So Bud, knowing that it was going to storm, and perhaps dreading a little the long monotony of being housed with a man as stubborn as himself, buttoned a coat over his gray, roughneck sweater, pulled a pair of mail-order mittens over his mail-order gloves, stamped his feet into heavy, three-buckled overshoes, and set out to tramp fifteen miles through the snow, seeking the kind of pleasure which turns to pain with the finding.
He knew that Cash, out by the woodpile, let the axe blade linger in the cut while he stared after him. He knew that Cash would be lonesome without him, whether Cash ever admitted it or not. He knew that Cash would be passively anxious until he returned—for the months they had spent together had linked them closer than either would confess. Like a married couple who bicker and nag continually when together, but are miserable when apart, close association had become a deeply grooved habit not easily thrust aside. Cabin fever might grip them and impel them to absurdities such as the dead line down the middle of their floor and the silence that neither desired but both were too stubborn to break; but it could not break the habit of being together. So Bud was perfectly aware of the fact that he would be missed, and he was ill-humored enough to be glad of it. Frank, if he met Bud that day, was likely to have his amiability tested to its limit.
Bud tramped along through the snow, wishing it was not so deep, or else deep enough to make snow-shoeing practicable in the timber; thinking too of Cash and how he hoped Cash would get his fill of silence, and of Frank, and wondering where he would find him. He had covered perhaps two miles of the fifteen, and had walked off a little of his grouch, and had stopped to unbutton his coat, when he heard the crunching of feet in the snow, just beyond a thick clump of young spruce.
Bud was not particularly cautious, nor was he averse to meeting people in the trail. He stood still though, and waited to see who was coming that way—since travelers on that trail were few enough to be noticeable.
In a minute more a fat old squaw rounded the spruce grove and shied off startled when she glimpsed Bud. Bud grunted and started on, and the squaw stepped clear of the faintly defined trail to let him pass. Moreover, she swung her shapeless body around so that she half faced him as he passed. Bud's lips tightened, and he gave her only a glance. He hated fat old squaws that were dirty and wore their hair straggling down over their crafty, black eyes. They burlesqued womanhood in a way that stirred always a smoldering resentment against them. This particular squaw had nothing to commend her to his notice. She had a dirty red bandanna tied over her dirty, matted hair and under her grimy double chin. A grimy gray blanket was draped closely over her squat shoulders and formed a pouch behind, wherein the plump form of a papoose was cradled, a little red cap pulled down over its ears.
Bud strode on, his nose lifted at the odor of stale smoke that pervaded the air as he passed. The squaw, giving him a furtive stare, turned and started on, bent under her burden.
Then quite suddenly a wholly unexpected sound pursued Bud and halted him in the trail; the high, insistent howl of a child that has been denied its dearest desire of the moment. Bud looked back inquiringly. The squaw was hurrying on, and but for the straightness of the trail just there, her fat old canvas-wrapped legs would have carried her speedily out of sight. Of course, papooses did yell once in awhile, Bud supposed, though he did not remember ever hearing one howl like that on the trail. But what made the squaw in such a deuce of a hurry all at once?
Bud's theory of her kind was simple enough: If they fled from you, it was because they had stolen something and were afraid you would catch them at it. He swung around forthwith in the trail and went after her—whereat she waddled faster through the snow like a frightened duck.
"Hey! You come back here a minute! What's all the rush?" Bud's voice and his long legs pursued, and presently he overtook her and halted her by the simple expedient of grasping her shoulder firmly. The high-keyed howling ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and Bud, peering under the rolled edge of the red stocking cap, felt his jaw go slack with surprise.
The baby was smiling at him delightedly, with a quirk of the lips and a twinkle lodged deep somewhere in its eyes. It worked one hand free of its odorous wrappings, spread four fat fingers wide apart over one eye, and chirped, "Pik-k?" and chuckled infectiously deep in its throat.
Bud gulped and stared and felt a warm rush of blood from his heart up into his head. A white baby, with eyes that laughed, and quirky red lips that laughed with the eyes, and a chuckling voice like that, riding on the back of that old squaw, struck him dumb with astonishment.
"Good glory!" he blurted, as though the words had been jolted from him by the shock. Where-upon the baby reached out its hand to him and said haltingly, as though its lips had not yet grown really familiar with the words:
The squaw tried to jerk away, and Bud gave her a jerk to let her know who was boss. "Say, where'd you git that kid?" he demanded aggressively.
She moved her wrapped feet uneasily in the snow, flickered a filmy, black eyed glance at Bud's uncompromising face, and waved a dirty paw vaguely in a wide sweep that would have kept a compass needle revolving if it tried to follow and was not calculated to be particularly enlightening.
"Lo-ong ways," she crooned, and her voice was the first attractive thing Bud had discovered about her. It was pure melody, soft and pensive as the cooing of a wood dove.
"Who belongs to it?" Bud was plainly suspicious. The shake of the squaw's bandannaed head was more artfully vague than her gesture. "Don' know—modder die—fadder die—ketchum long ways—off."
"Well, what's its name?" Bud's voice harshened with his growing interest and bewilderment. The baby was again covering one twinkling eye with its spread, pink palm, and was saying "Pik-k?" and laughing with the funniest little squint to its nose that Bud had ever seen. It was so absolutely demoralizing that to relieve himself Bud gave the squaw a shake. This tickled the baby so much that the chuckle burst into a rollicking laugh, with a catch of the breath after each crescendo tone that made it absolutely individual and like none other—save one.
"What's his name?" Bud bullied the squaw, though his eyes were on the baby.
"Take—Uvin—Chal," the baby demanded imperiously.
"Uvin Chal? Now what'd yuh mean by that, oletimer?" Bud obeyed an overpowering impulse to reach out and touch the baby's cheek with a mittened thumb. The baby responded instantly by again demanding that Bud should take.
"Pik-k?" said Bud, a mitten over one eye.
"Pik-k?" said the baby, spreading his fat hand again and twinkling at Bud between his fingers. But immediately afterwards it gave a little, piteous whimper. "Take—Uvin Chal!" it beseeched Bud with voice and starlike blue eyes together. "Take!"
There was that in the baby's tone, in the unbaby-like insistence of its bright eyes, which compelled obedience. Bud had never taken a baby of that age in his arms. He was always in fear of dropping it, or crushing it with his man's strength, or something. He liked them—at a safe distance. He would chuck one under the chin, or feel diffidently the soft little cheek, but a closer familiarity scared him. Yet when this baby wriggled its other arm loose and demanded him to take, Bud reached out and grasped its plump little red-sweatered body firmly under the armpits and drew it forth, squirming with eagerness.
"Well, I'll tell the world I don't blame yuh for wanting to git outa that hog's nest," said Bud, answering the baby's gleeful chuckle.
Freed from his detaining grip on her shoulder, the squaw ducked unexpectedly and scuttled away down the trail as fast as her old legs would carry her; which was surprisingly speedy for one of her bulk. Bud had opened his mouth to ask her again where she had gotten that baby. He left it open while he stared after her astonished until the baby put up a hand over one of Bud's eyes and said "Pik-k?" with that distracting little quirk at the corners of its lips.
"You son of a gun!" grinned Bud, in the tone that turned the epithet in to a caress. "You dog gone little devil, you! Pik-k! then, if that's what you want."
The squaw had disappeared into the thick under growth, leaving a track like a hippo in the snow. Bud could have overtaken her, of course, and he could have made her take the baby back again. But he could not face the thought of it. He made no move at all toward pursuit, but instead he turned his face toward Alpine, with some vague intention of turning the baby over to the hotel woman there and getting the authorities to hunt up its parents. It was plain enough that the squaw had no right to it, else she would not have run off like that.
Bud walked at least a rod toward Alpine before he swung short around in his tracks and started the other way. "No, I'll be doggoned if I will!" he said. "You can't tell about women, no time. She might spank the kid, or something. Or maybe she wouldn't feed it enough. Anyway, it's too cold, and it's going to storm pretty pronto. Hey! Yuh cold, old-timer?"
The baby whimpered a little and snuggled its face down against Bud's chest. So Bud lifted his foot and scraped some snow off a nearby log, and set the baby down there while he took off his coat and wrapped it around him, buttoning it like a bag over arms and all. The baby watched him knowingly, its eyes round and dark blue and shining, and gave a contented little wriggle when Bud picked it up again in his arms.
"Now you're all right till we get to where it's warm," Bud assured it gravely. "And we'll do some steppin', believe me. I guess maybe you ain't any more crazy over that Injun smell on yuh, than what I am—and that ain't any at all." He walked a few steps farther before he added grimly, "It'll be some jolt for Cash, doggone his skin. He'll about bust, I reckon. But we don't give a darn. Let him bust if he wants to—half the cabin's mine, anyway."
So, talking a few of his thoughts aloud to the baby, that presently went to sleep with its face against his shoulder, Bud tramped steadily through the snow, carrying Lovin Child in his arms. No remote glimmer of the wonderful thing Fate had done for him seeped into his consciousness, but there was a new, warm glow in his heart—the warmth that came from a child's unquestioning faith in his protecting tenderness.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN. CASH GETS A SHOCK
It happened that Cash was just returning to the cabin from the Blind Ledge claim. He met Bud almost at the doorstep, just as Bud was fumbling with the latch, trying to open the door without moving Lovin Child in his arms. Cash may or may not have been astonished. Certainly he did not betray by more than one quick glance that he was interested in Bud's return or in the mysterious burden he bore. He stepped ahead of Bud and opened the door without a word, as if he always did it just in that way, and went inside.
Bud followed him in silence, stepped across the black line to his own side of the room and laid Lovin Child carefully down so as not to waken him. He unbuttoned the coat he had wrapped around him, pulled off the concealing red cap and stared down at the pale gold, silky hair and the adorable curve of the soft cheek and the lips with the dimples tricked in at the corners; the lashes lying like the delicate strokes of an artist's pencil under the closed eyes. For at least five minutes he stood without moving, his whole face softened into a boyish wistfulness. By the stove Cash stood and stared from Bud to the sleeping baby, his bushy eyebrows lifted, his gray eyes a study of incredulous bewilderment.
Then Bud drew a long breath and seemed about to move away from the bank, and Cash turned abruptly to the stove and lifted a rusty lid and peered into the cold firebox, frowning as though he was expecting to see fire and warmth where only a sprinkle of warm ashes remained. Stubbornness held him mute and outwardly indifferent. He whittled shavings and started a fire in the cook stove, filled the teakettle and set it on to boil, got out the side of bacon and cut three slices, and never once looked toward the bunk. Bud might have brought home a winged angel, or a rainbow, or a casket of jewels, and Cash would not have permitted himself to show any human interest.
But when Bud went teetering from the cabin on his toes to bring in some pine cones they had saved for quick kindling, Cash craned his neck toward the little bundle on the bunk. He saw a fat, warm little hand stir with some baby dream. He listened and heard soft breathing that stopped just short of being an infantile snore. He made an errand to his own bunk and from there inspected the mystery at closer range. He saw a nose and a little, knobby chin and a bit of pinkish forehead with the pale yellow of hair above. He leaned and cocked his head to one aide to see more—but at that moment he heard Bud stamping off the snow from his feet on the doorstep, and he took two long, noiseless strides to the dish cupboard and was fumbling there with his back to the bunk when Bud came tiptoeing in.
Bud started a fire in the fireplace and heaped the dry limbs high. Cash fried his bacon, made his tea, and set the table for his midday meal. Bud waited for the baby to wake, looking at his watch every minute or two, and making frequent cautious trips to the bunk, peeking and peering to see if the child was all right. It seemed unnatural that it should sleep so long in the daytime. No telling what that squaw had done to it; she might have doped it or something. He thought the kid's face looked red, as if it had fever, and he reached down and touched anxiously the hand that was uncovered. The hand was warm—too warm, in Bud's opinion. It would be just his luck if the kid got sick, he'd have to pack it clear in to Alpine in his arms. Fifteen miles of that did not appeal to Bud, whose arms ached after the two-mile trip with that solid little body lying at ease in the cradle they made.
His back to that end of the room, Cash sat stiff-necked and stubbornly speechless, and ate and drank as though he were alone in the cabin. Whenever Bud's mind left Lovin Child long enough to think about it, he watched Cash furtively for some sign of yielding, some softening of that grim grudge. It seemed to him as though Cash was not human, or he would show some signs of life when a live baby was brought to camp and laid down right under his nose.
Cash finished and began washing his dishes, keeping his back turned toward Bud and Bud's new possession, and trying to make it appear that he did so unconsciously. He did not fool Bud for a minute. Bud knew that Cash was nearly bursting with curiosity, and he had occasional fleeting impulses to provoke Cash to speech of some sort. Perhaps Cash knew what was in Bud's mind. At any rate he left the cabin and went out and chopped wood for an hour, furiously raining chips into the snow.
When he went in with his arms piled full of cut wood, Bud had the baby sitting on one corner of the table, and was feeding it bread and gravy as the nearest approach to baby food he could think of. During occasional interludes in the steady procession of bits of bread from the plate to the baby's mouth, Lovin Child would suck a bacon rind which he held firmly grasped in a greasy little fist. Now and then Bud would reach into his hip pocket, pull out his handkerchief as a make-shift napkin, and would carefully wipe the border of gravy from the baby's mouth, and stuff the handkerchief back into his pocket again.
Both seemed abominably happy and self-satisfied. Lovin Child kicked his heels against the rough table frame and gurgled unintelligible conversation whenever he was able to articulate sounds. Bud replied with a rambling monologue that implied a perfect understanding of Lovin Child's talk—and incidentally doled out information for Cash's benefit.
Cash cocked an eye at the two as he went by, threw the wood down on his side of the hearth, and began to replenish the fire. If he heard, he gave no sign of understanding or interest.
"I'll bet that old squaw musta half starved yah," Bud addressed the baby while he spooned gravy out of a white enamel bowl on to the second slice of bread. "You're putting away grub like a nigger at a barbecue. I'll tell the world I don't know what woulda happened if I hadn't run across yuh and made her hand yuh over."
"Ja—ja—ja—jah!" said Lovin Child, nodding his head and regarding Bud with the twinkle in his eyes.
"And that's where you're dead right, Boy. I sure do wish you'd tell me your name; but I reckon that's too much to ask of a little geezer like you. Here. Help yourself, kid—you ain't in no Injun camp now. You're with white folks now."
Cash sat down on the bench he had made for himself, and stared into the fire. His whole attitude spelled abstraction; nevertheless he missed no little sound behind him.
He knew that Bud was talking largely for his benefit, and he knew that here was the psychological time for breaking the spell of silence between them. Yet he let the minutes slip past and would not yield. The quarrel had been of Bud's making in the first place. Let Bud do the yielding, make the first step toward amity.
But Bud had other things to occupy him just then. Having eaten all his small stomach would hold, Lovin Child wanted to get down and explore. Bud had other ideas, but they did not seem to count for much with Lovin Child, who had an insistent way that was scarcely to be combated or ignored.
"But listen here, Boy!" Bud protested, after he had for the third time prevented Lovin Child from backing off the table. "I was going to take off these dirty duds and wash some of the Injun smell off yuh. I'll tell a waiting world you need a bath, and your clothes washed."
"Ugh, ugh, ugh," persisted Lovin Child, and pointed to the floor.
So Bud sighed and made a virtue of defeat. "Oh, well, they say it's bad policy to take a bath right after yuh eat. We'll let it ride awhile, but you sure have got to be scrubbed a plenty before you can crawl in with me, old-timer," he said, and set him down on the floor.
Lovin Child went immediately about the business that seemed most important. He got down on his hands and knees and gravely inspected the broad black line, hopefully testing it with tongue and with fingers to see if it would yield him anything in the way of flavor or stickiness. It did not. It had been there long enough to be thoroughly dry and tasteless. He got up, planted both feet on it and teetered back and forth, chuckling up at Bud with his eyes squinted.
He teetered so enthusiastically that he sat down unexpectedly and with much emphasis. That put him between two impulses, and while they battled he stared round-eyed at Bud. But he decided not to cry, and straightway turned himself into a growly bear and went down the line on all fours toward Cash, growling "Ooooooo!" as fearsomely as his baby throat was capable of growling.
But Cash would not be scared. He refused absolutely to jump up and back off in wild-eyed terror, crying out "Ooh! Here comes a bear!" the way Marie had always done—the way every one had always done, when Lovin Child got down and came at them growling. Cash sat rigid with his face to the fire, and would not look.
Lovin Child crawled all around him and growled his terriblest. For some unexplainable reason it did not work. Cash sat stiff as though he had turned to some insensate metal. From where he sat watching—curious to see what Cash would do—Bud saw him flinch and stiffen as a man does under pain. And because Bud had a sore spot in his own heart, Bud felt a quick stab of understanding and sympathy. Cash Markham's past could not have been a blank; more likely it held too much of sorrow for the salve of speech to lighten its hurt. There might have been a child....
"Aw, come back here!" Bud commanded Lovin Child gruffly.
But Lovin Child was too busy. He had discovered in his circling of Cash, the fanny buckles on Cash's high overshoes. He was investigating them as he had investigated the line, with fingers and with pink tongue, like a puppy. From the lowest buckle he went on to the top one, where Cash's khaki trousers were tucked inside with a deep fold on top. Lovin Child's small forefinger went sliding up in the mysterious recesses of the fold until they reached the flat surface of the knee. He looked up farther, studying Cash's set face, sitting back on his little heels while he did so. Cash tried to keep on staring into the fire, but in spite of himself his eyes lowered to meet the upward look.
"Pik-k?" chirped Lovin Child, spreading his fingers over one eye and twinkling up at Cash with the other.
Cash flinched again, wavered, swallowed twice, and got up so abruptly that Lovin Child sat down again with a plunk. Cash muttered something in his throat and rushed out into the wind and the slow-falling tiny white flakes that presaged the storm.
Until the door slammed shut Lovin Child looked after him, scowling, his eyes a blaze of resentment. He brought his palms together with a vicious slap, leaned over, and bumped his forehead deliberately and painfully upon the flat rock hearth, and set up a howl that could have been heard for three city blocks.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN. AND BUD NEVER GUESSED
That night, when he had been given a bath in the little zinc tub they used for washing clothes, and had been carefully buttoned inside a clean undershirt of Bud's, for want of better raiment, Lovin Child missed something out of his sleepytime cudding. He wanted Marie, and he did not know how to make his want known to this big, tender, awkward man who had befriended him and filled his thoughts till bedtime. He began to whimper and look seekingly around the little cabin. The whimper grew to a cry which Bud's rude rocking back and forth on the box before the fireplace could not still.
"M'ee—take!" wailed Lovin Child, sitting up and listening. "M'ee take—Uvin Chal!"
"Aw, now, you don't wanta go and act like that. Listen here, Boy. You lay down here and go to sleep. You can search me for what it is you're trying to say, but I guess you want your mama, maybe, or your bottle, chances are. Aw, looky!" Bud pulled his watch from his pocket—a man's infallible remedy for the weeping of infant charges—and dangled it anxiously before Lovin Child.
With some difficulty he extracted the small hands from the long limp tunnels of sleeves, and placed the watch in the eager fingers.
"Listen to the tick-tick! Aw, I wouldn't bite into it... oh, well, darn it, if nothing else'll do yuh, why, eat it up!"
Lovin Child stopped crying and condescended to take a languid interest in the watch—which had a picture of Marie pasted inside the back of the case, by the way. "Ee?" he inquired, with a pitiful little catch in his breath, and held it up for Bud to see the busy little second hand. "Ee?" he smiled tearily and tried to show Cash, sitting aloof on his bench beside the head of his bunk and staring into the fire. But Cash gave no sign that he heard or saw anything save the visions his memory was conjuring in the dancing flames.
"Lay down, now, like a good boy, and go to sleep," Bud wheedled. "You can hold it if you want to—only don't drop it on the floor—here! Quit kickin' your feet out like that! You wanta freeze? I'll tell the world straight, it's plumb cold and snaky outside to-night, and you're pretty darn lucky to be here instead of in some Injun camp where you'd have to bed down with a mess of mangy dogs, most likely. Come on, now—lay down like a good boy!"
"M'ee! M'ee take!" teased Lovin Child, and wept again; steadily, insistently, with a monotonous vigor that rasped Bud's nerves and nagged him with a vague memory of something familiar and unpleasant. He rocked his body backward and forward, and frowned while he tried to lay hold of the memory. It was the high-keyed wailing of this same man-child wanting his bottle, but it eluded Bud completely. There was a tantalizing sense of familiarity with the sound, but the lungs and the vocal chords of Lovin Child had developed amazingly in two years, and he had lost the small-infant wah-hah.
Bud did not remember, bat for all that his thoughts went back across those two years and clung to his own baby, and he wished poignantly that he knew how it was getting along; and wondered if it had grown to be as big a handful as this youngster, and how Marie would handle the emergency he was struggling with now: a lost, lonesome baby boy that would not go to sleep and could not tell why.
Yet Lovin Child was answering every one of Bud's mute questions. Lying there in his "Daddy Bud's" arms, wrapped comically in his Daddy Bud's softest undershirt, Lovin Child was proving to his Daddy Bud that his own man-child was strong and beautiful and had a keen little brain behind those twinkling blue eyes. He was telling why he cried. He wanted Marie to take him and rock him to sleep, just as she had rocked him to sleep every night of his young memory, until that time when he had toddled out of her life and into a new and peculiar world that held no Marie.
By and by he slept, still clinging to the watch that had Marie's picture in the back. When he was all limp and rosy and breathing softly against Bud's heart, Bud tiptoed over to the bunk, reached down inconveniently with one hand and turned back the blankets, and laid Lovin Child in his bed and covered him carefully. On his bench beyond the dead line Cash sat leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and sucked at a pipe gone cold, and stared abstractedly into the fire.
Bud looked at him sitting there. For the first time since their trails had joined, he wondered what Cash was thinking about; wondered with a new kind of sympathy about Cash's lonely life, that held no ties, no warmth of love. For the first time it struck him as significant that in the two years, almost, of their constant companionship, Cash's reminiscences had stopped abruptly about fifteen years back. Beyond that he never went, save now and then when he jumped a space, to the time when he was a boy. Of what dark years lay between, Bud had never been permitted a glimpse.
"Some kid—that kid," Bud observed involuntarily, for the first time in over three weeks speaking when he was not compelled to speak to Cash. "I wish I knew where he came from. He wants his mother."
Cash stirred a little, like a sleeper only half awakened. But he did not reply, and Bud gave an impatient snort, tiptoed over and picked up the discarded clothes of Lovin Child, that held still a faint odor of wood smoke and rancid grease, and, removing his shoes that he might move silently, went to work.
He washed Lovin Child's clothes, even to the red sweater suit and the fuzzy red "bunny" cap. He rigged a line before the fireplace—on his side of the dead line, to be sure—hung the little garments upon it and sat up to watch the fire while they dried.
While he rubbed and rinsed and wrung and hung to dry, he had planned the details of taking the baby to Alpine and placing it in good hands there until its parents could be found. It was stolen, he had no doubt at all. He could picture quite plainly the agony of the parents, and common humanity imposed upon him the duty of shortening their misery as much as possible. But one day of the baby's presence he had taken, with the excuse that it needed immediate warmth and wholesome food. His conscience did not trouble him over that short delay, for he was honest enough in his intentions and convinced that he had done the right thing.
Cash had long ago undressed and gone to bed, turning his back to the warm, fire-lighted room and pulling the blankets up to his ears. He either slept or pretended to sleep, Bud did not know which. Of the baby's healthy slumber there was no doubt at all. Bud put on his overshoes and went outside after more wood, so that there would be no delay in starting the fire in the morning and having the cabin warm before the baby woke.
It was snowing fiercely, and the wind was biting cold. Already the woodpile was drifted under, so that Bud had to go back and light the lantern and hang it on a nail in the cabin wall before he could make any headway at shovelling off the heaped snow and getting at the wood beneath. He worked hard for half an hour, and carried in all the wood that had been cut. He even piled Cash's end of the hearth high with the surplus, after his own side was heaped full.
A storm like that meant that plenty of fuel would be needed to keep the cabin snug and warm, and he was thinking of the baby's comfort now, and would not be hampered by any grudge.
When he had done everything he could do that would add to the baby's comfort, he folded the little garments and laid them on a box ready for morning. Then, moving carefully, he crawled into the bed made warm by the little body. Lovin Child, half wakened by the movement, gave a little throaty chuckle, murmured "M'ee," and threw one fat arm over Bud's neck and left it there.
"Gawd," Bud whispered in a swift passion of longing, "I wish you was my own kid!" He snuggled Lovin Child close in his arms and held him there, and stared dim-eyed at the flickering shadows on the wall. What he thought, what visions filled his vigil, who can say?
CHAPTER SIXTEEN. THE ANTIDOTE
Three days it stormed with never a break, stormed so that the men dreaded the carrying of water from the spring that became ice-rimmed but never froze over; that clogged with sodden masses of snow half melted and sent faint wisps of steam up into the chill air. Cutting wood was an ordeal, every armload an achievement. Cash did not even attempt to visit his trap line, but sat before the fire smoking or staring into the flames, or pottered about the little domestic duties that could not half fill the days.
With melted snow water, a bar of yellow soap, and one leg of an old pair of drawers, he scrubbed on his knees the floor on his side of the dead line, and tried not to notice Lovin Child. He failed only because Lovin Child refused to be ignored, but insisted upon occupying the immediate foreground and in helping—much as he had helped Marie pack her suit case one fateful afternoon not so long before.
When Lovin Child was not permitted to dabble in the pan of soapy water, he revenged himself by bringing Cash's mitten and throwing that in, and crying "Ee? Ee?" with a shameless delight because it sailed round and round until Cash turned and saw it, and threw it out.
"No, no, no!" Lovin Child admonished himself gravely, and got it and threw it back again.
Cash did not say anything. Indeed, he hid a grin under his thick, curling beard which he had grown since the first frost as a protection against cold. He picked up the mitten and laid it to dry on the slab mantel, and when he returned, Lovin Child was sitting in the pan, rocking back and forth and crooning "'Ock-a-by! 'Ock-a-by!" with the impish twinkle in his eyes.
Cash was just picking him out of the pan when Bud came in with a load of wood. Bud hastily dropped the wood, and without a word Cash handed Lovin Child across the dead line, much as he would have handed over a wet puppy. Without a word Bud took him, but the quirky smile hid at the corners of his mouth, and under Cash's beard still lurked the grin.
"No, no, no!" Lovin Child kept repeating smugly, all the while Bud was stripping off his wet clothes and chucking him into the undershirt he wore for a nightgown, and trying a man's size pair of socks on his legs.
"I should say no-no-no! You doggone little rascal, I'd rather herd a flea on a hot plate! I've a plumb good notion to hog-tie yuh for awhile. Can't trust yuh a minute nowhere. Now look what you got to wear while your clothes dry!"
"Ee? Ee?" invited Lovin Child, gleefully holding up a muffled little foot lost in the depths of Bud's sock.
"Oh, I see, all right! I'll tell the world I see you're a doggone nuisance! Now see if you can keep outa mischief till I get the wood carried in." Bud set him down on the bunk, gave him a mail-order catalogue to look at, and went out again into the storm. When he came back, Lovin Child was sitting on the hearth with the socks off, and was picking bits of charcoal from the ashes and crunching them like candy in his small, white teeth. Cash was hurrying to finish his scrubbing before the charcoal gave out, and was keeping an eye on the crunching to see that Lovin Child did not get a hot ember.
"H'yah! You young imp!" Bud shouted, stubbing his toe as he hurried forward. "Watcha think you are—a fire-eater, for gosh sake?"
Cash bent his head low—it may have been to hide a chuckle. Bud was having his hands full with the kid, and he was trying to be stern against the handicap of a growing worship of Lovin Child and all his little ways. Now Lovin Child was all over ashes, and the clean undershirt was clean no longer, after having much charcoal rubbed into its texture. Bud was not overstocked with clothes; much traveling had formed the habit of buying as he needed for immediate use. With Lovin Child held firmly under one arm, where he would be sure of him, he emptied his "war-bag" on the bunk and hunted out another shirt
Lovin Child got a bath, that time, because of the ashes he had managed to gather on his feet and his hands and his head. Bud was patient, and Lovin Child was delightedly unrepentant—until he was buttoned into another shirt of Bud's, and the socks were tied on him.
"Now, doggone yuh, I'm goin' to stake you out, or hobble yuh, or some darn thing, till I get that wood in!" he thundered, with his eyes laughing. "You want to freeze? Hey? Now you're goin' to stay right on this bunk till I get through, because I'm goin' to tie yuh on. You may holler—but you little son of a gun, you'll stay safe!"
So Bud tied him, with a necktie around his body for a belt, and a strap fastened to that and to a stout nail in the wall over the bunk. And Lovin Child, when he discovered that it was not a new game but instead a check upon his activities, threw himself on his back and held his breath until he was purple, and then screeched with rage.
I don't suppose Bud ever carried in wood so fast in his life. He might as well have taken his time, for Lovin Child was in one of his fits of temper, the kind that his grandmother invariably called his father's cussedness coming out in him. He howled for an hour and had both men nearly frantic before he suddenly stopped and began to play with the things he had scorned before to touch; the things that had made him bow his back and scream when they were offered to him hopefully.
Bud, his sleeves rolled up, his hair rumpled and the perspiration standing thick on his forehead, stood over him with his hands on his hips, the picture of perturbed helplessness.
"You doggone little devil!" he breathed, his mind torn between amusement and exasperation. "If you was my own kid, I'd spank yuh! But," he added with a little chuckle, "if you was my own kid, I'd tell the world you come by that temper honestly. Darned if I wouldn't."
Cash, sitting dejected on the side of his own bunk, lifted his head, and after that his hawklike brows, and stared from the face of Bud to the face of Lovin Child. For the first time he was struck with the resemblance between the two. The twinkle in the eyes, the quirk of the lips, the shape of the forehead and, emphasizing them all, the expression of having a secret joke, struck him with a kind of shock. If it were possible... But, even in the delirium of fever, Bud had never hinted that he had a child, or a wife even. He had firmly planted in Cash's mind the impression that his life had never held any close ties whatsoever. So, lacking the clue, Cash only wondered and did not suspect.
What most troubled Cash was the fact that he had unwittingly caused all the trouble for Lovin Child. He should not have tried to scrub the floor with the kid running loose all over the place. As a slight token of his responsibility in the matter, he watched his chance when Bud was busy at the old cookstove, and tossed a rabbit fur across to Lovin Child to play with; a risky thing to do, since he did not know what were Lovin Child's little peculiarities in the way of receiving strange gifts. But he was lucky. Lovin Child was enraptured with the soft fur and rubbed it over his baby cheeks and cooed to it and kissed it, and said "Ee? Ee?" to Cash, which was reward enough.
There was a strained moment when Bud came over and discovered what it was he was having so much fun with. Having had three days of experience by which to judge, he jumped to the conclusion that Lovin Child had been in mischief again.
"Now what yuh up to, you little scallywag?" he demanded. "How did you get hold of that? Consarn your little hide, Boy..."
"Let the kid have it," Cash muttered gruffly. "I gave it to him." He got up abruptly and went outside, and came in with wood for the cookstove, and became exceedingly busy, never once looking toward the other end of the room, where Bud was sprawled upon his back on the bunk, with Lovin Child astride his middle, having a high old time with a wonderful new game of "bronk riding."
Now and then Bud would stop bucking long enough to slap Lovin Child in the face with the soft side of the rabbit fur, and Lovin Child would squint his eyes and wrinkle his nose and laugh until he seemed likely to choke. Then Bud would cry, "Ride 'im, Boy! Ride 'im an' scratch 'im. Go get 'im, cowboy—he's your meat!" and would bounce Lovin Child till he squealed with glee.
Cash tried to ignore all that. Tried to keep his back to it. But he was human, and Bud was changed so completely in the last three days that Cash could scarcely credit his eyes and his ears. The old surly scowl was gone from Bud's face, his eyes held again the twinkle. Cash listened to the whoops, the baby laughter, the old, rodeo catch-phrases, and grinned while he fried his bacon.
Presently Bud gave a whoop, forgetting the feud in his play. "Lookit, Cash! He's ridin' straight up and whippin' as he rides! He's so-o-me bronk-fighter, buh-lieve me!"
Cash turned and looked, grinned and turned away again—but only to strip the rind off a fresh-fried slice of bacon the full width of the piece. He came down the room on his own side the dead line, and tossed the rind across to the bunk.
"Quirt him with that, Boy," he grunted, "and then you can eat it if you want."
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN. LOVIN CHILD WRIGGLES IN
On the fourth day Bud's conscience pricked him into making a sort of apology to Cash, under the guise of speaking to Lovin Child, for still keeping the baby in camp.
"I've got a blame good notion to pack you to town to-day, Boy, and try and find out where you belong," he said, while he was feeding him oatmeal mush with sugar and canned milk. "It's pretty cold, though..." He cast a slant-eyed glance at Cash, dourly frying his own hotcakes. "We'll see what it looks like after a while. I sure have got to hunt up your folks soon as I can. Ain't I, old-timer?"
That salved his conscience a little, and freed him of the uneasy conviction that Cash believed him a kidnapper. The weather did the rest. An hour after breakfast, just when Bud was downheartedly thinking he could not much longer put off starting without betraying how hard it was going to be for him to give up the baby, the wind shifted the clouds and herded them down to the Big Mountain and held them there until they began to sift snow down upon the burdened pines.
"Gee, it's going to storm again!" Bud blustered in. "It'll be snowing like all git-out in another hour. I'll tell a cruel world I wouldn't take a dog out such weather as this. Your folks may be worrying about yuh, Boy, but they ain't going to climb my carcass for packing yuh fifteen miles in a snow-storm and letting yuh freeze, maybe. I guess the cabin's big enough to hold yuh another day—what?"
Cash lifted his eyebrows and pinched in his lips under his beard. It did not seem to occur to Bud that one of them could stay in the cabin with the baby while the other carried to Alpine the news of the baby's whereabouts and its safety. Or if it did occur to Bud, he was careful not to consider it a feasible plan. Cash wondered if Bud thought he was pulling the wool over anybody's eyes. Bud did not want to give up that kid, and he was tickled to death because the storm gave him an excuse for keeping it. Cash was cynically amused at Bud's transparency. But the kid was none of his business, and he did not intend to make any suggestions that probably would not be taken anyway. Let Bud pretend he was anxious to give up the baby, if that made him feel any better about it.
That day went merrily to the music of Lovin Child's chuckling laugh and his unintelligible chatter. Bud made the discovery that "Boy" was trying to say Lovin Child when he wanted to be taken and rocked, and declared that he would tell the world the name fit, like a saddle on a duck's back. Lovin Child discovered Cash's pipe, and was caught sucking it before the fireplace and mimicking Cash's meditative pose with a comical exactness that made Bud roar. Even Cash was betrayed into speaking a whole sentence to Bud before he remembered his grudge. Taken altogether, it was a day of fruitful pleasure in spite of the storm outside.
That night the two men sat before the fire and watched the flames and listened to the wind roaring in the pines. On his side of the dead line Bud rocked his hard-muscled, big body back and forth, cradling Lovin Child asleep in his arms. In one tender palm he nested Lovin Child's little bare feet, like two fat, white mice that slept together after a day's scampering.
Bud was thinking, as he always thought nowadays, of Marie and his own boy; yearning, tender thoughts which his clumsy man's tongue would never attempt to speak. Before, he had thought of Marie alone, without the baby; but he had learned much, these last four days. He knew now how closely a baby can creep in and cling, how they can fill the days with joy. He knew how he would miss Lovin Child when the storm cleared and he must take him away. It did not seem right or just that he should give him into the keeping of strangers—and yet he must until the parents could have him back. The black depths of their grief to-night Bud could not bring himself to contemplate. Bad enough to forecast his own desolateness when Lovin Child was no longer romping up and down the dead line, looking where he might find some mischief to get into. Bad enough to know that the cabin would again be a place of silence and gloom and futile resentments over little things, with no happy little man-child to brighten it. He crept into his bunk that night and snuggled the baby up in his arms, a miserable man with no courage left in him for the future.
But the next day it was still storming, and colder than ever. No one would expect him to take a baby out in such weather. So Bud whistled and romped with Lovin Child, and would not worry about what must happen when the storm was past.
All day Cash brooded before the fire, bundled in his mackinaw and sweater. He did not even smoke, and though he seemed to feel the cold abnormally, he did not bring in any wood except in the morning, but let Bud keep the fireplace going with his own generous supply. He did not eat any dinner, and at supper time he went to bed with all the clothes he possessed piled on top of him. By all these signs, Bud knew that Cash had a bad cold.
Bud did not think much about it at first—being of the sturdy type that makes light of a cold. But when Cash began to cough with that hoarse, racking sound that tells the tale of laboring lungs, Bud began to feel guiltily that he ought to do something about it.
He hushed Lovin Child's romping, that night, and would not let him ride a bronk at bedtime. When he was asleep, Bud laid him down and went over to the supply cupboard, which he had been obliged to rearrange with everything except tin cans placed on shelves too high for a two-year-old to reach even when he stood on his tiptoes and grunted. He hunted for the small bottle of turpentine, found it and mixed some with melted bacon grease, and went over to Cash's bunk, hesitating before he crossed the dead line, but crossing nevertheless.
Cash seemed to be asleep, but his breathing sounded harsh and unnatural, and his hand, lying uncovered on the blanket, clenched and unclenched spasmodically. Bud watched him for a minute, holding the cup of grease and turpentine in his hand.
"Say," he began constrainedly, and waited. Cash muttered something and moved his hand irritatedly, without opening his eyes. Bud tried again.
"Say, you better swab your chest with this dope. Can't monkey with a cold, such weather as this."
Cash opened his eyes, gave the log wall a startled look, and swung his glance to Bud. "Yeah—I'm all right," he croaked, and proved his statement wrong by coughing violently.
Bud set down the cup on a box, laid hold of Cash by the shoulders and forced him on his back. With movements roughly gentle he opened Cash's clothing at the throat, exposed his hairy chest, and poured on grease until it ran in a tiny rivulets. He reached in and rubbed the grease vigorously with the palm of his hand, giving particular attention to the surface over the bronchial tubes. When he was satisfied that Cash's skin could absorb no more, he turned him unceremoniously on his face and repeated his ministrations upon Cash's shoulders. Then he rolled him back, buttoned his shirts for him, and tramped heavily back to the table.
"I don't mind seeing a man play the mule when he's well," he grumbled, "but he's got a right to call it a day when he gits down sick. I ain't going to be bothered burying no corpses, in weather like this. I'll tell the world I ain't!"
He went searching on all the shelves for something more that he could give Cash. He found a box of liver pills, a bottle of Jamaica ginger, and some iodine—not an encouraging array for a man fifteen miles of untrodden snow from the nearest human habitation. He took three of the liver pills—judging them by size rather than what might be their composition—and a cup of water to Cash and commanded him to sit up and swallow them. When this was accomplished, Bud felt easier as to his conscience, though he was still anxious over the possibilities in that cough.
Twice in the night he got up to put more wood on the fire and to stand beside Cash's bed and listen to his breathing. Pneumonia, the strong man's deadly foe, was what he feared. In his cow-punching days he had seen men die of it before a doctor could be brought from the far-away town. Had he been alone with Cash, he would have fought his way to town and brought help, but with Lovin Child to care for he could not take the trail.
At daylight Cash woke him by stumbling across the floor to the water bucket. Bud arose then and swore at him for a fool and sent him back to bed, and savagely greased him again with the bacon grease and turpentine. He was cheered a little when Cash cussed back, but he did not like the sound of his voice, for all that, and so threatened mildly to brain him if he got out of bed again without wrapping a blanket or something around him.
Thoroughly awakened by this little exchange of civilities, Bud started a fire in the stove and made coffee for Cash, who drank half a cup quite meekly. He still had that tearing cough, and his voice was no more than a croak; but he seemed no worse than he had been the night before. So on the whole Bud considered the case encouraging, and ate his breakfast an hour or so earlier than usual. Then he went out and chopped wood until he heard Lovin Child chirping inside the cabin like a bug-hunting meadow lark, when he had to hurry in before Lovin Child crawled off the bunk and got into some mischief.
For a man who was wintering in what is called enforced idleness in a snow-bound cabin in the mountains, Bud Moore did not find the next few days hanging heavily on his hands. Far from it.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN. THEY HAVE THEIR TROUBLES
To begin with, Lovin Child got hold of Cash's tobacco can and was feeding it by small handfuls to the flames, when Bud caught him. He yelled when Bud took it away, and bumped his head on the floor and yelled again, and spatted his hands together and yelled, and threw himself on his back and kicked and yelled; while Bud towered over him and yelled expostulations and reprimands and cajolery that did not cajole.
Cash turned over with a groan, his two palms pressed against his splitting head, and hoarsely commanded the two to shut up that infernal noise. He was a sick man. He was a very sick man, and he had stood the limit.
"Shut up?" Bud shouted above the din of Lovin Child. "Ain't I trying to shut him up, for gosh sake? What d'yuh want me to do?—let him throw all the tobacco you got into the fire? Here, you young imp, quit that, before I spank you! Quick, now—we've had about enough outa you! You lay down there, Cash, and quit your croaking. You'll croak right, if you don't keep covered up. Hey, Boy! My jumpin' yellow-jackets, you'd drown a Klakon till you couldn't hear it ten feet! Cash, you old fool, you shut up, I tell yuh, or I'll come over there and shut you up! I'll tell the world—Boy! Good glory! shut up-p!"
Cash was a sick man, but he had not lost all his resourcefulness. He had stopped Lovin Child once, and thereby he had learned a little of the infantile mind. He had a coyote skin on the foot of his bed, and he raised himself up and reached for it as one reaches for a fire extinguisher. Like a fire extinguisher he aimed it, straight in the middle of the uproar.
Lovin Child, thumping head and heels regularly on the floor and punctuating the thumps with screeches, was extinguished—suddenly, completely silenced by the muffling fur that fell from the sky, so far as he knew. The skin covered him completely. Not a sound came from under it. The stillness was so absolute that Bud was scared, and so was Cash, a little. It was as though Lovin Child, of a demon one instant, was in the next instant snuffed out of existence.
"What yuh done?" Bud ejaculated, rolling wild eyes at Cash. "You—"
The coyote skin rattled a little. A fluff of yellow, a spark of blue, and "Pik-k?" chirped Lovin Child from under the edge, and ducked back again out of sight.
Bud sat down weakly on a box and shook his head slowly from one side to the other. "You've got me going south," he made solemn confession to the wobbling skin—or to what it concealed. "I throw up my hands, I'll tell the world fair." He got up and went over and sat down on his bunk, and rested his hands on his knees, and considered the problem of Lovin Child.
"Here I've got wood to cut and water to bring and grub to cook, and I can't do none of them because I've got to ride herd on you every minute. You've got my goat, kid, and that's the truth. You sure have. Yes, 'Pik-k,' doggone yuh—after me going crazy with yuh, just about, and thinking you're about to blow your radiator cap plumb up through the roof! I'll tell yuh right here and now, this storm has got to let up pretty quick so I can pack you outa here, or else I've got to pen you up somehow, so I can do something besides watch you. Look at the way you scattered them beans, over there by the cupboard! By rights I oughta stand over yuh and make yuh pick every one of 'em up! and who was it drug all the ashes outa the stove, I'd like to know?"
The coyote skin lifted a little and moved off toward the fireplace, growling "Ooo-ooo-ooo!" like a bear—almost. Bud rescued the bear a scant two feet from the flames, and carried fur, baby and all, to the bunk. "My good lord, what's a fellow going to do with yuh?" he groaned in desperation. "Burn yourself up, you would! I can see now why folks keep their kids corralled in high chairs and gocarts all the time. They got to, or they wouldn't have no kids."
Bud certainly was learning a few things that he had come near to skipping altogether in his curriculum of life. Speaking of high chairs, whereof he had thought little enough in his active life, set him seriously to considering ways and means. Weinstock-Lubin had high chairs listed in their catalogue. Very nice high chairs, for one of which Bud would have paid its weight in gold dust (if one may believe his word) if it could have been set down in that cabin at that particular moment. He studied the small cuts of the chairs, holding Lovin Child off the page by main strength the while. Wishing one out of the catalogue and into the room being impracticable, he went after the essential features, thinking to make one that would answer the purpose.
Accustomed as he was to exercising his inventive faculty in overcoming certain obstacles raised by the wilderness in the path of comfort, Bud went to work with what tools he had, and with the material closest to his hand. Crude tools they were, and crude materials—like using a Stilson wrench to adjust a carburetor, he told Lovin Child who tagged him up and down the cabin. An axe, a big jack-knife, a hammer and some nails left over from building their sluice boxes, these were the tools. He took the axe first, and having tied Lovin Child to the leg of his bunk for safety's sake, he went out and cut down four young oaks behind the cabin, lopped off the branches and brought them in for chair legs. He emptied a dynamite box of odds and ends, scrubbed it out and left it to dry while he mounted the four legs, with braces of the green oak and a skeleton frame on top. Then he knocked one end out of the box, padded the edges of the box with burlap, and set Lovin Child in his new high chair.
He was tempted to call Cash's attention to his handiwork, but Cash was too sick to be disturbed, even if the atmosphere between them had been clear enough for easy converse. So he stifled the impulse and addressed himself to Lovin Child, which did just as well.
Things went better after that. Bud could tie the baby in the chair, give him a tin cup and a spoon and a bacon rind, and go out to the woodpile feeling reasonably certain that the house would not be set afire during his absence. He could cook a meal in peace, without fear of stepping on the baby. And Cash could lie as close as he liked to the edge of the bed without running the risk of having his eyes jabbed with Lovin Child's finger, or something slapped unexpectedly in his face.
He needed protection from slight discomforts while he lay there eaten with fever, hovering so close to pneumonia that Bud believed he really had it and watched over him nights as well as daytimes. The care he gave Cash was not, perhaps, such as the medical profession would have endorsed, but it was faithful and it made for comfort and so aided Nature more than it hindered.
Fair weather came, and days of melting snow. But they served only to increase Bud's activities at the woodpile and in hunting small game close by, while Lovin Child took his nap and Cash was drowsing. Sometimes he would bundle the baby in an extra sweater and take him outside and let him wallow in the snow while Bud cut wood and piled it on the sheltered side of the cabin wall, a reserve supply to draw on in an emergency.
It may have been the wet snow—more likely it was the cabin air filled with germs of cold. Whatever it was, Lovin Child caught cold and coughed croupy all one night, and fretted and would not sleep. Bud anointed him as he had anointed Cash, and rocked him in front of the fire, and met the morning hollow-eyed and haggard. A great fear tore at his heart. Cash read it in his eyes, in the tones of his voice when he crooned soothing fragments of old range songs to the baby, and at daylight Cash managed to dress himself and help; though what assistance he could possibly give was not all clear to him, until he saw Bud's glance rove anxiously toward the cook-stove.
"Hand the kid over here," Cash said huskily. "I can hold him while you get yourself some breakfast."
Bud looked at him stupidly, hesitated, looked down at the flushed little face, and carefully laid him in Cash's outstretched arms. He got up stiffly—he had been sitting there a long time, while the baby slept uneasily—and went on his tiptoes to make a fire in the stove.
He did not wonder at Cash's sudden interest, his abrupt change from moody aloofness to his old partnership in trouble as well as in good fortune. He knew that Cash was not fit for the task, however, and he hurried the coffee to the boiling point that he might the sooner send Cash back to bed. He gulped down a cup of coffee scalding hot, ate a few mouthfuls of bacon and bread, and brought a cup back to Cash.
"What d'yuh think about him?" he whispered, setting the coffee down on a box so that he could take Lovin Child. "Pretty sick kid, don't yuh think?"
"It's the same cold I got," Cash breathed huskily. "Swallows like it's his throat, mostly. What you doing for him?"
"Bacon grease and turpentine," Bud answered him despondently. "I'll have to commence on something else, though—turpentine's played out I used it most all up on you."
"Coal oil's good. And fry up a mess of onions and make a poultice." He put up a shaking hand before his mouth and coughed behind it, stifling the sound all he could.
Lovin Child threw up his hands and whimpered, and Bud went over to him anxiously. "His little hands are awful hot," he muttered. "He's been that way all night."
Cash did not answer. There did not seem anything to say that would do any good. He drank his coffee and eyed the two, lifting his eyebrows now and then at some new thought.
"Looks like you, Bud," he croaked suddenly. "Eyes, expression, mouth—you could pass him off as your own kid, if you wanted to."
"I might, at that," Bud whispered absently. "I've been seeing you in him, though, all along. He lifts his eyebrows same way you do."
"Ain't like me," Cash denied weakly, studying Lovin Child. "Give him here again, and you go fry them onions. I would—if I had the strength to get around."
"Well, you ain't got the strength. You go back to bed, and I'll lay him in with yuh. I guess he'll lay quiet. He likes to be cuddled up close."
In this way was the feud forgotten. Save for the strange habits imposed by sickness and the care of a baby, they dropped back into their old routine, their old relationship. They walked over the dead line heedlessly, forgetting why it came to be there. Cabin fever no longer tormented them with its magnifying of little things. They had no time or thought for trifles; a bigger matter than their own petty prejudices concerned them. They were fighting side by side, with the Old Man of the Scythe—the Old Man who spares not.
Lovin Child was pulling farther and farther away from them. They knew it, they felt it in his hot little hands, they read it in his fever-bright eyes. But never once did they admit it, even to themselves. They dared not weaken their efforts with any admissions of a possible defeat. They just watched, and fought the fever as best they could, and waited, and kept hope alive with fresh efforts.
Cash was tottery weak from his own illness, and he could not speak above a whisper. Yet he directed, and helped soothe the baby with baths and slow strokings of his hot forehead, and watched him while Bud did the work, and worried because he could not do more.
They did not know when Lovin Child took a turn for the better, except that they realized the fever was broken. But his listlessness, the unnatural drooping of his whole body, scared them worse than before. Night and day one or the other watched over him, trying to anticipate every need, every vagrant whim. When he began to grow exacting, they were still worried, though they were too fagged to abase themselves before him as much as they would have liked.
Then Bud was seized with an attack of the grippe before Lovin Child had passed the stage of wanting to be held every waking minute. Which burdened Cash with extra duties long before he was fit.
Christmas came, and they did not know it until the day was half gone, when Cash happened to remember. He went out then and groped in the snow and found a little spruce, hacked it off close to the drift and brought it in, all loaded with frozen snow, to dry before the fire. The kid, he declared, should have a Christmas tree, anyway. He tied a candle to the top, and a rabbit skin to the bottom, and prunes to the tip of the branches, and tried to rouse a little enthusiasm in Lovin Child. But Lovin Child was not interested in the makeshift. He was crying because Bud had told him to keep out of the ashes, and he would not look.
So Cash untied the candle and the fur and the prunes, threw them across the room, and peevishly stuck the tree in the fireplace.
"Remember what you said about the Fourth of July down in Arizona, Bud?" he asked glumly. "Well, this is the same kind of Christmas." Bud merely grunted.
CHAPTER NINETEEN. BUD FACES FACTS
New Year came and passed and won nothing in the way of celebration from the three in Nelson's cabin. Bud's bones ached, his head ached, the flesh on his body ached. He could take no comfort anywhere, under any circumstances. He craved clean white beds and soft-footed attendance and soothing silence and cool drinks—and he could have none of those things. His bedclothes were heavy upon his aching limbs; he had to wait upon his own wants; the fretful crying of Lovin Child or the racking cough of Cash was always in his ears, and as for cool drinks, there was ice water in plenty, to be sure, but nothing else. Fair weather came, and storms, and cold: more storms and cold than fair weather. Neither man ever mentioned taking Lovin Child to Alpine. At first, because it was out of the question; after that, because they did not want to mention it. They frequently declared that Lovin Child was a pest, and there were times when Bud spoke darkly of spankings—which did not materialize. But though they did not mention it, they knew that Lovin Child was something more; something endearing, something humanizing, something they needed to keep them immune from cabin fever.
Some time in February it was that Cash fashioned a crude pair of snowshoes and went to town, returning the next day. He came home loaded with little luxuries for Lovin Child, and with the simpler medicines for other emergencies which they might have to meet, but he did not bring any word of seeking parents. The nearest he came to mentioning the subject was after supper, when the baby was asleep and Bud trying to cut a small pair of overalls from a large piece of blue duck that Cash had brought. The shears were dull, and Lovin Child's little rompers were so patched and shapeless that they were not much of a guide, so Bud was swearing softly while he worked.
"I didn't hear a word said about that kid being lost," Cash volunteered, after he had smoked and watched Bud awhile. "Couldn't have been any one around Alpine, or I'd have heard something about it."
Bud frowned, though it may have been over his tailoring problem.
"Can't tell—the old squaw mighta been telling the truth," he said reluctantly. "I s'pose they do, once in awhile. She said his folks were dead." And he added defiantly, with a quick glance at Cash, "Far as I'm concerned, I'm willing to let it ride that way. The kid's doing all right."
"Yeah. I got some stuff for that rash on his chest. I wouldn't wonder if we been feeding him too heavy on bacon rinds, Bud. They say too much of that kinda thing is bad for kids. Still, he seems to feel all right."
"I'll tell the world he does! He got hold of your old pipe to-day and was suckin' away on it, I don't know how long. Never feazed him, either. If he can stand that, I guess he ain't very delicate."
"Yeah. I laid that pipe aside myself because it was getting so dang strong. Ain't you getting them pants too long in the seat, Bud? They look to me big enough for a ten-year-old."
"I guess you don't realize how that kid's growing!" Bud defended his handiwork "And time I get the seams sewed, and the side lapped over for buttons—"
"Yeah. Where you going to get the buttons? You never sent for any."
"Oh, I'll find buttons. You can donate a couple off some of your clothes, if you want to right bad."
"Who? Me? I ain't got enough now to keep the wind out," Cash protested. "Lemme tell yuh something, Bud. If you cut more saving, you'd have enough cloth there for two pair of pants. You don't need to cut the legs so long as all that. They'll drag on the ground so the poor kid can't walk in 'em without falling all over himself."
"Well, good glory! Who's making these pants? Me, or you?" Bud exploded. "If you think you can do any better job than what I'm doing, go get yourself some cloth and fly at it! Don't think you can come hornin' in on my job, 'cause I'll tell the world right out loud, you can't."
"Yeah—that's right! Go to bellerin' around like a bull buffalo, and wake the kid up! I don't give a cuss how you make'm. Go ahead and have the seat of his pants hangin' down below his knees if you want to!" Cash got up and moved huffily over to the fireplace and sat with his back to Bud.
"Maybe I will, at that," Bud retorted. "You can't come around and grab the job I'm doing." Bud was jabbing a needle eye toward the end of a thread too coarse for it, and it did not improve his temper to have the thread refuse to pass through the eye.
Neither did it please him to find, when all the seams were sewn, that the little overalls failed to look like any garment he had ever seen on a child. When he tried them on Lovin Child, next day, Cash took one look and bolted from the cabin with his hand over his mouth.
When he came back an hour or so later, Lovin Child was wearing his ragged rompers, and Bud was bent over a Weinstock-Lubin mail-order catalogue. He had a sheet of paper half filled with items, and was licking his pencil and looking for more. He looked up and grinned a little, and asked Cash when he was going to town again; and added that he wanted to mail a letter.
"Yeah. Well, the trail's just as good now as it was when I took it," Cash hinted strongly. "When I go to town again, it'll be because I've got to go. And far as I can see, I won't have to go for quite some time."
So Bud rose before daylight the next morning, tied on the makeshift snowshoes Cash had contrived, and made the fifteen-mile trip to Alpine and back before dark. He brought candy for Lovin Child, tended that young gentleman through a siege of indigestion because of the indulgence, and waited impatiently until he was fairly certain that the wardrobe he had ordered had arrived at the post-office. When he had counted off the two days required for a round trip to Sacramento, and had added three days for possible delay in filling the order, he went again, and returned in one of the worst storms of the winter.
But he did not grudge the hardship, for he carried on his back a bulky bundle of clothes for Lovin Child; enough to last the winter through, and some to spare; a woman would have laughed at some of the things he chose: impractical, dainty garments that Bud could not launder properly to save his life. But there were little really truly overalls, in which Lovin Child promptly developed a strut that delighted the men and earned him the title of Old Prospector. And there were little shirts and stockings and nightgowns and a pair of shoes, and a toy or two that failed to interest him at all, after the first inspection.
It began to look as though Bud had deliberately resolved upon carrying a guilty conscience all the rest of his life. He had made absolutely no effort to trace the parents of Lovin Child when he was in town. On the contrary he had avoided all casual conversation, for fear some one might mention the fact that a child had been lost. He had been careful not to buy anything in the town that would lead one to suspect that he had a child concealed upon his premises, and he had even furnished what he called an alibi when he bought the candy, professing to own an inordinately sweet tooth.
Cash cast his eyes over the stock of baby clothes which Bud gleefully unwrapped on his bunk, and pinched out a smile under his beard.
"Well, if the kid stays till he wears out all them clothes, we'll just about have to give him a share in the company," he said drily.
Bud looked up in quick jealousy. "What's mine's his, and I own a half interest in both claims. I guess that'll feed him—if they pan out anything," he retorted. "Come here, Boy, and let's try this suit on. Looks pretty small to me—marked three year, but I reckon they don't grow 'em as husky as you, back where they make all these clothes."
"Yeah. But you ought to put it in writing, Bud. S'pose anything happened to us both—and it might. Mining's always got its risky side, even cutting out sickness, which we've had a big sample of right this winter. Well, the kid oughta have some security in case anything did happen. Now—"
Bud looked thoughtfully down at the fuzzy yellow head that did not come much above his knee.
"Well, how yuh going to do anything like that without giving it away that we've got him? Besides, what name'd we give him in the company? No, sir, Cash, he gets what I've got, and I'll smash any damn man that tries to get it away from him. But we can't get out any legal papers—"
"Yeah. But we can make our wills, can't we? And I don't know where you get the idea, Bud, that you've got the whole say about him. We're pardners, ain't we? Share and share alike. Mines, mules, grub—kids—equal shares goes."
"That's where you're dead wrong. Mines and mules and grub is all right, but when it comes to this old Lovin Man, why—who was it found him, for gosh sake?"
"Aw, git out!" Cash growled. "Don't you reckon I'd have grabbed him off that squaw as quick as you did? I've humored you along, Bud, and let you hog him nights, and feed him and wash his clothes, and I ain't kicked none, have I? But when it comes to prope'ty—"
"You ain't goin' to horn in there, neither. Anyway, we ain't got so darn much the kid'll miss your share, Cash."
"Yeah. All the more reason why he'll need it I don't see how you're going to stop me from willing my share where I please. And when you come down to facts, Bud, why—you want to recollect that I plumb forgot to report that kid, when I was in town. And I ain't a doubt in the world but what his folks would be glad enough—"
"Forget that stuff!" Bud's tone was so sharp that Lovin Child turned clear around to look up curiously into his face. "You know why you never reported him, doggone yuh! You couldn't give him up no easier than I could. And I'll tell the world to its face that if anybody gets this kid now they've pretty near got to fight for him. It ain't right, and it ain't honest. It's stealing to keep him, and I never stole a brass tack in my life before. But he's mine as long as I live and can hang on to him. And that's where I stand. I ain't hidin' behind no kind of alibi. The old squaw did tell me his folks was dead; but if you'd ask me, I'd say she was lying when she said it. Chances are she stole him. I'm sorry for his folks, supposing he's got any. But I ain't sorry enough for 'em to give him up if I can help it. I hope they've got more, and I hope they've gentled down by this time and are used to being without him. Anyway, they can do without him now easier than what I can, because..." Bud did not finish that sentence, except by picking Lovin Child up in his arms and squeezing him as hard as he dared. He laid his face down for a minute on Lovin Child's head, and when he raised it his lashes were wet.
"Say, old-timer, you need a hair cut. Yuh know it?" he said, with a huskiness in his voice, and pulled a tangle playfully. Then his eyes swung round defiantly to Cash. "It's stealing to keep him, but I can't help it. I'd rather die right here in my tracks than give up this little ole kid. And you can take that as it lays, because I mean it."
Cash sat quiet for a minute or two, staring down at the floor. "Yeah. I guess there's two of us in that fix," he observed in his dry way, lifting his eyebrows while he studied a broken place in the side of his overshoe. "All the more reason why we should protect the kid, ain't it? My idea is that we ought to both of us make our wills right here and now. Each of us to name the other for guardeen, in case of accident, and each one picking a name for the kid, and giving him our share in the claims and anything else we may happen to own." He stopped abruptly, his jaw sagging a little at some unpleasant thought.
"I don't know—come to think of it, I can't just leave the kid all my property. I—I've got a kid of my own, and if she's alive—I ain't heard anything of her for fifteen years and more, but if she's alive she'd come in for a share. She's a woman grown by this time. Her mother died when she was a baby. I married the woman I hired to take care of her and the house—like a fool. When we parted, she took the kid with her. She did think a lot of her, I'll say that much for her, and that's all I can say in her favor. I drifted around and lost track of 'em. Old woman, she married again, and I heard that didn't pan out, neither. Anyway, she kept the girl, and gave her the care and schooling that I couldn't give. I was a drifter.
"Well, she can bust the will if I leave her out, yuh see. And if the old woman gets a finger in the pie, it'll be busted, all right. I can write her down for a hundred dollars perviding she don't contest. That'll fix it. And the rest goes to the kid here. But I want him to have the use of my name, understand. Something-or-other Markham Moore ought to suit all hands well enough."
Bud, holding Lovin Child on his knees, frowned a little at first. But when he looked at Cash, and caught the wistfulness in his eyes, he surrendered warm-heartedly.
"A couple of old he-hens like us—we need a chick to look after," he said whimsically. "I guess Markham Moore ought to be good enough for most any kid. And if it ain't, by gosh, we'll make it good enough! If I ain't been all I should be, there's no law against straightening up. Markham Moore goes as it lays—hey, Lovins?" But Lovin Child had gone to sleep over his foster fathers' disposal of his future. His little yellow head was wabbling on his limp neck, and Bud cradled him in his arms and held him so.
"Yeah. But what are we going to call him?" Methodical Cash wanted the whole matter settled at one conference, it seemed.
"Call him? Why, what've we been calling him, the last two months?"
"That," Cash retorted, "depended on what devilment he was into when we called!"
"You said it all, that time. I guess, come to think of it—tell you what, Cash, let's call him what the kid calls himself. That's fair enough. He's got some say in the matter, and if he's satisfied with Lovin, we oughta be. Lovin Markam Moore ain't half bad. Then if he wants to change it when he grows up, he can."
"Yeah. I guess that's as good as anything. I'd hate to see him named Cassius. Well, now's as good a time as any to make them wills, Bud. We oughta have a couple of witnesses, but we can act for each other, and I guess it'll pass. You lay the kid down, and we'll write 'em and have it done with and off our minds. I dunno—I've got a couple of lots in Phoenix I'll leave to the girl. By rights she should have 'em. Lovins, here, 'll have my share in all mining claims; these two I'll name 'specially, because I expect them to develop into paying mines; the Blind Lodge, anyway."
A twinge of jealousy seized Bud. Cash was going ahead a little too confidently in his plans for the kid. He did not want to hurt old Cash's feelings, and of course he needed Cash's assistance if he kept Lovin Child for his own. But Cash needn't think he was going to claim the kid himself.
"All right—put it that way. Only, when you're writing it down, you make it read 'child of Bud Moore' or something like that. You can will him the moon, if you want, and you can have your name sandwiched in between his and mine. But get this, and get it right. He's mine, and if we ever split up, the kid goes with me. I'll tell the world right now that this kid belongs to me, and where I go he goes. You got that?"
"You don't have to beller at the top of your voice, do yuh?" snapped Cash, prying the cork out of the ink bottle with his jackknife. "Here's another pen point. Tie it onto a stick or something and git to work before you git to putting it off."
Leaning over the table facing each other, they wrote steadily for a few minutes. Then Bud began to flag, and finally he stopped and crumpled the sheet of tablet paper into a ball. Cash looked up, lifted his eyebrows irritatedly, and went on with his composition.
Bud sat nibbling the end of his makeshift penholder. The obstacle that had loomed in Cash's way and had constrained him to reveal the closed pages of his life, loomed large in Bud's way also. Lovin Child was a near and a very dear factor in his life—but when it came to sitting down calmly and setting his affairs in order for those who might be left behind, Lovin Child was not the only person he must think of. What of his own man-child? What of Marie?
He looked across at Cash writing steadily in his precise way, duly bequeathing his worldly goods to Lovin; owning, too, his responsibilities in another direction, but still making Lovin Child his chief heir so far as he knew. On the spur of the moment Bud had thought to do the same thing. But could he do it?
He seemed to see his own baby standing wistfully aloof, pushed out of his life that this baby he had no right to keep might have all of his affections, all of his poor estate. And Marie, whose face was always in the back of his memory, a tearful, accusing vision that would not let him be—he saw Marie working in some office, earning the money to feed and clothe their child. And Lovin Child romping up and down the cabin, cuddled and scolded and cared for as best an awkward man may care for a baby—a small, innocent usurper.
Bud dropped his face in his palms and tried to think the thing out coldly, clearly, as Cash had stated his own case. Cash did not know where his own child was, and he did not seem to care greatly. He was glad to salve his conscience with a small bequest, keeping the bulk—if so tenuous a thing as Cash's fortune may be said to have bulk—for this baby they two were hiding away from its lawful parents. Cash could do it; why couldn't be? He raised his head and looked over at Lovin Child, asleep in his new and rumpled little finery. Why did his own baby come between them now, and withhold his hand from doing the same?
Cash finished, glanced curiously across at Bud, looked down at what he had written, and slid the sheet of paper across.
"You sign it, and then if you don't know just how to word yours, you can use this for a pattern. I've read law books enough to know this will get by, all right. It's plain, and it tells what I want, and that's sufficient to hold in court."
Bud read it over apathetically, signed his name as witness, and pushed the paper back.
"That's all right for you," he said heavily. "Your kid is grown up now, and besides, you've got other property to give her. But—it's different with me. I want this baby, and I can't do without him. But I can't give him my share in the claims, Cash. I—there's others that's got to be thought of first."
CHAPTER TWENTY. LOVIN CHILD STRIKES IT RICH
It was only the next day that Bud was the means of helping Lovin Child find a fortune for himself; which eased Bud's mind considerably, and balanced better his half of the responsibility. Cutting out the dramatic frills, then, this is what happened to Lovin Child and Bud:
They were romping around the cabin, like two puppies that had a surplus of energy to work off. Part of the time Lovin Child was a bear, chasing Bud up and down the dead line, which was getting pretty well worn out in places. After that, Bud was a bear and chased Lovin. And when Lovin Child got so tickled he was perfectly helpless in the corner where he had sought refuge, Bud caught him and swung him up to his shoulder and let him grab handfuls of dirt out of the roof.
Lovin Child liked that better than being a bear, and sifted Bud's hair full of dried mud, and threw the rest on the floor, and frequently cried "Tell a worl'!" which he had learned from Bud and could say with the uncanny pertinency of a parrot.
He had signified a desire to have Bud carry him along the wall, where some lovely lumps of dirt protruded temptingly over a bulging log. Then he leaned and grabbed with his two fat hands at a particularly big, hard lump. It came away in his hands and fell plump on the blankets of the bunk, half blinding Bud with the dust that came with it.
"Hey! You'll have all the chinkin' out of the dang shack, if you let him keep that lick up, Bud," Cash grumbled, lifting his eyebrows at the mess.
"Tell a worl'!" Lovin Child retorted over his shoulder, and made another grab.
This time the thing he held resisted his baby strength. He pulled and he grunted, he kicked Bud in the chest and grabbed again. Bud was patient, and let him fuss—though in self-defense he kept his head down and his eyes away from the expected dust bath.
"Stay with it, Boy; pull the darn roof down, if yuh want. Cash'll get out and chink 'er up again."
"Yeah. Cash will not," the disapproving one amended the statement gruffly. "He's trying to get the log outa the wall, Bud."
"Well, let him try, doggone it. Shows he's a stayer. I wouldn't have any use for him if he didn't have gumption enough to tackle things too big for him, and you wouldn't either. Stay with 'er, Lovins! Doggone it, can't yuh git that log outa there nohow? Uh-h! A big old grunt and a big old heave—uh-h! I'll tell the world in words uh one syllable, he's some stayer."
"Tell a worl'!" chuckled Lovin Child, and pulled harder at the thing he wanted.
"Hey! The kid's got hold of a piece of gunny sack or something. You look out, Bud, or he'll have all that chinkin' out. There's no sense in lettin' him tear the whole blame shack to pieces, is there?"
"Can if he wants to. It's his shack as much as it's anybody's." Bud shifted Lovin Child more comfortably on his shoulder and looked up, squinting his eyes half shut for fear of dirt in them.
"For the love of Mike, kid, what's that you've got? Looks to me like a piece of buckskin, Cash. Here, you set down a minute, and let Bud take a peek up there."
"Bud—pik-k?" chirped Lovin Child from the blankets, where Bud had deposited him unceremoniously.
"Yes, Bud pik-k." Bud stepped up on the bunk, which brought his head above the low eaves. He leaned and looked, and scraped away the caked mud. "Good glory! The kid's found a cache of some kind, sure as you live!" And he began to claw out what had been hidden behind the mud.
First a buckskin bag, heavy and grimed and knobby. Gold inside it, he knew without looking. He dropped it down on the bunk, carefully so as not to smash a toe off the baby. After that he pulled out four baking-powder cans, all heavy as lead. He laid his cheek against the log and peered down the length of it, and jumped down beside the bunk.
"Kid's found a gold mine of his own, and I'll bet on it," he cried excitedly. "Looky, Cash!"
Cash was already looking, his eyebrows arched high to match his astonishment. "Yeah. It's gold, all right. Old man Nelson's hoard, I wouldn't wonder. I've always thought it was funny he never found any gold in this flat, long as he lived here. And traces of washing here and there, too. Well!"
"Looky, Boy!" Bud had the top off a can, and took out a couple of nuggets the size of a cooked Lima bean. "Here's the real stuff for yuh.
"It's yours, too—unless—did old Nelson leave any folks, Cash, do yuh know?"
"They say not. The county buried him, they say. And nobody ever turned up to claim him or what little he left. No, I guess there's nobody got any better right to it than the kid. We'll inquire around and see. But seein' the gold is found on the claim, and we've got the claim according to law, looks to me like—"