The Line of Least Resistance/Chapter 3
THE well was covered, the sprucing-up accomplished, the bed rolled and tied, the outfit piled upon the boulder in a canvas-topped pyramid and weighted down with small rocks; and the two friends, arrayed in the best their war sacks afforded, paced soberly on their way, with Doubting Thomas in tow. They threaded the low, winding hills and ridges, and came to the broad level on the plain by the dead crater of Nine Mile. Caballo Mountain, which had bulked large and dominant in the narrowed horizon of the foothills, was now a detail in the mighty expanse of desert crossed and rimmed by crowding ranges, some wave-edged, some keen-angled, knife-sharp. White Dundee gleamed to the northeast, tiny sails on a gray sea.
They were not to reach Dundee so soon. A bunch of antelope tempted them westward. They loosed the led horse and left him to his own devices, knowing that he would go to town for water, and made a wide detour to try for a shot under cover of a friendly ridge. This, too, was not to be. On their way they spied a far-off bunch of wild cattle making for broken country, gave chase, and so, far to riverward, plucked therefrom a ripe maverick.
While the iron was heating they proceeded to the selection of a brand—as yet they had adopted neither brand nor cattle. F A T was discussed and rejected. "Every time anybody tells a man to kill a fat beef he'll go and get one of ours, just for a joke," said Hiram. "It's too temptin'. K Y would be the very thing, if that Aleman outfit didn't already give it. Why not try I O U?"
"And sometimes W and X?" suggested Don; further pointing out that this could be too readily modified to read 700 or TOM. They finally decided to inclose it in a box—
This was an auspicious beginning, but Hiram was not satisfied. "We're down pretty well toward the ferry," said he as his newly labeled property plunged madly away. "Le's go over through the breaks to McRae Creek and see if we can't get us another one. We got a home now, all right, but it don't seem hardly proper to call one measly, brockle-faced heifer a herd."
"Just as you say," assented Kennedy. "I'm thirsty any way, and McRae's the nearest water. D'you suppose we'll ever learn to carry our canteens? We ought to, following the line of least resistance the way we do. The place we start for has precious little to do with where we land at night. You keep down this ridge, Marse Hi, and I'll bear to the left and go down the draw. That way we'll get 'em going and coming."
"These long-horns ain't so snaky as them in Lower Mescal," observed Hiram.
"The Mescal cattle are really pretty wild, all right," agreed Don, doing up his rope. "But I've figured out an easy way to get 'em. Just wait till they go to water and catch 'em backing out! Well, so long!"
He trotted away. Hiram rode slowly down the backbone, humming a gay and lilting saddle song:
Over the hills and down to the water,
Some old man's goin' to lose his daughter!
But he did not "jump" any stock. Cattle were scarce on the Jornada side of the rim. There were only three outfits of less than a thousand head each—the K I M, the K Y, and Touissant's H B T. The "wild bunch" was mainly composed of spirited strays from the west side.
From a bend in the deep cañon to his left a saddled horse burst suddenly and vanished suddenly round the next curve. As he passed at top speed Hiram had barely time to note that it was a side-saddle. He dug Blackie with the spurs. "That horse'l1 be winded at the rate he's going and Don'll drop the twine on him," he thought. "Me to see who's hurt."
Sure-footed Blackie fell away down the steep slope in a cloud of dust. Striking the trail of the runaway in the broad valley of McRae Creek, Hiram followed the back track at a gallop; the shod feet had gashed deeply in the loose, sandy soil.
He was speeding by, intent on the "sign," when a voice reached him, soft, melodious and startlingly near. It said in a mocking drawl:
"Do you happen to be looking for me?"
Close above him on the steep hillside sat a culpably well-favored young woman in a black riding-habit, leaning at ease and smiling at her rescuer in frank amusement. Blackie scrambled up the hill; Hiram swung down, hat in hand.
"You're not hurt, Miss Mallory?"
"Not a bit," said the young woman with the utmost composure. "Did you see my horse? I got down to gather these"—indicating a small heap of agate pebbles—"and very stupidly forgot to drop the reins. So he ran away. Then I came up here to watch him, saw you coming and waited for you. And, if you please, how do you know that I am Miss Mallory?"
"Yes, I saw your horse drifting up the cañon," said Hiram. "But he seemed to be goin' somewhere and I was afraid whoever you were was in trouble, so I came along."
"I should say you did!" said the girl admiringly. "How can you ride that way? Aren't you afraid you'll break your neck, or ruin your horse at the least? General Putnam's famous ride was nothing to that. But you didn't tell me how you knew my name?"
"Shucks!" said Hiram disdainfully. "That ain't nothin'! You ought to see the boys after a wild bunch in the brush. Ride? Why, the steeper it is the faster they go! They'd lose old Isr'l so quick he couldn't follow their dust. Hurt? Naw! Men nor horses either. We're used to it. That's our game. Isn't there any one with you?"
At the disapproval of his tone the young lady tossed her head with spirit. "Oh, you men think we mustn't go anywhere alone! But I didn't really mean to come so far. First I went to the lake and then to see the prairie-dog town."
"Lots o' them agates there," said Hiram, shrewdly designing to divert his questioner from a certain yet unanswered query. At this the girl contracted her brows to a slight frown, which might have been displeasure, but was really an intent effort to recall that same sidetracked query. Hiram thought this frown fascinating. She had frank, steady eyes, warm and big and brown, a piquant nose, a mouth humorous, expressive and capable, rather large than otherwise, but eminently provocative and alluring.
She wrinkled her nose resentfully. Evidently she did not approve of masculine dictation. "Thank you, I saw them. And then I rode up the pipeline to the reservoir on top of the hill. Then I thought I would go back a different way and see some new country. Why shouldn't I?"
Hiram almost cast a significant look at that quarter whence we came, checked himself, and turned his gaze admiringly to the blue zenith, resolutely compressing his lips in most provoking fashion.
"Don't say it!" warned Miss Mallory; then inconsistently abandoned this position and took to the defense. "Anyway, all I had to do was to walk over to the pumphouse and wait for the stage. But you haven't answered my question. How do you know what my name is?"
"I guess your people would be pretty uneasy before the stage came. But I can easy see how you came to drift so far," said Hiram tolerantly. "It's natural. As Don, my pardner, is always saying, you follow the line of least resistance. We—I did the same thing. I'm supposed to be in Dundee town right this very now—yes, and long before now. But then, I'm a man."
But Miss Mallory was not to be taunted into retort. "Will you kindly tell me how you know my name?" she said in ominously slow and measured tones.
There was no evading this. "I saw you when you went to Hot Springs with Kim Ki Rogers. So I asked him."
"When I went to Hot Springs? Why-y!" Miss Mallory's admirable composure was not proof against this implied candor. Swift, dainty rose-color fluttered on her rounded cheek. "But, dear me, there were ten of us!"
"I didn't see the others," Hiram explained. It was outrageous. But she forgave him. To forgive is admirable. It is rather a feminine quality. A ruddier and stronger tide swept to her brow. Then the brown eyes crinkled to warm mirth; dimpling adorably, she broke forth into frank, full-throated laughter. "That was very nice of you," she declared, dabbing at her brimming eyes with a dainty kerchief.
"Well, you wanted to know," said Hiram, unabashed, "and I told you. Now, hadn't we better be going? Blackie's plumb gentle, and I'll rig you up a stirrup with my gun strap."
Miss Mallory regarded him curiously and seemed about to give way to fresh outburst of mirth. "But what a shame for you to walk so far!" she said hesitatingly. "And what will become of my horse?"
"Oh, we'll get him on the fall roundup," said Hiram lightly. Whereat they both laughed.
"I don't see how you can walk at all in those absurd high-heeled boots," she said in deeply sympathetic tones. "You'll turn your ankles. I don't understand why you wear them."
"Yes, that's always the way," grumbled the pedestrian. "Folks seem to think we wear boots for looks. We got to have 'em. When we rope horses afoot we dig the heels in the ground, else we couldn't hold 'em. And when we ride wild horses—look at this stirrup!" He held the stirrup up for examination. "If it wasn't for the 'silly heels' our feet'd go through the stirrups and we'd be wasted. If we made the stirrups smaller we'd never get our feet in 'em at all with a horse whirlin' and plungin' and buckin' seven ways for Sunday while we was tryin' to get on. And if they was smaller our feet'd hang every time a horse fell with us, wild or gentle, and we'd be mashed or dragged to death regular once every day. No, sir-ee! Can't run cattle at all without high heels."
"That reminds me," said Miss Mallory with a dazzling smile, "that I know your name, too. You're Mr. Yoast—Mr. Hiram Yoast. I saw you riding a wild horse across the track the other day. So I asked who you were. I didn't see the man with you!"
"Huh! Wild horse! That horse wasn't wild. Just skittish. That was my pardner, Don Kennedy. Talk about ridin'! You ought to just see him ride. I tell you, there's one man that's strictly on the job any place you put him. When he don't get what he goes after there's no use sendin' any one else! He's got brains, too, Don has—and schoolin'."
"Dear me!" quoth Miss Mallory. "Is—is he in town now?"
"No-o. But he'll be in soon."
"When did you see him last?"
Hiram recurred to his evasive tactics. "You ain't at all like what I expected you would be," he said, looking up in open admiration. "I don't understand it. First, your wanting to go back the other way. And you're as friendly—why, you're just like folks! Boston people are supposed to be sorter stand-offish. Like they was—well, someway——
"Made of finer clay?" suggested Miss Mallory. "Oh, they are! Decidedly! But then, you see, I'm from Omaha. Omaha girls are not made of clay at all, but 'sugar and spice and everything nice'."
"But Kim Ki said——"
"Guardy—my guardian is a New Yorker. But that's not quite Boston. But we're forgetting. When did you see Mr. Kennedy last?"
"Well, you see," said the wretched Hiram in a last desperate attempt to change the subject, "we were out in the hills so long we lost track of the day of the month. Someway we got from two to four days apart in our reckoning. So when I thought it was the tenth or twelfth Don was sure it was the thirteenth or fourteenth."
"And yet you didn't strike me as being at all a backward young man," mused Miss Mallory. "You ought to cut notches in a stick, like Robinson Crusoe."
"I will!" said Hiram promptly. "Beginning from today!" At this impertinence Miss Mallory frowned again. It was time to let this resourceful young man know that he could not have matters at all his own way. Casting about for an advantageous attack, she noted her companion's agonized limp.
"Your poor feet must pain you dreadfully. I declare, it's too bad," she purred deceitfully.
Hiram heroically ceased to limp. "Oh, that's all right," he declared stoutly, rejoiced to have diverted this direct and persevering young person from further chronological research. "We'll soon be up to the head of the draw where we can see town, and, as English says, then-we-shan't-be-long."
"There! That's one of the things I wanted to ask you!" said the girl in the jubilant tones of one who recalls a fugitive topic of interest. "How am I to know the difference between an arroyo, a cañon, a ravine, a draw and a creek bed?"
"Why—let's see. A creek bed is gravelly, and there may or may not be gravel in any of the others. Then a cañon is a big arroyo, an arroyo's a small cañon, a ravine—I'm not sure, but I think a ravine is a gulch, and a gulch is a steep-sided ravine, and a draw is not so steep—gentle slopes, more like a valley. The head of a cañon is generally a draw till it begins to get rough. But really, we use the words higgledy-piggledy."
"Thank you. I see!" said the girl thoughtfully. "And a divide? Why, of course, it's the higher land dividing any two watercourses, whatever they are called. Mr. Yoast, don't you think we ought to go to the divide between this—draw"—she hesitated, with a questioning look aslant, to see if she had used the right word. Hiram nodded encouragingly—"between this draw and the next one south, and wave your friend to come on with my horse?"
At this swift and unexpected onslaught the disconcerted Mr. Yoast sat down abruptly on a forked soapweed and looked at her in wide-eyed reproach. With sighing caution he took his ankle in his hand and solicitously worked it to and fro, bending his head to listen intently. "Suffering humanity! hear it creak!" he murmured, and gently put it down. "I'll have to send 'em to a cheer-up-odist.
"I'm sure your feet have been punished enough," said Miss Mallory sympathetically. "After all, it wasn't their fault. If it was your deceitful tongue that was being blistered, now——" She set her red lips to a straight, stern line, but there was a traitorous quiver at the corners.
Hiram raised his downcast eyes. "I didn't deceive you——" he began.
"Indeed you did not!" said Miss Mallory, dimpling. "But you tried to! I saw him when he dodged back behind the hill. He must be a very discreet person."
"I mean, I didn't tell you any—whoppers."
"Lies," said Miss Mallory vindictively. "No, you didn't. And you were just as careful not to tell the truth. You squirmed." She leveled an accusing finger and wrinkled her nose in derision. "Shame-y, shame-y! How you did squirm!"
Hiram squirmed again, most unhappily. He broke a flower stalk from the soapweed and trimmed it with his knife. "But I suppose I'll have to forgive you—the compliment was so obviously sincere. You do compliments very nicely, Mr. Yoast. It bespeaks long practice."
"It don't!" said this exasperated and goaded young man rudely. "You're the first girl I ever——"
"Walked for? Oh, I can believe that," she said maliciously. "But the first one was a—whopper. Of course you saw the others."
"Mr. Yoast, it is very rude to contradict."
Mr. Yoast might well have made the plea that the contradicted statement was a question in all but form, but cleverly did no such untactful thing. He was—unprofessionally—singularly honest and wise.
"But I didn't—not really see 'em. Of course, I knew they were there, but there isn't one I'd know again if I met her in the big middle of the road."
"Women are so credulous!" she mocked. "But I'd dearly love to believe that if I could." She sighed hypocritically, not ill pleased for all that. "What are you making of that stick, Mr. Yoast?"
Hiram had shaped and rounded the head of the soapweed stalk and, at this query, he cut a deep, emphatic notch almost through the thickest part of it and got to his feet with groaning alacrity. "All ready! Let's hobble along and find Don. This, Miss Mallory, is my combined cane and calendar."
Miss Mallory blushed furiously at the significant notch.
"Oh, you silly boy!" she said. "Do get along with you!"
Hiram's dancing eyes looked the obvious and blissful retort: "Oh, you dear old lady!" But he did not say it. After all, it was not necessary.