AS the two young men climbed the hill to the big house, a few minutes later, they found the elder Pennington standing at the edge of the driveway that circled the hill top, looking out toward the wide canyon and the distant mountains. In the nearer foreground lay the stable and corrals of the saddle horses, the hen house with its two long alfalfa runways, and the small dairy barn accommodating the little herd of Guernseys that supplied milk, cream, and butter for the ranch. A quarter of a mile beyond, among the trees, was the red-roofed “cabin” where the unmarried ranch hands ate and slept, near the main corrals with their barns, outhouses, and sheds.
The two young men joined the older, and Custer put an arm affectionately about his father’s shoulders.
“You never tire of it,” said the young man.
“I have been looking at it for twenty-two years, my son,” replied the elder Pennington, “and each year it has become more wonderful to me. It never changes, and yet it is never twice alike. See the purple sage away off there, and the lighter spaces of wild buckwheat, and here and there among the scrub oak the beautiful pale green of the manzanitascintillant jewels in the diadem of the hills! And the faint haze of the mountains that seem to throw them just a little out of focus, to make them a perfect background for the beautiful hills which the Supreme Artist is placing on his canvas today. An hour from now He will paint another masterpiece, and to-night another, and forever others, with never two alike, nor ever one that mortal man can duplicate; and all for us, boy, all for us, if we have the hearts and the souls to see!”
“How you love it!” said the boy.
“Yes, and your mother loves it; and it is our great happiness that you and Eva love it, too.”
The boy made no reply. He did love it; but his was the heart of youth, and it yearned for change and for adventure and for what lay beyond the circling hills and the broad, untroubled valley that spread its level fields below “the castle on the hill.”
“The girls are dressing for a swim,” said the older man, after a moment of silence. “Aren’t you boys going in?”
“The girls” included his wife and Mrs. Evans, as well as Grace, for the colonel insisted that youth was purely a physical and mental attribute, independent of time. If one could feel and act in accord with the spirit of youth, one could not be old.
“Are you going in?” asked his son.
“Yes. I was waiting for you two.”
“I think I’ll be excused, sir,” said Guy. “The water is too cold yet. I tried it yesterday, and nearly froze to death. I’ll come and watch.”
The two Penningtons moved off toward the house, to get into swimming things, while young Evans wandered down into the water gardens. As he stood there, idly content in the quiet beauty of the spot, Allen came down the steps, his cheque in his hand. At sight of the boy he halted behind him, an unpleasant expression upon his face.
Evans, suddenly aware that he was not alone, turned and recognized the man.
“Oh, hello, Allen!” he said.
“Young Pennington just canned me,” said Allen, with no other return of Evan’s greeting.
“I’m sorry,” said Evans.
“You may be sorrier!” growled Allen, continuing on his way toward the cabin to get his blankets and clothes.
For a moment Guy stared after the man, a puzzled expression knitting his brows. Then he slowly flushed, glancing quickly about to see if any one had overheard the brief conversation between Slick Allen and himself.
A few minutes later he entered the inclosure west of the house, where the swimming pool lay. Mrs. Pennington and her guests were already in the pool, swimming vigorously to keep warm, and a moment later the colonel and Custer ran from the house and dived in simultaneously. Though there was twenty-six years’ difference in their ages, it was not evidenced by any lesser vitality or agility on the part of the older man.
Colonel Custer Pennington had been born in Virginia fifty years before. Graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and West Point, he had taken a commission in the cavalry branch of the service. Campaigning in Cuba, he had been shot through one lung, and shortly after the close of the war he was retired for disability, with rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 1900 he had come to California, on the advice of his physician in the forlorn hope that he might prolong his sufferings a few years more.
And so Pennington had come West with Mrs. Pennington and little Custer, Jr., and had found the Rancho del Ganado run down, untenanted and for sale.
He judged from the soil and the water that Ganado was not well suited to raise the type of horse that he knew best, and that he and his father and his grandfathers before them had bred in Virginia; but he saw other possibilities. Moreover, he loved the hills and the canyons from the first; and so he had purchased the ranch, more to have something that would temporarily occupy his mind until his period of exile was ended by a return to his native State, or by death, than with any idea that it would prove a permanent home.