When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XIII. In Granite Basin.
On the other side of Granite Mountain from where Phil and Patches watched the wild horses that day, there is a rocky hollow, set high in the hills, but surrounded on every side by still higher peaks and ridges. Lying close under the sheer, towering cliffs of the mountain, those fortress-like walls so gray and grim and old seem to overshadow the place with a somber quiet, as though the memories of the many ages that had wrought their countless years into those mighty battlements gave to the very atmosphere a feeling of solemn and sacred seclusion. It was as though nature had thrown about this spot a strong protecting guard, that here, in her very heart, she might keep unprofaned the sweetness and strength and beauty of her primitive and everlasting treasures.
In its wild and rugged setting, Granite Basin has, for the few who have the hardihood to find them, many beautiful glades and shady nooks, where the grass and wild flowers weave their lovely patterns for the earth floor, and tall pines spread their soft carpets of brown, while giant oaks and sycamores lift their cathedral arches to support the ceilings of green, and dark rock fountains set in banks of moss and fern hold water clear and cold. It was to one of these that Stanford Manning brought his bride for their honeymoon. Stanford himself pitched their tent and made their simple camp, for it was not in his plan that the sweet intimacy of these, the first weeks of their mated life, should be marred, even by servants. And Helen, wise in her love, permitted him to realize his dream in the fullness of its every detail.
As she lay in the hammock which he had hung for her under the canopy of living green, and watched him while he brought wood for their camp fire, and made all ready for the night which was drawing near, she was glad that he had planned it so. But more than that, she was glad that he was the kind of a man who would care to plan it so. Then, when all was finished, he came to sit beside her, and together they watched the light of the setting sun fade from the summit of Old Granite, and saw the flaming cloud-banner that hung above the mountain's castle towers furled by the hand of night. In silence they watched those mighty towering battlements grow cold and grim, until against the sky the shadowy bulk stood mysterious and awful, as though to evidence in its grandeur and strength the omnipotent might and power of the Master Builder of the world and Giver of all life.
And when the soft darkness was fully come, and the low murmuring voices of the night whispered from forest depth and mountain side, while the stars peered through the weaving of leaf and branch, and the ruddy light of their camp fire rose and fell, the man talked of the things that had gone into the making of his life. As though he wished his mate to know him more fully than anyone else could know, he spoke of those personal trials and struggles, those disappointments and failures, those plans and triumphs of which men so rarely speak; of his boyhood and his boyhood home life, of his father and mother, of those hard years of his youth, and his struggle for an education that would equip him for his chosen life work; he told her many things that she had known only in a general way.
But most of all he talked of those days when he had first met her, and of how quickly and surely the acquaintance had grown into friendship, and then into a love which he dared not yet confess. Smilingly he told how he had tried to convince himself that she was not for him. And how, believing that she loved and would wed his friend, Lawrence Knight, he had come to the far West, to his work, and, if he could, to forget.
"But I could not forget, dear girl," he said. "I could not escape the conviction that you belonged to me, as I felt that I belonged to you. I could not banish the feeling that some mysterious higher law--the law that governs the mating of the beautifully free creatures that live in these hills--had mated you and me. And so, as I worked and tried to forget, I went on dreaming just the same. It was that way when I first saw this place. I was crossing the country on my way to examine some prospects for the company, and camped at this very spot. And that evening I planned it all, just as it is to-night. I put the tent there, and built our fire, and stretched your hammock under the tree, and sat with you in the twilight; but even as I dreamed it I laughed at myself for a fool, for I could not believe that the dream would ever come true. And then, when I got back to Prescott, there was a letter from a Cleveland friend, telling me that Larry had gone abroad to be away a year or more, and another letter from the company, calling me East again. And so I stopped at Cleveland and--" He laughed happily. "I know now that dreams do come true."
"You foolish boy," said Helen softly. "To think that I did not know. Why, when you went away, I was so sure that you would come for me again, that I never even thought that it could be any other way. I thought you did not speak because you felt that you were too poor, because you felt that you had so little to offer, and because you wished to prove yourself and your work before asking me to share your life. I did not dream that you could doubt my love for you, or think for a moment that there could ever be anyone else. I felt that you must know; and so, you see, while I waited I had my dreams, too."
"But don't you see, girl," he answered, as though for a moment he found it hard to believe his own happiness, "don't you see? Larry is such a splendid fellow, and you two were such friends, and you always seemed so fond of him, and with his wealth he could give you so much that I knew I never could give--"
"Of course, I am fond of Larry; everyone is. He has absolutely nothing to do in the world but to make himself charming and pleasant and entertaining and amusing. Why, Stan, I don't suppose that in all his life he ever did one single thing that was necessary or useful. He even had a man to help him dress. He is cultured and intellectual, and bright and witty, and clean and good-natured, possessing, in fact, all the qualifications of a desirable lap dog, and you can't help liking him, just as you would like a pretty, useless pet."
Stanford chuckled. She had described Lawrence Knight so accurately.
"Poor old Larry," he said. "What a man he might have been if he had not been so pampered and petted and envied and spoiled, all because of his father's money. His heart is right, and at the bottom he has the right sort of stuff in him. His athletic record at school showed us that. I think that was why we all liked him so in spite of his uselessness."
"I wish you could have known my father, Stan," said Helen thoughtfully, as though she, too, were moved to speak by the wish that her mate might know more of the things that had touched her deeper life.
"I wish so, too," he answered. "I know that he must have been fine."
"He was my ideal," she answered softly. "My other ideal, I mean. From the time I was a slip of a girl he made me his chum. Until he died we were always together. Mother died when I was a baby, you know. Many, many times he would take me with him when he made his professional visits to his patients, leaving me in the buggy to wait at each house--'to be his hitching post'--he used to say. And on those long rides, sometimes out into the country, he talked to me as I suppose not many fathers talk to their daughters. And because he was my father and a physician, and because we were so much alone in our companionship, I believed him the wisest and best man in all the world, and felt that nothing he said or did could be wrong. And so, you see, dear, my ideal man, the man to whom I could give myself, came to be the kind of a man that my father placed in the highest rank among men--a man like you, Stan. And almost the last talk we had before he died father said to me--I remember his very words--'My daughter, it will not be long now until men will seek you, until someone will ask you to share his life. Keep your ideal man safe in your heart of hearts, daughter, and remember that no matter what a suitor may have to offer of wealth or social rank, if he is not your ideal--if you cannot respect and admire him for his character and manhood alone--say no; say no, child, at any cost. But when your ideal man comes--the one who compels your respect and admiration for his strength of character, and for the usefulness of his life, the one whom you cannot help loving for his manhood alone--mate with him--no matter how light his purse or how lowly his rank in the world.' And so you see, as soon as I learned to know you, I realized what you were to me. But I wish--oh, how I wish--that father could have lived to know you, too."
For some time they watched the dancing camp fire flames in silence, as though they had found in their love that true oneness that needs no spoken word.
Then Stanford said, "And to think that we expected to wait two years or more, and now--thanks to a soulless corporation--we are here in a little less than a year!"
"Thanks to no soulless corporation for that, sir," retorted Helen with spirit. "But thanks to the brains and strength and character of my husband."
Two of the three weeks' vacation granted the engineer had passed when Mrs. Manning, one afternoon, informed her husband that as the ordained provider for the household it was imperative that he provide some game for their evening meal.
"And what does Her Majesty, the cook, desire?" he asked. "Venison, perhaps?"
She shook her head with decision. "You will be obliged to go too far, and be gone too long, to get a deer."
"But you're going with me, of course."
Again she shook her head. "I have something else to do. I can't always be tagging around after you while you are providing, you know; and we may as well begin to be civilized again. Just go a little way--not so far that you can't hear me call--and bring me some nice fat quail like those we had day before yesterday."
She watched him disappear in the brush and then busied herself about the camp. Presently she heard the gun, and smiled as she pictured him hunting for their supper, much as though they were two primitive children of nature, instead of the two cultured members of a highly civilized race, that they really were. Then, presently she must go to the spring for water, that he might have a cool drink when he returned.
She was half way to the spring, singing softly to herself, when a sound on the low ridge above the camp attracted her attention. Pausing, she looked and listened. The song died on her lips. It could not be Staford coming so noisily through the brush and from that direction. Even as the thought came, she heard the gun again, a little farther away down the narrow valley below the camp, and, in the same moment, the noise on the ridge grew louder, as though some heavy animal were crashing through the bushes. And then suddenly, as she stood there in frightened indecision, a long-horned, wild-eyed steer broke through the brush on the crest of the ridge and plunged down the steep slope toward the camp.
Weak and helpless with fear, Helen could neither scream nor run, but stood fascinated by the very danger that menaced her--powerless, even, to turn her eyes away from the frightful creature that had so rudely broken the quiet seclusion of the little glade. Behind the steer, even as the frenzied animal leaped from the brow of the hill, she saw a horseman, as wild in his appearance and in his reckless rushing haste as the creature he pursued. Curiously, as in a dream, she saw the horse's neck and shoulders dripping wet with sweat, as with ears flat, nose outstretched, and nostrils wide the animal strained every nerve in an effort to put his rider a few feet closer to the escaping quarry. She even noted the fringed leather chaps, the faded blue jumper, the broad hat of the rider, and that in his rein hand he held the coil of a riata high above the saddle horn, while in his right was the half-opened loop. The bridle reins were loose, as though he gave the horse no thought; and they took the steep, downward plunge from the summit of the ridge without an instant's pause, and apparently with all the ease and confidence that they would have felt on smooth and level ground.
The steer, catching sight of the woman, and seeing in her, perhaps, another enemy, swerved a little in his plunging course, and, with lowered head, charged straight at her.
The loop of that rawhide rope was whirling now above the cowboy's head, and his spurs drew blood from the heaving flanks of the straining horse, as every mad leap of the steer brought death a few feet nearer the helpless woman.
The situation must have broken with frightful suddenness upon the man, but he gave no sign--no startled shout, no excited movement. He even appeared, to Helen, to be as coolly deliberate as though no thought of her danger disturbed him; and she recognized, even in that awful moment, the cowboy whom she had watched through the field glasses, that day of the celebration at Prescott. She could not know that, in the same instant, as his horse plunged down from the summit of the ridge, Patches had recognized her; and that as his hand swung the riata with such cool and deliberate precision, the man was praying--praying as only a man who sees the woman he loves facing a dreadful death, with no hand but his to save her, could pray.
God help him if his training of nerve and hand should fail now! Christ pity him, if that whirling loop should miss its mark, or fall short!
His eye told him that the distance was still too great. He must--he must--lessen it; and again his spurs drew blood. He must be cool--cool and steady and sure--and he must act now--NOW!
Helen saw the racing horse make a desperate leap as the spurs tore his heaving sides; she saw that swiftly whirling loop leave the rider's hand, as the man leaned forward in his saddle. Curiously she watched the loop open with beautiful precision, as the coils were loosed and the long, thin line lengthened through the air. It seemed to move so slowly--those wickedly lowered horns were so near! Then she saw the rider's right hand move with flashlike quickness to the saddle horn, as he threw his weight back, and the horse, with legs braced and hoofs plowing the ground, stopped in half his own length, and set his weight against the weight of the steer. The flexible riata straightened as a rod of iron, the steer's head jerked sideways; his horns buried themselves in the ground; he fell, almost at her feet. And then, as the cowboy leaped from his horse, Helen felt herself sinking into a soft, thick darkness that, try as she might, she could not escape.
Still master of himself, but with a kind of fierce coolness, Patches ran to the fallen steer and securely tied the animal down. But when he turned to the woman who lay unconscious on the ground, a sob burst from his lips, and tears were streaming down his dust-grimed cheeks. And as he knelt beside her he called again and again that name which, a year before, he had whispered as he stood with empty, outstretched arms, alone, on the summit of the Divide.
Lifting her in his arms, he carried her to the hammock, and finding water and a towel, wet her brow and face; and all the while, in an agony of fear, he talked to her with words of love.
Overwrought by the unexpected, and, to him, almost miraculous meeting with Helen--weak and shaken by the strain of those moments of her danger, when her life depended so wholly upon his coolness and skill--unnerved by the sight of her lying so still and white, and beside himself with the strength of his passion--the man made no effort to account for her presence in that wild and lonely spot, so far from the scenes amid which he had learned to know and love her. He was conscious only that she was there--that she had been very near to death--that he had held her in his arms--and that he loved her with all the strength of his manhood.
Presently, with a low cry of joy, he saw the blood creep back into her white cheeks. Slowly her eyes opened and she looked wonderingly up into his face.
"Helen!" he breathed. "Helen!"
"Why, Larry!" she murmured, still confused and wondering. "So it was you, after all! But what in the world are you doing here like this? They told me your name was Patches--Honorable Patches."
Then the man spoke--impetuously, almost fiercely, his words came without thought.
"I am here because I would be anything, do anything that a man could be and do to win your love. A year ago, when I told you of my love, and asked you to be my wife, and, like the silly, pampered, petted fool that I was, thought that my wealth and the life that I offered could count for anything with a woman like you, you laughed at me. You told me that if ever you married, you would wed a man, not a fortune nor a social position. You made me see myself as I was--a useless idler, a dummy for the tailors, a superficial chatterer of pretty nothings to vain and shallow women; you told me that I possessed not one manly trait of character that could compel the genuine love of an honest woman. You let me see the truth, that my proposal to you was almost an insult. You made me understand that your very friendship for me was such a friendship as you might have with an amusing and irresponsible boy, or a spoiled child. You could not even consider my love for you seriously, as a woman like you must consider the love of a strong man. And you were right, Helen. But, dear, it was for me a bitter, bitter lesson. I went from you, ashamed to look men in the face. I felt myself guilty--a pitifully weak and cowardly thing, with no right to exist. In my humiliation, I ran from all who knew me--I came out here to escape from the life that had made me what I was--that had robbed me of my manhood. And here, by chance, in the contests at the celebration in Prescott, I saw a man--a cowboy--who possessed everything that I lacked, and for the lack of which you had laughed at me. And then alone one night I faced myself and fought it out. I knew that you were right, Helen, but it was not easy to give up the habits and luxury to which all my life I had been accustomed. It was not easy, I say, but my love for you made it a glorious thing to do; and I hoped and believed that if I proved myself a man, I could go back to you, in the strength of my manhood, and you would listen to me. And so, penniless and a stranger, under an assumed name, I sought useful, necessary work that called for the highest quality of manhood. And I have won, Helen; I know that I have won. To-day Patches, the cowboy, can look any man in the face. He can take his place and hold his own among men of any class anywhere. I have regained that of which the circumstances of birth and inheritance and training robbed me. I have won the right of a man to come to you again. I claim that right now, Helen. I tell you again that I love you. I love you as--"
"Larry! Larry!" she cried, springing to her feet, and drawing away from him, as though suddenly awakened from some strange spell. "Larry, you must not! What do you mean? How can you say such things to me?"
He answered her with reckless passion. "I say such things because I am a man, and because you are the woman I love and want; because--"
She cried out again in protest. "Oh, stop, stop! Please stop! Don't you know?"
"Know what?" he demanded.
"My--my husband!" she gasped. "Stanford Manning--we are here on our honeymoon."
She saw him flinch as though from a heavy blow, and put out his hand to the trunk of a tree near which they stood, to steady himself. He did not speak, but his lips moved as though he repeated her words to himself, over and over again; and he gazed at her with a strange bewildered, doubting look, as though he could not believe his own suffering.
Impulsively Helen went a step toward him. "Larry!" she said. "Larry!"
Her voice seemed to arouse him and he stood erect as though by a conscious effort of will. Then that old self-mocking smile was on his lips. He was laughing at his hurt--making sport of himself and his cruel predicament.
But to Helen there was that in his smile which wrung her woman heart. "Oh, Larry," she said gently. "Forgive me; I am so sorry; I--"
He put out his hand with a gesture of protest, and his voice was calm and courteous. "I beg your pardon, Helen. It was stupid of me not to have understood. I forgot myself for the moment. It was all so unexpected--meeting you like this. I did not think." He looked away toward his waiting horse and to the steer lying on the ground. "So you and Stanford Manning--Good old Stan! I am glad for him. And for you, too, Helen. Why, it was I who introduced him to you; do you remember?"
He smiled again that mirthless, self-mocking smile, as he added without giving her time to speak, "If you will excuse me for a moment, I will rid your camp of the unwelcome presence of that beast yonder." Then he went toward his horse, as though turning for relief to the work that had become so familiar to him.
She watched him while he released the steer, and drove the animal away over the ridge, where he permitted it to escape into the wild haunts where it lived with its outlaw companions.
When he rode back to the little camp Stanford had returned.
For an hour they talked together as old friends. But Helen, while she offered now and then a word or a remark, or asked a question, and laughed or smiled with them, left the talk mostly to the two men. Stanford, when the first shock of learning of Helen's narrow escape was over, was gaily enthusiastic and warm in his admiration for his old friend, who had, for no apparent reason but the wish to assert his own manhood, turned his back upon the ease and luxury of his wealth to live a life of adventurous hardship. And Patches, as he insisted they should call him, with many a laughing jest and droll comment told them of his new life and work. He was only serious when he made them promise to keep his identity a secret until he himself was ready to reveal his real name.
"And what do you propose to do when your game of Patches is played out?" Stanford asked curiously.
For an instant they saw him smiling mockingly at himself; then he answered lightly, "Try some other fool experiment, I reckon."
Stanford chuckled; the reply was so like the cowboy Patches, and so unlike his old friend Larry Knight.
"As for that, Stan," Patches continued, "I don't see that the game will ever be played out, as you say. Certainly I can never now go back altogether to what I was. The fellow you used to know in Cleveland is not really I, you see. Fact is, I think that fellow is quite dead--peace be to his ashes! The world is wide and there is always work for a man to do."
The appearance of Phil Acton on the ridge, at the spot where the steer, followed by Patches, had first appeared, put an end to their further conversation with Lawrence Knight.
"My boss!" said that gentleman, in his character of Patches the cowboy, as the Cross-Triangle foreman halted his horse on the brow of the hill, and sat looking down upon the camp.
"Be careful, please, and don't let him suspect that you ever saw me before. I'll sure catch it now for loafing so long."
"I know him," said Stanford. Then he called to the man above, "Come on down, Acton, and be sociable."
Phil rode into camp, shook hands with Stanford cordially, and was presented to Mrs. Manning, to whom he spoke with a touch of embarrassment. Then he said, with a significant look at Patches, "I'm glad to meet you people, Mr. Manning, but we really haven't much time for sociability just now. Mr. Baldwin sent me with an outfit into this Granite Basin country to gather some of these outlaw steers. He expects us to be on the job." Turning to Patches, he continued, "When you didn't come back I thought you must have met with some serious trouble, and so trailed you. We've managed to lose a good deal of time, altogether. That steer you were after got away from you, did he?"
Helen spoke quickly. "Oh, Mr. Acton, you must not blame Mr. Patches for what happened. Really, you must not. No one was to blame; it just happened--" She stopped, unable to finish the explanation, for she was thinking of that part of the incident which was known only to herself and Patches.
Stanford told in a few words of his wife's danger and how the cowboy had saved her.
"That was mighty good work, Patches," said Phil heartily, "mighty good work. I'm sorry, Mr. Manning, that our coming up here after these outlaws happened at just this time. It is too bad to so disturb you and Mrs. Manning. We are going home Friday, however, and I'll tell the boys to keep clear of your neighborhood in the meantime."
As the two Cross-Triangle men walked toward their horses, Helen and Stanford heard Phil ask, "But where is that steer, Patches?"
"I let him go," returned Patches.
"You let him go!" exclaimed the foreman. "After you had him roped and tied? What did you do that for?"
Patches was confused. "Really, I don't know."
"I'd like to know what you figure we're up here for," said Phil, sharply. "You not only waste two or three hours visiting with these people, but you take my time trailing you up; and then you turn loose a steer after you get him. It looks like you'd lost your head mighty bad, after all."
"I'm afraid you're right, Phil," Patches answered quietly.
Helen looked at her husband indignantly but Stanford was grinning with delight.
"To think," he murmured, "of Larry Knight taking a dressing-down like that from a mere cowboy foreman!"
But Patches was by no means so meek in spirit as he appeared in his outward manner. He had been driven almost to the verge of desperation by the trying situation, and was fighting for self-control. To take his foreman's rebuke in the presence of his friends was not easy.
"I reckon I'd better send you to the home ranch to-night, instead of Bob," continued Phil, as the two men mounted their horses and sat for a moment facing each other. "It looks like we could spare you best. Tell Uncle Will to send the chuck wagon and three more punchers, and that we'll start for the home ranch Friday. And be sure that you get back here to-morrow."
"Shall I go now?"
"Yes, you can go now."
Patches wheeled his horse and rode away, while Phil disappeared over the ridge in the direction from which he had come.
When the two cowboys were out of sight, Helen went straight to her husband, and to Stanford's consternation, when he took her in his arms, she was crying.
"Why, girl, what is it?" he asked, holding her close.
But she only answered between sobs as she clung to him, "It--it's nothing--never mind, Stan. I'm just upset."
And Stanford quite naturally thought it was only a case of nerves caused by the danger through which she had passed.
For nearly an hour, Patches rode toward the home ranch, taking only such notice of his surroundings as was necessary in order for him to keep his direction. Through the brush and timber, over the ridges down into valleys and washes, and along the rock-strewn mountain sides he allowed his horse to pick the way, and take his own gait, with scarcely a touch of rein or spur.
The twilight hour was beginning when he reached a point from which he could see, in the distance, the red roofs of the Cross-Triangle buildings. Checking his horse, he sat for a long time, motionless, looking away over the broad land that had come to mean so much to him, as though watching the passing of the day.
But the man did not note the changing colors in the western sky; he did not see the shadows deepening; he was not thinking of the coming of the night. The sight of the distant spot that, a year before, had held such possibilities for him, when, on the summit of the Divide, he had chosen between two widely separated ways of life, brought to him, now, a keener realization of the fact that he was again placed where he must choose. The sun was down upon those hopes and dreams that in the first hard weeks of his testing had inspired and strengthened him. The night of despairing, reckless abandonment of the very ideals of manhood for which he had so bravely struggled was upon him; while the spirit and strength of that manhood which he had so hardly attained fought against its surrender.
When Stanford Manning had asked, "What will you do when your game of Patches is played out?" he had said that the man whom they had known in the old days was dead. Would this new man also die? Deliberately the man turned about and started back the way he had come.
In their honeymoon camp, that evening, when the only light in the sky was the light of the stars, and the camp fire's ruddy flames made weird shadows come and go in the little glade, Helen, lying in the hammock, and Stanford, sitting near, talked of their old friend Lawrence Knight. But as they talked they did not know that a lonely horseman had stopped on the other side of the low ridge, and leaving his horse, had crept carefully through the brush, to a point on the brow of the hill, from which he could look down into the camp.
From where he lay in the darkness, the man could see against the camp fire's light the two, where the hammock was swung under the trees. He could hear the low murmur of their voices, with now and then a laugh. But it was always the man who laughed, for there was little mirth in Helen's heart that night. Then he saw Stanford go into the tent and return again to the hammock; and soon there came floating up to him the sweet, plaintive music of Helen's guitar, and then her voice, full and low, with a wealth of womanhood in every tone, as she sang a love song to her mate. Later, when the dancing flames of the camp fire had fallen to a dull red glow, he saw them go arm in arm into their tent. Then all was still. The red glow of the fire dimmed to a spark, and darkness drew close about the scene. But even in the darkness the man could still see, under the wide, sheltering arms of the trees, a lighter spot--the white tent.
"Gethsemane," said the Dean to me once, when our talk had ranged wide and touched upon many things, "Gethsemane ain't no place; it's somethin' that happens. Whenever a man goes up against himself, right there is where Gethsemane is. And right there, too, is sure to be a fight. A man may not always know about it at the time; he may be too busy fightin' to understand just what it all means; but he'll know about it afterwards--No matter which side of him wins, he'll know afterwards that it was the one big fight of his life."