"Dick, I shore will be glad to see Ken," said Jim Williams, in his lazy drawl. "I reckon you'll be, too?"
Jim's cool and careless way of saying things sometimes irritated me. Glad to see Ken Ward! I was crazy to see the lad.
"Jim, what you know about being glad to see any one isn't a whole lot," I replied. "You've been a Texan ranger all your life. I've only been out here in this wild, forsaken country for three years. Ken Ward is from my home in Pennsylvania. He probably saw my mother the day he left to come West… Glad to see him? Say!"
"Wal, you needn't git peevish. Now, if we calkilated right from Ken's letter he'll be on to-day's stage—an' there she comes bowlin' round the corner of the Pink Cliffs."
I glanced up eagerly, my eye sweeping out on the desert, climbing the red ridge to see a cloud of dust rolling along the base of the great walls.
"By Jingo! You're right, Jim. Here she comes. Say, I hope Ken is aboard."
Jim and I were sitting on a box in front of a store in the little town of Kanab, Utah. The day before we had ridden in off Buckskin Mountain, having had Ken Ward's letter brought out to us by one of the forest rangers. We had a room in a cottage where we kept what traps and belongings we did not need out on the preserve; and here I had stored Ken's saddle, rifle, lasso, blanket—all the things he had used during his memorable sojourn with us on Penetier the year before. Also we had that morning sent out to one of the ranches for Ken's mustang, which was now in a near-by corral. We intended to surprise Ken, for it was not likely we would forget how much he cared for that mustang. So we waited, watching the cloud of dust roll down the ridge till we could see under it the old gray stage swaying from side to side.
"Shore, he mightn't be aboard," said Jim.
I reproached myself then for having scorned Jim's matter-of-fact way. After all there was no telling from Jim's looks or words just how he felt. No doubt he looked forward to Ken's visit as pleasurably as I. We were two lonely forest rangers, seldom coming to the village, and always detailed to duty in the far solitudes of Coconina Preserve, so that the advent of a lively and companionable youngster would be in the nature of a treat.
The stage bumped down over the last rocky steps of the ridge, and headed into the main street of Kanab. The four dusty horses trotted along with a briskness that showed they knew they had reached the end of their journey.
"There's a red-headed kid sittin' with the driver," remarked Jim. "Leslie, thet can't be Ken."
"No, Ken's hair is light… There he is, Jim… There's Ken. He's looking out of the window!"
The horses clattered up and stopped short with a rattle and clink of trappings, and a lumbering groan from the old stage. Somebody let out a ringing yell. I saw the driver throw off a mail-pouch. Then a powerful young fellow leaped over the wheel and bounded at me. "Dick Leslie!" he yelled. I thought I knew that yellow hair, flying up, and the keen eyes like flashes of blue fire. But before I could be sure of anything he was upon me, had me in a bear hug that stopped my breath. Then I knew it was Ken Ward.
"Oh, Dick, maybe I'm not glad to see you!" Whereupon he released me, which made it possible for me to greet him. He interrupted me with eager pleasure, handing me a small bundle and some letters. "From home, Dick—your mother and sister. Both well when I left and tickled to death that I was going to visit you… Why—hello, Jim Williams!"
"Ken, I shore am glad to see you," replied Jim, as he wrung and pumped Ken's hand. "But I wouldn't 'a' knowed you. Why, how you've growed! An' you wasn't no striplin' when you trimmed the Greaser last summer. Ken, you could lick him now in about a minnit."
"Well, maybe not quite so quick," replied Ken, laughing. "Jim, I've taken on fifteen or twenty pounds since I had that scrap with the Greaser, and I've had a season's training under the most famous football and baseball trainers in the world."
"Wal, now, Ken, you're shore goin' to tell me all about thet," said Jim, greatly interested.
To me Ken Ward had changed, and I studied him with curious interest. The added year sat well upon him, for there was now no suggestion of callowness. The old frank, boyish look was the same, yet somewhat different. Ken had worked, studied, suffered. But as to his build, it was easy to see the change. That promise of magnificent strength and agility, which I had seen in him since he was a mere boy, had reached its fulfilment. Lithe and straight as an Indian, almost tall, wide across the shoulders, small-waisted and small-hipped, and with muscles rippling at his every move, he certainly was the most splendid specimen of young manhood I had ever seen.
"Hey, Kid, why don't you come down?" called Ken to the boy on top of the stage. "Here's Dick Leslie—you remember him."
I looked from the boy to Ken.
"It's my brother Hal," responded Ken. "Father wanted me to bring him along, and Hal has been clean mad ever since I was out West last year. So, Dick, I had to bring him. I expect you'll be angry with me, but I couldn't have come without him. I wanted him along, too, Dick, and if it's all right with you—"
"Sure, Ken, it's all right," I interrupted. "Only he's pretty much of a kid—has he got any sand?"
"He's all sand," replied Ken, in a lower voice. "That's the trouble; he's got too much sand."
Ken called to his brother again and the youngster reluctantly clambered down. Evidently the meeting with Ken's ranger friends was to be an ordeal for Hal. I seemed to remember his freckled face and red head, but not very well. Then he dropped over the wheel of the stage, and came toward me readily, holding out his hand.
"Hullo, Dick, I remember you all right," he said.
I replied to his greeting and gave the lad a close scrutiny. I should say fourteen years would have topped his age. He was short, sturdy, and looked the outdoor boy. His expression was one of intense interest, as if he lived every moment of his life to its utmost, and he had the most singular eyes I ever beheld. They were very large, of a piercing light gray, and they seemed to take everything in with a kind of daring flash. Altogether, I thought, here was a lad out of the ordinary, one with latent possibilities which gave me a vague alarm.
"Wal, now, so you're Ken's brother," said Jim Williams. "I shore am glad to see you. Ken an' me was pretty tolerable pals last summer, an' I reckon you an' me kin be thet, too."
It was plain Jim liked the looks of the youngster or else he would never have made that speech. Hal approached the ranger and shook hands awkwardly. He was not timid, but backward. I saw that he was all eyes, and he looked Jim over from spurs to broadbrim with the look of one who was comparing the reality with a picture long carried in mind. Of course Ken had told Hal all about the Texan, and what that telling must have been showed plainly in the lad's manner. Manifestly he was satisfied with Jim's tall form, his sun-scorched face and hawk eyes, the big blue gun Jim packed, and the high boots and spurs he wore.
"Where's Hiram Bent?" asked Ken, earnestly. "Hiram's back on the saddle with his hounds. He's waiting for us."
"He told me about them," replied Ken. "Lion dogs, the best in the West, Hiram said. I guess maybe I'm not aching to see them… Dick! My mustang! I forgot him. What did you ever do with him? You know I left him with you at Holston last summer."
"We'll see if we can't hear something of him," I replied, evasively, as if I wanted Ken to meet a disappointment gradually. His face fell, but he did not say any more about the mustang. "Ken, I'm going to sign you into service as a ranger—my helper. Hiram is game-warden, you know, and I've arranged' for us to go with him. He's specially engaged now in trying to clean out the cougars. The critters are thick as hops back on the north rim, and we've got a lively summer ahead of us."
"Sounds great," replied Ken. "Say, what do you mean by north rim?"
"It's the north rim of the Ca–on—Grand Ca–on—and the wildest, ruggedest country on earth."
"Oh yes, I forgot that Coconina takes in the Ca–on. Will we get to see much of it?"
"Ken, in a month from now you'll be sick of climbing out of that awful gash."
For answer Ken smiled his doubts. Then, leaving Jim and Hal, who appeared to be getting on a friendly footing, I took Ken over to the office of Mr. Birch, the Supervisor of Coconina Forest Preserve. As a matter of fact, this rather superior person had always jarred on me. He was inclined to be arrogant, and few of the rangers liked him. I had to get along with him, for being head ranger, it was policy for me to keep a civil tongue in my head. When I introduced Ken and stated my desire to sign him in as my helper the Supervisor looked rebellious and said I had all the helpers I needed.
"Who is this fellow anyhow, Leslie?" he demanded. "I'm not going to have any of your Eastern friends chasing around the preserve, setting fires and killing deer. This idea of yours about a helper is only a bluff. I don't sign any more rangers. Understand?"
I bit my tongue to keep from loosing it, and while I was trying to think what was best to do Ken stepped forward.
"Mr. Supervisor," he said, blandly, "I've only come out to have a little vacation and get some practical ideas on forestry. Please be good enough to look at my credentials."
Ken handed over letters with the Washington seal stamped on them, and Birch stared. What was more when he had read the letters his manner changed very considerably, and he even looked at me with a shade of surprise.
"Oh—yes—Mr. Ward, that'll be all right. You see—I—I only—I've got to be particular about rangers and all that. Now anything I can do for you I'll be glad to do."
Ken's letters must have been pretty strong, and I was secretly pleased to see old Birch taken down a bit. The upshot of the matter was that Ken got a free hand in Coconina, to roam where he liked, and spend what time he wished with the rangers on duty. We left the office highly pleased.
"We'll go over to the corral now and look over some mustangs," I said.
From Ken's face I knew his thoughts reverted once more to the mustang which had trotted its way into his heart. But I said nothing. I wanted his surprise to be complete. Jim and Hal joined us, and together we walked down the street. Kanab was only a hamlet of a few stores, a church, a school, and cottages. My lodgings were at a cottage just at the end of the street, and here, back of a barn, was the corral. When we turned a corner of the barn there was a black mustang, all glossy as silk, with long mane flying and shiny hoofs lifting as he pranced around. He certainly looked proud. That, I felt sure, was because of the thorough currying and brushing I had given him.
Ken stopped stock-still and his eyes began to bulge. As for the mustang, he actually tried to climb over the bars. He knew Ken before Ken knew him.
"Oh! Dick Leslie!" exclaimed Ken.
Then, placing both hands on the top bar, with one splendid vault he cleared the gate.