Chapter II. The Company of the Noble Seven
 

As we were dismounting, the cries, "Hello, Jack!" "How do, Dale?" "Hello, old Smoke!" in the heartiest of tones, made me see that my cousin was a favorite with the men grouped about the door. Jack simply nodded in reply and then presented me in due form. "My tenderfoot cousin from the effete," he said, with a flourish. I was surprised at the grace of the bows made me by these roughly- dressed, wild-looking fellows. I might have been in a London drawing-room. I was put at my ease at once by the kindliness of their greeting, for, upon Jack's introduction, I was admitted at once into their circle, which, to a tenderfoot, was usually closed.

What a hardy-looking lot they were! Brown, spare, sinewy and hard as nails, they appeared like soldiers back from a hard campaign. They moved and spoke with an easy, careless air of almost lazy indifference, but their eyes had a trick of looking straight out at you, cool and fearless, and you felt they were fit and ready.

That night I was initiated into the Company of the Noble Seven--but of the ceremony I regret to say I retain but an indistinct memory; for they drank as they rode, hard and long, and it was only Jack's care that got me safely home that night.

The Company of the Noble Seven was the dominant social force in the Swan Creek country. Indeed, it was the only social force Swan Creek knew. Originally consisting of seven young fellows of the best blood of Britain, "banded together for purposes of mutual improvement and social enjoyment," it had changed its character during the years, but not its name. First, its membership was extended to include "approved colonials," such as Jack Dale and "others of kindred spirit," under which head, I suppose, the two cowboys from the Ashley Ranch, Hi Keadal and "Bronco" Bill--no one knew and no one asked his other name--were admitted. Then its purposes gradually limited themselves to those of a social nature, chiefly in the line of poker-playing and whisky-drinking. Well born and delicately bred in that atmosphere of culture mingled with a sturdy common sense and a certain high chivalry which surrounds the stately homes of Britain, these young lads, freed from the restraints of custom and surrounding, soon shed all that was superficial in their make-up and stood forth in the naked simplicity of their native manhood. The West discovered and revealed the man in them, sometimes to their honor, often to their shame. The Chief of the Company was the Hon. Fred Ashley, of the Ashley Ranch, sometime of Ashley Court, England--a big, good- natured man with a magnificent physique, a good income from home, and a beautiful wife, the Lady Charlotte, daughter of a noble English family. At the Ashley Ranch the traditions of Ashley Court were preserved as far as possible. The Hon. Fred appeared at the wolf-hunts in riding-breeches and top boots, with hunting crop and English saddle, while in all the appointments of the house the customs of the English home were observed. It was characteristic, however, of western life that his two cowboys, Hi Kendal and Bronco Bill, felt themselves quite his social equals, though in the presence of his beautiful, stately wife they confessed that they "rather weakened." Ashley was a thoroughly good fellow, well up to his work as a cattle-man, and too much of a gentleman to feel, much less assert, any superiority of station. He had the largest ranch in the country and was one of the few men making money.

Ashley's chief friend, or, at least, most frequent companion, was a man whom they called "The Duke." No one knew his name, but every one said he was "the son of a lord," and certainly from his style and bearing he might be the son of almost anything that was high enough in rank. He drew "a remittance," but, as that was paid through Ashley, no one knew whence it came nor how much it was. He was a perfect picture of a man, and in all western virtues was easily first. He could rope a steer, bunch cattle, play poker or drink whisky to the admiration of his friends and the confusion of his foes, of whom he had a few; while as to "bronco busting," the virtue par excellence of western cattle-men, even Bronco Bill was heard to acknowledge that "he wasn't in it with the Dook, for it was his opinion that he could ride anythin' that had legs in under it, even if it was a blanked centipede." And this, coming from one who made a profession of "bronco busting," was unquestionably high praise. The Duke lived alone, except when he deigned to pay a visit to some lonely rancher who, for the marvellous charm of his talk, was delighted to have him as guest, even at the expense of the loss of a few games at poker. He made a friend of no one, though some men could tell of times when he stood between them and their last dollar, exacting only the promise that no mention should be made of his deed. He had an easy, lazy manner and a slow cynical smile that rarely left his face, and the only sign of deepening passion in him was a little broadening of his smile. Old Latour, who kept the Stopping Place, told me how once The Duke had broken into a gentle laugh. A French half-breed freighter on his way north had entered into a game of poker with The Duke, with the result that his six months' pay stood in a little heap at his enemy's left hand. The enraged freighter accused his smiling opponent of being a cheat, and was proceeding to demolish him with one mighty blow. But The Duke, still smiling, and without moving from his chair, caught the descending fist, slowly crushed the fingers open, and steadily drew the Frenchman to his knees, gripping him so cruelly in the meantime that he was forced to cry aloud in agony for mercy. Then it was that The Duke broke into a light laugh and, touching the kneeling Frenchman on his cheek with his finger-tips, said: "Look here, my man, you shouldn't play the game till you know how to do it and with whom you play." Then, handing him back the money, he added: "I want money, but not yours." Then, as he sat looking at the unfortunate wretch dividing his attention between his money and his bleeding fingers, he once more broke into a gentle laugh that was not good to hear.

The Duke was by all odds the most striking figure in the Company of the Noble Seven, and his word went farther than that of any other. His shadow was Bruce, an Edinburgh University man, metaphysical, argumentative, persistent, devoted to The Duke. Indeed, his chief ambition was to attain to The Duke's high and lordly manner; but, inasmuch as he was rather squat in figure and had an open, good- natured face and a Scotch voice of the hard and rasping kind, his attempts at imitation were not conspicuously successful. Every mail that reached Swan Creek brought him a letter from home. At first, after I had got to know him, he would give me now and then a letter to read, but as the tone became more and more anxious he ceased to let me read them, and I was glad enough of this. How he could read those letters and go the pace of the Noble Seven I could not see. Poor Bruce! He had good impulses, a generous heart, but the "Permit" nights and the hunts and the "roundups" and the poker and all the wild excesses of the Company were more than he could stand.

Then there were the two Hill brothers, the younger, Bertie, a fair- haired, bright-faced youngster, none too able to look after himself, but much inclined to follies of all degrees and sorts. But he was warm-hearted and devoted to his big brother, Humphrey, called "Hump," who had taken to ranching mainly with the idea of looking after his younger brother. And no easy matter that was, for every one liked the lad and in consequence helped him down.

In addition to these there were two others of the original seven, but by force of circumstances they were prevented from any more than a nominal connection with the Company. Blake, a typical wild Irishman, had joined the police at the Fort, and Gifford had got married and, as Bill said, "was roped tighter'n a steer."

The Noble Company, with the cowboys that helped on the range and two or three farmers that lived nearer the Fort, composed the settlers of the Swan Creek country. A strange medley of people of all ranks and nations, but while among them there were the evil- hearted and evil-living, still, for the Noble Company I will say that never have I fallen in with men braver, truer, or of warmer heart. Vices they had, all too apparent and deadly, but they were due rather to the circumstances of their lives than to the native tendencies of their hearts. Throughout that summer and the winter following I lived among them, camping on the range with them and sleeping in their shacks, bunching cattle in summer and hunting wolves in winter, nor did I, for I was no wiser than they, refuse my part on "Permit" nights; but through all not a man of them ever failed to be true to his standard of honor in the duties of comradeship and brotherhood.