Chapter III. In the Big Pasture.
 

In the Williamson Valley country the spring round-up, or "rodeo," as it is called in Arizona, and the shipping are well over by the last of June. During the long summer weeks, until the beginning of the fall rodeo in September, there is little for the riders to do. The cattle roam free on the open ranges, while calves grow into yearlings, yearlings become two-year-olds, and two-year-olds mature for the market. On the Cross-Triangle and similar ranches, three or four of the steadier year-round hands only are held. These repair and build fences, visit the watering places, brand an occasional calf that somehow has managed to escape the dragnet of the rodeo, and with "dope bottle" ever at hand doctor such animals as are afflicted with screwworms. It is during these weeks, too, that the horses are broken; for, with the hard and dangerous work of the fall and spring months, there is always need for fresh mounts.

The horses of the Cross-Triangle were never permitted to run on the open range. Because the leaders of the numerous bands of wild horses that roamed over the country about Granite Mountain were always ambitious to gain recruits for their harems from their civilized neighbors, the freedom of the ranch horses was limited by the fences of a four-thousand-acre pasture. But within these miles of barbed wire boundaries the brood mares with their growing progeny lived as free and untamed as their wild cousins on the unfenced lands about them. The colts, except for one painful experience, when they were roped and branded, from the day of their birth until they were ready to be broken were never handled.

On the morning following his meeting with the stranger on the Divide Phil Acton, with two of his cowboy helpers, rode out to the big pasture to bring in the band.

The owner of the Cross-Triangle always declared that Phil was intimately acquainted with every individual horse and head of stock between the Divide and Camp Wood Mountain, and from Skull Valley to the Big Chino. In moments of enthusiasm the Dean even maintained stoutly that his young foreman knew as well every coyote, fox, badger, deer, antelope, mountain lion, bobcat and wild horse that had home or hunting ground in the country over which the lad had ridden since his babyhood. Certain it is that "Wild Horse Phil," as he was called by admiring friends--for reasons which you shall hear--loved this work and life to which he was born. Every feature of that wild land, from lonely mountain peak to hidden canyon spring, was as familiar to him as the streets and buildings of a man's home city are well known to the one reared among them. And as he rode that morning with his comrades to the day's work the young man felt keenly the call of the primitive, unspoiled life that throbbed with such vital strength about him. He could not have put that which he felt into words; he was not even conscious of the forces that so moved him; he only knew that he was glad.

The days of the celebration at Prescott had been enjoyable days. To meet old friends and comrades; to ride with them in the contests that all true men of his kind love; to compare experiences and exchange news and gossip with widely separated neighbors--had been a pleasure. But the curious crowds of strangers; the throngs of sightseers from the, to him, unknown world of cities, who had regarded him as they might have viewed some rare and little-known creature in a menagerie, and the brazen presence of those unclean parasites and harpies that prey always upon such occasions had oppressed and disgusted him until he was glad to escape again to the clean freedom, the pure vitality and the unspoiled spirit of his everyday life and environment. In an overflow of sheer physical and spiritual energy he lifted his horse into a run and with a shrill cowboy yell challenged his companions to a wild race to the pasture gate.

It was some time after noon when Phil checked his horse near the ruins of an old Indian lookout on the top of Black Hill. Below, in the open land above Deep Wash, he could see his cowboy companions working the band of horses that had been gathered slowly toward the narrow pass that at the eastern end of Black Hill leads through to the flats at the upper end of the big meadows, and so to the gate and to the way they would follow to the corral. It was Phil's purpose to ride across Black Hill down the western and northern slope, through the cedar timber, and, picking up any horses that might be ranging there, join the others at the gate. In the meanwhile there was time for a few minutes rest. Dismounting, he loosed the girths and lifted saddle and blanket from Hobson's steaming back. Then, while the good horse, wearied with the hard riding and the steep climb up the mountain side, stood quietly in the shade of a cedar his master, stretched on the ground near by, idly scanned the world that lay below and about them.

Very clearly in that light atmosphere Phil could see the trees and buildings of the home ranch, and, just across the sandy wash from the Cross-Triangle, the grove of cottonwoods and walnuts that hid the little old house where he was born. A mile away, on the eastern side of the great valley meadows, he could see the home buildings of the Reid ranch--the Pot-Hook-S--where Kitty Reid had lived all the days of her life except those three years which she had spent at school in the East.

The young man on the top of Black Hill looked long at the Reid home. In his mind he could see Kitty dressed in some cool, simple gown, fresh and dainty after the morning's housework, sitting with book or sewing on the front porch. The porch was on the other side of the house, it is true, and the distance was too great for him to distinguish a person in any case, but all that made no difference to Phil's vision--he could see her just the same.

Kitty had been very kind to Phil at the celebration. But Kitty was always kind--nearly always. But in spite of her kindness the cowboy felt that she had not, somehow, seemed to place a very high valuation upon the medal he had won in the bronco-riding contest. Phil himself did not greatly value the medal; but he had wanted greatly to win that championship because of the very substantial money prize that went with it. That money, in Phil's mind, was to play a very important part in a long cherished dream that was one of the things that Phil Acton did not talk about. He had not, in fact, ridden for the championship at all, but for his dream, and that was why it mattered so much when Kitty seemed so to lack interest in his success.

As though his subconscious mind directed the movement, the young man looked away from Kitty's home to the distant mountain ridge where the night before on the summit of the Divide he had met the stranger. All the way home the cowboy had wondered about the man; evolving many theories, inventing many things to account for his presence, alone and on foot, so far from the surroundings to which he was so clearly accustomed. Of one thing Phil was sure--the man was in trouble--deep trouble. The more that the clean-minded, gentle-hearted lad of the great out-of-doors thought about it, the more strongly he felt that he had unwittingly intruded at a moment that was sacred to the stranger--sacred because the man was fighting one of those battles that every man must fight--and fight alone. It was this feeling that had kept the young man from speaking of the incident to anyone--even to the Dean, or to "Mother," as he called Mrs. Baldwin. Perhaps, too, this feeling was the real reason for Phil's sense of kinship with the stranger, for the cowboy himself had moments in his life that he could permit no man to look upon. But in his thinking of the man whose personality had so impressed him one thing stood out above all the rest--the stranger clearly belonged to that world of which, from experience, the young foreman of the Cross-Triangle knew nothing. Phil Acton had no desire for the world to which the stranger belonged, but in his heart there was a troublesome question. If--if he himself were more like the man whom he had met on the Divide; if--if he knew more of that other world; if he, in some degree, belonged to that other world, as Kitty, because of her three years in school belonged, would it make any difference?

From the distant mountain ridge that marks the eastern limits of the Williamson Valley country, and thus, in a degree, marked the limit of Phil's world, the lad's gaze turned again to the scene immediately before him.

The band of horses, followed by the cowboys, were trotting from the narrow pass out into the open flats. Some of the band--the mothers--went quietly, knowing from past experience that they would in a few hours be returned to their freedom. Others--the colts and yearlings--bewildered, curious and fearful, followed their mothers without protest. But those who in many a friendly race or primitive battle had proved their growing years seemed to sense a coming crisis in their lives, hitherto peaceful. And these, as though warned by that strange instinct which guards all wild things, and realizing that the open ground between the pass and the gate presented their last opportunity, made final desperate efforts to escape. With sudden dashes, dodging and doubling, they tried again and again for freedom. But always between them and the haunts they loved there was a persistent horseman. Running, leaping, whirling, in their efforts to be everywhere at once, the riders worked their charges toward the gate.

The man on the hilltop sprang to his feet. Hobson threw up his head, and with sharp ears forward eagerly watched the game he knew so well. With a quickness incredible to the uninitiated, Phil threw blanket and saddle to place. As he drew the cinch tight, a shrill cowboy yell came up from the flat below.

One of the band, a powerful bay, had broken past the guarding horsemen, and was running with every ounce of his strength for the timber on the western slope of Black Hill. For a hundred yards one of the riders had tried to overtake and turn the fugitive; but as he saw how the stride of the free horse was widening the distance between them, the cowboy turned back lest others follow the successful runaway's example. The yell was to inform Phil of the situation.

Before the echoes of the signal could die away Phil was in the saddle, and with an answering shout sent Hobson down the rough mountain side in a wild, reckless, plunging run to head the, for the moment, victorious bay. An hour later the foreman rejoined his companions who were holding the band of horses at the gate. The big bay, reluctant, protesting, twisting and turning in vain attempts to outmaneuver Hobson, was a captive in the loop of "Wild Horse Phil's" riata.

In the big corral that afternoon Phil and his helpers with the Dean and Little Billy looking on, cut out from the herd the horses selected to be broken. These, one by one, were forced through the gate into the adjoining corral, from which they watched with uneasy wonder and many excited and ineffectual attempts to follow, when their more fortunate companions were driven again to the big pasture. Then Phil opened another gate, and the little band dashed wildly through, to find themselves in the small meadow pasture where they would pass the last night before the one great battle of their lives--a battle that would be for them a dividing point between those years of ease and freedom which had been theirs from birth and the years of hard and useful service that were to come.

Phil sat on his horse at the gate watching with critical eye as the unbroken animals raced away. "Some good ones in the bunch this year, Uncle Will," he commented to his employer, who, standing on the watering trough in the other corral, was looking over the fence.

"There's bound to be some good ones in every bunch," returned Mr. Baldwin. "And some no account ones, too," he added, as his foreman dismounted beside him.

Then, while the young man slipped the bridle from his horse and stood waiting for the animal to drink, the older man regarded him silently, as though in his own mind the Dean's observation bore somewhat upon Phil himself. That was always the way with the Dean. As Sheriff Fellows once remarked to Judge Powell in the old days of the cattle rustlers' glory, "Whatever Bill Baldwin says is mighty nigh always double-barreled."

There are also two sides to the Dean. Or, rather, to be accurate, there is a front and a back. The back--flat and straight and broad--indicates one side of his character--the side that belongs with the square chin and the blue eyes that always look at you with such frank directness. It was this side of the man that brought him barefooted and penniless to Arizona in those days long gone when he was only a boy and Arizona a strong man's country. It was this side of him that brought him triumphantly through those hard years of the Indian troubles, and in those wild and lawless times made him respected and feared by the evildoers and trusted and followed by those of his kind who, out of the hardships and dangers of those turbulent days, made the Arizona of to-day. It was this side, too, that finally made the barefoot, penniless boy the owner of the Cross-Triangle Ranch.

I do not know the exact number of the Dean's years--I only know that his hair is grey, and that he does not ride as much as he once did. I have heard him say, though, that for thirty-five years he lived in the saddle, and that the Cross-Triangle brand is one of the oldest irons in the State. And I know, too, that his back is still flat and broad and straight.

The Dean's front, so well-rounded and hearty, indicates as clearly the other side of his character. And it is this side that belongs to the full red cheeks, the ever-ready chuckle or laugh; that puts the twinkle in the blue eyes, and the kindly tones in his deep voice. It is this side of the Dean's character that adds so large a measure of love to the respect and confidence accorded him by neighbors and friends, business associates and employees. It is this side of the Dean, too, that, in these days, sits in the shade of the big walnut trees--planted by his own hand--and talks to the youngsters of the days that are gone, and that makes the young riders of this generation seek him out for counsel and sympathy and help.

Three things the Dean knows--cattle and horses and men. One thing the Dean will not, cannot tolerate--weakness in one who should be strong. Even bad men he admires, if they are strong--not for their badness, but for their strength. Mistaken men he loves in spite of their mistakes--if only they be not weaklings. There is no place anywhere in the Dean's philosophy of life for a weakling. I heard him tell a man once--nor shall I ever forget it--"You had better die like a man, sir, than live like a sneaking coyote."

The Dean's sons, men grown, were gone from the home ranch to the fields and work of their choosing. Little Billy, a nephew of seven years, was--as Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin said laughingly--their second crop.

When Phil's horse--satisfied--lifted his dripping muzzle from the watering trough, the Dean walked with his young foreman to the saddle shed. Neither of the men spoke, for between them there was that companionship which does not require a constant flow of talk to keep it alive. Not until the cowboy had turned his horse loose, and was hanging saddle and bridle on their accustomed peg did the older man speak.

"Jim Reid's goin' to begin breakin' horses next week."

"So I heard," returned Phil, carefully spreading his saddle blanket to dry.

The Dean spoke again in a tone of indifference. "He wants you to help him."

"Me! What's the matter with Jack?"

"He's goin' to the D.1 to-morrow."

Phil was examining the wrapping on his saddle horn with--the Dean noted--quite unnecessary care.

"Kitty was over this mornin'," said the Dean gently.

The young man turned, and, taking off his spurs, hung them on the saddle horn. Then as he kicked off his leather chaps he said shortly, "I'm not looking for a job as a professional bronco-buster."

The Dean's eyes twinkled. "Thought you might like to help a neighbor out; just to be neighborly, you know."

"Do you want me to ride for Reid?" demanded Phil.

"Well, I suppose as long as there's broncs to bust somebody's got to bust 'em," the Dean returned, without committing himself. And then, when Phil made no reply, he added laughing, "I told Kitty to tell him, though, that I reckoned you had as big a string as you could handle here."

As they moved away toward the house, Phil returned with significant emphasis, "When I have to ride for anybody besides you it won't be Kitty Reid's father."

And the Dean commented in his reflective tone, "It does sometimes seem to make a difference who a man rides for, don't it?"

In the pasture by the corrals, the horses that awaited the approaching trial that would mark for them the beginning of a new life passed a restless night. Some in meekness of spirit or, perhaps, with deeper wisdom fed quietly. Others wandered about aimlessly, snatching an occasional uneasy mouthful of grass, and looking about often in troubled doubt. The more rebellious ones followed the fence, searching for some place of weakness in the barbed barrier that imprisoned them. And one, who, had he not been by circumstance robbed of his birthright, would have been the strong leader of a wild band, stood often with wide nostrils and challenging eye, gazing toward the corrals and buildings as if questioning the right of those who had brought him there from the haunts he loved.

And somewhere in the night of that land which was as unknown to him as the meadow pasture was strange to the unbroken horses, a man awaited the day which, for him too, was to stand through all his remaining years as a mark between the old life and the new.

As Phil Acton lay in his bed, with doors and windows open wide to welcome the cool night air, he heard the restless horses in the near-by pasture, and smiled as he thought of the big bay and the morrow--smiled with the smile of a man who looks forward to a battle worthy of his best strength and skill.

And then, strangely enough, as he was slipping into that dreamless sleep of those who live as he lived, his mind went back again to the stranger whom he had met on the summit of the Divide. If he were more like that man, would it make any difference--the cowboy wondered.