THE MAN bent his lips to hers again, and her arms stole about his neck. The calf, in the meantime, perhaps disgusted by such absurdities, had scampered off to try his brand-new legs again, with the result that he ran into a low bush, turned a somersault, and landed on his back. The mother, still doubtful of the intentions of the newcomers, to whose malevolent presence she may have attributed the accident, voiced a perturbed low; whereupon there broke from the vicinity of the live oak a deep note, not unlike the rumbling of distant thunder.
The man looked up.
“I think we’ll be going,” he said. “The Emperor has issued an ultimatum.”
“Or a bull, perhaps,” Grace suggested, as they walked quickly toward her horse.
“Awful!” he commented, as he assisted her into the saddle.
Then he swung to his own.
The Emperor moved majestically toward them, his nose close to the ground. Occasionally he stopped, pawing the earth and throwing dust upon his broad back.
“Doesn’t he look wicked?” cried the girl. “Just look at those eyes!”
“He’s just an old bluffer,” replied the man. “However, I’d rather have you in the saddle, for you can’t always be sure just what they’ll do. We must call his bluff, though; it would never do to run from him—might give him bad habits.”
He rode toward the advancing animal, breaking into a canter as he drew near the bull, and striking his booted leg with a quirt.
“Hi, there, you old reprobate! Beat it!” he cried.
The bull stood his ground with lowered head and rumbled threats until the horseman was almost upon him; then he turned quickly aside as the rider went past.
“That’s better,” remarked Custer, as the girl joined him.
“You’re not a bit afraid of him, are you, Custer? You’re not afraid of anything.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” he demurred. “I learned a long time ago that most encounters consist principally of bluff. Maybe I’ve just grown to be a good bluffer. Anyhow, I’m a better bluffer than the Emperor. If the rascal had only known it, he could have run me ragged.”
As they rode up the side of the basin, the man’s eyes moved constantly from point to point, now noting the condition of the pasture grasses, or again searching the more distant hills. Presently they alighted upon a thin, wavering line of brown, which zigzagged down the opposite side of the basin from a clump of heavy brush that partially hid a small ravine, and crossed the meadow ahead of them.
“There’s a new trail, Grace, and it don’t belong there. Let’s go and take a look at it.”
They rode ahead until they reached the trail, at a point where it crossed the bottom of the basin and started up the side they had been ascending. The man leaned above his horse’s shoulder and examined the trampled turf.
“Horses,” he said. “I thought so, and it’s been used a lot this winter. You can see even now where the animals slipped and floundered after the heavy rains.”
“But you don’t run horses in this pasture, do you?” asked the girl.
“No; and we haven’t run anything in it since last summer. This is the only bunch in it, and they were just turned in about a week ago. Anyway the horses that made this trail were mostly shod. Now what in the world is anybody going up there for?” His eyes wandered to the heavy brush into which the trail disappeared upon the opposite rim of the basin. “I’ll have to follow that up to-morrow—it’s too late to do it to-day.”
“We can follow it the other way, toward the ranch,” she suggested.
They found the trail wound up the hillside and crossed the hogback in heavy brush, which, in many places, had been cut away to allow the easier passage of a horseman.
“Do you see,” asked Custer, as they drew rein at the summit of the ridge, “that although the trail crosses here in plain sight of the ranch house, the brush would absolutely conceal a horseman from the view of any one at the house? It must run right down into Jackknife Canyon. Funny none of us have noticed it, for there’s scarcely a week that that trail isn’t ridden by some of us!”
As they descended into the canyon, they discovered why that end of the new trail had not been noticed. It ran deep and well marked through the heavy brush of a gully to a place where the brush commenced to thin, and there it branched into a dozen dim trails that joined and blended with the old, well worn cattle paths of the hillside.
“Somebody’s might foxy,” observed the man; “but I don’t see what it’s all about. The days of cattle runners and bandits are over.”
“Just imagine!” exclaimed the girl. “A real mystery in our lazy, old hills!”
The man rode in silence and in thought. A herd of pure-bred Herefords, whose value would have ransomed half the crowned heads remaining in Europe, grazed in the several pastures that ran far back into those hills; and back there somewhere that trail led, but for what purpose? No good purpose, he was sure, or it had not been so cleverly hidden.
As they came to the trail which they called the Camino Corto, where it commenced at the gate leading from the old goat corral, the man jerked his thumb toward the west along it
“They must come and go this way,” he said.
“Perhaps they’re the ones mother and I have heard passing at night,” suggested the girl. “If they are, they come right through your property, below the house—not this way.”
He opened the gate from the saddle, and they passed through, crossing the barranco, and stopping for a moment to look at the pigs and talk with the herdsman. Then they rode on toward the ranch house, a half mile farther down the widening canyon. It stood upon the summit of a low hill, the declining sun transforming its plastered walls, its cupolas, the sturdy arches of its arcades, into the semblance of a Moorish castle.
At the foot of the hill they dismounted at the saddle horse stable, tied their horses, and ascended the long flight of rough concrete steps toward the house. As they rounded the wild sumac bush at the summit, they were espied by those sitting in the patio, around three sides of which the house was built.
“Oh, here they are now!” exclaimed Mrs. Pennington. “We were so afraid that Grace would ride right on home, Custer. We had just persuaded Mrs. Evans to stay for dinner. Guy is coming, too.”
“Mother, you here, too?” cried the girl. “How nice and cool it is in here. It would save a lot of trouble if we brought our things, mother.”
“We are hoping that at least one of you will, very soon,” said Colonel Pennington, who had risen, and now put an arm affectionately about the girl’s shoulders.
“That’s what I’ve been telling her again this afternoon,” said Custer; “but instead she wants to—”
The girl turned toward him with a little frown and shake of her head.
“You’d better run down and tell Allen that we won’t use the horses until after dinner,” she said.
He grimaced good-naturedly and turned away.
“I’ll have him take Senator home,” he said. “I can drive you and your mother down in the car, when you leave.”
As he descended the steps that wound among the umbrella trees, taking on their new foliage, he saw Allen examining the Apache’s shoes. As he neared them, the horse pulled away from the man, his suddenly lowered hoof striking Allen’s instep. With an oath the fellow stepped back and swung a vicious kick to the animal’s belly. Almost simultaneously a hand fell heavily upon his shoulder. He was jerked roughly back, whirled about, and sent spinning a dozen feet away, where he stumbled and fell. As he scrambled to his feet, white with rage, he saw the younger Pennington before him.
“Go to the office and get your time,” ordered Pennington.
“I’ll get you first, you son of a—”
A hard fist connecting suddenly with his chin put a painful period to his sentence before it was completed, and stopped his mad rush.
“I’d be more careful of my conversation, Allen, if I were you,” said Pennington quietly. “Just because you’ve been drinking is no excuse for that. Now go on up to the office as I told you to.”
He had caught the odour of whisky as he jerked the man past him.
“You goin’ to can me for drinkin’—you?” demanded Allen.
“You know what I’m canning you for. You know that’s the one thing that don’t go on Ganado. You ought to get what you gave the Apache, and you’d better beat it before I lose my temper and give it to you!”
The man rose slowly to his feet. In his mind he was revolving his chances of successfully renewing his attack; but presently his judgment got the better of his desire and his rage. He moved off slowly up the hill toward the house. A few yards, and he turned.
“I ain’t a goin’ to ferget this, you—you—”
“Be careful!” Pennington admonished.
“Nor you ain’t goin’ to ferget it, neither, you foxtrottin’ dude!”
Allen turned again to the ascent of the steps. Pennington walked to the Apache and stroked his muzzle.
“Old boy,” he crooned, “there don’t anybody kick you and get away with it, does there?”
Halfway up, Allen stopped and turned again.
“You think you’re the whole cheese, you Penningtons, don’t you?” he called back. “With all your money an’ your fine friends! Fine friends, yah! I can put one of ’em where he belongs any time I want—the darn bootlegger! That’s what he is. You wait—you’ll see!”
“A-ah beat it!” sighed Pennington wearily.
Mounting the Apache, he led Grace’s horse along the foot of the hill toward the smaller ranch house of their neighbour, some half mile away. Humming a little tune, he unsaddled Senator, turned him into his corral, saw that there was water in his trough, and emptied a measure of oats into his manger, for the horse had cooled off since the afternoon ride. As neither of the Evans ranch hands appeared, he found a piece of rag and wiped off the Senator’s bit, turned the saddle blankets wet side up to dry, and then, leaving the stable, crossed the yard to mount the Apache.
A young man in riding clothes appeared simultaneously from the interior of the bungalow, which stood a hundred feet away. Crossing the wide porch, he called to Pennington.
“Hello there, Penn! What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Just brought Senator in—Grace is up at the house. You’re coming up there, too, Guy.”
“Sure, but come in here a second. I’ve got something to show you.”
Pennington crossed the yard and entered the house behind Grace’s brother, who conducted him to his bedroom. Here young Evans unlocked a closet, and, after rummaging behind some clothing, emerged with a bottle, the shape and dimensions of which were once as familiar in the land of the free as the benign countenance of Lydia E. Pinkham.
“It’s the genuine stuff, Penn, too!” he declared.
“Thanks, old fellow, but I’ve quit,” he said.
“Quit!” exclaimed Evans.
“But think of it, man—aged eight years in the wood, and bottled in bond before July 1, 1919. The real thing, and as cheap as moonshine—only six beans a quart. Can you believe it?”
“I cannot,” admitted Pennington. “Your conversation listens phoney.”
“But it’s truth. You may have quit, but one little snifter of this won’t hurt you. Here’s this bottle already open just try it”; and he proffered the bottle and a glass to the other.
“Well, it’s pretty hard to resist anything that sounds as good as this does,” remarked Pennington. “I guess one won’t hurt me any.” He poured himself a drink and took it. “Wonderful!” he ejaculated.
“Here,” said Evans, diving into the closet once more. “I got you a bottle, too, and we can get more.”
Pennington took the bottle and examined it, almost caressingly.
“Eight years in the wood!” he murmured. “I’ve got to take it, Guy. Must have something to hand down to posterity.” He drew a bill fold from his pocket and counted out six dollars.
“Thanks,” said Guy. “You’ll never regret it.”