When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XV. On Cedar Ridge.
Kitty's friends were very glad to welcome her at their camp in Granite Basin. The incident which had so rudely broken the seclusion of their honeymoon had been too nearly a tragedy to be easily forgotten. The charm of the place was, in some degree, for them, lost, and Kitty's coming helped to dispel the cloud that had a little overshadowed those last days of their outing.
It was not at all difficult for them to persuade Kitty to remain longer than the one night that she had planned, and to accompany them to Prescott. Prom Prescott, Stanford must go to the mines, to take up his work, and to arrange for Helen's coming later, and Helen would go home with Kitty for the visit she had promised. The cowboys, who were returning to the Cross-Triangle Ranch, would take Kitty's horse to her home, and would carry a message explaining the young woman's absence, and asking that someone be sent to Prescott with the clothing she would need in town, and that the Reid automobile might be in Prescott in readiness to take the two young women back to the ranch on the appointed day.
Kitty could not bring herself to tell even Helen about her engagement to Lawrence Knight, or Patches, as she would continue to call him until the time came for the cowboy himself to make his true name and character known. It had all happened so suddenly; the promises of the future were so wonderful--so far beyond the young woman's fondest dreams--that she herself could scarcely realize the truth. There would be time enough to tell Helen when they were together at the ranch. And she was insistent, too, that Patches must not interview her father until she herself had returned home.
Phil and his cowboys with the cattle reached the Cross-Triangle corrals the evening before the day set for Kitty and Helen to arrive at the ranch on the other side of the valley meadows. The Cross-Triangle men were greeted by the news that Professor Parkhill had said good-by to Williamson Valley, and that the Pot-Hook-S Ranch had been sold. The eastern purchaser expected by Reid had arrived on the day that Kitty had gone to Granite Basin, and the deal had been closed without delay. But Reid was not to give possession of the property until after the fall rodeo.
As the men sat under the walnut trees with the Dean that evening, discussing the incidents of the Granite Basin work, and speculating about the new owner of the neighboring ranch, Phil sat with Little Billy apart from the circle, and contributed to the conversation only now and then a word or a brief answer to some question. When Mrs. Baldwin persuaded the child that it was bedtime, Phil slipped quietly away in the darkness, and they did not see him again until breakfast the next morning. When breakfast was over, the foreman gave a few directions to his men, and rode away alone.
The Dean, understanding the lad, whom he loved as one of his own sons, watched him go without a word or a question. To Mrs. Baldwin he said, "Just let him alone, Stella. The boy is all right. He's only gone off somewhere on the range to fight it out alone. Most likely he'll put in the day watching those wild horses over beyond Toohey. He generally goes to them when he's bothered about anything or in trouble of any sort."
Patches, who had been sent on an errand of some kind to Fair Oaks, was returning home early in the afternoon, and had reached the neighborhood of that spring where he had first encountered Nick Cambert, when he heard a calf bawling lustily somewhere in the cedar timber not far away. Familiar as he now was with the voices of the range, the cowboy knew that the calf was in trouble. The call was one of fright and pain.
Turning aside from his course, he rode, rapidly at first, then more cautiously, toward the sound. Presently he caught a whiff of smoke that came with the light breeze from somewhere ahead on the ridge along which he was riding. Instantly he rode into a thick clump of cedars, and, dismounting, tied his horse. Then he went on, carefully and silently, on foot. Soon he heard voices. Again the calf bawled in fright and pain, and the familiar odor of burning hair was carried to him on the breeze. Someone was branding a calf.
It might be all right--it might not. Patches was unarmed, but, with characteristic disregard of consequences, he crept softly forward, toward a dense growth of trees and brush, from beyond which the noise and the smoke seemed to come.
He had barely gained the cover when he heard someone on the other side ride rapidly away down the ridge. Hastily parting the bushes, he looked through to catch a glimpse of the horseman, but he was a moment too late; the rider had disappeared from sight in the timber. But, in a little open space among the cedars, the cowboy saw Yavapai Joe, standing beside a calf, fresh-branded with the Four-Bar-M iron, and earmarked with the Tailholt marks.
Patches knew instantly, as well as though he had witnessed the actual branding, what, had happened. That part of the range was seldom visited except by the Dean's cowboys, and the Tailholt Mountain men, knowing that the Cross-Triangle riders were all at Granite Basin, were making good use of their opportunities. The man who had ridden away so hurriedly, a moment too soon for Patches to see him, was, without doubt, driving the mother of the calf to a distance that would effectually separate her from her offspring.
But while he was so sure in his own mind, the Cross-Triangle man--as it had so often happened before--had arrived on the scene too late. He had no positive evidence that the animal just branded was not the lawful property of Nick Cambert.
As Patches stepped from the bushes, Yavapai Joe faced him for a moment in guilty astonishment and fear; then he ran toward his horse.
"Wait a minute, Joe!" called Patches. "What good will it do for you to run now? I'm not going to harm you."
Joe stopped, and stood hesitating in indecision, watching the intruder with that sneaking, sidewise look.
"Come on, Joe; let's have a little talk about this business," the Cross-Triangle man said in a matter-of-fact tone, as he seated himself on a large, flat-topped stone near the little fire. "You know you can't get away, so you might as well."
"I ain't tellin' nothin' to nobody," said Joe sullenly, as he came slowly toward the Dean's cowboy.
"No?" said Patches.
"No, I ain't," asserted the Tailholt Mountain man stoutly. "That there calf is a Four-Bar-M calf, all right."
"I see it is," returned the Cross-Triangle rider calmly. "But I'll just wait until Nick gets back, and ask him what it was before he worked over the iron."
Joe, excited and confused by the cool nerve of this man, fell readily into the verbal trap.
"You better go now, an' not wait to ask Nick no fool questions like that. If he finds you here talkin' with me when he gets back, hell'll be a-poppin' fer sure. Me an' you are friends, Patches, an' that's why I'm a-tellin' you you better pull your freight while the goin's good."
"Much obliged, Joe, but there's no hurry. You don't need to be so rushed. It will be an hour before Nick gets back, if he drives that cow as far as he ought."
Again poor Yavapai Joe told more than he intended. "You don't need to worry none 'bout Nick; he'll sure drive her far enough. He ain't takin' no chances, Nick ain't."
With his convictions so readily confirmed, Patches had good ground upon which to base his following remarks. He had made a long shot when he spoke so confidently of the brand on the calf being worked over. For, of course, the calf might not have been branded at all when the Tailholt Mountain men caught it. But Joe's manner, as well as his warning answer, told that the shot had gone home. The fact that the brand had been worked over established also the fact that it was the Cross-Triangle brand that had been changed, because the Cross-Triangle was the only brand in that part of the country that could be changed into the Four-Bar-M.
Patches, dropping his easy manner, and speaking straight to the point, said, "Look here, Joe, you and I might as well get down to cases. You know I am your friend, and I don't want to see you in trouble, but you can take it from me that you are in mighty serious trouble right now. I was hiding right there in those bushes, close enough to see all that happened, and I know that this is a Cross-Triangle calf, and that Nick and you worked the brand over. You know that it means the penitentiary for you, as well as for Nick, if the boys don't string you both up without any ceremony."
Patches paused to let his words sink in.
Joe's face was ashy white, and he was shaking with fright, as he stole a sneaking look toward his horse.
Patches added sharply, "You can't give me the slip, either; I can kill you before you get half way to your horse."
Trapped and helpless, Joe looked pleadingly at his captor. "You wouldn't send me up, would you, now, Patches?" he whined. "You an' me's good friends, ain't we? Anyway he wouldn't let me go to the pen, an' the boys wouldn't dast do nothin' to me when they knew."
"Whom are you talking about?" demanded Patches. "Nick? Don't be a fool, Joe; Nick will be there right alongside of you."
"I ain't meanin' Nick; I mean him over there at the Cross-Triangle--Professor Parkhill. I'm a-tellin' you that he wouldn't let you do nothin' to me."
"Forget it, Joe," came the reply, without an instant's hesitation. "You know as well as I do how much chance Professor Parkhill, or anyone else, would have, trying to keep the boys from making you and Nick dance on nothing, once they hear of this. Besides, the professor is not in the valley now."
The poor outcast's fright was pitiful. "You ain't meanin' that he--that he's gone?" he gasped.
"Listen, Joe," said Patches quickly. "I can do more for you than he could, even if he were here. You know I am your friend, and I don't want to see a good fellow like you sent to prison for fifteen or twenty years, or, perhaps, hanged. But there's only one way that I can see for me to save you. You must go with me to the Cross-Triangle, and tell Mr. Baldwin all about it, how you were just working for Nick, and how he made you help him do this, and all that you know. If you do that, we can get you off."
"I--I reckon you're right, Patches," returned the frightened weakling sullenly. "Nick has sure treated me like a dog, anyway. You won't let Nick get at me, will you, if I go?"
"Nobody can get at you, Joe, if you go with me, and do the square thing. I'm going to take care of you myself, and help you to get out of this, and brace up and be a man. Come on; let's be moving. I'll turn this calf loose first, though."
He was bending over the calf when a noise in the brush caused him to stand suddenly erect.
Joe was whimpering with terror.
Patches said fiercely, but in a low tone, "Shut up, and follow my lead. Be a man, and I'll get you out of this yet."
"Nick will kill us sure," whined Joe.
"Not if I get my hands on him first, he won't," retorted Patches.
But it was with a feeling of relief that the cowboy saw Phil Acton ride toward them from the shelter of the timber.
Before Patches could speak, Phil's gun covered him, and the foreman's voice rang out sharply.
Joe's hands shot above his head. Patches hesitated.
"Quick!" said Phil.
And as Patches saw the man's eyes over the black barrel of the weapon he obeyed. But as he raised his hands, a dull flush of anger colored his tanned face a deeper red, and his eyes grew dark with passion. He realized his situation instantly. The mystery that surrounded his first appearance when he had sought employment at the Cross-Triangle; the persistent suspicion of many of the cowboys because of his friendship for Yavapai Joe; his meeting with Joe which the professor had reported; his refusal to explain to Phil; his return to the ranch when everyone was away and he himself was supposed to be in Prescott--all these and many other incidents had come to their legitimate climax in his presence on that spot with Yavapai Joe, the smouldering fire and the freshly branded calf. He was unarmed, but Phil could not be sure of that, for many a cowboy carries his gun inside the leg of his leather chaps, where it does not so easily catch in the brush.
But while Patches saw it all so clearly, he was enraged that this man with whom he had lived so intimately should believe him capable of such a crime, and treat him without question as a common cattle thief. Phil's coldness toward him, which had grown so gradually during the past three months, in this peremptory humiliation reached a point beyond which Patches' patient and considerate endurance could not go. The man's sense of justice was outraged; his fine feeling of honor was insulted. Trapped and helpless as he was under that menacing gun, he was possessed by a determination to defend himself against the accusation, and to teach Phil Acton that there was a limit to the insult he would endure, even in the name of friendship. To this end his only hope was to trap his foreman with words, as he had caught Yavapai Joe. At a game of words Honorable Patches was no unskilled novice. Controlling his anger, he said coolly, with biting sarcasm, while he looked at the cowboy with a mocking sneer, "You don't propose to take any chances, do you--holding up an unarmed man?"
Patches saw by the flush that swept over Phil's cheeks how his words bit.
"It doesn't pay to take chances with your kind," retorted the foreman hotly.
"No," mocked Patches, "but it will pay big, I suppose, for the great 'Wild Horse Phil' to be branded as a sneak and a coward who is afraid to face an unarmed man unless he can get the drop on him?"
Phil was goaded to madness by the cool, mocking words. With a reckless laugh, he slipped his weapon into the holster and sprang to the ground. At the same moment Patches and Joe lowered their hands, and Joe, unnoticed by either of the angry men, took a few stealthy steps toward his horse.
Phil, deliberately folding his arms, stood looking at Patches.
"I'll just call that bluff, you sneakin' calf stealer," he said coolly. "Now, unlimber that gun of yours, and get busy."
Angry as he was, Patches felt a thrill of admiration for the man, and beneath his determination to force Phil Acton to treat him with respect, he was proud of his friend who had answered his sneering insinuation with such fearlessness. But he could not now hesitate in his plan of provoking Phil into disarming himself.
"You're something of a four-flusher yourself, aren't you?" he mocked. "You know I have no gun. Your brave pose is very effective. I would congratulate you, only, you see, it doesn't impress me in the least."
With an oath Phil snatched his gun from the holster, and threw it aside.
"Have it any way you like," he retorted, and started toward Patches.
Then a curious thing happened to Honorable Patches. Angry as he was, he became suddenly dominated by something that was more potent than his rage.
"Stop!" he cried sharply, and with such ringing force that Phil involuntarily obeyed. "I can't fight you this way, Phil," he said; and the other, wondering, saw that whimsical, self-mocking smile on his lips. "You know as well as I do that you are no match for me barehanded. You couldn't even touch me; you have seen Curly and the others try it often enough. You are as helpless in my power, now, as I was in yours a moment ago. I am armed now and you are not. I can't fight you this way, Phil."
In spite of himself Phil Acton was impressed by the truth and fairness of Patches' words. He recognized that an unequal contest could satisfy neither of them, and that it made no difference which of the contestants had the advantage.
"Well," he said sarcastically, "what are you going to do about it?"
"First," returned Patches calmly, "I am going to tell you how I happened to be here with Yavapai Joe."
"I don't need any explanations from you. It's some more of your personal business, I suppose," retorted Phil.
Patches controlled himself. "You are going to hear the explanation, just the same," he returned. "You can believe it or not, just as you please."
"And what then?" demanded Phil.
"Then I'm going to get a gun, and we'll settle the rest of it, man to man, on equal terms, just as soon as you like," answered Patches deliberately.
Phil replied shortly. "Go ahead with your palaver. I'll have to hand it to you when it comes to talk. I am not educated that way myself."
For a moment Patches hesitated, as though on the point of changing his mind about the explanation. Then his sense of justice--justice both for Phil and himself--conquered.
But in telling Phil how he had come upon the scene too late for positive proof that the freshly branded calf was the Dean's property, and in explaining how, when the foreman arrived, he had just persuaded Joe to go with him and give the necessary evidence against Nick, Patches forgot the possible effect of his words upon Joe himself. The two Cross-Triangle men were so absorbed in their own affair that they had paid no attention to the Tailholt Mountain outcast. And Joe, taking advantage of the opportunity, had by this time gained a position beside his horse. As he heard Patches tell how he had no actual evidence that the calf was not Nick Cambert's property, a look of anger and cunning darkened the face of Nick's follower. He was angry at the way Patches had tricked him into betraying both himself and his evil master, and he saw a way to defeat the two cowboys and at the same time win Nick's approval. Quickly the fellow mounted his horse, and, before they could stop him, was out of sight in the timber.
"I've done it now," exclaimed Patches in dismay. "I forgot all about Joe."
"I don't think he counts for much in this game anyway," returned Phil, gruffly.
As he spoke, the foreman turned his back to Patches and walked toward his gun. He had reached the spot where the weapon lay on the ground, when, from the bushes to the right, and a little back of Patches, who stood watching his companion, a shot rang out with startling suddenness.
Patches saw Phil stumble forward, straighten for an instant, as though by sheer power of his will, and, turning, look back at him. Then, as Phil fell, the unarmed cowboy leaped forward toward that gun on the ground. Even as he moved, a second shot rang out and he felt the wind of the bullet on his cheek. With Phil's gun in his hand, he ran toward a cedar tree on the side of the open space opposite the point from which the shots came, and as he ran another bullet whistled past.
A man moving as Patches moved is not an easy mark. The same man armed, and protected by the trunk of a tree, is still more difficult. A moment after he had gained cover, the cowboy heard the clatter of a horse's feet, near the spot from which the shots had come, and by the sound knew that the unseen marksman had chosen to retire with only half his evident purpose accomplished, rather than take the risk that had arisen with Patches' success in turning the ambush into an open fight.
As the sound of the horse's swift rush down the side of the ridge grew fainter and fainter, Patches ran to Phil.
A quick examination told him that the bullet had entered just under the right shoulder, and that the man, though unconscious and, no doubt, seriously wounded, was living.
With rude bandages made by tearing his shirt into strips Patches checked the flow of blood, and bound up the wound as best he could. Then for a moment he considered. It was between three and four miles to the ranch. He could ride there and back in a few minutes. Someone must start for a doctor without an instant's loss of time. With water, proper bandages and stimulants, the wounded man could be cared for and moved in the buckboard with much greater safety than he could be carried in his present condition on a horse. The risk of leaving him for a few minutes was small, compared to the risk of taking him to the house under the only conditions possible. The next instant Patches was in Phil's saddle and riding as he had never ridden before.
Jim Reid, with Kitty and Helen, was on the way back from Prescott as Kitty had planned. They were within ten miles of the ranch when the cattleman, who sat at the wheel of the automobile, saw a horseman coming toward them. A moment he watched the approaching figure, then, over his shoulder, he said to the girls, "Look at that fellow ride. There's something doin', sure." As he spoke he turned the machine well out of the road.
A moment later he added, "It's Curly Elson from the Cross-Triangle. Somethin's happened in the valley." As he spoke, he stopped the machine, and sprang out so that the cowboy could see and recognize him.
Curly did not draw rein until he was within a few feet of Reid; then he brought his running horse up with a suddenness that threw the animal on its haunches.
Curly spoke tersely. "Phil Acton is shot. We need a doctor quick."
Without a word Jim Reid leaped into the automobile. The car backed to turn around. As it paused an instant before starting forward again, Kitty put her hand on her father's shoulder.
"Wait!" she cried. "I'm going to Phil. Curly, I want your horse; you can go with father."
The cowboy was on the ground before she had finished speaking. And before the automobile was under way Kitty was riding back the way Curly had come.
Kitty was scarcely conscious of what she had said. The cowboy's first words had struck her with the force of a physical blow, and in that first moment, she had been weak and helpless. She had felt as though a heavy weight pressed her down; a gray mist was before her eyes, and she could not see clearly. "Phil Acton is shot--Phil Acton is shot!" The cowboy's words had repeated themselves over and over. Then, with a sudden rush, her strength came again--the mist cleared; she must go to Phil; she must go fast, fast. Oh, why was this horse so slow! If only she were riding her own Midnight! She did not think as she rode. She did not wonder, nor question, nor analyze her emotions. She only felt. It was Phil who was hurt--Phil, the boy with whom she had played when she was a little girl--the lad with whom she had gone to school--the young man who had won the first love of her young woman heart. It was Phil, her Phil, who was hurt, and she must go to him--she must go fast, fast!
It seemed to Kitty that hours passed before she reached the meadow lane. She was glad that Curly had left the gates open. As she crossed the familiar ground between the old Acton home and the ranch house on the other side of the sandy wash, she saw them. They were carrying him into the house as she rode into the yard, and at sight of that still form the gray mist came again, and she caught the saddle horn to save herself from falling. But it was only a moment until she was strong again, and ready to do all that Mrs. Baldwin asked.
Phil had regained consciousness before they started home with him, but he was very weak from the loss of blood and the journey in the buckboard, though Bob drove ever so carefully, was almost more than he could bear. But with the relief that came when he was at last lying quietly in his own bed, and with the help of the stimulant, the splendid physical strength and vitality that was his because of his natural and unspoiled life again brought him back from the shadows into the light of full consciousness.
It was then that the Dean, while Mrs. Baldwin and Kitty were occupied for a few moments in another part of the house, listened to all that his foreman could tell him about the affair up to the time that he had fallen unconscious. The Dean asked but few questions. But when the details were all clearly fixed in his mind, the older man bent over Phil and looked straight into the lad's clear and steady eyes, while he asked in a low tone, "Phil, did Patches do this?"
And the young man answered, "Uncle Will, I don't know."
With this he closed his eyes wearily, as though to sleep, and the Dean, seeing Kitty in the doorway, beckoned her to come and sit beside the bed. Then he stole quietly from the room.
As in a dream Phil had seen Kitty when she rode into the yard. And he had been conscious of her presence as she moved about the house and the room where he lay. But he had given no sign that he knew she was there. As she seated herself, at the Dean's bidding, the cowboy opened his eyes for a moment, and looked up into her face. Then again the weary lids closed, and he gave no hint that he recognized her, save that the white lips set in firmer lines as though at another stab of pain.
As she watched alone beside this man who had, since she could remember, been a part of her life, and as she realized that he was on the very border line of that land from which, if he entered, he could never return to her, Kitty Reid knew the truth that is greater than any knowledge that the schools of man can give. She knew the one great truth of her womanhood; knew it not from text book or class room; not from learned professor or cultured associates; but knew it from that good Master of Life who, with infinite wisdom, teaches his many pupils who are free to learn in the school of schools, the School of Nature. In that hour when the near presence of death so overshadowed all the trivial and non-essential things of life--when the little standards and petty values of poor human endeavor were as nothing--this woman knew that by the unwritten edict of God, who decreed that in all life two should be as one, this man was her only lawful mate. Environment, circumstance, that which we call culture and education, even death, might separate them; but nothing could nullify the fact that was attested by the instinct of her womanhood. Bending over the man who lay so still, she whispered the imperative will of her heart.
"Come back to me, Phil--I want you--I need you, dear--come back to me!"
Slowly he came out of the mists of weakness and pain to look up at her--doubtfully--wonderingly. But there was a light in Kitty's face that dispelled the doubt, and changed the look of wondering uncertainty to glad conviction. He did not speak. No word was necessary. Nor did he move, for he must be very still, and hold fast with all his strength to the life that was now so good. But the woman knew without words all that he would have said, and as his eyes closed again she bowed her head in thankfulness.
Then rising she stole softly to the window. She felt that she must look out for a moment into the world that was so suddenly new and beautiful.
Under the walnut trees she saw the Dean talking with the man whom she had promised to marry.
Later Mr. Reid, with Helen and Curly, brought the doctor, and the noise of the automobile summoned every soul on the place to wait for the physician's verdict of life or death.
While the Dean was in Phil's room with the physician, and the anxious ones were gathered in a little group in front of the house, Jim Reid stood apart from the others talking in low tones with the cowboy Bob. Patches, who was standing behind the automobile, heard Bob, who had raised his voice a little, say distinctly, "I tell you, sir, there ain't a bit of doubt in the world about it. There was the calf a layin' right there fresh-branded and marked. He'd plumb forgot to turn it loose, I reckon, bein' naturally rattled; or else he figgered that it warn't no use, if Phil should be able to tell what happened. The way I make it out is that Phil jumped him right in the act, so sudden that he shot without thinkin'; you know how he acts quick that-a-way. An' then he seen what he had done, an' that it was more than an even break that Phil wouldn't live, an' so figgered that his chance was better to stay an' run a bluff by comin' for help, an' all that. If he'd tried to make his get-away, there wouldn't 'a' been no question about it; an' he's got just nerve enough to take the chance he's a-takin' by stayin' right with the game."
Patches started as though to go toward the men, but at that moment the doctor came from the house. As the physician approached the waiting group, that odd, mirthless, self-mocking smile touched Patches' lips; then he stepped forward to listen with the others to the doctor's words.
Phil had a chance, the doctor said, but he told them frankly that it was only a chance. The injured man's wonderful vitality, his clean blood and unimpaired physical strength, together with his unshaken nerve and an indomitable will, were all greatly in his favor. With careful nursing they might with reason hope for his recovery.
With expressions of relief, the group separated. Patches walked away alone. Mr. Reid, who would return to Prescott with the doctor, said to his daughter when the physician was ready, "Come, Kitty, I'll go by the house, so as to take you and Mrs. Manning home."
But Kitty shook her head. "No, father. I'm not going home. Stella needs me here. Helen understands, don't you, Helen?"
And wise Mrs. Manning, seeing in Kitty's face something that the man had not observed, answered, "Yes, dear, I do understand. You must stay, of course. I'll run over again in the morning."
"Very well," answered Mr. Reid, who seemed in somewhat of a hurry. "I know you ought to stay. Tell Stella that mother will be over for a little while this evening." And the automobile moved away.
That night, while Mrs. Baldwin and Kitty watched by Phil's bedside, and Patches, in his room, waited, sleepless, alone with his thoughts, men from the ranch on the other side of the quiet meadow were riding swiftly through the darkness. Before the new day had driven the stars from the wide sky, a little company of silent, grim-faced horsemen gathered in the Pot-Hook-S corral. In the dim, gray light of the early morning they followed Jim Reid out of the corral, and, riding fast, crossed the valley above the meadows and approached the Cross-Triangle corrals from the west. One man in the company led a horse with an empty saddle. Just beyond the little rise of ground outside the big gate they halted, while Jim Reid with two others, leaving their horses with the silent riders behind the hill, went on into the corral, where they seated themselves on the edge of the long watering trough near the tank, which hid them from the house.
Fifteen minutes later, when the Dean stepped from the kitchen porch, he saw Curly running toward the house. As the older man hurried toward him, the cowboy, pale with excitement and anger, cried, "They've got him, sir--grabbed him when he went out to the corral."
The Dean understood instantly. "My horse, quick, Curly," he said, and hurried on toward the saddle shed. "Which way did they go?" he asked, as he mounted.
"Toward the cedars on the ridge where it happened," came the answer. "Do you want me?"
"No. Don't let them know in the house," came the reply. And the Dean was gone.
The little company of horsemen, with Patches in their midst, had reached the scene of the shooting, and had made their simple preparations. From that moment when they had covered him with their guns as he stepped through the corral gate, he had not spoken.
"Well, sir," said the spokesman, "have you anything to say before we proceed?"
Patches shook his head, and wonderingly they saw that curious mocking smile on his lips.
"I don't suppose that any remarks I might make would impress you gentlemen in the least," he said coolly. "It would be useless and unkind for me to detain you longer than is necessary."
An involuntary murmur of admiration came from the circle. They were men who could appreciate such unflinching courage.
In the short pause that followed, the Dean, riding as he had not ridden for years, was in their midst. Before they could check him the veteran cowman was beside Patches. With a quick motion he snatched the riata from the cowboy's neck. An instant more, and he had cut the rope that bound Patches' hands.
"Thank you, sir," said Patches calmly.
"Don't do that, Will," called Jim Reid peremptorily. "This is our business." In the same breath he shouted to his companions, "Take him again, boys," and started forward.
"Stand where you are," roared the Dean, and as they looked upon the stern countenance of the man who was so respected and loved throughout all that country, not a man moved. Reid himself involuntarily halted at the command.
"I'll do this and more, Jim Reid," said the Dean firmly, and there was that in his voice which, in the wild days of the past, had compelled many a man to fear and obey him. "It's my business enough that you can call this meetin' off right here. I'll be responsible for this man. You boys mean well, but you're a little mite too previous this trip."
"We aim to put a stop to that thievin' Tailholt Mountain outfit, Will," returned Reid, "an' we're goin' to do it right now."
A murmur of agreement came from the group.
The Dean did not give an inch. "You'll put a stop to nothin' this way; an' you'll sure start somethin' that'll be more than stealin' a few calves. The time for stringin' men up promiscuous like, on mere suspicion, is past in Arizona. I reckon there's more Cross-Triangle stock branded with the Tailholt Mountain iron than all the rest of you put together have lost, which sure entitles me to a front seat when it comes, to the show-down."
"He's right, boys," said one of the older men.
"You know I'm right, Tom," returned the Dean quickly. "You an' me have lived neighbors for pretty near thirty years, without ever a hard word passed between us, an' we've been through some mighty serious troubles together; an' you, too, George, an' Henry an' Bill. The rest of you boys I have known since you was little kids; an' me and your daddies worked an' fought side by side for decent livin' an' law-abidin' times before you was born. We did it 'cause we didn't want our children to go through with what we had to go through, or do some of the things that we had to do. An' now you're all thinkin' that you can cut me out of this. You think you can sneak out here before I'm out of my bed in the mornin', an' hang one of my own cowboys--as good a man as ever throwed a rope, too. Without sayin' a word to me, you come crawlin' right into my own corral, an' start to raisin' hell. I'm here to tell you that you can't do it. You can't do it because I won't let you."
The men, with downcast eyes, sat on their horses, ashamed. Two or three muttered approval. Jim Reid said earnestly, "That's all right, Will. We knew how you would feel, an' we were just aimin' to save you any more trouble. Them Tailholt Mountain thieves have gone too far this time. We can't let you turn that man loose."
"I ain't goin' to try to turn him loose," retorted the Dean.
The men looked at each other.
"What are you goin' to do, then?" asked the spokesman.
"I'm goin' to make you turn him loose," came the startling answer. "You fellows took him; you've got to let him go."
In spite of the grave situation several of the men grinned at the Dean's answer--it was so like him.
"I'll bet a steer he does it, too," whispered one.
The Dean turned to the man by his side. "Patches, tell these men all that you told me about this business."
When the cowboy had told his story in detail, up to the point where Phil came upon the scene, the Dean interrupted him, "Now, get down there an' show us exactly how it happened after Phil rode on to you an' Yavapai Joe."
Patches obeyed. As he was showing them where Phil stood when the shot was fired the Dean again interrupted with, "Wait a minute. Tom, you get down there an' stand just as Phil was standin'."
The cattleman obeyed.
When he had taken the position, the Dean continued, "Now, Patches, stand like you was when Phil was hit."
"Now, then, where did that shot come from?" asked the Dean.
The Dean did not need to direct the next step in his demonstration. Three of the men were already off their horses, and moving around the bushes indicated by Patches.
"Here's the tracks, all right," called one. "An' here," added another, from a few feet further away, "was where he left his horse."
"An' now," continued the Dean, when the three men had come back from behind the bushes, and with Patches had remounted their horses, "I'll tell you somethin' else. I had a talk with Phil himself, an' the boy's story agrees with what Patches has just told you in every point. An', furthermore, Phil told me straight when I asked him that he didn't know himself who fired that shot."
He paused for a moment for them to grasp the full import of his words. Then he summed up the case.
"As the thing stands, we've got no evidence against anybody. It can't be proved that the calf wasn't Nick's property in the first place. It can't be proved that Nick was anywhere in the neighborhood. It can't be proved who fired that shot. It could have been Yavapai Joe, or anybody else, just as well as Nick. Phil himself, by bein' too quick to jump at conclusions, blocked this man's game, just when he was playin' the only hand that could have won out against Nick. If Phil hadn't 'a' happened on to Patches and Joe when he did, or if he had been a little slower about findin' a man guilty just because appearances were against him, we'd 'a' had the evidence from Yavapai Joe that we've been wantin', an' could 'a' called the turn on that Tailholt outfit proper. As it stands now, we're right where we was before. Now, what are you all goin' to do about it?"
The men grinned shamefacedly, but were glad that the tragedy had been averted. They were by no means convinced that Patches was not guilty, but they were quick to see the possibilities of a mistake in the situation.
"I reckon the Dean has adjourned the meetin', boys," said one.
"Come on," called another. "Let's be ridin'."
When the last man had disappeared in the timber, the Dean wiped the perspiration from his flushed face, and looked at Patches thoughtfully. Then that twinkle of approval came into the blue eyes, that a few moments before had been so cold and uncompromising.
"Come, son," he said gently, "let's go to breakfast. Stella'll be wonderin' what's keepin' us."