BEFORE DAWN broke the cook was astir, growling and grumbling among his pots and kettles; and then Cory Blaine awoke and reached for his boots, but he found only one. He looked about the camp in all directions and then he reached over and shook Marvel by the shoulder. “Say,” he demanded, as the sleeper awoke, “who the hell’s boot did you throw at that coyote?”
Marvel sat up and turned back the edge of his bed, revealing a pair of natty English riding boots. “By golly, Blaine,” he exclaimed, “I’m awfully sorry. I must have thrown one of yours by mistake. I’ll get into mine and go out and find it for you.”
“It’s funny how you could get hold of mine instead of your own,” grumbled Cory.
“Isn’t it?” agreed Marvel.
After Bruce had pulled on his boots he searched the camp, but no boot could he find. He questioned the cook and the cook helped him in the search, but all to no avail. Then Cory Blaine joined them with one foot bootless.
“The son-of-a-gun must have grabbed it and run off with it,” suggested the cook.
“I sure am sorry,” said Marvel.
Blaine mumbled something about damn fool tenderfeet and hobbled back to roll up his bed.
At breakfast Cory and Bruce were the objects of a great deal of good-natured raillery, which the former seemed to have considerable difficulty in appreciating.
“I’d loan you one of my boots,” said Bruce, “but I’m afraid it wouldn’t fit you.”
“I wouldn’t be buried in one of them things,” replied Blaine surlily.
Kay White did not enter into the joking. She was very quiet and often she watched Bruce Marvel, as though she were studying him.
When it came time to mount, Marvel stood holding Baldy by the neck rope.
“Are you going to top him for me, Butts?” he asked.
“No,” growled Butts, “I aint got time.”
Marvel turned to Bud. “How about you, Bud?” he asked.
Bud grinned. “Aw, you can ride him all right,” he said. “Anyway, we aint had no fun for a long while.”
“I don’t like to ask Cory to top him,” said Bruce, “because he’s only got one boot.”
“Why don’t you ask some of the ladies,” suggested Butts. “Like as not, they aint afraid.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to try it myself then,” said Marvel.
“What sort of flowers do you want?” demanded Butts.
Bruce coiled the halter rope and gathered the reins in his left hand. He spoke in a low voice to Baldy and stroked his neck; then he swung easily into the saddle. Baldy did nothing. It was a great disappointment to everyone, except Marvel.
“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Benson Talbot in an aggrieved tone.
“I don’t think you’re a bit nice,” said Dora Crowell to Marvel. “You might have got thrown once, at least.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Bruce. “I’ll fall off him, anyway, if you say so.”
“I wish you would,” muttered Blaine under his breath, “and break your fool neck.”
As they started out Kay rode beside Bruce. He tried to engage the girl in conversation, but soon saw that she did not care to talk. and desisted; nor was it until the party had stretched out along the trail and the two were alone that she broke her silence.
“After I got to my tent last night, I did not feel like sleeping,” she said; “and so I went out a little way from camp and sat on a rock that I had noticed there before dark. In front of me was the camp, illuminated by the camp fire. Behind me lay the hills, mysterious under the starlight. I saw you pick something up and throw it into the fire. Until this morning I did not know what it was. I heard you yell at something, as though to chase it away; but there was nothing there. I was so surprised last night that I just sat there until the camp had quieted down again before I returned to my tent. I cannot imagine why you did it, but I want to tell you that I think it was a small and petty thing to do. I should think that you would be ashamed of yourself. Even if you were a little child, playing a joke, it would still be detestable.” Her voice was low, but her tone touched like ice. He could see that she was thoroughly disgusted.
“I am sorry that you saw it.” That was all he said.
The party had gotten an early start that morning with the intention of riding all the way through to the ranch, leaving the chuck wagon, which they no longer needed, to trail along in at its own gait; so that the same trip that had required three days going up into the mountains required only two coming out.
The hunters arrived at the home camp in the middle of the afternoon; and after greeting those who had been left behind, each repaired to his room to clean up and to read his mail.
Bruce Marvel had none; so he was soon out again, wandering about the ranch yard. Presently Blaine emerged from his quarters and walked down toward the corral. He had donned a pair of old and well worn boots -boots that had once been resplendent with patent leather designs in two colors embellishing their tops and with little brass hearts set in the center of each heel.
As Bruce Marvel followed Cory Blaine into the dusty corral, his eyes were on the ground and he appeared to be absorbed in deep meditation; yet he was humming a gay little tune, an occupation which was so much at variance with his accustomed quiet that it elicited a comment from Blaine. “What’s ticklin’ you?” he demanded. “Get a letter from your gal?”
“No,” said Marvel, “I haven’t got any gal; but I just got some good news.”
Blaine made no comment, but he had stopped as though he had something more to say to Marvel; however, it was the latter who spoke first. “Can you rent me a fresh horse, Blaine?” he asked.
“What do you want with a horse?” demanded the superintendent. “You’ve been ridin’ all day.”
“I just want to ride around a bit and see if I can find me another horse’s tooth,” explained Bruce. “There must be plenty of old skulls around here somewhere.”
“Sure they is,” said Blaine, “if you can find them.”
“I can try,” said Marvel. “I don’t feel safe without a horse’s tooth—greatest luck charm in the world.”
“I aint got no very gentle horse up now,” explained Blaine. “They are all out in pasture, and it might take a half an hour to get ’em up.”
“What have you got?” asked Bruce.
“Nuthin’ but an old crowbait that we use for wranglin’ and a colt one of the boys is bustin’.”
“That sorrel there?” asked Marvel, indicating a horse standing in a stall in the stable.
“I saw one of the boys riding him before we went on the lion hunt,” said Marvel. “He didn’t seem very wild.”
“You can take him if you want, but if you have to walk home don’t blame me none.”
“I’m not going far anyway,” said Marvel; “so it won’t be a long walk.”
“Just as you say,” said Blaine. “I’ll saddle him for you.”
He led the animal out of the stable, and Marvel held him while the other man saddled and bridled him.
“I’ll take him outside of the corral,” said Blaine. “You’d better mount him out there where there’s lots of room. You may need it.”
Marvel stroked the colt’s neck and spoke to him as he had with Baldy; then he eased himself into the saddle, slowly and gently, and started off down the road at a walk.
Blaine stood watching him, his brows knitted as the horse and rider grew smaller and smaller in the distance. They were almost out of sight when Blaine straightened up expectantly—the colt had commenced to pitch.
Blaine grinned. “I guess that damn dude will walk home all right,” he muttered.
The sorrel was pitching and he was pitching hard. Even from a distance, the watcher could see that; and he could see that he was bringing into play every broncho artifice for unseating his rider short of throwing himself to the ground.
Gradually the smile faded from Blaine’s lips, and there crept into his eyes an expression of astonishment not unmixed with trouble. “The son-of-a-gun,” he muttered, or something that sounded like that; but whether he referred to the horse or the rider, one may not definitely know.
Perhaps the sorrel pitched for four or five minutes—it seemed like fifteen to Cory Blaine—and then the rider evidently got the animal’s head up and the two disappeared around the shoulder of a hill, the horse moving at an easy lope.
“The son-of-a-gun!”—repeated Cory Blaine; and then, “I never did like that hombre anyway.”
Bruce Marvel rode hard and fast, and he did not appear to be looking for horses’ teeth along the way. The sun was setting when he rode into the railroad town at which, scarcely a week before, he had left the train and taken the buckboard for the ranch.
He tied his horse to the rail before the general store in which the postoffice was located; and after purchasing some stationery and a postage stamp, he wrote a brief letter, sealed and addressed the envelope, and dropped it into the slot for outgoing mail.
That he was the object of the amused interest of the few people whom he encountered in the store and on the street did not appear to concern him at all; and after watering the sorrel and readjusting the blanket and cinches, he mounted and started back through the growing dusk toward the ranch, where the guests were already sitting down to supper.
“Where is Bruce?” asked Dora Crowell, when, the meal half over, he had not appeared.
“He went out hunting horses’ teeth,” said Blaine. “I reckon he didn’t have much luck.”
“Who ever heard of a horse’s tooth bringing good luck?” demanded Birdie Talbot.
“No one,” said her husband.
“I think he’s crazy,” said Birdie.
“Oh, he seemed a very nice young man,” said Miss Pruell.
“Birdie thinks anyone’s crazy who doesn’t play bridge with her,” said Benson.
“Nothing of the sort,” snapped Birdie. “I just think they’re a little peculiar.”
“Do you remember the English lord, Birdie, who made such a wonderful bridge partner at Fishkill-on-the-Hudson that summer?”
“That might have happened to anyone,” snapped Mrs. Talbot.
“Birdie was always quoting him as an authority on bridge and everything else until they came and took him away. He had escaped from Matteawan.”
“And wasn’t he an English lord at all?” asked Miss Pruell.
“No,” said Talbot, “he had been a school teacher in Poughkeepsie until the night he killed his wife for trumping his ace.”
Experience had taught Cory Blaine that his Eastern guests especially enjoyed the stories and the rough humor of the cowhands, and so it was customary for some of the men to stroll up to the house during the evening and join the group upon the wide veranda.