Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter VII. The Round-Up
 

"Would you like to take in the round-up to-day?"

Arlie flung the question at Fraser with a frank directness of sloe-black eyes that had never known coquetry. She was washing handkerchiefs, and her sleeves were rolled to the elbows of the slender, but muscular, coffee-brown arms.

"I would."

"If you like you may ride out with me to Willow Spring. I have some letters to take to dad."

"Suits me down to the ground, ma'am."

It was a morning beautiful even for Wyoming. The spring called potently to the youth in them. The fine untempered air was like wine, and out of a blue sky the sun beat pleasantly down through a crystal-clear atmosphere known only to the region of the Rockies. Nature was preaching a wordless sermon on the duty of happiness to two buoyant hearts that scarce needed it.

Long before they reached the scene of the round-up they could hear the almost continual bawl of worried cattle, and could even see the cloud of dust they stirred. They passed the remuda, in charge of two lads lounging sleepily in their saddles with only an occasional glance at the bunch of grazing horses they were watching. Presently they looked down from a high ridge at the busy scene below.

Out of Lost Valley ran a hundred rough and wooded gulches to the impassable cliff wall which bounded it. Into one of these they now descended slowly, letting their ponies pick a way among the loose stones and shale which covered the steep hillside.

What their eyes fell upon was cattle-land at its busiest. Several hundred wild hill cattle were gathered in the green draw, and around them was a cordon of riders holding the gather steady. Now and again one of the cows would make a dash to escape, and instantly the nearest rider would wheel, as on a batter's plate, give chase, and herd the animal back after a more or less lengthy pursuit.

Several of the riders were cutting out from the main herd cows with unmarked calves, which last were immediately roped and thrown. Usually it took only an instant to determine with whose cow the calf had been, and a few seconds to drive home the correct brand upon the sizzling flank. Occasionally the discussion was more protracted, in order to solve a doubt as to the ownership, and once a calf was released that it might again seek its mother to prove identity.

Arlie observed that Fraser's eyes were shining.

"I used to be a puncher myse'f," he explained. "I tell you it feels good to grip a saddle between your knees, and to swallow the dust and hear the bellow of the cows. I used to live in them days. I sure did."

A boyish puncher galloped past with a whoop and waved his hat to Arlie. For two weeks he had been in the saddle for fourteen hours out of the twenty-four. He was grimy with dust, and hollow-eyed from want of sleep. A stubbly beard covered his brick-baked face. But the unquenchable gayety of the youthful West could not be extinguished. Though his flannel shirt gaped where the thorns had torn it, and the polka-dot bandanna round his throat was discolored with sweat, he was as blithely debonair as ever.

"That's Dick France. He's a great friend of mine," Arlie explained.

"Dick's in luck," Fraser commented, but whether because he was enjoying himself so thoroughly or because he was her friend the ranger did not explain.

They stayed through the day, and ate dinner at the tail of the chuck wagon with the cattlemen. The light of the camp fires, already blazing in the nipping night air, shone brightly. The ranger rode back with her to the ranch, but next morning he asked Arlie if she could lend him an old pair of chaps discarded by her father.

She found a pair for him.

"If you don't mind, I'll ride out to the round-up and stay with the boys a few days," he suggested.

"You're going to ride with them," she accused.

"I thought I would. I'm not going to saddle myse'f on you two ladies forever."

"You know we're glad to have you. But that isn't it. What about your heart? You know you can't ride the range."

He flushed, and knew again that feeling of contempt for himself, or, to be more exact, for his position.

"I'll be awful careful, Miss Arlie," was all he found to say.

She could not urge him further, lest he misunderstand her.

"Of course, you know best," she said, with a touch of coldness.

He saddled Teddy and rode back. The drive for the day was already on, but he fell in beside young France and did his part. Before two days had passed he was accepted as one of these hard-riding punchers, for he was a competent vaquero and stood the grueling work as one born to it. He was, moreover, well liked, both because he could tell a good story and because these sons of Anak recognized in him that dynamic quality of manhood they could not choose but respect. In this a fortunate accident aided him.

They were working Lost Creek, a deep and rapid stream at the point where the drive ended. The big Norwegian, Siegfried, trying to head off a wild cow racing along the bank with tail up, got too near the edge. The bank caved beneath the feet of his pony, and man and horse went head first into the turbid waters. Fraser galloped up at once, flung himself from his saddle, and took in at a glance the fact that the big blond Hercules could not swim.

The Texan dived for him as he was going down, got hold of him by the hair, and after a struggle managed somehow to reach the farther shore. As they both lay there, one exhausted, and the other fighting for the breath he had nearly lost forever, Dillon reached the bank.

"Is it all right, Steve?" he called anxiously.

"All right," grinned the ranger weakly. "He'll go on many a spree yet. Eh, Siegfried?"

The Norwegian nodded. He was still frightened and half drowned. It was not till they were riding up the creek to find a shallow place they could ford that he spoke his mind.

"Ay bane all in ven you got me, pardner."

"Oh, you were still kicking."

"Ay bane t'ink Ay had van chance not to get out. But Ay bane not forget dees. Eef you ever get in a tight place, send vor Sig Siegfried."

"That's all right, Sig."

Nobody wasted any compliments on him. After the fashion of their kind, they guyed the Norwegian about the bath he had taken. Nevertheless, Fraser knew that he had won the liking of these men, as well as their deep respect. They began to call him by his first name, which hitherto only Dillon had done, and they included him in the rough, practical jokes they played on each other.

One night they initiated him-- an experience to be both dreaded and desired. To be desired because it implies the conferring of the thirty-second degree of the freemasonry of Cattleland's approval; to be dreaded because hazing is mild compared with some features of the exercises.

Fraser was dragged from sweet slumber, pegged face down on his blankets, with a large-sized man at the extremity of each arm and leg, and introduced to a chapping. Dick France wielded the chaps vigorously upon the portions of his anatomy where they would do the most execution. The Texan did not enjoy it, but he refrained from saying so. When he was freed, he sat down painfully on a saddle and remarked amiably:

"You're a beautiful bunch, ain't you? Anybody got any smoking?"

This proper acceptance of their attentions so delighted these overgrown children that they dug up three bottles of whisky that were kept in camp for rattlesnake bites, and made Rome howl. They had ridden all day, and for many weary days before that; but they were started toward making a night of it when Dillon appeared.

Dillon was boss of the round-up-- he had been elected by general consent, and his word was law. He looked round upon them with a twinkling eye, and wanted to know how long it was going to last. But the way he put his question was:

"How much whisky is there left?"

Finding there was none, he ordered them all back to their blankets. After a little skylarking, they obeyed. Next day Fraser rode the hills, a sore, sore man. But nobody who did not know could have guessed it. He would have died before admitting it to any of his companions. Thus he won the accolade of his peers as a worthy horse-man of the hills.