn't know that—and he's—oh, Gawd!—he's sending her out to the Quarter Circle KT!"
"How big is she?" Parker whispered.
"Inches around or what?" Charley gasped.
"—and Ophelia is coming with her—Ophelia Cobb—C-o-double-b it is—is coming with her for a chaperon—"
"Great guns!" Skinny breathed,"—two females!"
"Hold still and I'll read it—no, you do it, Parker—I'm too full of emotion—my voice'd quiver—"
"Josiah Heck, Eagle Butte, Texas:
"Am sending my daughter, Carolyn June, out to your ranch for a while. She needs a change. She has broke all the he-human hearts in Hartville—that is all of them old enough or young enough to be broke—and is what's called a love-stimulator and won't settle. She is twenty-two and it's time she was calmed. Hoping six months on the Kiowa range will gentle her quite a lot, I am sympathetically your 1/2 brother, Simeon.
"P.S.—Mrs. Ophelia Cobb, a lady widow, is coming with her for a chaperon. Beware of both of them. They will arrive at Eagle Butte the 21st.—S."
"Gee, it's a long one!" Chuck said admiringly.
"It's one of these 'Night Letters,'" Parker explained.
"I knowed it was bad news," Skinny exclaimed, "—poor old Heck!"
"Better say, 'Poor we all!'" Bert declared. "Farewell peace and joy on the Quarter Circle KT!"
"The Lord have mercy on Old Heck!" Charley cried with dramatic fervor.
"Holy smoke," Parker murmured desperately, "two of them on the twenty-first—and that's to-morrow!"
A BLUFF CALLED
The Quarter Circle KT was a womanless ranch. Came now, like a bolt from the clear sky or the sudden clang of a fire-alarm bell, the threat of violation of this Eveless Eden by the intrusion of a pair of strange and unknown females. The arrival of the telegram telling of the coming of Carolyn June Dixon, Old Heck's niece, and Ophelia Cobb, her chaperon, filled with varying emotions the hearts of Old Heck, Parker and the cowboys.
To Old Heck their presence meant nothing less than calamity. Long years of he-man association had made him dread the petty restraints he imagined would be imposed by intimate contact with womankind. Good lord, a man wouldn't be able even to cuss freely, and without embarrassment, with a couple of women in the house and prowling around the ranch!
Skinny, Bert, Chuck, Pedro, Charley, the Ramblin' Kid, even the Chink cook and Parker, quivered with excitement and curiosity behind thinly veiled pretense of fear and horror. Secretly they rejoiced. It was marvelous news borne by the telegram Skinny brought. Here would be diversion ample, unusual, wholly worth while and filled with possibilities of romance as luring as the first glimpse of a strange new land shadowed with mystery and promise of thrilling adventure.
Sing Pete paddled back to the unfinished business of the kitchen, chattering excitedly. The cowboys stood mutely and stared at Old Heck and the fatal slip of yellow paper.
"What'll I do?" Old Heck asked the group despairingly. "They'll ruin everything."
"Can't you head 'em off, somehow?" Parker suggested.
"Can't be done. They're already on their way and probably somewhere this side of Kansas City by now."
"Find out which train they're on and let the Ramblin' Kid and me cut across to the Purgatory River bridge and wreck it," Skinny Rawlins, always tragic, darkly advised.
"I ain't particular about killin' females," the Ramblin' Kid objected, "besides, we ain't got no dynamite."
"Send them a telegram and say Old Heck's dead and not to come," Bert Lilly volunteered.
"Aw, you blamed idiot, they'd come anyhow then, just to attend the funeral—"
"I got an idea," Chuck Slithers exclaimed; it's a telegram too. Send them one C.O.D. in care of the train that will get to Eagle Butte the twenty-first and tell them we've all got the smallpox and we're sorry but everybody's dangerously sick and to please answer!"
"That might work," Parker said; "they'd be mighty near sure not to want to catch it."
"We'll try it," Old Heck agreed. "Chuck wants to ride over to Eagle Butte anyway and he can have the depot agent send it and wait for a reply."
"Go get your horse ready, Chuck," Parker said, "we'll write it while you're saddlin' up!"
Chuck hurried to the corral while Old Heck went into the house for pencil and writing-paper. Parker and the cowboys moved in a group to the shade of the porch in front of the house.
"What'll we tell them?" Old Heck asked, reappearing with writing materials. "Here, Parker, you write it."
"Dear niece Carolyn June Dixon and Chaperon: Sorry, but there's an epidemic of smallpox at the Quarter Circle KT and you can't come. Chuck is dying with it. Old Heck's plumb prostrated, Bert is already broke out, Pedro is starting to and Skinny Rawlins and the Ramblin' Kid are just barely able to be up. I love you too much to want you to catch it. Please go back to Hartville and give my regards to your pa and don't expose yourself. Answer by return telegram so I'll know your intentions. Affectionately and absolutely your Uncle Josiah Heck," Parker read after writing a few moments. "How's that?"
"Sounds all right."
"Got it ready?" Chuck called from the fence, while Silver Tip, the trim-built half-blood Hambletonian colt he was riding, reared and pranced, eager for the road and a run.
"For lord's sake hurry up, Chuck," Old Heck yelled as the Ramblin' Kid handed the paper to Chuck and the cowboy whirled his horse into a gallop toward Eagle Butte. "Have the agent send it in care of whatever train they might be on and get an answer, then come back as quick as possible —waiting is agony!"
It was a long afternoon for Old Heck and the cowboys of the Quarter Circle KT. A band of colts were in the circular corral to be gentled to rope, saddle and hackamore. Old Heck sat on the top pole of the corral and moodily watched the struggle of the men and horses in the dry, dusty enclosure as one by one each young broncho was roped, saddled and ridden. Frequently he turned longing eyes toward Eagle Butte, anxious for sight of the cloud of dust from which Chuck would emerge bringing, he hoped, word that Carolyn June and Ophelia Cobb had heeded the misleading message.
The sun crept across the western sky and dropped lower and lower until it hung at last, a blazing disk of fire, close above the highest peaks of the Costejo mountain range. The poplars in front of the house flung slim black shadows across the low adobe buildings and splashed the tip of their shade in the dust-cloud that filled with haze the corral a hundred yards away. Sing Pete stepped from the door and beat a tattoo on the iron triangle suspended by a piece of wire from the lowest branch of a mesquit tree at the corner of the house, announcing by the metallic clamor that the work of the day was finished and supper was ready and waiting. Parker swung back the heavy gate at the corral entrance and the dozen colts, sweat streaks on heads and backs and bellies where hackamore, saddle and cinches told of the lessons of the afternoon, pushing and jamming and with a clatter of hoofs, whirled out to freedom, around the stable and down a lane into an open meadow.
Kicking off their chaps the cowboys tossed them on the riding gear, piled already against the fence of the corral, and straggled stiffly toward the house. On the wire enclosing the back yard Sing Pete had hung a couple of heavy towels, coarse and long. Some basins and several chunks of yellow laundry soap were on a bench beside an irrigation ditch that ran along the fence just inside the gate. Old Heck, Parker and the cowboys stopped at the ditch, pitched their hats on the grass and dipping water from the ditch scoured the dust and sweat from their faces and hands.
All were silent as if each was troubled with thoughts too solemn to be spoken aloud.
At last, Skinny, handing a towel to Bert after drying his own sun-tanned face and hands, remarked inanely:
"Chuck ain't come, has he?"
"Slupper!" Sing Pete called.
They filed into the kitchen and each took his regular place at the long, oilcloth covered table. The food, wholesome, plain and abundant, was already served.
Silently each heaped his plate with the viands before him while Sing Pete circled the table pouring coffee into the white porcelain cups. The Quarter Circle KT was famous for the excellence of its grub and the Chink was an expert cook.
"Lordy, oh, lordy," Old Heck groaned, "it don't seem possible them women are coming!"
"Maybe they won't," Parker sympathized. "When they get that telegram they ought to turn around and go back—"
"Chuck's coming!" Bert Lilly exclaimed at that moment and the sound of a horse stopping suddenly at the front of the house reached the ears of the group at the table.
"Go ask him if he got an answer, somebody, quick!" Old Heck cried.
As Charley Saunders sprang to his feet Chuck yelled, "They got it and sent an answer! I got one—" and rushed excitedly through the house and into the kitchen waving an envelope, twin to the one Skinny had brought earlier in the day. "They're on Train Number Seventeen, the agent said—"
"My Gawd!" Old Heck gasped, "what does it say? Give it here!" reaching for the message the cowboy held in his hand.
"Good lord, it didn't work!" he groaned as he read the telegram and handed it across the table to Parker.
"Read it out loud," several spoke at once.
"'We've both had it,'" Parker read, "'and are not afraid. Anyhow we think you are a darned old lovable liar. Will arrive according to schedule. If you are not a liar we'll nurse you back to health and happiness. If you are, watch out! Your affectionate but suspicious little niece Carolyn June Dixon. Postscript: Are there any nice wild, untamed, young cowboys out there?—Carolyn J.'"
"Hell-fire!" Skinny said, "what'll we do?"
No answer. Chuck went moodily out to attend to his horse, and the meal was finished in silence. Even Sing Pete seemed deeply depressed. After supper Old Heck straightened up and in a do-or-die tone said:
"We'll all go out where it's cool and hold a caucus and figure what ought to be done."
"There ain't nothing we can do but surrender, as far as I can see," Parker observed gloomily as they gathered on the porch in front of the house. "They seem plumb determined to arrive—"
"I've already give up hope," Old Heck answered, "but what will we do with them when they get here? We can't just brand 'em and turn them loose on the range."
"I make a motion we elect Skinny to ride herd on 'em!" Bert Lilly suggested.
"Damned if I do!" Skinny exclaimed uneasily.
"It's a good idea," Parker said. "From all accounts the young one expects to be made love to and if she ain't she'll probably be weeping around all the time—"
"Well, I can't stand sobbin'!" Old Heck declared. "Any female is hard enough to endure and one that gets to mourning is plumb distasteful!
"That's probably the best thing to do," he continued, "just appoint Skinny to be official love-maker to Carolyn June while she's at the Quarter Circle KT. It will probably save confusion—"
"I brought the telegram telling about them coming and I've done my share," Skinny protested; "somebody else can be delegated to do the love-making!"
"That's just the reason it ought to be your job," Old Heck argued; "you went and got the telegram in the first place and are sort of responsible for them being here."
"Aw, let th' Ramblin' Kid do it," Skinny pleaded, "he's an easy talker and everything—"
The Ramblin' Kid straightened up and started for the gate.
"Where you going?"
"To catch Capt'n Jack," he drawled; "after that for a little ride down to th' Pecos or over in Chihuahua somewhere a couple hundred miles. I decline with enthusiasm to fall in love on th' spur of th' moment for any damned outfit!"
"You come on back," Parker called, "Skinny'll have to do it. He can have all his time for it and just pretend he's in love and sort of entertain her. He don't need to go and do it in earnest. Come on back, you darned chump, I need you on the beef hunt!"
"What'll I have to do?" Skinny asked cautiously.
"Just set on the front porch with her at night and make your eyes roll up like a calf's that's being branded and kind of sigh heart-broken once in a while," Bert volunteered. "It'll be easy when you get used to it—"
"If you know so much about it why don't you enlist yourself?" Skinny asked irritably. "Some of you fellows go on and volunteer," he pleaded dolefully.
"I would in a minute," Chuck chipped in, "if I was good-looking like Skinny and had a white shirt—"
"What's a white shirt got to do with it?"
"Listen to the innocent child," Chuck laughed, "as if any darned fool didn't know that the first thing a professional love-maker has to have is a white shirt!"
"That settles it," Skinny declared with emphasis, "I won't wear a white shirt to make love to no blamed woman—"
"Chuck's locoed," the Ramblin' Kid interposed; "you don't need to have no white shirt—of course it would be better but it ain't downright necessary—women don't fall in love with shirts, it's what's inside of them."
"Where did you find out so much about women?" Bert queried.
"I didn't find out—I'm just guessin'—"
"There ain't no use arguing," Old Heck broke in. "Skinny will have to be expert love-maker for that Carolyn June niece of mine—I'll allow him ten dollars a month more wages while he's doing it. I ain't going to have her writing letters to her pa and telling him she didn't have no conveniences or nothing. Anyhow, she's young and I reckon it's sort of necessary."
"What about th' other one—Ophelia Cobb or whoever she is?" Bert Lilly asked.
"She's past the age for it, probably," Parker said uneasily.
"They don't pass it," the Ramblin' Kid interrupted laconically; "when females get too old to want to be made love to they die—"
"I'd like to know where in hell a juvenile like you got your education about women!" Bert insisted to the Ramblin' Kid.
"I ain't got none—I'm just guessing I told you," the other replied, "but it's the truth, anyhow."
"Well, if I've got to make love to the young one Old Heck or Parker or somebody's got to do it for the other one," Skinny declared positively.
"Ophelia don't need it," Old Heck said hastily, "she's a widow and has done been—"
"Widows are th' worst," the Ramblin' Kid drawled; "they've had experience an' don't like to give it up."
"Th' Ramblin' Kid's right," Chuck broke in. "I read a book once that said that's the way they are. It's up to Old Heck or Parker to represent Cupid to the widow—"
"Who the hell's Cupid?" Skinny asked curiously.
"He's a dangerous little outlaw that ain't got no reg'lar range," the Ramblin' Kid answered for Chuck.
"I'll not do it—" Old Heck and Parker spoke at once.
"Then I won't either," Skinny declared flatly, "I'll quit the dog-goned Quarter Circle KT first!"
"Let Sing Pete make love to the widow," Bert suggested.
"No, no! Me busy cookee," Sing Pete, who had been listening from the open doorway, jabbered and darted, frightened, back into the house.
"Anyhow I'd kill him if he did," the Ramblin' Kid said softly; "no darned Chink can make love to a white woman, old, young or indifferent, in my presence an' live!"
"Well, Old Heck'll have to do it, then," Skinny said; "hanged if I'm going to be the only he-love-maker on this ranch!"
"Let Parker and Old Heck divide up on Ophelia," Chuck advised, "one of them can love her one day and the other the next—"
"That's reasonable," Bert declared, "she'd probably enjoy a change herself."
"I tell you I ain't got time," Parker protested.
"Neither have I," Old Heck added.
"All right then, I ain't either!" Skinny declared. "If you two ain't willing to take turn about with the widow and love her off and on between you I'll be everlastingly hell-tooted if I'm going to stand for a whole one by myself all of the time! I'll go on strike first and start right now!"
"We'll stay with you, Skinny," the Ramblin' Kid exclaimed with a laugh, "th' whole bunch will quit till Parker an' Old Heck grants our demands."
"We'll all quit!" the cowboys chorused.
"Oh, well, Parker," Old Heck grumbled, "I reckon we'll have to do it!"
"It won't be hard work," the Ramblin' Kid said consolingly, "all you got to do is set still an' leave it to Ophelia. Widows are expert love-makers themselves an' know how to keep things goin'!"
It was settled. Skinny Rawlins, at an increase of ten dollars a month on his wage, protestingly, was elected official love-maker to Carolyn June Dixon, Old Heck's niece, speeding unsuspectingly toward the Quarter Circle KT, and Old Heck and Parker between them were to divide the affections of Ophelia Cobb, widow and chaperon.
In the mind of every cowboy on the ranch there was one thought unexpressed but very insistent that night, "Wonder what She looks like?" thinking, of course, of Carolyn June.
Old Heck and Parker also were disturbed by a common worry. As each sank into fitful sleep, thinking of Ophelia Cobb, the widow, and his own predestinated affinity he murmured:
"What if she insists on getting married?"
WHICH ONE'S WHICH
Eagle Butte sprawled hot and thirsty under the melting sunshine of mid-forenoon. It was not a prepossessing town. All told, no more than two hundred buildings were within its corporate limits. A giant mound, capped by a crown of crumbling, weather-tinted rock, rose abruptly at the northern edge of the village and gave the place its name. Cimarron River, sluggish and yellow, bounded the town on the south. The dominant note of Eagle Butte was a pathetic mixture of regret for glories of other days and clumsy ambition to assume the ways of a city. Striving hard to be modern it succeeded only in being grotesque.
The western plains are sprinkled with towns like that. Towns that once, in the time of the long-horn steer and the forty-four and the nerve to handle both, were frankly unconventional. Touched later by the black magic of development, bringing brick buildings, prohibition, picture shows, real-estate boosters, speculation and attendant evils or benefits as one chooses to classify them, they became neither elemental nor ethical—mere gawky mimics of both.
When western Texas was cow-country and nothing else Eagle Butte at least was picturesque. Flickering lights, gay laughter—sometimes curses and the sounds of revolver shots, of battles fought close and quick and to a finish—wheezy music, click of ivory chips, the clink of glasses, from old Bonanza's and similar rendezvous of hilarity lured to the dance, faro, roulette, the poker table or the hardwood polished bar.
The Mecca it was in those days for cowboys weary with months on the wide-flung range.
To-day Eagle Butte is modest, mild and super-subdued.
A garage, cement built, squatty and low and painfully new, its wide-mouthed entrance guarded by a gasoline pump freshly painted and exceedingly red, stands at the eastern end of the single, broad, un-paved business street. All of the stores face one way—north—and look sleepily across at the railroad track, the low-eaved, yellow, Santa Fe station and the sunburnt sides of the butte beyond. Opposite the station the old Occidental Hotel with its high porch, wide steps, narrow windows, dingy weather-board sides and blackened roof, still stands to remind old-timers of the days of long ago.
A city marshal, Tom Poole, a long, slim, Sandy-mustached Missourian, completes the picture of Eagle Butte. Regularly he meets the arriving trains and by the glistening three-inch nickel star pinned to his left suspender announces to the traveling world that here, on the one time woolly Kiowa, law and order at last prevail. Odd times the marshal farms a ten-acre truck patch close to the river at the southern edge of the town. Pending the arrival of trains he divides his time between the front steps of the old hotel and the Elite Amusement Parlor, Eagle Butte's single den of iniquity where pocket pool, billiards, solo—devilish dissipations these!—along with root beer, ginger ale, nut sundaes, soda-pop, milk shakes and similar enticements are served to those, of reckless and untamed temperaments.
From the open door of the pool hall the marshal saw a thin, black streak of smoke curling far out on the horizon—a dozen miles—northeast of Eagle Butte.
"Seventeen's comin'," he remarked to the trio of idlers leaning against the side of the building; "guess I'd better go over an' see who's on her," moving as he spoke out into the sizzling glare of the almost deserted street. Glancing toward the east his eyes fastened on a cloud of dust whirling rapidly along the road that came from the direction of the lower Cimarron.
"Gosh, lookey yonder," he muttered, "that must be Old Heck drivin' his new automobile—th' darn fool is goin' to bust something some day, runnin' that car the way he does!"
Walking quickly, to escape the heat, he crossed the street to the station.
Two minutes later the cloud of dust trailed a rakish, trim-lined, high-powered, purring Clagstone "Six" to a stop in front of the Occidental Hotel and Old Heck and Skinny Rawlins climbed glumly and stiffly from the front seat, after the thirty-minute, twenty-mile run from the Quarter Circle KT.
Old Heck had his peculiarities. One of them was insistence for the best—absolutely or nothing. The first pure-bred, hot-blood stallions turned on the Kiowa range carried the Quarter Circle KT brand on their left shoulders. He wanted quality in his stock and spent thousands of dollars importing bulls and stallions to get it. When the automobile came it was the same. No jit for the erratic owner of the last big genuine cow-ranch on the Cimarron. Consequently the beautiful car—a car fit for Fifth Avenue—standing now in front of the old hotel in Eagle Butte.
The smoke on the northeastern sky-line was yet some miles away.
The lanky marshal had reached the station.
"It's a good thing there's prohibition in this town," Skinny muttered as he stepped from the car and started brushing the dust from his coat;
"'Cause I'd go get drunk if there wasn't—. Wonder if a feller could get any boot-leg liquor?"
"Better leave it alone," Old Heck warned, "that kind's worse than none. It don't make you drunk—just gives you the hysterical hydrophobia!'
"Well, I'd drink anything in an emergency like this if I had it," Skinny declared doggedly.
"Train's comin'," Old Heck said shortly; "reckon we'd better go over to the depot—"
"Let's wait here till they get off first," Skinny said. "We can see them from where we are and kind of size 'em up and it won't be so sudden."
"Maybe that would be better," Old Heck answered.
A moment later Number Seventeen, west-bound Santa Fe passenger train, stopped at the yellow station. The rear cars were obscured from the view of Skinny and Old Heck by freight sheds along the track. With the exception of the engine, baggage, mail and express cars, which were hidden by the depot, the rest of the train was in plain sight.
A couple of men got off the day coach. These were followed by a gawky, weirdly dressed girl of uncertain age carrying an old-fashioned telescope traveling bag. At sight of the girl Skinny caught his breath with a gasp. Immediately following her was the tallest, homeliest woman he had ever seen. Thin to the point of emaciation, a wide striped, ill-fitting dress of some cheap material accentuated the angular lines of her body. A tiny narrow-brimmed hat, bright green, with a white feather, dingy and soiled, sticking straight up at the back made her more than ever a caricature. The woman also carried a bag. The two stepped up to the marshal, standing at the cornet: of the station, apparently asking him a question. He answered, pointing as he did to Old Heck and Skinny leaning silently against the side of their car. The woman and girl started toward them.
Fascinated, the cow-men watched them approach.
"My Gawd!" Old Heck hoarsely whispered, "that's them!"
"Let's go!" Skinny exclaimed, sweat starting in unheeded beads on his forehead. "Good lord, let's get in the car and go while we got a chance!"
Old Heck made a move as if to comply, then stopped. "Can't now," he said gloomily, "it's too late!"
As Old Heck turned the woman shrieked in a rasping voice:
"Hey—hey you! Wait a minute!"
The cow-men looked around and stared dumbly, dazedly, at her.
"Can I get you to take me an' my daughter out to that construction camp where they're buildin' a ditch or something?" she asked; "that policeman said maybe we could get you to—" she continued. "I got a job cookin' out there an' Lize here is goin' to wait on table."
Old Heck, still looking up in her eyes, with horror written on every line of his face, his lips twitching till he could scarcely speak, finally managed to say:
"Ain't—ain't you Ophelia?"
"Ophelia? Ophelia who?" she asked, then before he could speak she answered his question: "Ophelia—huh! No, I ain't Ophelia! I'm Missus Jasamine Swope an' a married woman an' you'd better not try to get fresh or—"
Simultaneous with Old Heck's question, Skinny, his eyes riveted on the dowdy girl, asked in a voice barely audible:
"Are you—are you Carolyn June?"
"No, I ain't Carolyn June," she snorted. "Come on, ma; let's go! Them two's crazy or white slavers or somethin'!"
Expressing their scorn and disdain by the angry flirt of their skirts, the woman and girl whirled and walked briskly away toward the garage at the end of the street.
"Praise th' heavens," Old Heck breathed fervently as he gazed spell-bound after the retreating pair, "it wasn't them!"
"Carolyn June and the widow probably went back after all," Skinny said without, looking around and with the barest trace of disappointment, now that the danger seemed past, in his voice. "Maybe they got to thinking about that telegram and decided not to come at last."
"More than likely that was it," Old Heck answered.
Steps sounded behind them. Skinny and Old Heck turned and again they almost fainted at what they saw. The marshal, a leather traveling bag in each hand, accompanied by two smartly dressed women, approached.
"These ladies are huntin' for you," he said to Old Heck, dropping the bags and mopping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. "Guess they're some kind of kin folks," he added.
Concealed by the freight sheds Carolyn June Dixon and Ophelia Cobb had stepped from the Pullman at the rear of the train, unseen by Old Heck and Skinny. Nor had either noticed, being engrossed with the couple that had left than a moment before, the trio coming across from the station.
As the cook and her daughter by their very homeliness had appalled and overwhelmed them, these two, Ophelia and Carolyn June, by their exactly opposite appearance stunned Old Heck and Skinny and rendered them speechless with embarrassment. Both were silently thankful they had shaved that morning and Skinny wondered if his face, like Old Heck's, was streaked with sweat and dust.
For a moment the group studied one another.
Carolyn June held the eyes of Skinny in mute and helpless admiration. Despite the heat of the blazing sun she looked fresh and dean and pleasant—wholly unsoiled by the marks of travel. A snow-white Panama hat, the brim sensibly wide, drooped over cheeks that were touched with a splash of tan that suggested much time in the open. An abundance of hair, wonderfully soft and brown, showing the slightest glint of coppery red running it in vagrant strands, fluffed from under the hat. The skirt of her traveling suit, some light substantial material, reached the span of a hand above the ankle. White shoes, silk stockings that matched and through which glowed the faint pink of firm, healthy, young flesh, lent charm to the costume she wore. Her lips were red and moist and parted over teeth that were strong and white. A saucy upward tilt to the nose, hinting that Carolyn June was a flirt; brown eyes that were level almost with Skinny's and that held in them a laugh and yet deep below the mirth something thoughtful, honest and unafraid, finished the wreck of the cowboy's susceptible heart. Trim and smooth was Carolyn June, suggesting to Skinny Rawlins a clean-bred filly of saddle strain that has developed true to form.
Old Heck gazed in equal awe at the more mature Ophelia.
Somewhere near forty she may have been, cozily plump and solid. She had gray-blue eyes that were steady and frank yet clearly accustomed to being obeyed. Her hair was a trifle darker in shade than the silky brown on the head of Carolyn June. She was dressed with immaculate neatness and taste and carried that well-preserved assurance no woman in the world save the American of mature development acquires.
There was energy in every line of her body and Ophelia gave Old Heck, the embarrassed owner of the Quarter Circle KT, more thrills in that one moment of silent scrutiny than he ever before had felt in the presence of any woman.
As they looked, Skinny and Old Heck instinctively, a bit awkwardly perhaps, removed the Stetsons they wore on their heads.
"Howdy-do!" Old Heck finally managed to say.
Skinny gulped like an echo, another "Howdy-do!" in the direction of Carolyn June.
"I reckon you are Carolyn June and Missus Ophelia Cobb," Old Heck stammered "Which one of you is which?" unconsciously paying tribute to the well preserved youthfulness of the widow.
"Oh, Ophelia, beware!" Carolyn June laughed, not in the least offended; "the gay old rascal is at it already!"
"He didn't mean nothing" Skinny interposed, sensing that Old Heck some way had made a blunder. "I guess you must be Carolyn June?" looking questioningly at the girl.
"Excuse me," Old Heck said, "I'm your uncle, I suppose, and this is Skinny Rawlins—"
"Howdy-do; I'm glad to meet you," Skinny muttered, reaching for the hand Carolyn June frankly extended.
"I'm glad, too," she replied candidly; "and this is Mrs. Ophelia Cobb—just Ophelia—Uncle Josiah," Carolyn added, turning to Old Heck who clumsily shook hands with the widow while his weather-tanned face flushed a burning, uncomfortably red.
"We was expecting you," he said, retaining life hold on her hand.
"That was very kind," Ophelia murmured. "I am sure we are delighted to be here."
"Now I guess we are all acquainted," Carolyn June said with a little laugh. "It's easy for folks to get acquainted, isn't it?" turning suddenly to Skinny.
"Seems like it after they once get started," Skinny answered.
"We'd better be heading for home I reckon," Old Heck said, releasing at last the widow's hand and lifting the bags in the car. "Sing Pete will have dinner ready by the time we get there."
"We have some trunks," Carolyn June said, "can we take them with us?"
"Yes," Old Heck replied, "get in, and we'll drive over to the depot and get them."
With Carolyn June and Ophelia in the rear seat and Skinny and himself in the front Old Heck drove the car across to the station and the trunks were fastened with ropes on the hood of the engine and running-boards of the car.
As they started away Carolyn June asked:
"Which way now, Uncle Josiah?"
"Out to the ranch."
"Hadn't we better stop at the drug store," she asked soberly, "and get some medicine?"
"Medicine? Who for?" Old Heck inquired innocently.
"Why, the patients, of course," Carolyn June answered with a mischievous chuckle.
"Out at the Quarter Circle KT where that epidemic of smallpox is raging!" she answered sweetly.
"That's all a mistake," Old Heck said hastily; "we thought is was smallpox but it wasn't—"
"No, everybody's got over it," Skinny added nervously; "they're all cured!"
"Yes, they was just broke out with the heat and didn't have the smallpox at all—" Old Heck explained.
"Liars, both of them," Carolyn June said laughingly to Ophelia; "they just didn't want us to come!"
"Very likely," Ophelia answered.
"No, honest, we thought we had it," Old Heck stammered.
"We were plumb uneasy for fear you wouldn't arrive," Skinny declared. "After we found out it wasn't smallpox we were going to send a special delivery message and tell you it was all a misunderstanding and to come anyhow!"
"Shall we forgive them?" Carolyn June asked the widow.
"Perhaps, this time—their first offense!"
"I'll tell you," Carolyn June said, "well suspend sentence pending good behavior!"
Skinny leaned close to Old Heck.
"Stop a minute at the Golden Rule," he whispered; "I want to do some personal trading."
"If it ain't important," Old Heck answered, "we oughtn't to take the time. What do you want to buy?"
"I want to get me a white shirt—"
"Gosh," Old Heck exclaimed, "that bad already! What'll he be in week?"
"Did you speak, Uncle Josiah?" Carolyn asked.
"Huh—no, I—Skinny just thought I was going to hit a rock!" he answered, and giving the engine more gas, he headed the car, at a thirty-mile clip, toward the east and the Quarter Circle KT.
The party rode in silence. The speed of the car and the fan of the warm wind against their faces made conversation difficult. A mile from Eagle Butte they crossed the long, low, iron-railed bridge over the Cimarron River and climbed out on to the bench away from the bottom lands. From that point on to the Quarter Circle KT the road followed the brow of the bench on the south side of the river. It was smooth and good.
Carolyn June thrilled at the bigness of it all as they swept quickly past the irrigated district close to the town and sped out on the open unfenced range. For miles the country was level with here and there arroyos cross-sectioning into the river valley. Long stretches with the barest undulations made driving a joy and the winding road was a natural speedway. Scattered over the plain were dusters of mesquit and in the low sags where moisture was near the surface patches of thorns. Carolyn June loved the width and breadth of the great range, strange and new to her. Here was freedom sweeping as the winds of heaven. Dimly, on the southern horizon she could see the blue outline of Sentinel Mountain standing alone out on the plain. To the left green pasture-lands lay along the river. A narrow strip of cottonwood trees marked the curving path of the Cimarron. Beds of white quicksand, treacherous and fatal and dreaded by every rider of the open country could be seen, occasionally, through openings in the trees showing the bed of the river itself. In the distance behind them was Eagle Butte, towering above the town they had left a few brief moments before, and beyond that the Costejo Mountains, rugged and massive and covered in part on their lower slopes with blue-green thickets of pine. Across the river was a choppy sea of sand-dunes stretching away to the north as far as sight could reach. Here and there a high-flung mound, smooth and oval or capped with ledges of black, glistening rode broke the monotony of the view.
Engrossed in the study of the almost primitive picture Carolyn June forgot the flight of time and the speed at which they were traveling.
"Yonder's the ranch!" Skinny announced suddenly, turning half around in his seat and pointing ahead and to the left toward the river.
The valley widened till it was a mile or more across. The Cimarron swung sharply to the north and hugged the foot of the bench as if unwilling to spoil the meadowlands past which it flowed. In a great half-crescent—"Quarter Circle," Old Heck called it—the green basin-like area lay spread out before them. It was a half dozen miles in length, reaching from the canyon gate at the upper end of the valley where the river turned abruptly northward, to the narrow gorge at the south through which it disappeared.
A blue crane lazily flapped across the valley.
"Seven thousand acres in the bottoms," Skinny volunteered.
"Beautiful!" Carolyn breathed.
"Splendid!" Ophelia exclaimed.
Half-way down the valley, a quarter of a mile from the bench, the buildings of the Quarter Circle KT clustered together in a group—the low adobe house, bunk shack, stables, graineries. Out in the fields were hay yards with half-built stacks of alfalfa—over the tops of the stacks white tarpaulins. In a pasture beyond the house were horses and cattle, perhaps a hundred head in all. Climbing the hills north of the river were a number of moving figures, dimly seen through the haze.
"Are those cattle," Carolyn June asked, "those things across the river?"
"Where?" Skinny inquired.
"Over there, on the hills," pointing toward the objects.
Old Heck glancing in the direction she indicated answered for Skinny:
"That's Parker and the boys, going over to the North Springs—they're checking up on some yearlings we just turned across from this side of the range." Then, speaking to Skinny: "They've already had their dinner and won't be in till supper-time—"
"Are they cowboys?" Carolyn June asked.
"I reckon," Old Heck responded.
"Is Skinny one?" she inquired naively.
"Sort of, I suppose," Old Heck chuckled while Skinny felt his face coloring up with embarrassment, "but not a wild one."
"Oh, who is that?" Carolyn June cried suddenly as a lone rider whirled out of the corral, around the stables, and his horse sprang into a gallop straight down the valley toward the harrows at its lower end.
"That," Skinny said after a quick glance, "oh, that's th' Ramblin' Kid—Where in thunder do you reckon the darned fool's going now?" he added to Old Heck.
"Can't tell nothing about where he's going," Old Heck said. "He's liable to be heading for anywhere. What's he riding?" he asked without looking up.
"Captain Jack," Skinny replied. "Wonder if he ain't going over to Battle Ridge to find out if it's so about them sheep coming in over there?"
"Maybe," Old Heck grunted, "either that or else he's took a notion to hunt that Gold Dust maverick again"—referring to a strange, wonderfully beautiful, outlaw filly that had appeared on the Kiowa range a year before and tormented the riders by her almost fiendish cunning in dodging corral or rope—"if he's riding Captain Jack that's probably what he's after."
"Who is he, what's his real name?" Carolyn June asked with interest.
"Just th' Ramblin' Kid, as far as I know," Old Heck answered.
"Does he live at the Quarter Circle KT?" Carolyn June continued curiously as she studied the slender form rising and falling with the graceful rhythm of his horse's motion—as if man and animal were a single living, pulsing creature.
"Off and on," Old Heck replied, "when he wants to he does and when he don't he don't. He's a witch with horses and knows he's always got a job if he wants it, and I reckon that makes him kind of undependable about staying in any one place long at a time. That's why they call him th' Ramblin' Kid—he's liable to ramble any minute."
The car curled down the narrow dugway off of the bench and a moment later stopped at the gate in front of the ranch house of the Quarter Circle KT.
"We're here," Skinny said, as Sing Pete, the Chinese cook, appeared at the open door.
"They've come, Sing Pete," Old Heck called, climbing out of the car; "this is them! Is dinner ready?"
"All leady—waitee!" the Oriental answered, shuffling out to the car to help with the luggage and twisting and squirming as he kept bowing in greeting.
"This is great!" Carolyn June said, as she stepped on the long cool porch in front of the house and paused a moment before entering the open door, "—it's cool and pleasant, I'm going to like it," she added, as she went into the big low-ceilinged room.
The floor was bare of carpet but spotlessly clean; shades, but no curtains, were over the windows; in the center stood a large flat-topped reading table; at one end of the table was a Morris chair upholstered in brown Spanish leather; a wolf-skin rug was thrown on the floor before an old-fashioned Mexican fire-place built into one corner of the room; in another corner was a smaller table on which was a graphophone; a rocker and several chairs were set about the room and against the north wall; between two doors, evidently opening into twin bedrooms, was an upright grand piano—.
"Oh, a piano!" Carolyn June exclaimed delightedly noticing the instrument. "Who plays?"
"Nobody," Old Heck answered foolishly, "I—I—well, what's the use of lying?—I bought it one day, before prohibition come, when I was drunk and just had it brought out because I didn't know what else to do with it—"
"You funny old uncle!" Carolyn June laughed, "I love you already.—Ophelia plays," she added.
"Not so well or so much as Carolyn June," Ophelia said.
"Maybe we'll have some music then some day; that ain't canned," Skinny suggested eagerly.
"You women can use them rooms," Old Heck said, referring to the doors on each side of the piano. "Parker and me did have them but we've arranged to sleep in the bunk-house while you are here."
"Carolyn June and I need but one," Ophelia said, "it isn't fair to run you out—"
"You ain't running us," Old Heck answered, "we've talked it over and would rather."
After dinner Ophelia and Carolyn June spent their time in settling themselves in their rooms. A small bath closet connected the two—crude a bit and somewhat unfinished; but a hot tub, the water supplied from a tank at the kitchen range, was enjoyed by both.
Old Heck and Skinny helped with the trunks and then withdrew to the bunk-house.
Old Heck shaved and Skinny put on a clean shirt.
Skinny was not sure but this official love-making job was going to be interesting work and Old Heck himself was uncertain whether to cuss or rejoice—sometimes he was almost sorry to-morrow would be Parker's day to love and entertain Ophelia.
THE UNUSED PLATE
At sundown, when Parker and the cowboys rode in from the northern hills, the Quarter Circle KT lay under a mantle of sullen, torturing heat. Not a breath of air fanned the poplars, straight and motionless, in front of the house. The sun buried itself in a solid wall of black that rose above the Costejo peaks, hidden now in the shadow of the coming storm. The horses were dripping with sweat—their coats as glossy and wet as if they had swum the river. At the corral the animals wearily tossed their heads, low hung with exhaustion, seeking to shift the sticky clutch of head-stall or hackamore, while their riders dismounted and quickly removed saddle and riding gear. Freed from their burdens the bronchos dragged tired heels through the dust as they whirled and trotted unsteadily away to the pasture, eager to roll and relax their aching muscles.
"Holy cats, but it's hot!" Bert Lilly exclaimed as he slipped off his chaps and started toward the house, leaving saddle and outfit lying beside the gate of the corral.
"Better put them things in the shed," Parker advised, "looks like a whale of a storm is coming."
"Reckon that's right," Bert answered, turning back and carrying his riding gear into the shelter where the other cowboys already had taken theirs.
"Wonder if them women come?" Chuck Slithers queried as they moved toward the gate.
"More than likely—Bet Skinny and Old Heck have had a hell of a time making love to 'em," Charley Saunders remarked.
"You want to be careful about cussin'," Parker warned. "It ain't polite when women are around!"
"Listen at him!" Bert said with a laugh, "practising already—Parker is getting polite—to-morrow is his day to be affectionate to the widow, Ophelia—"
"Which is she, Parker," Charley asked soberly, "a grass or natural?"
"Shut up, you blamed fools, they're liable to hear you," Parker growled angrily. "Anyhow, it ain't my fault they come!"
"Parker oughtn't to kick," Chuck chimed in, "look at poor old Skinny—he's got a steady job lovin' the other one!"
"Darned if I wouldn't rather love both of them at once," Charley observed, "than to take another ride like that was to-day. I'm kind of anxious to see what they look like," he continued.
"Well, don't go and get excited at the supper table and eat your pie with a spoon!" Chuck laughed.
"Aw, hell," Charley retorted, "I guess I know how to act—"
"Old Heck's going to buy some finger-bowls for you to wash your hands in," Bert said scornfully, "him and Parker—"
"Shut up, I told you, you darned idiots," Parker snapped. "They're out on the front porch and can hear you!"
"Be careful about your cussin'—" Bert mimicked with a snicker.
Notwithstanding their raillery every man in the group, including Pedro, gave unusual care to scrubbing his face and smoothing his hair preparatory to entering the kitchen for supper and where they would meet, for the first time, Ophelia and Carolyn June.
Sing Pete glided out of the kitchen door and hammered the triangle announcing the evening meal.
At the instant Parker and the cowboys filed into the kitchen from the rear, Ophelia and Carolyn June, followed by Old Heck and Skinny Rawlins, both looking sheepish and somewhat ashamed, stepped into the room from the front.
All stood waiting and Old Heck, ill at ease and in a voice that trembled, gave the party formal introduction:
"Missus Ophelia Cobb and Miss Carolyn June Dixon," motioning first at the widow and then the girl, "Mister Parker, Mister Bert Lilly, Mister Charley Saunders, Mister Chuck Slithers, Mister Pedro Valencia—" indicating each in turn with his hand as he called the names, "—I reckon you're already acquainted with Skinny!"
The cowboys mumbled greetings which Carolyn June and Ophelia graciously acknowledged.
Sing Pete had laid two extra covers.
"You boys can take your regular places—all except you, Parker," Old Heck said, "—you set at that side on this end," pointing to the seat at the left next to the head of the table. "Carolyn June, you can set at that end and Ophelia at this end—I'll set here," taking the seat at the widow's right and directly across from Parker.
This placed Old Heck, Bert Lilly, Pedro and Skinny Rawlins on the right of the table in the order named, Skinny sitting at the end on Carolyn's left. On the opposite side sat Parker, Chuck Slithers and Charley. Next to Charley, at the right of Carolyn June, and opposite Skinny, was a vacant chair.
"Who is this for?" Carolyn June inquired, indicating the unoccupied seat.
"That's th' Ramblin' Kid's place," Old Heck replied; "he may come in and again he mayn't—"
"It was him you saw to-day," Skinny added, "riding down toward the Narrows when we was coming from Eagle Butte."
"Do you know; where he went, Parker?" Old Heck asked.
"No. When we started over to the Springs he was here. Said he reckoned we could get along without him and he wouldn't go—"
"He's just got one of them lonesome spells," Bert said, "and wanted to get off by himself somewhere."
"He knowed we was going to have company, too," Chuck observed.
"More than likely that's why he went," Skinny suggested.
"Is he afraid of women?" Carolyn June laughed.
"Not particularly," Skinny replied; "he don't bother with them, that's all."
"I think he went after that Gold Dust maverick," Charley said. "He'll probably come in when he sees how it's going to storm—"
"He don't give a darn for storms," Bert declared. "—Pass them frijoles, Pedro.—Remember that time it blowed the hay derrick down and he wouldn't come to the house, just stayed out and watched the wind and lightning?"
"He is funny that way," Charley admitted.
"Well, he'll never catch that mare," Parker said, "she's too—"
"Oh, I don't know," Chuck interrupted, "look how he has tamed Captain Jack," referring to the Ramblin' Kid's own horse, one time a famous renegade.
"How was that?" Carolyn June inquired carelessly.
"Captain Jack was an outlaw, too," Bert explained. "He run over on the East Mesa on the Una de Gata. Charley and me and th' Ramblin' Kid got him to going one day when there was some ranch mares in his bunch. One of them was a hand-raised filly, was a pet and she was—well, pretty hot! We worked them over the rim of the Mesa and into the canyon, it was a box-gorge from where they hit it to its head, and at the upper end there was a wing corral. The mare swung up the canyon towards the ranch and—Jack wouldn't quit her! We was pounding right on their heels and before he knowed it we had them penned—"
"That shows what happens when a he-thing goes locoed over a female critter," Chuck whispered to Parker; "you and Old Heck want to watch out!"
"Be careful, you danged fool!" Parker hissed as he kicked at Chuck's shins under the table. Excited, he made a mistake in the foot he should have used and viciously slammed his left toe against Ophelia's dainty ankle.
The widow looked startled and suddenly sat up very straight in her chair.
Parker realized his error, turned red, choked, leaned close to Chuck and breathed hoarsely, "I'll kill you some day for that!"
"He sure went crazy when he found he was corraled," Charley said, "and forgot all about the mare."
"He sure did," Bert continued, while Carolyn June listened intently, "and was plumb wild to bu'st down the pen and be free again. Charley nor me didn't want him and so th' Ramblin' Kid said he'd take him. Just then Tony Malush—we was punchin' for him—come riding up and was going to shoot Captain Jack on account of wanting to clean the range of the outlaw stallions. He yanked out his gun and started to pull a drop on old Jack's head. Th' Ramblin' Kid jerked his own forty-four and told Tony he'd kill him if he shot the renegade broncho. Tony backed up, but it made him sore and he fired th' Ramblin' Kid. The darned little cuss set there a minute thinking, then slid off his horse, stripped him of riding gear, flung saddle, blanket and bridle over the bars into the corral. Before we knowed what he was aiming to do he climbed up and dropped down inside, on foot, with just his rope, and faced that outlaw battin' around trying to get outside—"
Carolyn June leaned forward on the table listening with breathless interest. The others stopped eating and gave all their attention to the story Bert was telling.
"Captain Jack saw him, stopped for just a second, sort of surprised, then went right at th' Ramblin' Kid—head down, eyes blazin' like coals, mouth wide open, ears laid back and strikin' with both front feet—"
"He was some wicked!" Charley ejaculated.
"He sure was," Bert went on. "Tony and Charley and me just set on our horses stunned—thinkin' th' Kid had gone clean loco and was flirtin' with certain and pronto death. As Captain Jack rushed him th' Ramblin' Kid give a jump sideways, his rope went true, a quick run to the snubbin' post and he throwed him dead! The broncho hit his feet, give a squeal and come straight back! Th' Ramblin' Kid run once more, yankin' like blazes to get the slack! That time when he went down—well, before we realized it, th' Ramblin' Kid had him bridled and saddled and was safe on deck—"
"I'm tellin' you too, Captain Jack went higher than a kite when he felt the rowels in his flanks!" Charley interrupted.
"Th' Ramblin' Kid yelled for us to let him out," Bert continued. "Charley and me flung down the bars to the corral and Captain Jack come out sun-fishin' and hittin' the breeze like a streak of twisted lightning! That was just before dinner in the forenoon. That afternoon and night th' Ramblin' Kid rode the outlaw to the Hundred and One—ninety miles away! We didn't see either of them any more for a month and when they hit the Kiowa again Captain Jack was a regular baby after th' Ramblin' Kid and would follow him around like a dog—"
"That's the way he's been ever since," Charley said, "them two are just like sweethearts."
"Nobody else ever rides him—" Bert added.
"They can't," Chuck said. "He's a one-man horse and th' Ramblin' Kid is the man. Captain Jack would die for th' Ramblin' Kid!"
"Yes, and kill any one else if he could!" Parker exclaimed.
"Has no one but—but the Ramblin' Kid"—Carolyn June hesitated queerly over the name—"ever ridden him?"
"Never that we know of," Bert said; "several have tried it—the last one was a fellow from down on the Chickasaw. Guess he was trying to steal him. Anyway, we was all up at Eagle Butte and had left our horses out in front of the Occidental Hotel while we was in the dining-room eating our dinners. We got outside just in time to see the stranger hit the ground and Captain Jack jump on him with all four feet doubled up in a bunch—he's buried in that little graveyard you might have noticed on the hill this side of the river bridge."
"Killed him?" Carolyn June gasped.
"Seemed like it." Bert answered, with a grin; "anyway, we buried him."
"What did the—the Ramblin' Kid do?" she asked.
"He just laughed kind of soft and scornful," Skinny said, "and got on Captain Jack and rode away while we was picking the fellow up!"
During the rest of the meal Carolyn June's eyes looked frequently and curiously at the unused plate at her right. She felt, some way, that an affront had been shown her by the absence of the one for whom it was laid. The other cowboys, it was quite evident to her intuitive woman's mind, had looked forward with considerable eagerness to the arrival of herself and Ophelia. The Ramblin' Kid, at the very moment almost of their reaching the Quarter Circle KT, had deliberately mounted Captain Jack and ridden away. It seemed like little less than an intentional snub! In addition to the half-resentment she felt, there remained in her mind an insistent and tormenting picture of the slender, subtle, young rider swaying easily to the swing of Captain Jack as he galloped down the valley earlier in the day.
Bert, Charley, Chuck, before the meal was finished cast frankly admiring glances at Carolyn June and Skinny plainly was gaining confidence at a rapid rate, while Pedro, silent throughout it all, kept, almost constantly, his half-closed eyes fixed in a sidelong look at the girl at the end of the table.
Attention and admiration, Carolyn June expected from men. They had always been hers. She was beautiful and was conscious of it. Had the cowboys of the Quarter Circle KT not registered appreciation of her charms by their looks Carolyn June would have believed something was wrong with her dress or the arrangement of her hair. Her eyes—she was sure of them—without effort lured men to her feet.
"It's hotter than blue blazes in here," Old Heck said when all had finished; "we'd better go out into the big room. Maybe Carolyn June will play some on the piano."
"The boys and me will go on out on the porch," Parker said as they reached the front room, speaking significantly to Old Heck, but in a tone both Ophelia and Carolyn June heard. "We'll leave you and Skinny with the ladies and not intrude—"
"You won't be intruding if you remain," Ophelia said brightly. "Carolyn June and I are not partial at all and want you to feel that we enjoy meeting you all."
"Yes, stay," Carolyn June added, somewhat reluctant that of the entire group only one should be left to the wiles of her unconsciously intentional coquetry; "there is plenty of room in here and it's cool—"
"We're much obliged," Bert said, "but we'd better do the way Parker mentioned. Anyhow that was the agreement."
"Agreement?" Ophelia spoke with a questioning lift of her brows.
"Yes," Chuck said, evidently trying to relieve the embarrassment of Old Heck, Parker and Skinny who looked daggers at Bert when he spoke of an agreement, "Parker and Old Heck was to take turn about—"
"Bert meant," Parker interrupted hastily, "—he meant they—they had to agree not to loaf in this room before Old Heck would give them jobs on the Quarter Circle KT!"
"Yes," Old Heck added quickly, "that was the bargain on account of—of—getting it mussed up and everything and making too much work for Sing Pete to clean it up!"
Ophelia and Carolyn June looked curiously at each other as if they suspected some secret that had to do with their presence at the Quarter Circle KT.
Outside, the cowboys lounged on the porch or lay spread full length on the grass smoking their cigarettes, and silent. Each was busy with thoughts of his own. Carolyn June had been very impartial during the evening meal, distributing her smiles and little attentions freely among them all. Now she was sitting at the piano playing snatches of random melodies as they came to her mind, while Skinny sat stiffly on a high-backed chair at the corner of the instrument.
A drone of voices reached the ears of Parker and the cowboys as Old Heck, skilfully led on by Ophelia, told about the ranch, the Kiowa range and the traditions of western Texas.
"Can you play La Paloma?" Skinny asked as Carolyn June paused after running over a dainty and vivacious one-step, memories of which made her think of Hartville and the fashionable ballrooms where she had reigned as princess at least if not as queen, and which seemed now very far away.
"I'm afraid not—unless I have the music, but I'll try," she answered, and her fingers again sought the keys.
The dreamy Mexican air drifted seductively out on the sultry motionless night.
Bert looked through the window and saw Skinny lean back in his chair, his eyes closed and an expression of supreme content stealing over his face.
"Skinny's gone—he's surrendered," he said to Chuck, lying full length on the porch at his side; "look at the poor cuss with his eyes shut and grinning as if he was seeing visions of Paradise!"
"That combination would capture most anybody," Chuck answered. "I'm starting to feel affectionate myself."
Bert didn't reply, Chuck having expressed too nearly his own swelling emotions.
"Uncle Josiah!" Carolyn June called, suddenly whirling around on the piano stool as she finished the last bars of La Paloma, "may I have a horse?"
Old Heck, grown silent under the spell of the music, and, like Skinny, sitting dreaming dreams that almost frightened him, started quickly.
"A—a what?" he asked.
"A horse—" she answered, "a broncho to ride!"
"Oh, uh—sure! Skinny, go get her one!" he replied confusedly.
"Not now," Carolyn June laughed, "to-morrow—any time, whenever I want to use it!"
"Can you ride?" Skinny asked eagerly.
"Ever since I can remember," Carolyn June said, "daddy has kept horses—I love 'em! Ophelia rides, too," she added.
"In automobiles—" Ophelia corrected.
"That's a good arrangement," Skinny said; "it will make everything work out all right."
"I don't understand," Carolyn June said; "what arrangement?"
"We'd better be going to bed, Skinny," Old Heck interposed anxiously, "it's getting late!"
"Guess we had," Skinny said reluctantly. "Gosh, it's warm to-night!"
"You can leave the door and windows open," Old Heck said to Ophelia and Carolyn June as he and Skinny moved toward the door; "we don't have burglars out here."
Parker and the cowboys straightened up when they heard Skinny and Old Heck preparing to leave and went around the corner of the building toward the bunk-house.
Ophelia and Carolyn June stepped out on the porch with Old Heck and Skinny.
The air was oppressively still and hot. The black cloud bank that had hung over the Costejo Mountains earlier in the evening now covered the whole western half of the sky. Night sounds seemed almost stifled by the suffocating heat. From the pasture below the stables the faint call of a kill-deer suddenly shrilled out, followed by intense silence. No lightning flash filled the wall-like blackness slowly creeping over the earth from the west. A pale glow on the rim of the rolling hills across the valley, herald of the moon not yet above the horizon, intensified the pall beneath the approaching cloud. A sullen roar, throbbing angrily, rising and falling in volume, could be heard coming out of the depths of the storm.
"Acts like it's going to be a bad one," Old Heck observed, studying the cloud they all were watching.
"Wicked," Skinny said, "one of them mutterin' kind until it breaks and then all hell tears loose."
"If th' Ramblin' Kid is out in the sand-hills to-night he'll—"
A withering stream of fire poured from the cloud almost over their heads; it was accompanied by a crashing peal of thunder that rocked the earth under their feet and stopped the words on Old Heck's lips. The flame lighted the whole valley. They had an instant's glimpse of a writhing, overhanging curtain of dust and rain sweeping toward them. In the glare they saw a giant cottonwood that stood alone in the meadow west of the house reel and sway like a drunken thing and pitch to the earth.
"It's here! It struck that tree!" Old Heck yelled. "Run for the bunk-house, Skinny, maybe we can make it! You women go inside and shut the door!"
Carolyn June and Ophelia sprang—were blown almost—inside the house and slammed the door as another bolt fell, flooding the room with a blaze that made the light from the lamp on the reading table seem faint and dim. Old Heck and Skinny darted around the corner as the tempest pulled and tugged at the buildings of the Quarter Circle KT.
For an hour Ophelia and Carolyn June sat and listened to the storm and while it still raged went to bed.
Carolyn June fell asleep watching the incessant glare of the lightning as flash after flash filled the room with light and illumined the world outside, while the rain and wind lashed the trees in the garden near her window. Above the tumult the words of Old Heck: "If the Ramblin' Kid is out in the sand-hills to-night"—kept repeating themselves over and over in her mind. Try as she would, she could not shut out the picture of a slender young rider, alone, far out on the range in the storm-mad night, unsheltered from the fury and wrath of the elements.
A DUEL OF ENDURANCE
When the storm broke over the Quarter Circle KT the Ramblin' Kid was twenty miles away following the Gold Dust maverick. Old Heck's surmise that he had gone in search of the outlaw filly was but half correct. It was not with the definite purpose of trying for the renegade mare that he had mounted Captain Jack and headed him toward the Narrows at the moment Carolyn June Dixon and Ophelia Cobb arrived at the ranch. Nor was it to escape meeting the women. Their coming meant nothing to the Ramblin' Kid.
He simply wanted to be alone.
The ride with Parker and the boys to the North Springs meant talk. The Ramblin' Kid did not want to talk. He wanted to be with his thoughts, his horse and silence.
Should he happen on to the maverick he might give her a run. Since her first appearance on the Kiowa, the Ramblin' Kid had seen her many times. More than once, from a distance, he had watched the mare, getting a line on her habits. Sooner or later he expected to test Captain Jack's endurance and skill against the filly's speed and cunning. Without success other riders of the Kiowa had tried to corral the outlaw or get within roping throw of her shapely head. So far she had proved herself faster and more clever than any horse ridden against her. The Ramblin' Kid believed Captain Jack was master of the beautiful mare, that in a battle of nerve and muscle and wind the roan stallion could run her down. Some day he would prove it.
At the Narrows the trail forked. One branch turned sharply to the right and followed a coulee out on to the divide between the Cimarron and the lower Una de Gata; the other swung toward the river, slipped into it, crossed the stream, and was lost in the sand-hills beyond.
The broncho, of his own will, at the prongs of the road wheeled up the coulee and climbed out on the level bench south of the Cimarron. A half-dozen miles away Sentinel Mountain rose abruptly out of the plain. Toward the lone butte Captain Jack turned. He knew the place. On the north slope there was a tiny spring, fenced with wire to keep the stock from trampling it into a bog; near by was a duster of pinon trees; below the seep in the narrow gorge was a thin strip of willows. It was a favorite rendezvous sought by the Ramblin' Kid when in moods such as now possessed him. Silently he rode to the group of pinons and dismounted.
The Ramblin' Kid stretched himself under the trees while Captain Jack drank at the little water course. Then, with his bridle off, the broncho fed contentedly on the bunch grass along the hillside. After a time Captain Jack quit feeding and came into the shade of the pinons. The Ramblin' Kid, flat on his back, stared through the scant foliage of the trees into the sky—overcast now with a dim haze, forerunner of the storm gathering above the Costejo peaks. Thousands of feet in the air a buzzard, merely a black speck, without motion of wings, wheeled in great, lazy, ever-widening circles.
As the sun dropped into the cloud bank in the west a band of mares and colts came from that direction and rounded a spur of Sentinel Mountain. At their heads was the most beautiful horse ever seen on the Kiowa range.
In color a coppery, almost golden, chestnut sorrel; flaxen mane and tail, verging on creamy white; short-coupled in the back and with withers that marked the runner; belly smooth and round; legs trim and neat as an antelope's and muscled like a panther's; head small, carried proudly erect and eyes full and wonderfully clear and brown.
"Th' filly!" the Ramblin' Kid breathed, "with a bunch of Tony Malush's Anchor Bar mares and colts!"
Captain Jack saw the range horses and lifted his head.
"Psst!" the Ramblin' Kid hissed and the neigh was stopped.
The rangers moved toward the east and over the crest of a ridge a quarter of a mile away. On the flat beyond the rise they stopped, the colts immediately teasing the mares to suck. The filly withdrew a short distance from the herd and stood alert and watchful.
For half an hour the Ramblin' Kid studied the Gold Dust maverick.
He looked at the clouds climbing higher and higher in the west, then long and thoughtfully at Captain Jack.
"Let's get her, Boy!" he murmured; "let's go an' get her!"
His mind made up, the Ramblin' Kid slipped the bridle again on Captain Jack, removed the saddle and with the blanket wiped the sweat from the broncho's back, smoothed the blanket, reset the saddle, carefully tightened front and rear cinches and mounting the little stallion guided him slowly down the ravine in the direction of the horses on the flat. A hundred yards away the mares and colts, alarmed by the sudden half-whinny, half-snort, from the filly, discovered the approaching horse and rider.
Instantly the wild horses crowded closely together and galloped toward the Una de Gata. Captain Jack leaped into a run, rushing them. The maverick wheeled quickly and dashed away to the south alone.
"Her pet trick!" the Ramblin' Kid muttered as he headed Captain Jack after the nimble creature. "She absodamnedlutely will not bunch—seems to know a crowd means a corral, a rope and at last a rider on her shapely back!"
For two miles it was a race. The Ramblin' Kid held Captain Jack to a steady run a couple of hundred yards in the rear of the speeding mare. At last he pulled the stallion down to a trot. The Gold Dust maverick answered by running another fifty yards and then herself settling into the slower stride. "Like I thought," the Ramblin' Kid said to himself, "it's a case of wear her out—a case of seasoned old muscle against speedy young heels!"
It became a duel of endurance between Captain Jack, wiry, toughened and fully matured, with heavier muscles, and the nimble, lighter-footed Gold Dust mare.
At dark they were on the edge of the Arroyo Grande and Captain Jack had closed the distance between them until less than a hundred yards was between the heels of the filly and the head of the stallion behind her. She turned east along the arroyo, followed it a mile, seeking a crossing, then doubled straight north toward the Cimarron. Captain Jack hung to her trail like a hound. In the blackness that preceded the storm she could not lose him. With almost uncanny sureness he picked her out—following, following, never giving the maverick a moment's rest. Yet it seemed that the distance she kept ahead was measured, so alert and watchful was she always. Both were dripping with sweat. Try as he would, it seemed impossible for Captain Jack to win those few yards that would put the filly in reach of the rope the Ramblin' Kid held ready to cast until the inky darkness made it impossible to risk a throw.
The mare splashed into the Cimarron.
A dazzling zigzag flash of lightning, the first of the storm, and the Ramblin' Kid saw the filly struggling in the yellow wind-whipped current. A moment later and Captain Jack was swimming close behind her. On the north side of the river the mare yielded to the drive of the tempest and turned east down the stream. A rocky gorge running at right angles toward the north offered shelter from the lashing wind and rain. Up the ravine the maverick headed. A rush of muddy water down the canyon sent pursued and pursuer slipping and sliding and climbing for safety high up on the brush-covered, torrent-swept hillside. The constant blaze and tremble of lightning illumined the whole range. A wolf, terrified by the storm, seeking cover, crouched in the shelter of a black rock-cliff. The Ramblin' Kid saw the creature. His hand instinctively slipped under his slicker and gripped the gun at his hip.
"Hell! what's th' use of killin' just to kill?" he murmured. His hold on the gun relaxed. A bolt of lightning slivered the rock above the wolf; there was an acrid odor of burning hair. The next flash showed the wolf stretched dead twenty feet below the cliff. "Well, I'll be damned!" the Ramblin' Kid whispered as he bowed his head before the gale, "that was funny! Guess God himself figured it was time for that poor cuss to die!"
In the last quarter of the night, at the North Springs, when the storm had spent itself and the white moon looked down on a drenched and flood-washed earth, the 'Ramblin' Kid dropped his rope over the head of the Gold Dust maverick—barely twenty feet ahead of the horse he rode—conquered by the superior nerve, muscle and endurance of Captain Jack, still the greatest outlaw the Kiowa range had ever known!
The touch of the rope fired the filly to a supreme effort; she lunged forward; Captain Jack set himself for the shock—he threw her cold, full length, in the soft mud; instantly the little stallion sprang forward to give the mare slack, she came to her feet, squealing piteously, and plunged desperately ahead—again Captain Jack braced himself for the jar and put her down, "It's hell, Little Girl," the Ramblin' Kid said with a catch in his throat; "but you've got to learn!" The third time the maverick tested the rope and the third time Captain Jack threw her in a helpless heap. That time when she got to her feet she stood trembling in every muscle until Captain Jack came up to her side and the Ramblin' Kid reached out and laid his hand on the beautiful mane. She had learned. Never again would the wonderful creature tighten a rope on her neck.
Trailing the filly, the Ramblin' Kid forced her back toward the Cimarron, into its raging flood, multiplied a hundredfold by the torrential rain of the night; side by side she and Captain Jack swam the stream, and in the gray dawn, while the Quarter Circle KT still slept, he turned the mare and Captain Jack into the circular corral. He removed the saddle from Captain Jack, took the rope from the filly's neck, threw the horses some hay and on the dry ground under the shed by the corral, lay down and went to sleep.
For fourteen hours, without rest, the Ramblin' Kid had ridden.
The sun was up when Sing Pete electrified the Quarter Circle KT into life and action by the jangle of the iron triangle sending out the breakfast call.
Old Heck stepped to the door of the bunk-house and looked out across the valley. The Cimarron roared sullenly beyond the meadow. The lower field was a lake of muddy water, backed up from the gorge below. He glanced toward the circular corral.
"What th'—Who left horses up last night?" he asked of the cowboys dressing sleepily inside the bunk-house.
"Nobody," Parker answered for the group.
Skinny Rawlins came to the door. "It's Captain Jack," he said, "and—and darned if th' Ramblin' Kid ain't got the filly!"
"Aw, he couldn't have caught her last night," Bert Lilly said.
"Well, she's there," Skinny retorted, "somebody's corraled her—that's certain!"
Hurriedly dressing, the cowboys crowded out of the bunk-house and down to the circular corral. The Gold Dust maverick leaped to the center of the enclosure as the group drew near and stood with head up, eyes flashing and nostrils quivering, a perfect picture of defiance and fear. The swim across the river had washed the mud from her mane and sides and she was as clean as if she had been brushed.
"Lord, she's a beauty!" Chuck Slithers exclaimed.
"Sure is—be hell to ride, though!" Bert commented. "Wonder where the Ramblin' Kid is—"
"S-h-hh! Yonder he is," Charley Saunders said, observing the figure under the shed, "—asleep. Come on away and let him rest!"
"Breakfast's ready anyhow," Old Heck added.
"And Skinny ain't shaved or powdered his face yet—" Chuck laughed; "these lovers ought to fix themselves up better!"
"Shut up, you blamed idiot, ain't you got no respect?" Parker said as they turned toward the house.
"Listen at Parker, he's one of them, too," Chuck continued; "this is his day to be a sweetheart to the widow!"
"I'd rather have Skinny's job," Bert said with a snicker, "I'd be afraid of Ophelia—"
"She acts too gentle to start with"—"
"Give her time," Charley suggested, "she'll bu'st loose when she gets better acquainted!"
"Her and Old Heck got pretty well introduced last night, holding hands the way they did, and—"
"Dry up," Old Heck interposed with a foolish grin, "and come on to breakfast!"
Carolyn June and Ophelia were charmingly fresh and interesting in dainty blue and lavender morning gowns. A bowl of roses, plucked by Ophelia from the crimson rambler by the south window, rested in the center of the table. The cowboys saw the flowers and exchanged glances. Old Heck and Skinny blushed.
Carolyn June noticed the vacant place at her right.
"Th' Ramblin' Kid ain't up yet," Skinny volunteered.
"Then the storm did drive him to shelter, after all?" Carolyn June asked with the barest trace of contempt in her voice.
"I wouldn't hardly say that," Bert Lilly remarked, holding his cup for Sing Pete to fill with coffee; "—he brought in the Gold Dust maverick."
"Yes," Chuck said with mock gravity, "it was quite an undertaking—he sprinkled salt on her tail—"
"How clever!" Ophelia exclaimed, looking interested, "and is that the way they catch—mavericks?" stumbling over the unusual word.
"Chuck's joking," Parker said; "he always was foolish—"
"Uncle Josiah," Carolyn June asked suddenly, "can you take Ophelia to Eagle Butte to-day?"
"I—Parker can," Old Heck answered, "if he can drive the car. Still there are probably some pretty bad washouts—"
Ophelia looked quickly at Old Heck, interested by the note she detected in his voice.
"I—I—got some work to do," he continued, "if you could wait till to-morrow"—addressing the widow—"I could more than likely go myself—"
"I guess I can handle the car all right," Parker said, looking significantly at Old Heck; "the roads will be dried up in a little while."
"It's Parker's day anyhow and he don't want to miss—" Chuck started to say.
"After breakfast," Old Heck interrupted, scowling at the cowboy, "Chuck and Pedro had better both ride-line on the upper pasture. The cattle probably went against the fence in the storm last night and knocked off a lot of wire. Of course, Skinny will have to stay here," he added, "and the rest of us, except Parker, ought to look after the fences in the east bottoms—from the looks of the river this morning a lot of posts and wire must be washed out."
"Whoever gets up the saddle horses had better catch them in the pasture corral," Parker declared, "it won't do to turn them in with that wild filly and Captain Jack."
"I think I shall go see that wonderful filly," Carolyn June said as they left the table, "she may be the particular broncho I will want to ride—"
"Not much," Old Heck objected, "these outlaws ain't exactly the kind of horses for women to fool with. You can use Old Blue. He's gentle."
"Did I tell you I wanted a 'gentle horse'?" Carolyn June asked with a bit of impatience.
"No, but I figured that was the kind you'd need on account of being raised back east—"
"Well, I am going to see the Gold Dust maverick," Carolyn June said with emphasis, "and if she suits me I'll—I'll ride her!"
"I'll go with you," Skinny offered as Carolyn June stepped from the kitchen door and started toward the circular corral.
"Never mind!" she spoke shortly, "—you can go catch 'Old Blue' and"—with scorn in her voice—"if he's able to walk, maybe it will be safe for me to ride him to the end of the lane and back—Ugh! 'Old Blue!' The very name sounds as if he was dead!"
"Old Blue's a good horse," Skinny protested, "—we work him on the hay derrick—"
But Carolyn June was gone, walking rapidly across the open ground in the direction of the corral in which the Ramblin' Kid had turned Captain Jack and the Gold Dust filly.
"Jumpin' eats!" Bert exclaimed as the cowboys started toward the stable, "didn't the young one show her teeth sudden?"
"Skinny's going to have his hands full if he don't look out," Charley Saunders remarked sagely. "Still that kind ain't as dangerous as the ones that act plumb gentle like the widow has acted so far."
"Any female is treacherous," Chuck observed grimly. "They're just like cinch-binders—you can't tell when they're going to rare up and fall over backwards!"
"I'll bet Ophelia turns out to be a W.C.T.U. or something," Bert predicted solemnly.
"If she does it's all off with the Quarter Circle KT, because Parker and Old Heck are both in love already," Charley said as they rounded the corner of the barn.
Carolyn June gave a gasp of admiration as she stepped up to the circular corral and saw the Gold Dust maverick closely.
"Oh, you beauty! You adorable beauty!" she breathed.
Captain Jack and the filly were near the fence next to the shed. Carolyn June passed in between the low building and the corral to be closer to the horses. The sky was cloudless and a wonderful liquid blue; the sun glistened on the rich, golden, brown sides of the mare and made her coat shine like delicate satin. When Captain Jack and the filly saw Carolyn June they stood for a moment as rigid as though cast in bronze, heads held high, eyes fixed curiously yet without fear on the slender girlish figure.
Captain Jack took a step forward in a half-challenging way. The maverick stood perfectly still.
"You beauty," the girl repeated, "you wonderful golden beauty! You are going to be my horse—I'm going to ride you—just you—"
"You'll get you're neck broke if you do!" a voice, deliberate and of peculiar softness, said behind her.
Carolyn June turned, startled, toward the shed from where the voice had come. She knew, even before she looked, that the speaker was the Ramblin' Kid. Evidently he had just awakened. He had not risen and still lay stretched on the ground, his head resting on the saddle he had used for a pillow. Carolyn June could not help wondering how long he had been lying there studying her back. The thought confused her. In spite of her efforts at self-control a slow flush crept over her cheeks. The Ramblin' Kid saw it and the faintest hint of a smile showed on his lips—or was the suggestion of amusement in the twinkling glance of his eyes? Carolyn June could not tell. The subtlety and queerly humble impudence of it filled her with anger.
While she looked into his eyes Carolyn June appraised the physical appearance of the Ramblin' Kid. Certainly he was not handsome, sprawling there in his rough clothing. She knew his age was somewhere near her own, perhaps he was a year, surely no more than that, older than herself. Yet there was an expression about the face that suggested much experience, a sort of settled maturity and seriousness. His mouth, Carolyn June thought, showed a trace of cruelty—or was it only firmness? The teeth were good. If he stood up her own eyes would have to angle upward a trifle to look into his and if hers were brown the Ramblin' Kid's were positively black—yes, she would say, a brutal, unfathomable black, penetrating and hard. His cheeks were smooth and almost sallow they were so dark, and she could tell there was not an ounce of flesh save tough sinewy muscle on his body. He was fully dressed except for the white weather-beaten Stetson lying beside the saddle and the chaps and spurs kicked off and tossed with the bridle and rope near by on the ground. A dark woolen shirt open at the throat, blue overalls faded and somewhat dingy, black calfskin boots on a pair of feet that could not have been larger than sixes, comprised his attire.