In the shade of Pedro Vijil’s little brown adobe on the Granados rancho, _orseman squatted to repair a broken cinch with strips of rawhide, while hi_orse––a strong dappled roan with a smutty face––stood near, the rawhid_ridle over his head and the quirt trailing the ground.
The horseman’s frame of mind was evidently not of the sweetest, for to Viji_e had expressed himself in forcible Mexican––which is supposed to be Spanis_nd often isn’t––condemning the luck by which the cinch had gone bad at th_rong time, and as he tinkered he sang softly an old southern ditty:
> _Oh––oh! I’m a good old rebel, > Now that’s just what I am!
> For I won’t be reconstructed > And I don’t care a damn!_
He varied this musical gem occasionally by whistling the air as he punche_oles and wove the rawhide thongs in and out through the spliced leather.
Once he halted in the midst of a strain and lifted his head, listening.
Something like an echo of his own notes sounded very close, a mere shadow of _histle.
Directly over his head was a window, unglazed and wooden barred. A fat brow_lla, dripping moisture, almost filled the deep window sill, but the interio_as all in shadow. Its one door was closed. The Vijil family was scattere_round in the open, most of them under the _ramada_ , and after a frownin_oment of mystification the young fellow resumed his task, but in silence.
Then, after a still minute, more than the whisper of a whistle came t_im––the subdued sweet call of a meadow lark. It was so sweet it might hav_een mate to any he had heard on the range that morning.
Only an instant he hesitated, then with equal care he gave the duplicate call, and held his breath to listen––not a sound came back.
“We’ve gone loco, Pardner,” he observed to the smutty-faced roan moving nea_im. “That jolt from the bay outlaw this morning has jingled my brain pans––w_on’t hear birds call us––we only think we do.”
If he had even looked at Pardner he might have been given a sign, for the roa_ad lifted its head and was staring into the shadows back of the sweatin_lla.
“Hi, you caballero!”
The words were too clear to be mistaken, the “caballero” stared across to th_nly people in sight. There was Pedro Vijil sharpening an axe, while Merced, his wife, turned the creaking grindstone for him. The young olive branches o_he Vijil family were having fun with a horned toad under the _ramada_ wher_ourd vines twisted about an ancient grape, and red peppers hung in a gorgeou_plash of color. Between that and the blue haze of the far mountains there wa_o sign of humanity to account for such cheery youthful Americanism as th_one suggested.
“Hi, yourself!” he retorted, “whose ghost are you?”
There was a giggle from the barred window of the adobe.
“I don’t dare say because I am not respectable just now,” replied the voice.
“I fell in the ditch and have nothing on but the Sunday shirt of Pedro. I a_he funniest looking thing! wish I dared ride home in it to shock them al_illy.”
“Why not?” he asked, and again the girlish laugh gave him an odd thrill o_omradeship.
“A good enough reason; they’d take Pat from me, and say he wasn’t safe t_ide––but he is! My tumble was my own fault for letting them put on that foo_nglish saddle. Never again for me!”
“They are all right for old folks and a pacing pony,” he observed, and agai_e heard the bubbling laugh.
“Well, Pat is not a pacing pony, not by a long shot; and I’m not ol_olks––yet!” Then after a little silence, “Haven’t you any curiosity?”
“I reckon there’s none allowed me on this count,” he replied without liftin_is head, “between the wooden bars and Pedro’s shirt you certainly put th_ences up on me.”
“I’m a damsel in distress waiting for a rescuing knight with a white banne_nd a milk-white steed––” went on the laughing voice in stilted declamation.
“Sorry, friend, but my cayuse is a roan, and I never carried a white flag yet.
You pick the wrong colors.”
Whereupon he began the chanting of a war song, with an eye stealthily on th_arred window.
> _Hurrah! Hurrah! For southern rights, hurrah!
> Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag > That bears the single star!_
“Oh! _I_ know that!” the voice was now a hail of recognition. “Cap Pike alway_ings that when he’s a little ‘how-came-ye-so’––and _you’re_ a Johnny Reb!”
“Um! twice removed,” assented the man by the wall, “and you are a raiding Yan_ho has been landed in one of our fortresses with only one shirt to her back, and that one borrowed.”
He had a momentary vision of two laughing gray eyes beside the olla, and th_irl behind the bars laughed until Merced let the grindstone halt while sh_ast a glance towards the house as if in doubt as to whether three feet o_dobe wall and stout bars could serve instead of a dueña to foolish youn_mericans who chattered according to their foolishness.
There was an interval of silence, and then the girlish voice called again.
“Hi, Johnny Reb!”
“Same to you, Miss Yank.”
“Aren’t you the new Americano from California, for the La Partida rancho?”
“Even so, O wise one of the borrowed garment.” The laugh came to him again.
“Why don’t you ask how I know?” she demanded.
“It is borne in upon me that you are a witch of the desert, or the ghost of _ream, that you see through the adobe wall, and my equally thick skull. Far b_t for me to doubt that the gift of second sight is yours, O seventh daughte_f a seventh daughter!”
“No such thing! I’m the only one!” came the quick retort, and the young cha_n the shade of the adobe shook with silent mirth.
“I see you laughing, Mr. Johnny Reb, you think you caught me that time. Bu_ou just halt and listen to me, I’ve a hunch and I’m going to prophesy.”
“I knew you had the gift of second sight!”
“Maybe you won’t believe me, but the hunch is that you––won’t––hold––the jo_n these ranches!”
“What!” and he turned square around facing the window, then laughed. “That’_he way you mean to get even for the ‘seventh daughter’ guess is it? You thin_ can’t handle horses?”
“Nix,” was the inelegant reply, “I know you can, for I saw you handle that ba_utlaw they ran in on you this morning: seven years old and no wrangler i_ima could ride him. Old Cap Pike said it was a damn shame to put you u_gainst that sun-fisher as an introduction to Granados.”
“Oh! Pike did, did he? Nice and sympathetic of Pike. I reckon he’s the old- time ranger I heard about out at the Junction, reading a red-fire riot to som_ative sons who were not keen for the cactus trail of the Villistas. That ol_aptain must be a live wire, but he thinks I can’t stick?”
“No-o, that wasn’t Cap Pike, that was my own hunch. Say, are you married?”
“O señorita! this is so sudden!” he spoke in shy reproof, twisting hi_eckerchief in mock embarrassment, and again Merced looked toward the hous_ecause of peals of laughter there.
“You are certainly funny when you do that,” she said after her laughter ha_uieted down to giggles, “but I wasn’t joking, honest Indian I wasn’t! But ho_id you come to strike Granados?”
“Me? Well, I ranged over from California to sell a patch of ground I owned i_uma. Then I hiked over to Nogales on a little _pasear_ and offered to pack _un and wear a uniform for this Mexican squabble, and the powers that b_urned me down because one of my eyes could see farther than the other––that’_o joke––it’s a calamity! I spent all the _dinero_ I had recovering from th_hock, and about the time I was getting my sympathetic friends sobered up, Singleton, of Granados, saw us trying out some raw cavalry stock, and bid fo_y valuable services and I rode over. Any other little detail you’d like t_now?”
“N-no, only needed to know it wasn’t Conrad the manager hired you, and I aske_f you were married because married men need the work more than single strays.
Adolf Conrad got rid of two good American men lately, and fetches ove_exicans from away down Hermosillo way.”
“’Cause why?” asked the man who had ceased pretense of mending the saddle, an_as standing with back against the adobe.
“’Cause I don’t know,” came petulant response. “I only had the hunch when _aw you tame that outlaw in the corral. If he pulls wires to lose _you_ , I’l_top guessing; I’ll know!”
“Very interesting, señorita,” agreed the stranger reflectively. “But if I hav_ good job, I can’t see how it will give me aid or comfort to know that you’v_cquired knowledge, and stopped guessing. When’s your time up behind th_ars?”
“Whenever my clothes get dry enough to fool the dear home folks.”
“You must be a joy to the bosom of your family,” he observed, “also _lessing.”
He heard again the girlish laughter and concluded she could not be ove_ixteen. There was silence for a space while only the creak of the grindston_ut the stillness. Whoever she was, she had given him a brief illuminatin_ision of the tactics of Conrad, the manager for the ranches of Granados an_a Partida, the latter being the Sonora end of the old Spanish land grant.
Even a girl had noted that the rough work had been turned over to a ne_merican from the first circle of the _rodeo_. He stood there staring ou_cross the sage green to the far purple hills of the Green Springs range.
“You’ve fixed that cinch, what you waiting for?” asked the voice at last, an_he young fellow straightened up and lifted the saddle.
“That’s so,” he acknowledged. “But as you whistled to me and the call seeme_riendly, it was up to me to halt for orders––from the lady in distress.”
Again he heard the soft laughter and the voice.
“Glad you liked the friendly call, Johnny Reb,” she confessed. “That’s m_all. If ever you hear it where there are no larks, you’ll know who it is.”
“Sure,” he agreed, yanking at the cinch, “and I’ll come a lopin’ with th_onnie blue flag, to give aid and succor to the enemy.”
“You will not!” she retorted. “You’ll just whistle back friendly, and b_hums. I think my clothes are dry now, and you’d better travel. If you mee_nyone looking for a stray maverick, you haven’t seen me.”
“Just as you say. _Adios!_ ”
After he had mounted and passed along the corral to the road, he turned in th_addle and looked back. He could see no one in the window of the bars, bu_here came to him clear and sweet the field bugle of the meadow lark.
He answered it, lifted his sombrero and rode soberly towards the Granado_orrals, three miles across the valley. Queer little trick she must be.
American girls did not usually ride abroad alone along the border, an_ertainly did not chum with the Mexicans to the extent of borrowing shirts.
Then as he lifted the bridle and Pardner broke into a lope, he noted a_lderly horseman jogging along across trail on a little mule. Each eyed th_ther appraisingly.
“Hello, Bub!” hailed the older man. “My name’s Pike, and you’re the new ma_rom California, hey? Glad to meet you. Hear your name’s Rhodes.”
“I reckon you heard right,” agreed the young chap. “K. Rhodes at your service, sir.”
“Hello! K? K? Does that K stand for Kit?”
“Center shot for you,” assented the other.
“Now you’re a sort of family historian, I reckon, Mr. Pike,” suggested K.
Rhodes. “What’s the excitement?”
“Why you young plantation stray!” and the older man reached for his hand an_ade use of it pump-handle fashion with a sort of sputtering glee. “Grea_uns, boy! there was just one K. Rhodes a-top of God’s green earth and we wer_ardners here in Crook’s day. Hurrah for us! Are you cousin, son, or nephew?”
“My grandfather was with Crook.”
“Sure! I knew it soon as I laid eyes on you and heard your name; that was i_he corral with the outlaw Conrad had driven in for you to work, it wa’n’t _quare deal to a white man. I was cussin’ mad.”
“So I heard,” and the blue eyes of the other smiled at the memory of th_irl’s glib repetition of his discourse. “What’s the great idea? Aside fro_he fact that he belongs to the white dove, anti-military bunch of sisters, Singleton seems quite white, a nice chap.”
“Yeh, but he’s noways wise at that. He sort of married into the horse gam_ere, wasn’t bred to it. Just knows enough to not try to run it solo. Now thi_olf Conrad does know horses and the horse market, and Granados rancho. He’_hipped more cavalry stock to France than any other outfit in this region.
Yes, Conrad knows the business end of the game, but even at that he might no_ssay as high grade ore. He is mixed up with them too-proud-to-fight cliqu_rganized by old maids of both sexes, and to show that he is above al_rejudice, political or otherwise, he sure is corraling an extra lot of Me_elp this year. I’ve _companeros_ I’d go through hell for, but Conrad’_reed––well, enough said, Bub, but they’re different!” Mr. Pike bit off a che_f black plug, and shook his head ruminatively.
Rhodes looked the old man over as they rode along side by side. He was lean, wiry and probably sixty-five. His hair, worn long, gave him the look of th_ld-time ranger. He carried no _reata_ and did not look like a ranchman. H_ad the southern intonation, and his eyes were wonderfully young for th_lmost snowy hair.
“Belong in the valley, Captain?”
“Belong? Me belong anywhere? Not yet, son,” and he smiled at his own fancy.
“Not but what it’s a good enough corner when a man reaches the settlin’ dow_ge. I drift back every so often. This ranch was Fred Bernard’s, and him an_e flocked together for quite a spell. Singleton married Bernard’_idow––she’s dead now these seven years. I just drift back every so often t_eep track of Bernard’s kid, Billie.”
“I see. Glad to have met you, Captain. Hope we can ride together often enoug_or me to hear about the old Apache days. This land has fetched out thre_enerations of us, so it surely has some pull! My father came at the end o_is race, but I’ve come in time to grow up with the country.”
Captain Pike looked at him and chuckled. K. Rhodes was about twenty-three, tall, almost boyish in figure, but his shoulders and hands suggested strength, and his mouth had little dents of humor at the corners to mitigate th_quareness of jaw and the heavy dark brows. His black lashes made the dee_lue of his eyes look purple. Young he was, but with a stature and self- reliant manner as witness of the fact that he was fairly grown up already.
“Where’d you learn horses, Bub?”
“Tennessee stock farm, and southern California ranges. Then this neck of th_oods seemed calling me, and I trailed over to look after a bit of land i_uma. I wasted some time trying to break into the army, but they found som_ye defect that I don’t know anything about––and don’t more than half believe!
I had some dandy prospecting plans after that, but there was no jingling in m_ockets––no outfit money, so I hailed Singleton as an angel monoplaned dow_ith the ducats. Yes sir, I had all the dream survey made for a try at som_old trails down here, going to take it up where the rest of the family quit.”
“You mean that, boy?” The old man halted his mule, and spat out the tobacco, staring at Rhodes in eager anticipation.
“I sure do. Reckon I’ve inherited the fever, and can’t settle down to an_ther thing until I’ve had one try at it. Did do a little placer working i_he San Jacinto.”
“And you’re broke?” Mr. Pike’s voice betrayed a keen joy in the prospect.
“Flat,” stated K. Rhodes, eyeing the old gentleman suspiciously, “my horse, saddle, field glass, and gun are the only belongings in sight.”
“Ki-yi!” chirruped his new acquaintance gleefully, “I knew when I got out o_he blankets this morning I was to have good luck of some sort, had a ‘hunch.’ You can bet on me, Bub; you’ve struck the right rail, and I’m your friend, your desert _companero_!”
“Yes, you sound real nice and friendly,” agreed K. Rhodes. “So glad I’m fla_roke that you’re having hysterics over it. Typical southern hospitality.
Hearty welcome to our city, and so forth, and so forth!”
The old man grinned at him appreciatively. “Lord boy!––I reckon I’ve bee_aiting around for you about ten year, though I didn’t know what your nam_ould be when you come, and it couldn’t be a better one! We’ll outfit firs_or the Three Hills of Gold in the desert, and if luck is against us ther_e’ll strike down into Sonora to have a try after the red gold of El Alisal.
I’ve covered some of that ground, but never had a pardner who would stick.
They’d beat it because of either the Mexicans or the Indians, but _you_ ––sa_oy! It’s the greatest game in the world and we’ll go to it!”
His young eyes sparkled in his weathered desert face, and more than ten year_ere cast aside in his enthusiasm. K. Rhodes looked at him askance.
“If I did not have a key to your sane and calm outlining of prospects for th_uture, I might suspect loco weed or some other dope,” he observed. “But th_act is you must have known that my grandfather in his day went on the trai_f the Three Hills of Gold, and left about a dozen different plans on pape_or future trips.”
“Know it? Why boy, I went in with him!” shrilled Captain Pike. “Know it? Why, we crawled out half starved, and dried out as a couple of last year’s gourds.
We dug roots and were chewing our own boot tops when the Indians found us.
Sure, I know it. He went East to raise money for a bigger outfit, but neve_ot back––died there.”
“Yes, then my father gathered up all the plans and specifications and came ou_ith a friend about fifteen years ago,” added Rhodes. “They never go_nywhere, but he sort of worked the fever off, bought some land and hit th_rail back home. So I’ve been fairly well fed up on your sort of dope, Captain, and when I’ve mended that gone feeling in my pocketbook I may ‘call’ you on the gold trail proposition. Even if you’re bluffing there’ll be no com_ack; I can listen to a lot of ‘lost mine’ vagaries. It sounds like home swee_ome to me!”
“Bluff nothing! we’ll start next week.”
“No we won’t, I’ve got a job and made a promise, got to help clean up the wor_ere for the winter. Promised to take the next load of horses East.”
“That’s a new one,” observed his new friend. “Conrad himself has always gon_ast with the horses, or sent Brehmen, his secretary. But never mind, Bub, th_astern trip won’t take long. I’ll be devilin’ around getting our outfit an_hen the chance comes––us for the Three Hills of Gold!”
“It listens well,” agreed K. Rhodes, “cheeriest little _pasear_ I’ve struck i_he county. We’ll have some great old powwows, even if we don’t make a cent, and some day you’ll tell me about the mental kinks in the makeup of ou_russian friend, Conrad. He sounds interesting to me.”
Captain Pike uttered a profane and lurid word or two concerning Mr. Conrad, and stated he’d be glad when Billie was of age. Singleton, and therefor_onrad, would only have the management up to that time. Billie would kno_orses if nothing else, and––Then he interrupted himself and stared back th_ay he had come.
“I’m a forgetful old fool!” he stated with conviction. “I meandered out t_ake a look around for her, and I didn’t like the looks of that little dab o_ saddle Conrad had put on Pat. You didn’t see anything of her, did you?”
“What does she look like?”
“A slip of a girl who rides like an Indian, rides a black horse.”
“No, I’ve seen no one,” said the young chap truthfully enough. “But who di_ou say your girl was?”
“You’ll find out if you hold your job long enough for her to be of age,” sai_ike darkly. “She’ll be your boss instead of Conrad. It’s Billie Bernard, th_wner of Granados and La Partida.”
“Miss Wilfreda, if you like it better.”
But K. Rhodes said he didn’t. Billie seemed to fit the sort of girl who woul_arb herself in Pedro’s shirt and whistle at him through the bars of th_ittle window.