AS THEIR PONIES climbed up the steep acclivity toward the summit of the hogback along which Bryam and his hounds had preceded them, Dora Crowell and Bruce Marvel paused occasionally to rest their mounts and to pursue one of those disjointed conversations that are peculiar to mountain trails.
“I think you’re riding better every day, Bruce,” said the girl. “If you stay here long enough you ought to make a horseman.”
The man smiled. “Perhaps I’d do better if I had my own saddle,” he said.
“Now don’t be silly, Bruce. A flat saddle is all right in the park, but it would look perfectly ridiculous here.”
“Can you rope?” he asked.
“Of course not. Why?” she demanded.
“Then what good is that heavy frame and the big horn on your saddle to you?” he asked.
“Don’t be disagreeable,” she said.
“I’m not trying to be disagreeable,” he told her. “I’m just trying to find out.”
“Find out what?”
“Why it would be silly to put a light saddle on your horse and not make him carry twenty-five or thirty pounds extra all day over rough, steep trails.”
“What do they have these saddles for then?” she demanded.
“They have them for cowmen to use in their business. They have to be strong enough to hold a wild bull, and nobody needs one unless he can rope and hold a wild creature and expects to have to do it. I’ll tell you, Dora, there are a lot of fellows wearing chaps and ten gallon hats who have no business weighting their horses down with a stock saddle and a rope that they wouldn’t know how to use if they had to.”
“There are a lot of false alarms in the world,” she admitted. “I am one myself with all this cowboy scenery; but everyone knows it, including myself; so I am not deceiving anyone, but if I am a false alarm I am not the only one.”
“No. There is at least one other. He may fool the rest of them, but he doesn’t fool me.”
“The world is full of false alarms,” he said.
“But if people are going to try that they should know every little detail well enough to get away with it.”
“Like you posing as a cowgirl,” he grinned.
“Or you posing as an Eastern polo player,” she retorted.
“Why?” he asked innocently. “What makes you think that of me?”
“There are several things, but one is enough. You have your boot garters on backward.”
“I always was careless,” he said.
“That’s not carelessness, Bruce. That’s ignorance, and you know it.”
“You couldn’t expect me to come out here on a cattle ranch and admit that I’d never seen a horse before, could you?” he demanded.
“You’ve seen plenty of horses before,” she told him. “You may be a good actor, but you’re not quite good enough for me. I might not have guessed it, except for the boot garters, before today; but after riding up this mountain behind you where I could watch every move you made, I know.”
“What did you expect me to do, fall off?” he asked. .
“It’s none of my business, Bruce; and I won’t say anything more about it. I’m just one of those persons who hate to have anyone think that he is putting anything over on her.”
“This isn’t hunting mountain lion,” he said, and they rode on.
When, at last, they reached the trail that ran along the summit of the hogback, he drew rein again; and as the girl rode up, he pointed across the canyon to the summit of the opposite ridge. “There’s Kay and Blaine,” he said. “Which one of them is a false alarm? It’s not her, I’m sure of that.”
“These Western clothes are nothing new to her,” said Dora. “Her father owns ranches in California; and she has ridden all her life, Western and English both. It’s funny,” she added, “how so many of us want to be something else beside what we really are, and after all Kay is no better than the rest of us.”
“How’s that?” he asked.
“You don’t think that she wears overalls and blue work shirts at home, do you?” she demanded.
“Well, now, really, I hadn’t thought about it;” he replied, “but she certainly looks mighty cute in them.”
“If she had to wear overalls at home she’d be crazy to go somewhere where she could wear fine clothes. There’s a little false alarm in all of us. I remember a girl at school like that. Do you recall the night you came to the ranch? We were talking about the murder of a man by the name of Gunderstrom in New Mexico?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, this girl I’m speaking of was Gunderstrom’s daughter. She was about the sweetest and most natural girl I had ever met when she came to the school that I was attending just outside of Philadelphia. She was typically Western; but after awhile she seemed to get ashamed of that and became a regular false alarm, not only in her clothes, but in her manners and her speech. Then last year we roomed together; and I grew very fond of her, though I am afraid she is still a false alarm in some respects and always will be.”
“Just what do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean that she is trying to pretend to be something that she was not born to be.”
“I see,” he said.
“Perhaps it was her father’s fault. She told me that he would not let her come West after he sent her back East to school. He wanted her to be a fine lady and to forget everything connected with her childhood. I know, though, that at many times she was homesick for the West; and when I heard of her father’s death and telegraphed my condolences, I suggested that she come out here to the TF Ranch and spend the rest of the summer with me.”
“Is she coming?” asked Marvel, his casual tone masking his eagerness.
“She wired that she was going home first and that if she found that she could get away, she would come.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the baying of the hounds far ahead. “They’ve raised a lion,” he said. “We’d better be moving.”
The girl, thrilled and excited by the prospect of being in at a kill, spurred her horse into a gallop and brushed past him on the trail. “Careful, Dora,” he called after her. “This is no place to run a horse unless you have to.”
“Come on,” she called back, “I don’t want to miss anything.” But evidently he did not share her excitement for he moved on slowly at a walk.
His head was bowed in thought, which, however, had nothing to do with lions. Presently he glanced down at his legs, first at one, then at the other; and then presently he reached down and unbuckled one of his boot garters, removed it, held it up and looked at it. After a moment of silent scrutiny, he held it down against his leg, turning it first one way and then another. Then he shook his head sadly and threw it off into the brush, after which he removed the other and threw that away also.
When he finally came up with the rest of the party they were all gathered around a tree in which a mountain lion had come to bay. Kay and Cory were there with Bryam and Butts and the four hounds. They were trying to decide who should have the honor of shooting the quarry.
“Let both girls shoot at him at the same time,” said Blaine, “and Hi can be ready to plug him if they miss.”
“I don’t care anything about shooting him,” said Kay White. “I’d much rather see him alive. Doesn’t he look free and wild and splendid?”
“He just looks like a deer killer’ to me,” said Hi Bryam. “If it warn’t for them sons-o’-guns, we’d have plenty of deer in these hills.”
“Like they have in the Kaibab forest,” said Kay, “since they killed off all the lions—so many deer that there isn’t food enough for them and they’re starving to death.”
“Well if Kay doesn’t want to shoot him, I do,” said Dora.
She had already dismounted and stood ready with her rifle. Bryam was pointing out the best location for the shot and just where to stand to get the aim she wanted.
The others lolled in their saddles as Dora raised her rifle to her shoulder and took careful aim. At the sharp report of the weapon the horses all started nervously. Kay’s mount wheeled and jumped away; and as she sought to control him, one of her reins parted; and the frightened animal broke into a run down the rough summit of the ridge.
The horror of the situation must have been instantly apparent to every member of the party; for the narrow trail, rocky in places, winding among the scant, low brush, offered precarious footing to a walking horse carefully picking his way along, while further down it dropped steeply and eventually pitched into the canyon at so steep an angle that even a walking horse, going most carefully, might be lost if he stumbled.
All of these thoughts flashed through the minds of the men and the girl, who, apparently, were utterly helpless to avert the inevitable disaster toward which Kay’s horse was carrying her; yet almost at the instant that her horse bolted, Marvel put spurs to his own mount and, shaking the reins loose, gave him his head in pursuit.
“The damn fool!” exclaimed Cory Blaine.
“He’ll kill her and himself, too. Chasing him will only make that fool pony run faster. God, why did I bring that damn dude along?”
Whatever the outcome, nothing that they might do now could save them; so the entire party followed, forgetful of the dead lion and the worrying hounds.
Baldy was swift, and for that Marvel offered up a silent prayer of thanks. The man paid no attention to the trail, holding his horse straight after the flying pony, Baldy taking the low bushes in his strides, his iron shoes striking fire from the dangerous rocks.
He was gaining; and then he stumbled and nearly fell, but recovered himself and was away again.
“Stay with him, Kay,” shouted the man. “I’m coming.”
She recognized his voice; and her heart sank, for she had no confidence in his horsemanship nor in his ability in a crisis such as this. She wondered where Cory was, for she knew that Cory could have saved her.
Baldy was closing the distance between them. Now his nose was at the rump of the runaway.
Marvel held him to a parallel course that he might come up on the near side of Kay’s mount. A higher bush intervened, around which the trail swerved, but Marvel held his horse straight for the obstacle. A low word of encouragement, a light touch of the spur and Baldy cleared the bush; nor did he lose his stride, and now his nose was at Kay’s knees.
“Get ready!” said the man to the girl, and again his spurs touched Baldy’s side and he spoke in his flattened ears.
Great with courage is the heart of a good horse, and few there are that will fail a man in a crisis; nor did Baldy fail, and his next jump took him abreast of the runaway.
Marvel encircled Kay’s waist. “Put your arms around my neck,” he said, “and kick your feet free of the stirrups.” Then he straightened up and lifted her out of the saddle and spoke quietly to Baldy as he reined him in, while the runaway, in his next jump, stumbled and fell, rolling over and over before he came to rest, stunned and prostrate.
Baldy, thoroughly excited by the race, seemed little inclined to stop; and for a while it looked to those behind and to the girl clinging to the man’s neck that, handicapped as he was, he would be unable to control him; but at last the great bit and the strength of the rider prevailed, and Baldy came to a stop, trembling and blowing.
Gently Marvel lowered the girl to the ground. Then he dismounted and walked around his horse to her side. She was trembling; and there were tears in her eyes; and he put his arm about her again to support her, for she seemed to be about to fall.
“All in?” he asked.
“Pretty much,” she replied.
“I’ll look after your horse myself after this,” he said. “This would never have happened if any one had been watching him.”
“I don’t know what to say to you,” she said. “It seems so silly to try to thank anyone for such a thing.”
“If you want to thank anyone,” he said, “thank Baldy. That is sure some pony. I knew he was fast. I could tell that after I saw him run every morning when they topped him for me; and I guessed that he had the heart, too. These horses that like to play usually have plenty of heart.”
“I think you were the one that had the heart,” she said; “for you knew that at any minute you might be killed, but Baldy didn’t know that.”
“Those things sure happen fast,” he said. “A man doesn’t have any time to think. Hold Baldy a second while I go over and have a look at that horse of yours.”
She took the reins; and as he walked back toward the animal that was still lying where he had fallen she followed behind him.
The other members of the party were riding up, and they all met close to Kay’s pony.
The animal lay on its side, breathing heavily, its legs outstretched. Marvel’s first glance at it convinced him that none of its legs was broken. Blood was running from a small cut in the top of the animal’s head; but he did not appear to be badly injured in any way, only too stunned, or perhaps too frightened to try to arise.
Marvel seized the broken bridle reins and urged the horse to get up; and as he scrambled to his feet, it was apparent that he was far from being crippled.
“Why he’s not hurt much at all, is he?” exclaimed Kay.
“These cow ponies are pretty tough babies,” said Marvel. “You’d have to hit this fellow with an axe to knock him out, and you’d be lucky if you didn’t break the axe.”
Dora and Cory had dismounted and walked over to Kay. Dora threw her arms about the girl and kissed her. “Lord! Kay,” she exclaimed, “I guess I was worse scared than you;” then she sat down in the dirt and commenced to cry.
The men had gathered around Kay’s pony, which seemed to offer some relief from their embarrassed silence. Blaine did not look at Marvel; for he was recalling his disparaging prophecy of a few moments before, while Butts was trying to convince himself that the dude’s success had been only a matter of accident. Hi Bryam took a fresh chew and remounted his horse.
“I reckon I’ll ride back after the dogs,” he said. “Butts can come along and give me a lift with the lion, if it’s still there. I seen it fall all right, but by golly I don’t know whether it was killed or not.”
As Butts mounted and followed Bryam, Marvel led Kay’s pony down the trail a few yards and then back again.
“He’s all right,” he said. Then he fastened the broken end of the bridle rein to the bit with a peculiar knot that went unnoticed by all but Cory Blaine. He looked to the stirrups and the cinches next, loosening the latter and settling the saddle into its proper place with a shake. “Good as new,” he said, as he tightened the cinches again.
“You are not going to ride him again, Kay, are you?” asked Dora.
Marvel was untying the coiled neck rope from the pommel of Kay’s saddle. “You can ride him,” he said, “but I’m going to lead him.”
“That’s a rather humiliating way to ride into camp,” said Kay.
“But safe,” said Marvel. “He’s still scared.” And so they returned to camp with few breaks in the silence that the exigencies of the trail and their moods induced.
Cory Blaine had ridden in moody silence. He had scarcely spoken a word since the accident. He was helping Bud with the horses now; and as he swung the saddles across the pole of the chuck wagon and turned the horses loose to graze, he seemed buried in a brown study. When the last horse had trotted away, he took the broken bridle from the horn of Kay’s saddle and examined it closely. “Look at this, Bud,” he said presently. “Did you ever see a paper collared, cracker fed dude that could tie a knot like that?”
“No,” said Bud, after examining Marvel’s handiwork.
“Neither did I,” said Blaine; “and you should see the son-of-a-gun ride,” he spat with disgust; “and I’ve been topping his horse for him every morning.”
“What’s his game?”
“I wish I knew,” said Cory Blaine.