BRUCE MARVEL was a few minutes late for breakfast the following morning, and all of the guests were seated when he entered the dining room. He greeted them with the quiet smile with which they had become so familiar, and a casual word here and there in reply to the banal remarks to the accompaniment of which a group of human beings usually starts the day. Cory Blaine alone did not look up as he entered, a fact which did not seem to abash Marvel in the least.
“Good morning, Cory,” he said cheerily.
“Mornin’,” grumbled Blaine.
“Ready for the paper chase, Bruce?” asked Kay White.
“What paper chase?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s so, you weren’t at supper last night, were you?” continued the girl. “We arranged it all then. We are going to have a paper chase today.”
“I’m sorry,” spoke up Cory, “but I can’t go today. I’ve got to attend to a little business, and I figured on letting Bud take you all over to Crater Mountain. There aint any of you seen that, and it’s worth seein’. Tomorrow we’ll have the paper chase.”
“One day is as good as another,” said the girl, “and I’ve always wanted to see the crater of the old volcano.”
“Pshaw!” exclaimed Marvel. “I was figurin’ that Bud could help me find a horse’s tooth this morning.”
Blaine looked up at him in disgust and then suddenly the light of inspiration shone in his eyes. “Why that can be fixed up all right,” he said good-naturedly. “Butts can just as well take the folks over to Crater Mountain, and you and Bud can go tooth huntin’.”
“Oh, that’s mean,” said Dora; “why don’t you come along with us?”
“Maybe I’ll find the tooth and catch up with you,” he said; but his thoughts were not upon his words; instead they were occupied with the wish that Kay White had said that instead of Dora Crowell.
After breakfast they all went to the corral while the men caught up the horses for the day. There was the usual rush and movement and excitement that seems never to pall even upon those most accustomed to seeing it. The cleverness of the horses and the cleverness of the men, the kaleidoscopic changes of form and color, the smell of horses, the clashing hoofs, the dust of the corral all combine to produce a spell that lingers forever in the memory.
Blaine was issuing instructions to his men, selecting for the riders horses that had been left at home during the lion hunt.
“I think I’ll ride Baldy,” said Marvel. “I won’t be doing much today.”
“Suit yourself,” said Blaine. “Bud, you’re going with Mr. Marvel hunting teeth. Butts will take the folks over to Crater Mountain.”
“You better pack along a thirty-thirty,” said Butts to Bud. “Some of them teeth is pretty wild. I knew a tenderfoot once who come out from the East huntin’ teeth. He went out alone without a gun and he got bit all up.”
It being customary to laugh at such witticisms, everyone now laughed, including Marvel, who stood speculatingly scrutinizing Butts’ bowed legs. “I wish Butts was going with me instead of Bud,” he said.
“Why?” demanded Butts. “I aint no wet nurse.”
“But you’re just what a fellow needs when he’s hunting teeth,” insisted Marvel.
“How do you make that out?” asked Butts.
“Well, you see, I’d take along a gunny sack and stretch it between your legs and chase the teeth in.”
“Well I won’t be along,” said Butts; “so you better shoot ’em; but be sure to aim at somethin’ else or you won’t never hit ’em.”
“I guess that’ll hold you, Bruce,” said Dora.
“I guess it ought to,” he said grinning.
A moment later, as Kay White’s horse was led out of the corral, Marvel stepped over as she was about to mount and examined the bridle, the bit, and the cinches.
“I’m sorry you are not going today,” she said in a low voice.
“Are you really?” he asked.
She nodded. “But I suppose there is nothing so important as a horse’s tooth.”
He looked at her and smiled. “It means a lot to me, Kay,” he said. “Anything would have to mean a lot to keep me from riding to Crater Mountain today.”
There was something in his tone that checked whatever reply she might have made, and in silence she mounted as he held her horse; and then the others rode up around them and carried her along, but he watched her for a long time as she rode away toward the hills to the East.
“Here’s your horse, Mister,” called Blaine from the corral, interrupting Marvel’s reverie. “Want me to top him for you?”
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll do anything.”
“He certainly won’t do anything more than the sorrel colt,” said Blaine.
“Well he didn’t do nothing; so I guess I’m safe,” said Bruce.
As Marvel and Bud rode away down the valley, Blaine stood looking after them. “I sure don’t like that bozo,” he said aloud. “I just aint got no time for him; but,” after a pause, “I’ll be damned if I know why.”
Marvel and Bud rode side by side at a slow walk. “ “We might have a look at that horse of Blaine’s that fell dead a few weeks ago,” suggested the former.
“I’m afraid it’s pretty fresh,” said Bud.
“We can have a look at it anyway,” said Marvel. “Where is it?”
They rode down the valley for about a mile and well off the road when, suddenly, several vultures rose just ahead of them.
“There it be,” said Bud.
They rode closer. “It is a bit fresh, isn’t it?” asked Marvel. Between coyotes, vultures and rodents the horse had pretty well disappeared; but the stench was still overpowering, yet Marvel rode close up to the putrid remains.
He sat looking down at the grizzly thing for half a minute; then he turned and rode away.
“I guess it’s a little bit too high even for me,” he said.
“Well,” said Bud, “there ought to be others. It seems to me I seen a horse’s skull down the wash about a half a mile farther,” but Marvel seemed suddenly to have lost interest in horse teeth.
“Oh, never mind, Bud,” he said. “I guess I’ll let it go till another day.”
“That’s funny,” said Bud. “You sure was keen for it a little while ago.”
He did not see the figure of a horseman winding into the hills in the West, and had he, he might not have connected it with the tenderfoot’s sudden loss of interest in horse teeth; but Marvel had seen and he had recognized both horse and rider, even though they were little more than a speck against the hillside.
Marvel and Bud rode slowly toward the ranch. The former, riding slightly in the rear, was scrutinizing his companion meditatively.
“How long you been with this outfit, Bud?” asked Marvel presently.
“I’ve always been on the ranch. I was born there. My uncle used to own it. When Cory turned it into a boarding house I went to work for him.”
“Known him long?”
“Couple of years.”
“I don’t see how he makes a living out of his boarders,” said Bruce.
“It’s been tough goin’ until lately,” replied Bud. “It’s pickin’ up now; but he always seems to have plenty of dough. He has a mine somewhere, he says, and a ranch, too.”
“I guess he’d be needing them,” said Bruce, “to keep up this outfit; but I don’t see how he runs two or three businesses.”
“Oh, he and Butts go away every once in a while to look after his other interests.”
“You never went with him?” asked Marvel.
“No, he never took me along. He leaves me here to look after things while he’s away.”
As they talked, Marvel had dropped back until Baldy’s head was about opposite Bud’s knee. Riding in this position, Bud did not see his companion raise one of his feet and remove a spur, which he quietly slipped inside his shirt.
“I should think all these boarders would get on his nerves,” said Bruce.
“Some of them do,” replied Bud.
“Me, for instance,” suggested Bruce. Bud grinned.
“Hell!” exclaimed Marvel, “I’ve lost a spur.” He reined in and so did Bud.
“Let’s go back and look for it,” said Bud.
“No,” replied Marvel, “you go on back to the ranch. I’ll look for it myself.”
“Pshaw!” exclaimed Bud. “I’d just as soon help you find it.”
“No, you go on back to the ranch. I’ve learned what a nuisance a dude is, and I’ll feel better if you just go on and let me find it for myself.”
“Whatever you say,” said Bud. “We aim to please, as the feller said.”
“See you later,” said Marvel; and reining Baldy about he started back down the valley.
At a point where a dry wash came out of the hills from the West he stopped and turned in his saddle. Bud was jogging quietly toward home, his back turned. For a few seconds Marvel watched him; then he headed into the dry wash, the high banks of which would hide him from Bud’s view should the latter happen to turn his eyes backward.
Now he rode more swiftly, spurring Baldy into a lope, until the ascent toward the hills became too steep.
The arroyo he was following led to the summit of low hills near the point where he had seen the rider disappear shortly before; and as he neared the top he went more slowly, finally stopping just before he reached the ridge. Dismounting he dropped Baldy’s reins to the ground and covered the remaining distance on foot.
It was a barren ridge, supporting but a scant growth of straggling brush. As he neared the top he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled the remaining distance to a point just behind a small bush that grew upon the crest of the ridge. Here he lay on his belly and wormed himself a few inches farther upward until his eyes topped the summit.
Beyond the ridge and below him lay a barren gully, in the bottom of which, a hundred yards up from the point at which he was spying on them, three men sat in their saddles; and one of them was addressing the other two rapidly and earnestly. This one was Cory Blaine.
An expression of satisfaction crossed Marvel’s face. “That,” he said enigmatically, “will be the other two.”
For ten minutes Marvel lay there watching the three men in the gully below. Then he saw them gather their reins. Blaine spurred his horse up the side of the gully, while the other two turned down toward the valley.
Half way up the hillside Blaine reined in his mount and turned in the saddle. “Don’t you fellers do no drinking tonight,” he shouted back at the two below him, “and see that you are there on time tomorrow.”
“Sure, boss,” shouted back one of them in a thick, almost inarticulate voice.
“And that what I said about drinking goes double for you, Eddie,” called Blaine, as he turned his horse’s head upward again toward the summit of the ridge.
Marvel returned to Baldy and mounted him. Then he urged the horse at a reckless pace down the rough wash. Near the mouth of the arroyo he reined to the left, urging Baldy up the steep bank and across a low ridge; then he put the spurs to him, and ignoring the rocky terrain and the menace of innumerable badgers’ holes he cut downward across the rolling hills parallel with the valley at a run.
Where the ridge finally melted into the floor of the valley, he reined Baldy to the left and so came at last into the mouth of the barren gully in which he had seen the three men talking.
Riding toward him now were two of the men, and as he came into view they eyed him intently. With what appeared to be considerable effort, he stopped Baldy in front of them, while they reined in their own ponies and viewed him with ill-concealed contempt.
“Who let you out, sister?” demanded one of them.
Marvel looked embarrassed. “My horse ran away with me,” he explained, “and I guess I’m lost.”
“Where you lost from, sis?” demanded one of the riders with exaggerated solicitude, and in the scarcely articulate tone that Marvel had previously heard when the speaker had addressed Blaine.
“That,” soliloquized he, “would be Eddie;” and then aloud, “I’m stopping at the TF Ranch. Could you direct me how to get there?”
“Certainly,” said Eddie. “Go straight up this here gulch.” Then the men moved on.
“Them directions,” said the second man, “will land the son-of-a-gun in Mexico, if he follows them.”
“Well, they aint got no business roamin’ around Arizona without their nurses,” replied Eddie.
Marvel watched the two for a moment, his keen eyes taking in every detail of both men and horses. Then he rode slowly up the gulch, following the trail that the two had made going up and coming down, his eyes often bent upon the ground. When he reached the point where Blaine had spurred up over the ridge, he did likewise and presently dropped down into the valley on the other side where the ranch lay; and as he rode into the ranch yard, Eddie, far away, was still chuckling over the joke he had played upon the tenderfoot.
Today, seeing no one about the corral, he removed the bridle and saddle himself and turned Baldy into the pasture.
As he approached the ranch house, Blaine and Bud emerged from the former’s room, which was also his office. “Find your spur?” asked Bud.
“Yes,” replied Bruce.
“You must have had to chase it all over the county,” said Blaine. “Bud says he left you three hours ago.”
“I guess I got lost again,” explained Bruce.
“You dudes are a damn nuisance,” snapped Cory, all his usual suavity gone.
Marvel raised his eyebrows. “Our money aint such a nuisance, is it?” he asked.
“I got all your money I’m going to,” said Blaine. “You’ll be leavin’ now. Them folks are comin’ from Detroit right away.”
“I’m about ready to leave anyway,” replied Marvel, “but I think I’ll stay until after the paper chase. I certainly would like to be in on that.”
“The paper chase needn’t detain you none,” snapped Blaine, “and I’ll be wantin’ your room tomorrow morning.”
“What’s the rush?” demanded Marvel. “Whenever those folks come they can have my room.”
Whatever reply Blaine may have contemplated was interrupted by Bud. “Here comes the bunch back from Crater Mountain,” he announced; and he and Cory hurried down to the corral to meet them, followed more slowly by Marvel.
Conversation during dinner was occupied largely with the events of the day and plans for the paper chase on the morrow. Cory explained that he and Bud would be the hares, taking one other member of the party with him, whom he would select in the morning.