Read CHAPTER XIII - THE ELITE AMUSEMENT PARLOR of The Ramblin's Kid, free online book, by Earl Wayland Bowman, on ReadCentral.com.

An hour after breakfast, on Monday morning, Old Heck, Ophelia, Skinny and Carolyn June Were alone at the Quarter Circle KT. Parker and the cowboys were climbing out on the sand-hills north of the Cimarron, traveling in the direction of Battle Ridge, where the beef hunt was to begin.

The circular corral was empty.

The Ramblin’ Kid was riding the Gold Dust maverick. Captain Jack was with the saddle horses which Pedro, the Mexican, had wrangled on ahead of the other riders an hour before.

The filly made no effort to throw the Ramblin’ Kid on this her second riding. She seemed perfectly willing to carry the burden on her back. Carolyn June watched the beautiful mare as she stepped lightly and daintily along beside the other horses, and when the group disappeared among the rolling ridges across the river the ranch someway seemed deserted and she felt strangely alone, although Ophelia, Old Heck and Skinny were standing at her side.

Sing Pete followed the riders, jolting along in the grub-wagon, awkwardly driving, with much clucking and pidgin-English, Old Tom and Baldy hitched to the heavy, canvas-covered vehicle with its “box-kitchen” and mess-board protruding gawkily out from the rear.

Old Heck heaved a sigh of relief. There was a feeling of serene peace in his heart, now that Parker and the cowboys were safely away on the round-up. In Skinny’s heart the feeling was echoed.

For a week or more they would be able to love Ophelia and Carolyn June without the constant fear of interruption.

Only one thing troubled Old Heck. The widow had not yet exposed her hand in that suffragette movement or whatever it was. He dreaded the form in which it might, sooner or later, break out. But at that he would be glad to have it over. At present he felt as though he were sitting on the edge of a volcano, or above an unexplored blast of dynamite at the bottom of a well. Meanwhile he would have to wait and watch and hope for the best.

The week that followed was heaven and hell, mixed together, for Old Heck and Skinny.

The women were lovely and lovable to the last degree, but cautious and tormentingly self-restrained when it came to loving. At the first intimation of dangerous sentimentality on the part of Old Heck the widow would suddenly and without an instant’s warning change the subject. When Skinny had been pensive and silent for half an hour or so and would then start, in a halting and quivering voice, to say something, Carolyn June invariably interrupted with a remark about the weather, the Gold Dust maverick, the Ramblin’ Kid, Old Heck, Sing Pete, the yellow cat, the coming Rodeo, Ophelia or something else.

They paired on the work of preparing the meals, Carolyn June and Skinny and Ophelia and Old Heck taking shift and shift about in the kitchen. In this way the work was made a joke, with friendly rivalry between the couples in the preparation of tasty dishes.

Old Heck and Skinny surprised the women with their knowledge of cooking. Nor was there the least embarrassment on the part of either when, with one of Sing Pete’s aprons tied about his waist, he worked at the range or kitchen table. As a matter of course every cow-man must know something of how to cook a meal and, also, naturally and as a matter of course, Old Heck and Skinny, without the slightest thought that it was “womanish” or beneath the “dignity” of men, peeled potatoes, fried meat, washed dishes or did whatever there was to do.

Indeed each was proud of his skill.

Ophelia herself was clever, particularly at making biscuits and dainty salads.

Carolyn June’s sole accomplishment in the art of preparing food was the making of coffee-jelly. This she had learned at college taught, perhaps, by the other girls during stolen midnight frolics. Probably this, also, was the reason she usually made it the last thing at night before Skinny and Old Heck left to go to the bunk-house. Coffee-jelly was the regular, inevitable, evening meal dessert for the entire week.

“It ain’t so very filling,” Skinny remarked the first time he tasted the delicate dish, “but it’s tender and has a dandy flavor!”

Carolyn June blushed at the compliment.

“It is pretty good,” Old Heck agreed, “but these biscuits Ophelia made are just what was needed to set it off!”

The widow smilingly showed her pleasure.

Twice during the week Skinny rode “line” on the big pasture to look after the Diamond Bar steers. Carolyn June accompanied him. Each time she rode Browny, the old cow-horse. On these days Old Heck and Ophelia, in the Clagstone “Six,” drove to Eagle Butte. The second trip to town Ophelia asked to be left at the minister’s house. Old Heck was to call in an hour and get her. During the hour he slipped into the dentist’s and had his teeth cleaned. When the tobacco-blackened tartar was scraped away they were surprisingly white and even. He stopped at the drug store and bought a tooth-brush and a tube of paste.

Ophelia noticed the wonderful improvement in his appearance, guessed the reason, and the thought sent a warm thrill through her body.

“Like a big boy,” she laughed to herself, “when he begins to wash his neck and ears!”

“It ain’t healthy to have your teeth so dirty,” Old Heck explained, coloring and in an apologizing manner, when Skinny discovered him, after supper that evening, carefully scrubbing his molars.

Skinny watched the performance, saw the result, and murmured:

“Guess I’ll get me one of them layouts!”

On Friday the quartette went to Eagle Butte, Old Heck driving, with Ophelia beside him, and Carolyn June and Skinny in the rear seat of the Clagstone “Six.”

It was on this trip, while Ophelia and Carolyn June were in the Golden Rule doing some shopping, that Old Heck and Skinny strolled into the Elite Amusement Parlor. Lafe Dorsey, owner of the Y-Bar outfit and to whom belonged the black Thunderbolt horse; Newt Johnson, Dave Stover and “Flip” Williams the latter three cowboys on the big Vermejo ranch were playing a four-handed game of billiards at one of the tables near the front of the place.

Dorsey noticed the entrance of the pair from the Quarter Circle KT. All were range men and were well known to one another. The Y-Bar owner had been drinking. Boot-leg liquor was obtainable, if one knew how and where, in Eagle Butte.

“Hello, there, Old Heck!” Dorsey greeted them hilariously and with a half-leer. “Howdy, Skinny! How’s the Cimarron? Don’t reckon you’ve taught Old Quicksilver to run yet, have you?” with a boisterous laugh as he referred to the race in which Thunderbolt had defeated Old Heck’s crack stallion.

The taunt stung Old Heck while it called out a suppressed snicker from the cowboys who were with Dorsey and the loafers in the pool-room. The bull-like guffaw of Mike Sabota, the gorilla-built, half-Greek proprietor of the Amusement Parlor roared out above the ripple of laughter from the others. The racing feud between the Y-Bar and the Quarter Circle KT was well known to all and Sabota himself had cleaned up a neat sum when the black horse from the Vermejo had outstepped the runner from the Quarter Circle KT.

Old Heck reddened at Dorsey’s words but replied quietly:

“The Cimarron is middling just middlin’. No, we ain’t been paying much attention to teaching horses how to run lately. Old Quicksilver’s pretty fair. Of course he ain’t the best horse in the world but he’ll do for cows and general knocking around. Horses are a good deal like men, you know, Dorsey there’s always one that’s a little bit better!”

The Vermejo cow-man colored at the thrust.

“Any of you Quarter Circle KT fellers going in on anything at the Rodeo, this year?” one of the Y-Bar riders asked Skinny before Dorsey could reply.

“Charley said he might go in on the ‘bull-dogging’ and Bert is figuring some on the bucking events but I don’t reckon they’ll either one enter,” Skinny carelessly; “both of them got first money in them entries last year and they ain’t caring much. The Mexican,” referring to Pedro, “will probably do some roping

“What about you and the Ramblin’ Kid?” Flip Williams interrupted, “ain’t neither of you going to take part?”

“Probably not,” Skinny drawled. “I ain’t aiming to, and I don’t know what th’ Ramblin? Kid is figuring on. He ain’t much for showing off. He only rode in the bucking contest last year because after that Cyclone horse killed Dick Stanley everybody said there wasn’t any one that could ride him and the blamed little fool just wanted to demonstrate that there was. You never can tell what he’ll do, though. He may be intending to go in on something or other.”

“Guess you people ain’t got anything out there for the two-mile sweepstakes this year, have you?” Dorsey broke in with a sneer. “Old Thunderbolt’s too much for them sand-hill jumpers from the Cimarron.”

“Oh, I don’t know as he is,” Old Heck said in a voice emotionless as an Indian’s. “The Quarter Circle KT will probably be represented in the big event. It seems to me I heard Chuck mention entering that Silver Tip colt of his and, let’s see, I believe th’ Ramblin’ Kid said something about running a new filly he’s been riding some, didn’t he, Skinny?”

“Since I come to think of it I believe he did,” Skinny answered as if it were a matter without especial interest; “if I remember right he did speak something of it a day or two ago.”

“Well, bring ’em on!” Dorsey exclaimed boastfully, “the Y-Bar will take all the money you Kiowa fellers feel like contributing! Old Thunderbolt’s as fit as a new rawhide rope and is just aching to rake in another three or four thousand of Quarter Circle KT dinero if you people have got the nerve to back your judgment!”

There was a dead hush as the crowd in the pool-room waited for Old Heck’s reply to Dorsey’s drunken challenge.

“We’ll kind of remember that invitation, Dorsey,” Old Heck said in tones as hard and smooth and cold as ice, while his gray eyes narrowed and bored the boastful cow-man like points of steel, “we’ll sort of bear in mind that suggestion of yours. The Quarter Circle KT will send a horse into the big race that will beat that Thunderbolt critter of yours just three times as bad as he set old Quicksilver back and we’ll give you action on any amount of money, cattle or anything else you want to name! You can put your friends here in on it too, if you want to ” with a scornful glance around the pool-room at the loafers in the place. “Come on, Skinny,” he added as he started toward the door, “more than likely Ophelia and Carolyn June are through with their trading and ready to go home.”

All stood silent until Skinny and Old Heck stepped out of the door, then Mike Sabota broke into a coarse, taunting laugh. As they turned up the street Old Heck and Skinny heard Dorsey and the crowd inside join in the merriment.

“Damn that fool, Dorsey!” Old Heck exclaimed viciously, as he heard the shouts of derisive laughter. “I’m going to wipe him out on that race if he’s got the guts to come across and back up that Thunderbolt horse as hard as he blows about him!”

“I think I’ll hook Sabota for a few hundred on the sweepstakes, myself,” Skinny replied with a good deal of feeling, “I don’t like the way that dirty cuss acts any better than I like Dorsey’s bragging!”

Carolyn June and Ophelia were waiting when Old Heck and Skinny arrived at the Golden Rule.

When the Clagstone “Six” whirled past the Amusement Parlor a few moments later Dorsey and Sabota were standing in the door.

Carolyn June glanced at them.

“Heavens,” she said as her eyes rested an instant on the burly, low-browed, Greek proprietor of the place, “what a big brute of a looking fellow that is!”

The two men stared insolently at the occupants of the car and as it passed Sabota made some remark, evidently vulgar, that caused Dorsey to burst into another round of coarse laughter.

Old Heck was moody during the drive home.

For nearly two years Dorsey had been crowing because of the defeat of Quicksilver by the black racer from the Vermejo. It was becoming more than idle jesting. It looked as if, for some reason, he was trying to torment Old Heck until something serious was started. Old Heck was a good loser but he was growing tired of the persistent nagging. He had not whimpered at the loss of the twenty-five hundred dollars Dorsey won from him on the race. Even the humiliation of seeing his best horse put in second place by the Y-Bar animal had been endured philosophically and without malice because he believed the thing had been run square and the faster horse had won. But Dorsey on every occasion since had, drunk or sober, boasted of Thunderbolt’s victory and taken a devilish delight in rubbing it in on the owner of the Quarter Circle KT.

To-day the Vermejo cattleman had been worse than usual, due, no doubt, to the rotten boot-leg whisky the brute-like proprietor of Eagle Butte’s rather disreputable Amusement Parlor was supposed secretly to dispense to those who had the price and the “honor” to keep sacred the source of supply.

Old Heck was sore and he was ready to go the limit in backing the Gold Dust maverick. Both he and Skinny had purposely refrained from mentioning the horse the Ramblin’ Kid would enter. The fame of the outlaw filly extended throughout all of southwestern Texas and if the Vermejo crowd had learned that the Ramblin’ Kid had finally caught her and was intending to put her against Thunderbolt it was doubtful if the black horse would be entered at all in the sweepstakes. Even if he was, Dorsey and his crowd would be shy of the betting.

This was one reason Old Heck had so played the conversation that Dorsey definitely threw down the challenge and which was so coldly accepted.

The Vermejo cow-man would have to come in heavy on the betting or be placed in the rôle of a bluffer.

By the time they reached the ranch Old Heck’s good humor was restored. He thoroughly enjoyed the supper Skinny and Carolyn June prepared and joked the girl about her coffee-jelly.

“She’s learning how to make French toast, now,” Skinny said proudly; “it won’t be long till she’s a darned good cook!”

“Why not?” Carolyn June laughed. “See who I have to teach me!” and Skinny flushed while his heart hammered joyously.

“Well, I reckon anybody could live on fried bread and coffee-jelly in a pinch,” Old Heck joked back, “but for my part I’d be a good deal happier to mix a biscuit or two like Ophelia makes once in a while in with it” giving the widow a worshipful look.

It was Ophelia’s turn to register pleasurable confusion.

After supper Old Heck and the widow washed the dishes. When they were finished Ophelia went into the front room. Old Heck took a glass of water, stepped out of the kitchen door, and diligently scrubbed his teeth. While he was still at it Skinny came out with a dipper in his hand and sheepishly drawing a tooth-brush from his hip pocket faithfully imitated the actions of the other.

“I figure a man’s taking a lot of chances if he don’t keep his teeth clean and everything,” Skinny spluttered as the water splashed down his chin.

“Yes, that’s right,” Old Heck agreed, “there’s germs and so on in them!” as he flipped the water from his own brush, dried his lips on his shirtsleeve and turned back into the kitchen.

The next morning, Saturday, Old Heck came to the breakfast table again in a pensive mood.

“I was thinking about that man Dorsey,” Skinny remarked, observing Old Heck’s mental depression and attributing it to the meeting the day before in the pool-room at Eagle Butte. “Do you reckon the filly can really beat that Thunderbolt horse?”

“Of course she can,” Old Heck answered. “Th’ Ramblin’ Kid knows. All I’m afraid is that when Dorsey finds out it’s the Gold Dust maverick Thunderbolt has got to go up against he won’t bet much on it.”

“The boys ought to be in to-day,” Skinny said, abruptly switching the subject; “they figured on getting the Battle Ridge cattle gathered and in the big pasture by to-night, didn’t they?”

“Yes,” Old Heck replied, “that was what was in my mind. Parker will be ” he stopped suddenly, “butting in again” he had started to say but caught himself and finished lamely, “ probably pretty anxious to hurry through as soon as possible and get the beef animals in the upland pasture!”

“How are you going to work things when he gets back?” Skinny asked with, a significant look at Old Heck.

“Blamed if I know ” Old Heck said uncertainly, stopping before he finished the sentence. He understood what Skinny meant and just that had been worrying him. He had reached the point where he could not endure the thought of going back to the old arrangement of day and day about with Parker in the enjoyment of the widow’s society. Yet if Parker, on his return, insisted on dividing Ophelia’s time with him in conformity with their original agreement, Old Heck knew he would have to yield. He thought for a moment he would get the widow away from Skinny and Carolyn June after breakfast and make a full confession of the whole thing, ask her to marry him, and have it done with. But he had not yet been able to get at the bottom of Ophelia’s suffragette activities. What if she married him and then suddenly broke loose as a speech-maker or something for woman’s rights? It wouldn’t pay to take the risk. “It sure does keep a man guessing!” he murmured under his breath, the sweat starting to bead his forehead from the mental effort to solve the problem before him.

Carolyn June and Ophelia exchanged sly winks as they guessed the thing that was in Old Heck’s mind.

Skinny, himself, was a bit worried as the time drew near for the return of the cowboys. He hoped Carolyn June wouldn’t spring another dance or similar opportunity for indiscriminate love-making.

Nor had Carolyn June forgotten that to-day was Saturday and Parker and the cowboys were expected back from the first half of the beef round-up. The week had been pleasant enough but she had missed the Ramblin’ Kid and the Gold Dust maverick more than she cared to confess. She wondered if the outlaw filly would remember her.

Saturday was a day of considerable tension for all at the Quarter Circle KT. Night came and Parker and the cowboys had not returned. Nor did they come on Sunday. Evidently the beef round-up had gone more slowly than was expected.

It was late Monday afternoon when the grub-wagon grumbled and creaked its way up the lane and stopped near the back-yard gate. Sing Pete climbed clumsily down from the high seat. Old Heck and Skinny unhitched Old Tom and Baldy while the Chinese cook chattered information about Parker, the cowboys and the round-up. He had left the North Springs early that morning. Two nights before the herd had run it was a stampede some sheep had been where the cattle were bedded. Maybe that was it. Chuck and Bert were on night guard and could not hold them. The steers mixed badly with the rangers. Nearly two days it took to gather them again. That was why they were late. Now everything was all right The cattle were being driven to the big pasture. Pedro would be along soon with the saddle cavallard. By dark maybe the others would be at the ranch.

It was midnight before Parker and the cowboys came in.

When Carolyn June stepped out on the porch Tuesday morning she glanced toward the circular corral, which for more than a week had been empty. Her heart gave a leap of delight.

Captain Jack was standing at the bars of the corral and behind him the early sunlight glinted on the chestnut sides of the Gold Dust maverick.