When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XI. After the Rodeo.
As the fall rodeo swept on its way over the wide ranges, the last reluctant bits of summer passed, and hints of the coming winter began to appear The yellow glory of the goldenrod, and the gorgeous banks of color on sunflower flats faded to earthy russet and brown; the white cups of the Jimson weed were broken and lost; the dainty pepper-grass, the thin-leafed grama-grass, and the heavier bladed bear-grass of the great pasture lands were dry and tawny; and the broom-weed that had tufted the rolling hills with brighter green, at the touch of the first frost, turned a dull and somber gray; while the varied beauties of the valley meadows became even as the dead and withered leaves of the Dean's walnut trees that, in falling, left the widespread limbs and branches so bare.
Then the rodeo and the shipping were over; the weeks of the late fall range riding were past--and it was winter.
From skyline to skyline the world was white, save for the dark pines upon the mountain sides, the brighter cedars and junipers upon the hills and ridges, and the living green of the oak brush, that, when all else was covered with snow, gave the cattle their winter feed.
More than ever, now, with the passing of the summer and fall, Kitty longed for the stirring life that, in some measure, had won her from the scenes of her home and from her homeland friends. The young woman's friendship with Patches--made easy by the fact that the Baldwins had taken him so wholly into their hearts--served to keep alive her memories of that world to which she was sure he belonged, and such memories did not tend to make Kitty more contented and happy in Williamson Valley.
Toward Phil, Kitty was unchanged. Many times her heart called for him so insistently that she wished she had never learned to know any life other than that life to which they had both been born. If only she had not spent those years away from home--she often told herself--it would all have been so different. She could have been happy with Phil--very happy--if only she had remained in his world. But now--now she was afraid--afraid for him as well as for herself. Her friendship with Patches had, in so many ways, emphasized the things that stood between her and the man whom, had it not been for her education, she would have accepted so gladly as her mate.
Many times when the three were together, and Kitty had led the talk far from the life with which the cowboy was familiar, the young woman was forced, against the wish of her heart, to make comparisons. Kitty did not understand that Phil--unaccustomed to speaking of things outside his work and the life interests of his associates, and timid always in expressing his own thoughts--found it very hard to reveal the real wealth of his mind to her when she assumed so readily that he knew nothing beyond his horses and cattle. But Patches, to whom Phil had learned to speak with little reserve, understood. And, knowing that the wall which the girl felt separated her from the cowboy was built almost wholly of her own assumptions, Patches never lost an opportunity to help the young woman to a fuller acquaintance with the man whom she thought she had known since childhood.
During the long winter months, many an evening at the Cross-Triangle, at the Reid home, or, perhaps, at some neighborhood party or dance, afforded Kitty opportunities for a fuller understanding of Phil, but resulted only in establishing a closer friendship with Patches.
Then came the spring.
The snow melted; the rains fell; the washes and creek channels were filled with roaring floods; hill and ridge and mountain slope and mesa awoke to the new life that was swelling in every branch and leaf and blade; the beauties of the valley meadow appeared again in fresh and fragrant loveliness; while from fence-post and bush and grassy bank and new-leaved tree the larks and mocking birds and doves voiced their glad return.
And, with the spring, came a guest to the Cross-Triangle Ranch--another stranger.
Patches had been riding the drift fence, and, as he made his way toward the home ranch, in the late afternoon, he looked a very different man from the Patches who, several months before, had been rescued by Kitty from a humiliating experience with that same fence.
The fact that he was now riding Stranger, the big bay with the blazed face, more than anything else, perhaps, marked the change that had come to the man whom the horse had so viciously tested, on that day when they began together their education and work on the Cross-Triangle Ranch.
No one meeting the cowboy, who handled his powerful and wild spirited mount with such easy confidence and skill, would have identified him with the white-faced, well-tailored gentleman whom Phil had met on the Divide. The months of active outdoor life had given his tall body a lithe and supple strength that was revealed in his every movement, while wind and sun had stained his skin that deep tan which marks those who must face the elements every waking hour. Prom tinkling bridle chain and jingling spur, to the coiled riata, his equipment showed the unmistakable marks of use. His fringed chaps, shaped, by many a day in the saddle, to his long legs, expressed experience, while his broad hat, soiled by sweat and dust, had acquired individuality, and his very jumper--once blue but now faded and patched--disclaimed the tenderfoot.
Riding for a little way along the top of the ridge that forms the western edge of the valley, Patches looked down upon the red roofs of the buildings of the home ranch, and smiled as he thought of the welcome that awaited him there at the close of his day's work. The Dean and Stella, with Little Billy, and Phil, and the others of the home circle, had grown very dear to this strong man of whom they still knew nothing; and great as was the change in his outward appearance and manner, the man himself knew that there were other changes as great. Honorable Patches had not only acquired a name and a profession, but in acquiring them he had gained something of much greater worth to himself. And so he was grateful to those who, taking him on trust, had helped him more than they knew.
He had left the ridge, and was half way across the flat toward the corrals, when Little Billy, spurring old Sheep in desperate energy, rode wildly out to meet him.
As the lad approached, he greeted his big friend with shrill, boyish shouts, and Patches answered with a cowboy yell which did credit to his training, while Stranger, with a wild, preliminary bound into the air, proceeded, with many weird contortions, to give an exhibition which fairly expressed his sentiments.
Little Billy grinned with delight. "Yip! Yip! Yee-e-e!" he shrilled, for Stranger's benefit. And then, as the big horse continued his manifestations, the lad added the cowboy's encouraging admonition to the rider. "Stay with him, Patches! Stay with him!"
Patches laughingly stayed with him. "What you aimin' to do, pardner"--he asked good-naturedly, when Stranger at last consented to keep two feet on the ground at the same time--"tryin' to get me piled?"
"Shucks!" retorted the youngster admiringly. "I don't reckon anything could pile you, now. I come out to tell you that we got company," he added, as, side by side, they rode on toward the corrals.
Patches was properly surprised. "Company!" he exclaimed.
Little Billy grinned proudly. "Yep. He's a man--from way back East somewhere. Uncle Will brought him out from town. They got here just after dinner. I don't guess he's ever seen a ranch before. Gee! but won't we have fun with him!"
Patches face was grave as he listened. "How do you know he is from the East, Billy?" he asked, concealing his anxious interest with a smile at his little comrade.
"Heard Uncle Will tell Phil and Kitty."
"Oh, Kitty is at the house, too, is she?"
Billy giggled. "She an' Phil's been off somewheres ridin' together most all day; they just got back a while ago. They was talkin' with the company when I left. Phil saw you when you was back there on the ridge, an' I come on out to tell you."
Phil and Kitty were walking toward their horses, which were standing near the corral fence, as Patches and Little Billy came through the gate.
The boy dropped from his saddle, and ran on into the house to tell his Aunt Stella that Patches had come, leaving Sheep to be looked after by whoever volunteered for the service. It was one of Little Billy's humiliations that he was not yet tall enough to saddle or bridle his own horse, and the men tactfully saw to it that his mount was always ready in the morning, and properly released at night, without any embarrassing comments on the subject.
Patches checked his horse, and without dismounting greeted his friends. "You're not going?" he said to Kitty, with a note of protest in his voice. "I haven't seen you for a week. It's not fair for Phil to take advantage of his position and send me off somewhere alone while he spends his time riding over the country with you."
They laughed up at him as he sat there on the big bay, hat in hand, looking down into their upturned faces with the intimate, friendly interest of an older brother.
Patches noticed that Kitty's eyes were bright with excitement, and that Phil's were twinkling with suppressed merriment.
"I must go, Patches," said the young woman. "I ought to have gone two hours ago; but I was so interested that the time slipped away before I realized."
"We have company," explained Phil, looking at Patches and deliberately closing one eye--the one that Kitty could not see. "A distinguished guest, if you please. I'll loan you a clean shirt for supper; that is, if mother lets you eat at the same table with him."
"Phil, how can you!" protested Kitty.
The two men laughed, but Phil fancied that there was a hint of anxiety in Patches' face, as the man on the horse said, "Little Billy broke the news to me. Who is he?"
"A friend of Judge Morris in Prescott," answered Phil. "The Judge asked Uncle Will to take him on the ranch for a while. He and the Judge were--"
Kitty interrupted with enthusiasm. "It is Professor Parkhill, Patches, the famous professor of aesthetics, you know: Everard Charles Parkhill. And he's going to spend the summer in Williamson Valley! Isn't it wonderful!"
Phil saw a look of relief in his friend's face as Patches answered Kitty with sympathetic interest. "It certainly will be a great pleasure, Miss Reid, especially for you, to have one so distinguished for his scholarship in the neighborhood. Is Professor Parkhill visiting Arizona for his health?"
Something in Patches' voice caused Phil to turn hastily aside.
But Kitty, who was thinking how perfectly Patches understood her, noticed nothing in his grave tones save his usual courteous deference.
"Partly because of his health," she answered, "but he is going to prepare a series of lectures, I understand. He says that in the crude and uncultivated mentalities of our--"
"Here he is now," interrupted Phil, as the distinguished guest of the Cross-Triangle appeared, coming slowly toward them.
Professor Everard Charles Parkhill looked the part to which, from his birth, he had been assigned by his over-cultured parents. His slender body, with its narrow shoulders and sunken chest, frail as it was, seemed almost too heavy for his feeble legs. His thin face, bloodless and sallow, with a sparse, daintily trimmed beard and weak watery eyes, was characterized by a solemn and portentous gravity, as though, realizing fully the profound importance of his mission in life, he could permit no trivial thought to enter his bald, domelike head. One knew instinctively that in all the forty-five or fifty years of his little life no happiness or joy that had not been scientifically sterilized and certified had ever been permitted to stain his super-aesthetic soul.
As he came forward, he gazed at the long-limbed man on the big bay horse with a curious eagerness, as though he were considering a strange and interesting creature that could scarcely be held to belong to the human race.
"Professor Parkhill," said Phil coolly, "you were saying that you had never seen a genuine cowboy in his native haunt. Permit me to introduce a typical specimen, Mr. Honorable Patches. Patches, this is Professor Parkhill."
"Phil," murmured Kitty, "how can you?"
The Professor was gazing at Patches as though fascinated. And Patches, his weather-beaten face as grave as the face of a wooden Indian, stared back at the Professor with a blank, open-mouthed and wild-eyed expression of rustic wonder that convulsed Phil and made Kitty turn away to hide a smile.
"Howdy! Proud to meet up with you, mister," drawled the typical specimen of the genus cowboy. And then, as though suddenly remembering his manners, he leaped to the ground and strode awkwardly forward, one hand outstretched in greeting, the other holding fast to Stranger's bridle rein, while the horse danced and plunged about with reckless indifference to the polite intentions of his master.
The Professor backed fearfully away from the dangerous looking horse and the equally formidable-appearing cowboy. Whereat Patches addressed Stranger with a roar of savage wrath.
"Whoa! You consarned, square-headed, stiff-legged, squint-eyed, lop-eared, four-flusher, you. Whoa, I tell you! Cain't you see I'm a-wantin' to shake hands with this here man what the boss has interduced me to?"
Phil nearly choked. Kitty was looking unutterable things. They did not know that Patches was suffering from a reaction caused by the discovery that he had never before met Professor Parkhill.
"You see, mister," he explained gravely, advancing again with Stranger following nervously, "this here fool horse ain't used to strangers, no how, 'specially them as don't look, as you might say, just natural like." He finished with a sheepish grin, as he grasped the visitor's soft little hand and pumped it up and down with virile energy. Then, staring with bucolic wonder at the distinguished representative of the highest culture, he asked, "Be you an honest-to-God professor? I've heard about such, but I ain't never seen one before."
The little man replied hurriedly, but with timid pride, "Certainly, sir; yes, certainly."
"You be!" exclaimed the cowboy, as though overcome by his nearness to such dignity. "Excuse me askin', but if you don't mind, now--what be you professor of?"
The other answered with more courage, as though his soul found strength in the very word: "Aesthetics."
The cowboy's jaw dropped, his mouth opened in gaping awe, and he looked from the professor to Phil and Kitty, as if silently appealing to them to verify this startling thing which he had heard. "You don't say!" he murmured at last in innocent admiration. "Well, now, to think of a little feller like you a-bein' all that! But jest what be them there esteticks what you're professor of--if you don't mind my askin'?"
The distinguished scholar answered promptly, in his best platform voice, "The science or doctrine of the nature of beauty and of judgments of tastes."
At this, Stranger, with a snort of fear, stood straight up on his hind legs, and Professor Parkhill scuttled to a position of safety behind Phil.
"Excuse me, folks," said Patches. "I'm just naturally obliged to 'tend to this here thing what thinks he's a hoss. Come along, you ornery, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, sway-backed, wooly-haired excuse, you. You ain't got no more manners 'n a measly coyote."
The famous professor of aesthetics stood with Phil and Kitty watching Patches as that gentleman relieved the dancing bay of the saddle, and led him away through the corrals to the gate leading into the meadow pasture.
"I beg pardon," murmured the visitor in his thin, little voice, "but what did I understand you to say is the fellow's name?"
"Patches; Honorable Patches," answered Phil.
"How strange! how extraordinarily strange! I should be very interested to know something of his ancestry, and, if possible, to trace the origin of such a peculiar name."
Phil replied with exaggerated concern. "For heaven's sake, sir, don't say anything about the man's name in his hearing."
"He--he is dangerous, you mean?"
"He is, if he thinks anyone is making light of his name. You should ask some of the boys who have tried it."
"But I--I assure you, Mr. Acton, I had no thought of ridicule--far from it. Oh, very far from it."
Kitty was obliged to turn away. She arrived at the corral in time to meet Patches, who was returning.
"You ought to be ashamed," she scolded. But in spite of herself her eyes were laughing.
"Yes, ma'am," said Patches meekly, hat in hand.
"How could you do such a thing?" she demanded.
"How could I help doing it?"
"How could you help it?"
"Yes. You saw how he looked at me. Really, Miss Reid, I couldn't bear to disappoint him so cruelly. Honestly, now, wasn't I exactly what he expected me to be? I think you should compliment me. Didn't I do it very well?"
"But, he'll think you're nothing but a cowboy," she protested.
"Fine!" retorted Patches, quickly. "I thank you, Miss Reid; that is really the most satisfactory compliment I have ever received."
"You're mocking me now," said Kitty, puzzled by his manner.
"Indeed, I am not. I am very serious," he returned. "But here he comes again. With your gracious permission, I'll make my exit. Please don't explain to the professor. It would humiliate me, and think how it would shock and disappoint him!"
Lifting his saddle from the ground and starting toward the shed, he said in a louder tone, "Sure, I won't ferget, Miss Kitty; an' you kin tell your paw that there baldfaced steer o' his'n, what give us the slip last rodeo time, is over in our big pasture. I sure seen him thar to-day."
During the days immediately following that first meeting, Kitty passed many hours with Professor Parkhill. Phil and his cowboys were busy preparing for the spring rodeo. Mrs. Baldwin was wholly occupied with ministering to the animal comforts of her earthly household. And the Dean, always courteous and kind to his guest, managed, nevertheless, to think of some pressing business that demanded his immediate and personal attention whenever the visitor sought to engage him in conversation. The professor, quite naturally holding the cattleman to be but a rude, illiterate and wholly materialistic creature, but little superior in intellectual and spiritual powers to his own beasts, sought merely to investigate the Dean's mental works, with as little regard for the Dean's feelings as a biologist would show toward a hug. The Dean confided to Phil and Patches, one day when he had escaped to the blacksmith shop where the men were shoeing their horses, that the professor was harmlessly insane. "Just think," he exploded, "of the poor, little fool livin' in Chicago for three years, an' never once goin' out to the stockyards even!"
It remained, therefore, for Kitty--the only worshiper of the professor's gods in Williamson Valley--to supply that companionship which seems so necessary even to those whose souls are so far removed from material wants. In short, as Little Billy put it, with a boy's irreverence, "Kitty rode herd on the professor." And, strangely enough to them all, Kitty seemed to like the job.
Either because her friendship with Patches--which had some to mean a great deal to Kitty--outweighed her respect and admiration for the distinguished object of his fun, or because she waited for some opportunity to make the revelation a punishment to the offender, the young woman did not betray the real character of the cowboy to the stranger. And the professor, thanks to Phil's warning, not only refrained from investigating the name of Patches, but carefully avoided Patches himself. In the meantime, the "typical specimen" was forced to take a small part in the table talk lest he betray himself. So marked was this that Mrs. Baldwin one day, not understanding, openly chided him for being so "glum." Whereupon the Dean--to whom Phil had thoughtfully explained--teased the deceiver unmercifully, with many laughingly alleged reasons for his "grouch," while Curly and Bob, attributing their comrade's manner to the embarrassing presence of the stranger, grinned sympathetically; and the professor himself--unconsciously agreeing with the cowboys--with kindly condescension tried to make the victim of his august superiority as much at ease as possible; which naturally, for the Dean and Phil, added not a little to the situation.
Then the spring rodeo took the men far from the home ranch, and for several weeks the distinguished guest of the Cross-Triangle was left almost wholly to the guardianship of the young woman who lived on the other side of the big meadows.
It was the last day of the rodeo, when Phil rode to the home ranch, late in the afternoon, to consult with the Dean about the shipping. Patches and the cowboys who were to help in the long drive to the railroad were at Toohey with the cattle. While the cowboys were finishing their early breakfast the next morning, the foreman returned, and Patches knew, almost before Phil spoke, that something had happened. They shouted their greetings as he approached, but he had no smile for their cheery reception, nor did he answer, even, until he had ridden close to the group about the camp fire. Then, with a short "mornin', boys," he dismounted and stood with the bridle reins in his hand.
At his manner a hush fell over the little company, and they watched him curiously.
"No breakfast, Sam," he said, shortly, to the Chinaman. "Just a cup of coffee." Then to the cowboys, "You fellows saddle up and get that bunch of cattle to moving. We'll load at Skull Valley."
Sam brought his coffee and he drank it as he stood, while the men hurriedly departed for their horses. Patches, the last to go, paused a moment, as though to speak, but Phil prevented him with a gruff order. "Get a move on you, Patches. Those cars will be there long before we are."
And Patches, seeing the man's face dark and drawn with pain, moved away without a word.
"Great snakes," softly ejaculated Curly a few moments later, as Patches stooped to take his saddle from where it lay on the ground beside Curly's. "What do you reckon's eatin' the boss? Him an' the Dean couldn't 'a' mixed it last night, could they? Do you reckon the Dean crawled him about somethin'?"
Patches shook his head with a "Search me, pardner," as he turned to his horse.
"Somethin's happened sure," muttered the other, busy with his saddle blanket. "Sufferin' cats! but I felt like he'd poured a bucket of ice water down my neck!" He drew the cinch tight with a vigorous jerk that brought a grunt of protest from his mount. "That's right," he continued, addressing the horse, "hump yourself, an' swell up and grunt, damn you; you ought to be thankin' God that you ain't nothin' but a hoss, nohow, with no feelin' 'cept what's in your belly." He dropped the heavy stirrup with a vicious slap, and swung to his seat. "If Phil's a-goin' to keep up the way he's startin', we'll sure have a pleasant little ol' ride to Skull Valley. Oh, Lord! but I wisht I was a professor of them there exteticks, or somethin' nice and gentle like, jest for to-day, anyhow."
Patches laughed. "Think you could qualify, Curly?"
The cowboy grinned as they rode off together. "So far as I've noticed the main part of the work, I could. The shade of them walnut trees at the home ranch, or the Pot-Hook-S front porch, an' a nice easy rockin' chair with fat cushions, or mebby the buckboard onct in a while, with Kitty to do the drivin'--Say, this has sure been some little ol' rodeo, ain't it? I ain't got a hoss in my string that can more'n stand up, an' honest to God, Patches, I'm jest corns all over. How's your saddle feel, this mornin'?"
"It's got corns, too," admitted Patches. "But there's Phil; we'd better be riding."
All that day Phil kept to himself, speaking to his companions only when speech could not be avoided, and then with the fewest possible words. That night, he left the company as soon as he had finished his supper, and went off somewhere alone, and Patches heard him finding his bed, long after the other members of the outfit were sound asleep. And the following day, through the trying work of loading the cattle, the young foreman was so little like himself that, had it not been that his men were nearly all old-time, boyhood friends who had known him all his life, there would surely have been a mutiny.
It was late in the afternoon, when the last reluctant steer was prodded and pushed up the timbered runway from the pens, and crowded into the car. Curly and Bob were going with the cattle train. The others would remain at Skull Valley until morning, when they would start for their widely separated homes. Phil announced that he was going to the home ranch that night.
"You can make it home sometime to-morrow, Patches," he finished, when he had said good-by to the little group of men with whom he had lived and worked in closest intimacy through the long weeks of the rodeo. He reined his horse about, even as he spoke, to set out on his long ride.
The Cross-Triangle foreman was beyond hearing of the cowboys when Patches overtook him. "Do you mind if I go back to the Cross-Triangle with you to-night, Phil?" the cowboy asked quietly.
Phil checked his horse and looked at his friend a moment without answering. Then, in a kindlier tone than he had used the past two days, he said, "You better stay here with the boys, and get your night's rest, Patches. You have had a long hard spell of it in this rodeo, and yesterday and to-day have not been exactly easy. Shipping is always hell, even when everybody is in a good humor," he smiled grimly.
"If you do not object, I would really like to go," said Patches simply.
"But your horse is as tired as you ought to be," protested Phil.
"I'm riding Stranger, you know," the other answered.
To which Phil replied tersely, "Let's be riding, then."
The cowboys, who had been watching the two men, looked at each other in amazement as Phil and Patches rode away together.
"Well, what do you make of that?" exclaimed one.
"Looks like Honorable Patches was next," commented another.
"Us old-timers ain't in it when it comes to associatin' with the boss," offered a third.
"You shut up on that line," came sharply from Curly. "Phil ain't turnin' us down for nobody. I reckon if Patches is fool enough to want to ride to the Cross-Triangle to-night Phil ain't got no reason for stoppin' him. If any of you punchers wants to make the ride, the way's open, ain't it?"
"Now, don't you go on the prod, too," soothed the other. "We wasn't meanin' nothin' agin Phil."
"Well, what's the matter with Patches?" demanded the Cross-Triangle man, whose heart was sorely troubled by the mystery of his foreman's mood.
"Ain't nobody said as there was anything the matter. Fact is, don't nobody know that there is."
And for some reason Curly had no answer.
"Don't it jest naturally beat thunder the way he's cottoned up to that yellow dog of a Yavapai Joe?" mused another, encouraged by Curly's silence. "Three or four of the boys told how they'd seen 'em together off an' on, but I didn't think nothin' of it until I seen 'em myself when we was workin' over at Tailholt. It was one evenin' after supper. I went down to the corral to fix up that Pedro horse's back, when I heard voices kind o' low like. I stopped a minute, an' then sort o' eased along in the dark, an' run right onto 'em where they was a-settin' in the door o' the saddle room, cozy as you please. Yavapai sneaked away while I was gettin' the lantern an' lightin' it, but Patches, he jest stayed an' held the light for me while I fixed ol' Pedro, jest as if nothin' had happened."
"Well," said Curly sarcastically, "what had happened?"
"I don't know-nothin'--mebby."
"If Patches was what some o' you boys seem to think, do you reckon he'd be a-ridin' for the Cross-Triangle?" demanded Curly.
"He might, an' he mightn't," retorted two or three at once.
"Nobody can't say nothin' in a case like that until the show-down," added one. "I don't reckon the Dean knows any more than the rest of us."
"Unless Patches is what some of the other boys are guessin'," said another.
"Which means," finished Curly, in a tone of disgust, "that we've got to millin' 'round the same old ring again. Come on, Bob; let's see what they've got for supper. That engine'll happen along directly, an' we'll be startin' hungry."
Phil Acton was not ignorant of the different opinions that were held by the cattlemen regarding Honorable Patches. Nor, as the responsible foreman of the Cross-Triangle, could he remain indifferent to them. During those first months of Patches' life on the ranch, when the cowboy's heart had so often been moved to pity for the stranger who had come to them apparently from some painful crisis in his life, he had laughed at the suspicions of his old friends and associates. But as the months had passed, and Patches had so rapidly developed into a strong, self-reliant man, with a spirit of bold recklessness that was marked even among those hardy riders of the range, Phil forgot, in a measure, those characteristics that the stranger had shown at the beginning of their acquaintance. At the same time, the persistent suspicions of the cattlemen, together with Patches' curious, and, in a way, secret interest in Yavapai Joe, could not but have a decided influence upon the young man who was responsible for the Dean's property.
It was inevitable, under the circumstances, that Phil's attitude toward Patches should change, even as the character of Patches himself had changed. While the foreman's manner of friendship and kindly regard remained, so far, unaltered, and while Phil still, in his heart, believed in his friend, and--as he would have said--"would continue to back his judgment until the show-down," nevertheless that spirit of intimacy which had so marked those first days of their work together had gradually been lost to them. The cowboy no longer talked to his companion, as he had talked that day when they lay in the shade of the walnut tree at Toohey, and during the following days of their range riding. He no longer admitted his friend into his inner life, as he had done that day when he told Patches the story of the wild stallion. And Patches, feeling the change, and unable to understand the reason for it, waited patiently for the time when the cloud that had fallen between them should lift.
So they rode together that night, homeward bound, at the end of the long, hard weeks of the rodeo, in the deepening gloom of the day's passing, in the hushed stillness of the wild land, under the wide sky where the starry sentinel hosts were gathering for their ever-faithful watch. And as they rode, their stirrups often touching, each was alone with his own thoughts. Phil, still in the depth of his somber mood, brooded over his bitter trouble. Patches, sympathetically wondering, silently questioning, wished that he could help.
There are times when a man's very soul forces him to seek companionship. Alone in the night with this man for whom, even at that first moment of their meeting on the Divide, he had felt a strange sense of kinship, Phil found himself drifting far from the questions that had risen to mar the closeness of their intimacy. The work of the rodeo was over; his cowboy associates, with their suggestive talk, were far away. Under the influence of the long, dark miles of that night, and the silent presence of his companion, the young man, for the time being, was no longer the responsible foreman of the Cross-Triangle Ranch. In all that vast and silent world there was, for Phil Acton, only himself, his trouble, and his friend.
And so it came about that, little by little, the young man told Patches the story of his dream, and of how it was now shattered and broken.
Sometimes bitterly, as though he felt injustice; sometimes harshly, as though in contempt for some weakness of his own; with sentences broken by the pain he strove to subdue, with halting words and long silences, Phil told of his plans for rebuilding the home of his boyhood, and of restoring the business that, through the generosity of his father, had been lost; of how, since his childhood almost, he had worked and saved to that end; and of his love for Kitty, which had been the very light of his dream, and without which for him there was no purpose in dreaming. And the man who rode so close beside him listened with a fuller understanding and a deeper sympathy than Phil knew.
"And now," said Phil hopelessly, "it's all over. I've sure come to the end of my string. Reid has put the outfit on the market. He's going to sell out and quit. Uncle Will told me night before last when I went home to see about the shipping."
"Reid is going to sell!" exclaimed Patches; and there was a curious note of exultation in his voice which Phil did not hear. Neither did Phil see that his companion was smiling to himself under cover of the darkness.
"It's that damned Professor Parkhill that's brought it about," continued the cowboy bitterly. "Ever since Kitty came home from the East she has been discontented and dissatisfied with ranch life. I was all right when she went away, but when she came back she discovered that I was nothing but a cow-puncher. She has been fair, though. She has tried to get back where she was before she left and I thought I would win her again in time. I was so sure of it that it never troubled me. You have seen how it was. And you have seen how she was always wanting the life that she had learned to want while she was away--the life that you came from, Patches. I have been mighty glad for your friendship with her, too, because I thought she would learn from you that a man could have all that is worth having in that life, and still be happy and contented here. And she would have learned, I am sure. She couldn't help seeing it. But now that damned fool who knows no more of real manhood than I do of his profession has spoiled it all."
"But Phil, I don't understand. What has Parkhill to do with Reid's selling out?"
"Why, don't you see?" Phil returned savagely. "He's the supreme representative of the highest highbrowed culture, isn't he? He's a lord high admiral, duke, or potentate of some sort, in the world of loftiest thought, isn't he? He lives, moves and has his being in the lofty realms of the purely spiritual, doesn't he? He's cultured, and cultivated, and spiritualized, until he vibrates nothing but pure soul--whatever that means--and he's refined himself, and mental-disciplined himself, and soul-dominated himself, until there's not an ounce of red blood left in his carcass. Get him between you and the sun, after what he calls a dinner, and you can see every material mouthful that he, has disgraced himself by swallowing. He's not human, I tell you; he's only a kind of a he-ghost, and ought to be fed on sterilized moonbeams and pasteurized starlight."
"Amen!" said Patches solemnly, when Phil paused for lack of breath. "But, Phil, your eloquent characterization does not explain what the he-ghost has to do with the sale of the Pot-Hook-S outfit."
Phil's voice again dropped into its hopeless key as he answered. "You remember how, from the very first, Kitty--well--sort of worshiped him, don't you?"
"You mean how she worshiped his aesthetic cult, don't you?" corrected Patches quietly.
"I suppose that's it," responded Phil gloomily. "Well, Uncle Will says that they have been together mighty near every day for the past three months, and that about half of the time they have been over at Kitty's home. He has discovered, he says, that Kitty possesses a rare and wonderful capacity for absorbing the higher truths of the more purely intellectual and spiritual planes of life, and that she has a marvelously developed appreciation of those ideals of life which are so far removed from the base and material interests and passions which belong to the mere animal existence of the common herd."
"Oh, hell!" groaned Patches.
"Well, that's what he told Uncle Will," returned Phil stoutly. "And he has harped on that string so long, and yammered so much to Jim and to Kitty's mother about the girl's wonderful intellectuality, and what a record-breaking career she would have if only she had the opportunity, and what a shame, and a loss to the world it is for her to remain buried in these soul-dwarfing surroundings, that they have got to believing it themselves. You see, Kitty herself has in a way been getting them used to the idea that Williamson Valley isn't much of a place, and that the cow business doesn't rank very high among the best people. So Jim is going to sell out, and move away somewhere, where Kitty can have her career, and the boys can grow up to be something better than low-down cow-punchers like you and me. Jim is able to retire anyway."
"Thanks, Phil," said Patches quietly.
"Why, for including me in your class. I consider it a compliment, and"--he added, with a touch of his old self-mocking humor--"I think I know what I am saying--better, perhaps, than the he-ghost knows what he talks about."
"It may be that you do," returned Phil wearily, "but you can see where it all puts me. The professor has sure got me down and hog-tied so tight that I can't even think."
"Perhaps, and again, perhaps not," returned Patches. "Reid hasn't found a buyer for the outfit yet, has he?"
"Not yet, but they'll come along fast enough. The Pot-Hook-S Ranch is too well known for the sale to hang fire long."
The next day Phil seemed to slip back again, in his attitude toward Patches, to the temper of those last weeks of the rodeo. It was as though the young man--with his return to the home ranch and to the Dean and their talks and plans for the work--again put himself, his personal convictions and his peculiar regard for Patches, aside, and became the unprejudiced foreman, careful for his employer's interests.
Patches very quickly, but without offense, found that the door, which his friend had opened in the long dark hours of that lonely night ride, had closed again; and, thinking that he understood, he made no attempt to force his way. But, for some reason, Patches appeared to be in an unusually happy frame of mind, and went singing and whistling about the corrals and buildings as though exceedingly well pleased with himself and with the world.
The following day was Sunday. In the afternoon, Patches was roaming about the premises, keeping at a safe distance from the walnut trees in front of the house, where the professor had cornered the Dean, thus punishing both Patches and his employer by preventing one of their long Sunday talks which they both so much enjoyed. Phil had gone off somewhere to be alone, and Mrs. Baldwin was reading aloud to Little Billy. Honorable Patches was left very much to himself.
From the top of the little hill near the corrals, he looked across the meadow at exactly the right moment to see someone riding away from the neighboring ranch. He watched until he was certain that whoever it was was not coming to the Cross-Triangle--at least, not by way of the meadow lane. Then, smiling to himself, he went to the big barn and saddled a horse--there are always two or three that are not turned out in the pasture--and in a few minutes was riding leisurely away on the Simmons road, along the western edge of the valley. An hour later he met Kitty Reid, who was on her way from Simmons to the Cross-Triangle.
The young woman was sincerely glad to meet him.
"But you were going to Simmons, were you not?" she asked, as he reined his horse about to ride with her.
"To be truthful, I was going to Simmons if I met anyone else, or if I had not met you," he answered. Then, at her puzzled look, he explained, "I saw someone leave your house, and guessed that it was you. I guessed, too, that you would be coming this way."
"And you actually rode out to meet me?"
"Actually," he smiled.
They chatted about the rodeo, and the news of the countryside--for it had been several weeks since they had met--and so reached the point of the last ridge before you come to the ranch. Then Patches asked, "May we ride over there on the ridge, and sit for a while in the shade of that old cedar, for a little talk? It's early yet, and it's been ages since we had a pow-wow."
Reaching the point which Patches had chosen, they left their horses and made themselves comfortable on the brow of the hill, overlooking the wide valley meadow and the ranches.
"And now," said Kitty, looking at him curiously, "what's the talk, Mr. Honorable Patches?"
"Just you," said Patches, gravely.
"Your own charming self," he returned.
"But, please, good sir, what have I done?" she asked. "Or, perhaps, it's what have I not done?"
"Or perhaps," he retorted, "it's what you are going to do."
"Miss Reid, I am going to ask you a favor--a great favor."
"You have known me now almost a year."
"And, yet, to be exact, you do not know me at all."
She did not answer, but looked at him steadily.
"And that, in a way," he continued, "makes it easy for me to ask the favor; that is, if you feel that you can trust me ever so little--trust me, I mean, to the extent of believing me sincere."
"I know that you are sincere, Patches," she answered, gravely.
"Thank you," he returned. Then he said gently, "I want you to let me talk to you about what is most emphatically none of my business. I want you to let me ask you impertinent questions. I want you to talk to me about"--he hesitated; then finished with meaning--"about your career."
She felt his earnestness, and was big enough to understand, and be grateful for the spirit that prompted his words.
"Why, Patches," she cried, "after all that your friendship has meant to me, these past months, I could not think any question that you would ask impertinent Surely you know that, don't you?"
"I hoped that you would feel that way. And I know that I would give five years of my life if I knew how to convince you of the truth which I have learned from my own bitter experience, and save you from--from yourself."
She could not mistake his earnestness and in spite of herself the man's intense feeling moved her deeply.
"Save me from myself?" she questioned. "What in the world do you mean, Patches?"
"Is it true," he asked, "that your father is offering the ranch for sale, and that you are going out of the Williamson Valley life?"
"Yes, but it is not such a sudden move as it seems. We have often talked about it at home--father and mother and I."
"But the move is to be made chiefly on your account, is it not?"
She flushed a little at this, but answered stoutly. "Yes. I suppose that is true. You see, being the only one in our family to have the advantages of--well--the advantages that I have had, it was natural that I should--Surely you have seen, Patches, how discontented and dissatisfied I have been with the life here! Why, until you came there was no one to whom I could talk, even--no one, I mean, who could understand."
"But what is it that you want, or expect to find, that you may not have right here?"
Then she told him all that he had expected to hear. Told him earnestly, passionately, of the life she craved, and of the sordid, commonplace narrowness and emptiness--as she saw it--of the life from which she sought to escape. And as she talked the man's good heart was heavy with sadness and pity for her.
"Oh, girl, girl," he cried, when she had finished. "Can't you--won't you--understand? All that you seek is right here--everywhere about you--waiting for you to make it your own, and with it you may have here those greater things without which no life can be abundant and joyous. The culture and the intellectual life that is dependent upon mere environment is a crippled culture and a sickly life. The mind that cannot find its food for thought wherever it may be planed will never hobble very far on crutches of superficial cults and societies. You are leaving the substance, child, for the shadow. You are seeking the fads and fancies of shallow idlers, and turning your back upon eternal facts. You are following after silly fools who are chasing bubbles over the edge of God's good world. Believe me, girl, I know--God! but I do know what that life, stripped of its tinseled and spangled show, means. Take the good grain, child, and let the husks go."
As the man spoke, Kitty watched him as though she were intently interested; but, in truth, her thoughts were more on the speaker than on what he said.
"You are in earnest, aren't you, Patches?" she murmured softly.
"I am," he returned sharply, for he saw that she was not even considering what he had said. "I know how mistaken you are; I know what it will mean to you when you find how much you have lost and how little you have gained."
"And how am I mistaken? Do I not know what I want? Am I not better able than anyone else to say what satisfies me and what does not?"
"No," he retorted, almost harshly, "you are not. You think it is the culture, as you call it, that you want; but if that were really it, you would not go. You would find it here. The greatest minds that the world has ever known you may have right here in your home, on your library table. And you may listen to their thoughts without being disturbed by the magpie chatterings of vain and shallow pretenders. You are attracted by the pretentious forms and manners of that life; you think that because a certain class of people, who have nothing else to do, talk a certain jargon, and profess to follow certain teachers--who, nine times out of ten, are charlatans or fools--that they are the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the race. You are mistaking the very things that prevent intellectual and spiritual development for the things you think you want."
She did not answer his thought, but replied to his words. "And supposing I am mistaken, as you say. Still, I do not see why it should matter so to you."
He made a gesture of hopelessness and sat for a moment in silence. Then he said slowly, "I fear you will not understand, but did you ever hear the story of how 'Wild Horse Phil' earned his title?"
She laughed. "Why, of course. Everybody knows about that. Dear, foolish old Phil--I shall miss him dreadfully." "Yes," he said significantly, "you will miss him. The life you are going to does not produce Phil Actons."
"It produced an Honorable Patches," she retorted slyly.
"Indeed it did not," he answered quickly. "It produced--" He checked himself, as though fearing that he would say too much.
"But what have Phil and his wild horse to do with the question?" she asked.
"Nothing, I fear. Only I feel about your going away as Phil felt when he gave the wild horse its freedom."
"I don't think I understand," she said, genuinely puzzled.
"I said you would not," he retorted bluntly, "and that's why you are leaving all this." His gesture indicated the vast sweep of country with old Granite Mountain in the distance.
Then, with a nod and a look he indicated Professor Parkhill, who was walking toward them along the side of the ridge skirting the scattered cedar timber. "Here comes a product of the sort of culture to which you aspire. Behold the ideal manhood of your higher life! When the intellectual and spiritual life you so desire succeeds in producing racial fruit of that superior quality, it will have justified its existence--and will perish from the earth."
Even as Patches spoke, he saw something just beyond the approaching man that made him start as if to rise to his feet.
It was the unmistakable face of Yavapai Joe, who, from behind an oak bush, was watching the professor.
Patches, glancing at Kitty, saw that she had not noticed.
Before the young woman could reply to her companion's derisive remarks, the object which had prompted his comments arrived within speaking distance.
"I trust I am not intruding," began the professor, in his small, thin voice. Then as Patches, his eyes still on that oak bush, stood up, the little man added, with hasty condescension, "Keep your seat, my man; keep your seat. I assure you it is not my purpose to deprive you of Miss Reid's company."
Patches grinned. By that "my man" he knew that Kitty had not enlightened her teacher as to the "typical cowboy's" real character.
"That's all right, perfessor," he said awkwardly. "I just seen a maverick over yonder a-piece. I reckon I'd better mosey along an' have a closer look at him. Me an' Kitty here warn't talkin' nothin' important, nohow. Just a gassin' like. I reckon she'd ruther go on home with you, anyhow, an' it's all right with me."
"Maverick!" questioned the professor. "And what, may I ask, is a maverick?"
"Hit's a critter what don't belong to nobody," answered Patches, moving toward his horse.
At the same moment Kitty, who had risen, and was looking in the direction from which the professor had come, exclaimed, "Why, there's Yavapai Joe, Patches. What is he doing here?"
She pointed, and the professor, looking, caught a glimpse of Joe's back as the fellow was slinking over the ridge.
"I reckon mebby he wants to see me 'bout somethin' or other," Patches returned, as he mounted his horse. "Anyway, I'm a-goin' over that-a-way an' see. So long!"
Patches rode up to Joe just as the Tailholt Mountain man regained his horse on the other side of the ridge.
"Hello, Joe!" said the Cross-Triangle rider, easily.
The wretched outcast was so shaken and confused that he could scarcely find the stirrup with his foot, and his face was pale and twitching with excitement. He looked at Patches, wildly, but spoke in a sullen tone. "What's he doin' here? What does he want? How did he get to this country, anyhow?"
Patches was amazed, but spoke calmly. "Whom do you mean, Joe?"
"I mean that man back there, Parkhill--Professor Parkhill. What's he a-lookin' for hangin' 'round here? You can tell him it ain't no use--I--" He stopped suddenly, and with a characteristic look of cunning, turned away.
Patches rode beside him for some distance, but nothing that he could say would persuade the wretched creature to explain.
"Yes, I know you're my friend, all right, Patches," he answered. "You sure been mighty friendly ter me, an' I ain't fergettin' it. But I ain't a-tellin' nothin' to nobody, an' it ain't a-goin' to do you no good to go askin' him 'bout me, neither."
"I'm not going to ask Professor Parkhill anything, Joe," said Patches shortly.
"Certainly not; if you don't want me to know. I'm not trying to find out about anything that's none of my business."
Joe looked at him with a cunning leer. "Oh, you ain't, ain't you? Nick 'lows that you're sure--" Again he caught himself. "But I ain't a-tellin' nothin' to nobody."
"Well, have I ever asked you to tell me anything?" demanded Patches.
"No, you ain't--that's right--you sure been square with me, Patches, an' I ain't fergettin' it. Be you sure 'nuf my friend, Patches? Honest-to-God, now, be you?"
His question was pitiful, and Patches assured the poor fellow that he had no wish to be anything but his friend, if only Yavapai Joe would accept his help.
"Then," said Joe pleadingly, "if you mean all that you been sayin' about wantin' to help me, you'll do somethin' fer me right now."
"What can I do, Joe?"
"You kin promise me that you won't say nothin' to nobody 'bout me an' him back there."
Patches, to demonstrate his friendliness, answered without thought, "Certainly, I'll promise that, Joe."
"You won't tell nobody?"
"No, I won't say a word."
The poor fellow's face revealed his gratitude. "I'm obliged to you, Patches, I sure am, an' I ain't fergettin' nothin', either. You're my friend, all right, an' I'm your'n. I got to be a-hittin' it up now. Nick'll jest nachally gimme hell for bein' gone so long."
"So long, Patches! An' don't you get to thinkin' that I'm fergettin' how me an' you is friends."
When Patches reviewed the incident, as he rode back to the ranch, he questioned if he had done right in promising Joe. But, after all, he reassured himself, he was under no obligation to interfere with what was clearly none of his business. He could not see that the matter in any possible way touched his employer's interests. And, he reflected, he had already tried the useless experiment of meddling with other people's affairs, and he did not care to repeat the experience.
That evening Patches asked Phil's permission to go to Prescott the next day. It would be the first time that he had been to town since his coming to the ranch and the foreman readily granted his request.
A few minutes later as Phil passed through the kitchen, Mrs. Baldwin remarked, "I wonder what Patches is feeling so gay about. Ever since he got home from the rodeo he's been singin' an' whistlin' an' grinnin' to himself all the time. He went out to the corral just now as merry as a lark."
Phil laughed. "Anybody would be glad to get through with that rodeo, mother; besides, he is going to town to-morrow."
"He is? Well, you mark my words, son, there's somethin' up to make him feel as good as he does."
And then, when Phil had gone on out into the yard, Professor Parkhill found him.
"Mr. Acton," began the guest timidly, "there is a little matter about which I feel I should speak to you."
"Very well, sir," returned the cowboy.
"I feel that it would be better for me to speak to you rather than to Mr. Baldwin, because, well, you are younger, and will, I am sure, understand more readily."
"All right; what is it, Professor?" asked Phil encouragingly, wondering at the man's manner.
"Do you mind--ah--walking a little way down the road?"
As they strolled out toward the gate to the meadow road, the professor continued:
"I think I should tell you about your man Patches."
Phil looked at his companion sharply. "Well, what about him?"
"I trust you will not misunderstand my interest, Mr. Acton, when I say that it also includes Miss Reid."
Phil stopped short. Instantly Mrs. Baldwin's remark about Patches' happiness, his own confession that he had given up all hope of winning Kitty, and the thought of the friendship which he had seen developing during the past months, with the realization that Patches belonged to that world to which Kitty aspired--all swept through his mind. He was looking at the man beside him so intently that the professor said again uneasily:
"I trust, Mr. Acton, that you will understand."
Phil laughed shortly. "I think I do. But just the same you'd better explain. What about Patches and Miss Reid, sir?"
The professor told how he had found them together that afternoon.
"Oh, is that all?" laughed Phil.
"But surely, Mr. Acton, you do not think that a man of that fellow's evident brutal instincts is a fit associate for a young woman of Miss Reid's character and refinement."
"Perhaps not," admitted Phil, still laughing, "but I guess Kitty can take care of herself."
"I do not agree with you, sir," said the other authoritatively. "A young woman of Miss Reid's--ah--spirituality and worldly inexperience must always be, to a certain extent, injured by contact with such illiterate, unrefined, and, I have no doubt, morally deficient characters."
"But, look here, Professor," returned Phil, still grinning, "what do you expect me to do about it? I am not Kitty Reid's guardian. Why don't you talk to her yourself?"
"Really," returned the little man, "I--there are reasons why I do not see my way clear to such a course. I had hoped that you might keep an eye on the fellow, and, if necessary, use your authority over him to prevent any such incidents in the future."
"I'll see what I can do," answered Phil, thinking how the Dean would enjoy the joke. "But, look here; Kitty was with you when you got to the ranch. What became of Patches? Run, did he, when you appeared on the scene?"
"Oh, no; he went away with a--with a maverick."
"Went away with a maverick? What, in heaven's name, do you mean by that?"
"That's what your man Patches said the fellow was. Miss Reid told me his name was Joe--Joe something."
Phil was not laughing now. The fun of the situation had vanished.
"Was it Yavapai Joe?" he demanded.
"Yes, that was it. I am quite sure that was the name. He belongs at Tailend Mountain, I think Miss Reid said; you have such curious names in this country."
"And Patches went away with him, you say?"
"Yes, the fellow seemed to have been hiding in the bushes when we discovered him, and when Miss Reid asked what he was doing there your man said that he had come to see him about something. They went away together, I believe."
As soon as he could escape from the professor, Phil went straight to Patches, who was in his room, reading. The man looked up with a welcoming smile as Phil entered, but as he saw the foreman's face his smile vanished quickly, and he laid aside his book.
"Patches," said Phil abruptly, "what's this talk of the professor's about you and Yavapai Joe?"
"I don't know what the professor is talking," Patches replied coldly, as though he did not exactly like the tone of Phil's question.
"He says that Joe was sneaking about in the brush over on the ridge wanting to see you about something," returned Phil.
"Joe was certainly over there on the ridge, and he may have wanted to see me; at any rate, I saw him."
"Well, I've got to ask you what sort of business you have with that Tailholt Mountain thief that makes it necessary for him to sneak around in the brush for a meeting with you. If he wants to see you, why doesn't he come to the ranch, like a man?"
Honorable Patches looked the Dean's foreman straight in the eyes, as he answered in a tone that he had never used before in speaking to Phil: "And I have to answer, sir, that my business with Yavapai Joe is entirely personal; that it has no relation whatever to your business as the foreman of this ranch. As to why Joe didn't come to the house, you must ask him; I don't know."
"You refuse to explain?" demanded Phil.
"I certainly refuse to discuss Joe Dryden's private affairs--that, so far as I can see, are of no importance to anyone but himself--with you or anyone else. Just as I should refuse to discuss any of your private affairs, with which I happened, by some chance, to be, in a way, familiar. I have made all the explanation necessary when I say that my business with him has nothing to do with your business. You have no right to ask me anything further."
"I have the right to fire you," retorted Phil, angrily.
Patches smiled, as he answered gently, "You have the right, Phil, but you won't use it."
"And why not?"
"Because you are not that kind of a man, Phil Acton," answered Patches slowly. "You know perfectly well that if you discharged me because of my friendship with poor Yavapai Joe, no ranch in this part of the country would give me a job. You are too honest yourself to condemn any man on mere suspicion, and you are too much of a gentleman to damn another simply because he, too, aspires to that distinction."
"Very well, Patches," Phil returned, with less heat, "but I want you to understand one thing; I am responsible for the Cross-Triangle property and there is no friendship in the world strong enough to influence me in the slightest degree when it comes to a question of Uncle Will's interests. Do you get that?"
"I got that months ago, Phil."
Without another word, the Dean's foreman left the room.
Patches sat for some time considering the situation. And now and then his lips curled in that old, self-mocking smile; realizing that he was caught in the trap of circumstance, he found a curious humor in his predicament.