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The Flying U Ranch By B. M. Bower Characters: 18869

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The next morning, which was Sunday, the machinations of Big Medicine took Pink down to the creek behind the bunk-house. "What's hurtin' yuh?" he asked curiously, when he came to where Big Medicine stood in the fringe of willows, choking between his spasms of mirth.

"Haw-haw-haw!" roared Big Medicine; and, seizing Pink's arm in a gorilla-like grip, he pointed down the bank.

Miguel, seated upon a convenient rock in a sunny spot, was painstakingly combing out the tangled hair of his chaps, which he had washed quite as carefully not long before, as the cake of soap beside him testified.

"Combing-combing-his chaps, by cripes!" Big Medicine gasped, and waggled his finger at the spectacle. "Haw-haw-haw! C-combin'-his-chaps!"

Miguel glanced up at them as impersonally as if they were two cackling hens, rather than derisive humans, then bent his head over a stubborn knot and whistled La Paloma softly while he coaxed out the tangle.

Pink's eyes widened as he looked, but he did not say anything. He backed up the path and went thoughtfully to the corrals, leaving Big Medicine to follow or not, as he chose.

"Combin'-his chaps, by cripes!" came rumbling behind him. Pink turned.

"Say! Don't make so much noise about it," he advised guardedly. "I've got an idea."

"Yuh want to hog-tie it, then," Big Medicine retorted, resentful because Pink seemed not to grasp the full humor of the thing. "Idees sure seems to be skurce in this outfit-or that there lily-uh-the-valley couldn't set and comb no chaps in broad daylight, by cripes; not and get off with it."

"He's an ornament to the Flying U," Pink stated dreamily. "Us boneheads don't appreciate him, is all that ails us. What we ought to do is-help him be as pretty as he wants to be, and-"

"Looky here, Little One." Big Medicine hurried his steps until he was close alongside. "I wouldn't give a punched nickel for a four-horse load uh them idees, and that's the truth." He passed Pink and went on ahead, disgust in every line of his square-shouldered figure. "Combin' his chaps, by cripes!" he snorted again, and straightway told the tale profanely to his fellows, who laughed until they were weak and watery-eyed as they listened.

Afterward, because Pink implored them and made a mystery of it, they invited Miguel to take a hand in a long-winded game-rather, a series of games-of seven-up, while his chaps hung to dry upon a willow by the creek bank-or so he believed.

The chaps, however, were up in the white-house kitchen, where were also the reek of scorched hair and the laughing expostulations of the Little Doctor and the boyish titter of Pink and Irish, who were curling laboriously the chaps of Miguel with the curling tongs of the Little Doctor and those of the Countess besides.

"It's a shame, and I just hope Miguel thrashes you both for it," the Little Doctor told them more than once; but she laughed, nevertheless, and showed Pink how to give the twist which made of each lock a corkscrew ringlet. The Countess stopped, with her dishcloth dangling from one red, bony hand, while she looked. "You boys couldn't sleep nights if you didn't pester the life outa somebody," she scolded. "Seems to me I'd friz them diamonds, if I was goin' to be mean enough to do anything."

"You would, eh?" Pink glanced up at her and dimpled. "I'll find you a rich husband to pay for that." He straightway proceeded to friz the diamonds of white.

"Why don't you have a strip of ringlets down each leg, with tight little curls between?" suggested the Little Doctor, not to be outdone by any other woman.

"Correct you are," praised Irish.

"And, remember, you're not heating branding-irons, mister man," she added. "You'll burn all the hair off, if you let the tongs get red-hot. Just so they'll sizzle; I've told you five times already." She picked up the Kid, kissed many times the finger he held up for sympathy-the finger with which he had touched the tongs as Pink was putting them back into the grate of the kitchen stove, and spoke again to ease her conscience. "I think it's awfully mean of you to do it. Miguel ought to thrash you both."

"We're dead willing to let him try, Mrs. Chip. We know it's mean. We're real ashamed of ourselves." Irish tested his tongs as he had been told to do. "But we'd rather be ashamed than good, any old time."

The Little Doctor giggled behind the Kid's tousled curls, and reached out a slim hand once more to give Pink's tongs the expert twist he was trying awkwardly to learn. "I'm sorry for Miguel; he's got lovely eyes, anyway."

"Yes, ain't he?" Pink looked up briefly from his task. "How's your leg, Irish? Mine's done."

"Seems to me I'd make a deep border of them corkscrew curls all around the bottoms, if I was doin' it," said the Countess peevishly, from the kitchen sink. "If I was that dago I'd murder the hull outfit; I never did see a body so hectored in my life-and him not ever ketchin' on. He must be plumb simple-minded."

When the curling was done to the hilarious satisfaction of Irish and Pink, and, while Pink was dancing in them to show them off, another entered with mail from town. And, because the mail-bearer was Andy Green himself, back from a winter's journeyings, Cal, Happy Jack and Slim followed close behind, talking all at once, in their joy at beholding the man they loved well and hated occasionally also. Andy delivered the mail into the hands of the Little Doctor, pinched the Kid's cheek, and said how he had grown good-looking as his mother, almost, spoke a cheerful howdy to the Countess, and turned to shake hands with Pink. It was then that the honest, gray eyes of him widened with amazement.

"Well, by golly!" gasped Slim, goggling at the chaps of Miguel.

"That there Natiff Son'll just about kill yuh for that," warned Happy Jack, as mournfully as he might with laughing. "He'll knife yuh, sure."

Andy, demanding the meaning of it all, learned all about Miguel Rapponi-from the viewpoint of the Happy Family. At least, he learned as much as it was politic to tell in the presence of the Little Doctor; and afterward, while Pink was putting the chaps back upon the willow, where Miguel had left them, he was told that they looked to him, Andy Green, for assistance.

"Oh, gosh! You don't want to depend on me, Pink," Andy expostulated modestly. "I can't think of anything-and, besides, I've reformed. I don't know as it's any compliment to me, by gracious-being told soon as I land that I'm expected to lie to a perfect stranger."

"You come on down to the stable and take a look at his saddle and bridle," urged Cal. "And wait till you see him smoking and looking past you, as if you was an ornery little peak that didn't do nothing but obstruct the scenery. I've seen mean cusses-lots of 'em; and I've seen men that was stuck on themselves. But I never-"

"Come outa that 'doby," Pink interrupted, "mud to his eyebrows, just about. And he knew darned well we headed him in there deliberate. And when I remarks it's soft going, he says: 'It is, kinda,'-just like that." Pink managed to imitate the languid tone of Miguel very well. "Not another word outa him. Didn't even make him mad! He-"

"Tell him about the parrots, Slim," Cal suggested soberly. But Slim only turned purple at the memory, and swore.

"Old Patsy sure has got it in for him," Happy Jack observed. "He asked Patsy if he ever had enchiladas. Patsy won't speak to him no more. He claims Mig-u-ell insulted him. He told Mig-u-ell-"

"Enchiladas are sure fine eating," said Andy. "I took to 'em like a she-bear to honey, down in New Mexico this winter. Your Native Son is solid there, all right."

"Aw, gwan! He ain't solid nowhere but in the head. Maybe you'll love him to death when yuh see him-chances is you will, if you've took to eatin' dago grub."

Andy patted Happy Jack reassuringly on the shoulder. "Don't get excited," he soothed. "I'll put it all over the gentleman, just to show my heart's in the right place. Just this once, though; I've reformed. And I've got to have time to size him up. Where do you keep him when he ain't in the show window?" He swung into step with Pink. "I'll tell you the truth," he confided engagingly. "Any man that'll wear chaps like he's got-even leaving out the extra finish you fellows have given 'em-had ought to be taught a lesson he'll remember. He sure must be a tough proposition, if the whole bunch of yuh have had to give him up. By gracious-"

"We haven't tried," Pink defended. "It kinda looked to us as if he was aiming to make us guy him; so we didn't. We've left him strictly alone. To-day"-he glanced over his shoulder to where the becurled chaps swung comically from the willow branch-"to-day's the first time anybody's made a move. Unless," he added, as an afterthought, "you count yesterday in the 'doby patch-and even then we didn't tell him to ride into it; we just let him do it."

"And kinda herded him over towards it," Cal amended slyly.

"Can he ride?" asked Andy, going straight to the main point, in the mind of a cowpuncher.

"W-e-ell-he hasn't been piled, so far. But then," Pink qualified hastily, "he hasn't topped anything worse than Crow-hop. He ain't hard to ride. Happy Jack could-"

"Aw, I'm gittin' good and sick of' hearin' that there tune," Happy growled indignantly. "Why don't you point out Slim as the limit, once in a while?"

"Come on down to the st

able, and let's talk it over," Andy suggested, and led the way. "What's his style, anyway? Mouthy, or what?"

With four willing tongues to enlighten him, it would be strange, indeed, if one so acute as Andy Green failed at last to have a very fair mental picture of Miguel. He gazed thoughtfully at his boots, laughed suddenly, and slapped Irish quite painfully upon the back.

"Come on up and introduce me, boys," he said. "We'll make this Native Son so hungry for home-you watch me put it on the gentleman. Only it does seem a shame to do it."

"No, it ain't. If you'd been around him for two weeks, you'd want to kill him just to make him take notice," Irish assured him.

"What gets me," Andy mused, "is why you fellows come crying to me for help. I should think the bunch of you ought to be able to handle one lone Native Son."

"Aw, you're the biggest liar and faker in the bunch, is why," Happy Jack blurted.

"Oh, I see." Andy hummed a little tune and pushed his hands deep into his pockets, and at the corners of his lips there flickered a smile.

The Native Son sat with his hat tilted slightly back upon his head and a cigarette between his lips, and was reaching lazily for the trick which made the fourth game his, when the group invaded the bunk-house. He looked up indifferently, swept Andy's face and figure with a glance too impersonal to hold even a shade of curiosity, and began rapidly shuffling his cards to count the points he had made.

Andy stopped short, just inside the door, and stared hard at Miguel, who gave no sign. He turned his honest, gray eyes upon Pink and Irish accusingly-whereat they wondered greatly.

"Your deal-if you want to play," drawled Miguel, and shoved his cards toward Big Medicine. But the boys were already uptilting chairs to grasp the quicker the outstretched hand of the prodigal, so that Miguel gathered up the cards, evened their edges mechanically, and deigned another glance at this stranger who was being welcomed so vociferously. Also he sighed a bit-for even a languid-eyed stoic of a Native Son may feel the twinge of loneliness. Andy shook hands all round, swore amiably at Weary, and advanced finally upon Miguel.

"You don't know me from Adam's off ox," he began genially, "but I know you, all right, all right. I hollered my head off with the rest of 'em when you played merry hell in that bull-ring, last Christmas. Also, I was part of your bodyguard when them greasers were trying to tickle you in the ribs with their knives in that dark alley. Shake, old-timer! You done yourself proud, and I'm glad to know yuh!"

Miguel, for the first time in two weeks, permitted himself the luxury of an expressive countenance. He gave Andy Green one quick, grateful look-and a smile, the like of which made the Happy Family quiver inwardly with instinctive sympathy.

"So you were there, too, eh?" Miguel exclaimed softly, and rose to greet him. "And that scrap in the alley-we sure had a hell of a time there for a few minutes, didn't we? Are you that tall fellow who kicked that squint-eyed greaser in the stomach? Muchos gracios, senor! They were piling on me three deep, right then, and I always believed they'd have got me, only for a tall vaquero I couldn't locate afterward." He smiled again that wonderful smile, which lighted the darkness of his eyes as with a flame, and murmured a sentence or two in Spanish.

"Did you get the spurs me and my friends sent you afterward?" asked Andy eagerly. "We heard about the Arizona boys giving you the saddle-and we raked high and low for them spurs. And, by gracious, they were beauts, too-did yuh get 'em?"

"I wear them every day I ride," answered Miguel, a peculiar, caressing note in his voice.

"I didn't know-we heard you had disappeared off the earth. Why-"

Miguel laughed outright. "To fight a bull with bare hands is one thing, amigo," he said. "To take a chance on getting a knife stuck in your back is another. Those Mexicans-they don't love the man who crosses the river and makes of their bull-fights a plaything."

"That's right; only I thought, you being a-"

"Not a Mexican." Miguel's voice sharpened a trifle. "My father was Spanish, yes. My mother"-his eyes flashed briefly at the faces of the gaping Happy Family-"my mother was born in Ireland."

"And that sure makes a hard combination to beat," cried Andy heartily. He looked at the others-at all, that is, save Pink and Irish, who had disappeared. "Well, boys, I never thought I'd come home and find-"

"Miguel Rapponi," supplied the Native Son quickly. "As well forget that other name. And," he added with the shrug which the Happy Family had come to hate, "as well forget the story, also. I am not hungry for the feel of a knife in my back." He smiled again engagingly at Andy Green. It was astonishing how readily that smile had sprung to life with the warmth of a little friendship, and how pleasant it was, withal.

"Just as you say," Andy agreed, not trying to hide his admiration. "I guess nobody's got a better right to holler for silence. But-say, you sure delivered the goods, old boy! You musta read about it, you fellows; about the American puncher that went over the line and rode one of their crack bulls all round the ring, and then-" He stopped and looked apologetically at Miguel, in whose dark eyes there flashed a warning light. "I clean forgot," he confessed impulsively. "This meeting you here unexpectedly, like this, has kinda got me rattled, I guess. But-I never saw yuh before in my life," he declared emphatically. "I don't know a darn thing about-anything that ever happened in an alley in the city of-oh, come on, old-timer; let's talk about the weather, or something safe!"

After that the boys of the Flying U behaved very much as do children who have quarreled foolishly and are trying shamefacedly to re-establish friendly relations without the preliminary indignity of open repentance. They avoided meeting the velvet-eyed glances of Miguel, and at the same time they were plainly anxious to include him in their talk as if that had been their habit from the first. A difficult situation to meet, even with the fine aplomb of the Happy Family to ease the awkwardness.

Later Miguel went unobtrusively down to the creek after his chaps; he did not get them, just then, but he stood for a long time hidden behind the willow-fringe, watching Pink and Irish feverishly combing out certain corkscrew ringlets, and dampening their combs in the creek to facilitate the process of straightening certain patches of rebellious frizzes. Miguel did not laugh aloud, as Big Medicine had done. He stood until he wearied of the sight, then lifted his shoulders in the gesture which may mean anything, smiled and went his way.

Not until dusk did Andy get a private word with him. When he did find him alone, he pumped Miguel's hand up and down and afterward clutched at the manger for support, and came near strangling. Miguel leaned beside him and smiled to himself.

"Good team work, old boy," Andy gasped at length, in a whisper. "Best I ever saw in m'life, impromptu on the spot, like that. I saw you had the makings in you, soon as I caught your eye. And the whole, blame bunch fell for it-woo-oof!" He laid his face down again upon his folded arms and shook in all the long length of him.

"They had it coming," said Miguel softly, with a peculiar relish. "Two whole weeks, and never a friendly word from one of them-oh, hell!"

"I know-I heard it all, soon as I hit the ranch," Andy replied weakly, standing up and wiping his eyes. "I just thought I'd learn 'em a lesson-and the way you played up-say, my hat's off to you, all right!"

"One learns to seize opportunities without stuttering," Miguel observed calmly-and a queer look came into his eyes as they rested upon the face of Andy. "And, if the chance comes, I'll do as much for you. By the way, did you see the saddle those Arizona boys sent me? It's over here. It's a pip-pin-almost as fine as the spurs, which I keep in the bunk-house when they're not on my heels. And, if I didn't say so before, I'm sure glad to meet the man that helped me through that alley. That big, fat devil would have landed me, sure, if you hadn't-"

"Ah-what?" Andy leaned and peered into the face of Miguel, his jaw hanging slack. "You don't mean to tell me-it's true?"

"True? Why, I thought you were the fellow-" Miguel faced him steadily. His eyes were frankly puzzled.

"I'll tell you the truth, so help me," Andy said heavily. "I don't know a darned thing about it, only what I read in the papers. I spent the whole winter in Colorado and Wyoming. I was just joshing the boys."

"Oh," said Miguel.

They stood there in the dusk and silence for a space, after which Andy went forth into the night to meditate upon this thing. Miguel stood and looked after him.

"He's the real goods when it comes to lying-but there are others," he said aloud, and smiled a peculiar smile. But for all that he felt that he was going to like Andy very much indeed. And, since the Happy Family had shown a disposition to make him one of themselves, he knew that he was going to become quite as foolishly attached to the Flying U as was even Slim, confessedly the most rabid of partisans.

In this wise did Miguel Rapponi, then, become a member of Jim Whitmore's Happy Family, and play his part in the events which followed his adoption.

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