The driver of the big car throttled down. Since he had swung away from the dusty road to follow a wagon track across the desert, the speedometer had registered many miles. His eyes searched the ground in front to see whether the track led up the brow of the hill or dipped into the sandy wash.
On the breeze there floated to him the faint, insistent bawl of thirsty cattle. The car leaped forward again, climbed the hill, and closed in upon a remuda of horses watched by two wranglers.
The chauffeur stopped the machine and shouted a question at the nearest rider, who swung his mount and cantered up. He was a lean, tanned youth in overalls, jumper, wide sombrero, high-heeled boots, and shiny leather chaps. A girl in the tonneau appraised with quick, eager eyes this horseman of the plains. Perhaps she found him less picturesque than she had hoped. He was not there for moving-picture purposes. Nothing on horse or man held its place for any reason except utility. The leathers protected the legs of the boy from the spines of the cactus and the thorns of the mesquite, the wide flap of the hat his face from the slash of catclaws when he drove headlong through the brush after flying cattle. The steel horn of the saddle was built to check a half-ton of bolting hill steer and fling it instantly. The rope, the Spanish bit, the tapaderas, all could justify their place in his equipment.
“Where’s the round-up?” asked the driver.
The coffee-brown youth gave a little lift of his head to the right. He was apparently a man of few words. But his answer sufficed. The bawling of anxious cattle was now loud and persistent.
The car moved forward to the edge of the mesa and dropped into the valley. The girl in the back seat gave a little scream of delight. Here at last was the West she had read about in books and seen on the screen.
This was Cattleland’s hour of hours. The parada grounds were occupied by two circles of cattle, each fenced by eight or ten horsemen. The nearer one was the beef herd, beyond this—and closer to the mouth of the canon from which they had all recently been driven—was a mass of closely packed cows and calves.
The automobile swept around the beef herd and drew to a halt between it and the noisier one beyond. In a fire of mesquite wood branding-irons were heating. Several men were busy branding and marking the calves dragged to them from the herd by the horsemen who were roping the frightened little blatters.
It was a day beautiful even for Arizona. The winey air called potently to the youth in the girl. Such a sky, such atmosphere, so much life and color! She could not sit still any longer. With a movement of her wrist she opened the door and stepped down from the car.
A man sitting beside the chauffeur turned in his seat. “You’d better stay where you are, honey.” He had an idea that this was not exactly the scene a girl of seventeen ought to see at close range.