When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter II. On the Divide.
Had the man on the Divide noticed the approaching horseman it would have been evident, even to one so unacquainted with the country as the stranger, that the rider belonged to that land of riders. While still at a distance too great for the eye to distinguish the details of fringed leather chaps, soft shirt, short jumper, sombrero, spurs and riata, no one could have mistaken the ease and grace of the cowboy who seemed so literally a part of his horse. His seat in the saddle was so secure, so easy, and his bearing so unaffected and natural, that every movement of the powerful animal he rode expressed itself rhythmically in his own lithe and sinewy body.
While the stranger sat wrapped in meditative thought, unheeding the approach of the rider, the horseman, coming on with a long, swinging lope, watched the motionless figure on the summit of the Divide with careful interest. As he drew nearer the cowboy pulled his horse down to a walk, and from under his broad hat brim regarded the stranger intently. He was within a few yards of the point where the man sat when the latter caught the sound of the horse's feet, and, with a quick, startled look over his shoulder, sprang up and started as if to escape. But it was too late, and, as though on second thought, he whirled about with a half defiant air to face the intruder.
The horseman stopped. He had not missed the significance of that hurried movement, and his right hand rested carelessly on his leather clad thigh, while his grey eyes were fixed boldly, inquiringly, almost challengingly, on the man he had so unintentionally surprised.
As he sat there on his horse, so alert, so ready, in his cowboy garb and trappings, against the background of Granite Mountain, with all its rugged, primeval strength, the rider made a striking picture of virile manhood. Of some years less than thirty, he was, perhaps, neither as tall nor as heavy as the stranger; but in spite of a certain boyish look on his smooth-shaven, deeply-bronzed face, he bore himself with the unmistakable air of a matured and self-reliant man. Every nerve and fiber of him seemed alive with that vital energy which is the true beauty and the glory of life.
The two men presented a striking contrast. Without question one was the proud and finished product of our most advanced civilization. It was as evident that the splendid manhood of the other had never been dwarfed by the weakening atmosphere of an over-cultured, too conventional and too complex environment. The stranger with his carefully tailored clothing and his man-of-the-world face and bearing was as unlike this rider of the unfenced lands as a daintily groomed thoroughbred from the sheltered and guarded stables of fashion is unlike a wild, untamed stallion from the hills and ranges about Granite Mountain. Yet, unlike as they were, there was a something that marked them as kin. The man of the ranges and the man of the cities were, deep beneath the surface of their beings, as like as the spirited thoroughbred and the unbroken wild horse. The cowboy was all that the stranger might have been. The stranger was all that the cowboy, under like conditions, would have been.
As they silently faced each other it seemed for a moment that each instinctively recognized this kinship. Then into the dark eyes of the stranger--as when he had watched the cowboy at the Burnt Ranch--there came that look of wistful admiration and envy.
And at this, as if the man had somehow made himself known, the horseman relaxed his attitude of tense readiness. The hand that had held the bridle rein to command instant action of his horse, and the hand that had rested so near the rider's hip, came together on the saddle horn in careless ease, while a boyish smile of amusement broke over the young man's face.
That smile brought a flash of resentment into the eyes of the other and a flush of red darkened his untanned cheeks. A moment he stood; then with an air of haughty rebuke he deliberately turned his back, and, seating himself again, looked away over the landscape.
But the smiling cowboy did not move. For a moment as he regarded the stranger his shoulders shook with silent, contemptuous laughter; then his face became grave, and he looked a little ashamed. The minutes passed, and still he sat there, quietly waiting.
Presently, as if yielding to the persistent, silent presence of the horseman, and submitting reluctantly to the intrusion, the other turned, and again the two who were so like and yet so unlike faced each other.
It was the stranger now who smiled. But it was a smile that caused the cowboy to become on the instant kindly considerate. Perhaps he remembered one of the Dean's favorite sayings: "Keep your eye on the man who laughs when he's hurt."
"Good evening!" said the stranger doubtfully, but with a hint of conscious superiority in his manner.
"Howdy!" returned the cowboy heartily, and in his deep voice was the kindliness that made him so loved by all who knew him. "Been having some trouble?"
"If I have, it is my own, sir," retorted the other coldly.
"Sure," returned the horseman gently, "and you're welcome to it. Every man has all he needs of his own, I reckon. But I didn't mean it that way; I meant your horse."
The stranger looked at him questioningly. "Beg pardon?" he said.
"I do not understand."
"Your horse--where is your horse?"
"Oh, yes! Certainly--of course--my horse--how stupid of me!" The tone of the man's answer was one of half apology, and he was smiling whimsically now as if at his own predicament, as he continued. "I have no horse. Really, you know, I wouldn't know what to do with one if I had it."
"You don't mean to say that you drifted all the way out here from Prescott on foot!" exclaimed the astonished cowboy.
The man on the ground looked up at the horseman, and in a droll tone that made the rider his friend, said, while he stretched his long legs painfully: "I like to walk. You see I--ah--fancied it would be good for me, don't you know."
The cowboy laughingly considered--trying, as he said afterward, to figure it out. It was clear that this tall stranger was not in search of health, nor did he show any of the distinguishing marks of the tourist. He certainly appeared to be a man of means. He could not be looking for work. He did not seem a suspicious character--quite the contrary--and yet--there was that significant hurried movement as if to escape when the horseman had surprised him. The etiquette of the country forbade a direct question, but--
"Yes," he agreed thoughtfully, "walking comes in handy sometimes. I don't take to it much myself, though." Then he added shrewdly, "You were at the celebration, I reckon."
The stranger's voice betrayed quick enthusiasm, but that odd wistfulness crept into his eyes again and he seemed to lose a little of his poise.
"Indeed I was," he said. "I never saw anything to compare with it. I've seen all kinds of athletic sports and contests and exhibitions, with circus performances and riding, and that sort of thing, you know, and I've read about such things, of course, but"--and his voice grew thoughtful--"that men ever actually did them--and all in the day's work, as you may say--I--I never dreamed that there were men like that in these days."
The cowboy shifted his weight uneasily in the saddle, while he regarded the man on the ground curiously. "She was sure a humdinger of a celebration," he admitted, "but as for the show part I've seen things happen when nobody was thinking anything about it that would make those stunts at Prescott look funny. The horse racing was pretty good, though," he finished, with suggestive emphasis.
The other did not miss the point of the suggestion. "I didn't bet on anything," he laughed.
"It's funny nobody picked you up on the road out here," the cowboy next offered pointedly. "The folks started home early this morning--and Jim Reid and his family passed me about an hour ago--they were in an automobile. The Simmons stage must have caught up with you somewhere."
The stranger's face flushed, and he seemed trying to find some answer.
The cowboy watched him curiously; then in a musing tone added the suggestion, "Some lonesome up here on foot."
"But there are times, you know," returned the other desperately, "when a man prefers to be alone."
The cowboy straightened in his saddle and lifted his reins. "Thanks," he said dryly, "I reckon I'd better be moving."
But the other spoke quickly. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Acton, I did not mean that for you."
The horseman dropped his hands again to the saddle horn, and resumed his lounging posture, thus tacitly accepting the apology. "You have the advantage of me," he said.
The stranger laughed. "Everyone knows that 'Wild Horse Phil' of the Cross-Triangle Ranch won the bronco-riding championship yesterday. I saw you ride."
Philip Acton's face showed boyish embarrassment.
The other continued, with his strange enthusiasm. "It was great work--wonderful! I never saw anything like it."
There was no mistaking the genuineness of his admiration, nor could he hide that wistful look in his eyes.
"Shucks!" said the cowboy uneasily. "I could pick a dozen of the boys in that outfit who can ride all around me. It was just my luck, that's all--I happened to draw an easy one."
"Easy!" ejaculated the stranger, seeing again in his mind the fighting, plunging, maddened, outlawed brute that this boy-faced man had mastered. "And I suppose catching and throwing those steers was easy, too?"
The cowboy was plainly wondering at the man's peculiar enthusiasm for these most commonplace things. "The roping? Why, that was no more than we're doing all the time."
"I don't mean the roping," returned the other, "I mean when you rode up beside one of those steers that was running at full speed, and caught him by the horns with your bare hands, and jumped from your saddle, and threw the beast over you, and then lay there with his horns pinning you down! You aren't doing that all the time, are you? You don't mean to tell me that such things as that are a part of your everyday work!"
"Oh, the bull doggin'! Why, no," admitted Phil, with an embarrassed laugh, "that was just fun, you know."
The stranger stared at him, speechless. Fun! In the name of all that is most modern in civilization, what manner of men were these who did such things in fun! If this was their recreation, what must their work be!
"Do you mind my asking," he said wistfully, "how you learned to do such things?"
"Why, I don't know--we just do them, I reckon."
"And could anyone learn to ride as you ride, do you think?" The question came with marked eagerness.
"I don't see why not," answered the cowboy honestly.
The stranger shook his head doubtfully and looked away over the wild land where the shadows of the late afternoon were lengthening.
"Where are you going to stop to-night?" Phil Acton asked suddenly.
The stranger did not take his eyes from the view that seemed to hold for him such peculiar interest. "Really," he answered indifferently, "I had not thought of that."
"I should think you'd be thinking of it along about supper time, if you've walked from town since morning."
The stranger looked up with sudden interest; but the cowboy fancied that there was a touch of bitterness under the droll tone of his reply. "Do you know, Mr. Acton, I have never been really hungry in my life. It might be interesting to try it once, don't you think?"
Phil Acton laughed, as he returned, "It might be interesting, all right, but I think I better tell you, just the same, that there's a ranch down yonder in the timber. It's nothing but a goat ranch, but I reckon they would take you in. It's too far to the Cross-Triangle for me to ask you there. You can see the buildings, though, from here."
The stranger sprang up in quick interest. "You can? The Cross-Triangle Ranch?"
"Sure," the cowboy smiled and pointed into the distance. "Those red spots over there are the roofs. Jim Reid's place--the Pot-Hook-S--is just this side of the meadows, and a little to the south. The old Acton homestead--where I was born--is in that bunch of cottonwoods, across the wash from the Cross-Triangle."
But strive as he might the stranger's eyes could discern no sign of human habitation in those vast reaches that lay before him.
"If you are ever over that way, drop in," said Phil cordially. "Mr. Baldwin will be glad to meet you."
"Do you really mean that?" questioned the other doubtfully.
"We don't say such things in this country if we don't mean them, Stranger," was the cool retort.
"Of course, I beg your pardon, Mr. Acton," came the confused reply. "I should like to see the ranch. I may--I will--That is, if I--" He stopped as if not knowing how to finish, and with a gesture of hopelessness turned away to stand silently looking back toward the town, while his face was dark with painful memories, and his lips curved in that mirthless, self-mocking smile.
And Philip Acton, seeing, felt suddenly that he had rudely intruded upon the privacy of one who had sought the solitude of that lonely place to hide the hurt of some bitter experience. A certain native gentleness made the man of the ranges understand that this stranger was face to face with some crisis in his life--that he was passing through one of those trials through which a man must pass alone. Had it been possible the cowboy would have apologized. But that would have been an added unkindness. Lifting the reins and sitting erect in the saddle, he said indifferently, "Well, I must be moving. I take a short cut here. So long! Better make it on down to the goat ranch--it's not far."
He touched his horse with the spur and the animal sprang away.
"Good-bye!" called the stranger, and that wistful look was in his eyes as the rider swung his horse aside from the road, plunged down the mountain side, and dashed away through the brush and over the rocks with reckless speed. With a low exclamation of wondering admiration, the man climbed hastily to a higher point, and from there watched until horse and rider, taking a steeper declivity without checking their breakneck course, dropped from sight in a cloud of dust. The faint sound of the sliding rocks and gravel dislodged by the flying feet died away; the cloud of dust dissolved in the thin air. The stranger looked away into the blue distance in another vain attempt to see the red spots that marked the Cross-Triangle Ranch.
Slowly the man returned to his seat on the rock. The long shadows of Granite Mountain crept out from the base of the cliffs farther and farther over the country below. The blue of the distant hills changed to mauve with deeper masses of purple in the shadows where the canyons are. The lonely figure on the summit of the Divide did not move.
The sun hid itself behind the line of mountains, and the blue of the sky in the west changed slowly to gold against which the peaks and domes and points were silhouetted as if cut by a graver's tool, and the bold cliffs and battlements of old Granite grew coldly gray in the gloom. As the night came on and the details of its structure were lost, the mountain, to the watching man on the Divide, assumed the appearance of a mighty fortress--a fortress, he thought, to which a generation of men might retreat from a civilization that threatened them with destruction; and once more the man faced back the way he had come.
The far-away cities were already in the blaze of their own artificial lights--lights valued not for their power to make men see, but for their power to dazzle, attract and intoxicate--lights that permitted no kindly dusk at eventide wherein a man might rest from his day's work--a quiet hour; lights that revealed squalid shame and tinsel show--lights that hid the stars. The man on the Divide lifted his face to the stars that now in the wide-arched sky were gathering in such unnumbered multitudes to keep their sentinel watch over the world below.
The cool evening wind came whispering over the lonely land, and all the furred and winged creatures of the night stole from their dark hiding places into the gloom which is the beginning of their day. A coyote crept stealthily past in the dark and from the mountain side below came the weird, ghostly call of its mate. An owl drifted by on silent wings. Night birds chirped in the chaparral. A fox barked on the ridge above. The shadowy form of a bat flitted here and there. From somewhere in the distance a bull bellowed his deep-voiced challenge.
Suddenly the man on the summit of the Divide sprang to his feet and, with a gesture that had he not been so alone might have seemed affectedly dramatic, stretched out his arms in an attitude of wistful longing while his lips moved as if, again and again, he whispered a name.