Chapter V. A Bit of the Past.
 

The next morning Mr. Baldwin and Patches set out for town.

"I suppose," said the Dean, and a slightly curious tone colored the remark, "that mebby you've been used to automobiles. Buck and Prince here, an' this old buckboard will seem sort of slow to you."

Patches was stepping into the rig as the Dean spoke. As the young man took his seat by the cattleman's side, the Dean nodded to Phil who was holding the team. At the signal Phil released the horses' heads and stepped aside, whereupon Buck and Prince, of one mind, looked back over their shoulders, made a few playful attempts to twist themselves out of the harness, lunged forward their length, stood straight up on their hind feet, then sprang away as if they were fully determined to land that buckboard in Prescott within the next fifteen minutes.

"Did you say slow?" questioned Patches, as he clung to his seat.

The Dean chuckled and favored his new man with a twinkling glance of approval.

A few seconds later, on the other side of the sandy wash, the Dean skillfully checked their headlong career, with a narrow margin of safety between the team and the gate.

"I reckon we'll get through with less fuss if you'll open it," he said to Patches. Then to Buck and Prince: "Whoa! you blamed fools. Can't you stand a minute?"

"Stella's been devilin' me to get a machine ever since Jim Reid got his," he continued, while the horses were repeating their preliminary contortions, and Patches was regaining his seat. "But I told her I'd be scared to death to ride in the fool contraption."

At this Buck and Prince, in a wild riot of animal strength and spirit, leaped a slight depression in the road with such vigor that the front wheels of the buckboard left the ground. Patches glanced sidewise at his employer, with a smile of delighted appreciation, but said nothing.

The Dean liked him for that. The Dean always insists that the hardest man in the world to talk to is the one who always has something to say for himself.

"Why," he continued, with a burst of honest feeling, "if I was ever to bring one of them things home to the Cross-Triangle, I'd be ashamed to look a horse or steer in the face."

They dashed through a patch of wild sunflowers that in the bottom lands grow thick and rank; whirled past the tumble-down corner of an old fence that enclosed a long neglected garden; and dashed recklessly through a deserted and weed-grown yard. On one side of the road was the ancient barn and stable, with sagging, weather-beaten roof, leaning walls and battered doors that hung dejectedly on their rusty and broken hinges. The corral stockade was breached in many places by the years that had rotted the posts. The old-time windlass pump that, operated by a blind burro, once lifted water for the long vanished herds, was a pathetic old wreck, incapable now of offering drink to a thirsty sparrow. On their other hand, beneath the wide branches of giant sycamores and walnuts, and backed by a tangled orchard wilderness, stood an old house, empty and neglected, as if in the shadowy gloom of the untrimmed trees it awaited, lonely and forlorn, the kindly hand of oblivion.

"This is the old Acton homestead," said the Dean quietly, as one might speak beside an ancient grave.

Then as they were driving through the narrow lane that crosses the great meadow, he indicated with a nod of his head group of buildings on the other side of the green fields, and something less than a mile to the south.

"That's Jim Reid's place. His iron is the Pot-Hook-S. Jim's stock runs on the old Acton range, but the homestead belongs to Phil yet. Jim Reid's a fine man." The Dean spoke stoutly, almost as though he were making the assertion to convince himself. "Yes, sir, Jim's all right. Good neighbor; good cowman; square as they make 'em. Some folks seem to think he's a mite over-bearin' an' rough-spoken sometimes, and he's kind of quick at suspicionin' everybody; but Jim and me have always got along the best kind."

Again the Dean was silent, as though he had forgotten the man beside him in his occupation with thoughts that he could not share.

When they had crossed the valley meadows and, climbing the hill on the other side, could see the road for several miles ahead, the Dean pointed to a black object on the next ridge.

"There's Jim's automobile now. They're headin' for Prescott, too. Kitty's drivin', I reckon. I tell Stella that that machine and Kitty's learnin' to run the thing is about all the returns that Jim can show for the money he's spent in educatin' her. I don't mean," he added, with a quick look at Patches, as though he feared to be misunderstood, "that Kitty's one of them good-for-nothin' butterfly girls. She ain't that by a good deal. Why, she was raised right here in this neighborhood, an' we love her the same as if she was our own. She can cook a meal or make a dress 'bout as well as her mother, an' does it, too; an' she can ride a horse or throw a rope better'n some punchers I've seen, but--" The Dean stopped, seemingly for want of words to express exactly his thought.

"It seems to me," offered Patches abstractedly, "that education, as we call it, is a benefit only when it adds to one's life. If schooling or culture, or whatever you choose to term it, is permitted to rob one of the fundamental and essential elements of life, it is most certainly an evil."

"That's the idea," exclaimed the Dean, with frank admiration for his companion's ability to say that which he himself thought. "You say it like a book. But that's it. It ain't the learnin' an' all the stuff that Kitty got while she was at school that's worryin' us. It's what she's likely to lose through gettin' 'em. This here modern, down-to-the-minute, higher livin', loftier sphere, intellectual supremacy idea is all right if folks'll just keep their feet on the ground.

"You take Stella an' me now. I know we're old fashioned an' slow an' all that, an' we've seen a lot of hardships since we was married over in Skull Valley where she was born an' raised. She was just a girl then, an' I was only a kid, punchin' steers for a livin'. I suppose we've seen about as hard times as anybody. At least that's what they would be called now. But, hell, we didn't think nothin' of it then; we was happy, sir, and we've been happy for over forty year. I tell you, sir, we've lived--just lived every minute, and that's a blamed sight more than a lot of these higher-cultured, top-lofty, half-dead couples that marry and separate, and separate and marry again now-a-days can say.

"No, sir, 'tain't what a man gets that makes him rich; it's what he keeps. And these folks that are swoppin' the old-fashioned sort of love that builds homes and raises families and lets man and wife work together, an' meet trouble together, an' be happy together, an' grow old bein' happy together--if they're swoppin' all that for these here new, down-to-date ideas of such things, they're makin' a damned poor bargain, accordin' to my way of thinkin'. There is such a thing, sir, as educatin' a man or woman plumb out of reach of happiness.

"Look at our Phil," the Dean continued, for the man beside him was a wonderful listener. "There just naturally couldn't be a better all round man than Phil Acton. He's healthy; don't know what it is to have an hour's sickness; strong as a young bull; clean, honest, square, no bad habits, a fine worker, an' a fine thinker, too--even if he ain't had much schoolin', he's read a lot. Take him any way you like--just as a man, I mean--an' that's the way you got to take 'em--there ain't a better man that Phil livin'. Yet a lot of these folks would say he's nothin' but a cow-puncher. As for that, Jim Reid ain't much more than a cow-puncher himself. I tell you, I've seen cow-punchers that was mighty good men, an' I've seen graduates from them there universities that was plumb good for nothin'--with no more real man about 'em than there is about one of these here wax dummies that they hang clothes on in the store windows. What any self-respectin' woman can see in one of them that would make her want to marry him is more than I've ever been able to figger out."

If the Dean had not been so engrossed in his own thoughts, he would have wondered at the strange effect of his words upon his companion. The young man's face flushed scarlet, then paled as though with sudden illness, and he looked sidewise at the older man with an expression of shame and humiliation, while his eyes, wistful and pleading, were filled with pain. Honorable Patches who had won the admiration of those men in the Cross-Triangle corrals was again the troubled, shamefaced, half-frightened creature whom Phil met on the Divide.

But the good Dean did not see, and so, encouraged by the other's silence, he continued his dissertation. "Of course, I don't mean to say that education and that sort of thing spoils every man. Now, there's young Stanford Manning--"

If the Dean had suddenly fired a gun at Patches, the young man could not have shown greater surprise and consternation. "Stanford Manning!" he gasped.

At his tone the Dean turned to look at him curiously. "I mean Stanford Manning, the mining engineer," he explained. "Do you know him?"

"I have heard of him," Patches managed to reply.

"Well," continued the Dean, "he came out to this country about three years ago--straight from college--and he has sure made good. He's got the education an' culture an' polish an' all that, an' with it he can hold his own among any kind or sort of men livin'. There ain't a man--cow-puncher, miner or anything else--in Yavapai County that don't take off his hat to Stanford Manning."

"Is he in this country now?" asked Patches, with an effort at self-control that the Dean did not notice.

"No, I understand his Company called him back East about a month ago. Goin' to send him to some of their properties up in Montana, I heard."

When his companion made no comment, the Dean said reflectively, as Buck and Prince climbed slowly up the grade to the summit of the Divide, "I'll tell you, son, I've seen a good many changes in this country. I can remember when there wasn't a fence in all Yavapai County--hardly in the Territory. And now--why the last time I drove over to Skull Valley I got so tangled up in 'em that I plumb lost myself. When Phil's daddy an' me was youngsters we used to ride from Camp Verde and Flagstaff clean to Date Creek without ever openin' a gate. But I can't see that men change much, though. They're good and bad, just like they've always been--an' I reckon always will be. There's been leaders and weaklin's and just betwixt and betweens in every herd of cattle or band of horses that ever I owned. You take Phil, now. He's exactly like his daddy was before him."

"His father must have been a fine man," said Patches, with quiet earnestness.

The Dean looked at him with an approving twinkle. "Fine?" For a few minutes, as they were rounding the turn of the road on the summit of the Divide where Phil and the stranger had met, the Dean looked away toward Granite Mountain. Then, as if thinking aloud, rather than purposely addressing his companion, he said, "John Acton--Honest John, as everybody called him--and I came to this country together when we were boys. Walked in, sir, with some pioneers from Kansas. We kept in touch with each other all the while we was growin' to be men; punched cattle for the same outfits most of the time; even did most of our courtin' together, for Phil's mother an' Stella were neighbors an' great friends over in Skull Valley. When we'd finally saved enough to get started we located homesteads close together back there in the Valley, an' as soon as we could get some sort of shacks built we married the girls and set up housekeepin'. Our stock ranged together, of course, but John sort of took care of the east side of the meadows an' I kept more to the west. When the children came along--John an' Mary had three before Phil, but only Phil lived--an' the stock had increased an' we'd built some decent houses, things seemed to be about as fine as possible. Then John went on a note for a man in Prescott. I tried my best to keep him out of it, but, shucks! he just laughed at me. You see, he was one of the best hearted men that ever lived--one of those men, you know, that just naturally believes in everybody.

"Well, it wound up after a-while by John losin' mighty nigh everything. We managed to save the homestead, but practically all the stock had to go. An' it wasn't more than a year after that till Mary died. We never did know just what was the matter with her--an' after that it seemed like John never was the same. He got killed in the rodeo that same fall--just wasn't himself somehow. I was with him when he died.

"Stella and me raised Phil--we don't know any difference between him and one of our own boys. The old homestead is his, of course, but Jim Reid's stock runs on the old range. Phil's got a few head that he works with mine--a pretty good bunch by now--for he's kept addin' to what his father left, an' I've paid him wages ever since he was big enough. Phil don't say much, even to Stella an' me, but I know he's figurin' on fixin' up the old home place some day."

After a long silence the Dean said again, as if voicing some conclusion of his unspoken thoughts: "Jim Reid is pretty well fixed, you see, an' Kitty bein' the only girl, it's natural, I reckon, that they should have ideas about her future, an' all that. I reckon it's natural, too, that the girl should find ranch life away out here so far from anywhere, a little slow after her three years at school in the East. She never says it, but somehow you can most always tell what Kitty's thinkin' without her speakin' a word."

"I have known people like that," said Patches, probably because there was so little that he could say.

"Yes, an' when you know Kitty, you'll say, like I always have, that if there's a man in Yavapai County that wouldn't ride the hoofs off the best horse in his outfit, night or day, to win a smile from her, he ought to be lynched."

That afternoon in Prescott they purchased an outfit for Patches, and the following day set out for the long return drive to the ranch.

They had reached the top of the hill at the western end of the meadow lane, when they saw a young woman, on a black horse, riding away from the gate that opens from the lane into the Pot-Hook-S meadow pasture, toward the ranch buildings on the farther side of the field.

As they drove into the yard at home, it was nearly supper time, and the men were coming from the corrals.

"Kitty's been over all the afternoon," Little Billy informed them promptly. "I told her all about you, Patches. She says she's just dyin' to see you."

Phil joined in the laugh, but Patches fancied that there was a shadow in the cowboy's usually sunny eyes as the young man looked at him to say, "That big horse of yours sure made me ride some to-day."