FICTION

Spring Round-up

EDWARD TURNER March 15 1935
FICTION

Spring Round-up

EDWARD TURNER March 15 1935

Spring Round-up

FICTION

EDWARD TURNER

SLIM AND golden-skinned in the setting sun, young Miles Bigelow straightened up to watch the cows coming in on the far side of the yard to be milked. Time he was getting their feed-another chore. He followed the footpath through the lush orchard grass, arms swinging freely with the easy movement of his body. How blue the sky was, he thought, how green the slopes leading up to Twin Mountain-two sharp white peaks against the blue. And the air chock full of spring smells that made you want to bust out singing or something.

But his throat was too full of a choking resentment to sing, dl day mending busted-down fences ! That was a heck of a ab to give a fellow when the rest of the bunch were fixing ,p their riding gear for the spring round-up, wasn’t it? Why, hucks, for three years he had worked as hard as any man on he Bigelow ranch. And when a fellow was sixteen and could

work as hard as a man, he ought to have a man’s job, hadn’t he? And the bunch ought to start calling him “old-timer” or something ’stead of just “son.”

Inside the barn, he listened to the quiet shuffling of the cows, to the steady crunching sound of their chewing and the regular hissing ping of milk against a pail. All were soothing sounds. The soft darkness of the place seemed full of hot animal life, beating in the air about him. In the first stall the new girl was milking. “ ’lo, Bessie.”

“ ’lo, Miles. What d’you know?”

“Not much,” he mumbled, and wondered what made his breath catch in his throat the fool way it did every time he went near her; what made her presence so exciting. Even that first day, when he had come unexpectedly upon her walking down the dark, flagged passage leading to the ranch kitchen, it had been the same. Light streaming from the open dairy door had played tricks with her hair. Fair and pretty it was, pure yellow, the yellow of sunflowers.

She had met his gaze with a hesitant, almost coquettish glance from hazel eyes, and then looked quickly away. That one glance had stirred Miles in a fashion he could not define. Later he asked the foreman who she was.

“That’s Bessie Stone, Mat’s eldest, come to help out with the milkin’ while he’s away.”

NOW SHE made a little movement, lifting her head with a half-inviting, half-commanding gesture. He went over and stood watching her. Squatting low on the milking stool, with her head pressed into the cow’s flank, she smiled up at him sideways, her firm young breasts rising and falling with the even movement of her hands at the teats.

“What’s wrong, Miles?”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong,” he muttered.

“Yes there is. I kin tell.”

“How?”

“Lots of ways. That crease between your eyes for one—like you couldn’t leave off scowling if you tried.” Miles stood stubbing his toe against the stall partition. “At sixteen,” he burst out suddenly, “a fellow ought to be allowed to do somethin’ besides grub sagebrush, mend fences, and tote fodder for the stock, hadn’t he?” “Why—why I should say he ought, Miles.”

“You bet. Ánd say, wouldn’t you think dad’d let me try my hand at roping once in a while, an’ ridin’—doing some of the things that’s worth while?” .

“Have you asked him?”

“ ’Course I’ve asked him! Every time he says: ‘Go ’way, son, and don’t bother me with such foolishness.’ Just like I was still a kid. Shucks, he ought to let me go on the spring round-up this year along with the bunch, an’ have a reg’lar string of horses, same as the rest, hadn’t he?”

Bessie hid a quick smile by dipping her head lower and calling sharply to the cow: “Get over there, Peg. Get over!” But Miles knew she had smiled. They all smiled when he said anything about going on the roundup. It made him so mad, he didn’t care what he said.

“Aw, heck ! What’s the use trying to explain to a fool woman?ái could shake you!”

“Why ®on’t you, then?”

He reached out to grip the soft, rounded shoulders, then stood looking down into her half-turned face smiling faintly up at him in the dim light. His hands dropped away. He felt maddened, but helpless and a little foolish. She gave a low, vibrant laugh deep in her throat.

“You’re a nice boy. Miles,” she said.

He walked away without answering her, anger in his stride. A nice bov ! That was no way to talk of a fellow who was big enough for a man's job. He d show her! He d show her to expect things of him.

AFTER the close, animal smell of the bam. it felt good A to be outside, drawing the crisp air deep into his lungs. He looked across the yard toward the ranch house. There was dad now, sitting on the porch in his shirtsleeves, reading the paper. The late afternoon sun dipped under the roof, sending red streamers across the bare head and bowed

shoulders. Dad was beginning to look old and shrivelled, thought Miles, like one of last year’s apples that still hung on the trees.

Since mother died, dad so rarely broke his long maintained silences that he was almost a stranger to Miles. It made things kind of lonesome. Sudden resolve sent Miles striding across the yard. Might as well have it out nowr as later, he reasoned.

Leaning his bare arms on the low' porch rail, he took a cigarette from a crumpled pack and lit it, blowing the smoke out from the side of his mouth just as he had seen Rod, the foreman, do it.

“Say, listen, dad.”

“Huh? Listen to what?”

“Shucks, dad, why’n't you give me a man’s job? I’m old enough. I can work good as any of the bunch.”

Miles, senior, lowered the paper to look at his son.

“What’s eating you? Aren’t you satisfied with your allowance?”

“Sure. It ain’t that. Only I thought, what with me bein’ sixteen, you’d let me go on the spring round-up this year.”

“So that’s it. Go ’way, youngster. Your time is coming. What’s all the tarnation hurry anyway? You’ve got spring fever, that’s what you’ve got—spring fever.” He withdrew his pipe from beneath the drooping, iron-grey mustaches, and spat a good spit clear over the rail into the yard.

“Then you won’t let me go?”

“Nope. Need you around the farm. Somebody’s got to do the chores.”

“So I’m elected—forever!”

“For now anyways. Perhaps next year. . . ’

“That’s what you said last spring.” Young Miles looked straight into eyes much like his own—blue and determined. There was a kindliness in those opposite him which checked the tide of harsh words that surged to his lips. He swung his right foot back and forth in the dirt, listening to his father’s soft drawl.

“Now take it easy, son; you’ll get all the ridin’ you want and more. After that spill I took last year I don’t seem to have the same ginger. Getting old, son. Some day soon the ranch’ll be yours, and I want the man who takes over to be

big enough to do a chore when it’s needed.” He rustled his paper and changed the subject. “Suppose you’ll be going down to the rodeo in town tomorrow?”

Young Miles’s eyes brightened.

“Sure will ! And say, dad, you will let me ride Blue, won’t you? Rod has promised to loan me a pair of ridin’ boots— real fancy ones with two colored stitching and high heels.”

“Sorry, son, Blue’s a bit too wild for you yet.”

“Wild nothin’!” All the resentment came back. When was dad going to realize he’d grown up? “I can ride anything on four legs! Rod says I’ll make the best bronc rider outside Pendleton in a year or so.”

‘Tm ridin’ Blue myself.” There was sharp finality in the words.

“Y'ou?” Incredulous, Miles looked at his father.

“Why not?”

“That’s crazy, dad. Y'ou know that hellion doesn’t like you. Never has since the first day you bought him. And

you said yourself you weren’t feeling so good. Blue might throw you, same as he did Soapy.”

He would never quite forget that day, before the big roan had been properly broken in. Just such a blue day as this it was. with the white clouds rolling up over Twin. And little Soapy bragging he could ride Blue to Kingdom Come and back, and the bunch all egging him on. Next thing anyone knew. Soapy was lying in the dirt with Blue’s wicked forehoofs pounding down on his head. . .

“Guess I can hold my own. son. ’Sides, I want you to take the truck in with those calves for Jim Harding.”

“Oh. shucks!” Miles swung on his heel before this added humiliation released words he might later regret. He had planned so long to ride into town on Blue along with the bunch and share in their fun. And say, did they have fun! While now. . .

The sun had dipped behind Twin Mountain, leaving its peaks sharply etched against saffron. Across the yard,

oblongs of warm yellow light poured from the open door and windows of the cowhands’ long mess hut. There drifted across to Miles the clatter of plates and the low rumble of bass voices.

He strolled over and stood in the doorway, looking in. Lamplight, golden yellow, flowed down on ruddy faces, ruddy hands holding food, red mouths working. Feeding time. All talking and laughing together. Say, they were a fine bunch! And there was Rod at the head of the table looking so grand and—daring.

The talk was mostly of horses and cattle, so alive you could ’most hear the rattle of hoofs drumming across a farflung horizon; the sound of young calves bawling. Someone started to tell how close old Tom Harte had come to death’s door in last year’s round-up; talk of old times together with other outfits. Then came the sound of Rod’s chair scraped back and his tight fist banging down on the table for quiet. He stood up, six feet of lean toughness, legs braced wide apart, thumbs hooked in his belt. Light from the oil lamp swinging overhead danced on the silver buckle and splashed across his smiling, rough-cut face.

Say now, pretty fine, thought Miles, and wondered if he would ever lcx)k just like that—head thrown back a little, holding everybody’s gaze, straight and cool and hard as nails. Rod was the sort of man he wanted to be. They said Roddy McLean had once killed a man. Miles could well believe it. Rod looked the sort who wouldn’t be a mite scared of death when it came his way, either in the taking or dealing of it.

“All right, boys, what’ll it be tonight?” •

An instant chorus of suggestions answered him. Rod was going to sing. And say, could he sing! Miles moved away into shadow. On some of the nights he had spent with the bunch out on the plateau, they had sat around the fire and sung with its light on their faces. It had made the night a mystery of purple dark, laden with the scent of sagebrush, and Miles’s throat had been full with the beauty and lonesomeness of it.

Shucks, if dad didn’t soon let him go on the round-up, he’d never have any “old times” to remember and talk about to the bunch. He would never be able to really feel one of them. But tomorrow at the rodeo he’d show them all he could ride a bronc as good as anyone—well, maybe not as good as Rod—but he’d show them!

MILES lolled around the chutes at the rodeo with the cowhands who were going to try their luck in the bucking-horse contest. They waited for the draw. Standing a little apart were the professionals—men who rode outlaws for a living, travelling from one rodeo to another. They wore brightcolored silk shirts to tickle the fancy of the crowd. All wore spurs, short of shank and equipped with small silver rowels. Out in the centre of the field, a number of men rode herd on a bunch of wildeyed broncs and longhorn steers.

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Pretty swell, thought Miles, to travel around the country doing nothing but ride bucking horses for a living. Now that fellow talking to Rod—why say, he must have seen a thing or two !

* The pros, all called him Butch, and it fitted. He was a big, rangy man. his face all leathery brown and lined with deep wrinkles. Some of the wrinkles were scars. Words dropped from his twisted mouth in a low rumbling drawl.

“Here comes the hat,” he said.

“Reach and get it!” Miles heard another voice at his side, and dipped his hand into the ten-gallon hat for the slip indicating which horse he would ride. He unfolded it mechanically, listening to Butch’s talk.

“Ain’t no reason why one of you boys shouldn’t win this pony-bustin’ contest,” he was saying. “Providin’ he draws any horse but one.”

Miles listened for Rod’s reply, approving when it came.

“Them big. hard-hittin’ broncs is just my meat. I like to ride ’em. I can top any man’s horse that weighs over fourteen hundred.”

“This bronc is different, cowboy,” continued Butch. “I don't mind big horses either, but this devil is a tough seat. He can deal you so much misery in half a minute, you’re glad to leave’m. None of our crowd has bin able to fit a ride on him in a committee saddle. Yessir, the man who draws Lightning might as well call himself out— and lucky if he ain’t in hospital after the shoutin’s over.”

Miles glanced again at the single name on his slip, then scrunched it tight in his fist. He drew in his breath sharply and let it go in a low whistle. What a break! But if only he could do it. That would show everybody to expect something of him, wouldn’t it? A hand fell on his arm and he heard Rod’s voice close to his ear.

“Let’s see what you’ve drawn, son.”

He surrendered the slip, watching the foreman’s face to share in his surprise. But beyond an almost imperceptible twitching of the jaw muscles, he was disappointed. Rod avoided his eyes as he handed back the paper.

“Better luck than me,” he said softly. “I've drawn Lightning.”

What did he mean? There couldn't be two horses of the same name. Uncomprehending, Miles looked at the slip in his hand.

“You made a mistake, Rod. This is your slip,” he said.

“No mistake, son.”

So that was it! Trying to protect him as usual, as if he couldn’t look after himself. Well, this was once when it wouldn’t come off.

“Say, you can’t switch on me like that.

I drew Lightning.”

“Best forget it. You wouldn’t stand a chance on that hellion. He’d bust you wide open. Give yourself a break for once, and take mine.”

Miles held out the slip.

“Not interested,” he replied evenly. “I drew Lightning, and I’m going to ride him.”

“Now listen—” But there was no denying those eyes bright with determination. Rod gave in. “All right,” he growled. “Have it your way, but as soon as the whistle blows, I’ll pick you up and have that bronc snubbed quicker’n his namesake.”

WHEN IT came to Miles’s turn, Lightning was snared and led to the chutes. He looked all Butch had promised and more, a big black, weighing close on 1,500 pounds. Long ago Lightning had made up his mind never to submit peacefully to a saddle. Clinging to that idea had made him a successful bucking horse, drunk with his own power. It was rough play, but he liked it. He could buck much longer than any man could ride, but the rules of rodeo never demand a ride to a finish. After a certain number of jumps, the judge’s whistle would blow for him to be snubbed.

While Rod set and clinched the saddle. and adjusted the one big rope-braided rein to the halter. Miles remembered for the first time the packed stands rising clear up on either side of the corral. Somewhere among that blur of whitely expectant faces was dad—and Bessie. Neither knew he was competing. Say, he’d give a deal to be able to see his dad’s face when Lightning came out of the chute with him riding!

He began to mount by way of the chute, easing carefully into the slick saddle. Rcxi pushed his feet into the thin stirrups. A mixed feeling of fear and nervousness gripped Miles; fear that he might fail to live up to his own expectations, nervousness as he felt great muscles tightening under him.

“Let him go!” He scarcely recognized his own voice as the nervousness was replaced hv that strange excitement that grips a man about to go on a bronc ride. A cowboy snatched at the gate rope, pulled it wide and jumped clear.

The big horse shot out. Somehow Miles managed to survive that first mad rush forward. He tried to ride on balance the way Rod had taught him. Leaning slightly to right or left, he rose with each upward leap, descended with each èarthbound fall. His spurs did not once find anchorage in the cinch. They shot ahead and swept back as swiftly, making little clanking sounds against the cantleboard.

It was a great ride but one that could only last a few breathless seconds. Miles was conscious of little save one continuous roar from the stands; a soaring, falling, twisting so that he could hardly breathe. He had no idea how many jumps he had taken when, through the roar, he heard the faint shrill of a whistle.

After that he did not care what happened. Suddenly he felt himself shot with tremendous force into the air. Everything seemed to fade into a strange nothingness; the roaring became only a faint buzz, receding . . . He experienced the astonishing sensation of disappearing from the earth and then returning to it with a bone-shattering jar.

He tried to get up, but an invisible force held him to the ground. His body felt a mile long. He seemed to lie there for an eternity, gazing up into the blue sky and listening to the faint drum of hoofs and distant shouting. Then somebody was bending over him, lifting his head on to his knee.

It would be Rod, of course. There was something he had to ask Rod; something terrifyingly important. His lips formed the words, but no words seemed to come forth.

“I rode him, didn’t I, Rod?” was what he wanted to ask. “I rode him, didn’t I?”

Rod’s lips moved in reply, so he must have heard. Miles wished that buzzing in his head would stop so that he could hear what Rod was saying. He strained to catch the words, fighting back a growing dizziness.

“Sure you rode him. Now take it easy, son. Wouldn’t surprise me a mite if you took first prize.”

Miles relaxed then, hardly conscious of hands searching his body for broken bones.

rT'HEY WERE driving back to the ranch

in the empty truck, he and Bessie together in the front seat. Miles felt the enchantment of the night heavy ujxm him. It was pure silver glory, heady with scent. A full May moon shone brazenly upon the white ribbon of road, making each lone tree seem tall and noble beside its short black shadow. A car passed them with strident horn; an open car almost overflowing with a party returning home from the rodeo. Laughter and a snatch of song reached back to them along the road, drawing them closer together in the darkness of the cab. Miles felt the soft pressure of her fingers on his arm. He dimly feared something, but did not know what it was he feared. He wanted something, yet did not know what it was he wanted.

Bessie broke a long silence.

I “I can’t get over your winning that con! test,” she said. “But my, your dad was mad !”

Miles was silent, watching the road, lips tightly compressed with the bitterness of his thought. It wasn’t like dad to be so mean. Coming off the corral with Rod. they had suddenly met him face to face below the chutes, standing stiffly erect, thin-lipped and disapproving. At his first words, all the eager expectancy died from Miles’s flushed face. He hadn’t minded what he said after that—angry, biting things that could never be wiped out or forgotten.

“What did he say?” persisted Bessie.

“Said a nervy fool who would risk his neck for a piece of fool bravado wasn’t any use on a round-up.”

He felt the pressure on his arm increase in sympathy, and glowed to her next words.

“I think you were line,” she whispered.

He blurted out what had been in his mind to say every moment of the last live miles.

“Let’s stop awhile, Bessie, the night’s so pretty.”

Her answer seemed a long time coming.

“If you want.”

He turned into a rutted dirt side-road which wound around the rock-strewn base of Twin Mountain. Close to the near slope he pulled off the road and dimmed the headlights; found a cigarette and lit it. The smoke spiralled slowly out into the still air. They sat in silence, listening to a coyote yapping away off somewhere on the high divide; to a drove of cattle mourning in the cottonwoods down by the creek.

The sounds stirred a restlessness in Miles he could not explain. Everything was just about as perfect as he had hoped it might be. and yet there was a lost feeling of something missing, an indescribable something that still evaded him.

“I feel like climbing,” he burst out sud! denly, “ ’way up there, Bessie.” And he j pointed to a ledge halfway up the mountainside.

“Let me come. I won’t be any trouble.”

He would rather have gone alone with his I thoughts, but could not refuse her. Hand in hand, they crossed the lower slope and, climbing, eventually reached the ledge. Far ; below to the left they discovered a lake, secreted in a hollow and flanked about by huge boulders which hid it at the lower level. It lav like a pit of darkness at their feet, mirroring a thousand stars upon its face. The moon, floating slowly downward, lay ' on its breast like a silver ball. There was : something about it that gave Miles a sense of isolation as solitary as the drifting clouds.

He threw himself full-length on the scrubby mountain grass and watched the Northern Lights spring up in quick fantastic flame against the vast dome of tingling stars you could ’most reach up and touch. JBessie sat beside him, knees tucked up under her chin.

T YING THERE he felt very close to the earth’s heart, which beat against his with an overwhelming sensation of sorrow and emptiness, tugging at something within. The beauty of the night stirred a deep desire for something; something born at every springtime, of the earth and yet away from it, evading him. Far away, the lights of the town sprinkled the air with wanderlust. A prowling little wind blew on his cheeks and stirred Bessie’s hair; a spring I wind breathing a swift urgency on all it touched.

Sudden knowledge possessed Miles. He knew what he wanted above all else. He could not hope to make dad or Bessie ever understand. She was of the soil, linked inseparably with that hungry animal life he sensed every time he went into the barn. But for no reason save that the night had witchcraft in it and he was very young and she was beautiful, words rushed from him.

He told her what he was going to do. He aimed to leave the ranch. His mind was set to go. He was through with mending fences and grubbing sagebrush for good. Maybe he’d ride south and get a real man’s job riding for some big outfit; or maybe he’d hitch up with that bunch of professional , bronc riders and go with them to Pendleton,

to Calgary Stampede. He’d ridden Lightning, hadn't he, and earned the right? He would go that very night before dad got home from town.

For a long time after he had finished speaking, Bessie said nothing. She just sat there with her arms wrapped around her knees, looking out across the plateau with a little Mona Lisa smile curling the corners of her mouth.

“I know just how you feel. Miles,” she said at length, so low he could barely catch the words. “There’s a kind of restless itchin’ in your feet, ain’t there? Me, too. I got to thinking that way once. I wanted to go to New York to see all the fine stores an’ everythin’.”

“You, too?” he echoed, astonished and a little dismayed. “You, too, Bessie?”

She nodded slowly.

“But that’s not what you really want. You’ll have the ranch coming to you one day.”

“The ranch isn’t everythin’.”

“No, but you was born an’ raised to it. Miles. You kin go away and see a heap of life, but the places you knowed as a kid will always be strongest in your remembrance. They’ll make you want to come back no matter how far away you be. Somehow I think we’re always happiest in those places we was raised to. I wouldn’t want to go away yet awhile if I was you.”

“But that’s just what I do want.”

She shook her head slowly, then turned to look straight into his eyes.

“No, that isn’t what you want—not really. That’s only the spring in your bones.”

Miles saw her face oddly pale in the moonlight, smiling faintly down at him with full, slightly parted lips. He reached up to touch it with tenderly caressing fingers, and felt his pulse begin to pound at the unspoken promise in her eyes. His throat was full.

“I love you, Bessie,” he whispered huskily, and drew her close. Something of that first kiss he knew would remain with him always. Still it was not what he really wanted, but he felt helpless, like a man enchanted, who cannot break the spell that binds him.

MILES SET the storm lantern down close to Maggie’s stall. The circle of light showed up the long cracks and worn hollows in the floor stones, and danced on harness bits and buckles hanging on the wall. The mare turned her head, ears pointed forward, and whinnied faintly as he ran his hand along her smooth flank.

“We’re rustlin’, Maggie,” he said softly. “You and me together.”

He took his old single-rigged saddle from its nail-—it was something like Rod’s, only it didn’t have the silver. Then the horsehair bridle that had belonged to Soapy; the lariat he had won at last year’s steer roping. Say, he was going to miss the bunch ! They would not return from the town until late and he’d have to go without saying good-by. Best that way, maybe.

He kept talking to Maggie as he cinched the saddle:

“Yes, old girl, you and me together. We’ll take the south fork at creek bottom and keep goin’. Rod says there’s always a job for a horse wrangler on the Peters round-up. ’Course that ain’t as fine as top-hand rider, but it’ll do to start. How’s that feel—tight enough? Now you don’t suppose Rod’ll mind me taking his boots, do you? See, I’ll leave a note with money for them right here nailed to the stall. First thing he’ll see when he comes in. Say, I wish he was coming, too! Pretty fine if he and us could string along together some day, wouldn’t it, Maggie?”

Next he loaded up the gunny-bag he had brought from the house. It contained blankets, overalls, a spare shirt, socks, the bacon, bread and other truck he had taken from the kitchen—all he needed. He had money in his pocket; money he had won at the rodeo, and money of his own he had saved.

Outside the stable, he took one last look around the yard. His gaze shifted slowly to the bam. to the woodpile, to the mosscovered timbers of the old well, whose rusted winch handle he had swung in countless circles. These things he had seen ’most, every day of his life. They were embedded [ within his flesh, were sunk into his sense of them—yet now he seemed to see them fresh ! and clear as though for the first time. Each ! one. separately and together, challenged his ; remembrance in them. One day they would all belong to him.

Bessie’s words up on the mountainside came back to him. “. . . the places you knowed as a kid will always be strongest in j your remembrance ...” Say. maybe she was right. Already, even before he had ! started, lie felt the pull of them dividing the core of his purpose. Swinging into saddle, he ¡ touched Maggie lightly with the spurs, and without a backward glance rode out of the yard.

THEY HAD left the creek bottom a gcxid mile behind and were well up on the far rim-rock before Miles began to feel sleepy. His shoulders drooped and he leaned forward, resting his hands on the saddle horn.

“Not a mite of use feeling sleepy, Maggie,” he said aloud. “Be all night in the saddle, an’ most of tomorrow.”

’Course he was bound to feel lonesome for a spell. And Bessie, now that he had bridged the gap of strangeness between them, was very close and dear. The thought of not seeing her again left a deep thirsty place inside him. But she would wait, while the urgency of his wanderlust would not.

Half an hour later he was aroused from a half-doze by an alien sound that persisted far behind him down the rim-rock. He drew rein to listen. Tunka-tunk, tunka-tunk,

tunka-tunk! There was no mistaking the drum of hoofs, thundering up the valley. Couldn’t be more than half a mile behind, either. Say, that fellow was travelling !

Miles waited, watching the ridge he had just topped. A horseman came suddenly into view, bending low in the saddle. Not until he was within hailing distance did Miles recognize him.

“Aw—say! Rod!”

The foreman reined up with a suddenness that made his horse rear. Miles watched his eyes roam over Maggie, at the lariat, at the gunny-bag tied to the back of his cantle, and waited for the inevitable question. It came at last.

“Where you goin’, son?”

“Just rustlin’, Rod. I got itchin’ feet—a fellow’s got to change his range now and again.” It sounded cool and big to drawl it out that way.

He wondered why Rod didn’t smile. He noticed for the first time something strange about the way the foreman sat his horse; kind of stiff and fidgety. He looked closely into his face, searching the eyes that didn’t meet his. “Why—why what’s the matter, Rod?”

“I—that is—there’s somethin’ I got to tell you, son. There’s been an accident. You see. I was ridin’ back from town with your dad. Blue musta shied at somethin’ in the moonlight. Threw him clear off on to the road—on his head.”

Miles’s throat had gone suddenly dry and twisted.

"You mean—dad?” he asked blankly. Rod nodded.

“It was just past Riley’s place, so I took him in there, and came on back to the ranch. Found your note.”

“You mean—he’s hurt badly?”

“I mean he’s—dead, old-timer.”

Miles sat very still looking at the moonlight reflected in the silver on Rod’s saddle. He felt all the restlessness within him dying away and away to nothing, until only an overwhelming power of silence was left. It came to him then that he would stay on the ranch for always—on his own ranch—doing a man’s job. And over and over in his mind recurred Rod’s last word—“old-timer.”