When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter IV. At the Corral.
In the beginning of the morning, when Granite Mountain's fortress-like battlements and towers loomed gray and bold and grim, the big bay horse trumpeted a warning to his less watchful mates. Instantly, with heads high and eyes wide, the band stood in frightened indecision. Two horsemen--shadowy and mysterious forms in the misty light--were riding from the corral into the pasture.
As the riders approached, individuals in the band moved uneasily, starting as if to run, hesitating, turning for another look, maneuvering to put their mates between them and the enemy. But the bay went boldly a short distance toward the danger and stood still with wide nostrils and fierce eyes as though ready for the combat.
For a few moments, as the horsemen seemed about to go past, hope beat high in the hearts of the timid prisoners. Then the riders circled to put the band between themselves and the corral gate, and the frightened animals knew. But always as they whirled and dodged in their attempts to avoid that big gate toward which they were forced to move, there was a silent, persistent horseman barring the way. The big bay alone, as though realizing the futility of such efforts and so conserving his strength for whatever was to follow, trotted proudly, boldly into the corral, where he stood, his eyes never leaving the riders, as his mates crowded and jostled about him.
"There's one in that bunch that's sure aimin' to make you ride some," said Curly Elson with a grin, to Phil, as the family sat at breakfast.
On the Cross-Triangle the men who were held through the summer and winter seasons between the months of the rodeos were considered members of the family. Chosen for their character, as well as for their knowledge of the country and their skill in their work the Dean and "Stella," as Mrs. Baldwin is called throughout all that country, always spoke of them affectionately as "our boys." And this, better than anything that could be said, is an introduction to the mistress of the Cross-Triangle household.
At the challenging laugh which followed Curly's observation, Phil returned quietly with his sunny smile, "Maybe I'll quit him before he gets good and started."
"He's sure fixin' to make you back the decision of them contest judges," offered Bob Colton.
And Mrs. Baldwin, young in spirit as any of her boys, added, "Better not wear your medal, son. It might excite him to know that you are the champion buster of Arizona."
"Shucks!" piped up Little Billy excitedly, "Phil can ride anything what wears hair, can't you, Phil?"
Phil, embarrassed at the laughter which followed, said, with tactful seriousness, to his little champion, "That's right, kid. You stand up for your pardner every time, don't you? You'll be riding them yourself before long. There's a little sorrel in that bunch that I've picked out to gentle for you." He glanced at his employer meaningly, and the Dean's face glowed with appreciation of the young man's thoughtfulness. "That old horse, Sheep, of yours," continued Phil to Little Billy, "is getting too old and stiff for your work. I've noticed him stumbling a lot lately." Again he glanced inquiringly at the Dean, who answered the look with a slight nod of approval.
"You'd better make him gentle your horse first, Billy," teased Curly. "He might not be in the business when that big one gets through with him."
Little Billy's retort came in a flash. "Huh, 'Wild Horse Phil' will be a-ridin' 'em long after you've got your'n, Curly Elson."
"Look out, son," cautioned the Dean, when the laugh had gone round again. "Curly will be slippin' a burr under your saddle, if you don't." Then to the men: "What horse is it that you boys think is goin' to be such a bad one? That big bay with the blazed face?"
The cowboys nodded.
"He's bad, all right," said Phil.
"Well," commented the Dean, leaning back in his chair and speaking generally, "he's sure got a license to be bad. His mother was the wickedest piece of horse flesh I ever knew. Remember her, Stella?"
"Indeed I do," returned Mrs. Baldwin. "She nearly ruined that Windy Jim who came from nobody knew where, and bragged that he could ride anything."
The Dean chuckled reminiscently. "She sure sent Windy back where he came from. But I tell you, boys, that kind of a horse makes the best in the world once you get 'em broke right. Horses are just like men, anyhow. If they ain't got enough in 'em to fight when they're bein' broke, they ain't generally worth breakin'."
"The man that rides that bay will sure be a-horseback," said Curly.
"He's a man's horse, all right," agreed Bob.
Breakfast over, the men left the house, not too quietly, and laughing, jesting and romping like school boys, went out to the corrals, with Little Billy tagging eagerly at their heels. The Dean and Phil remained for a few minutes at the table.
"You really oughtn't to say such things to those boys, Will," reproved Mrs. Baldwin, as she watched them from the window. "It encourages them to be wild, and land knows they don't need any encouragement."
"Shucks," returned the Dean, with that gentle note that was always in his voice when he spoke to her. "If such talk as that can hurt 'em, there ain't nothin' that could save 'em. You're always afraid somebody's goin' to go bad. Look at me and Phil here," he added, as they in turn pushed their chairs back from the table; "you've fussed enough over us to spoil a dozen men, and ain't we been a credit to you all the time?"
At this they laughed together. But as Phil was leaving the house Mrs. Baldwin stopped him at the door to say earnestly, "You will be careful to-day, won't you, son? You know my other Phil--" She stopped and turned away.
The young man knew that story--a story common to that land where the lives of men are not infrequently offered a sacrifice to the untamed strength of the life that in many forms they are daily called upon to meet and master.
"Never mind, mother," he said gently. "I'll be all right." Then more lightly he added, with his sunny smile, "If that big bay starts anything with me, I'll climb the corral fence pronto."
Quietly, as one who faces a hard day's work, Phil went to the saddle shed where he buckled on chaps and spurs. Then, after looking carefully to stirrup leathers, cinch and latigos, he went on to the corrals, the heavy saddle under his arm.
Curly and Bob, their horses saddled and ready, were making animated targets of themselves for Little Billy, who, mounted on Sheep, a gentle old cow-horse, was whirling a miniature riata. As the foreman appeared, the cowboys dropped their fun, and, mounting, took the coils of their own rawhide ropes in hand.
"Which one will you have first, Phil?" asked Curly, as he moved toward the gate between the big corral and the smaller enclosure that held the band of horses.
"That black one with the white star will do," directed Phil quietly. Then to Little Billy: "You'd better get back there out of the way, pardner. That black is liable to jump clear over you and Sheep."
"You better get outside, son," amended the Dean, who had come out to watch the beginning of the work.
"No, no--please, Uncle Will," begged the lad. "They can't get me as long as I'm on Sheep."
Phil and the Dean laughed.
"I'll look out for him," said the young man. "Only," he added to the boy, "you must keep out of the way."
"And see that you stick to Sheep, if you expect him to take care of you," finished the Dean, relenting.
Meanwhile the gate between the corrals had been thrown open, and with Bob to guard the opening Curly rode in among the unbroken horses to cut out the animal indicated by Phil, and from within that circular enclosure, where the earth had been ground to fine powder by hundreds of thousands of frightened feet, came the rolling thunder of quick-beating hoofs as in a swirling cloud of yellow dust the horses rushed and leaped and whirled. Again and again the frightened animals threw themselves against the barrier that hemmed them in; but that fence, built of cedar posts set close in stockade fashion and laced on the outside with wire, was made to withstand the maddened rush of the heaviest steers. And always, amid the confusion of the frenzied animals, the figure of the mounted man in their midst could be seen calmly directing their wildest movements, and soon, out from the crowding, jostling, whirling mass of flying feet and tossing manes and tails, the black with the white star shot toward the gate. Bob's horse leaped aside from the way. Curly's horse was between the black and his mates, and before the animal could gather his confused senses he was in the larger corral. The day's work had begun.
The black dodged skillfully, and the loop of Curly's riata missed the mark.
"You better let somebody put eyes in that rope, Curly," remarked Phil, laconically, as he stepped aside to avoid a wild rush.
The chagrined cowboy said something in a low tone, so that Little Billy could not hear.
The Dean chuckled.
Bob's riata whirled, shot out its snaky length, and his trained horse braced himself skillfully to the black's weight on the rope. For a few minutes the animal at the loop end of the riata struggled desperately--plunging, tugging, throwing himself this way and that; but always the experienced cow-horse turned with his victim and the rope was never slack. When his first wild efforts were over and the black stood with his wide braced feet, breathing heavily as that choking loop began to tell, the strain on the taut riata was lessened, and Phil went quietly toward the frightened captive.
No one moved or spoke. This was not an exhibition the success of which depended on the vicious wildness of the horse to be conquered. This was work, and it was not Phil's business to provoke the black to extremes in order to exhibit his own prowess as a rider for the pleasure of spectators who had paid to see the show. The rider was employed to win the confidence of the unbroken horse entrusted to him; to force obedience, if necessary; to gentle and train, and so make of the wild creature a useful and valuable servant for the Dean.
There are riders whose methods demand that they throw every unbroken horse given them to handle, and who gentle an animal by beating it about the head with loaded quirts, ripping its flanks open with sharp spurs and tearing its mouth with torturing bits and ropes. These turn over to their employers as their finished product horses that are broken, indeed--but broken only in spirit, with no heart or courage left to them, with dispositions ruined, and often with physical injuries from which they never recover. But riders of such methods have no place among the men employed by owners of the Dean's type. On the Cross-Triangle, and indeed on all ranches where conservative business principles are in force, the horses are handled with all the care and gentleness that the work and the individuality of the animal will permit.
After a little Phil's hand gently touched the black's head. Instantly the struggle was resumed. The rider dodged a vicious blow from the strong fore hoofs and with a good natured laugh softly chided the desperate animal. And so, presently, the kind hand was again stretched forth; and then a broad band of leather was deftly slipped over the black's frightened eyes. Another thicker and softer rope was knotted so that it could not slip about the now sweating neck, and fashioned into a hackamore or halter about the animal's nose. Then the riata was loosed. Working deftly, silently, gently--ever wary of those dangerous hoofs--Phil next placed blanket and saddle on the trembling black and drew the cinch tight. Then the gate leading from the corral to the open range was swung back. Easily, but quickly and surely, the rider swung to his seat. He paused a moment to be sure that all was right, and then leaning forward he reached over and raised the leather blindfold. For an instant the wild, unbroken horse stood still, then reared until it seemed he must fall, and then, as his forefeet touched the ground again, the spurs went home, and with a mighty leap forward the frenzied animal dashed, bucking, plunging, pitching, through the gate and away toward the open country, followed by Curly and Bob, with Little Billy spurring old Sheep, in hot pursuit.
For a little the Dean lingered in the suddenly emptied corral. Stepping up on the end of the long watering trough, close to the dividing fence, he studied with knowing eye the animals on the other side. Then leisurely he made his way out of the corral, visited the windmill pump, looked in on Stella from the kitchen porch, and then saddled Browny, his own particular horse that grazed always about the place at privileged ease, and rode off somewhere on some business of his own.
When the black horse had spent his strength in a vain attempt to rid himself of the dreadful burden that had attached itself so securely to his back, he was herded back to the corral, where the burden set him free. Dripping with sweat, trembling in every limb and muscle, wild-eyed, with distended nostrils and heaving flanks, the black crowded in among his mates again, his first lesson over--his years of ease and freedom past forever.
"And which will it be this time?" came Curly's question.
"I'll have that buckskin this trip," answered Phil.
And again that swirling cloud of dust raised by those thundering hoofs drifted over the stockade enclosure, and out of the mad confusion the buckskin dashed wildly through the gate to be initiated into his new life.
And so, hour after hour, the work went on, as horse after horse at Phil's word was cut out of the band and ridden; and every horse, according to disposition and temper and strength, was different. While his helpers did their part the rider caught a few moments rest. Always he was good natured, soft spoken and gentle. When a frightened animal, not understanding, tried to kill him, he accepted it as evidence of a commendable spirit, and, with that sunny, boyish smile, informed his pupil kindly that he was a good horse and must not make a fool of himself.
In so many ways, as the Dean had said at breakfast that morning, horses are just like men.
It was mid-afternoon when the master of the Cross-Triangle again strolled leisurely out to the corrals. Phil and his helpers, including Little Billy, were just disappearing over the rise of ground beyond the gate on the farther side of the enclosure as the Dean reached the gate that opens toward the barn and house. He went on through the corral, and slowly, as one having nothing else to do, climbed the little knoll from which he could watch the riders in the distance. When the horsemen had disappeared among the scattered cedars on the ridge, a mile or so to the west, the Dean still stood looking in that direction. But the owner of the Cross-Triangle was not watching for the return of his men. He was not even thinking of them. He was looking beyond the cedar ridge to where, several miles away, a long, mesa-topped mountain showed black against the blue of the more distant hills. The edge of this high table-land broke abruptly in a long series of vertical cliffs, the formation known to Arizonians as rim rocks. The deep shadows of the towering black wall of cliffs and the gloom of the pines and cedars that hid the foot of the mountain gave the place a sinister and threatening appearance.
As he looked, the Dean's kindly face grew somber and stern; his blue eyes were for the moment cold and accusing; under his grizzled mustache his mouth, usually so ready to smile or laugh, was set in lines of uncompromising firmness. In these quiet and well-earned restful years of the Dean's life the Tailholt Mountain outfit was the only disturbing element. But the Dean did not permit himself to be long annoyed by the thoughts provoked by Tailholt Mountain. Philosophically he turned his broad back to the intruding scene, and went back to the corral, and to the more pleasing occupation of looking at the horses.
If the Dean had not so abruptly turned his back upon the landscape, he would have noticed the figure of a man moving slowly along the road that skirted the valley meadow leading from Simmons to the Cross-Triangle Ranch.
Presently the riders returned, and Phil, when he had removed saddle, blanket and hackamore from his pupil, seated himself on the edge of the watering trough beside the Dean.
"I see you ain't tackled the big bay yet," remarked the older man.
"Thought if I'd let him look on for a while, he might figure it out that he'd better be good and not get himself hurt," smiled Phil. "He's sure some horse," he added admiringly. Then to his helpers: "I'll take that black with the white forefoot this time, Curly."
Just as the fresh horse dashed into the larger corral a man on foot appeared, coming over the rise of ground to the west; and by the time that Curly's loop was over the black's head the man stood at the gate. One glance told Phil that it was the stranger whom he had met on the Divide.
The man seemed to understand that it was no time for greetings and, without offering to enter the enclosure, climbed to the top of the big gate, where he sat, with one leg over the topmost bar, an interested spectator.
The maneuvers of the black brought Phil to that side of the corral, and, as he coolly dodged the fighting horse, he glanced up with his boyish smile and a quick nod of welcome to the man perched above him. The stranger smiled in return, but did not speak. He must have thought, though, that this cowboy appeared quite different from the picturesque rider he had seen at the celebration and on the summit of the Divide. That Phil Acton had been--as the cowboy himself would have said--"all togged out in his glad rags." This man wore chaps that were old and patched from hard service; his shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, was the color of the corral dirt, and a generous tear revealed one muscular shoulder; his hat was greasy and battered; his face grimed and streaked with dust and sweat, but his sunny, boyish smile would have identified Phil in any garb.
When the rider was ready to mount, and Bob went to open the gate, the stranger climbed down and drew a little aside. And when Phil, passing where he stood, looked laughingly down at him from the back of the bucking, plunging horse, he made as if to applaud, but checked himself and went quickly to the top of the knoll to watch the riders until they disappeared over the ridge.
"Howdy! Fine weather we're havin'." It was the Dean's hearty voice. He had gone forward courteously to greet the stranger while the latter was watching the riders.
The man turned impulsively, his face lighted with enthusiasm. "By Jove!" he exclaimed, "but that man can ride!"
"Yes, Phil does pretty well," returned the Dean indifferently. "Won the championship at Prescott the other day." Then, more heartily: "He's a mighty good boy, too--take him any way you like."
As he spoke the cattleman looked the stranger over critically, much as he would have looked at a steer or horse, noting the long limbs, the well-made body, the strong face and clear, dark eyes. The man's dress told the Dean simply that the stranger was from the city. His bearing commanded the older man's respect. The stranger's next statement, as he looked thoughtfully over the wide Land of valley and hill and mesa and mountain, convinced the Dean that he was a man of judgment.
"Arizona is a wonderful country, sir--wonderful!"
"Finest in the world, sir," agreed the Dean promptly. "There just naturally can't be any better. We've got the climate; we've got the land; and we've got the men."
The stranger looked at the Dean quickly when he said "men." It was worth much to hear the Dean speak that word.
"Indeed you have," he returned heartily. "I never saw such men."
"Of course you haven't," said the Dean. "I tell you, sir, they just don't make 'em outside of Arizona. It takes a country like this to produce real men. A man's got to be a man out here. Of course, though," he admitted kindly, "we don't know much except to ride, an' throw a rope, an' shoot, mebby, once in a while."
The riders were returning and the Dean and the stranger walked back down the little hill to the corral.
"You have a fine ranch here, Mr. Baldwin," again observed the stranger.
The Dean glanced at him sharply. Many men had tried to buy the Cross-Triangle. This man certainly appeared prosperous even though he was walking. But there was no accounting for the queer things that city men would do.
"It does pretty well," the cattleman admitted. "I manage to make a livin'."
The other smiled as though slightly embarrassed. Then: "Do you need any help?"
"Help!" The Dean looked at him amazed.
"I mean--I would like a position--to work for you, you know."
The Dean was speechless. Again he surveyed the stranger with his measuring, critical look. "You've never done any work," he said gently.
The man stood very straight before him and spoke almost defiantly. "No, I haven't, but is that any reason why I should not?"
The Dean's eyes twinkled, as they have a way of doing when you say something that he likes. "I'd say it's a better reason why you should," he returned quietly.
Then he said to Phil, who, having dismissed his four-footed pupil, was coming toward them:
"Phil, this man wants a job. Think we can use him?"
The young man looked at the stranger with unfeigned surprise and with a hint of amusement, but gave no sign that he had ever seen him before. The same natural delicacy of feeling that had prevented the cowboy from discussing the man upon whose privacy he felt he had intruded that evening of their meeting on the Divide led him now to ignore the incident--a consideration which could not but command the strange man's respect, and for which he looked his gratitude.
There was something about the stranger, too, that to Phil seemed different. This tall, well-built fellow who stood before them so self-possessed, and ready for anything, was not altogether like the uncertain, embarrassed, half-frightened and troubled gentleman at whom Phil had first laughed with thinly veiled contempt, and then had pitied. It was as though the man who sat that night alone on the Divide had, out of the very bitterness of his experience, called forth from within himself a strength of which, until then, he had been only dimly conscious. There was now, in his face and bearing, courage and decision and purpose, and with it all a glint of that same humor that had made him so bitterly mock himself. The Dean's philosophy touching the possibilities of the man who laughs when he is hurt seemed in this stranger about to be justified. Phil felt oddly, too, that the man was in a way experimenting with himself--testing himself as it were--and being altogether a normal human, the cowboy felt strongly inclined to help the experimenter. In this spirit he answered the Dean, while looking mischievously at the stranger.
"We can use him if he can ride."
The stranger smiled understandingly. "I don't see why I couldn't," he returned in that droll tone. "I seem to have the legs." He looked down at his long lower limbs reflectively, as though quaintly considering them quite apart from himself.
"Huh," said the Dean, slightly mystified at the apparent understanding between the young men. Then to the stranger: "What do you want to work for? You don't look as though you needed to. A sort of vacation, heh?"
There was spirit in the man's answer. "I want to work for the reason that all men want work. If you do not employ me, I must try somewhere else."
"Come from Prescott to Simmons on the stage, did you?"
"No, sir, I walked."
"Walked! Huh! Tried anywhere else for a job?"
"Who sent you out here?"
The stranger smiled. "I saw Mr. Acton ride in the contest. I learned that he was foreman of the Cross-Triangle Ranch. I thought I would rather work where he worked, if I could."
The Dean looked at Phil. Phil looked at the Dean. Together they looked at the stranger. The two cowboys who were sitting on their horses near-by grinned at each other.
"And what is your name, sir?" the Dean asked courteously.
For the first time the man hesitated and seemed embarrassed. He looked uneasily about with a helpless inquiring glance, as though appealing for some suggestion.
"Oh, never mind your name, if you have forgotten it," said the Dean dryly.
The stranger's roaming eyes fell upon Phil's old chaps, that in every wrinkle and scar and rip and tear gave such eloquent testimony as to the wearer's life, and that curious, self-mocking smile touched his lips. Then, throwing up his head and looking the Dean straight in the eye, he said boldly, but with that note of droll humor in his voice, "My name is Patches, sir, Honorable Patches."
The Dean's eyes twinkled, but his face was grave. Phil's face flushed; he had not failed to identify the source of the stranger's inspiration. But before either the Dean or Phil could speak a shout of laughter came from Curly Elson, and the stranger had turned to face the cowboy.
"Something seems to amuse you," he said quietly to the man on the horse; and at the tone of his voice Phil and the Dean exchanged significant glances.
The grinning cowboy looked down at the stranger in evident contempt. "Patches," he drawled. "Honorable Patches! That's a hell of a name, now, ain't it?"
The man went two long steps toward the mocking rider, and spoke quietly, but with unmistakable meaning.
"I'll endeavor to make it all of that for you, if you will get off your horse."
The grinning cowboy, with a wink at his companion, dismounted cheerfully. Curly Elson was held to be the best man with his hands in Yavapai County. He could not refuse so tempting an opportunity to add to his well-earned reputation.
Five minutes later Curly lifted himself on one elbow in the corral dust, and looked up with respectful admiration to the quiet man who stood waiting for him to rise. Curly's lip was bleeding generously; the side of his face seemed to have slipped out of place, and his left eye was closing surely and rapidly.
"Get up," said the tall man calmly. "There is more where that came from, if you want it."
The cowboy grinned painfully. "I ain't hankerin' after any more," he mumbled, feeling his face tenderly.
"It said that my name was Patches," suggested the stranger.
"Sure, Mr. Patches, I reckon nobody'll question that."
"Honorable Patches," again prompted the stranger.
"Yes, sir. You bet; Honorable Patches," agreed Curly with emphasis. Then, as he painfully regained his feet, he held out his hand with as nearly a smile as his battered features would permit. "Do you mind shaking on it, Mr. Honorable Patches? Just to show that there's no hard feelin's?"
Patches responded instantly with a manner that won Curly's heart. "Good!" he said. "I knew you would do that when you understood, or I wouldn't have bothered to show you my credentials."
"My mistake," returned Curly. "It's them there credentials of yourn, not your name, that's hell."
He gingerly mounted his horse again, and Patches turned back to the Dean as though apologizing for the interruption.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but--about work?"
The Dean never told anyone just what his thoughts were at that particular moment; probably because they were so many and so contradictory and confusing. Whether from this uncertainty of mind; from a habit of depending upon his young foreman, or because of that something, which Phil and the stranger seemed to have in common, he shifted the whole matter by saying, "It's up to Phil here. He's foreman of the Cross-Triangle. If he wants to hire you, it's all right with me."
At this the two young men faced each other; and on the face of each was a half questioning, half challenging smile. The stranger seemed to say, "I know I am at your mercy; I don't expect you to believe in me after our meeting on the Divide, but I dare you to put me to the test."
And Phil, if he had spoken, might have said, "I felt when I met you first that there was a man around somewhere. I know you are curious to see what you would do if put to the test. I am curious, too. I'll give you a chance." Aloud he reminded the stranger pointedly, "I said we might use you if you could ride."
Patches smiled his self-mocking smile, evidently appreciating his predicament. "And I said," he retorted, "that I didn't see why I couldn't."
Phil turned to his grinning but respectful helpers. "Bring out that bay with the blazed face."
"Great Snakes!" ejaculated Curly to Bob, as they reached the gate leading to the adjoining corral. "His name is Patches, all right, but he'll be pieces when that bay devil gets through with him, if he can't ride. Do you reckon he can?"
"Dunno," returned Bob, as he unlatched the gate without dismounting. "I thought he couldn't fight."
"So did I," returned Curly, grimly nursing his battered face. "You cut out the horse; I can't more'n half see."
It was no trouble to cut out the bay. The big horse seemed to understand that his time had come. All day he had seen his mates go forth to their testing, had watched them as they fought with all their strength the skill and endurance of that smiling, boy-faced man, and then had seen them as they returned, sweating, trembling, conquered and subdued. As Bob rode toward him, he stood for one defiant moment as motionless as a horse of bronze; then, with a suddenness that gave Curly at the gate barely time to dodge his rush, he leaped forward into the larger arena.
Phil was watching the stranger as the big horse came through the gate. The man did not move, but his eyes were glowing darkly, his face was flushed, and he was smiling to himself mockingly--as though amused at the thought of what was about to happen to him. The Dean also was watching Patches, and again the young foreman and his employer exchanged significant glances as Phil turned and went quickly to Little Billy. Lifting the lad from his saddle and seating him on the fence above the long watering trough, he said, "There's a grandstand seat for you, pardner; don't get down unless you have to, and then get down outside. See?"
At that moment yells of warning, with a "Look out, Phil!" came from Curly, Bob and the Dean.
A quick look over his shoulder, and Phil saw the big horse with ears wickedly flat, eyes gleaming, and teeth bared, making straight in his direction. The animal had apparently singled him out as the author of his misfortunes, and proposed to dispose of his arch-enemy at the very outset of the battle. There was only one sane thing to do, and Phil did it. A vigorous, scrambling leap placed him beside Little Billy on the top of the fence above the watering trough.
"Good thing I reserved a seat in your grandstand for myself, wasn't it, pardner?" he smiled down at the boy by his side.
Then Bob's riata fell true, and as the powerful horse plunged and fought that strangling noose Phil came leisurely down from the fence.
"Where was you goin', Phil?" chuckled the Dean.
"You sure warn't losin' any time," laughed Curly.
And Bob, without taking his eyes from the vicious animal at the end of his taut riata, and working skillfully with his trained cow-horse to foil every wicked plunge and wild leap, grinned with appreciation, as he added, "I'll bet four bits you can't do it again, Phil, without a runnin' start."
"I just thought I'd keep Little Billy company for a spell," smiled Phil. "He looked so sort of lonesome up there."
The stranger, at first amazed that they could turn into jest an incident which might so easily have been a tragedy, suddenly laughed aloud--a joyous, ringing laugh that made Phil look at him sharply.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Acton," said Patches meekly, but with that droll voice which brought a glint of laughter into the foreman's eyes and called forth another chuckle from the Dean.
"You can take my saddle," said Phil pointedly. "It's over there at the end of the watering trough. You'll find the stirrups about right, I reckon--I ride with them rather long."
For a moment the stranger looked him straight in the eyes, then without a word started for the saddle. He was half way to the end of the watering trough when Phil overtook him.
"I believe I'd rather saddle him myself," the cowboy explained quietly, with his sunny smile. "You see, I've got to teach these horses some cow sense before the fall rodeo, and I'm rather particular about the way they're handled at the start."
"Exactly," returned Patches, "I don't blame you. That fellow seems rather to demand careful treatment, doesn't he?"
Phil laughed. "Oh, you don't need to be too particular about his feelings once you're up in the middle of him," he retorted.
The big bay, instead of acquiring sense from his observations, as Phil had expressed to the Dean a hope that he would, seemed to have gained courage and determination. Phil's approach was the signal for a mad plunge in the young man's direction, which was checked by the skill and weight of Bob's trained cow-horse on the rope. Several times Phil went toward the bay, and every time his advance was met by one of those vicious rushes. Then Phil mounted Curly's horse, and from his hand the loop of another riata fell over the bay's head. Shortening his rope by coiling it in his rein hand, he maneuvered the trained horse closer and closer to his struggling captive, until, with Bob's co-operation on the other side of the fighting animal, he could with safety fix the leather blindfold over those wicked eyes.
When at last hackamore and saddle were in place, and the bay stood trembling and sweating, Phil wiped the perspiration from his own forehead and turned to the stranger.
"Your horse is ready, sir."
The man's face was perhaps a shade whiter than its usual color, but his eyes were glowing, and there was a grim set look about his smiling lips that made the hearts of those men go out to him. He seemed to realize so that the joke was on himself, and with it all exhibited such reckless indifference to consequences. Without an instant's hesitation he started toward the horse.
"Great Snakes!" muttered Curly to Bob, "talk about nerve!"
The Dean started forward. "Wait a minute, Mr. Patches," he said.
The stranger faced him.
"Can you ride that horse?" asked the Dean, pointedly.
"I'm going to," returned Patches. "But," he added with his droll humor, "I can't say how far."
"Don't you know that he'll kill you if he can?" questioned the Dean curiously, while his eyes twinkled approval.
"He does seem to have some such notion," admitted Patches.
"You better let him alone," said the Dean. "You don't need to kill yourself to get a job with this outfit."
"That's very kind of you, sir," returned the stranger gratefully. "I'm rather glad you said that. But I'm going to ride him just the same."
They looked at him in amazement, for it was clear to them now that the man really could not ride.
The Dean spoke kindly. "Why?"
"Because," said Patches slowly, "I am curious to see what I will do under such circumstances, and if I don't try the experiment now I'll never know whether I have the nerve to do it or not." As he finished he turned and walked deliberately toward the horse.
Phil ran to Curly's side, and the cowboy at his foreman's gesture leaped from his saddle. The young man mounted his helper's horse, and with a quick movement caught the riata from the saddle horn and flipped open a ready loop.
The stranger was close to the bay's off, or right, side.
"The other side, Patches," called Phil genially. "You want to start in right, you know."
Not a man laughed--except the stranger.
"Thanks," he said, and came around to the proper side.
"Take your time," called Phil again. "Stand by his shoulder and watch his heels. Take the stirrup with your right hand and turn it to catch your foot. Stay back by his shoulder until you are ready to swing up. Take your time."
"I won't be long," returned Patches, as he awkwardly gained his seat in the saddle.
Phil moved his horse nearer the center of the corral, and shook out his loop a little.
"When you're ready, lean over and pull up the blindfold," he called.
The man on the horse did not hesitate. With every angry nerve and muscle strained to the utmost, the powerful bay leaped into the air, coming down with legs stiff and head between his knees. For an instant the man miraculously kept his place. With another vicious plunge and a cork-screw twist the maddened brute went up again, and this time the man was flung from the saddle as from a gigantic catapult, to fall upon his shoulders and back in the corral dust, where he lay still. The horse, rid of his enemy, leaped again; then with catlike quickness and devilish cunning whirled, and with wicked teeth bared and vicious, blazing eyes, rushed for the helpless man on the ground.
With a yell Bob spurred to put himself between the bay and his victim, but had there been time the move would have been useless, for no horse could have withstood that mad charge. The vicious brute was within a bound of his victim, and had reared to crush him with the weight of heavy hoofs, when a rawhide rope tightened about those uplifted forefeet and the bay himself crashed to earth. Leaving the cow-horse to hold the riata tight, Phil sprang from his saddle and ran to the fallen man. The Dean came with water in his felt hat from the trough, and presently the stranger opened his eyes. For a moment he lay looking up into their faces as though wondering where he was, and how he happened there.
"Are you hurt bad?" asked the Dean.
That brought him to his senses, and he got to his feet somewhat unsteadily, and began brushing the dust from his clothes. Then he looked curiously toward the horse that Curly was holding down by the simple means of sitting on the animal's head. "I certainly thought my legs were long enough to reach around him," he said reflectively. "How in the world did he manage it? I seemed to be falling for a week."
Phil yelled and the Dean laughed until the tears ran down his red cheeks, while Bob and Curly went wild.
Patches went to the horse, and gravely walked around him. Then, "Let him up," he said to Curly.
The cowboy looked at Phil, who nodded.
As the bay regained his feet, Patches started toward him.
"Here," said the Dean peremptorily. "You come away from there."
"I'm going to see if he can do it again," declared Patches grimly.
"Not to-day, you ain't," returned the Dean. "You're workin' for me now, an' you're too good a man to be killed tryin' any more crazy experiments."
At the Dean's words the look of gratitude in the man's eyes was almost pathetic.
"I wonder if I am," he said, so low that only the Dean and Phil heard.
"If you are what?" asked the Dean, puzzled by his manner.
"Worth anything--as a man--you know," came the strange reply.
The Dean chuckled. "You'll be all right when you get your growth. Come on over here now, out of the way, while Phil takes some of the cussedness out of that fool horse."
Together they watched Phil ride the bay and return him to his mates a very tired and a much wiser pupil. Then, while Patches remained to watch further operations in the corral, the Dean went to the house to tell Stella all about it.
"And what do you think he really is?" she asked, as the last of a long list of questions and comments.
The Dean shook his head. "There's no tellin'. A man like that is liable to be anything." Then he added, with his usual philosophy: "He acts, though, like a genuine thoroughbred that's been badly mishandled an' has just found it out."
When the day's work was finished and supper was over Little Billy found Patches where he stood looking across the valley toward Granite Mountain that loomed so boldly against the soft light of the evening sky. The man greeted the boy awkwardly, as though unaccustomed to children. But Little Billy, very much at ease, signified his readiness to help the stranger to an intimate acquaintance with the world of which he knew so much more than this big man.
He began with no waste of time on mere preliminaries.
"See that mountain over there? That's Granite Mountain. There's wild horses live around there, an' sometimes we catch 'em. Bet you don't know that Phil's name is 'Wild Horse Phil'."
Patches smiled. "That's a good name for him, isn't it?"
"You bet." He turned and pointed eagerly to the west. "There's another mountain over there I bet you don't know the name of."
"Which one do you mean? I see several."
"That long, black lookin' one. Do you know about it?"
"I'm really afraid that I don't."
"Well, I'll tell you," said Billy, proud of his superior knowledge. "That there's Tailholt Mountain."
"Yes, and Nick Cambert and Yavapai Joe lives over there. Do you know about them?"
The tall man shook his head. "No, I don't believe that I do."
Little Billy lowered his voice to a mysterious whisper. "Well, I'll tell you. Only you mus'n't ever say anything 'bout it out loud. Nick and Yavapai is cattle thieves. They been a-brandin' our calves, an' Phil, he's goin' to catch 'em at it some day, an' then they'll wish they hadn't. Phil, he's my pardner, you know."
"And a fine pardner, too, I'll bet," returned the stranger, as if not wishing to acquire further information about the men of Tailholt Mountain.
"You bet he is," came the instant response. "Only Jim Reid, he don't like him very well."
"That's too bad, isn't it?"
"Yes. You see, Jim Reid is Kitty's daddy. They live over there." He pointed across the meadow to where, a mile away, a light twinkled in the window of the Pot-Hook-S ranch house. "Kitty Reid's a mighty nice girl, I tell you, but Jim, he says that there needn't no cow-puncher come around tryin' to get her, 'cause she's been away to school, you know, an' I think Phil--"
"Whoa! Hold on a minute, sonny," interrupted Patches hastily.
"What's the matter?" questioned Little Billy.
"Why, it strikes me that a boy with a pardner like 'Wild Horse Phil' ought to be mighty careful about how he talked over that pardner's private affairs with a stranger. Don't you think so?"
"Mebby so," agreed Billy. "But you see, I know that Phil wants Kitty 'cause--"
"Sh! What in the world is that?" whispered Patches in great fear, catching his small companion by the arm.
"That! Don't you know an owl when you hear one? Gee! but you're a tenderfoot, ain't you?" Catching sight of the Dean who was coming toward them, he shouted gleefully. "Uncle Will, Mr. Patches is scared of an owl. What do you know about that; Patches is scared of an owl!"
"Your Aunt Stella wants you," laughed the Dean.
And Billy ran off to the house to share his joke on the tenderfoot with his Aunt Stella and his "pardner," Phil.
"I've got to go to town to-morrow," said the Dean. "I expect you better go along and get your trunk, or whatever you have and some sort of an outfit. You can't work in them clothes."
Patches answered hesitatingly. "Why, I think I can get along all right, Mr. Baldwin."
"But you'll want your stuff--your trunk or grip--or whatever you've got," returned the Dean.
"But I have nothing in Prescott," said the stranger slowly.
"You haven't? Well, you'll need an outfit anyway," persisted the cattleman.
"Really, I think I can get along for a while," Patches returned diffidently.
The Dean considered for a little; then he said with straightforward bluntness, but not at all unkindly, "Look here, young man, you ain't afraid to go to Prescott, are you?"
The other laughed. "Not at all, sir. It's not that. I suppose I must tell you now, though. All the clothes I have are on my back, and I haven't a cent in the world with which to buy an outfit, as you call it."
The Dean chuckled. "So that's it? I thought mebby you was dodgin' the sheriff. If it's just plain broke that's the matter, why you'll go to town with me in the mornin', an' we'll get what you need. I'll hold it out of your wages until it's paid." As though the matter were settled, he turned back toward the house, adding, "Phil will show you where you're to sleep."
When the foreman had shown the new man to his room, the cowboy asked casually, "Found the goat ranch, all right, night before last, did you?"
The other hesitated; then he said gravely, "I didn't look for it, Mr. Acton."
"You didn't look for it?"
"Do you mean to say that you spent the night up there on the Divide without blankets or anything?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
"And where did you stop last night?"
"Walked, I suppose?"
The stranger smiled. "Yes."
"But, look here," said the puzzled cowboy, "I don't mean to be asking questions about what is none of my business, but I can't figure it out. If you were coming out here to get a job on the Cross-Triangle, why didn't you go to Mr. Baldwin in town? Anybody could have pointed him out to you. Or, why didn't you say something to me, when we were talking back there on the Divide?"
"Why, you see," explained the other lamely, "I didn't exactly want to work on the Cross-Triangle, or anywhere."
"But you told Uncle Will that you wanted to work here, and you were on your way when I met you."
"Yes, I know, but you see--oh, hang it all, Mr. Acton, haven't you ever wanted to do something that you didn't want to do? Haven't you ever been caught in a corner that you were simply forced to get out of when you didn't like the only way that would get you out? I don't mean anything criminal," he added, with a short laugh.
"Yes, I have," returned the other seriously, "and if you don't mind there's no handle to my name. Around here I'm just plain Phil, Mr. Patches."
"Thanks. Neither does Patches need decorating."
"And now, one more," said Phil, with his winning smile. "Why in the name of all the obstinate fools that roam at large did you walk out here when you must have had plenty of chances to ride?"
"Well, you see," said Patches slowly, "I fear I can't explain, but it was just a part of my job."
"Your job! But you didn't have any job until this afternoon."
"Oh, yes, I did. I had the biggest kind of a job. You see, that's what I was doing on the Divide all night; trying to find some other way to do it."
"And do you mind telling me what that job is?" asked Phil curiously.
Patches laughed as though at himself. "I don't know that I can, exactly," he said. "I think, perhaps, it's just to ride that big bay horse out there."
Phil laughed aloud--a hearty laugh of good-fellowship. "You'll do that all right."
"Do you think so, really," asked Patches, eagerly.
"Sure; I know it."
"I wish I could be sure," returned the strange man doubtfully--and the cowboy, wondering, saw that wistful look in his eyes.
"That big devil is a man's horse, all right," mused Phil.
"Why, of course--and that's just it--don't you see?" cried the other impulsively. Then, as if he regretted his words, he asked quickly, "Do you name your horses?"
"Sure," answered the cowboy; "we generally find something to call them."
"And have you named the big bay yet?"
Phil laughed. "I named him yesterday, when he broke away as we were bringing the bunch in, and I had to rope him to get him back."
"And what did you name him?"
"Stranger! And why Stranger?"
"Oh, I don't know. Just one of my fool notions," returned Phil. "Good-night!"