Chapter X. The Rodeo.
 

As the remaining weeks of the summer passed, Patches spent the days riding the range with Phil, and, under the careful eye of that experienced teacher, made rapid progress in the work he had chosen to master. The man's intense desire to succeed, his quick intelligence, with his instinct for acting without hesitation, and his reckless disregard for personal injury, together with his splendid physical strength, led him to a mastery of the details of a cowboy's work with remarkable readiness.

Occasionally the two Cross-Triangle riders saw the men from Tailholt Mountain, sometimes merely sighting them in the distance, and, again, meeting them face to face at some watering place or on the range. When it happened that Nick Cambert was thus forced to keep up a show of friendly relations with the Cross-Triangle, the few commonplaces of the country were exchanged, but always the Tailholt Mountain man addressed his words to Phil, and, save for surly looks, ignored the foreman's companion. He had evidently--as Patches had said that he would--come to realize that he could not afford to arouse the cattlemen to action against him, as he would certainly have done, had he attempted to carry out his threat to "get" the man who had so humiliated him.

But Patches' strange interest in Yavapai Joe in no way lessened. Always he had a kindly word for the poor unfortunate, and sought persistently to win the weakling's friendship. And Phil seeing this wondered, but held his peace.

Frequently Kitty Reid, sometimes alone, often with the other members of the Reid household, came across the big meadow to spend an evening at the neighboring ranch. Sometimes Phil and Patches, stopping at the Pot-Hook-S home ranch, at the close of the day, for a drink at the windmill pump, would linger a while for a chat with Kitty, who would come from the house to greet them. And now and then Kitty, out for a ride on Midnight, would chance to meet the two Cross-Triangle men on the range, and so would accompany them for an hour or more.

And thus the acquaintance between Patches and the girl grew into friendship; for Kitty loved to talk with this man of the things that play so large a part in that life which so appealed to her; and, with Phil's ever-ready and hearty endorsement of Patches, she felt safe in permitting the friendship to develop. And Patches, quietly observing, with now and then a conversational experiment--at which game he was an adepts--came to understand, almost as well as if he had been told, Phil's love for Kitty and her attitude toward the cowboy--her one-time schoolmate and sweetheart. Many times when the three were together, and the talk, guided by Kitty, led far from Phil's world, the cowboy would sit a silent listener, until Patches would skillfully turn the current back to the land of Granite Mountain and the life in which Phil had so vital a part.

In the home-life at the Cross-Triangle, too, Patches gradually came to hold his own peculiar place. His cheerful helpfulness, and gentle, never-failing courtesy, no less than the secret pain and sadness that sometimes, at some chance remark, drove the light from his face and brought that wistful look into his eyes, won Mrs. Baldwin's heart. Many an evening under his walnut trees, with Stella and Phil and Curly and Bob and Little Billy near, the Dean was led by the rare skill and ready wit of Patches to open the book of his kindly philosophy, as he talked of the years that were past. And sometimes Patches himself, yielding to temptation offered by the Dean, would speak in such vein that the older man came to understand that this boy, as he so often called him, had somewhere, somehow, already experienced that Gethsemane which soon or late--the Dean maintains--leaves its shadow upon us all. The cowboys, for his quick and genuine appreciation of their skill and knowledge, as well as for his unassuming courage, hearty good nature and ready laugh, took him into their fellowship without question or reserve, while Little Billy, loyal ever to his ideal, "Wild Horse Phil," found a large place in his boyish heart for the tenderfoot who was so ready always to recognize superior wisdom and authority.

So the stranger found his place among them, and in finding it, found also, perhaps, that which he most sorely needed.

When rodeo time came Patches was given a "string" of horses and, through the hard, grilling work that followed, took his place among the riders. There was no leisurely roaming over the range now, with only an occasional short dash after some animal that needed the "iron" or the "dope can;" but systematically and thoroughly the thirty or forty cowboys covered the country--mountain and mesa and flat, and wash and timbered ridge and rocky pass--for many miles in every direction.

In this section of the great western cattle country, at the time of my story, the round-ups were cooperative. Each of the several ranchers whose cattle, marked by the owner's legally recorded brand, ranged over a common district that was defined only by natural boundaries, was represented in the rodeo by one or two or more of his cowboys, the number of his riders being relative to the number of cattle marked with his iron. This company of riders, each with from three to five saddle horses in his string, would assemble at one of the ranches participating in the rodeo. From this center they would work until a circle of country within riding distance was covered, the cattle gathered and "worked"--or, in other words, sorted--and the animals belonging to the various owners disposed of as the representatives were instructed by their employers. Then the rodeo would move to another ranch, and would so continue until the entire district of many miles was covered. The owner or the foreman of each ranch was in charge of the rodeo as long as the riders worked in his territory. When the company moved to the next point, this loader took his place in the ranks, and cheerfully received his orders from some comrade, who, the day before, had been as willingly obedient to him. There was little place in the rodeo for weak, incompetent or untrustworthy men. Each owner, from his long experience and knowledge of men, sent as his representatives the most skillful and conscientious riders that he could secure. To make a top hand at a rodeo a man needed to be, in the truest sense, a man.

Before daylight, the horse wrangler had driven in the saddle band, and the men, with nose bags fashioned from grain sacks, were out in the corral to give the hard-working animals their feed of barley. The gray quiet of the early dawn was rudely broken by the sounds of the crowding, jostling, kicking, squealing band, mingled with the merry voices of the men, with now and then a shout of anger or warning as the cowboys moved here and there among their restless four-footed companions; and always, like a deep undertone, came the sound of trampling, iron-shod hoofs.

Before the sky had changed to crimson and gold the call sounded from the ranch house, "Come and get it!" and laughing and joking in friendly rivalry, the boys rushed to breakfast. It was no dainty meal of toast and light cereals that these hardy ones demanded. But huge cuts of fresh-killed beef, with slabs of bread, and piles of potatoes, and stacks of hot cakes, and buckets of coffee, and whatever else the hard-working Chinaman could lay his hands on to satisfy their needs. As soon as each man reached the utmost limit of his capacity, he left the table without formality, and returned to the corral, where, with riata or persuasion, as the case demanded, he selected from his individual string of horses his first mount for the day.

By the time the sun was beginning to gild the summit of old Granite Mountain's castle-like walls, and touch with glorious color the peaks of the neighboring sentinel hills, the last rider had saddled, and the company was mounted and ready for their foreman's word. Then to the music of jingling spurs, tinkling bridle chains, squeaking saddle leather, and the softer swish and rustle and flap of chaps, romals and riatas, they rode forth, laughing and joking, still, with now and then a roaring chorus of shouting comment or wild yells, as some half-broken horse gave an exhibition of his prowess in a mad effort to unseat his grinning rider.

Soon the leader would call the name of a cowboy, known to be particularly familiar with the country which was to be the scene of that day's work, and telling him to take two or three or more men, as the case might be, would direct him to ride over a certain section, indicating the assigned territory by its natural marks of valley or flat or wash or ridge, and designating the point where the cattle would first be brought together. The cowboy named would rein his horse aside from the main company, calling the men of his choice as he did so, and a moment later with his companions would be lost to sight. A little farther, and again the foreman would name a rider, and, telling him to pick his men, would assign to him another section of the district to be covered, and this cowboy, with his chosen mates, would ride away. These smaller groups would, in their turn, separate, and thus the entire company of riders would open out like a huge fan to sweep the countryside.

It was no mere pleasure canter along smoothly graded bridle paths or well-kept country highways that these men rode. From roughest rock-strewn mountain side and tree-clad slope, from boulder-piled watercourse and tangled brush, they must drive in the scattered cattle. At reckless speed, as their quarry ran and turned and dodged, they must hesitate at nothing. Climbing to the tops of the hills, scrambling catlike to the ragged crests of the ridges, sliding down the bluffs, jumping deep arroyos, leaping brush and boulders, twisting, dodging through the timber, they must go as fast as the strength and endurance of their mounts would permit. And so, gradually, as the sun climbed higher above the peaks and crags of Old Granite, the great living fan of men and horses closed, the courses of the widely scattered riders leading them, with the cattle they had found, to the given point.

And now, the cattle, urged by the active horsemen, came streaming from the different sections to form the herd, and the quiet of the great range was broken by the bawling of confused and frightened calves, the lowing of anxious mothers, the shrill, long-drawn call of the steers, and the deep bellowing of the bulls, as the animals, so rudely driven from their peaceful feeding grounds, moved restlessly within the circle of guarding cowboys, while cows found their calves, and the monarchs of the range met in fierce combat.

A number of the men--those whose mounts most needed the rest--were now left to hold the herd, or, perhaps, to move it quietly on to some other point, while the others were again sent out to cover another section of the territory included in that day's riding. As the hours passed, and the great fan of horsemen opened and closed, sweeping the cattle scattered over the range into the steadily growing herd, the rodeo moved gradually toward some chosen open flat or valley that afforded a space large enough for the operations that followed the work of gathering. At this "rodeo ground" a man would be waiting with fresh mounts for the riders, and, sometimes, with lunch. Quickly, those whose names were called by the foreman would change their saddles from dripping, exhausted horses to fresh animals from their individual strings, snatch a hasty lunch--often to be eaten in the saddle--and then, in their turn, would hold the cattle while their companions followed their example.

Then came the fast, hot work of "parting" the cattle. The representatives from one of the ranches interested would ride in among the cattle held by the circle of cowboys, and, following their instructions, would select such animals bearing their employer's brand as were wanted, cutting them out and passing them through the line of guarding riders, to be held in a separate group. When the representatives of one owner had finished, they were followed by the men who rode for some other outfit; and so on, until the task of "parting" was finished.

As the afternoon sun moved steadily toward the skyline of the western hills, the tireless activity of men and horses continued. The cattle, as the mounted men moved among them, drifted about, crowding and jostling, in uneasy discontent, with sometimes an indignant protest, and many attempts at escape by the more restless and venturesome. When an animal was singled out, the parting horses, chosen and prized for their quickness, dashed here and there through the herd with fierce leaps and furious rushes, stopping short in a terrific sprint to whirl, flashlike, and charge in another direction, as the quarry dodged and doubled. And now and then an animal would succeed for the moment in passing the guard line, only to be brought back after a short, sharp chase by the nearest cowboy. From the rodeo ground, where for long years the grass had been trampled out, the dust, lifted by the trampling thousands of hoofs in a dense, choking cloud, and heavy with the pungent odor of warm cattle and the smell of sweating horses, rising high into the clear air, could be seen from miles away, while the mingled voices of the bellowing, bawling herd, with now and then the shrill, piercing yells of the cowboys, could be heard almost as far.

When this part of the work was over, some of the riders set out to drive the cattle selected to the distant home ranch corrals, while others of the company remained to brand the calves and to start the animals that were to have their freedom until the next rodeo time back to the open range. And so, at last--often not until the stars were out--the riders would dismount at the home corrals of the ranch that, at the time, was the center of their operations, or, perhaps, at some rodeo camping ground.

At supper the day's work was reviewed with many a laugh and jest of pointed comment, and then, those whose horses needed attention because of saddle sores or, it might be, because of injuries from some fall on the rocks, busied themselves at the corral, while others met for a friendly game of cards, or talked and yarned over restful pipe or cigarette. And then, bed and blankets, and, all too soon, the reveille sounded by the beating hoofs of the saddle band as the wrangler drove them in, announced the beginning of another day.

Not infrequently there were accidents--from falling horses--from angry bulls--from ill-tempered steers, or excited cows--or, perhaps, from a carelessly handled rope in some critical moment. Horses were killed; men with broken limbs, or with bodies bruised and crushed, were forced to drop out; and many a strong horseman who rode forth in the morning to the day's work, laughing and jesting with his mates, had been borne by his grave and silent comrades to some quiet resting place, to await, in long and dreamless sleep, the morning of that last great rodeo which, we are told, shall gather us all.

Day after day, as Patches rode with these hardy men, Phil watched him finding himself and winning his place among the cowboys. They did not fail, as they said, to "try him out." Nor did Phil, in these trials, attempt in any way to assist his pupil. But the men learned very quickly, as Curly had learned at the time of Patches' introduction, that, while the new man was always ready to laugh with them when a joke was turned against himself, there was a line beyond which it was not well to go. In the work he was, of course, assigned only to such parts as did not require the skill and knowledge of long training and experience. But he did all that was given him to do with such readiness and skill, thanks to Phil's teaching, that the men wondered. And this, together with his evident ability in the art of defending himself, and the story of his strange coming to the Cross-Triangle, caused not a little talk, with many and varied opinions as to who he was, and what it was that had brought him among them. Strangely enough, very few believed that Patches' purpose in working as a cowboy for the Dean was simply to earn an honest livelihood. They felt instinctively--as, in fact, did Phil and the Dean--that there was something more beneath it all than such a commonplace.

Nick Cambert, who, with Yavapai Joe, rode in the rodeo, carefully avoided the stranger. But Patches, by his persistent friendly interest in the Tailholt Mountain man's follower, added greatly to the warmth of the discussions and conjectures regarding himself. The rodeo had reached the Pot-Hook-S Ranch, with Jim Reid in charge, when the incident occurred which still further stimulated the various opinions and suggestions as to the new man's real character and mission.

They were working the cattle that day on the rodeo ground just outside the home ranch corral. Phil and Curly were cutting out some Cross-Triangle steers, when the riders, who were holding the cattle, saw them separate a nine-months-old calf from the herd, and start it, not toward the cattle they had already cut out, but toward the corral.

Instantly everybody knew what had happened.

The cowboy nearest the gate did not need Phil's word to open it for his neighbor next in line to drive the calf inside.

Not a word was said until the calves to be branded were also driven into the corral. Then Phil, after a moment's talk with Jim Reid, rode up to Nick Cambert, who was sitting on his horse a little apart from the group of intensely interested cowboys. The Cross-Triangle foreman's tone was curt. "I reckon I'll have to trouble you to vent your brand on that Cross-Triangle calf, Nick."

The Tailholt Mountain man made no shallow pretense that he did not understand. "Not by a damn sight," he returned roughly. "I ain't raisin' calves for Bill Baldwin, an' I happen to know what I'm talkin' about this trip. That's a Four-Bar-M calf, an' I branded him myself over in Horse Wash before he left the cow. Some of your punchers are too damned handy with their runnin' irons, Mr. Wild Horse Phil."

For a moment Phil looked at the man, while Jim Reid moved his horse nearer, and the cowboys waited, breathlessly. Then, without taking his eyes from the Tailholt Mountain man's face, Phil called sharply:

"Patches, come here!"

There was a sudden movement among the riders, and a subdued murmur, as Patches rode forward.

"Is that calf you told me about in the corral, Patches?" asked Phil, when the man was beside him.

"Yes, sir; that's him over there by that brindle cow." Patches indicated the animal in question.

"And you put our iron on him?" asked Phil, still watching Nick.

"I did," returned Patches, coolly.

"Tell us about it," directed the Dean's foreman.

And Patches obeyed, briefly. "It was that day you sent me to fix the fence on the southwest corner of the big pasture. I saw a bunch of cattle a little way outside the fence, and went to look them over. This calf was following a Cross-Triangle cow."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, sir. I watched them for half an hour."

"What was in the bunch?"

"Four steers, a Pot-Hook-S bull, five cows and this calf. There were three Five-Bar cows, one Diamond-and-a-Half and one Cross-Triangle. The calf went to the Cross-Triangle cow every time. And, besides, he is marked just like his mother. I saw her again this afternoon while we were working the cattle."

Phil nodded. "I know her."

Jim Reid was watching Patches keenly, with a quiet look now and then at Nick.

The cowboys were murmuring among themselves.

"Pretty good work for a tenderfoot!"

"Tenderfoot, hell!"

"They've got Nick this trip."

"Got nothin'! Can't you see it's a frame-up?"

Phil spoke to Nick. "Well, are satisfied? Will you vent your brand?"

The big man's face was distorted with passion. "Vent nothin'," he roared. "On the word of a damned sneakin' tenderfoot! I--"

He stopped, as Patches, before Phil could check the movement, pushed close to his side.

In the sudden stillness the new man's cool, deliberate voice sounded clearly. "I am positive that you made a mistake when you put your iron on that calf, Mr. Cambert. And," he added slowly, as though with the kindest possible intention, "I am sure that you can safely take my word for it without further question."

For a moment Nick glared at Patches, speechless. Then, to the amazement of every cowboy in the corral, the big man mumbled a surly something, and took down his riata to rope the calf and disclaim his ownership of the animal.

Jim Reid shook his head in puzzled doubt.

The cowboys were clearly divided.

"He's too good a hand for a tenderfoot," argued one; "carried that off like an old-timer."

"'Tain't like Nick to lay down so easy for anybody," added another.

"Nick's on to something about Mr. Patches that we ain't next to," insisted a third.

"Or else we're all bein' strung for a bunch of suckers," offered still another.

"You boys just hold your horses, an' ride easy," said Curly. "My money's still on Honorable Patches."

And Bob added his loyal support with his cheerful "Me, too!"

"It all looked straight enough," Jim Reid admitted to the Dean that evening, "but I can't get away from the notion that there was some sort of an understanding between your man an' that damned Tailholt Mountain thief. It looked like it was all too quiet an' easy somehow; like it had been planned beforehand."

The Dean laughingly told his neighbor that he was right; that there was an understanding between Patches and Nick, and then explained by relating how Patches had met the Tailholt Mountain men that day at the spring.

When the Dean had finished the big cowman asked several very suggestive questions. How did the Dean know that Patches' story was anything more than a cleverly arranged tale, invented for the express purpose of allaying any suspicion as to his true relationship with Nick? If Patches' character was so far above suspicion, why did he always dodge any talk that might touch his past? Was it necessary or usual for men to keep so close-mouthed about themselves? What did the Dean, or anyone else, for that matter, really know about this man who had appeared so strangely from nowhere, and had given a name even that was so plainly a ridiculous invention? The Dean must remember that the suspicion as to the source of Nick's too rapidly increasing herds had, so far, been directed wholly against Nick himself, and that the owner of the Four-Bar-M iron was not altogether a fool. It was quite time, Reid argued, for Nick to cease his personal activities, and to trust the actual work of branding to some confederate whose movements would not be so closely questioned. In short, Reid had been expecting some stranger to seek a job with some of the ranches that were in a position to contribute to the Tailholt Mountain outfit, and, for his part, he would await developments before becoming too enthusiastic over Honorable Patches.

All of which the good Dean found very hard to answer.

"But look here, Jim," he protested, "don't you go makin' it unpleasant for the boy. Whatever you think, you don't know any more than the rest of us. If we're guessin' on one side, you're guessin' on the other. I admit that what you say sounds reasonable; but, hang it, I like Patches. As for his name--well--we didn't use to go so much on names, in this country, you know. The boy may have some good reason for not talkin' about himself. Just give him a square chance; don't put no burrs under his saddle blanket--that's all I'm askin'."

Jim laughed. The speech was so characteristic of the Dean, and Jim Reid loved his old friend and neighbor, as all men did, for being, as was commonly said, "so easy."

"Don't worry, Will," he answered. "I'm not goin' to start anything. If I should happen to be right about Mr. Honorable Patches, he's exactly where we want him. I propose to keep my eye on him, that's all. And I think you an' Phil had better do the same."