When A Man's A Man by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter VIII. Concerning Brands.
A few days after Jim Reid's evening visit to the Dean two cowboys from the Diamond-and-a-Half outfit, on their way to Cherry Creek, stopped at the ranch for dinner.
The well-known, open-handed Baldwin hospitality led many a passing rider thus aside from the main valley road and through the long meadow lane to the Cross-Triangle table. Always there was good food for man and horse, with a bed for those who came late in the day; and always there was a hearty welcome and talk under the walnut trees with the Dean. And in all that broad land there was scarce a cowboy who, when riding the range, would not look out for the Dean's cattle with almost the same interest and care that he gave to the animals bearing the brand of his own employer.
So it was that these riders from the Tonto Flats country told the Dean that in looking over the Cross-Triangle cattle watering at Toohey they had seen several cases of screwworms.
"We doped a couple of the worst, and branded a calf for you," said "Shorty" Myers.
And his companion, Bert Wilson, added, as though apologizing, "We couldn't stop any longer because we got to make it over to Wheeler's before mornin'."
"Much obliged, boys," returned the Dean. Then, with his ever-ready jest, "Sure you put the right brand on that calf?"
"We-all ain't ridin' for no Tailholt Mountain outfit this season," retorted Bert dryly, as they all laughed at the Dean's question.
And at the cowboy's words Patches, wondering, saw the laughing faces change and looks of grim significance flash from man to man.
"Anybody seen anything over your way lately?" asked the Dean quietly.
In the moment of silence that followed the visitors looked questioningly from the face of Patches to the Dean and then to Phil. Phil smiled his endorsement of the stranger, and "Shorty" said, "We found a couple of fresh-branded calves what didn't seem to have no mothers last week, and Bud Stillwell says some things look kind o' funny over in the D.1 neighborhood."
Another significant silence followed. To Patches, it seemed as the brooding hush that often precedes a storm. He had not missed those questioning looks of the visitors, and had seen Phil's smiling endorsement, but he could not, of course, understand. He could only wonder and wait, for he felt intuitively that he must not speak. It was as though these strong men who had received him so generously into their lives put him, now, outside their circle, while they considered business of grave moment to themselves.
"Well, boys," said the Dean, as if to dismiss the subject, "I've been in this cow business a good many years, now, an' I've seen all kinds of men come an' go, but I ain't never seen the man yet that could get ahead very far without payin' for what he got. Some time, one way or another, whether he's so minded or not, a man's just naturally got to pay."
"That law is not peculiar to the cattle business, either, is it, Mr. Baldwin?" The words came from Patches, and as they saw his face, it was their turn to wonder.
The Dean looked straight into the dark eyes that were so filled with painful memories, and wistful desire. "Sir?"
"I mean," said Patches, embarrassed, as though he had spoken involuntarily, "that what you say applies to those who live idly--doing no useful work whatever--as well as to those who are dishonest in business of any kind, or who deliberately steal outright. Don't you think so?"
The Dean--his eyes still fixed on the face of the new man--answered slowly, "I reckon that's so, Patches. When you come to think about it, it must be so. One way or another every man that takes what he ain't earned has to pay for it."
"Who is he?" asked the visitors of Curly and Bob, as they went for their horses, when the meal was over.
The Cross-Triangle men shook their heads.
"Just blew in one day, and the Dean hired him," said Bob.
"But he's the handiest man with his fists that's ever been in this neck of the woods. If you don't believe it, just you start something," added Curly with enthusiasm.
"Found it out, did you?" laughed Bert.
"In something less than a minute," admitted Curly.
"Funny name!" mused "Shorty."
Bob grinned. "That's what Curly thought--at first."
"And then he took another think, huh?"
"Yep," agreed Curly, "he sure carries the proper credentials to make any name that he wants to wear good enough for me."
The visitors mounted their horses, and sat looking appraisingly at the tall figure of Honorable Patches, as that gentleman passed them at a little distance, on his way to the barn.
"Mebby you're right," admitted "Shorty," "but he sure talks like a schoolmarm, don't he?"
"He sure ain't no puncher," commented Bert.
"No, but I'm gamblin' that he's goin' to be," retorted Curly, ignoring the reference to Patches' culture.
"Me, too," agreed Bob.
"Well, we'll all try him out this fall rodeo"; and "better not let him drift far from the home ranch for a while," laughed the visitors. "So long!" and they were away.
Before breakfast the next morning Phil said to Patches, "Catch up Snip, and give him a feed of grain. You'll ride with me to-day."
At Patches' look of surprise he explained laughingly, "I'm going to give my school a little vacation, and Uncle Will thinks it's time you were out of the kindergarten."
Later, as they were crossing the big pasture toward the country that lies to the south, the foreman volunteered the further information that for the next few weeks they would ride the range.
"May I ask what for?" said Patches, encouraged by the cowboy's manner.
It was one of the man's peculiarities that he rarely entered into the talk of his new friends when their work was the topic of conversation. And he never asked questions except when alone with Phil or the Dean, and then only when led on by them. It was not that he sought to hide his ignorance, for he made no pretenses whatever, but his reticence seemed, rather, the result of a curious feeling of shame that he had so little in common with these men whose lives were so filled with useful labor. And this, if he had known, was one of the things that made them like him. Men who live in such close daily touch with the primitive realities of life, and who thereby acquire a simple directness, with a certain native modesty, have no place in their hearts for--to use their own picturesque vernacular--a "four-flusher."
Phil tactfully did not even smile at the question, but answered in a matter-of-fact tone. "To look out for screw-worms, brand a calf here and there, keep the water holes open, and look out for the stock generally."
"And you mean," questioned Patches doubtfully, "that I am to ride with you?"
"Sure. You see, Uncle Will thinks you are too good a man to waste on the odd jobs around the place, and so I'm going to get you in shape for the rodeo this fall."
The effect of his words was peculiar. A deep red colored Patches' face, and his eyes shone with a glad light, as he faced his companion. "And you--what do you think about it, Phil?" he demanded.
The cowboy laughed at the man's eagerness. "Me? Oh, I think just as I have thought all the time--ever since you asked for a job that day in the corral."
Patches drew a long breath, and, sitting very straight in the saddle, looked away toward Granite Mountain; while Phil, watching him curiously, felt something like kindly pity in his heart for this man who seemed to hunger so for a man's work, and a place among men.
Just outside the Deep Wash gate of the big pasture, a few cattle were grazing in the open flat. As the men rode toward them, Phil took down his riata while Patches watched him questioningly.
"We may as well begin right here," said the cowboy. "Do you see anything peculiar about anything in that bunch?"
Patches studied the cattle in vain.
"What about that calf yonder?" suggested Phil, leisurely opening the loop of his rope. "I mean that six-months youngster with the white face."
Still Patches hesitated.
Phil helped him again. "Look at his ears."
"They're not marked," exclaimed Patches.
"And what should they be marked?" asked the teacher.
"Under-bit right and a split left, if he belongs to the Cross-Triangle," returned the pupil proudly, and in the same breath he exclaimed, "He is not branded either."
Phil smiled approval. "That's right, and we'll just fix him now, before somebody else beats us to him." He moved his horse slowly toward the cattle as he spoke.
"But," exclaimed Patches, "how do you know that he belongs to the Cross-Triangle?"
"He doesn't," returned Phil, laughing. "He belongs to me."
"But I don't see how you can tell."
"I know because I know the stock," Phil explained, "and because I happen to remember that particular calf, in the rodeo last spring. He got away from us, with his mother, in the cedars and brush over near the head of Mint Wash. That's one of the things that you have to learn in this business, you see. But, to be sure we're right, you watch him a minute, and you'll see him go to a Five-Bar cow. The Five-Bar is my iron, you know--I have a few head running with Uncle Will's."
Even as he spoke, the calf, frightened at their closer approach, ran to a cow that was branded as Phil had said, and the cow, with unmistakable maternal interest in her offspring, proved the ownership of the calf.
"You see?" said Phil. "We'll get that fellow now, because before the next rodeo he'll be big enough to leave his mother, and then; if he isn't branded, he'll be a maverick, and will belong to anybody that puts an iron on him."
"But couldn't someone brand him now, with their brand, and drive him away from his mother?" asked Patches.
"Such things have been known to happen, and that not a thousand miles from here, either," returned Phil dryly. "But, really, you know, Mr. Patches, it isn't done among the best people."
Patches laughed aloud at his companion's attempt at a simpering affectation. Then he watched with admiration while the cowboy sent his horse after the calf and, too quickly for an inexperienced eye to see just how it was done, the deft riata stretched the animal by the heels. With a short "hogging" rope, which he carried looped through a hole cut in the edge of his chaps near the belt, Phil tied the feet of his victim, before the animal had recovered from the shock of the fall; and then, with Patches helping, proceeded to build a small fire of dry grass and leaves and sticks from a near-by bush. From his saddle, Phil took a small iron rod, flattened at one end, and only long enough to permit its being held in the gloved hand when the flattened end was hot--a running iron, he called it, and explained to his interested pupil, as he thrust it into the fire, how some of the boys used an iron ring for range branding.
"And is there no way to change or erase a brand?" asked Patches, while the iron was heating.
"Sure there is," replied Phil. And sitting on his heels, cowboy fashion, he marked on the ground with a stick.
"Look! This is the Cross-Triangle brand: [Illustration]; and this: [Illustration], the Four-Bar-M, happens to be Nick Cambert's iron, over at Tailholt Mountain. Now, can't you see how, supposing I were Nick, and this calf were branded with the Cross-Triangle, I could work the iron over into my brand?"
Patches nodded. "But is there no way to detect such a fraud?"
"It's a mighty hard thing to prove that an iron has bees worked over," Phil answered slowly. "About the only sure way is to catch the thief in the act."
"But there are the earmarks," said Patches, a few moments later, when Phil had released the branded and marked calf--"the earmarks and the brand wouldn't agree."
"They would if I were Nick," said the cowboy. Then he added quickly, as if regretting his remark, "Our earmark is an under-bit right and a split left, you said. Well, the Four-Bar-M earmark is a crop and an under-bit right and a swallow-fork left." With the point of his iron now he again marked in the dirt. "Here's your Cross-Triangle: [Illustration]; and here's your Pour-Bar-M: [Illustration]."
"And if a calf branded with a Tailholt iron were to be found following a Cross-Triangle cow, then what?" came Patches' very natural question.
"Then," returned the foreman of the Cross-Triangle grimly, "there would be a mighty good chance for trouble."
"But it seems to me," said Patches, as they rode on, "that it would be easily possible for a man to brand another man's calf by mistake."
"A man always makes a mistake when he puts his iron on another man's property," returned the cowboy shortly.
"But might it not be done innocently, just the same!" persisted Patches.
"Yes, it might," admitted Phil.
"Well, then, what would you do if you found a calf, that you knew belonged to the Dean, branded with some other man's brand? I mean, how would you proceed?"
"Oh, I see what you are driving at," said Phil in quite a different tone. "If you ever run on to a case, the first thing for you to do is to be dead sure that the misbranded calf belongs to one of our cows. Then, if you are right, and it's not too far, drive the cow and calf into the nearest corral and report it. If you can't get them to a corral without too much trouble, just put the Cross-Triangle on the calf's ribs. When he shows up in the next rodeo, with the right brand on his ribs, and some other brand where the right brand ought to be--you'll take pains to remember his natural markings, of course--you will explain the circumstances, and the owner of the iron that was put on him by mistake will be asked to vent his brand. A brand is vented by putting the same brand on the animal's shoulder. Look! There's one now." He pointed to an animal a short distance away. "See, that steer is branded Diamond-and-a-Half on hip and shoulder, and Cross-Triangle on his ribs. Well, when he was a yearling he belonged to the Diamond-and-a-Half outfit. We picked him up in the rodeo, away over toward Mud Tanks. He was running with our stock, and Stillwell didn't want to go to the trouble of taking him home--about thirty miles it is--so he sold him to Uncle Will, and vented his brand, as you see."
"I see," said Patches, "but that's different from finding a calf misbranded."
"Sure. There was no question of ownership there," agreed Phil.
"But in the case of the calf," the cowboy's pupil persisted, "if it had left its mother when the man owning the iron was asked to vent it, there would be no way of proving the real ownership."
"Nothing but the word of the man who found the calf with its mother, and, perhaps, the knowledge of the men who knew the stock."
"What I am getting at," smiled Patches, "is this: it would come down at last to a question of men, wouldn't it?"
"That's where most things come to in, the end in this country, Patches. But you're right. With owners like Uncle Will, and Jim Reid, and Stillwell, and dozens of others; and with cowboys like Curly and Bob and Bert and 'Shorty,' there would be no trouble at all about the matter."
"But with others," suggested Patches.
"Well," said Phil slowly, "there are men in this country, who, if they refused to vent a brand under such circumstances, would be seeing trouble, and mighty quick, too."
"There's another thing that we've got to watch out for, just now," Phil continued, a few minutes later, "and that is, 'sleepers'. We'll suppose," he explained, "that I want to build up my, bunch of Five-Bars, and that I am not too particular about how I do it. Well, I run on to an unbranded Pot-Hook-S calf that looks good to me, but I don't dare put my iron on him because he's too young to leave his mother. If I let him go until he is older, some of Jim Reid's riders will brand him, and, you see, I never could work over the Pot-Hook-S iron into my Five-Bar. So I earmark the calf with the owner's marks, and don't brand him at all. Then he's a sleeper. If the Pot-Hook-S boys see him, they'll notice that he's earmarked all right, and very likely they'll take it for granted that he's branded, or, perhaps let him go anyway. Before the next rodeo I run on to my sleeper again, and he's big enough now to take away from the cow, so all I have to do is to change the earmarks and brand him with my iron. Of course, I wouldn't get all my sleepers, but--the percentage would be in my favor. If too many sleepers show up in the rodeo, though, folks would get mighty suspicious that someone was too handy with his knife. We got a lot of sleepers in the last rodeo," he concluded quietly.
And Patches, remembering what Little Billy had said about Nick Cambert and Yavapai Joe, and with the talk of the visiting cowboys still fresh in his mind, realized that he was making progress in his education.
Riding leisurely, and turning frequently aside for a nearer view of the cattle they sighted here and there, they reached Toohey a little before noon. Here, in a rocky hollow of the hills, a small stream wells from under the granite walls, only to lose itself a few hundred yards away in the sands and gravel of the wash. But, short as its run in the daylight is, the water never fails. And many cattle come from the open range that lies on every side, to drink, and, in summer time, to spend the heat of the day, standing in the cool, wet sands or lying in the shade of the giant sycamores that line the bank opposite the bluff. There are corrals near-by and a rude cook-shack under the wide-spreading branches of an old walnut tree; and the ground of the flat open space, a little back from the water, is beaten bare and hard by the thousands upon thousands of cattle that have at many a past rodeo-time been gathered there.
The two men found, as the Diamond-and-a-Half riders had said, several animals suffering from those pests of the Arizona ranges, the screwworms. As Phil explained to Patches while they watered their horses, the screwworm is the larva of a blowfly bred in sores on living animals. The unhealed wounds of the branding iron made the calves by far the most numerous among the sufferers, and were the afflicted animals not treated the loss during the season would amount to considerable.
"Look here, Patches," said the cowboy, as his practiced eyes noted the number needing attention. "I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll just run this hospital bunch into the corral, and you can limber up that riata of yours."
And so Patches learned not only the unpleasant work of cleaning the worm-infested sores with chloroform, but received his first lesson in the use of the cowboy's indispensable tool, the riata.
"What next?" asked Patches, as the last calf escaped through the gate which he had just opened, and ran to find the waiting and anxious mother.
Phil looked at his companion, and laughed. Honorable Patches showed the effect of his strenuous and bungling efforts to learn the rudiments of the apparently simple trick of roping a calf. His face was streaked with sweat and dust, his hair disheveled, and his clothing soiled and stained. But his eyes were bright, and his bearing eager and ready.
"What's the matter?" he demanded, grinning happily at his teacher. "What fool thing have I done now?"
"You're doing fine," Phil returned. "I was only thinking that you don't look much like the man I met up on the Divide that evening."
"I don't feel much like him, either, as far as that goes," returned Patches.
Phil glanced up at the sun. "What do you say to dinner? It must be about that time."
"Sure. I brought some jerky--there on my saddle--and some coffee. There ought to be an old pot in the shack yonder. Some of the boys don't bother, but I never like to miss a feed unless it's necessary." He did not explain that the dinner was really a thoughtful concession to his companion.
"Ugh!" ejaculated Patches, with a shrug of disgust, the work they had been doing still fresh in his mind. "I couldn't eat a bite."
"You think that now," retorted Phil, "but you just go down to the creek, drink all you can hold, wash up, and see how quick you'll change your mind when you smell the coffee."
And thus Patches received yet another lesson--a lesson in the art of forgetting promptly the most disagreeable features of his work--an art very necessary to those who aspire to master real work of any sort whatever.
When they had finished their simple meal, and lay stretched full length beneath the overhanging limbs of the age-old tree that had witnessed so many stirring scenes, and listened to so many camp-fire tales of ranch and range, they talked of things other than their work. In low tones, as men who feel a mystic and not-to-be-explained bond of fellowship--with half-closed eyes looking out into the untamed world that lay before them--they spoke of life, of its mystery and meaning. And Phil, usually so silent when any conversation touched himself, and so timid always in expressing his own self thoughts, was strangely moved to permit this man to look upon the carefully hidden and deeper things of his life. But upon his cherished dream--upon his great ambition--he kept the door fast closed. The time for that revelation of himself was not yet.
"By the way, Phil," said Patches, when at last his companion signified that it was time for them to go. "Where were you educated? I don't think that I have heard you say."
"I have no education," returned the young man, with a laugh that, to Patches, sounded a bitter note. "I'm just a common cow-puncher, that's all."
"I beg your pardon," returned the other, "but I thought from the books you mentioned--"
"Oh, the books! Why, you see, some four years ago a real, honest-to-goodness book man came out to this country for his health, and brought his disease along with him."
"His disease?" questioned Patches.
Phil smiled. "His books, I mean. They killed him, and I fell heir to his trouble. He was a good fellow, all right--we all liked him--might have been a man if he hadn't been so much of a scholar. I was curious, at first, just to see what it was that had got such a grip on him; and then I got interested myself. About that time, too, there was a reason why I thought it might be a good thing for me; so I sent for more, and have made a fairly good job of it in the past three years. I don't think that there's any danger, though, of the habit getting the grip on me that it had on him," he reflected with a whimsical grin. "It was our book friend who first called Uncle Will the Dean."
"The title certainly fits him well," remarked Patches. "I don't wonder that it stuck. I suppose you received yours for your riding?"
"'Wild Horse Phil,' I mean," smiled the other.
Phil laughed. "Haven't you heard that yarn yet? I reckon I may as well tell you. No, wait!" he exclaimed eagerly. "We have lots of time. We'll ride south a little way and perhaps I can show you."
As they rode away up the creek, Patches wondered much at his companion's words and at his manner, but the cowboy shook his head at every question, answering, simply, "Wait."
Soon they had left the creek bed--passing through a rock gateway at the beginning of the little stream--and were riding up a long, gently sloping hollow between two low but rugged ridges. The crest of the rocky wall on their left was somewhat higher than the ridge on their right, but, as the floor of the long, narrow hollow ascended, the sides of the little valley became correspondingly lower. Patches noticed that his companion was now keenly alert and watchful. He sat his horse easily, but there was a certain air of readiness in his poise, as though he anticipated sudden action, while his eyes searched the mountain sides with eager expectancy.
They had nearly reached the upper end of the long slope when Phil abruptly reined his horse to the left and rode straight up that rugged, rock-strewn mountain wall. To Patches it seemed impossible that a horse could climb such a place; but he said nothing, and wisely gave Snip his head. They were nearly at the top--so near, in fact, that Phil could see over the narrow crest--when the cowboy suddenly checked his horse and slipped from the saddle. With a gesture he bade his companion follow his example, and in a moment Patches stood beside him. Leaving their horses, they crept the few remaining feet to the summit. Crouching low, then lying prone, they worked their way to the top of a huge rounded rock, from which they could look over and down upon the country that lies beyond.
Patches uttered a low exclamation, but Phil's instant grip on his arm checked further speech.
From where they lay, they looked down upon a great mountain basin of gently rolling, native grass land. From the foot of that rocky ridge, the beautiful pasture stretches away, several miles, to the bold, gray cliffs and mighty, towering battlements of Granite Mountain. On the south, a range of dark hills, and to the north, a series of sharp peaks, form the natural boundaries.
"Do you see them?" whispered Phil.
Patches looked at him inquiringly. The stranger's interest in that wonderful scene had led him to overlook that which held his companion's attention.
"There," whispered Phil impatiently, "on the side of that hill there--they're not more than four hundred yards away, and they're working toward us."
"Do you mean those horses?" whispered Patches, amazed at his companion's manner.
"Do they belong to the Cross-Triangle?" asked Patches, still mystified.
"The Cross-Triangle!" Phil chuckled. Then, with a note of genuine reverence in his voice, he added softly, "They belong to God, Mr. Honorable Patches."
Then Patches understood. "Wild horses!" he ejaculated softly.
There are few men, I think, who can look without admiration upon a beautifully formed, noble spirited horse. The glorious pride and strength and courage of these most kingly of God's creatures--even when they are in harness and subject to their often inferior masters--compel respect and a degree of appreciation. But seen as they roam free in those pastures that, since the creation, have never been marred by plow or fence--pastures that are theirs by divine right, and the sunny slopes and shady groves and rocky nooks of which constitute their kingdom--where, in their lordly strength, they are subject only to the dictates of their own being, and, unmutilated by human cruelty, rule by the power and authority of Nature's laws--they stir the blood of the coldest heart to a quicker flow, and thrill the mind of the dullest with admiring awe.
"There's twenty-eight in that bunch," whispered Phil. "Do you see that big black stallion on guard--the one that throws up his head every minute or two for a look around?"
Patches nodded. There was no mistaking the watchful leader of the band.
"He's the chap that gave me my title, as you call it," chuckled Phil. "Come on, now, and we'll see them in action; then I'll tell you about it."
He slipped from the rock and led the way back to the saddle horses.
Riding along the ridge, just under the crest, they soon reached the point where the chain of low peaks merges into the hills that form the southern boundary of the basin, and so came suddenly into full view of the wild horses that were feeding on the slopes a little below.
As the two horsemen appeared, the leader of the band threw up his head with a warning call to his fellows.
Phil reined in his horse and motioned for Patches to do the same.
For several minutes, the black stallion held his place, as motionless as the very rocks of the mountain side, gazing straight at the mounted men as though challenging their right to cross the boundary of his kingdom, while his retainers stood as still, waiting his leadership. With his long, black mane and tail rippling and waving in the breeze that swept down from Blair Pass and across the Basin, with his raven-black coat glistening in the sunlight with the sheen of richest satin where the swelling muscles curved and rounded from shadow to high light, and with his poise of perfect strength and freedom, he looked, as indeed he was, a prince of his kind--a lord of the untamed life that homes in those God-cultivated fields.
Patches glanced at his companion, as if to speak, but struck by the expression on the cowboy's face, remained silent. Phil was leaning a little forward in his saddle, his body as perfect in its poise of alert and graceful strength as the body of the wild horse at which he was gazing with such fixed interest. The clear, deeply tanned skin of his cheeks glowed warmly with the red of his clean, rich blood, his eyes shone with suppressed excitement, his lips, slightly parted, curved in a smile of appreciation, love and reverence for the unspoiled beauty of the wild creature that he himself, in so many ways, unconsciously resembled.
And Patches--bred and schooled in a world so far from this world of primitive things--looking from Phil to the wild horse, and back again from the stallion to the man, felt the spirit and the power that made them kin--felt it with a, to him, strange new feeling of reverence, as though in the perfect, unspoiled life-strength of man and horse he came in closer touch with the divine than he had ever known before.
Then, without taking his eyes from the object of his almost worship, Phil said, "Now, watch him, Patches, watch him!"
As he spoke, he moved slowly toward the band, while Patches rode close by his side.
At their movement, the wild stallion called another warning to his followers, and went a few graceful paces toward the slowly approaching men. And then, as they continued their slow advance, he wheeled with the smooth grace of a swallow, and, with a movement so light and free that he seemed rather to skim over the surface of the ground than to tread upon it, circled here and there about his band, assembling them in closer order, flying, with ears flat and teeth bared and mane and tail tossing, in lordly fury at the laggards, driving them before him, but keeping always between his charges and the danger until they were at what he evidently judged to be, for their inferior strength, a distance of safety. Then again he halted his company and, moving alone a short way toward the horsemen, stood motionless, watching their slow approach.
Again Phil checked his horse. "God!" he exclaimed under his breath. "What a sight! Oh, you beauty! You beauty!"
But Patches was moved less by the royal beauty of the wild stallion than by the passionate reverence that vibrated in his companion's voice.
Again the two horsemen moved forward; and again the stallion drove his band to a safe distance, and stood waiting between them and their enemies.
Then the cowboy laughed aloud--a hearty laugh of clean enjoyment. "All right, old fellow, I'll just give you a whirl for luck," he said aloud to the wild horse, apparently forgetting his human companion.
And Patches saw him shorten his reins, and rise a little in his stirrups, while his horse, as though understanding, gathered himself for a spring. In a flash Patches was alone, watching as Phil, riding with every ounce of strength that his mount could command, dashed straight toward the band.
For a moment, the black stallion stood watching the now rapidly approaching rider. Then, wheeling, he started his band, driving them imperiously, now, to their utmost speed, and then, as though he understood this new maneuver of the cowboy, he swept past his running companions, with the clean, easy flight of an arrow, and taking his place at the head of his charges led them away toward Granite Mountain.
Phil stopped, and Patches could see him watching, as the wild horses, with streaming manes and tails, following their leader, who seemed to run with less than half his strength, swept away across the rolling hillsides, growing smaller and smaller in the distance, until, as dark, swiftly moving dots, they vanished over the sky line.
"Wasn't that great?" cried Phil, when he had loped back to his companion. "Did you see him go by the bunch like they were standing still?"
"There didn't seem to be much show for you to catch him," said Patches.
"Catch him!" exclaimed Phil. "Did you think I was trying to catch him? I just wanted to see him go. The horse doesn't live that could put a man within roping distance of any one in that bunch on a straightaway run, and the black can run circles around the whole outfit. I had him once, though."
"You caught that black!" exclaimed Patches--incredulously.
Phil grinned. "I sure had him for a little while."
"But what is he doing out here running loose, then?" demanded the other. "Got away, did he?"
"Got away, nothing. Fact is, he belongs to me right now, in a way, and I wouldn't swap him for any string of cow-horses that I ever saw."
Then, as they rode toward the home ranch, Phil told the story that is known throughout all that country.
"It was when the black was a yearling," he said. "I'd had my eye on him all the year, and so had some of the other boys who had sighted the band, for you could see, even when he was a colt, what he was going to be. The wild horses were getting rather too numerous that season, and we planned a chase to thin them out a little, as we do every two or three years. Of course, everybody was after the black; and one day, along toward the end of the chase, when the different bands had been broken up and scattered pretty much, I ran onto him. I was trailing an old gray up that draw--the way we went to-day, you know, and all at once I met him as he was coming over the top of the hill, right where you and I rode onto him. It was all so sudden that for a minute he was rattled as bad as I was; and, believe me, I was shaking like a leaf. I managed to come to, first, though, and hung my rope on him before he could get started. I don't know to this day where the old gray that I was after went. Well, sir; he fought like a devil, and for a spell we had it around and around until I wasn't dead sure whether I had him or he had me. But he was only a yearling then, you see, and I finally got him down."
Phil paused, a peculiar expression on his face. Patches waited silently.
"Do you know," said the cowboy, at last, hesitatingly, "I can't explain it--and I don't talk about it much, for it was the strangest thing that ever happened to me--but when I looked into that black stallion's eyes, and he looked me straight in the face, I never felt so sorry for anything in my life. I was sort of ashamed like--like--well, like I'd been caught holding up a church, you know, or something like that. We were all alone up there, just him and me, and while I was getting my wind, and we were sizing each other up, and I was feeling that way, I got to thinking what it all meant to him--to be broken and educated--and--well--civilized, you know; and I thought what a horse he would be if he was left alone to live as God made him, and so--well--" He paused again with an embarrassed laugh.
"You let him go?" cried Patches.
"It's God's truth, Patches. I couldn't do anything else--I just couldn't. One of the boys came up just in time to catch me turning him loose, and, of course, the whole outfit just naturally raised hell about it. You see, in a chase like that, we always bunch all we get and sell them off to the highest bidder, and every man in the outfit shares alike. The boys figured that the black was worth more than any five others that were caught, and so you couldn't blame them for feeling sore. But I fixed it with them by turning all my share into the pot, so they couldn't kick. That, you see, makes the black belong to me, in a way, and it's pretty generally understood that I propose to take care of him. There was a fellow, riding in the rodeo last fall, that took a shot at him one day, and--well--he left the country right after it happened and hasn't been seen around here since."
The cowboy grinned as his companion's laugh rang out.
"Do you know," Phil continued in a low tone, a few minutes later, "I believe that horse knows me yet. Whenever I am over in this part of the country I always have a look at him, if he happens to be around, and we visit a little, as we did to-day. I've got a funny notion that he likes it as much as I do, and, I can't tell how it is, but it sort of makes me feel good all over just to see him. I reckon you think I'm some fool," he finished with another short laugh of embarrassment, "but that's the way I feel--and that's why they call me 'Wild Horse Phil'."
For a little they rode in silence; then Patches spoke, gravely, "I don't know how to tell you what I think, Phil, but I understand, and from the bottom of my heart I envy you."
And the cowboy, looking at his companion, saw in the man's eyes something that reminded him of that which he had seen in the wild horse's eyes, that day when he had set him free. Had Patches, too, at some time in those days that were gone, been caught by the riata of circumstance or environment, and in some degree robbed of his God-inheritance? Phil smiled at the fancy, but, smiling, felt its truth; and with genuine sympathy felt this also to be true, that the man might yet, by the strength that was deepest within him, regain that which he had lost.
And so that day, as the man from the ranges and the man from the cities rode together, the feeling of kinship that each had instinctively recognized at their first meeting on the Divide was strengthened. They knew that a mutual understanding which could not have been put into words of any tongue or land was drawing them closer together.
A few days later the incident occurred that fixed their friendship--as they thought--for all time to come.