Old Applehead Furrman, jogging home across the mesa from Albuquerque, sniffed the soft breeze that came from opal-tinted distances and felt poignantly that spring was indeed here. The grass, thick and green in the sheltered places, was fast painting all the higher ridges and foot-hill slopes, and with the green grass came the lank-bodied, big-kneed calves; which meant that. roundup time was at hand. Applehead did not own more than a thousand head of cattle, counting every hoof that walked under his brand. And with the incipient lethargy of old age creeping into his habits of life, roundup time was not with him the important season it once had been; for several years he had been content to hire a couple of men to represent him in the roundups of the larger outfits—men whom he could trust to watch fairly well his interests. By that method he avoided much trouble and hurry and hard work—and escaped also the cares which come with wealth.
But this spring was not as other springs had been. Something—whether an awakened ambition or an access of sentiment regarding range matters, he did not know—was stirring the blood in Applehead's veins. Never, since the days when he had been a cowpuncher, had the wide spaces called to him so alluringly; never had his mind dwelt so insistently upon the approach of spring roundup. Perhaps it was because he heard so much range talk at the ranch, where the boys of the Flying U were foregathered in uneasy idleness, their fingers itching for the feel of lariat ropes and branding irons while they gazed out over the wide spaces of the mesa.
So much good rangeland unharnessed by wire fencing the Flying U boys had not seen for many a day. During the winter they had been content to ride over it merely for the purpose of helping to make a motion picture of the range, but with the coming of green grass, and with the reaction that followed the completion of the picture that in the making had filled all their thoughts, they were not so content. To the inevitable reaction had been added a nerve racking period of idleness and uncertainty while Luck Lindsay, their director, strove with the Great Western Film Company in Los Angeles for terms and prices that would make for the prosperity of himself and his company.
In his heart Applehead knew, just as the Happy Family knew, that Luck had good and sufficient reasons for over-staying the time-limit he had given himself for the trip. But knowing that Luck was not to be blamed for his long absence did not lessen their impatience, nor did it stifle the call of the wide spaces nor the subtle influence of the winds that blew softly over the uplands.
By the time he reached the ranch Applehead had persuaded himself that the immediate gathering of his cattle was an imperative duty and that he himself must perform it. He could not, he told himself, afford to wait around any longer for luck. Maybe when he came Luck would have nothing but disappointment for them, Maybe—Luck was so consarned stubborn when he got an idea in his head—maybe be wouldn't come to any agreement with the Great Western. Maybe they wouldn't offer him enough money, or leave him enough freedom in his work; maybe he would "fly back on the rope" at the last minute, and come back with nothing accomplished. Applehead, with the experience gleaned from the stress of seeing luck produce one feature picture without any financial backing whatever and without half enough capital, was not looking forward with any enthusiasm to another such ordeal. He did not believe, when all was said and done, that the Flying U boys would be so terribly eager to repeat the performance. He did believe—or he made himself think he believed—that the only sensible thing to do right then was to take the boys and go out and start a roundup of his own. It wouldn't take long—his cattle weren't so badly scattered this year.
"Where's Andy at?" he asked Pink, who happened to be leaning boredly over the gate when he rode up to the corral. Andy Green, having been left in nominal charge of the outfit when Luck left, must be consulted, Applehead supposed.
"Andy? I dunno. He saddled up and rode off somewhere, a while ago," Pink answered glumly. "That's more than he'll let any of us fellows do; the way he's close-herding us makes me tired! Any news?"
"Ain't ary word from Luck—no word of NO kind. I've about made up my mind to take the chuck-wagon to town and stock it with grub, and hit out on roundup t'morrer or next day. I don't see as there's any sense in setting around here waitin' on Luck and lettin' my own work slide. Chavez boys, they started out yest'day, I heard in town. And if I don't git right out close onto their heels, I'll likely find myself with a purty light crop uh calves, now I'm tellin' yuh I" Applehead, so completely had he come under the spell of the soft spring air and the lure of the mesa, actually forgot that he had long been in the habit of attending to his calf crop by proxy.
Pink's face brightened briefly. Then he remembered why they were being kept so close to the ranch, and he grew bored again.
"What if Luck pulled in before we got back, and wanted us to start work on another picture?" he asked, discouraging the idea reluctantly. Pink had himself been listening to the call of the wide spaces, and the mere mention of roundup had a thrill for him.
"Well, now, I calc'late my prope'ty is might' nigh as important as Luck's pitcher-making," Applehead contended with a selfishness born of his newly awakened hunger for the far distances. "And he ain't sent ary word that he's coming, or will need you boys immediate. The chances is we could go and git back agin before Luck shows up. And if we don't," he argued speciously, "he can't blame nobody for not wantin' to set around on their haunches all spring waiting for 'im. I'd do a lot fer luck; I've DONE a lot fer 'im. But it ain't to be expected I'd set around waitin' on him and let them danged Mexicans rustle my calves. They'll do it if they git half a show—now I'm tellin' yuh!"
Pink did not say anything at all, either in assent or argument; but old Applehead, now that he had established a plausible reason for his sudden impulse, went on arguing the case while he unsaddled his horse. By the time he turned the animal loose he had thought of two or three other reasons why he should take the boys and start out as soon as possible to round up his cattle. He was still dilating upon these reasons when Andy Green rode slowly down the slope to the corral.
"Annie-Many-Ponies come back yet?" he asked of Pink, as he swung down off his horse. "Annie? No; ain't seen anything of her. Shunky's been sitting out there on the hill for the last hour, looking for her."
"Fer half a cent," threatened old Applehead, in a bad humor because his arguments had not quite convinced him that he was not meditating a disloyalty, "I'd kill that danged dawg. And if I was runnin' this bunch, I'd send that squaw back where she come from, and I'd send her quick. Take the two of 'em together and they don't set good with me, now I'm tellin' yuh! If I was to say what I think, I'd say yuh can't never trust an Injun—and shiny hair and eyes and slim build don't make 'em no trustier. They's something scaley goin' on around here, and I'd gamble on it. And that there squaw's at the bottom of it. What fur's she ridin' off every day, 'n' nobody knowin' where she goes to? If Luck's got the sense he used to have, he'll git some white girl to act in his pitchers, and send that there squaw home 'fore she double-crosses him some way or other."
"Oh, hold on, Applehead!" Pink felt constrained to defend the girl. "You've got it in for her 'cause her dog don't like your cat. Annie's all right; I never saw anything outa the way with her yet."
"Well, now, time you're old as I be, you'll have some sense, mebby," Applehead quelled. "Course you think Annie's all right. She's purty,'n' purtyness in a woman shore does cover up a pile uh cussedness—to a feller under forty. You're boss here, Andy. When she comes back, you ask 'er where she's been, and see if you kin git a straight answer. She'll lie to yuh—I'll bet all I got, she'll lie to yuh. And when a woman lies about where she's been to and what she's been doin', you can bet there's something scaley goin' on. Yuh can't fool ME!"
He turned and went up to the small adobe house where he had lived in solitary contentment with his cat Compadre until Luck Lindsay, seeking a cheap headquarters for his free-lance company while he produced the big Western picture which filled all his mind, had taken calm and unheralded possession of the ranch. Applehead did not resent the invasion; on the contrary, he welcomed it as a pleasant change in his monotonous existence. What he did resent was the coming, first, of the little black dog that was no more than a tramp and had no right on the ranch, and that broke all the laws of decency and gratitude by making the life of the big blue cat miserable. Also he resented the uninvited arrival of Annie-Many-Ponies from the Sioux reservation in North Dakota.
Annie-Many-Ponies had not only come uninvited—she had remained in defiance of Luck's perturbed insistence that she should go back home. The Flying U boys might overlook that fact because of her beauty, but Applehead was not so easily beguiled—especially when she proceeded to form a violent attachment to the little black dog, which she called Shunka Chistala in what Applehead considered a brazen flaunting of her Indian blood and language, Between the mistress of Shunka Chistala and the master of the cat there could never be anything more cordial than an armed truce. She had championed that ornery cur in a way to make Applehead's blood boil. She had kept the dog in the house at night, which forced the cat to seek cold comfort elsewhere. She had pilfered the choicest table scraps for the dog—and Compadre was a cat of fastidious palate and grew thin on what coarse bits were condescendingly left for him.
Applehead had not approved of Luck's final consent that Annie-Many-Ponies should stay and play the Indian girl in his big picture. In the mind of Applehead there lurked a grudge that found all the more room to grow because of the natural bigness and generosity of his nature. It irked him to see her going her calm way with that proud uptilt to her shapely head and that little, inscruable smile when she caught the meaning of his grumbling hints.
Applehead was easy-going to a fault in most things, but his dislike had grown in Luck's absence to the point where he considered himself aggrieved whenever Annie-Many-Ponies saddled the horse which had been tacitly set aside for her use, and rode off into the mesa without a word of explanation or excuse. Applehead reminded the boys that she had not acted like that when luck was home. She had stayed on the ranch where she belonged, except once or twice, on particularly fine days, when she had meekly asked "Wagalexa Conka," as she persisted in calling Luck, for permission to go for a ride.
Applehead itched to tell her a few things about the social, moral, intellectual and economic status of an "Injun squaw"—but there was something in her eye, something in the quiver of her finely shaped nostrils, in the straight black brows, that held his tongue quiet when he met her face to face. You couldn't tell about these squaws. Even luck, who knew Indians better than most—and was, in a heathenish tribal way, the adopted son of Old Chief Big Turkey, and therefore Annie's brother by adoption—even Luck maintained that Annie-Many-Ponies undoubtedly carried a knife concealed in her clothes and would use it if ever the need arose. Applehead was not afraid of Annie's knife. It was something else, something he could not put into words, that held him back from open upbraidings.
He gave Andy's wife, Rosemary, the mail and stopped to sympathize with her because Annie-Many-Ponies had gone away and left the hardest part of the ironing undone. Luck had told Annie to help Rosemary with the work; but Annie's help, when Luck was not around the place, was, Rosemary asserted, purely theoretical.
"And from all you read about Indians," Rosemary complained with a pretty wrinkling of her brows, "you'd think the women just LIVE for the sake of working. I've lost all faith in history, Mr. Furrman. I don't believe squaws ever do anything if they can help it. Before she went off riding today, for instance, that girl spent a whole HOUR brushing her hair and braiding it. And I do believe she GREASES it to make it shine the way it does! And the powder she piles on her face—just to ride out on the mesa!" Rosemary Green was naturally sweet-tempered and exceedingly charitable in her judgements; but here, too, the cat-and-dog feud had its influence. Rosemary Green was a loyal champion of the cat Compadre; besides, there was a succession of little irritations, in the way of dishes left unwashed and inconspicuous corners left unswept, to warp her opinion of Annie-Many-Ponies.
When he left Rosemary he went straight down to where the chuck-wagon stood, and began to tap the tires with a small rock to see if they would need resetting before he started out. He decided that the brake-blocks would have to be replaced with new ones—or at least reshod with old boot-soles. The tongue was cracked, too; that had been done last winter when Luck was producing The Phantom Herd and had sent old Dave Wiswell down a rocky hillside with half-broken bronks harnessed to the wagon, in a particularly dramatic scene. Applehead went grumblingly in search of some baling wire to wrap the tongue. He had been terribly excited and full of enthusiasm for the picture at the time the tongue was cracked, but now he looked upon it merely as a vital weakness in his roundup outfit. A new tongue would mean delay; and delay, in his present mood, was tragedy.
He couldn't find any old baling wire, though he had long been accustomed to tangling his feet in snarled bunches of it when he went forth in the dark after a high wind. Until now he had not observed its unwonted absence from the yard. For a long while he had not needed any wire to mend things, because Luck had attended to everything about the ranch, and if anything needed mending he had set one of the Happy Family at the task.
His search led him out beyond the corrals in the little dry wash that sometimes caught and held what the high winds brought rolling that way. The wash was half filled with tumble-weed, so that Applehead was forced to get down into it and kick the weeds aside to see if there was any wire lodged beneath. His temper did not sweeten over the task, especially since he found nothing that he wanted.
Annie-Many-Ponies, riding surreptitiously up the dry wash—meaning to come out in a farther gully and so approach the corral from the west instead of from the east—came upon Applehead quite unexpectedly. She stopped and eyed him aslant from under her level, finely marked brows, and her eyes lightened with relief when she saw that Applehead looked more startled than she had felt. Indeed, Applehead had been calling Luck uncomplimentary names for cleaning the place of everything a man might need in a hurry, and he was ashamed of himself.
"Can't find a foot of danged wire on the danged place!" Applehead kicked a large, tangled bunch of weeds under the very nose of the horse which jumped sidewise. "Never seen such a maniac for puttin' things where a feller can't find 'em, as what Luck is." He was not actually speak ing to Annie-Many-Ponies—or if he was he did not choose to point his remarks by glancing at her.
"Wagalexa Conka, he heap careful for things belong when they stay," Annie-Many-Ponies observed in her musical contralto voice which always irritated Applehead with its very melody. "I think plenty wire all fold up neat in prop-room. Wagalexa Conka, he all time clean this studio from trash lie around everywhere."
"He does, hey?" Applehead's sunburnt mustache bristled like the whiskers of Compadre when he was snarling defiance at the little black dog. The feud was asserting itself. " Well, this here danged place ain't no studio! It's a ranch, and it b'longs to ME, Nip Furrman. And any balin' wire on this ranch is my balin' wire, and it's got a right to lay around wherever I want it t' lay. And I don't need no danged squaw givin' me hints about 'how my place oughta be kept—now I'm tellin' yuh!"
Annie-Many-Ponies did not reply in words. She sat on her horse, straight as any young warchief that ever led her kinsmen to battle, and looked down at Applehead with that maddening half smile of hers, inscrutable as the Sphinx her features sometimes resembled. Shunka Chistala (which is Sioux for Little Dog) came bounding over the low ridge that hid the ranch buildings from sight, and wagged himself dislocatingly up to her. Annie-Many-Ponies frowned at his approach until she saw that Applehead was aiming a clod at the dog, whereupon she touched her heels to the horse and sent him between Applehead and her pet, and gave Shunka Chistala a sharp command in Sioux that sent him back to the house with his tail dropped.
For a full half minute she and old Applehead looked at each other in open antagonism. For a squaw, Annie-Many-Ponies was remarkably unsubmissive in her bearing. Her big eyes were frankly hostile; her half smile was, in the opinion of Applehead, almost as frankly scornful. He could not match her in the subtleties of feminine warfare. He took refuge behind the masculine bulwark of authority.
"Where yuh bin with that horse uh mine?" he demanded harshly. "Purty note when I don't git no say about my own stock. Got him all het up and heavin' like he'd been runnin' cattle; I ain't goin' to stand for havin' my horses ran to death, now I'm tellin' yuh! Fer a squaw, I must say you're gittin' too danged uppish in your ways around here. Next time you want to go traipsin' around the mesa, you kin go afoot. I'm goin' to need my horses fer roundup."
A white girl would have made some angry retort; but Annie-Many-Ponies, without looking in the least abashed, held her peace and kept that little inscrutable smile upon her lips. Her eyes, however, narrowed in their gaze.
"Yuh hear me?" Poor old Applehead had never before attempted to browbeat a woman, and her unsubmissive silence seemed to his bachelor mind uncanny.
"I hear what Wagalexa Conka tell me." She turned her horse and rode composedly away from him over the ridge.
"You'll hear a danged sight more'n that, now I'm tellin' yuh!" raved Applehead impotently. "I ain't sayin' nothin' agin Luck, but they's goin' to be some danged plain speakin' done on some subjects when he comes back, and given' squaws a free rein and lettin' 'em ride rough-shod over everybody and everything is one of 'era. Things is gittin' mighty funny when a danged squaw kin straddle my horses and ride 'em to death, and sass me when I say a word agin it—now I'm tellin' yuh!"
He went mumbling rebellion that was merely the effervescing of a mood which would pass with the words it bred, to the store-room which Annie-Many-Ponies had called the prop-room. He found there, piled upon a crude shelf, many little bundles of wire folded neatly and with the outer end wound twice around to keep each bundle separate from the others. Applehead snorted at what he chose to consider a finicky streak in his secret idol, Luck Lindsay; but he took two of the little bundles and went and wired the wagon tongue. And in the work he found a salve of anticipatory pleasure, so that he ended the task to the humming of the tune he had heard a movie theatre playing in town as he rode by on his way home.