Curly the tramp sidled toward the free-lunch counter. He caught a fleeting glance from the bartender′s eye, and stood still, trying to look like a business man who had just dined at the Menger and was waiting for a friend who had promised to pick him up in his motor car. Curly′s histrionic powers were equal to the impersonation; but his make-up was wanting.
The bartender rounded the bar in a casual way, looking up at the ceiling as though he was pondering some intricate problem of kalsomining, and then fell upon Curly so suddenly that the roadster had no excuses ready. Irresistibly, but so composedly that it seemed almost absendmindedness on his part, the dispenser of drinks pushed Curly to the swinging doors and kicked him out, with a nonchalance that almost amounted to sadness. That was the way of the Southwest.
Curly arose from the gutter leisurely. He felt no anger or resentment toward his ejector. Fifteen years of tramphood spent out of the twenty-two years of his life had hardened the fibres of his spirit. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune fell blunted from the buckler of his armoured pride. With especial resignation did he suffer contumely and injury at the hands of bartenders. Naturally, they were his enemies; and unnaturally, they were often his friends. He had to take his chances with them. But he had not yet learned to estimate these cool, languid, Southwestern knights of the bungstarter, who had the manners of an Earl of Pawtucket, and who, when they disapproved of your presence, moved you with the silence and despatch of a chess automaton advancing a pawn.
Curly stood for a few moments in the narrow, mesquite-paved street. San Antonio puzzled and disturbed him. Three days he had been a non- paying guest of the town, having dropped off there from a box car of an I. & G.N. freight, because Greaser Johnny had told him in Des Moines that the Alamo City was manna fallen, gathered, cooked, and served free with cream and sugar. Curly had found the tip partly a good one. There was hospitality in plenty of a careless, liberal, irregular sort. But the town itself was a weight upon his spirits after his experience with the rushing, business-like, systematised cities of the North and East. Here he was often flung a dollar, but too frequently a good-natured kick would follow it. Once a band of hilarious cowboys had roped him on Military Plaza and dragged him across the black soil until no respectable rag-bag would have stood sponsor for his clothes. The winding, doubling streets, leading nowhere, bewildered him. And then there was a little river, crooked as a pot-hook, that crawled through the middle of the town, crossed by a hundred little bridges so nearly alike that they got on Curly′s nerves. And the last bartender wore a number nine shoe.
The saloon stood on a corner. The hour was eight o′clock. Homefarers and outgoers jostled Curly on the narrow stone sidewalk. Between the buildings to his left he looked down a cleft that proclaimed itself another thoroughfare. The alley was dark except for one patch of light. Where there was light there were sure to be human beings. Where there were human beings after nightfall in San Antonio there might be food, and there was sure to be drink. So Curly headed for the light.
The illumination came from Schwegel′s Cafe. On the sidewalk in front of it Curly picked up an old envelope. It might have contained a check for a million. It was empty; but the wanderer read the address, "Mr. Otto Schwegel," and the name of the town and State. The postmark was Detroit.
Curly entered the saloon. And now in the light it could be perceived that he bore the stamp of many years of vagabondage. He had none of the tidiness of the calculating and shrewd professional tramp. His wardrobe represented the cast-off specimens of half a dozen fashions and eras. Two factories had combined their efforts in providing shoes for his feet. As you gazed at him there passed through your mind vague impressions of mummies, wax figures, Russian exiles, and men lost on desert islands. His face was covered almost to his eyes with a curly brown beard that he kept trimmed short with a pocket-knife, and that had furnished him with his nom de route. Light-blue eyes, full of sullenness, fear, cunning, impudence, and fawning, witnessed the stress that had been laid upon his soul.
The saloon was small, and in its atmosphere the odours of meat and drink struggled for the ascendancy. The pig and the cabbage wrestled with hydrogen and oxygen. Behind the bar Schwegel laboured with an assistant whose epidermal pores showed no signs of being obstructed. Hot weinerwurst and sauerkraut were being served to purchasers of beer. Curly shuffled to the end of the bar, coughed hollowly, and told Schwegel that he was a Detroit cabinet-maker out of a job.
It followed as the night the day that he got his schooner and lunch.
"Was you acquainted maybe with Heinrich Strauss in Detroit?" asked Schwegel.
"Did I know Heinrich Strauss?" repeated Curly, affectionately. "Why, say, ′Bo, I wish I had a dollar for every game of pinochle me and Heine has played on Sunday afternoons."
More beer and a second plate of steaming food was set before the diplomat. And then Curly, knowing to a fluid-drachm how far a "con" game would go, shuffled out into the unpromising street.
And now he began to perceive the inconveniences of this stony Southern town. There was none of the outdoor gaiety and brilliancy and music that provided distraction even to the poorest in the cities of the North. Here, even so early, the gloomy, rock-walled houses were closed and barred against the murky dampness of the night. The streets were mere fissures through which flowed grey wreaths of river mist. As he walked he heard laughter and the chink of coin and chips behind darkened windows, and music coming from every chink of wood and stone. But the diversions were selfish; the day of popular pastimes had not yet come to San Antonio.
But at length Curly, as he strayed, turned the sharp angle of another lost street and came upon a rollicking band of stockmen from the outlying ranches celebrating in the open in front of an ancient wooden hotel. One great roisterer from the sheep country who had just instigated a movement toward the bar, swept Curly in like a stray goat with the rest of his flock. The princes of kine and wool hailed him as a new zoological discovery, and uproariously strove to preserve him in the diluted alcohol of their compliments and regards.
An hour afterward Curly staggered from the hotel barroom dismissed by his fickle friends, whose interest in him had subsided as quickly as it had risen. Full—stoked with alcoholic fuel and cargoed with food, the only question remaining to disturb him was that of shelter and bed.
A drizzling, cold Texas rain had begun to fall—an endless, lazy, unintermittent downfall that lowered the spirits of men and raised a reluctant steam from the warm stones of the streets and houses. Thus comes the "norther" dousing gentle spring and amiable autumn with the chilling salutes and adieux of coming and departing winter.
Curly followed his nose down the first tortuous street into which his irresponsible feet conducted him. At the lower end of it, on the bank of the serpentine stream, he perceived an open gate in a cemented rock wall. Inside he saw camp fires and a row of low wooden sheds built against three sides of the enclosing wall. He entered the enclosure. Under the sheds many horses were champing at their oats and corn. Many wagons and buckboards stood about with their teams′ harness thrown carelessly upon the shafts and doubletrees. Curly recognised the place as a wagon-yard, such as is provided by merchants for their out-of- town friends and customers. No one was in sight. No doubt the drivers of those wagons were scattered about the town "seeing the elephant and hearing the owl." In their haste to become patrons of the town′s dispensaries of mirth and good cheer the last ones to depart must have left the great wooden gate swinging open.
Curly had satisfied the hunger of an anaconda and the thirst of a camel, so he was neither in the mood nor the condition of an explorer. He zigzagged his way to the first wagon that his eyesight distinguished in the semi-darkness under the shed. It was a two-horse wagon with a top of white canvas. The wagon was half filled with loose piles of wool sacks, two or three great bundles of grey blankets, and a number of bales, bundles, and boxes. A reasoning eye would have estimated the load at once as ranch supplies, bound on the morrow for some outlying hacienda. But to the drowsy intelligence of Curly they represented only warmth and softness and protection against the cold humidity of the night. After several unlucky efforts, at last he conquered gravity so far as to climb over a wheel and pitch forward upon the best and warmest bed he had fallen upon in many a day. Then he became instinctively a burrowing animal, and dug his way like a prairie-dog down among the sacks and blankets, hiding himself from the cold air as snug and safe as a bear in his den. For three nights sleep had visited Curly only in broken and shivering doses. So now, when Morpheus condescended to pay him a call, Curly got such a strangle hold on the mythological old gentleman that it was a wonder that anyone else in the whole world got a wink of sleep that night.
Six cowpunchers of the Cibolo Ranch were waiting around the door of the ranch store. Their ponies cropped grass near by, tied in the Texas fashion—which is not tied at all. Their bridle reins had been dropped to the earth, which is a more effectual way of securing them (such is the power of habit and imagination) than you could devise out of a half-inch rope and a live-oak tree.
These guardians of the cow lounged about, each with a brown cigarette paper in his hand, and gently but unceasingly cursed Sam Revell, the storekeeper. Sam stood in the door, snapping the red elastic bands on his pink madras shirtsleeves and looking down affectionately at the only pair of tan shoes within a forty-mile radius. His offence had been serious, and he was divided between humble apology and admiration for the beauty of his raiment. He had allowed the ranch stock of "smoking" to become exhausted.
"I thought sure there was another case of it under the counter, boys," he explained. "But it happened to be catterdges."
"You′ve sure got a case of happenedicitis," said Poky Rodgers, fency rider of the Largo Verde potrero. "Somebody ought to happen to give you a knock on the head with the butt end of a quirt. I′ve rode in nine miles for some tobacco; and it don′t appear natural and seemly that you ought to be allowed to live."
"The boys was smokin′ cut plug and dried mesquite leaves mixed when I left," sighed Mustang Taylor, horse wrangler of the Three Elm camp. "They′ll be lookin′ for me back by nine. They′ll be settin′ up, with their papers ready to roll a whiff of the real thing before bedtime. And I′ve got to tell ′em that this pink-eyed, sheep-headed, sulphur- footed, shirt-waisted son of a calico broncho, Sam Revell, hasn′t got no tobacco on hand."
Gregorio Falcon, Mexican vaquero and best thrower of the rope on the Cibolo, pushed his heavy, silver-embroidered straw sombrero back upon his thicket of jet black curls, and scraped the bottoms of his pockets for a few crumbs of the precious weed.
"Ah, Don Samuel," he said, reproachfully, but with his touch of Castilian manners, "escuse me. Dthey say dthe jackrabbeet and dthe sheep have dthe most leetle sesos—how you call dthem—brain-es? Ah don′t believe dthat, Don Samuel—escuse me. Ah dthink people w′at don′t keep esmokin′ tobacco, dthey—bot you weel escuse me, Don Samuel."
"Now, what′s the use of chewin′ the rag, boys," said the untroubled Sam, stooping over to rub the toes of his shoes with a red-and-yellow handkerchief. "Ranse took the order for some more smokin′ to San Antone with him Tuesday. Pancho rode Ranse′s hoss back yesterday; and Ranse is goin′ to drive the wagon back himself. There wa′n′t much of a load—just some woolsacks and blankets and nails and canned peaches and a few things we was out of. I look for Ranse to roll in to-day sure. He′s an early starter and a hell-to-split driver, and he ought to be here not far from sundown."
"What plugs is he drivin′?" asked Mustang Taylor, with a smack of hope in his tones.
"The buckboard greys," said Sam.
"I′ll wait a spell, then," said the wrangler. "Them plugs eat up a trail like a road-runner swallowin′ a whip snake. And you may bust me open a can of greengage plums, Sam, while I′m waitin′ for somethin′ better."
"Open me some yellow clings," ordered Poky Rodgers. "I′ll wait, too."
The tobaccoless punchers arranged themselves comfortably on the steps of the store. Inside Sam chopped open with a hatchet the tops of the cans of fruit.
The store, a big, white wooden building like a barn, stood fifty yards from the ranch-house. Beyond it were the horse corrals; and still farther the wool sheds and the brush-topped shearing pens—for the Rancho Cibolo raised both cattle and sheep. Behind the store, at a little distance, were the grass-thatched jacals of the Mexicans who bestowed their allegiance upon the Cibolo.
The ranch-house was composed of four large rooms, with plastered adobe walls, and a two-room wooden ell. A twenty-feet-wide "gallery" circumvented the structure. It was set in a grove of immense live-oaks and water-elms near a lake—a long, not very wide, and tremendously deep lake in which at nightfall, great gars leaped to the surface and plunged with the noise of hippopotamuses frolicking at their bath. From the trees hung garlands and massive pendants of the melancholy grey moss of the South. Indeed, the Cibolo ranch-house seemed more of the South than of the West. It looked as if old "Kiowa" Truesdell might have brought it with him from the lowlands of Mississippi when he came to Texas with his rifle in the hollow of his arm in ′55.
But, though he did not bring the family mansion, Truesdell did bring something in the way of a family inheritance that was more lasting than brick or stone. He brought one end of the Truesdell-Curtis family feud. And when a Curtis bought the Rancho de los Olmos, sixteen miles from the Cibolo, there were lively times on the pear flats and in the chaparral thickets off the Southwest. In those days Truesdell cleaned the brush of many a wolf and tiger cat and Mexican lion; and one or two Curtises fell heirs to notches on his rifle stock. Also he buried a brother with a Curtis bullet in him on the bank of the lake at Cibolo. And then the Kiowa Indians made their last raid upon the ranches between the Frio and the Rio Grande, and Truesdell at the head of his rangers rid the earth of them to the last brave, earning his sobriquet. Then came prosperity in the form of waxing herds and broadening lands. And then old age and bitterness, when he sat, with his great mane of hair as white as the Spanish-dagger blossoms and his fierce, pale-blue eyes, on the shaded gallery at Cibolo, growling like the pumas that he had slain. He snapped his fingers at old age; the bitter taste to life did not come from that. The cup that stuck at his lips was that his only son Ransom wanted to marry a Curtis, the last youthful survivor of the other end of the feud.
For a while the only sounds to be heard at the store were the rattling of the tin spoons and the gurgling intake of the juicy fruits by the cowpunchers, the stamping of the grazing ponies, and the singing of a doleful song by Sam as he contentedly brushed his stiff auburn hair for the twentieth time that day before a crinkly mirror.
From the door of the store could be seen the irregular, sloping stretch of prairie to the south, with its reaches of light-green, billowy mesquite flats in the lower places, and its rises crowned with nearly black masses of short chaparral. Through the mesquite flat wound the ranch road that, five miles away, flowed into the old government trail to San Antonio. The sun was so low that the gentlest elevation cast its grey shadow miles into the green-gold sea of sunshine.
That evening ears were quicker than eyes.
The Mexican held up a tawny finger to still the scraping of tin against tin.
"One waggeen," said he, "cross dthe Arroyo Hondo. Ah hear dthe wheel. Verree rockee place, dthe Hondo."
"You′ve got good ears, Gregorio," said Mustang Taylor. "I never heard nothin′ but the song-bird in the bush and the zephyr skallyhootin′ across the peaceful dell."
In ten minutes Taylor remarked: "I see the dust of a wagon risin′ right above the fur end of the flat."
"You have verree good eyes, senor," said Gregorio, smiling.
Two miles away they saw a faint cloud dimming the green ripples of the mesquites. In twenty minutes they heard the clatter of the horses′ hoofs: in five minutes more the grey plugs dashed out of the thicket, whickering for oats and drawing the light wagon behind them like a toy.
From the jacals came a cry of: "El Amo! El Amo!" Four Mexican youths raced to unharness the greys. The cowpunchers gave a yell of greeting and delight.
Ranse Truesdell, driving, threw the reins to the ground and laughed.
"It′s under the wagon sheet, boys," he said. "I know what you′re waiting for. If Sam lets it run out again we′ll use those yellow shoes of his for a target. There′s two cases. Pull ′em out and light up. I know you all want a smoke."
After striking dry country Ranse had removed the wagon sheet from the bows and thrown it over the goods in the wagon. Six pair of hasty hands dragged it off and grabbled beneath the sacks and blankets for the cases of tobacco.
Long Collins, tobacco messenger from the San Gabriel outfit, who rode with the longest stirrups west of the Mississippi, delved with an arm like the tongue of a wagon. He caught something harder than a blanket and pulled out a fearful thing—a shapeless, muddy bunch of leather tied together with wire and twine. From its ragged end, like the head and claws of a disturbed turtle, protruded human toes.
"Who-ee!" yelled Long Collins. "Ranse, are you a-packin′ around of corpuses? Here′s a—howlin′ grasshoppers!"
Up from his long slumber popped Curly, like some vile worm from its burrow. He clawed his way out and sat blinking like a disreputable, drunken owl. His face was as bluish-red and puffed and seamed and cross-lined as the cheapest round steak of the butcher. His eyes were swollen slits; his nose a pickled beet; his hair would have made the wildest thatch of a Jack-in-the-box look like the satin poll of a Cleo de Merode. The rest of him was scarecrow done to the life.
Ranse jumped down from his seat and looked at his strange cargo with wide-open eyes.
"Here, you maverick, what are you doing in my wagon? How did you get in there?"
The punchers gathered around in delight. For the time they had forgotten tobacco.
Curly looked around him slowly in every direction. He snarled like a Scotch terrier through his ragged beard.
"Where is this?" he rasped through his parched throat. "It′s a damn farm in an old field. What′d you bring me here for—say? Did I say I wanted to come here? What are you Reubs rubberin′ at—hey? G′wan or I′ll punch some of yer faces."
"Drag him out, Collins," said Ranse.
Curly took a slide and felt the ground rise up and collide with his shoulder blades. He got up and sat on the steps of the store shivering from outraged nerves, hugging his knees and sneering. Taylor lifted out a case of tobacco and wrenched off its top. Six cigarettes began to glow, bringing peace and forgiveness to Sam.
"How′d you come in my wagon?" repeated Ranse, this time in a voice that drew a reply.
Curly recognised the tone. He had heard it used by freight brakemen and large persons in blue carrying clubs.
"Me?" he growled. "Oh, was you talkin′ to me? Why, I was on my way to the Menger, but my valet had forgot to pack my pyjamas. So I crawled into that wagon in the wagon-yard—see? I never told you to bring me out to this bloomin′ farm—see?"
"What is it, Mustang?" asked Poky Rodgers, almost forgetting to smoke in his ecstasy. "What do it live on?"
"It′s a galliwampus, Poky," said Mustang. "It′s the thing that hollers ′willi-walloo′ up in ellum trees in the low grounds of nights. I don′t know if it bites."
"No, it ain′t, Mustang," volunteered Long Collins. "Them galliwampuses has fins on their backs, and eighteen toes. This here is a hicklesnifter. It lives under the ground and eats cherries. Don′t stand so close to it. It wipes out villages with one stroke of its prehensile tail."
Sam, the cosmopolite, who called bartenders in San Antone by their first name, stood in the door. He was a better zoologist.
"Well, ain′t that a Willie for your whiskers?" he commented. "Where′d you dig up the hobo, Ranse? Goin′ to make an auditorium for inbreviates out of the ranch?"
"Say," said Curly, from whose panoplied breast all shafts of wit fell blunted. "Any of you kiddin′ guys got a drink on you? Have your fun. Say, I′ve been hittin′ the stuff till I don′t know straight up."
He turned to Ranse. "Say, you shanghaied me on your d—d old prairie schooner—did I tell you to drive me to a farm? I want a drink. I′m goin′ all to little pieces. What′s doin′?"
Ranse saw that the tramp′s nerves were racking him. He despatched one of the Mexican boys to the ranch-house for a glass of whisky. Curly gulped it down; and into his eyes came a brief, grateful glow—as human as the expression in the eye of a faithful setter dog.
"Thanky, boss," he said, quietly.
"You′re thirty miles from a railroad, and forty miles from a saloon," said Ranse.
Curly fell back weakly against the steps.
"Since you are here," continued the ranchman, "come along with me. We can′t turn you out on the prairie. A rabbit might tear you to pieces."
He conducted Curly to a large shed where the ranch vehicles were kept. There he spread out a canvas cot and brought blankets.
"I don′t suppose you can sleep," said Ranse, "since you′ve been pounding your ear for twenty-four hours. But you can camp here till morning. I′ll have Pedro fetch you up some grub."
"Sleep!" said Curly. "I can sleep a week. Say, sport, have you got a coffin nail on you?"
Fifty miles had Ransom Truesdell driven that day. And yet this is what he did.
Old "Kiowa" Truesdell sat in his great wicker chair reading by the light of an immense oil lamp. Ranse laid a bundle of newspapers fresh from town at his elbow.
"Back, Ranse?" said the old man, looking up.
"Son," old "Kiowa" continued, "I′ve been thinking all day about a certain matter that we have talked about. I want you to tell me again. I′ve lived for you. I′ve fought wolves and Indians and worse white men to protect you. You never had any mother that you can remember. I′ve taught you to shoot straight, ride hard, and live clean. Later on I′ve worked to pile up dollars that′ll be yours. You′ll be a rich man, Ranse, when my chunk goes out. I′ve made you. I′ve licked you into shape like a leopard cat licks its cubs. You don′t belong to yourself —you′ve got to be a Truesdell first. Now, is there to be any more nonsense about this Curtis girl?"
"I′ll tell you once more," said Ranse, slowly. "As I am a Truesdell and as you are my father, I′ll never marry a Curtis."
"Good boy," said old "Kiowa." "You′d better go get some supper."
Ranse went to the kitchen at the rear of the house. Pedro, the Mexican cook, sprang up to bring the food he was keeping warm in the stove.
"Just a cup of coffee, Pedro," he said, and drank it standing. And then:
"There′s a tramp on a cot in the wagon-shed. Take him something to eat. Better make it enough for two."
Ranse walked out toward the jacals. A boy came running.
"Manuel, can you catch Vaminos, in the little pasture, for me?"
"Why not, senor? I saw him near the puerta but two hours past. He bears a drag-rope."
"Get him and saddle him as quick as you can."
Soon, mounted on Vaminos, Ranse leaned in the saddle, pressed with his knees, and galloped eastward past the store, where sat Sam trying his guitar in the moonlight.
Vaminos shall have a word—Vaminos the good dun horse. The Mexicans, who have a hundred names for the colours of a horse, called him gruyo. He was a mouse-coloured, slate-coloured, flea-bitten roan- dun, if you can conceive it. Down his back from his mane to his tail went a line of black. He would live forever; and surveyors have not laid off as many miles in the world as he could travel in a day.
Eight miles east of the Cibolo ranch-house Ranse loosened the pressure of his knees, and Vaminos stopped under a big ratama tree. The yellow ratama blossoms showered fragrance that would have undone the roses of France. The moon made the earth a great concave bowl with a crystal sky for a lid. In a glade five jack-rabbits leaped and played together like kittens. Eight miles farther east shone a faint star that appeared to have dropped below the horizon. Night riders, who often steered their course by it, knew it to be the light in the Rancho de los Olmos.
In ten minutes Yenna Curtis galloped to the tree on her sorrel pony Dancer. The two leaned and clasped hands heartily.
"I ought to have ridden nearer your home," said Ranse. "But you never will let me."
Yenna laughed. And in the soft light you could see her strong white teeth and fearless eyes. No sentimentality there, in spite of the moonlight, the odour of the ratamas, and the admirable figure of Ranse Truesdell, the lover. But she was there, eight miles from her home, to meet him.
"How often have I told you, Ranse," she said, "that I am your half-way girl? Always half-way."
"Well?" said Ranse, with a question in his tones.
"I did," said Yenna, with almost a sigh. "I told him after dinner when I thought he would be in a good humour. Did you ever wake up a lion, Ranse, with the mistaken idea that he would be a kitten? He almost tore the ranch to pieces. It′s all up. I love my daddy, Ranse, and I′m afraid—I′m afraid of him too. He ordered me to promise that I′d never marry a Truesdell. I promised. That′s all. What luck did you have?"
"The same," said Ranse, slowly. "I promised him that his son would never marry a Curtis. Somehow I couldn′t go against him. He′s mighty old. I′m sorry, Yenna."
The girl leaned in her saddle and laid one hand on Ranse′s, on the horn of his saddle.
"I never thought I′d like you better for giving me up," she said ardently, "but I do. I must ride back now, Ranse. I slipped out of the house and saddled Dancer myself. Good-night, neighbour."
"Good-night," said Ranse. "Ride carefully over them badger holes."
They wheeled and rode away in opposite directions. Yenna turned in her saddle and called clearly:
"Don′t forget I′m your half-way girl, Ranse."
"Damn all family feuds and inherited scraps," muttered Ranse vindictively to the breeze as he rode back to the Cibolo.
Ranse turned his horse into the small pasture and went to his own room. He opened the lowest drawer of an old bureau to get out the packet of letters that Yenna had written him one summer when she had gone to Mississippi for a visit. The drawer stuck, and he yanked at it savagely—as a man will. It came out of the bureau, and bruised both his shins—as a drawer will. An old, folded yellow letter without an envelope fell from somewhere—probably from where it had lodged in one of the upper drawers. Ranse took it to the lamp and read it curiously.
Then he took his hat and walked to one of the Mexican jacals.
"Tia Juana," he said, "I would like to talk with you a while."
An old, old Mexican woman, white-haired and wonderfully wrinkled, rose from a stool.
"Sit down," said Ranse, removing his hat and taking the one chair in the jacal. "Who am I, Tia Juana?" he asked, speaking Spanish.
"Don Ransom, our good friend and employer. Why do you ask?" answered the old woman wonderingly.
"Tia Juana, who am I?" he repeated, with his stern eyes looking into hers.
A frightened look came in the old woman′s face. She fumbled with her black shawl.
"Who am I, Tia Juana?" said Ranse once more.
"Thirty-two years I have lived on the Rancho Cibolo," said Tia Juana. "I thought to be buried under the coma mott beyond the garden before these things should be known. Close the door, Don Ransom, and I will speak. I see in your face that you know."
An hour Ranse spent behind Tia Juana′s closed door. As he was on his way back to the house Curly called to him from the wagon-shed.
The tramp sat on his cot, swinging his feet and smoking.
"Say, sport," he grumbled. "This is no way to treat a man after kidnappin′ him. I went up to the store and borrowed a razor from that fresh guy and had a shave. But that ain′t all a man needs. Say—can′t you loosen up for about three fingers more of that booze? I never asked you to bring me to your d—d farm."
"Stand up out here in the light," said Ranse, looking at him closely.
Curly got up sullenly and took a step or two.
His face, now shaven smooth, seemed transformed. His hair had been combed, and it fell back from the right side of his forehead with a peculiar wave. The moonlight charitably softened the ravages of drink; and his aquiline, well-shaped nose and small, square cleft chin almost gave distinction to his looks.
Ranse sat on the foot of the cot and looked at him curiously.
"Where did you come from—have you got any home or folks anywhere?"
"Me? Why, I′m a dook," said Curly. "I′m Sir Reginald—oh, cheese it. No; I don′t know anything about my ancestors. I′ve been a tramp ever since I can remember. Say, old pal, are you going to set ′em up again to-night or not?"
"You answer my questions and maybe I will. How did you come to be a tramp?"
"Me?" answered Curly. "Why, I adopted that profession when I was an infant. Case of had to. First thing I can remember, I belonged to a big, lazy hobo called Beefsteak Charley. He sent me around to houses to beg. I wasn′t hardly big enough to reach the latch of a gate."
"Did he ever tell you how he got you?" asked Ranse.
"Once when he was sober he said he bought me for an old six-shooter and six bits from a band of drunken Mexican sheep-shearers. But what′s the diff? That′s all I know."
"All right," said Ranse. "I reckon you′re a maverick for certain. I′m going to put the Rancho Cibolo brand on you. I′ll start you to work in one of the camps to-morrow."
"Work!" sniffed Curly, disdainfully. "What do you take me for? Do you think I′d chase cows, and hop-skip-and-jump around after crazy sheep like that pink and yellow guy at the store says these Reubs do? Forget it."
"Oh, you′ll like it when you get used to it," said Ranse. "Yes, I′ll send you up one more drink by Pedro. I think you′ll make a first-class cowpuncher before I get through with you."
"Me?" said Curly. "I pity the cows you set me to chaperon. They can go chase themselves. Don′t forget my nightcap, please, boss."
Ranse paid a visit to the store before going to the house. Sam Rivell was taking off his tan shoes regretting and preparing for bed.
"Any of the boys from the San Gabriel camp riding in early in the morning?" asked Ranse.
"Long Collins," said Sam briefly. "For the mail."
"Tell him," said Ranse, "to take that tramp out to camp with him and keep him till I get there."
Curly was sitting on his blankets in the San Gabriel camp cursing talentedly when Ranse Truesdell rode up and dismounted on the next afternoon. The cowpunchers were ignoring the stray. He was grimy with dust and black dirt. His clothes were making their last stand in favour of the conventions.
Ranse went up to Buck Rabb, the camp boss, and spoke briefly.
"He′s a plumb buzzard," said Buck. "He won′t work, and he′s the low- downest passel of inhumanity I ever see. I didn′t know what you wanted done with him, Ranse, so I just let him set. That seems to suit him. He′s been condemned to death by the boys a dozen times, but I told ′em maybe you was savin′ him for the torture."
Ranse took off his coat.
"I′ve got a hard job before me, Buck, I reckon, but it has to be done. I′ve got to make a man out of that thing. That′s what I′ve come to camp for."
He went up to Curly.
"Brother," he said, "don′t you think if you had a bath it would allow you to take a seat in the company of your fellow-man with less injustice to the atmosphere."
"Run away, farmer," said Curly, sardonically. "Willie will send for nursey when he feels like having his tub."
The charco, or water hole, was twelve yards away. Ranse took one of Curly′s ankles and dragged him like a sack of potatoes to the brink. Then with the strength and sleight of a hammer-throw he hurled the offending member of society far into the lake.
Curly crawled out and up the bank spluttering like a porpoise.
Ranse met him with a piece of soap and a coarse towel in his hands.
"Go to the other end of the lake and use this," he said. "Buck will give you some dry clothes at the wagon."
The tramp obeyed without protest. By the time supper was ready he had returned to camp. He was hardly to be recognised in his new shirt and brown duck clothes. Ranse observed him out of the corner of his eye.
"Lordy, I hope he ain′t a coward," he was saying to himself. "I hope he won′t turn out to be a coward."
His doubts were soon allayed. Curly walked straight to where he stood. His light-blue eyes were blazing.
"Now I′m clean," he said meaningly, "maybe you′ll talk to me. Think you′ve got a picnic here, do you? You clodhoppers think you can run over a man because you know he can′t get away. All right. Now, what do you think of that?"
Curly planted a stinging slap against Ranse′s left cheek. The print of his hand stood out a dull red against the tan.
Ranse smiled happily.
The cowpunchers talk to this day of the battle that followed.
Somewhere in his restless tour of the cities Curly had acquired the art of self-defence. The ranchman was equipped only with the splendid strength and equilibrium of perfect health and the endurance conferred by decent living. The two attributes nearly matched. There were no formal rounds. At last the fibre of the clean liver prevailed. The last time Curly went down from one of the ranchman′s awkward but powerful blows he remained on the grass, but looking up with an unquenched eye.
Ranse went to the water barrel and washed the red from a cut on his chin in the stream from the faucet.
On his face was a grin of satisfaction.
Much benefit might accrue to educators and moralists if they could know the details of the curriculum of reclamation through which Ranse put his waif during the month that he spent in the San Gabriel camp. The ranchman had no fine theories to work out—perhaps his whole stock of pedagogy embraced only a knowledge of horse-breaking and a belief in heredity.
The cowpunchers saw that their boss was trying to make a man out of the strange animal that he had sent among them; and they tacitly organised themselves into a faculty of assistants. But their system was their own.
Curly′s first lesson stuck. He became on friendly and then on intimate terms with soap and water. And the thing that pleased Ranse most was that his "subject" held his ground at each successive higher step. But the steps were sometimes far apart.
Once he got at the quart bottle of whisky kept sacredly in the grub tent for rattlesnake bites, and spent sixteen hours on the grass, magnificently drunk. But when he staggered to his feet his first move was to find his soap and towel and start for the charco. And once, when a treat came from the ranch in the form of a basket of fresh tomatoes and young onions, Curly devoured the entire consignment before the punchers reached the camp at supper time.
And then the punchers punished him in their own way. For three days they did not speak to him, except to reply to his own questions or remarks. And they spoke with absolute and unfailing politeness. They played tricks on one another; they pounded one another hurtfully and affectionately; they heaped upon one another′s heads friendly curses and obloquy; but they were polite to Curly. He saw it, and it stung him as much as Ranse hoped it would.
Then came a night that brought a cold, wet norther. Wilson, the youngest of the outfit, had lain in camp two days, ill with fever. When Joe got up at daylight to begin breakfast he found Curly sitting asleep against a wheel of the grub wagon with only a saddle blanket around him, while Curly′s blankets were stretched over Wilson to protect him from the rain and wind.
Three nights after that Curly rolled himself in his blanket and went to sleep. Then the other punchers rose up softly and began to make preparations. Ranse saw Long Collins tie a rope to the horn of a saddle. Others were getting out their six-shooters.
"Boys," said Ranse, "I′m much obliged. I was hoping you would. But I didn′t like to ask."
Half a dozen six-shooters began to pop—awful yells rent the air—Long Collins galloped wildly across Curly′s bed, dragging the saddle after him. That was merely their way of gently awaking their victim. Then they hazed him for an hour, carefully and ridiculously, after the code of cow camps. Whenever he uttered protest they held him stretched over a roll of blankets and thrashed him woefully with a pair of leather leggings.
And all this meant that Curly had won his spurs, that he was receiving the puncher′s accolade. Nevermore would they be polite to him. But he would be their "pardner" and stirrup-brother, foot to foot.
When the fooling was ended all hands made a raid on Joe′s big coffee- pot by the fire for a Java nightcap. Ranse watched the new knight carefully to see if he understood and was worthy. Curly limped with his cup of coffee to a log and sat upon it. Long Collins followed and sat by his side. Buck Rabb went and sat at the other. Curly—grinned.
And then Ranse furnished Curly with mounts and saddle and equipment, and turned him over to Buck Rabb, instructing him to finish the job.
Three weeks later Ranse rode from the ranch into Rabb′s camp, which was then in Snake Valley. The boys were saddling for the day′s ride. He sought out Long Collins among them.
"How about that bronco?" he asked.
Long Collins grinned.
"Reach out your hand, Ranse Truesdell," he said, "and you′ll touch him. And you can shake his′n, too, if you like, for he′s plumb white and there′s none better in no camp."
Ranse looked again at the clear-faced, bronzed, smiling cowpuncher who stood at Collins′s side. Could that be Curly? He held out his hand, and Curly grasped it with the muscles of a bronco-buster.
"I want you at the ranch," said Ranse.
"All right, sport," said Curly, heartily. "But I want to come back again. Say, pal, this is a dandy farm. And I don′t want any better fun than hustlin′ cows with this bunch of guys. They′re all to the merry- merry."
At the Cibolo ranch-house they dismounted. Ranse bade Curly wait at the door of the living room. He walked inside. Old "Kiowa" Truesdell was reading at a table.
"Good-morning, Mr. Truesdell," said Ranse.
The old man turned his white head quickly.
"How is this?" he began. "Why do you call me ′Mr.—′?"
When he looked at Ranse′s face he stopped, and the hand that held his newspaper shook slightly.
"Boy," he said slowly, "how did you find it out?"
"It′s all right," said Ranse, with a smile. "I made Tia Juana tell me. It was kind of by accident, but it′s all right."
"You′ve been like a son to me," said old "Kiowa," trembling.
"Tia Juana told me all about it," said Ranse. "She told me how you adopted me when I was knee-high to a puddle duck out of a wagon train of prospectors that was bound West. And she told me how the kid—your own kid, you know—got lost or was run away with. And she said it was the same day that the sheep-shearers got on a bender and left the ranch."
"Our boy strayed from the house when he was two years old," said the old man. "And then along came those emigrant wagons with a youngster they didn′t want; and we took you. I never intended you to know, Ranse. We never heard of our boy again."
"He′s right outside, unless I′m mighty mistaken," said Ranse, opening the door and beckoning.
Curly walked in.
No one could have doubted. The old man and the young had the same sweep of hair, the same nose, chin, line of face, and prominent light- blue eyes.
Old "Kiowa" rose eagerly.
Curly looked about the room curiously. A puzzled expression came over his face. He pointed to the wall opposite.
"Where′s the tick-tock?" he asked, absent-mindedly.
"The clock," cried old "Kiowa" loudly. "The eight-day clock used to stand there. Why—"
He turned to Ranse, but Ranse was not there.
Already a hundred yards away, Vaminos, the good flea-bitten dun, was bearing him eastward like a racer through dust and chaparral towards the Rancho de los Olmos.