THE TWO HORSES picked their way carefully downward over the loose shale of the steep hillside. The big bay stallion in the lead sidled mincingly, tossing his head nervously, and flecking the flannel shirt of his rider with foam. Behind the man on the stallion a girl rode a clean-limbed bay of lighter colour, whose method of descent, while less showy, was safer, for he came more slowly, and in the very bad places he braced his four feet forward and slid down, sometimes almost sitting upon the ground.
At the base of the hill there was a narrow level strip; then an eight-foot wash, with steep banks, barred the way to the opposite side of the canyon, which rose gently to the hills beyond. At the foot of the descent the man reined in and waited until the girl was safely down; then he wheeled his mount and trotted toward the wash. Twenty feet from it he gave the animal its head and a word. The horse broke into a gallop, took off at the edge of the wash, and cleared it so effortlessly as almost to give the impression of flying.
Behind the man came the girl, but her horse came at the wash with a rush—not the slow, steady gallop of the stallion—and at the very brink he stopped to gather himself. The dry bank caved beneath his front feet, and into the wash he went, head first.
The man turned and spurred back. The girl looked up from her saddle, making a wry face.
“No damage?” he asked, an expression of concern upon his face.
“No damage,” the girl replied. “Senator is clumsy enough at jumping, but no matter what happens he always lights on his feet.”
“Ride down a bit,” said the man. “There’s an easy way out just below.”
She moved off in the direction he indicated, her horse picking his way among the loose boulders in the wash bottom.
“Mother says he’s part cat,” she remarked. “I wish he could jump like the Apache!”
The man stroked the glossy neck of his own mount.
“He never will,” he said. “He’s afraid. The Apache is absolutely fearless; he’d go anywhere I’d ride him. He’s been mired with me twice, but he never refuses a wet spot; and that’s a test, I say, of a horse’s courage.”
They had reached a place where the bank was broken down, and the girl’s horse scrambled from the wash.
“Maybe he’s like his rider,” suggested the girl, looking at the Apache; “brave, but reckless.”
“It was worse than reckless,” said the man. “It was asinine. I shouldn’t have led you over the jump when I know how badly Senator jumps.”
“And you wouldn’t have, Custer,”—she hesitated—“if—”
“If I hadn’t been drinking,” he finished for her. “I know what you were going to say, Grace; but I think you’re wrong. I never drink enough to show it. No one ever saw me that way—not so that it was noticeable.”
“It is always noticeable to me and to your mother,” she corrected him gently. “We always know it, Custer. It shows in little things like what you did just now. Oh, it isn’t anything. I know, dear; but we who love you wish you didn’t do it quite so often. “
“It’s funny,” he said, “but I never cared for it until it became a risky thing to get it. Oh, well, what’s the use? I’ll quit it if you say so. It hasn’t any hold on me.”
Involuntarily he squared his shoulders—an unconscious tribute to the strength of his weakness.
Together, their stirrups touching, they rode slowly down the canyon trail toward the ranch. Often they rode thus, in the restful silence that is a birthright of comradeship. Neither spoke until after they reined in their sweating horses beneath the cool shade of the spreading sycamore that guards the junction of El Camino Largo and the main trail that winds up Sycamore Canyon.
The girl pointed up into the cloudless sky, where several great birds circled majestically, rising and falling upon motionless wings.
“The vultures are back,” she said. “I am always glad to see them come again.”
“Yes,” said the man. “They are bully scavengers, and we don’t have to pay ’em wages.”
The girl smiled up at him.
“I’m afraid my thoughts were more poetic than practical,” she said. “I was only thinking that the sky looked less lonely now that they have come. Why suggest their diet?”
“I know what you mean,” he said, “I like them too. Maligned as they are, they are really wonderful birds, and sort of mysterious. Did you ever stop to think that you never see a very young one or a dead one? Where do they die? Where do they grow to maturity? I wonder what they’ve found up there! Let’s ride up. Martin said he saw a new calf up beyond Jackknife Canyon yesterday. That would be just about under where they’re circling now.”
They guided their horses around a large, flat slab of rock that some camper had contrived into a table beneath the sycamore, and started across the trail toward the opposite side of the canyon.
They were in the middle of the trail when the man drew in and listened.
“Someone is coming,” he said, “Let’s wait and see who it is. I haven’t sent any one back into the hills today.”
“I have an idea,” remarked the girl, “that there is more going on up there”—she nodded toward the mountains stretching to the south of them—“than you know about.”
“How is that?” he asked.
“So often recently we have heard horsemen passing the ranch late at night. If they weren’t going to stop at your place, those who rode up the trail must have been headed into the high hills; but I’m sure that those whom we heard coming down weren’t coming from the Rancho del Ganado.”
“No,” he said, “not late at night—or not often, at any rate.”
The footsteps of a cantering horse drew rapidly closer, and presently the animal and its rider came into view around a turn in the trail.
“It’s only Allen,” said the girl.
The newcomer reined in at sight of the man and the girl. He was evidently surprised, and the girl thought that he seemed ill at ease.
“Just givin’ Baldy a work—out,” he explained. “He ain’t been out for three or four days, an’ you told me to work ’em out if I had time.”
Custer Pennington nodded.
“See any stock back there?”
“No. How’s the Apache today—forgin’ as bad as usual?”
Pennington shook his head negatively.
“That fellow shod him yesterday just the way I want him shod. I wish you’d take a good look at his shoes, Slick, so you can see that he’s always shod this same way.” His eyes had been travelling over Slick’s mount, whose heaving sides were covered with lather. “Baldy’s pretty soft, Slick; I wouldn’t work him too hard all at once. Get him up to it gradually.”
He turned and rode off with the girl at his side. Slick Allen looked after them for a moment and then moved his horse off at a slow walk toward the ranch. He was a lean, sinewy man, of medium height. He might have been a cavalryman once. He sat his horse, even at a walk, like one who has sweated and bled under a drill sergeant in the days of his youth.
“How do you like him?” the girl asked of Pennington.
“He’s a good horseman, and good horsemen are getting rare these days,” replied Pennington; “but I don’t know that I’d choose him for a playmate. Don’t you like him?”
“I’m afraid I don’t. His eyes give me the creeps—they’re like a fish’s.”
“To tell the truth, Grace I don’t like him,” said Custer. “He’s one of those rare birds—a good horseman who doesn’t love horses. I imagine he won’t last long on the Rancho del Ganado; but we’ve got to give him a fair shake—he’s only been with us a few weeks.”
They were picking their way toward the summit of a steep hogback. The man, who led, was seeking carefully for the safest footing, shamed out of his recent recklessness by the thought of how close the girl had come to a serious accident through his thoughtlessness. They rode along the hogback until they could look down into a tiny basin where a small bunch of cattle was grazing, and then, turning and dipping over the edge, they dropped slowly toward the animals.
Near the bottom of the slope they came upon a white—faced bull standing beneath the spreading shade of alive oak. He turned his woolly face toward them, his red—rimmed eyes observing them dispassionately for a moment. Then he turned away again and resumed his cud, disdaining further notice of them.
“That’s the King of Ganado, isn’t it?” asked the girl.
“Looks like him, doesn’t he? But he isn’t. He’s the King’s likeliest son, and unless I’m mistaken he’s going to give the old fellow a mighty tough time of it this fall, if the old boy wants to hang on to the grand championship. We’ve never shown him yet. It’s an idea of father’s. He’s always wanted to spring a new champion at a great show and surprise the world. He’s kept this fellow hidden away ever since he gave the first indication that he was going to be a fine bull. At least a hundred breeders have visited the herd in the past year, and not one of them has seen him. Father says he’s the greatest bull that ever lived, and that his first show is going to be the International.”
“I just know he’ll win,” exclaimed the girl. “Why look at him! Isn’t he a beauty?”
“Got a back like a billiard table,” commented Custer proudly.
They rode down among the heifers. There were a dozen beauties—three-year-olds. Hidden to one side, behind a small bush, the man’s quick eyes discerned a little bundle of red and white.
“There it is, Grace,” he called, and the two rode toward it.
One of the heifers looked fearfully toward them, then at the bush, and finally walked toward it, lowing plaintively.
“We’re not going to hurt it, little girl,” the man assured her.
As they came closer, there arose a thing of long, wobbly legs, big joints, and great, dark eyes, its spotless coat of red and white shining with health and life.
“The cunning thing!” cried the girl. “How I’d like to squeeze it! I just love ’em, Custer!”
She had slipped from her saddle, and, dropping her reins on the ground, was approaching the calf.
“Look out for the cow!” cried the man, as he dismounted and moved forward to the girl’s side, with his arm through the Apache’s reins. “She hasn’t been up much, and she may be a little wild.”
The calf stood its ground for a moment, and then, with tail erect, cavorted madly for its mother, behind whom it took refuge.
“I just love ’em! I just love ’em!” repeated the girl.
“You say the same thing about the colts and the little pigs,” the man reminded her.
“I love ’em all!” she cried, shaking her head, her eyes twinkling.
“You love them because they’re little and helpless, just like babies,” he said. “Oh, Grace, how you’d love a baby!”
The girl flushed prettily. Quite suddenly he seized her in his arms and crushed her to him, smothering her with a long kiss. Breathless, she wriggled partially away, but he still held her in his arms.
“Why won’t you, Grace?” he begged. “There’ll never be anybody else for me or for you. Father and mother and Eva love you almost as much as I do, and on your side your mother and Guy have always seemed to take it as a matter of course that we’d marry. It isn’t the drinking, is it, dear?”
“No, it’s not that, Custer. Of course I’ll marry you—someday; but not yet. Why, I haven’t lived, yet, Custer! I want to live. I want to do something outside of the humdrum life that I have always led and the humdrum life that I shall live as a wife and mother. I want to live a little, Custer, and then I’ll be ready to settle down. You all tell me that I am beautiful, and down, away in the depth of my soul, I feel that I have talent. If I have, I ought to use the gifts God has given me.”
She was speaking very seriously, and the man listened patiently and with respect, for he realized that she was revealing for the first time a secret yearning that she must have long held locked in her bosom.
“Just what do you want to do, dear?” he asked gently.
“I—oh, it seems silly when I try to put it in words, but in dreams it is very beautiful and very real.”
“The stage?” he asked.
“It is just like you to understand!” Her smile rewarded him. “Will you help me? I know mother will object.”
“You want me to help you take all the happiness out of my life?” he asked.
“It would only be for a little while just a few years, and then I would come back to you—after I had made good.”