THE TF RANCH in Porico County, Arizona, had fallen upon bad days. For three generations its great ranges, its wooded mountains, its widely scattered streams and water holes had remained in one family; but the males of the third generation, educated at Eastern colleges, softened by contact with the luxuries of large cities, had left their vast principality in the hands of salaried managers and contemporaneously the cattle business had suffered one of its periodic slumps.
It is not necessary to go into the harrowing details that are all too familiar to cattle men. Several years before, title had passed to a group of banks that held paper far in excess of the present value of the property, which, in order to maintain grazing rights on Government land, had been forced into the operation of the ranch while they sought frantically and futilely for a buyer all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
An experienced cattle man was operating the business for them in an endeavor to make expenses; and following his policy of taking advantage of every opportunity to augment the income, he had leased the home ranch together with the hunting and fishing privileges of the entire property to Cory Blaine, who had thus become a pioneer in the dude ranch business.
It takes time and capital to establish a going business, and Cory Blaine had discovered that a dude ranch was no exception to the rule.
For two years it had been rather hard sledding, but at last he felt that the venture was on the high road to success. The number of his guests was satisfactory and so were their bank accounts, but even so Cory Blaine was not perfectly satisfied.
He wanted more than a living. He wanted big money; and the more he came in contact with people who had it, the more determined he had become to have it himself; for Cory Blaine’s ambition was developed almost to the point of a disease.
He was sitting late one afternoon upon the front porch of the ranch house with some of his guests when a buckboard swung into sight on the dusty road that wound for miles through the property down to the railroad.
“Here comes the tenderfoot,” said a man from Boston, who, three weeks previously, had never been west of Philadelphia.
“I hope he can play bridge,” said a fat lady in khaki bloomers and high heeled shoes.
“I’m just hoping he can stay on a horse without help,” said Blaine.
The buckboard that was approaching, drawn by a team of bronchos, was the result of Cory Blaine’s instinct for showmanship. He used it exclusively to transport his guests between the railroad and the ranch house, feeling that it lent an atmosphere that no automobile could induce.
The man who drove the buckboard was also a showman, as was evidenced by the magnificent style in which he drew up in front of the ranch house, covering the last two or three hundred yards at a gallop, setting the bronchos on their haunches in a cloud of dust at the finish.
A couple of cowhands had sauntered over from the bunk house when the buckboard had first appeared in the distance; and as Bruce Marvel alighted, they were unroping his trunk at the back of the vehicle while they sized him up with inward contempt. All other eyes were upon the new arrival as Cory Blaine descended from the porch and took him by the hand.
“You’d be Mr. Marvel, I reckon,” said Blaine.
“Yes,” replied the newcomer.
“My name’s Blaine,” said the host. “I’m glad to meet you.”
“Thanks,” said Marvel.
“Have a good trip?”
“Yes, but a dirty one. I’d like to go to my room and clean up.”
“Sure,” said Blaine. “Come ahead. The boys will be right up with your stuff,” and he led the way into the house, followed by his new guest.
“Here ye are,” said Blaine, opening the door of a small box-like room. “Guess you’ll find everything here you need. When yer done come on out and meet the rest of the folks. We feed at six o’clock. It’s pretty near that now.”
“By the way,” said Marvel as Blaine was leaving, “shall I dress for dinner?”
“Aint you dressed now?” asked the other.
“I mean do the men wear dinner clothes? tuxedos, you know.”
Blaine tried to hide the pity in his heart as he explained that that was not at all necessary; but when he closed the door behind him he grinned; and upon the other side of the door his guest grinned, too.
“What do you suppose?” asked Blaine as he joined the others on the porch.
“What?” asked a girl in overalls.
“He wants to know if he should put on a spike tailed coat and a stove pipe hat for dinner.”
“My God!” exclaimed a young woman, who was rigged up in an outfit that would have turned Tom Mix green with envy. “He’s got a lot to learn.”
“Perhaps,” said the blond girl in overalls, “he is just trying to be himself and act natural. You know there are a lot of people who dress for dinner every night.”
“When you are in Rome, do as the Romans do,” said the man from Boston.
“Give him a chance,” said the blond girl, “and don’t forget that on the first camping trip we took after you arrived you brought along green silk pajamas.”
“Oh, come now, Kay,” he expostulated. “That’s different.”
“Did you notice his luggage?” said the Tom Mix girl. “Brand new and his clothes, too. He must have bought a whole new outfit just to rough it in.”
“I hope he can play bridge,” said the fat lady.
“I’ll bet he plays ping-pong,” said Bert Adams, the man from Boston.
“I think he is real nice looking,” interjected Miss Pruell, Kay White’s spinster aunt.
Twenty minutes later silence fell upon the company as Marvel came out onto the porch—one of those uncomfortable silences that may last but a moment and still seem endless.
This one Cory Blaine relieved by introducing Marvel to his other guests, and a moment later the clatter of an iron pipe on a metal triangle announced the evening meal.
At the long table Bruce Marvel found himself seated between Kay White, the blond in overalls, and Dora Crowell, the Tom Mix girl.
He had noticed the difference in the apparel of the two girls; and though he was duly impressed by the ornate trappings of Dora, he thought that the other girl somehow looked more genuine in her blue overalls pulled over high heeled boots, her denim workshirt, and a bandanna handkerchief knotted loosely about her throat. He surmised that she belonged here and this supposition prompted his first question.
“This is your home, Miss White?” he asked.
“It commences to look like it,” she replied. “I have been here two months now, but my real home is in California.”
“What time do we start tomorrow, Cory?” asked Adams.
“Almost any time you folks want to,” replied Blaine. “The chuck wagon went on ahead today as far as Mill Creek. That’s only about fifteen miles. I didn’t want to make it too hard the first day.”
“We’re going on a lion hunt,” Kay White explained to Marvel. “We had planned on leaving yesterday, but when Cory got your telegram he decided to wait so that you could go along with us.”
“Can you ride?” demanded Dora Crowell.
“I guess I can manage,” replied Marvel, “but I suppose these cow horses aren’t much like polo ponies.”
“Do you play bridge, Mr. Marvel?” demanded Mrs. Talbot.
“Do you play bridge here?” he asked.
“I can’t get any one to play with me,” complained the fat lady. “Those that play say they get enough of it at home.”
“Well I suppose that’s true,” agreed Marvel. “What we want here is a change.”
“Then I suppose you won’t play with me either,” whined Mrs. Talbot.
“We might get up a poker game,” suggested Mr. Talbot.
“You would suggest that, Benson,” snapped his wife. “You know I perfectly loathe poker.”
“I wouldn’t mind learning how to play poker,” said Marvel.
“I reckon we’d be glad to teach you,” said Cory Blaine with a wink at Talbot.
The buckboard that had brought Marvel had also brought the mail, and after supper the news of the day was the principal topic of conversation.
“Is there anything about the Gunderstrom murder in your paper, Cory?” asked Dora Crowell, and then to Marvel, who was near her, “I went to school with Mr. Gunderstrom’s daughter in Philadelphia.”
“They haven’t found that fellow Mason yet,” said Blaine. “He’s been missing for three weeks—disappeared the day after the murder.”
“You see,” explained Dora to Marvel, “this man Mason was a neighbor of Gunderstrom’s, and they’d been fighting over a piece of land for nearly twenty years.”
“And they think Mason killed him?” asked Marvel.
“They know it,” replied Dora. “A man called up the sheriff’s office on the telephone and told them so.”
“Mason was a deputy sheriff,” explained Kay White, “and he took advantage of his office to pretend that he was looking for the murderer so that he could get away himself.”
“Clever at that,” commented Adams.
“A man who was well enough known to be a deputy sheriff ought not to be hard to find,” commented Marvel.
“It says here in the paper,” said Blaine, “that his horse showed up on the range a day or two ago; so that looks like he probably caught a train and beat it out of the country.”
“He must be a terrible man,” said Dora Crowell. “He shot poor Mr. Gunderstrom right through the heart as he lay asleep on his bed.”
“Between the eyes,” corrected Cory Blaine.
“It didn’t say that in the paper,” said Dora.
“Oh,” said Blaine, “well, maybe it was in the heart.”
Bruce Marvel rose. “What time are you starting in the morning?” he asked. “I think I’ll be going to bed now.”
“Breakfast at seven,” said Blaine.
“Seven sharp,” said Mr. Talbot.
“And we’ll be leaving right after breakfast,” said Blaine.
The entire party was assembled at the breakfast table when Bruce Marvel entered the dining room the following morning. Dora Crowell voiced an audible “My God” while Mrs. Talbot choked in an effort to control herself. Cory Blaine dissembled whatever surprise he felt, for it was his business not to notice the various eccentricities of dress evidenced by his guests, so long as they paid their bills.
“Good morning,” said Marvel. “I’m sorry to be late, but I had trouble getting into my boots. My man usually helps me, you know.”
No comment seemed to occur to anyone at the breakfast table; and so, amid silence, Marvel took his place between Kay White and Dora Crowell. He was arrayed in flagrantly new English riding boots, light tan English riding breeches, and a white polo shirt. But even more remarkable than his outfit was the fact that he did not seem to realize the incongruity of it. Apparently he was the only person at the breakfast table who was perfectly at ease.
If Cory Blaine realized the necessity of overlooking the foibles of his guests, his diplomacy was not always shared by the cowhands who herded the dudes on range; and when, shortly after breakfast, Bruce Marvel strode past the bunkhouse down toward the corrals he must need have been totally deaf to have missed all of the flippant remarks his sartorial effulgence precipitated.
The men were already leaving for the corrals to fetch up and saddle the horses, and Marvel soon had company.
“You aint aimin’ to ride in them things, Mister, are you?” asked one of the men.
“That’s what they were made for,” replied Marvel.
“Them thar panties weren’t never made to ride in. You can’t tell me that,” said a bow-legged puncher called Butts.
“You’ll get ’em all dirty,” opined another.
“And then what’ll your mama say!” chimed in a third.
“They look funny to you, don’t they?” asked Marvel good naturedly.
“They sure do, Mister,” said Butts.
“That all depends upon who is doing the looking,” said Marvel. “Did you ever look at yourself in a mirror?”
The other men laughed then at Butts’ expense.
“What’s wrong with me?” he demanded angrily.
“You’re just funny looking,” said Marvel with a laugh. “The only difference between us is that you don’t know you’re funny looking.”
“It’s a damn good thing for some of these dudes around here that they’re guests,” growled Butts.
“You needn’t let that cramp your style any,” said Marvel.
“Aw, cheese it,” said one of the other men. “A guy’s got a right to wear whatever he wants around here. It aint none of nobody’s business.”
“But there ought to be a law against them funny panties,” vouchsafed another.
“You fellows talk too damn much,” said a voice behind them. It was Cory Blaine, and he was scowling angrily. “Shake a leg now and get them horses caught up and saddled. We can’t hang around here all day making funny cracks.”
“Will you see that they get me a nice, gentle horse?” said Marvel.
“Sure, I’ll fetch him up a nice, gentle one,” said Butts. “There’s old Crowhop, for instance.”
“You ride Crowhop yourself,” said Blaine. “Fetch up Baldy for Mr. Marvel. Baldy is all right,” he said turning to his guest, “except that he always wants to take a few jumps the first thing in the morning. I’ll top him for you myself, and after that he’ll be as gentle as a kitten.”
“Thanks,” said Marvel. “I certainly shouldn’t care to ride a bad horse.”
“No, polo ponies don’t buck, I guess,” said Blaine.