When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter VI. The Drift Fence.
The education of Honorable Patches was begun without further delay. Because Phil's time was so fully occupied with his four-footed pupils, the Dean himself became the stranger's teacher, and all sorts of odd jobs about the ranch, from cleaning the pig pen to weeding the garden, were the text books. The man balked at nothing. Indeed, he seemed to find a curious, grim satisfaction in accomplishing the most menial and disagreeable tasks; and when he made mistakes, as he often did, he laughed at himself with such bitter, mocking humor that the Dean wondered.
"He's got me beat," the Dean confided to Stella. "There ain't nothin' that he won't tackle, an' I'm satisfied that the man never did a stroke of work before in his life. But he seems to be always tryin' experiments with himself, like he expected himself to play the fool one way or another, an' wanted to see if he would, an' then when he don't he's as surprised and tickled as a kid."
The Dean himself was not at all above assisting his new man in those experiments, and so it happened that day when Patches had been set to repairing the meadow pasture fence near the lower corrals.
The Dean, riding out that way to see how his pupil was progressing, noticed a particularly cross-tempered shorthorn bull that had wandered in from the near-by range to water at the house corral. But Phil and his helpers were in possession of the premises near the watering trough, and his shorthorn majesty was therefore even more than usual out of patience with the whole world. The corrals were between the bull and Patches, so that the animal had not noticed the man, and the Dean, chuckling to himself, and without attracting Patches' attention, quietly drove the ill-tempered beast into the enclosure and shut the gate.
Then, riding around the corral, the Dean called to the young man. When Patches stood beside his employer, the cattleman said, "Here's a blamed old bull that don't seem to be feelin' very well. I got him into the corral all right, but I'm so fat I can't reach him from the saddle. I wish you'd just halter him with this rope, so I can lead him up to the house and let Phil and the boys see what's wrong with him."
Patches took the rope and started toward the corral gate. "Shall I put it around his neck and make a hitch over his nose, like you do a horse?" he asked, glad for the opportunity to exhibit his newly acquired knowledge of ropes and horses and things.
"No, just tie it around his horns," the Dean answered. "He'll come, all right."
The bull, seeing a man on foot at the entrance to his prison, rumbled a deep-voiced threat, and pawed the earth with angry strength.
For an instant, Patches, with his hand on the latch of the gate, paused to glance from the dangerous-looking animal, that awaited his coming, to the Dean who sat on his horse just outside the fence. Then he slipped inside the corral and closed the gate behind him. The bull gazed at him a moment as if amazed at the audacity of this mere human, then lowered his head for the charge.
"Climb that gate, quick," yelled the Dean at the critical moment.
And Patches climbed--not a second too soon.
From his position of safety he smiled cheerfully at the Dean. "He came all right, didn't he?"
The Dean's full rounded front and thick shoulders shook with laughter, while Senor Bull dared the man on the gate to come down.
"You crazy fool," said the Dean admiringly, when he could speak. "Didn't you know any better than to go in there on foot?"
"But you said you wanted him," returned the chagrined Patches.
"What I wanted," chuckled the Dean, "was to see if you had nerve enough to tackle him."
"To tell the truth," returned Patches, with a happy laugh, "that's exactly what interested me."
But, while the work assigned to Patches during those first days of his stay on the Cross-Triangle was chiefly those odd jobs which called for little or no experience, his higher education was by no means neglected. A wise and gentle old cow-horse was assigned to him, and the Dean taught him the various parts of his equipment, their proper use, and how to care for them. And every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes late in the afternoon, the master found some errand or business that would necessitate his pupil riding with him. When Phil or Mrs. Baldwin would inquire about the Dean's kindergarten, as they called it, the Dean would laugh with them, but always he would say stoutly, "Just you wait. He'll be as near ready for the rodeo this fall as them pupils in that kindergarten of Phil's. He takes to ridin' like the good Lord had made him specially for that particular job. He's just a natural-born horseman, or I don't know men. He's got the sense, he's got the nerve, an' he's got the disposition. He's goin' to make a top hand in a few months, if"--he always added with twinkling eyes--"he don't get himself killed tryin' some fool experiment on himself."
"I notice just the same that he always has plenty of help in his experimentin'," Mrs. Baldwin would return dryly, which saying indicted not only the Dean but Phil and every man on the Cross-Triangle, including Little Billy.
Then came that day when Patches was given a task that--the Dean assured him--is one of the duties of even the oldest and best qualified cowboys. Patches was assigned to the work of fenceriding. But when the Dean rode out with his pupil early that morning to where the drift fence begins at the corner of the big pasture, and explained that "riding a fence" meant, in ranch language, looking for breaks and repairing any such when found, he did not explain the peculiarities of that particular kind of fence.
"I told him to be sure and be back by night," he chuckled, as he explained Patches' absence at dinner to the other members of the household.
"That was downright mean of you, Will Baldwin," chided Stella, with her usual motherly interest in the comfort of her boys. "You know the poor fellow will lose himself, sure, out in that wild Tailholt Mountain country."
The boys laughed.
"We'll find him in the morning, all right, mother," reassured Phil.
"He can follow the fence back, can't he?" retorted the Dean. "Or, as far as that goes, old Snip will bring him home."
"If he knows enough to figger it out, or to let Snip have his head," said Curly.
"At any rate," the Dean maintained, "he'll learn somethin' about the country, an' he'll learn somethin' about fences, an' mebby he'll learn somethin' about horses. An' we'll see whether he can use his own head or not. There's nothin' like givin' a man a chance to find out things for himself sometimes. Besides, think what a chance he'll have for some of his experiments! I'll bet a yearling steer that when we do see him again, he'll be tickled to death at himself an' wonderin' how he had the nerve to do it."
"To do what?" asked Mrs. Baldwin.
"I don't know what," chuckled the Dean; "but he's bound to do some fool thing or other just to see if he can, and it'll be somethin' that nobody but him would ever think of doin', too."
But Honorable Patches did not get lost that day--that is, not too badly lost. There was a time, though--but that does not belong just here.
Patches was very well pleased with the task assigned to him that morning. For the first time he found himself trusted alone with a horse, on a mission that would keep him the full day in the saddle, and would take him beyond sight of the ranch house. Very bravely he set out, equipped with his cowboy regalia--except the riata, which the Dean, fearing experiments, had, at the last moment, thoughtfully borrowed--and armed with a fencing tool and staples. He was armed, too, with a brand-new "six-gun" in a spick and span holster, on a shiny belt of bright cartridges. The Dean had insisted on this, alleging that the embryo cowboy might want it to kill a sick cow or something.
Patches wondered if he would know a sick cow if he should meet one, or how he was to diagnose the case to ascertain if she were sick enough to kill.
The first thing he did, when the Dean was safely out of sight, was to dismount and examine his saddle girth. Always your real king of the cattle range is careful for the foundation of his throne. But there was no awkwardness, now, when he again swung to his seat. The young man was in reality a natural athlete. His work had already taken the soreness and stiffness out of his unaccustomed muscles, and he seemed, as the Dean had said, a born horseman. And as he rode, he looked about over the surrounding country with an expression on independence, freedom and fearlessness very different from the manner of the troubled man who had faced Phil Acton that night on the Divide. It was as though the spirit of the land was already working its magic within this man, too. He patted the holster at his side, felt the handle of the gun, lovingly fingered the bright cartridges in his shiny belt, leaned sidewise to look admiringly down at his fringed, leather chaps and spur ornamented boot heels, and wished for his riata--not forgetting, meanwhile, to scan the fence for places that might need his attention.
The guardian angel who cares for the "tenderfoot" was good to Patches that day, and favored him with many sagging wires and leaning or broken posts, so that he could not ride far. Being painstaking and conscientious in his work, he had made not more than four miles by the beginning of the afternoon. Then he found a break that would occupy him for two hours at least. With rueful eyes he surveyed the long stretch of dilapidated fence. It was time, he reflected, that the Dean sent someone to look after his property, and dismounting, he went to work, forgetting, in his interest in the fencing problem, to insure his horse's near-by attendance. Now, the best of cow-horses are not above taking advantage of their opportunities. Perhaps Snip felt that fenceriding with a tenderfoot was a little beneath the dignity of his cattle-punching years. Perhaps he reasoned that this man who was always doing such strange things was purposely dismissing him. Perhaps he was thinking of the long watering trough and the rich meadow grass at home. Or, perhaps again, the wise old Snip, feeling the responsibility of his part in training the Dean's pupil, merely thought to give his inexperienced master a lesson. However it happened, Patches looked up from his work some time later to find himself alone. In consternation, he stood looking about, striving to catch a glimpse of the vanished Snip. Save a lone buzzard that wheeled in curious circles above his head there was no living thing in sight.
As fast as his heavy, leather chaps and high-heeled, spur-ornamented boots would permit, he ran to the top of a knoll a hundred yards or so away. The wider range of country that came thus within the circle of his vision was as empty as it was silent. The buzzard wheeled nearer--the strange looking creature beneath it seemed so helpless that there might be in the situation something of vital interest to the tribe. Even buzzards must be about their business.
There are few things more humiliating to professional riders of the range than to be left afoot; and while Patches was far too much a novice to have acquired the peculiar and traditional tastes and habits of the clan of which he had that morning felt himself a member, he was, in this, the equal of the best of them. He thought of himself walking shamefaced into the presence of the Dean and reporting the loss of the horse. The animal might be recovered, he supposed, for he was still, Patches thought, inside the pasture which that fence enclosed. Still there was a chance that the runaway would escape through some break and never be found. In any case the vision of the grinning cowboys was not an attractive one. But at least, thought the amateur cowboy, he would finish the work entrusted to him. He might lose a horse for the Dean, but the Dean's fence should be repaired. So he set to work with a will, and, finishing that particular break, set out on foot to follow the fence around the field and so back to the lane that would lead him to the buildings and corrals of the home ranch.
For an hour he trudged along, making hard work of it in his chaps, boots, and spurs, stopping now and then to drive a staple or brace a post. The country was growing wilder and more broken, with cedar timber on the ridges and here and there a pine. Occasionally he could catch a glimpse of the black, forbidding walls of Tailholt Mountain. But Patches did not know that it was Tailholt. He only thought that he knew in which direction the home ranch lay. It seemed to him that it was a long, long way to the corner of the field--it must be a big pasture, indeed. The afternoon was well on when he paused on the summit of another ridge to rest. It, seemed to him that he had never in all his life been quite so warm. His legs ached. He was tired and thirsty and hungry. It was so still that the silence hurt, and that fence corner was nowhere in sight. He could not, now reach home before dark, even should he turn back; which, he decided grimly, he would not do. He would ride that fence if he camped three nights on the journey.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet, waving his hat, hallooing and yelling like a madman. Two horsemen were riding on the other side of the fence, along the slope of the next ridge, at the edge of the timber. In vain Patches strove to attract their attention. If they heard him, they gave no sign, and presently he saw them turn, ride in among the cedars, and disappear. In desperation he ran along the fence, down the hill, across the narrow little valley, and up the ridge over which the riders had gone. On the top of the ridge he stopped again, to spend the last of his breath in another series of wild shouts. But there was no answer. Nor could he be sure, even, which way the horsemen had gone.
Dropping down in the shade of a cedar, exhausted by his strenuous exertion, and wet with honest perspiration, he struggled for breath and fanned his hot face with his hat. Perhaps he even used some of the cowboy words that he had heard Curly and Bob employ when Little Billy was not around After the noise of his frantic efforts, the silence was more oppressive than ever. The Cross-Triangle ranch house was, somewhere, endless miles away.
Then a faint sound in the narrow valley below him caught his ear. Turning quickly, he looked back the way he had come. Was he dreaming, or was it all just a part of the magic of that wonderful land? A young woman was riding toward him--coming at an easy swinging lope--and, following, at the end of a riata, was the cheerfully wise and philosophic Snip.
Patches' first thought--when he had sufficiently recovered I from his amazement to think at all--was that the woman rode as he had never seen a woman ride before. Dressed in the divided skirt of corduroy, the loose, soft, gray shirt, gauntleted gloves, mannish felt hat, and boots, usual to Arizona horsewomen, she seemed as much at ease in the saddle as any cowboy in the land; and, indeed, she was.
As she came up the slope, the man in the shade of the cedar saw that she was young. Her lithe, beautifully developed body yielded to the movement of the spirited horse she rode with the unspoiled grace of health and youth. Still nearer, and he saw her clear cheeks glowing with the exercise and excitement, her soft, brown hair under the wide brim of the gray sombrero, and her dark eyes, shining with the fun of her adventure. Then she saw him, and smiled; and Patches remembered what the Dean had said: "If there's a man in Yavapai County who wouldn't ride the hoofs off the best horse in his outfit to win a smile from Kitty Reid, he ought to be lynched."
As the man stood, hat in hand, she checked her horse, and, in a voice that matched the smile so full of fun and the clean joy of living greeted him.
"You are Mr. Honorable Patches, are you not?"
Patches bowed. "Miss Reid, I believe?"
She frankly looked her surprise. "Why, how did you know me?"
"Your good friend, Mr. Baldwin, described you," he smiled.
She colored and laughed to hide her slight embarrassment. "The dear old Dean is prejudiced, I fear."
"Prejudiced he may be," Patches admitted, "but his judgement is unquestionable. And," he added gently, as her face grew grave and her chin lifted slightly, "his confidence in any man might be considered an endorsement, don't you think?"
"Indeed, yes," she agreed heartily, her slight coldness vanishing instantly. "The Dean and Stella told me all about you this afternoon, or I should not have ventured to introduce myself. I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Patches," she finished with a mock formality that was delightful.
"And I am delighted to meet you, Miss Reid, for so many reasons that I can't begin to tell you of them," he responded laughing. "And now, may I ask what good magic brings you like a fairy in the story book to the rescue of a poor stranger in the hour of his despair? Where did you find my faithless Snip? How did you know where to find me? Where is the Cross-Triangle Ranch? How many miles is it to the nearest water? Is it possible for me to get home in time for supper?" Looking down at him she laughed as only Kitty Reid could laugh.
"You're making fun of me," he charged; "they all do. And I don't blame them in the least; I have been laughing at myself all day."
"I'll answer your last question first," she returned. "Yes, you can easily reach the Cross-Triangle in time for supper, if you start at once. I will explain the magic as we ride."
"You are going to show me the way?" he cried eagerly, starting toward his horse.
"I really think it would be best," she said demurely.
"Now I know you are a good fairy, or a guardian angel, or something like that," he returned, setting his foot in the stirrup to mount. Then suddenly he paused, with, "Wait a minute, please. I nearly forgot." And very carefully he examined the saddle girth to see that it was tight.
"If you had remembered to throw your bridle rein over Snip's head when you left him, you wouldn't have needed a guardian angel this time," she said.
He looked at her blankly over the patient Snip's back.
"And so that was what made him go away? I knew I had done some silly thing that I ought not. That's the only thing about myself that I am always perfectly sure of," he added as he mounted. "You see I can always depend upon myself to make a fool of myself. It was that bad place in the fence that did it." He pulled up his horse suddenly as they were starting. "And that reminds me; there is one thing you positively must tell me before I can go a foot, even toward supper. How much farther is it to the corner of this field?"
She looked at him in pretty amazement. "To the corner of this field?"
"Yes, I knew, of course, that if I followed the fence it was bound to lead me around the field and so back to where I started. That's why I kept on; I thought I could finish the job and get home, even if Snip did compel me to ride the fence on foot."
"But don't you know that this is a drift fence?" she asked, her eyes dancing with fun.
"That's what the Dean called it," he admitted. "But if it's drifting anywhere, it's going end on. Perhaps that's why I couldn't catch the corner."
"But there is no corner to a drift fence," she cried.
She shook her head as if not trusting herself to speak.
"And it doesn't go around anything--there is no field?" Again she shook her head.
"Just runs away out in the country somewhere and stops?"
She nodded. "It must be eighteen or twenty miles from here to the end."
"Well, of all the silly fences!" he exclaimed, looking away to the mountain peaks toward which he had been so laboriously making his way. "Honestly, now, do you think that is any way for a respectable fence to act? And the Dean told me to be sure and get home before dark!"
Then they laughed together--laughed until their horses must have wondered.
As they rode on, she explained the purpose of the drift fence, and how it came to an end so many miles away and so far from water that the cattle do not usually find their way around it.
"And now the magic!" he said. "You have made a most unreasonable, unconventional and altogether foolish fence appear reasonable, proper and perfectly sane. Please explain your coming with Snip to my relief."
"Which was also unreasonable, unconventional and altogether foolish?" she questioned.
"Which was altogether wonderful, unexpected and delightful," he retorted.
"It is all perfectly simple," she explained. "Being rather--" She hesitated. "Well, rather sick of too much of nothing at all, you know, I went over to the Cross-Triangle right after dinner to visit a little with Stella--professionally."
"Professionally?" he asked.
She nodded brightly. "For the good of my soul. Stella's a famous soul doctor. The best ever except one, and she lives far away--away back east in Cleveland, Ohio."
"Yes, I know her, too," he said gravely.
And while they laughed at the absurdity of his assertion, they did not know until long afterward how literally true it was.
"Of course, I knew about you," she continued. "Phil told me how you tried to ride that unbroken horse, the last time he was at our house. Phil thinks you are quite a wonderful man."
"No doubt," said Patches mockingly. "I must have given a remarkable exhibition on that occasion." He was wondering just how much Phil had told her.
"And so, you see," she continued, "I couldn't very well help being interested in the welfare of the stranger who had come among us. Besides, our traditional western hospitality demanded it; don't you think?"
"Oh, certainly, certainly. You could really do nothing less than inquire about me," he agreed politely.
"And so, you see, Stella quite restored my soul health; or at least afforded me temporary relief."
He met the quizzing, teasing, laughing look in her eyes blankly. "You are making fun of me again," he said humbly. "I know I ought to laugh at myself, but--"
"Why, don't you understand?" she cried. "Dr. Stella administered a generous dose of talk about the only new thing that has happened in this neighborhood for months and months and months."
"Meaning me?" he asked.
"Well, are you not?" she retorted.
"I guess I am," he smiled. "Well, and then what?"
"Why, then I came away, feeling much better, of course."
"I was feeling so much better I decided I would go home a roundabout way; perhaps to the top of Black Hill; perhaps up Horse Wash, where I might meet father, who would be on his way home from Fair Oaks where he went this morning."
"Well, so I met Snip, who was on his way to the Cross-Triangle. I knew, of course, that old Snip would be your horse." She smiled, as though to rob her words of any implied criticism of his horsemanship.
"Exactly," he agreed understandingly.
"And I was afraid that something might have happened; though I couldn't see how that could be, either, with Snip. And so I caught him--"
He interrupted eagerly. "How?"
"Why, with my riata," she returned, in a matter-of-fact tone, wondering at his question.
"You caught my horse with your riata?" he repeated slowly.
"And pray how should I have caught him?" she asked.
"But--but, didn't he run?"
She laughed. "Of course he ran. They all do that once they get away from you. But Snip never could outrun my Midnight," she retorted.
He shook his head slowly, looking at her with frank admiration, as though, for the first time, he understood what a rare and wonderful creature she was.
"And you can ride and rope like that?" he said doubtfully.
She flushed hotly, and there was a spark of fire in the brown eyes. "I suppose you are thinking that I am coarse and mannish and all that," she said with spirit. "By your standards, Mr. Patches, I should have ridden back to the house, screaming, ladylike, for help."
"No, no," he protested. "That's not fair. I was thinking how wonderful you are. Why, I would give--what wouldn't I give to be able to do a thing like that!"
There was no mistaking his earnestness, and Kitty was all sunshine again, pardoning him with a smile.
"You see," she explained, "I have always lived here, except my three years at school. Father taught me to use a riata, as he taught me to ride and shoot, because--well--because it's all a part of this life, and very useful sometimes; just as it is useful to know about hotels and time-tables and taxicabs, in that other part of the world."
"I understand," he said gently. "It was stupid of me to notice it. I beg your pardon for interrupting the story of my rescue. You had just roped Snip while he was doing his best to outrun Midnight--simple and easy as calling a taxi--'Number Two Thousand Euclid Avenue, please'--and there you are."
"Oh, do you know Cleveland?" she cried.
For an instant he was confused. Then he said easily, "Everybody has heard of the famous Euclid Avenue. But how did you guess where Snip had left me?"
"Why, Stella had told me that you were riding the drift fence," she answered, tactfully ignoring the evasion of her question. "I just followed the fence. So there was no magic about it at all, you see."
"I'm not so sure about the magic," he returned slowly.
"This is such a wonderful country--to me--that one can never be quite sure about anything. At least, I can't. But perhaps that's because I am such a new thing."
"And do you like it?" she asked, frankly curious about him.
"Like being a new thing?" he parried. "Yes and No."
"I mean do you like this wonderful country, as you call it?"
"I admire the people who belong to it tremendously," he returned. "I never met such men before--or such women," he finished with a smile.
"But, do you like it?" she persisted. "Do you like the life--your work--would you be satisfied to live here always?"
"Yes and No," he answered again, hesitatingly.
"Oh, well," she said, with, he thought, a little bitterness and rebellion, "it doesn't really matter to you whether you like it or not, because you are a man. If you are not satisfied with your environment, you can leave it--go away somewhere else--make yourself a part of some other life."
He shook his head, wondering a little at her earnestness. "That does not always follow. Can a man, just because he is a man, always have or do just what he likes?"
"If he's strong enough," she insisted. "But a woman must always do what other people like."
He was sure now that she was speaking rebelliously.
She continued, "Can't you, if you are not satisfied with this life here, go away?"
"Yes, but not necessarily to any life I might desire. Perhaps some sheriff wants me. Perhaps I am an escaped convict. Perhaps--oh, a thousand things."
She laughed aloud in spite of her serious mood. "What nonsense!"
"But, why nonsense? What do you and your friends know of me?"
"We know that you are not that kind of a man," she retorted warmly, "because"--she hesitated--"well, because you are not that sort of a man."
"Are you sure you don't mean because I am not man enough to make myself wanted very badly, even by the sheriff?" he asked, and Kitty could not mistake the bitterness in his voice.
"Why, Mr. Patches!" she cried. "How could you think I meant such a thing? Forgive me! I was only wondering foolishly what you, a man of education and culture, could find in this rough life that would appeal to you in any way. My curiosity is unpardonable, I suppose, but you must know that we are all wondering why you are here."
"I do not blame you," he returned, with that self-mocking smile, as though he were laughing at himself. "I told you I could always be depended upon to make a fool of myself. You see I am doing it now. I don't mind telling you this much--that I am here for the same reason that you went to visit Mrs. Baldwin this afternoon."
"For the good of your soul?" she asked gently.
"Exactly," he returned gravely. "For the good of my soul."
"Well, then, Mr. Honorable Patches, here's to your soul's good health!" she cried brightly, checking her horse and holding out her hand. "We part here. You can see the Cross-Triangle buildings yonder. I go this way."
He looked his pleasure, as he clasped her hand in hearty understanding of the friendship offered.
"Thank you, Miss Reid. I still maintain that the Dean's judgment is unquestionable."
She was not at all displeased with his reply.
"By the way," she said, as if to prove her friendship. "I suppose you know what to expect from Uncle Will and the boys when they learn of your little adventure?"
"I do," he answered, as if resigned to anything.
"And do you enjoy making fun for them?"
"I assure you, Miss Reid, I am very human."
"Well, then, why don't you turn the laugh on them?"
"They are expecting you to get into some sort of a scrape, don't you think?"
"They are always expecting that. And," he added, with that droll touch in his voice, "I must say I rarely disappoint them."
"I suspect," she continued, thoughtfully, "that the Dean purposely did not explain that drift fence to you."
"He has established precedents that would justify my thinking so, I'll admit."
"Well, then, why don't you ride cheerfully home and report the progress of your work as though nothing had happened?"
"You mean that you won't tell?" he cried.
She nodded gaily. "I told them this afternoon that it wasn't fair for you to have no one but Stella on your side."
"What a good Samaritan you are! You put me under an everlasting obligation to you."
"All right," she laughed. "I'm glad you feel that way about it. I shall hold that debt against you until some day when I am in dreadful need, and then I shall demand payment in full. Good-by!"
And once again Kitty had spoken, in jest, words that held for them both, had they but known, great significance.
Patches watched until she was out of sight. Then he made his way happily to the house to receive, with a guilty conscience but with a light heart, congratulations and compliments upon his safe return.
That evening Phil disappeared somewhere, in the twilight. And a little later Jim Reid rode into the Cross-Triangle dooryard.
The owner of the Pot-Hook-S was a big man, tall and heavy, outspoken and somewhat gruff, with a manner that to strangers often seemed near to overbearing. When Patches was introduced, the big cattleman looked him over suspiciously, spoke a short word in response to Patches' commonplace, and abruptly turned his back to converse with the better-known members of the household.
For an hour, perhaps, they chatted about matters of general interest, as neighbors will; then the caller arose to go, and the Dean walked with him to his horse. When the two men were out of hearing of the people on the porch Reid asked in a low voice, "Noticed any stock that didn't look right lately, Will?"
"No. You see, we haven't been ridin' scarcely any since the Fourth. Phil and the boys have been busy with the horses every day, an' this new man don't count, you know."
"Who is he, anyway?" asked Reid bluntly.
"I don't know any more than that he says his name is Patches."
"Funny name," grunted Jim.
"Yes, but there's a lot of funny names, Jim," the Dean answered quietly. "I don't know as Patches is any funnier than Skinner or Foote or Hogg, or a hundred other names, when you come to think about it. We ain't just never happened to hear it before, that's all."
"Where did you pick him up?"
"He just came along an' wanted work. He's green as they make 'em, but willin', an' he's got good sense, too."
"I'd go slow 'bout takin' strangers in," said the big man bluntly.
"Shucks!" retorted the Dean. "Some of the best men I ever had was strangers when I hired 'em. Bein' a stranger ain't nothin' against a man. You and me would be strangers if we was to go many miles from Williamson Valley. Patches is a good man, I tell you. I'll stand for him, all right. Why, he's been out all day, alone, ridin' the drift fence, just as good any old-timer."
"The drift fence!"
"Yes, it's in pretty bad shape in places."
"Yes, an' I ran onto a calf over in Horse Wash, this afternoon, not four hundred yards from the fence on the Tailholt side, fresh-branded with the Tailholt iron, an' I'll bet a thousand dollars it belongs to a Cross-Triangle cow."
"What makes you think it was mine?" asked the Dean calmly.
"Because it looked mighty like some of your Hereford stock, an' because I came on through the Horse Wash gate, an' about a half mile on this side, I found one of your cows that had just lost her calf."
"They know we're busy an' ain't ridin' much, I reckon," mused the Dean.
"If I was you, I'd put some hand that I knew to ridin' that drift fence," returned Jim significantly, as he mounted his horse to go.
"You're plumb wrong, Jim," returned the Dean earnestly. "Why, the man don't know a Cross-Triangle from a Five-Bar, or a Pot-Hook-S."
"It's your business, Will; I just thought I'd tell you," growled Reid. "Good-night!"
"Good-night, Jim! I'm much obliged to you for ridin' over."