Thurston, dressed immaculately in riding clothes of the latest English cut, went airily down the stairs and discovered that he was not early, as he had imagined. Seven o'clock, he had told himself proudly, was not bad for a beginner; and he had smiled in anticipation of Hank Graves' surprise which was fortunate, since he would otherwise have been cheated of smiling at all. For Hank Graves, he learned from the cook, had eaten breakfast at five and had left the ranch more than an hour before; the men also were scattered to their work.
Properly humbled in spirit, he sat down to the kitchen table and ate his belated breakfast, while the cook kneaded bread at the other end of the same table and eyed Thurston with frank amusement. Thurston had never before been conscious of feeling ill at ease in the presence of a servant, and hurried through the meal so that he could escape into the clear sunshine, feeling a bit foolish in the unaccustomed bagginess of his riding breeches and the snugness of his leggings; for he had never taken to outdoor sports, except as an onlooker from the shade of a grand stand or piazza.
While he was debating the wisdom of writing a detailed description of yesterday's tragedy while it was still fresh in his mind and stowing it away for future "color," Park Holloway rode into the yard and on to the stables. He nodded at Thurston and grinned without apparent cause, as the cook had done. Thurston followed him to the corral and watched him pull the saddle off his horse, and throw it carelessly to one side. It looked cumbersome, that saddle; quite unlike the ones he had inspected in the New York shops. He grasped the horn, lifted upon it and said, "Jove!"
"Heavy, ain't it?" Park laughed, and slipped the bridle down over the ears of his horse and dismissed him with a slap on the rump. "Don't yuh like the looks of it?" he added indulgently.
Thurston, engaged in wondering what all those little strings were for, felt the indulgence and straightened. "How should I know?" he retorted. "Anyone can see that my ignorance is absolute. I expect you to laugh at me, Mr. Holloway."
"Call me Park," said he of the tawny hair, and leaned against the fence looking extremely boyish and utterly incapable of walking calmly down upon a barking revolver and shooting as he went. "You're bound to learn all about saddles and what they're made for," he went on. "So long as yuh don't get swell-headed the first time yuh stick on a horse that side-steps a little, or back down from a few hard knocks, you'll be all right."
Thurston had not intended getting out and actually living the life he had come to observe, but something got in his nerves and his blood and bred an impulse to which he yielded without reserve. "Park, see here," he said eagerly. "Graves said he'd turn me over to you, so you could—er—teach me wisdom. It's deuced rough on you, but I hope you won't refuse to be bothered with me. I want to learn—everything. And I want you to find fault like the mischief, and—er—knock me into shape, if it's possible." He was very modest over his ignorance, and his voice rang true.
Park studied him gravely. "Bud," he said at last, "you'll do. You're greener right now than a blue-joint meadow in June, but yuh got the right stuff in yuh, and it's a go with me. You come along with us after that trail-herd, and you'll get knocked into shape fast enough. Smoke?"
Thurston shook his head. "Not those."
"I dunno I'm afraid yuh can't be the real thing unless yuh fan your lungs with cigarette smoke regular." The twinkle belied him, though. "Say, where did you pick them bloomers?"
"They were made in New York." Thurston smiled in sickly fashion. He had all along been uncomfortably aware of the sharp contrast between his own modish attire and the somewhat disreputable leathern chaps of his host's foreman.
"Well," commented Park, "you told me to find fault like the mischief, and I'm going to call your bluff. This here's Montana, recollect, and I raise the long howl over them habiliments. The best thing you can do is pace along to the house and discard before the boys get sight of yuh. They'd queer yuh with the whole outfit, sure. Uh course," he went on soothingly when he saw the resentment in Thurston's eyes, "I expect they're real stylish—back East—but the boys ain't educated to stand for anything like that; they'd likely tell yuh they set like the hide on the hind legs of an elephant—which is a fact. I hate to say it, Kid, but they sure do look like the devil."
"So would you, in New York," Thurston flung back at him.
"Why, sure. But this ain't New York; this here's the Lazy Eight corral, and I'm doing yuh a favor. You wouldn't like to have the boys shooting holes through the slack, would yuh? You amble right along and get some pants on—and when you've wised up some you'll thank me a lot. I'm going on a little jaunt down the creek, before dinner, and you might go along; you'll need to get hardened to the saddle anyway, before we start for Billings, or you'll do most uh riding on the mess-wagon."
Thurston, albeit in resentful mood, went meekly and did as he was commanded to do; and no man save Park and the cook ever glimpsed those smart riding clothes of English cut.
"Now yuh look a heap more human," was the way Park signified his approval of the change. "Here's a little horse that's easy to ride and dead gentle if yuh don't spur him in the neck, which you ain't liable to do at present; and Hank says you can have this saddle for keeps. Hank used to ride it, but he out-growed it and got one longer in the seat. When we start for Billings to trail up them cattle, of course you'll get a string of your own to ride."
"A string? I'm afraid I don't quite understand."
"Yuh don't savvy riding a string? A string, m'son, is ten or a dozen saddle-horses that yuh ride turn about, and nobody else has got any right to top one; every fellow has got his own string, yuh see."
Thurston eyed his horse distrustfully. "I think," he ventured, "one will be enough for me. I'll scarcely need a dozen." The truth was that he thought Park was laughing at him.
Park slid sidewise in the saddle and proceeded to roll another cigarette. "I'd be willing to bet that by fall you'll have a good-sized string rode down to a whisper. You wait; wait till it gets in your blood. Why, I'd die if you took me off the range. Wait till yuh set out in the dark, on your horse, and count the stars and watch the big dipper swing around towards morning, and listen to the cattle breathing close by—sleeping while you ride around 'em playing guardian angel over their dreams. Wait till yuh get up at daybreak and are in the saddle with the pink uh sunrise, and know you'll sleep fifteen or twenty miles from there that night; and yuh lay down at night with the smell of new grass in your nostrils where your bed had bruised it.
"Why, Bud, if you're a man, you'll be plumb spoiled for your little old East." Then he swung back his feet and the horses broke into a lope which jarred the unaccustomed frame of Thurston mightily, though he kept the pace doggedly.
"I've got to go down to the Stevens place," Park informed him. "You met Mona yesterday—it was her come down on the train with me, yuh remember." Thurston did remember very distinctly. "Hank says yuh compose stories. Is that right?"
Thurston's mind came back from wondering how Mona Stevens' mouth looked when she was pleased with one, and he nodded.
"Well, there's a lot in this country that ain't ever been wrote about, I guess; at least if it was I never read it, and I read considerable. But the trouble is, them that know ain't in the writing business, and them that write don't know. The way I've figured it, they set back East somewhere and write it like they think maybe it is; and it's a hell of a job they make of it."
Thurston, remembering the time when he, too, "set back East" and wrote it like he thought maybe it was, blushed guiltily. He was thankful that his stories of the West had, without exception, been rejected as of little worth. He shuddered to think of one of them falling into the hands of Park Holloway.
"I came out to learn, and I want to learn it thoroughly," he said, in the face of much physical discomfort. Just then the horses slowed for a climb, and he breathed thanks. "In the first place," he began again when he had readjusted himself carefully in the saddle, "I wish you'd tell me just where you are going with the wagons, and what you mean by trailing a herd."
"Why, I thought I said we were going to Billings," Park answered, surprised. "What we're going to do when we get there is to receive a shipment of cattle young steer that's coming up from the Panhandle which is a part uh Texas. And we trail 'em up here and turn 'em loose this side the river. After that we'll start the calf roundup. The Lazy Eight runs two wagons, yuh know. I run one, and Deacon Smith runs the other; we work together, though, most of the time. It makes quite a crew, twenty-five or thirty men."
"I didn't know," said Thurston dubiously, "that you ever shipped cattle into this country. I supposed you shipped them out. Is Mr. Graves buying some?"
"Hank? I guess yes! six thousand head uh yearlings and two year-olds, this spring; some seasons it's more. We get in young stock every year and turn 'em loose on the range till they're ready to ship. It's cheaper than raising calves, yuh know. When yuh get to Billings, Bud, you'll see some cattle! Why, our bunch alone will make seven trains, and that ain't a commencement. Cattle's cheap down South, this year, and seems like everybody's buying. Hank didn't buy as much as some, because he runs quite a bunch uh cows; we'll brand six or seven thousand calves this spring. Hank sure knows how to rake in the coin."
Thurston agreed as politely as he could for the jolting. They had again struck the level and seven miles, at Park's usual pace, was heartbreaking to a man not accustomed to the saddle. Thurston had written, just before leaving home, a musical bit of verse born of his luring dreams, about "the joy of speeding fleetly where the grassland meets the sky," and he was gritting his teeth now over the idiotic lines.
When they reached the ranch and Mona's mother came to the door and invited them in, he declined almost rudely, for he had a feeling that once out of the saddle he would have difficulty in getting into it again. Besides, Mona was not at home, according to her mother.
So they did not tarry, and Thurston reached the Lazy Eight alive, but with the glamour quite gone from his West. If he had not been the son of his father, he would have taken the first train which pointed its nose to the East, and he would never again have essayed the writing of Western stories or musical verse which sung the joys of galloping blithely off to the sky-line. He had just been galloping off to a sky-line that was always just before and he had not been blithe; nor did the memory of it charm. Of a truth, the very thought of things Western made him swear mild, city-bred oaths.
He choked back his awe of the cook and asked him, quite humbly, what was good to take the soreness from one's muscles; afterward he had crept painfully up the stairs, clasping to his bosom a beer bottle filled with pungent, home-made liniment which the cook had gravely declared "out uh sight for saddle-galls."
Hank Graves, when he heard the story, with artistic touches from the cook, slapped his thigh and laughed one of his soundless chuckles. "The son-of-a-gun! He's the right stuff. Never whined, eh? I knew it. He's his dad over again, from the ground up." And loved him the better.