Baldy Woods reached for the bottle, and got it. Whenever Baldy went for anything he usually—but this is not Baldy′s story. He poured out a third drink that was larger by a finger than the first and second. Baldy was in consultation; and the consultee is worthy of his hire.
"I′d be king if I was you," said Baldy, so positively that his holster creaked and his spurs rattled.
Webb Yeager pushed back his flat-brimmed Stetson, and made further disorder in his straw-coloured hair. The tonsorial recourse being without avail, he followed the liquid example of the more resourceful Baldy.
"If a man marries a queen, it oughtn′t to make him a two-spot," declared Webb, epitomising his grievances.
"Sure not," said Baldy, sympathetic, still thirsty, and genuinely solicitous concerning the relative value of the cards. "By rights you′re a king. If I was you, I′d call for a new deal. The cards have been stacked on you—I′ll tell you what you are, Webb Yeager."
"What?" asked Webb, with a hopeful look in his pale-blue eyes.
"You′re a prince-consort."
"Go easy," said Webb. "I never blackguarded you none."
"It′s a title," explained Baldy, "up among the picture-cards; but it don′t take no tricks. I′ll tell you, Webb. It′s a brand they′re got for certain animals in Europe. Say that you or me or one of them Dutch dukes marries in a royal family. Well, by and by our wife gets to be queen. Are we king? Not in a million years. At the coronation ceremonies we march between little casino and the Ninth Grand Custodian of the Royal Hall Bedchamber. The only use we are is to appear in photographs, and accept the responsibility for the heir- apparent. That ain′t any square deal. Yes, sir, Webb, you′re a prince- consort; and if I was you, I′d start a interregnum or a habeus corpus or somethin′; and I′d be king if I had to turn from the bottom of the deck."
Baldy emptied his glass to the ratification of his Warwick pose.
"Baldy," said Webb, solemnly, "me and you punched cows in the same outfit for years. We been runnin′ on the same range, and ridin′ the same trails since we was boys. I wouldn′t talk about my family affairs to nobody but you. You was line-rider on the Nopalito Ranch when I married Santa McAllister. I was foreman then; but what am I now? I don′t amount to a knot in a stake rope."
"When old McAllister was the cattle king of West Texas," continued Baldy with Satanic sweetness, "you was some tallow. You had as much to say on the ranch as he did."
"I did," admitted Webb, "up to the time he found out I was tryin′ to get my rope over Santa′s head. Then he kept me out on the range as far from the ranch-house as he could. When the old man died they commenced to call Santa the ′cattle queen.′ I′m boss of the cattle—that′s all. She ′tends to all the business; she handles all the money; I can′t sell even a beef-steer to a party of campers, myself. Santa′s the ′queen′; and I′m Mr. Nobody."
"I′d be king if I was you," repeated Baldy Woods, the royalist. "When a man marries a queen he ought to grade up with her—on the hoof— dressed—dried—corned—any old way from the chaparral to the packing- house. Lots of folks thinks it′s funny, Webb, that you don′t have the say-so on the Nopalito. I ain′t reflectin′ none on Miz Yeager—she′s the finest little lady between the Rio Grande and next Christmas—but a man ought to be boss of his own camp."
The smooth, brown face of Yeager lengthened to a mask of wounded melancholy. With that expression, and his rumpled yellow hair and guileless blue eyes, he might have been likened to a schoolboy whose leadership had been usurped by a youngster of superior strength. But his active and sinewy seventy-two inches, and his girded revolvers forbade the comparison.
"What was that you called me, Baldy?" he asked. "What kind of a concert was it?"
"A ′consort,′" corrected Baldy—"a ′prince-consort.′ It′s a kind of short-card pseudonym. You come in sort of between Jack-high and a four-card flush."
Webb Yeager sighed, and gathered the strap of his Winchester scabbard from the floor.
"I′m ridin′ back to the ranch to-day," he said half-heartedly. "I′ve got to start a bunch of beeves for San Antone in the morning."
"I′m your company as far as Dry Lake," announced Baldy. "I′ve got a round-up camp on the San Marcos cuttin′ out two-year-olds."
The two companeros mounted their ponies and trotted away from the little railroad settlement, where they had foregathered in the thirsty morning.
At Dry Lake, where their routes diverged, they reined up for a parting cigarette. For miles they had ridden in silence save for the soft drum of the ponies′ hoofs on the matted mesquite grass, and the rattle of the chaparral against their wooden stirrups. But in Texas discourse is seldom continuous. You may fill in a mile, a meal, and a murder between your paragraphs without detriment to your thesis. So, without apology, Webb offered an addendum to the conversation that had begun ten miles away.
"You remember, yourself, Baldy, that there was a time when Santa wasn′t quite so independent. You remember the days when old McAllister was keepin′ us apart, and how she used to send me the sign that she wanted to see me? Old man Mac promised to make me look like a colander if I ever come in gun-shot of the ranch. You remember the sign she used to send, Baldy—the heart with a cross inside of it?"
"Me?" cried Baldy, with intoxicated archness. "You old sugar-stealing coyote! Don′t I remember! Why, you dad-blamed old long-horned turtle- dove, the boys in camp was all cognoscious about them hiroglyphs. The ′gizzard-and-crossbones′ we used to call it. We used to see ′em on truck that was sent out from the ranch. They was marked in charcoal on the sacks of flour and in lead-pencil on the newspapers. I see one of ′em once chalked on the back of a new cook that old man McAllister sent out from the ranch—danged if I didn′t."
"Santa′s father," explained Webb gently, "got her to promise that she wouldn′t write to me or send me any word. That heart-and-cross sign was her scheme. Whenever she wanted to see me in particular she managed to put that mark on somethin′ at the ranch that she knew I′d see. And I never laid eyes on it but what I burnt the wind for the ranch the same night. I used to see her in that coma mott back of the little horse-corral."
"We knowed it," chanted Baldy; "but we never let on. We was all for you. We knowed why you always kept that fast paint in camp. And when we see that gizzard-and-crossbones figured out on the truck from the ranch we knowed old Pinto was goin′ to eat up miles that night instead of grass. You remember Scurry—that educated horse-wrangler we had— the college fellow that tangle-foot drove to the range? Whenever Scurry saw that come-meet-your-honey brand on anything from the ranch, he′d wave his hand like that, and say, ′Our friend Lee Andrews will again swim the Hell′s point to-night.′"
"The last time Santa sent me the sign," said Webb, "was once when she was sick. I noticed it as soon as I hit camp, and I galloped Pinto forty mile that night. She wasn′t at the coma mott. I went to the house; and old McAllister met me at the door. ′Did you come here to get killed?′ says he; ′I′ll disoblige you for once. I just started a Mexican to bring you. Santa wants you. Go in that room and see her. And then come out here and see me.′
"Santa was lyin′ in bed pretty sick. But she gives out a kind of a smile, and her hand and mine lock horns, and I sets down by the bed— mud and spurs and chaps and all. ′I′ve heard you ridin′ across the grass for hours, Webb,′ she says. ′I was sure you′d come. You saw the sign?′ she whispers. ′The minute I hit camp,′ says I. ′′Twas marked on the bag of potatoes and onions.′ ′They′re always together,′ says she, soft like—′always together in life.′ ′They go well together,′ I says, ′in a stew.′ ′I mean hearts and crosses,′ says Santa. ′Our sign—to love and to suffer—that′s what they mean.′
"And there was old Doc Musgrove amusin′ himself with whisky and a palm-leaf fan. And by and by Santa goes to sleep; and Doc feels her forehead; and he says to me: ′You′re not such a bad febrifuge. But you′d better slide out now; for the diagnosis don′t call for you in regular doses. The little lady′ll be all right when she wakes up.′
"I seen old McAllister outside. ′She′s asleep,′ says I. ′And now you can start in with your colander-work. Take your time; for I left my gun on my saddle-horn.′
"Old Mac laughs, and he says to me: ′Pumpin′ lead into the best ranch- boss in West Texas don′t seem to me good business policy. I don′t know where I could get as good a one. It′s the son-in-law idea, Webb, that makes me admire for to use you as a target. You ain′t my idea for a member of the family. But I can use you on the Nopalito if you′ll keep outside of a radius with the ranch-house in the middle of it. You go upstairs and lay down on a cot, and when you get some sleep we′ll talk it over.′"
Baldy Woods pulled down his hat, and uncurled his leg from his saddle- horn. Webb shortened his rein, and his pony danced, anxious to be off. The two men shook hands with Western ceremony.
"Adios, Baldy," said Webb, "I′m glad I seen you and had this talk."
With a pounding rush that sounded like the rise of a covey of quail, the riders sped away toward different points of the compass. A hundred yards on his route Baldy reined in on the top of a bare knoll, and emitted a yell. He swayed on his horse; had he been on foot, the earth would have risen and conquered him; but in the saddle he was a master of equilibrium, and laughed at whisky, and despised the centre of gravity.
Webb turned in his saddle at the signal.
"If I was you," came Baldy′s strident and perverting tones, "I′d be king!"
At eight o′clock on the following morning Bud Turner rolled from his saddle in front of the Nopalito ranch-house, and stumbled with whizzing rowels toward the gallery. Bud was in charge of the bunch of beef-cattle that was to strike the trail that morning for San Antonio. Mrs. Yeager was on the gallery watering a cluster of hyacinths growing in a red earthenware jar.
"King" McAllister had bequeathed to his daughter many of his strong characteristics—his resolution, his gay courage, his contumacious self-reliance, his pride as a reigning monarch of hoofs and horns. Allegro and fortissimo had been McAllister′s temp and tone. In Santa they survived, transposed to the feminine key. Substantially, she preserved the image of the mother who had been summoned to wander in other and less finite green pastures long before the waxing herds of kine had conferred royalty upon the house. She had her mother′s slim, strong figure and grave, soft prettiness that relieved in her the severity of the imperious McAllister eye and the McAllister air of royal independence.
Webb stood on one end of the gallery giving orders to two or three sub-bosses of various camps and outfits who had ridden in for instructions.
"Morning," said Bud briefly. "Where do you want them beeves to go in town—to Barber′s, as usual?"
Now, to answer that had been the prerogative of the queen. All the reins of business—buying, selling, and banking—had been held by her capable fingers. The handling of cattle had been entrusted fully to her husband. In the days of "King" McAllister, Santa had been his secretary and helper; and she had continued her work with wisdom and profit. But before she could reply, the prince-consort spake up with calm decision:
"You drive that bunch to Zimmerman and Nesbit′s pens. I spoke to Zimmerman about it some time ago."
Bud turned on his high boot-heels.
"Wait!" called Santa quickly. She looked at her husband with surprise in her steady gray eyes.
"Why, what do you mean, Webb?" she asked, with a small wrinkle gathering between her brows. "I never deal with Zimmerman and Nesbit. Barber has handled every head of stock from this ranch in that market for five years. I′m not going to take the business out of his hands." She faced Bud Turner. "Deliver those cattle to Barber," she concluded positively.
Bud gazed impartially at the water-jar hanging on the gallery, stood on his other leg, and chewed a mesquite-leaf.
"I want this bunch of beeves to go to Zimmerman and Nesbit," said Webb, with a frosty light in his blue eyes.
"Nonsense," said Santa impatiently. "You′d better start on, Bud, so as to noon at the Little Elm water-hole. Tell Barber we′ll have another lot of culls ready in about a month."
Bud allowed a hesitating eye to steal upward and meet Webb′s. Webb saw apology in his look, and fancied he saw commiseration.
"You deliver them cattle," he said grimly, "to—"
"Barber," finished Santa sharply. "Let that settle it. Is there anything else you are waiting for, Bud?"
"No, m′m," said Bud. But before going he lingered while a cow′s tail could have switched thrice; for man is man′s ally; and even the Philistines must have blushed when they took Samson in the way they did.
"You hear your boss!" cried Webb sardonically. He took off his hat, and bowed until it touched the floor before his wife.
"Webb," said Santa rebukingly, "you′re acting mighty foolish to-day."
"Court fool, your Majesty," said Webb, in his slow tones, which had changed their quality. "What else can you expect? Let me tell you. I was a man before I married a cattle-queen. What am I now? The laughing-stock of the camps. I′ll be a man again."
Santa looked at him closely.
"Don′t be unreasonable, Webb," she said calmly. "You haven′t been slighted in any way. Do I ever interfere in your management of the cattle? I know the business side of the ranch much better than you do. I learned it from Dad. Be sensible."
"Kingdoms and queendoms," said Webb, "don′t suit me unless I am in the pictures, too. I punch the cattle and you wear the crown. All right. I′d rather be High Lord Chancellor of a cow-camp than the eight-spot in a queen-high flush. It′s your ranch; and Barber gets the beeves."
Webb′s horse was tied to the rack. He walked into the house and brought out his roll of blankets that he never took with him except on long rides, and his "slicker," and his longest stake-rope of plaited raw-hide. These he began to tie deliberately upon his saddle. Santa, a little pale, followed him.
Webb swung up into the saddle. His serious, smooth face was without expression except for a stubborn light that smouldered in his eyes.
"There′s a herd of cows and calves," said he, "near the Hondo water- hole on the Frio that ought to be moved away from timber. Lobos have killed three of the calves. I forgot to leave orders. You′d better tell Simms to attend to it."
Santa laid a hand on the horse′s bridle, and looked her husband in the eye.
"Are you going to leave me, Webb?" she asked quietly.
"I am going to be a man again," he answered.
"I wish you success in a praiseworthy attempt," she said, with a sudden coldness. She turned and walked directly into the house.
Webb Yeager rode to the southeast as straight as the topography of West Texas permitted. And when he reached the horizon he might have ridden on into blue space as far as knowledge of him on the Nopalito went. And the days, with Sundays at their head, formed into hebdomadal squads; and the weeks, captained by the full moon, closed ranks into menstrual companies crying "Tempus fugit" on their banners; and the months marched on toward the vast camp-ground of the years; but Webb Yeager came no more to the dominions of his queen.
One day a being named Bartholomew, a sheep-man—and therefore of little account—from the lower Rio Grande country, rode in sight of the Nopalito ranch-house, and felt hunger assail him. Ex consuetudine he was soon seated at the mid-day dining table of that hospitable kingdom. Talk like water gushed from him: he might have been smitten with Aaron′s rod—that is your gentle shepherd when an audience is vouchsafed him whose ears are not overgrown with wool.
"Missis Yeager," he babbled, "I see a man the other day on the Rancho Seco down in Hidalgo County by your name—Webb Yeager was his. He′d just been engaged as manager. He was a tall, light-haired man, not saying much. Perhaps he was some kin of yours, do you think?"
"A husband," said Santa cordially. "The Seco has done well. Mr. Yeager is one of the best stockmen in the West."
The dropping out of a prince-consort rarely disorganises a monarchy. Queen Santa had appointed as mayordomo of the ranch a trusty subject, named Ramsay, who had been one of her father′s faithful vassals. And there was scarcely a ripple on the Nopalito ranch save when the gulf-breeze created undulations in the grass of its wide acres.
For several years the Nopalito had been making experiments with an English breed of cattle that looked down with aristocratic contempt upon the Texas long-horns. The experiments were found satisfactory; and a pasture had been set aside for the blue-bloods. The fame of them had gone forth into the chaparral and pear as far as men ride in saddles. Other ranches woke up, rubbed their eyes, and looked with new dissatisfaction upon the long-horns.
As a consequence, one day a sunburned, capable, silk-kerchiefed nonchalant youth, garnished with revolvers, and attended by three Mexican vaqueros, alighted at the Nopalito ranch and presented the following business-like epistle to the queen thereof:
Mrs. Yeager—The Nopalito Ranch:
I am instructed by the owners of the Rancho Seco to purchase 100 head of two and three-year-old cows of the Sussex breed owned by you. If you can fill the order please deliver the cattle to the bearer; and a check will be forwarded to you at once.
Respectfully, Webster Yeager, Manager the Rancho Seco.
Business is business, even—very scantily did it escape being written "especially"—in a kingdom.
That night the 100 head of cattle were driven up from the pasture and penned in a corral near the ranch-house for delivery in the morning.
When night closed down and the house was still, did Santa Yeager throw herself down, clasping that formal note to her bosom, weeping, and calling out a name that pride (either in one or the other) had kept from her lips many a day? Or did she file the letter, in her business way, retaining her royal balance and strength?
Wonder, if you will; but royalty is sacred; and there is a veil. But this much you shall learn:
At midnight Santa slipped softly out of the ranch-house, clothed in something dark and plain. She paused for a moment under the live-oak trees. The prairies were somewhat dim, and the moonlight was pale orange, diluted with particles of an impalpable, flying mist. But the mock-bird whistled on every bough of vantage; leagues of flowers scented the air; and a kindergarten of little shadowy rabbits leaped and played in an open space near by. Santa turned her face to the southeast and threw three kisses thitherward; for there was none to see.
Then she sped silently to the blacksmith-shop, fifty yards away; and what she did there can only be surmised. But the forge glowed red; and there was a faint hammering such as Cupid might make when he sharpens his arrow-points.
Later she came forth with a queer-shaped, handled thing in one hand, and a portable furnace, such as are seen in branding-camps, in the other. To the corral where the Sussex cattle were penned she sped with these things swiftly in the moonlight.
She opened the gate and slipped inside the corral. The Sussex cattle were mostly a dark red. But among this bunch was one that was milky white—notable among the others.
And now Santa shook from her shoulder something that we had not seen before—a rope lasso. She freed the loop of it, coiling the length in her left hand, and plunged into the thick of the cattle.
The white cow was her object. She swung the lasso, which caught one horn and slipped off. The next throw encircled the forefeet and the animal fell heavily. Santa made for it like a panther; but it scrambled up and dashed against her, knocking her over like a blade of grass.
Again she made her cast, while the aroused cattle milled around the four sides of the corral in a plunging mass. This throw was fair; the white cow came to earth again; and before it could rise Santa had made the lasso fast around a post of the corral with a swift and simple knot, and had leaped upon the cow again with the rawhide hobbles.
In one minute the feet of the animal were tied (no record-breaking deed) and Santa leaned against the corral for the same space of time, panting and lax.
And then she ran swiftly to her furnace at the gate and brought the branding-iron, queerly shaped and white-hot.
The bellow of the outraged white cow, as the iron was applied, should have stirred the slumbering auricular nerves and consciences of the near-by subjects of the Nopalito, but it did not. And it was amid the deepest nocturnal silence that Santa ran like a lapwing back to the ranch-house and there fell upon a cot and sobbed—sobbed as though queens had hearts as simple ranchmen′s wives have, and as though she would gladly make kings of prince-consorts, should they ride back again from over the hills and far away.
In the morning the capable, revolvered youth and his vaqueros set forth, driving the bunch of Sussex cattle across the prairies to the Rancho Seco. Ninety miles it was; a six days′ journey, grazing and watering the animals on the way.
The beasts arrived at Rancho Seco one evening at dusk; and were received and counted by the foreman of the ranch.
The next morning at eight o′clock a horseman loped out of the brush to the Nopalito ranch-house. He dismounted stiffly, and strode, with whizzing spurs, to the house. His horse gave a great sigh and swayed foam-streaked, with down-drooping head and closed eyes.
But waste not your pity upon Belshazzar, the flea-bitten sorrel. To-day, in Nopalito horse-pasture he survives, pampered, beloved, unridden, cherished record-holder of long-distance rides.
The horseman stumbled into the house. Two arms fell around his neck, and someone cried out in the voice of woman and queen alike: "Webb— oh, Webb!"
"I was a skunk," said Webb Yeager.
"Hush," said Santa, "did you see it?"
"I saw it," said Webb.
What they meant God knows; and you shall know, if you rightly read the primer of events.
"Be the cattle-queen," said Webb; "and overlook it if you can. I was a mangy, sheep-stealing coyote."
"Hush!" said Santa again, laying her fingers upon his mouth. "There′s no queen here. Do you know who I am? I am Santa Yeager, First Lady of the Bedchamber. Come here."
She dragged him from the gallery into the room to the right. There stood a cradle with an infant in it—a red, ribald, unintelligible, babbling, beautiful infant, sputtering at life in an unseemly manner.
"There′s no queen on this ranch," said Santa again. "Look at the king. He′s got your eyes, Webb. Down on your knees and look at his Highness."
But jingling rowels sounded on the gallery, and Bud Turner stumbled there again with the same query that he had brought, lacking a few days, a year ago.
"′Morning. Them beeves is just turned out on the trail. Shall I drive ′em to Barber′s, or—"
He saw Webb and stopped, open-mouthed.
"Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!" shrieked the king in his cradle, beating the air with his fists.
"You hear your boss, Bud," said Webb Yeager, with a broad grin—just as he had said a year ago.
And that is all, except that when old man Quinn, owner of the Rancho Seco, went out to look over the herd of Sussex cattle that he had bought from the Nopalito ranch, he asked his new manager:
"What′s the Nopalito ranch brand, Wilson?"
"X Bar Y," said Wilson.
"I thought so," said Quinn. "But look at that white heifer there; she′s got another brand—a heart with a cross inside of it. What brand is that?"