In the shade of Pedro Vijil’s little brown adobe on the Granados rancho, a horseman squatted to repair a broken cinch with strips of rawhide, while his horse––a strong dappled roan with a smutty face––stood near, the rawhide bridle over his head and the quirt trailing the ground.
The horseman’s frame of mind was evidently not of the sweetest, for to Vijil he had expressed himself in forcible Mexican––which is supposed to be Spanish and often isn’t––condemning the luck by which the cinch had gone bad at the wrong 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 punched holes 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 a whistle.
Directly over his head was a window, unglazed and wooden barred. A fat brown olla, dripping moisture, almost filled the deep window sill, but the interior was all in shadow. Its one door was closed. The Vijil family was scattered around in the open, most of them under the ramada, and after a frowning moment of mystification the young fellow resumed his task, but in silence.
Then, after a still minute, more than the whisper of a whistle came to him––the subdued sweet call of a meadow lark. It was so sweet it might have been 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 near him. “That jolt from the bay outlaw this morning has jingled my brain pans––we don’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 roan had lifted its head and was staring into the shadows back of the sweating olla.
“Hi, you caballero!”
The words were too clear to be mistaken, the “caballero” stared across to the only people in sight. There was Pedro Vijil sharpening an axe, while Merced, his wife, turned the creaking grindstone for him. The young olive branches of the Vijil family were having fun with a horned toad under the ramada where gourd vines twisted about an ancient grape, and red peppers hung in a gorgeous splash of color. Between that and the blue haze of the far mountains there was no sign of humanity to account for such cheery youthful Americanism as the tone 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 am the funniest looking thing! wish I dared ride home in it to shock them all silly.”
“Why not?” he asked, and again the girlish laugh gave him an odd thrill of comradeship.
“A good enough reason; they’d take Pat from me, and say he wasn’t safe to ride––but he is! My tumble was my own fault for letting them put on that fool English saddle. Never again for me!”
“They are all right for old folks and a pacing pony,” he observed, and again he heard the bubbling laugh.
“Well, Pat is not a pacing pony, not by a long shot; and I’m not old folks––yet!” Then after a little silence, “Haven’t you any curiosity?”
“I reckon there’s none allowed me on this count,” he replied without lifting his head, “between the wooden bars and Pedro’s shirt you certainly put the fences up on me.”
“I’m a damsel in distress waiting for a rescuing knight with a white banner and 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 the barred 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 always sings 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 Yank who 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 the girl behind the bars laughed until Merced let the grindstone halt while she cast a glance towards the house as if in doubt as to whether three feet of adobe wall and stout bars could serve instead of a duena to foolish young Americans 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 a dream, that you see through the adobe wall, and my equally thick skull. Far be it for me to doubt that the gift of second sight is yours, O seventh daughter of a seventh daughter!”
“No such thing! I’m the only one!” came the quick retort, and the young chap in the shade of the adobe shook with silent mirth.
“I see you laughing, Mr. Johnny Reb, you think you caught me that time. But you 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 job on these ranches!”
“What!” and he turned square around facing the window, then laughed. “That’s the way you mean to get even for the ‘seventh daughter’ guess is it? You think I can’t handle horses?”
“Nix,” was the inelegant reply, “I know you can, for I saw you handle that bay outlaw they ran in on you this morning: seven years old and no wrangler in Pima could ride him. Old Cap Pike said it was a damn shame to put you up against 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 some native sons who were not keen for the cactus trail of the Villistas. That old captain 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 senorita! this is so sudden!” he spoke in shy reproof, twisting his neckerchief in mock embarrassment, and again Merced looked toward the house because of peals of laughter there.
“You are certainly funny when you do that,” she said after her laughter had quieted down to giggles, “but I wasn’t joking, honest Indian I wasn’t! But how did you come to strike Granados?”
“Me? Well, I ranged over from California to sell a patch of ground I owned in Yuma. Then I hiked over to Nogales on a little pasear and offered to pack a gun and wear a uniform for this Mexican squabble, and the powers that be turned me down because one of my eyes could see farther than the other––that’s no joke––it’s a calamity! I spent all the dinero I had recovering from the shock, 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 for my valuable services and I rode over. Any other little detail you’d like to know?”
“N-no, only needed to know it wasn’t Conrad the manager hired you, and I asked if 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 over Mexicans from away down Hermosillo way.”
“’Cause why?” asked the man who had ceased pretense of mending the saddle, and was standing with back against the adobe.
“’Cause I don’t know,” came petulant response. “I only had the hunch when I saw you tame that outlaw in the corral. If he pulls wires to lose you, I’ll stop guessing; I’ll know!”
“Very interesting, senorita,” agreed the stranger reflectively. “But if I have a good job, I can’t see how it will give me aid or comfort to know that you’ve acquired knowledge, and stopped guessing. When’s your time up behind the bars?”
“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 a blessing.”
He heard again the girlish laughter and concluded she could not be over sixteen. There was silence for a space while only the creak of the grindstone cut the stillness. Whoever she was, she had given him a brief illuminating vision of the tactics of Conrad, the manager for the ranches of Granados and La 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 new American from the first circle of the rodeo. He stood there staring out across 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, and the young fellow straightened up and lifted the saddle.
“That’s so,” he acknowledged. “But as you whistled to me and the call seemed friendly, 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 my call. 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 the bonnie blue flag, to give aid and succor to the enemy.”
“You will not!” she retorted. “You’ll just whistle back friendly, and be chums. I think my clothes are dry now, and you’d better travel. If you meet anyone 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 the saddle and looked back. He could see no one in the window of the bars, but there came to him clear and sweet the field bugle of the meadow lark.
He answered it, lifted his sombrero and rode soberly towards the Granados corrals, three miles across the valley. Queer little trick she must be. American girls did not usually ride abroad alone along the border, and certainly 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 an elderly horseman jogging along across trail on a little mule. Each eyed the other appraisingly.
“Hello, Bub!” hailed the older man. “My name’s Pike, and you’re the new man from 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 and made use of it pump-handle fashion with a sort of sputtering glee. “Great guns, boy! there was just one K. Rhodes a-top of God’s green earth and we were pardners 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 in the corral with the outlaw Conrad had driven in for you to work, it wa’n’t a square deal to a white man. I was cussin’ mad.”
“So I heard,” and the blue eyes of the other smiled at the memory of the girl’s glib repetition of his discourse. “What’s the great idea? Aside from the 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 game here, wasn’t bred to it. Just knows enough to not try to run it solo. Now this Dolf Conrad does know horses and the horse market, and Granados rancho. He’s shipped 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 not assay as high grade ore. He is mixed up with them too-proud-to-fight clique organized by old maids of both sexes, and to show that he is above all prejudice, political or otherwise, he sure is corraling an extra lot of Mex help this year. I’ve companeros I’d go through hell for, but Conrad’s breed––well, enough said, Bub, but they’re different!” Mr. Pike bit off a chew of 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 the old-time ranger. He carried no reata and did not look like a ranchman. He had the southern intonation, and his eyes were wonderfully young for the almost 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’ down age. I drift back every so often. This ranch was Fred Bernard’s, and him and me flocked together for quite a spell. Singleton married Bernard’s widow––she’s dead now these seven years. I just drift back every so often to keep track of Bernard’s kid, Billie.”
“I see. Glad to have met you, Captain. Hope we can ride together often enough for me to hear about the old Apache days. This land has fetched out three generations of us, so it surely has some pull! My father came at the end of his 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 the squareness of jaw and the heavy dark brows. His black lashes made the deep blue 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 the woods seemed calling me, and I trailed over to look after a bit of land in Yuma. I wasted some time trying to break into the army, but they found some eye 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 my pockets––no outfit money, so I hailed Singleton as an angel monoplaned down with the ducats. Yes sir, I had all the dream survey made for a try at some gold 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 any other thing until I’ve had one try at it. Did do a little placer working in the 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 of the 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 flat broke 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 been waiting around for you about ten year, though I didn’t know what your name would be when you come, and it couldn’t be a better one! We’ll outfit first for the Three Hills of Gold in the desert, and if luck is against us there we’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––say boy! 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 years were 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 the future, I might suspect loco weed or some other dope,” he observed. “But the fact is you must have known that my grandfather in his day went on the trail of the Three Hills of Gold, and left about a dozen different plans on paper for 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 never got back––died there.”
“Yes, then my father gathered up all the plans and specifications and came out with a friend about fifteen years ago,” added Rhodes. “They never got anywhere, but he sort of worked the fever off, bought some land and hit the trail 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 come back; I can listen to a lot of ‘lost mine’ vagaries. It sounds like home sweet home 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 work here 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 gone East with the horses, or sent Brehmen, his secretary. But never mind, Bub, the eastern trip won’t take long. I’ll be devilin’ around getting our outfit and when the chance comes––us for the Three Hills of Gold!”
“It listens well,” agreed K. Rhodes, “cheeriest little pasear I’ve struck in the 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 our Prussian 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 therefore Conrad, would only have the management up to that time. Billie would know horses if nothing else, and––Then he interrupted himself and stared back the way he had come.
“I’m a forgetful old fool!” he stated with conviction. “I meandered out to take a look around for her, and I didn’t like the looks of that little dab of a 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 did you say your girl was?”
“You’ll find out if you hold your job long enough for her to be of age,” said Pike darkly. “She’ll be your boss instead of Conrad. It’s Billie Bernard, the owner 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 would garb herself in Pedro’s shirt and whistle at him through the bars of the little window.