IT WAS a cold morning that broke fair and beautiful as the hunters struck their camp. The horses felt the cinches with humped backs. Baldy was even more convex than usual.
“Aren’t you going to top him for me this morning, Blaine?” asked Marvel, as Cory started to mount his own horse.
“I guess you don’t need nobody to top your horses for you,” said Blaine shortly.
“He looks like he was going to buck for sure this morning,” said Marvel.
“I’ll top him for you, Mister,” said Butts.
“Thanks,” said Marvel. “I certainly don’t want to get an arm or leg broken way up here in the mountains.”
“Here, hold my horse,” said Butts.
He swung gently into Marvel’s saddle; and, true to form, Baldy took two or three jumps and bolted for a few hundred yards. Butts rode him on a little farther, and those at the camp saw him dismount and pick something up from the ground. Then he remounted and returned to camp at a lope.
“What did you find?” asked Marvel.
“Oh, I thought I seen something,” said Butts, “but I didn’t.” He dismounted and looked to Baldy’s cinches, readjusting the saddle and straightening out the blanket back of the cantle, raising the skirt of the saddle to do so; then he turned the horse over to Marvel, but it was noticeable to all that Baldy had more of a hump now than before. In fact, he was moving about nervously, and seemed to be of a mind to start bucking before he was mounted.
As Butts threw his leg over his own horse, he winked at Bud. “It ought to be a large mornin’,” he said.
Marvel raised the skirt of his saddle and reached under the blanket. When he withdrew his hand he held it out to Butts. “This yours?” he asked, and opening his hand he revealed a bur.
Butts tried to look innocent. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” said Marvel, dropping the bur to the ground and mounting Baldy, from whose back the hump had immediately disappeared with the removal of the bur.
The day’s ride was to include an excursion to a point of scenic interest that would profitably occupy the time of the mounted members of the party while the chuck wagon was moving by a more direct route to the next camp.
As they started out, Cory Blaine succeeded in pairing himself off with Kay White. The Talbots rode together, as did Bud and Butts, leaving Dora and Bruce as companions of the trail. Bert Adams rode ignominiously in the chuck wagon.
“Well, how is the mysterious Mr. Marvel this morning?” asked the girl.
“Just as mysterious as an old shoe,” he replied. “Or a ladder,” she suggested.
“I think you must be one of those writer folks,” he said.
“What makes you think that?”
“You’re just hell bent on making a story out of nothing.”
“Now don’t disappoint me,” she said. “I am thrilled to death with mysteries in real life.”
“Well, you just go on thrilling while you can, Dora,” he said with a laugh; “for you’re going to find that a tired business man, off on his vacation, aint much of a range to hunt thrills on.”
“Meaning Benson Talbot?” she asked.
“There’s not a thrill in him,” said Dora; “but he’s the only business man in the outfit.”
“How do you reckon I live, then?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but if you’re a business man, I’m a cowgirl.”
“I don’t wonder you’re suspicious,” he said.
“Why?” she demanded.
“I’ve been reading a lot about politics in Pennsylvania, and I shouldn’t blame you if you didn’t trust nobody.”
“There you go again,” she said.
“Go again? What do you mean?”
“When you are off your guard your English slips.”
He flushed slightly. “Maybe that comes from associating with cowgirls and other illiterate people,” he said.
“And maybe that also accounts for the fact that although you are supposed to be a tenderfoot, you knew immediately this morning that Butts had put a bur under Baldy’s saddle.”
“Oh, pshaw,” he said, “anybody could see that.”
“I didn’t,” she said, “and I was just as near to him as you.”
“Maybe I am more observing,” he suggested.
“Oh, not so very,” she told him, “or you wouldn’t have put your boot garters on backwards. By the way, where are they?”
“I reckon they fell off yesterday when I was chasing Kay’s pony.”
“Why don’t you tell the truth?” she demanded. “You couldn’t figure them out, and so you threw them away.”
“I always did think they were silly things,” he said. “I never wear them at home.”
“I’ll bet you never did. Come on, Bruce, ’fess up. You’re not what you pretend to be, are you?”
“I don’t know what you think I am,” he said; “but perhaps it’s a good thing that I am not whatever it is, for I have heard tell that in this part of the country curiosity was sometimes a very fatal disease.”
He smiled as he spoke, but the girl caught an undertone of seriousness that sobered her. “Forgive me,” she said. “I have been impossible, but really I meant nothing by it. I didn’t wish to pry into your private affairs.”
“That’s all right, Dora,” he said with a laugh, “and you needn’t be afraid. I’m not going to knife you in the back.”
“No,” she said, “I know you wouldn’t; but I should hate to get too curious about Butts, or even Cory Blaine.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Perhaps it is just a woman’s intuition.”
“Well, you must have seen a lot of them,” he said. “You’ve been here some time, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I have; but they have not always been here all the time. They go away occasionally, some times for a week or ten days, Cory’s looking after cattle interests.”
“He has cattle interests?” asked Marvel.
“And a mine, too, he says,” replied Dora.
“Well, he hasn’t been looking after them much lately,” said Marvel.
“They got back from a trip about three weeks before you came to the ranch,” she said; “and it must have been a hard one, too, for they were all in for a couple of days afterward. I guess Cory’s a pretty hard rider, too. His horse dropped dead in the corral the morning they got in from that last trip. Bud told me about it.”
“Wasn’t Bud with them?” asked Marvel.
“No, he stays here and sort of looks after the dude ranch for Cory while he is away.”
“Bud seems to be a pretty nice fellow.”
“Yes, he is a nice boy,” said the girl. “Everybody likes Bud.”
They rode on for a while in silence that was finally broken by the girl. “I can’t understand why it is,” she said, “that I have that peculiar feeling about Cory Blaine. He has always been pleasant and accommodating, but away down inside somewhere I don’t seem to be able to trust him. What do you think of him, Bruce?”
“Oh, I have no reason to have anything against him,” replied the man. “He’s always been decent enough to me, though it has probably been hard work for him to be decent to a tenderfoot.”
“You can’t have much use for Butts though; he has certainly been nasty enough to you.”
“Butts is like having fleas,” he replied. “They may annoy you, but you can’t really hate them. A thing’s got to have brains before a man could hate it. When the Lord was dishing out brains, He must have sort of overlooked Butts.”
Dora laughed. “When you first came to the ranch I used to think that maybe He had overlooked you, too, Bruce,” she said; “but I know now that He didn’t.”
“Thanks,” said Marvel.
At the head of the little party, trailing at comfortable distances through the hills, rode Cory Blaine and Kay White. The man had been unusually quiet, even taciturn; but the girl, alert and eager for each new beauty of this unaccustomed trail, was glad for the long silences.
Sometimes her thoughts reverted to the harrowing incident of yesterday’s lion hunt. Annoyingly persistent was the memory of a strong arm about her and of her own arms about a man’s neck. The recollection induced no thrills, perhaps, but it had aroused a lively consciousness of the man that she had not felt before. It reminded her of the strength and courage and resourcefulness that his act had revealed, transforming him from a soon-to-be-forgotten incident in her life to a position of importance, where he would doubtless remain enshrined in her memory always. She had never given him much consideration. He had been agreeable in a self-effacing sort of way, and he was undeniably good-looking; but until yesterday he had never greatly aroused her interest.
We have all had similar experiences with chance acquaintances who were but additional names in the chaotic files of memory until some accident, perhaps trivial, precipitated them into the current of our lives, never to be entirely lost sight of or forgotten again, or perhaps to influence or direct our courses through rough or tranquil waters.
Her reveries were interrupted when Cory Blaine finally broke his long silence. “I can’t help thinking,” he said.
She waited for him to continue, but he did not. “Thinking what?” she asked.
“Thinking that everything is wrong. A fellow starts wrong and then he never gets the right break.”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“I never saw a girl like you before,” he continued, “and now that I have found you, it is too late. I am what I am, and a fellow can’t change in a minute. I might grow to be more like your kind, but that would take too long.”
“You are all right as you are,” she said.
“No, I’m not. If I was, you might love me as I love you.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” she said. “Love is unreasoning. It is purely instinctive. People are attracted to one another in that way or they are not. Haven’t you often wondered lots of times what some married people saw in their mates that would have caused them to select the one they did above all others in the world?”
“I’ve wondered that about nearly all of them,” admitted Blaine, “especially Benson Talbot; and that offers me some encouragement. One of them must have been attracted to the other first, like I am attracted to you; and then in some way the other one was won over. Don’t you suppose, Kay, that I might win you?”
She shook her head. “No, Cory,” she said. “I do not love you and that is all there is to it. Please don’t talk about it anymore. It can only make us both unhappy.”
“All right,” he said, “I won’t talk about it;” and then under his breath he muttered, “But by God, I’m going to have you.”
They stopped presently in a grove of trees beside a mountain stream to rest and water their horses. Some of them had brought sandwiches; and when these were eaten, they mounted and rode on again; but this time Kay rode beside Bruce Marvel, and it was evident to Cory Blaine that the girl had arranged it so deliberately. He found himself paired off now with Birdie Talbot; and, being a good business man, he sought to be agreeable, though in his heart he had suddenly conceived an intense loathing for her, from her high heeled shoes to her ill-fitted sombrero.