It is never too late to learn.

At daylight there was hubbub, horseplay, and banter on the Double X. Art French climbed up into the chuck wagon (the cook’s supply list in his pocket), banged on a huge pot, and announced that the race was on. Arch Wiggins, on this part of the journey, at least, had plenty of assistant horse wranglers, for the eight riders, Cimarron with the rest, herded the horses and started for the SV, happy as schoolboys on a lark.

Reaching Gunsight, they caused quite some commotion, and fired into the air to give zest to the occasion. Dave mopped his beaded brow several times before his share in the festivities slackened, and Two-Spot, burning with a fever of curiosity, shuffled from the chuck wagon being loaded in front of Dailey’s to the saloon, asking shrewd questions and making pertinent observations.

“An’ why th’ waggin?” he asked Slim.

“To put Juniper in,” answered that cheerful disciple of George Washington. “We reckoned we’d like to have a town closer to th’ ranch, an’ Gunsight ain’t good enough.”

Two-Spot wandered around and put the question to Cimarron.

The segundo regarded him with level gaze. “It’s[208] for th’ widder’s mite,” he answered. “We’re on th’ rustle, which ain’t to be told.”

“Huh!” snorted Two-Spot, “you might be aimin’ for some widder, at that; but I’m sayin’ that if she sees you first, you’ll need more’n eight men an’ a waggin to take her away from her home an’ fambly. What are you aimin’ to rustle?”

“Every cow on a certain ranch between here an’ Juniper,” whispered Cimarron, looking stealthily around.

“Then don’t you waste no time hangin’ around here,” warned Two-Spot, also looking stealthily around. “Big Tom’s gettin’ up early these mornin’s, I bets.”

Cimarron gravely shook his head, whereat Two-Spot remarked carelessly, apropos of nothing, “Smitty has left th’ range for good. He had two holes in his hat, th’ upper hole like a coffeepot with th’ lid back. He rode his own hoss, an’ was goin’ strong when he passed here. But nobody was chasin’ him, then.”

“Hey, fellers!” shouted the segundo, joyously, “Smitty has follered Squint, with a couple of gun-shot wounds in his Mex. hat!”

Laughter and cheerful remarks greeted the news, and Dave had to verify it.

“Bar H: mark two!” cried Norris. “Bring ’em up, you ropers—th’ irons are hot!”

Two-Soot, despairing of gaining any real information in Dave’s, shuffled out and went to Dailey’s where Art French was putting the last of the provisions on the wagon.

“Hello French!” greeted Two-Spot, putting a foot[209] on the spokes of a wheel. “Where are you fellers headin’ for?”

“Up th’ Juniper trail,” answered Art. “Want to come along? Have you got th’ nerve to take a chance with somebody else’s cattle?”

Two-Spot looked at him intently. “What are you aimin’ to do with ’em?” he asked.

“What do folks usually do with cows that don’t belong to ’em?” countered Art.

“Holy mavericks!” muttered Two-Spot. “These here ijuts ain’t carin’ a whole lot who knows about it! What you got th’ waggin for? Aimin’ to squat out there an’ steal ’em as fast as they grows up?”

“That’s for th’ hides of them that gets killed. We’re goin’ to round up every hoof, clean and prompt.”

“You didn’t stop at th’ Doc’s on yore way up, did you?” asked Two-Spot, paying no attention to the noise made by several men who had mounted and were riding toward the wagon at a walk.

“Why?”

“Oh, nothin’, only I reckon’d mebby you’d got some of them little white pills he shoots into hisself.”

“Can you keep a tally?” asked Art, carelessly.

“I can; but I won’t.”

Art waved a hand at him. “He can tally; but he won’t.”

Three ropes dropped over the surprised ex-tally man and were drawn not unpleasantly tight. He thought it might be a joke, so he grinned; it would not do to let anyone think he took it seriously, because it might cause them to take it that way. “Takes three men on[210] hosses to rope me,” he jeered, chuckling. “Better get th’ rest of th’ gang before I gets rough an’ boisterous.”

“Can you set a horse?” asked Slim.

“I shore can’t,” regretted Two-Spot. “It’s one of th’ sorrers of my life.”

“Then we’ll have to tie him on,” said Wood. “Chuck us out a couple of hobbles, Art.”

“I can ride any hoss you can,” boasted Two-Spot. “I was bustin’ ’em before you was borned.”

“Then we’ll hobble th’ hoss,” laughed Wiggins.

“Loosen ’em up; I hears Dave a-callin’!” exclaimed Two-Spot, suspiciously eager to answer duty’s call.

“Where you aimin’ to have him swing?” demanded Art. “Squint has got to be revenged.”

“Th’ first tree,” growled Slim. “We gives you one chance to save yoreself an’ help rid this range of law-breakers. Who got Squint?”

“You go to h—l!” blazed Two-Spot as the ropes tightened. “Take ’em off me!”

“Who got Squint?” repeated Slim, threateningly.

“If I tells, will you let me out of these cussed ropes?” asked the shivering victim.

“We will!”

“Smitty got him,” chuckled the captive. “Ask him if you don’t believe me. Take ’em off, now!” As soon as he was freed he danced away, wary and anxious, and bumped into Cimarron, whose muscular arms held him as in a vice. “Now, what’s th’ matter?” blazed Two-Spot, wriggling in vain. “What you reckon yo’re goin’ to do?”

“We need a tally man on this rustlin’ expedition,”[211] said Cimarron, “an’ we like yore looks. Bring up a cayuse, an’ he can go bareback; either that or ride with Art.”

“I’m ridin’ with Art if I goes, which I ain’t aimin’ to!” snorted Two-Spot. “I can’t count up to more’n ten,” he protested.

“You won’t have to count at all,” Cimarron assured him. “All you got to do is make little pencil marks like a picket fence on a piece of paper, or drop a pebble in yore hat for every cow. You can drop pebbles, can’t you?”

“Not very good,” deprecated Two-Spot. “I’m too oncertain.”

“Well, when yo’re oncertain,” chuckled Slim, “yore chuck will be oncertain. Th’ oncertainer you are, th’ less you’ll eat.”

Cimarron picked Two-Spot up and put him in the wagon, whereupon Slim and Wood rode up close to it, ropes in hand. “There ain’t nothin’ oncertain about Slim’s ropin’, or Wood’s, neither,” warned Cimarron. “You better stay right in that waggin.” He turned to go to his horse. “Come on, boys! We’re startin’ now!”

Dave went to a window to see them off, caught sight of Two-Spot’s appealing face in the wagon, and hastened to the door and out toward the vehicle.

“Hi!” shrilled Larry, his rope darting from his hand.

“Hi! Hi! Hi!” yelled the others, their ropes going to the mark.

“What’n h—l!” shouted Dave, struggling, and[212] glaring around. He was the center from which four rope radii pointed to the cardinal points of the compass. “Leggo me! Loosen ’em up, you coyotes! Loosen up!”

“Does Two-Spot go with us?” asked Larry.

“Can we borrow him for a few days, to keep tally for us on th’ SV, Mr. Green?” politely inquired Bud, tightening the rope.

“You can; an’ go to blazes, for all I cares!” snorted Dave. He loosened the ropes and lost no time in getting back to his window. “Cuss ’em! All right; take him!” he yelled at the noisy cavalcade. “But if anythin’ happens to him, you’ll settle with Dave Green! You hear me?”

They did not.

Margaret, responding to her brother’s exited summons, went to the door and her hands flew to her breast. A wagon, loaded with packages, pulled up at the dilapidated corral and eight rough-looking men, driving a herd of horses, stopped near it. One of them kept on at a walk and approached her. Removing his sombrero, he pulled up and bowed.

“Ma’am,” he said, slowly and kindly, a smile wreathing his weather-beaten face, from which genial gray eyes twinkled at her; “Ma’am, we have come out to round up for you. We understand that this ranch ain’t been combed for three years—an’ it shore is time it was. I saw a wire fence north of th’ trail: how far does it run?”

“Why, why—I didn’t know—we were not expect[213]ing any round-up. Isn’t there some mistake?” she faltered.

“I don’t reckon there is, Ma’am,” Cimarron assured her. “Mr. Nelson was tellin’ us about th’ SV, an’ we all reckoned it was time there was a round-up run over here. You ought to know how many cows you got; an’ mebby there’s some as should be branded.”

“I hardly know what to say—how to thank you,” Margaret replied. “Won’t you come in and speak to father? He doesn’t want to leave his bed for a few days more.”

“Shore, Ma’am,” said Cimarron, dismounting and throwing the reins over the head of his horse, and following her into the house.

“Father, this is Mr.—Mr.—?” she looked at Cimarron inquiringly.

“Quantrell—Cimarron Quantrell,” he smiled. “I was born on th’ banks of th’ Cimarron when they wasn’t exactly safe for bein’ born on, but our fambly was lucky.”

“This is my father, Mr. Quantrell,” smiled Margaret. “I’ll leave you men to talk by yourselves. If you want me, please call.”

“Arnold,” said Cimarron, with simple directness, “we’ve come out here, nine of us, from th’ Double X, to round up for you. Nelson said you hadn’t held none in three years, an’ we reckoned it was time we was payin’ you a neighborly call. When you get an outfit of yore own some day you can give us a hand. By helpin’ each other we’ll both be helpin’ ourselves. How far does that wire fence run, up north of th’ house?”

[214]

“Mr. Quantrell, I don’t know how to thank you,” replied Arnold “I was growing to think there were no human beings in this country, but I’m beginning to change my mind. Even Doctor Reed has had a change of heart.”

“Don’t you bank on th’ Doc changin’ his ideas,” warned Cimarron. “He come out here because he was made to come. He shore was plain kidnapped that night.”

“You amaze me! Surely you are mistaken. Who would force him to come here?”

“That ain’t known,” answered Cimarron, “but everybody knows he was forced, all right. Th’ fool says so, hisself.”

“This is astonishing!”

“How long did you say that wire was?”

“Oh, yes; I forgot It’s nearly a mile; why?”

“I’m aimin’ to hold a herd ag’in’ it; it’ll save men. Now, we’re aimin’ to start on th’ west end first, before anybody knows what’s up,” and the segundo sketched the operations as he had planned them. Leaving as soon as he could, he was crossing the kitchen when Margaret stopped him.

“You told father about Doctor Reed coming against his will?” she asked.

“Why, yes, Ma’am; did I trample on anythin’?”

“It doesn’t matter—only I hoped to keep that from him. It pleased him so to think the hostility was dying out.”

“Ma’am, I’m shore sorry, but I didn’t know that. An’ it’s all right, too, for th’ hostility is dying out.”

[215]

“It’s perfectly all right. Where do you expect to cook; and what are you doing with Two-Spot?”

“We aim to cook on th’ range, Ma’am; an’ Two-Spot is goin’ to be our tally man. He was plumb tickled at th’ chance to help.”

“Can’t you cook here? Or, better yet, can’t I cook for you? I would like to do something.”

“Well, at first we’ll not be near enough to th’ house for th’ boys to have time to ride in for meals,” Cimarron replied. “You see, as we move over th’ range, our cook moves with us, which saves time. Mebby when ‘we work close at hand you can cook a meal for us—but I’m sayin’ that you don’t know what yo’re tryin’ to get into. I’ll be leavin’ now, Ma’am. If you hears anythin’, or sees anythin’ that you don’t understand, don’t you worry none. I’m goin’ out to start th’ boys. Good afternoon. Ma’am.”

She watched him join the riders and saw them, with chuck wagon and horse herd, drive down toward Green Valley, noisy with cheerful laughter and shouted jests. They passed around a hill and became lost to her sight, and soon the voices could be heard no more.

“Margaret!” came an excited, impatient call from the front room.

“Yes, Father; I’m coming,” she answered, turning and entering the house.

“It begins to look like people are getting friendly,” he exclaimed, smiles playing on his drawn face. “Perhaps things will change, and we can make the ranch a success!”

“‘Luck always turns,'” she smiled.

[216]

“Are you getting to believe in luck?” he demanded.

“‘I do; when somebody’s behind it pushing hard,'” she replied, turning her face away.

“Are you crying my dear?” he exclaimed, but she had left the room.

While events were moving smoothly and swiftly on the SV, a new freight wagon rumbled north over the Highbank-Gunsight trail; and about the time that a circle of tired but happy punchers sat around a roaring fire on the west end of the SV ranch, the great wagon rolled around the corner of the hotel in Gunsight and the weary driver got down stiffly to put up and attend to his four-horse team. After becoming acquainted with George, and eating a hasty supper in the hotel, Jerry Wheatley went around to Dave’s to make the acquaintance of that person and whoever else might be in the saloon, and to tell about Wolf Forbes and his trip to Highbank. He found the place quiet, but he left it full of hysterical laughter, wet eyes, sore sides, and some hiccups. And before he had gone to sleep, Dave’s patrons were emulating some of the substantial citizens of Highbank in the avidity with which they sought strength from Dave’s merchandise. An occasional burst of uproarious laughter brought the freighter back from the shadowy boundaries of sleep and set his bed shaking as he silently joined in. Realizing that Wolf’s miseries were going to do more for him in the matter of getting acquainted along the way than a dozen ordinary trips up the trail would accomplish, he smiled contentedly and fell asleep.

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