It may have been that Buddy's baby memory of going north whenever the trail herd started remained to send Bud instinctively northward when he left the Tomahawk next morning. It had been a case of stubborn father and stubborn son dickering politely over the net earnings of the son from the time when he was old enough to leave his mother's lap and climb into a saddle to ride with his father. Three horses and his personal belongings had been agreed upon between them as the balance in Bud's favor; and at that, Bob Birnie dryly remarked, he had been a better investment as a son than most young fellows, who cost more than they were worth to raise.
Bud did not answer the implied praise, but roped the Tomahawk's best three horses out of the REMUDA corralled for him by his father's riders. You should have seen the sidelong glances among the boys when they learned that Bud, just home from the University, was going somewhere with all his earthly possessions and a look in his face that meant trouble!
Two big valises and his blankets he packed on Sunfish, a deceptively raw-boned young buckskin with much white showing in his eyes—an ornery looking brute if ever there was one. Bud's guitar and a mandolin in their cases he tied securely on top of the pack. Smoky, the second horse, a deep-chested "mouse" with a face almost human in its expression, he saddled, and put a lead rope on the third, a bay four-year-old called Stopper, which was the Tomahawk's best rope-horse and one that would be missed when fast work was wanted in branding.
"He sure as hell picked himself three top hawses," a tall puncher murmured to another. "Wonder where he's headed for? Not repping—this late in the season."
Bud overheard them, and gave no sign. Had they asked him directly he could not have told them, for he did not know, except that somehow he felt that he was going to head north. Why north, he could not have explained, since cow-country lay all around him; nor how far north,—for cow-country extended to the upper boundary of the States, and beyond into Canada.
He left his horses standing by the corral while he went to the house to tell his mother good-by, and to send a farewell message to Dulcie, who had been married a year and lived in Laramie. He did not expect to strike Laramie, he told his mother when she asked him.
"I'm going till I stop," He explained, with a squeeze of her shoulders to reassure her. "I guess it's the way you felt, mother, when you left Texas behind. You couldn't tell where you folks would wind up. Neither can I. My trail herd is kinda small, right now; a lot smaller than it will be later on. But such as it is, it's going to hit the right range before it stops for good. And I'll write."
He took a doughnut in his hand and a package of lunch to slip in his pocket, kissed her with much cheerfulness in his manner and hurried out, his big-rowelled spurs burring on the porch just twice before he stepped off on the gravel. Telling mother good-by had been the one ordeal he dreaded, and he was glad to have it over with.
Old Step-and-a-Half hailed him as he went past the chuck-house, and came limping out, wiping his hands on his apron before he shook hands and wished him good luck. Ezra, pottering around the tool shed, ambled up with the eyes of a dog that has been sent back home by his master. "Ah shoah do wish yo' all good fawtune an' health, Marse Buddy," Ezra quavered. "Ah shoah do. It ain' goin' seem lak de same place—and Ah shoah do hopes yo' all writes frequent lettahs to yo' mothah, boy!"
Bud promised that he would, and managed to break away from Ezra without betraying himself. How, he wondered, did everyone seem to know that he was going for good, this time? He had believed that no one knew of it save himself, his father and his mother; yet everyone else behaved as if they never expected to see him again. It was disconcerting, and Bud hastily untied the two led horses and mounted Smoky, the mouse-colored horse he himself had broken two years before.
His father came slowly up to him, straight-backed and with the gait of the man who has ridden astride a horse more than he has walked on his own feet. He put up his hand, gloved for riding, and Bud changed the lead-ropes from his right hand to his left, and shook hands rather formally.
"Ye've good weather for travelling," said Bob Birnie tentatively. "I have not said it before, lad, but when ye own yourself a fool to take this way of making your fortune, ten thousand dollars will still be ready to start ye right. I've no wish to shirk a duty to my family."
Bud pressed his lips together while he listened. "If you keep your ten thousand till it's called for, you'll be drawing interest a long time on it," He said. "It's going to be hot to-day. I'll be getting along."
He lifted the reins, glanced back to see that the two horses were showing the proper disposition to follow, and rode off down the deep-rutted road that followed up the creek to the pass where he had watched the Utes dancing the war dance one night that he remembered well. If he winced a little at the familiar landmarks he passed, he still held fast to the determination to go, and to find fortune somewhere along the trail of his own making; and to ask help from no man, least of all his father who had told him to go.
CHAPTER SEVEN: BUD FLIPS A COIN WITH FATE
"I don't think it matters so much where we light, it's what we do when we get there," said Bud to Smoky, his horse, one day as they stopped where two roads forked at the base of a great, outstanding peak that was but the point of a mountain range. "This trail straddles the butte and takes on up two different valleys. It's all cow-country—so what do yuh say, Smoke? Which trail looks the best to you?"
Smoky flopped one ear forward and the other one back, and switched at a pestering fly. Behind him Sunfish and Stopper waited with the patience they had learned in three weeks of continuous travel over country that was rough in spots, barren in places, with wind and sun and occasional, sudden thunderstorms to punctuate the daily grind of travel.
Bud drew a half dollar from his pocket and regarded it meditatively. "They're going fast—we'll just naturally have to stop pretty soon, or we don't eat," He observed. "Smoke, you're a quitter. What you want to do is go back—but you won't get the chance. Heads, we take the right hand trail. I like it better, anyway—it angles more to the north."
Heads it was, and Bud leaned from the saddle and recovered the coin, Smoky turning his head to regard his rider tolerantly. "Right hand goes—and we camp at the first good water and grass. I can grain the three of you once more before we hit a town, and that goes for me, too. G'wan, Smoke, and don't act so mournful."
Smoky went on, following the trail that wound in and out around the butte, hugging close its sheer sides to avoid a fifty-foot drop into the creek below. It was new country—Bud had never so much as seen a map of it to give him a clue to what was coming. The last turn of the deep-rutted, sandy road where it left the river's bank and led straight between two humpy shoulders of rock to the foot of a platter-shaped valley brought him to a halt again in sheer astonishment.
From behind a low hill still farther to the right, where the road forked again, a bluish haze of smoke indicated that there was a town of some sort, perhaps. Farther up the valley a brownish cloud hung low-a roundup, Bud knew at a glance. He hesitated. The town, if it were a town, could wait; the roundup might not. And a job he must have soon, or go hungry. He turned and rode toward the dust-cloud, came shortly to a small stream and a green grass-plot, and stopped there long enough to throw the pack off Sunfish, unsaddle Smoky and stake them both out to graze. Stopper he saddled, then knelt and washed his face, beat the travel dust off his hat, untied his rope and coiled it carefully, untied his handkerchief and shook it as clean as he could and knotted it closely again. One might have thought he was preparing to meet a girl; but the habit of neatness dated back to his pink-apron days and beyond, the dirt and dust meant discomfort.
When he mounted Stopper and loped away toward the dust-cloud, he rode hopefully, sure of himself, carrying his range credentials in his eyes, in his perfect saddle-poise, in the tan on his face to his eyebrows, and the womanish softness of his gloved hands, which had all the sensitive flexibility of a musician.
His main hope was that the outfit was working short-handed; and when he rode near enough to distinguish the herd and the riders, he grinned his satisfaction.
"Good cow-country, by the look of that bunch of cattle," He observed to himself. "And eight men is a small crew to work a herd that size. I guess I'll tie onto this outfit. Stopper, you'll maybe get a chance to turn a cow this afternoon."
Just how soon the chance would come, Bud had not realized. He had no more than come within shouting distance of the herd when a big, rollicky steer broke from the milling cattle and headed straight out past him, running like a deer. Stopper, famed and named for his prowess with just such cattle, wheeled in his tracks and lengthened his stride to a run.
"Tie 'im down!" someone yelled behind Bud. And "Catch 'im and tie 'im down!" shouted another.
For answer Bud waved his hand, and reached in his pocket for his knife. Stopper was artfully circling the steer, forcing it back toward the herd, and in another hundred yards or so Bud must throw his loop He sliced off a saddle-string and took it between his teeth, jerked his rope loose, flipped open the loop as Stopper raced up alongside, dropped the noose neatly, and took his turns while Stopper planted his forefeet and braced himself for the shock. Bud's right leg was over the cantle, all his weight on the left stirrup when the jerk came and the steer fell with a thump. By good luck—so Bud afterwards asserted—he was off and had the steer tied before it had recovered its breath to scramble up. He remounted, flipped off the loop and recoiled his rope while he went jogging up to meet a rider coming out to him.
If he expected thanks for what he had done, he must have received a shock. Other riders had left their posts and were edging up to hear what happened, and Bud reined up in astonishment before the most amazing string of unseemly epithets he had ever heard. It began with: "What'd you throw that critter for?"—which of course is putting it mildly—and ended in a choked phrase which one man may not use to another's face and expect anything but trouble afterwards.
Bud unbuckled his gun and hung the belt on his saddle horn, and dismounted. "Get off your horse and take the damnedest licking you ever had in your life, for that!" He invited vengefully. "You told me to tie down that steer, and I tied him down. You've got no call to complain—and there isn't a man on earth I'll take that kinda talk from. Crawl down, you parrot-faced cow-eater—and leave your gun on the saddle."
The man remained where he was and looked Bud over uncertainly. "Who are you, and where'd yuh come from?" he demanded more calmly. "I never saw yuh before."
"Well, I never grew up with your face before me, either!" Bud snapped. "If I had I'd probably be cross-eyed by now. You called me something! Get off that horse or I'll pull you off!"
"Aw, yuh don't want to mind—" began a tall, lean man pacifically; but he of the high nose stopped him with a wave of the hand, his eyes still measuring the face, the form and the fighting spirit of one Bud Birnie, standing with his coat off, quivering with rage.
"I guess I'm in the wrong, young fellow—I DID holler 'Tie 'im down.' But if you'd ever been around this outfit any you 'd have known I didn't mean it literal." He stopped and suddenly he laughed. "I've been yellin' 'Tie 'im down' for two years and more, when a critter breaks outa the bunch, and nobody was ever fool enough to tackle it before. It's just a sayin' we've got, young man. We—"
"What about the name you called me?" Bud was still advancing slowly, not much appeased by the explanation. "I don't give a darn about the steer. You said tie him, and he's tied. But when you call me—"
"My mistake, young feller. When I get riled up I don't pick my words." He eyed Bud sharply. "You're mighty quick to obey orders," He added tentatively.
"I was brought up to do as I'm told," Bud retorted stiffly. "Any objections to make?"
"Not one in the world. Wish there was more like yuh. You ain't been in these parts long?" His tone made a question of the statement.
"Not right here." Bud had no reason save his temper for not giving more explicit information, but Bart Nelson—as Bud knew him afterwards—continued to study him as if he suspected a blotched past.
"Hunh. That your horse?"
"I've got a bill of sale for him."
"You don't happen to be wanting a job, I s'pose?"
"I wouldn't refuse to take one." And then the twinkle came back to Bud's eyes, because all at once the whole incident struck him as being rather funny. "I'd want a boss that expected to have his orders carried out, though. I lack imagination, and I never did try to read a man's mind. What he says he'd better mean—when he says it to me."
Bart Nelson gave a short laugh, turned and sent his riders back to their work with oaths tingling their ears. Bud judged that cursing was his natural form of speech.
"Go let up that steer, and I'll put you to work," he said to Bud afterwards. "That's a good rope horse you're riding. If you want to use him, and if you can hold up to that little sample of roping yuh gave us, I'll pay yuh sixty a month. And that's partly for doing what you're told," he added with a quick look into Bud's eyes. "You didn't say where you're from——"
"I was born and raised in cow-country, and nobody's looking for me," Bud informed him over his shoulder while he remounted, and let it go at that. From southern Wyoming to Idaho was too far, he reasoned, to make it worth while stating his exact place of residence. If they had never heard of the Tomahawk outfit it would do no good to name it. If they had heard of it, they would wonder why the son of so rich a cowman as Bob Birnie should be hiring out as a common cowpuncher so far from home. He had studied the matter on his way north, and had decided to let people form their own conclusions. If he could not make good without the name of Bob Birnie behind him, the sooner he found it out the better.
He untied the steer, drove it back into the herd and rode over to where the high-nosed man was helping hold the "Cut."
"Can you read brands? We're cuttin' out AJ and AJBar stuff; left ear-crop on the AJ, and undercut on the AJBar."
Bud nodded and eased into the herd, spied an AJ two-year-old and urged it toward the outer edge, smiling to himself when he saw how Stopper kept his nose close to the animal's rump. Once in the milling fringe of the herd, Stopper nipped it into the open, rushed it to the cut herd, wheeled and went back of his own accord. From the corner of his eye, as he went, Bud saw that Bart Nelson and one or two others were watching him. They continued to eye him covertly while he worked the herd with two other men. He was glad that he had not travelled far that day, and that he had ridden Smoky and left Stopper fresh and eager for his favorite pastime, which was making cattle do what they particularly did not want to do. In that he was adept, and it pleased Bud mightily to see how much attention Stopper was attracting.
Not once did it occur to him that it might be himself who occupied the thoughts of his boss. Buddy—afterwards Bud—had lived his whole life among friends, his only enemies the Indians who preyed upon the cowmen. White men he had never learned to distrust, and to be distrusted had never been his portion. He had always been Bud Birnie, son and heir of Bob Birnie, as clean-handed a cattle king as ever recorded a brand. Even at the University his position had been accepted without question. That the man he mentally called Parrotface was puzzled and even worried about him was the last thing he would think of.
But it was true. Bart Nelson watched Bud, that afternoon. A man might ride up to Bart and assert that he was an old hand with cattle, and Bart would say nothing, but set him to work, as he had Bud. Then he would know just how old a "Hand" the fellow was. Fifteen minutes convinced him that Bud had "growed up in the saddle", as he would have put it. But that only mystified him the more. Bart knew the range, and he knew every man in the country, from Burroback Valley, which was this great valley's name, to the Black Rim, beyond the mountain range, and beyond the Black Rim to the Sawtooth country. He knew their ways and he knew their past records.
He knew that this young fellow came from farther ranges, and he would have been at a loss to explain just how he knew it. He would have said that Bud did not have the "earmarks" of an Idaho rider. Furthermore, the small Tomahawk brand on the left flank of the horse Bud rode was totally unknown to Bart. Yet the horse did not bear the marks of long riding. Bud himself looked as if he had just ridden out from some nearby ranch—and he had refused to say where he was from.
Bart swore under his breath and beckoned to him a droopy-mustached, droopy-shouldered rider who was circling the herd in a droopy, spiritless manner and chewing tobacco with much industry.
"Dirk, you know brands from the Panhandle to Cypress Hills. What d' yuh make of that horse? Where does he come from?" Bart stopped abruptly and rode forward then to receive and drive farther back a galloping AJBar cow which Bud and Stopper had just hazed out of the herd. Dirk squinted at Stopper's brand which showed cleanly in the glossy, new hair of early summer. He spat carefully with the wind and swung over to meet his boss when the cow was safely in the cut herd.
"New one on me, Bart. They's a hatchet brand over close to Jackson's Hole, somewhere. Where'd the kid say he was from?"
"He wouldn't say, but he's a sure-enough cowhand."
"That there horse ain't been rode down on no long journey," Dirk volunteered after further scrutiny. And he added with the unconscious impertinence of an old and trusted employee, "Yuh goin' to put him on?"
"Already done it—sixty a month," Bart confided. "That'll bring out what's in him; he's liable to turn out good for the outfit. Showed he'll do what he's told first, and think it over afterwards. I like that there trait in a man."
Dirk pulled his droopy mustache away from his lips as if he wanted to make sure that his smile would show; though it was not a pretty smile, on account of his tobacco-stained teeth.
"'S your fun'ral, Bart. I'd say he's from Jackson's Hole, on a rough guess—but I wouldn't presume to guess what he's here fur. Mebby he come across from Black Rim. I can find out, if you say so."
Bud was weaving in and out through the herd, scanning the animals closely. While the two talked he singled out a yearling heifer, let Stopper nose it out beyond the bunch and drove it close to the boss.
"Better look that one over," He called out. "One way, it looks like AJ, and another way I couldn't name it. And the ear looks as if about half of it had been frozen off. Didn't want to run it into the cut until you passed on it."
Bart looked first at Bud, and he looked hard. Then he rode over and inspected the yearling, Dirk close at his heels.
"Throw 'er back with the bunch," He ordered.
"That finishes the cut, then," Bud announced, rubbing his hand along Stopper's sweaty neck. "I kept passing this critter up, and I guess the other boys did the same. But it's the last one, and I thought I'd run her out for you to look over."
Bart grunted. "Dirk, you take a look and see if they've got 'em all. And you, Kid, can help haze the cut up the Flat—the boys'll show you what to do."
Bud, remembering Smoky and Sunfish and his camp, hesitated. "I've got a camp down here by the creek," He said. "If it's all the same to you, I'll report for work in the morning, if you'll tell me where to head for. And I'll have to arrange somehow to pasture my horses; I've got a couple more at camp."
Bart studied him for a minute, and Bud thought he was going to change his mind about the job, or the sixty dollars a month. But Bart merely told him to ride on up the Flat next morning, and take the first trail that turned to the left. "The Muleshoe ranch is up there agin that pine mountain," he explained. "Bring along your outfit. I guess we can take care of a couple of horses, all right."
That suited Bud very well, and he rode away thinking how lucky he was to have taken the right fork in the road, that day. He had ridden straight into a job, and while he was not very enthusiastic over the boss, the other boys seemed all right, and the wages were a third more than he had expected to get just at first. It was the first time, he reminded himself, that he had been really tempted to locate, and he certainly had struck it lucky.
He did not know that when he left the roundup his going had been carefully noted, and that he was no sooner out of sight than Dirk Tracy was riding cautiously on his trail. While he fed his horses the last bit of grain he had, and cooked his supper over what promised to be his last camp-fire, he did not dream that the man with the droopy mustache was lying amongst the bushes on the other bank of the creek, watching every move he made.
He meant to be up before daylight so that he could strike the ranch of the Muleshoe outfit in time for breakfast, wherefore he went to bed before the afterglow had left the mountain-tops around him. And being young and carefree and healthfully weary, he was asleep and snoring gently within five minutes of his last wriggle into his blankets. But Dirk Tracy watched him for fully two hours before he decided that the kid was not artfully pretending, but was really asleep and likely to remain so for the night.
Dirk was an extremely cautious man, but he was also tired, and the cold food he had eaten in place of a hot supper had not been satisfying to his stomach. He crawled carefully out of the brush, stole up the creek to where he had left his horse, and rode away.
He was not altogether sure that he had done his full duty to the Muleshoe, but it was against human nature for a man nearing forty to lie uncovered in the brush, and let a numerous family of mosquitoes feed upon him while he listened to a young man snoring comfortably in a good camp bed a hundred feet away.
Dirk, because his conscience was not quite clear, slept in the stable that night and told his boss a lie next morning.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE MULESHOE
The riders of the Muleshoe outfit were eating breakfast when Bud rode past the long, low-roofed log cabin to the corral which stood nearest the clutter of stables and sheds. He stopped there and waited to see if his new boss was anywhere in sight and would come to tell him where to unpack his belongings. A sandy complexioned young man with red eyelids and no lashes presently emerged from the stable and came toward him, his mouth sagging loosely open, his eye; vacuous. He was clad in faded overalls turned up a foot at the bottom and showing frayed, shoddy trousers beneath and rusty, run-down shoes that proved he was not a rider. His hat was peppered with little holes, as if someone had fired a charge of birdshot at him and had all but bagged him.
The youth's eyes became fixed upon the guitar and mandolin cases roped on top of Sunfish's pack, and he pointed and gobbled something which had the sound speech without being intelligible. Bud cocked an ear toward him inquiringly, made nothing of the jumble and rode off to the cabin, leading Sunfish after him. The fellow might or might not be the idiot he looked, and he might or might not keep his hands off the pack. Bud was not going to take any chance.
He heard sounds within the cabin, but no one appeared until he shouted, "Hello!" twice. The door opened then and Bart Nelson put out his head, his jaws working over a mouthful of food that seemed tough.
"Oh, it's you. C'm awn in an' eat," he invited, and Bud dismounted, never guessing that his slightest motion had been carefully observed from the time he had forded the creek at the foot of the slope beyond the cabin.
Bart introduced him to the men by the simple method of waving his hand at the group around the table and saying, "Guess you know the boys. What'd yuh say we could call yuh?"
"Bud—ah—Birnie," Bud answered, swiftly weighing the romantic idea of using some makeshift name until he had made his fortune, and deciding against it. A false name might mean future embarrassment, and he was so far from home that his father would never hear of him anyway. But his hesitation served to convince every man there that Birnie was not his name, and that he probably had good cause for concealing his own. Adding that to Dirk Tracy's guess that he was from Jackson's Hole, the sum spelled outlaw.
The Muleshoe boys were careful not to seem curious about Bud's past. They even refrained from manifesting too much interest in the musical instruments until Bud himself took them out of their cases that evening and began tuning them. Then the half-baked, tongue-tied fellow came over and gobbled at him eagerly.
"Hen wants yuh to play something," a man they called Day interpreted. "Hen's loco on music. If you can sing and play both, Hen'll set and listen till plumb daylight and never move an eyewinker."
Bud looked up, smiled a little because Hen had no eyewinkers to move, and suddenly felt pity because a man could be so altogether unlikeable as Hen. Also because his mother's face stood vividly before him for an instant, leaving him with a queer tightening of the throat and the feeling that he had been rebuked. He nodded to Hen, laid down the mandolin and picked up the guitar, turned up the a string a bit, laid a booted and spurred foot across the other knee, plucked a minor chord sonorously and began abruptly:
"Yo' kin talk about you coons a-havin' trouble—Well, Ah think Ah have enough-a of mah oh-own—"
Hen's high-pointed Adam's apple slipped up and down in one great gulp of ecstasy. He eased slowly down upon the edge of the bunk beside Bud and gazed at him fascinatedly, his lashless eyes never winking, his jaw dropped so that his mouth hung half open. Day nudged Dirk Tracy, who parted his droopy mustache and smiled his unlovely smile, lowering his left eyelid unnecessarily at Bud. The dimple in Bud's chin wrinkled as he bent his head and plunked the interlude with a swing that set spurred boots tapping the floor rhythmically.
"Bart, he's went and hired a show-actor, looks like." Dirk confided behind his hand to Shorty McGuire. "That's real singin', if yuh ask me!"
"Shut up!" grunted Shorty, and prodded Dirk into silence so that he would miss none of the song.
Since Buddy had left the pink-apron stage of his adventurous life behind him, singing songs to please other people had been as much a part of his life as riding and roping and eating and sleeping. He had always sung or played or danced when he was asked to do so—accepting without question his mother's doctrine that it was unkind and ill-bred to refuse when he really could do those things well, because on the cattle ranges indoor amusements were few, and those who could furnish real entertainment were fewer. Even at the University, coon songs and Irish songs and love songs had been his portion; wherefore his repertoire seemed endless, and if folks insisted upon it he could sing from dark to dawn, providing his voice held out.
Hen sat with his big-jointed hands hanging loosely over his knees and listened, stared at Bud and grinned vacuously when one song was done, gulped his Adam's apple and listened again as raptly to the next one. The others forgot all about having fun watching Hen, and named old favorites and new ones, heard them sung inimitably and called for more. At midnight Bud blew on his blistered fingertips and shook the guitar gently, bottom-side up.
"I guess that's all the music there is in the darned thing to-night," he lamented. "She's made to keep time, and she always strikes, along about midnight."
"Huh-huh!" chortled Hen convulsively, as if he understood the joke. He closed his mouth and sighed deeply, as one who has just wakened from a trance.
After that, Hen followed Bud around like a pet dog, and found time between stable chores to groom those astonished horses, Stopper and Smoky and Sunfish, as if they were stall-kept thoroughbreds. He had them coming up to the pasture gate every day for the few handfuls of grain he purloined for them, and their sleekness was a joy to behold.
"Hen, he's adopted yuh, horses and all, looks like," Dirk observed one day to Bud when they were riding together. And he tempered the statement by adding that Hen was trusty enough, even if he didn't have as much sense as the law allows. "He sure is takin' care of them cayuses of your'n. D'you tell him to?"
Bud came out of a homesick revery and looked at him inquiringly. "No, I didn't tell him anything."
"I believe that, all right," Dirk retorted. "You don't go around tellin' all yuh know. I like that in a feller. A man never got into trouble yet by keepin' his mouth shut; but there's plenty that have talked themselves into the pen. Me, I've got no use for a talker."
Bud sent him a sidelong glance of inquiry, and Dirk caught him at it and grinned.
"Yuh been here a month, and you ain't said a damn word about where you come from or anything further back than throwin' and tyin' that critter. You said cow-country, and that has had to do some folks that might be curious. Well, she's a tearin' big place—cow-country. She runs from Canady to Mexico, and from the corn belt to the Pacific Ocean, mighty near takes in Jackson's Hole, and a lot uh country I know." He parted his mustache and spat carefully into the sand. "I'm willin' to tie to a man, specially a young feller, that can play the game the way you been playin' it, Bud. Most always," he complained vaguely, "they carry their brand too damn main. They either pull their hats down past their eyebrows and give everybody the bad eye, or else they're too damn ready to lie about themselves. You throw in with the boys just fine—but you ain't told a one of 'em where you come from, ner why, ner nothin'."
"I'm here because I'm here," Bud chanted softly, his eyes stubborn even while he smiled at Dirk.
"I know—yuh sung that the first night yuh come, and yuh looked straight at the boss all the while you was singin' it," Dirk interrupted, and laughed slyly. "The boys, they took that all in, too. And Bart, he wasn't asleep, neither. You sure are smooth as they make 'em, Bud. I guess," he leaned closer to predict confidentially, "you've just about passed the probation time, young feller. If I know the signs, the boss is gittin' ready to raise yuh."
He looked at Bud rather sharply. Instantly the training of Buddy rose within Bud. His memory flashed back unerringly to the day when he had watched that Indian gallop toward the river, and had sneered because the Indian evidently expected him to follow into the undergrowth.
Dirk Tracy did not in the least resemble an Indian, nor did his rambling flattery bear any likeness to a fleeing enemy; yet it was plain enough that he was trying in a bungling way to force Bud's confidence, and for that reason Bud stared straight ahead and said nothing.
He did not remember having sung that particular ditty during his first evening at the Muleshoe, nor of staring at the boss while he sung. He might have done both, he reflected; he had sung one song after another for about four hours that night, and unless he sang with his eyes shut he would have to look somewhere. That it should be taken by the whole outfit as a broad hint to ask no questions seemed to him rather farfetched.
Nor did he see why Dirk should compliment him on keeping his mouth shut, or call him smooth. He did not know that he had been on probation, except perhaps as that applied to his ability as a cow-hand. And he could see no valid reason why the boss should contemplate "raising" him. So far, he had been doing no more than the rest of the boys, except when there was roping to be done and he and Stopper were called upon to distinguish themselves by fast rope-work, with never a miss. Sixty dollars a month was as good pay as he had any right to expect.
Dirk, he decided, had given him one good tip which he would follow at once. Dirk had said that no man ever got into trouble by keeping his mouth shut. Bud closed his for a good half hour, and when he opened it again he undid all the good he had accomplished by his silence.
"Where does that trail go, that climbs up over the mountains back of that peak?" he asked. "Seems to be a stock trail. Have you got grazing land beyond the mountains?"
Dirk took time to pry off a fresh chew of tobacco before he replied. "You mean Thunder Pass? That there crosses over into the Black Rim country. Yeah—There's a big wide range country over there, but we don't run any stock on it. Burroback Valley's big enough for the Muleshoe."
Bud rolled a cigarette. "I didn't mean that main trail; that's a wagon road, and Thunder Pass cuts through between Sheepeater peak and this one ahead of us—Gospel, you call it. What I referred to is that blind trail that takes off up the canyon behind the corrals, and crosses into the mountains the other side of Gospel."
Dirk eyed him. "I dunno 's I could say, right offhand, what trail yuh mean," he parried. "Every canyon 's got a trail that runs up a ways, and there's canyons all through the mountains; they all lead up to water, or feed, or something like that, and then quit, most gen'rally; jest peter out, like." And he added with heavy sarcasm, "A feller that's lived on the range oughta know what trails is for, and how they're made. Cowcritters are curious-same as humans."
To this Bud did not reply. He was smoking and staring at the brushy lower slopes of the mountain ridge before them. He had explained quite fully which trail he meant. It was, as he had said, a "blind" trail; that is, the trail lost itself in the creek which watered a string of corrals. Moreover, Bud had very keen eyes, and he had seen how a panel of the corral directly across the shale-rock bed of a small stream was really a set of bars. The round pole corral lent itself easily to hidden gateways, without any deliberate attempt at disguising their presence.
The string of four corrals running from this upper one—which, he remembered, was not seen from nearer the stables-was perhaps a convenient arrangement in the handling of stock, although it was unusual. The upper corral had been built to fit snugly into a rocky recess in the base of the peak called Gospel. It was larger than some of the others, since it followed the contour of the basin-like recess. Access to it was had from the fourth corral (which from the ranch appeared to be the last) and from the creekbed that filled the narrow mouth of the canyon behind.
Dirk might not have understood him, Bud thought. He certainly should have recognized at once the trail Bud meant, for there was no other canyon back of the corrals, and even that one was not apparent to one looking at the face of the steep slope. Stock had been over that canyon trail within the last month or so, however; and Bud's inference that the Muleshoe must have grazing ground across the mountains was natural; the obvious explanation of its existence.
"How 'd you come to be explorin' around Gospel, anyway?" Dirk quizzed finally. "A person'd think, short-handed as the Muleshoe is this spring, 't you'd git all the ridin' yuh want without prognosticatin' around aimless."
Now Bud was not a suspicious young man, and he had been no more than mildly inquisitive about that trail. But neither was he a fool; he caught the emphasis which Dirk had placed on the word aimless, and his thoughts paused and took another look at Dirk's whole conversation. There was something queer about it, something which made Bud sheer off from his usual unthinking assurance that things were just what they seemed.
Immediately, however, he laughed—at himself as well as at Dirk.
"We've been feeding on sour bread and warmed-over coffee ever since the cook disappeared and Bart put Hen in the kitchen," he said. "If I were you, Dirk, I wouldn't blister my hands shovelling that grub into myself for a while. You're bilious, old-timer. No man on earth would talk the way you've been talking to-day unless his whole digestive apparatus were out of order."
Dirk spat angrily at a dead sage bush. "They shore as hell wouldn't talk the kinda talk you've been talkie' unless they was a born fool or else huntin' trouble," he retorted venomously.
"The doctor said I'd be that way if I lived," Bud grinned, amiably, although his face had flushed at Dirk's tone. "He said it wouldn't hurt me for work."
"Yeah—and what kinda work?" Dirk rode so close that his horse shouldered Bud's leg discomfortingly. "I been edgin' yuh along to see what-f'r brand yuh carried. And I've got ye now, you damned snoopin' kioty. Bart, he hired yuh to work-and not to go prowling around lookin' up trails that ain't there—"
"You're a dim-brand reader, I don't think! Why you—!"
Oh, well—remember that Bud was only Buddy grown bigger, and he had never lacked the spirit to look out for himself. Remember, too, that he must have acquired something of a vocabulary, in the course of twenty-one years of absorbing everything that came within his experience.
Dirk reached for his gun, but Bud was expecting that. Dirk was not quite quick enough, and his hand therefore came forward with a jerk when he saw that he was "covered." Bud leaned, pulled Dirk's six-shooter from its holster and sent it spinning into a clump of bushes. He snatched a wicked-looking knife from Dirk's boot where he had once seen Dirk slip it sheathed when he dressed in the bunk-house, and sent that after the gun.
"Now, you long-eared walrus, you're in a position to play fair. What are you going to do about it?" He reined away, out of Dirk's reach, took his handkerchief and wrapped his own gun tightly to protect it from sand, and threw it after Dirk's gun and the knife. "Am I a snooping coyote?" he demanded watching Dirk.
"You air. More 'n all that, you're a damned spy! And I kin lick yuh an' lass' yuh an' lead yuh to Bart like a sheep!"
They dismounted, left their horses to stand with reins dropped, threw off their coats and fought until they were too tired to land another blow. There were no fatalities. Bud did not come out of the fray unscathed and proudly conscious of his strength and his skill and the unquestionable righteousness of his cause. Instead he had three bruised knuckles and a rapidly swelling ear, and when his anger had cooled a little he felt rather foolish and wondered what had started them off that way. They had ridden away from the ranch in a very good humor, and he had harbored no conscious dislike of Dirk Tracy, who had been one individual of a type of rangemen which he had known all his life and had accepted as a matter of course.
Dirk, on his part, had some trouble in stopping the bleeding of his nose, and by the time he reached the ranch his left eye was closed completely. He was taller and heavier than Bud, and he had not expected such a slugging strength behind Bud's blows.
He was badly shaken, and when Bud recovered the two guns and the knife and returned his weapons to him, Dirk was half tempted to shoot. But he did not—perhaps because Bud had unwrapped his own six-shooter and was looking it over with the muzzle slanting a wicked eye in Dirk's direction.
Late that afternoon, when the boys were loafing around the cabin waiting for their early supper, Bud packed his worldly goods on Sunfish and departed from the Muleshoe—"by special request", he admitted to himself ruefully—with his wages in gold and silver in his pocket and no definite idea of what he would do next.
He wished he knew exactly why Bart had fired him. He did not believe that it was for fighting, as Bart had declared. He thought that perhaps Dirk Tracy had some hold on the Muleshoe not apparent to the outsider, and that he had lied about him to Bart as a sneaking kind of revenge for being whipped. But that explanation did not altogether satisfy him, either.
In his month at the Muleshoe he had gained a very fair general idea of the extent and resources of Burroback Valley, but he had not made any acquaintances and he did not know just where to go for his next job. So for want of something better, he rode down to the little stream which he now knew was called One Creek, and prepared to spend the night there. In the morning he would make a fresh start—and because of the streak of stubbornness he had, he meant to make it in Burroback Valley, under the very nose of the Muleshoe outfit.
CHAPTER NINE: LITTLE LOST
Little Lost—somehow the name appealed to Bud, whose instinct for harmony extended to words and phrases and, for that matter, to everything in the world that was beautiful. From the time when he first heard Little Lost mentioned, he had felt a vague regret that chance had not led him there instead of to the Muleshoe. Brands he had heard all his life as the familiar, colloquial names for ranch headquarters. The Muleshoe was merely a brand name. Little Lost was something else, and because Buddy had been taught to "wait and find out" and to ask questions only as a last resort, Bud was still in ignorance of the meaning of Little Lost. He knew, from careless remarks made in his presence, that the mail came to Little Lost, and that there was some sort of store where certain everyday necessities were kept, for which the store-keeper charged "two prices." But there was also a ranch, for he sometimes heard the boys mention the Little Lost cattle, and speak of some man as a rider for the Little Lost.
So to Little Lost Bud rode blithely next morning, riding Stopper and leading Smoky, Sunfish and the pack following as a matter of course. Again his trained instinct served him faithfully. He had a very good general idea of Burroback Valley, he knew that the Muleshoe occupied a fair part of the south side, and guessed that he must ride north, toward the Gold Gap Mountains, to find the place he wanted.
The trail was easy, his horses were as fat as was good for them. In two hours of riding at his usual trail pace he came upon another stream which he knew must be Sunk Creek grown a little wider and deeper in its journey down the valley. He forded that with a great splashing, climbed the farther bank, followed a stubby, rocky bit of road that wound through dense willow and cottonwood growth, came out into a humpy meadow full of ant hills, gopher holes and soggy wet places where the water grass grew, crossed that and followed the road around a brushy ridge and found himself squarely confronting Little Lost.
There could be no mistake, for "Little Lost Post Office" was unevenly painted on the high cross-bar of the gate that stood wide open and permanently warped with long sagging. There was a hitch-rail outside the gate, and Bud took the hint and left his horses there. From the wisps of fresh hay strewn along the road, Bud knew that haying had begun at Little Lost. There were at least four cabins and a somewhat pretentious, story-and-a-half log house with vines reaching vainly to the high window sills, and coarse lace curtains. One of these curtains moved slightly, and Bud's sharp eyes detected the movement and knew that his arrival was observed in spite of the emptiness of the yard.
The beaten path led to a screen door which sagged with much slamming, leaving a wide space at the top through which flies passed in and out quite comfortably. Bud saw that, also, and his fingers itched to reset that door, just as he would have done for his mother—supposing his mother would have tolerated the slamming which had brought the need. Bud lifted his gloved knuckles to knock, saw that the room within was grimy and bare and meant for public use, very much like the office of a country hotel, with a counter and a set of pigeon-holes at the farther end. He walked in.
No one appeared, and after ten minutes or so Bud guessed why, and went back to the door, pushed it wide open and permitted it to fly shut with a bang. Whereupon a girl opened the door behind the counter and came in, glancing at Bud with frank curiosity.
Bud took off his hat and clanked over to the counter and asked if there was any mail for Bud Birnie—Robert Wallace Birnie.
The girl looked at him again and smiled, and turned to shuffle a handful of letters. Bud employed the time in trying to guess just what she meant by that smile.
It was not really a smile, he decided, but the beginning of one. And if that were the beginning, he would very much like to know what the whole smile would mean. The beginning hinted at things. It was as if she doubted the reality of the name he gave, and meant to conceal her doubt, or had heard something amusing about him, or wished to be friends with him, or was secretly timorous and trying to appear merely indifferent. Or perhaps——
She replaced the letters and turned, and rested her hands on the counter. She looked at him and again her lips turned at the corners in that faint, enigmatical beginning of a smile.
"There isn't a thing," she said. "The mail comes this noon again. Do you want yours sent out to any of the outfits? Or shall I just hold it?"
"Just hold it, when there is any. At least, until I see whether I land a job here. I wonder where I could find the boss?" Bud was glancing often at her hands. For a ranch girl her hands were soft and white, but her fingers were a bit too stubby and her nails were too round and flat.
"Uncle Dave will be home at noon. He's out in the meadow with the boys. You might sit down and wait."
Bud looked at his watch. Sitting down and waiting for four hours did not appeal to him, even supposing the girl would keep him company. But he lingered awhile, leaning with his elbows on the counter near her; and by those obscure little conversational trails known to youth, he progressed considerably in his acquaintance with the girl and made her smile often without once feeling quite certain that he knew what was in her mind.
He discovered that her name was Honora Krause, and that she was called Honey "for short." Her father had been Dutch and her mother a Yankee, and she lived with her uncle, Dave Truman, who owned Little Lost ranch, and took care of the mail for him, and attended to the store—which was nothing more than a supply depot kept for the accommodation of the neighbors. The store, she said, was in the next room.
Bud asked her what Little Lost meant, and she replied that she did not know, but that it might have something to do with Sunk Creek losing itself in The Sinks. There was a Little Lost river, farther across the mountains, she said, but it did not run through Little Lost ranch, nor come anywhere near it.
After that she questioned him adroitly. Perversely Bud declined to become confidential, and Honey Krause changed the subject abruptly.
"There's going to be a dance here next Friday night. It'll be a good chance to get acquainted with everybody—if you go. There'll be good music, I guess. Uncle Dave wrote to Crater for the Saunders boys to come down and play. Do you know anybody in Crater?"
The question was innocent enough, but perverseness still held Bud. He smiled and said he did not know anybody anywhere, any more. He said that if Bobbie Burns had asked him "Should auld acquaintance be forgot," he'd have told him yes, and he'd have made it good and strong. But he added that he was just as willing to make new acquaintance, and thought the dance would be a good place to begin.
Honey gave him a provocative glance from under her lashes, and Bud straightened and stepped back.
"You let folks stop here, I take it. I've a pack outfit and a couple of saddle horses with me. Will it be all right to turn them in the corral? I hate to have them eat post hay all day. Or I could perhaps go back to the creek and camp."
"Oh, just turn your horses in the corral and make yourself at home till uncle comes," she told him with that tantalizing half-smile. "We keep people here—just for accommodation. There has to be some place in the valley where folks can stop. I can't promise that uncle will give you a job, but There's going to be chicken and dumplings for dinner. And the mail will be in, about noon—you'll want to wait for that."
She was standing just within the screen door, frankly watching him as he came past the house with the horses, and she came out and halted him when she spied the top of the pack.
"You'd better leave those things here," she advised him eagerly. "I'll put them in the sitting-room by the piano. My goodness, you must be a whole orchestra! If you can play, maybe you and I can furnish the music for the dance, and save Uncle Dave hiring the Saunders boys. Anyway, we can play together, and have real good times."
Bud had an odd feeling that Honey was talking one thing with her lips, and thinking an entirely different set of thoughts. He eyed her covertly while he untied the cases, and he could have sworn that he saw her signal someone behind the lace curtains of the nearest window. He glanced carelessly that way, but the curtains were motionless. Honey was holding out her hands for the guitar and the mandolin when he turned, so Bud surrendered them and went on to the corrals.
He did not return to the house. An old man was pottering around a machine shed that stood backed against a thick fringe of brush, and when Bud rode by he left his work and came after him, taking short steps and walking with his back bent stiffly forward and his hands swinging limply at his sides.
He had a long black beard streaked with gray, and sharp blue eyes set deep under tufted white eyebrows. He seemed a friendly old man whose interest in life remained keen as in his youth, despite the feebleness of his body. He showed Bud where to turn the horses, and went to work on the pack rope, his crooked old fingers moving with the sureness of lifelong habit. He was eager to know all the news that Bud could tell him, and when he discovered that Bud had just left the Muleshoe, and that he had been fired because of a fight with Dirk Tracy, the old fellow cackled gleefully,
"Well, now, I guess you just about had yore hands full, young man," he commented shrewdly. "Dirk ain't so easy to lick."
Bud immediately wanted to know why it was taken for granted that he had whipped Dirk, and grandpa chortled again. "Now if you hadn't of licked Dirk, you wouldn't of got fired," he retorted, and proceeded to relate a good deal of harmless gossip which seemed to bear out the statement. Dirk Tracy, according to grandpa, was the real boss of the Muleshoe, and Bart was merely a figure-head.
All of this did not matter to Bud, but grandpa was garrulous. A good deal of information Bud received while the two attended to the horses and loitered at the corral gate.
Grandpa admired Smoky, and looked him over carefully, with those caressing smoothings of mane and forelock which betray the lover of good horseflesh.
"I reckon he's purty fast," he said, peering shrewdly into Bud's face. "The boys has been talking about pulling off some horse races here next Sunday—we got a good, straight, hard-packed creek-bed up here a piece that has been cleaned of rocks fer a mile track, and they're goin' to run a horse er two. Most generally they do, on Sunday, if work's slack. You might git in on it, if you're around in these parts." He pushed his back straight with his palms, turned his head sidewise and squinted at Smoky through half-closed lids while he fumbled for cigarette material.
"I dunno but what I might be willin' to put up a few dollars on that horse myself," he observed, "if you say he kin run. You wouldn't go an' lie to an old feller like me, would yuh, son?"
Bud offered him the cigarette he had just rolled. "No, I won't lie to you, dad," he grinned. "You know horses too well."
"Well, but kin he run? I want yore word on it."
"Well-yes, he's always been able to turn a cow," Bud admitted cautiously.
"Ever run him fer money?" The old man began teetering from his toes to his heels, and to hitch his shoulders forward and back.
"Well, no, not for money. I've run him once or twice for fun, just trying to beat some of the boys to camp, maybe."
"Sho! That's no way to do! No way at all!" The old man spat angrily into the dust of the corral. Then he thought of something. "Did yuh BEAT 'em?" he demanded sharply.
"Why, sure, I beat them!" Bud looked at him surprised, seemed about to say more, and let the statement stand unqualified.
Grandpa stared at him for a minute, his blue eyes blinking with some secret excitement. "Young feller," he began abruptly, "lemme tell yuh something. Yuh never want to do a thing like that agin. If you got a horse that can outrun the other feller's horse, figure to make him bring yuh in something—if it ain't no more'n a quarter! Make him BRING yuh a little something. That's the way to do with everything yuh turn a hand to; make it bring yuh in something! It ain't what goes out that'll do yuh any good—it's what comes in. You mind that. If you let a horse run agin' another feller's horse, bet on him to come in ahead—and then," he cried fiercely, pounding one fist into the other palm, "by Christmas, make 'im come in ahead!" His voice cracked and went flat with emotion.
He stopped suddenly and let his arms fall slack, his shoulders sag forward. He waggled his head and muttered into his beard, and glanced at Bud with a crafty look.
"If I'da took that to m'self, I wouldn't be chorin' around here now for my own son," he lamented. "I'd of saved the quarters, an' I'd of had a few dollars now of my own. Uh course," he made haste to add, "I git holt of a little, now and agin. Too old to ride—too old to work—jest manage to pick up a dollar er two now and agin—on a horse that kin run."
He went over to Smoky again and ran his hand down over the leg muscles to the hocks, felt for imperfections and straightened painfully, slapped the horse approvingly between the forelegs and laid a hand on his shoulder while he turned slowly to Bud.
"Young feller, there ain't a man on the place right now but you an' me. What say you throw yore saddle on this horse and take 'im up to the track? I'd like to see him run. Seems to me he'd ought to be a purty good quarter-horse."
Bud hesitated. "I wouldn't mind running him, grandpa, if I thought I could make something on him. I've got my stake to make, and I want to make it before all my teeth fall out so I can't chew anything but the cud of reflection on my lost opportunities. If Smoky can run a few dollars into my pocket, I'm with you."
Grandpa teetered forward and put out his hand. "Shake on that, boy!" he cackled. "Pop Truman ain't too old to have his little joke—and make it bring him in something, by Christmas! You saddle up and we'll go try him out on a quarter-mile—mebby a half, if he holds up good."
He poked a cigarette-stained forefinger against Bud's chest and whispered slyly: "My son Dave, he 's got a horse in the stable that's been cleanin' everything in the valley. I'll slip him out and up the creektrail to the track, and you run that horse of yourn agin him. Dave, he can't git a race outa nobody around here, no more, so he won't run next Sunday. We'll jest see how yore horse runs alongside Boise. I kin tell purty well how you kin run agin the rest—Pop, he ain't s' thick-headed they kin fool him much. What say we try it?"
Bud stood back and looked him over. "You shook hands with me on it," he said gravely. "Where I came from, that holds a man like taking oath on a Bible in court. I'm a stranger here, but I'm going to expect the same standard of honor, grandpa. You can back out now, and I'll run Smoky without any tryout, and you can take your chance. I couldn't expect you to stand by a stranger against your own folks—"
"Sho! Shucks a'mighty!" Grandpa spat and wagged his head furiously. "My own forks'd beat me in a horse race if they could, and I wouldn't hold it agin 'em! Runnin' horses is like playin' poker. Every feller fer himself an' mercy to-ward none! I knowed what it meant when I shook with yuh, young feller, and I hold ye to it. I hold ye to it! You lay low if I tell ye to lay low, and we'll make us a few dollars, mebby. C'm on and git that horse outa here b'fore somebuddy comes. It's mail day."
He waved Bud toward his saddle and took himself off in a shuffling kind of trot. By the time Bud had saddled Smoky grandpa hailed him cautiously from the brush-fringe beyond the corral. He motioned toward a small gate and Bud led Smoky that way, closing the gate after him.
The old man was mounted on a clean-built bay whose coat shone with little glints of gold in the dark red. With one sweeping look Bud observed the points that told of speed, and his eyes went inquiringly to meet the sharp blue ones, that sparkled under the tufted white eyebrows of grandpa.
"Do you expect Smoky to show up the same day that horse arrives?" he inquired mildly. "Pop, you'll have to prove to me that he won't run Sunday—"
Pop snorted. "Seems to me like you do know a speedy horse when you see one, young feller. Beats me't you been overlookin' what you got under yore saddle right now. Boise, he's the best runnin' horse in the valley—and that's why he won't run next Sunday, ner no other Sunday till somebuddy brings in a strange horse to put agin him. Dave, he won't crowd ye fur a race, boy. You kin refuse to run yore horse agin him, like the rest has done. I'll jest lope along t'day and see what yours kin do."
"Well, all right, then." Bud waited for the old man to ride ahead down the obscure trail that wound through the brush for half a mile or so before they emerged into the rough border of the creek bed. Pop reined in close and explained garrulously to Bud how this particular stream disappeared into the ground two miles above Little Lost, leaving the wide, level river bottom bone dry.
Pop was cautious. He rode up to a rise of ground and scanned the country suspiciously before he led the way into the creek bed. Even then he kept close under the bank until they had passed two of the quarter-mile posts that had been planted in the hard sand.
Evidently he had been doing a good deal of thinking during the ride; certainly he had watched Smoky. When he stopped under the bank opposite the half-mile post he dismounted more spryly than one would have expected. His eyes were bright, his voice sharp. Pop was forgetting his age.
"I guess I'll ride yore horse m'self," he announced, and they exchanged horses under the shelter of the bank. "You kin take an' ride Boise-an' I want you should beat me if you kin." He looked at Bud appraisingly. "I'll bet a dollar," he cried suddenly, "that I kin outrun ye, young feller! An' you got the fastest horse in Burroback Valley and I don't know what I got under me. I'm seventy years old come September—when I'm afoot. Are ye afraid to bet?"
"I'm scared a dollar's worth that I'll never see you again to-day unless I ride back to find you," Bud grinned.
"Any time you lose ole Pop Truman—shucks almighty! Come on, then—I'll show ye the way to the quarter-post!"
"I'm right with you, Pop. You say so, and I'm gone!"
They reined in with the shadow of the post falling square across the necks of both horses. Pop gathered up the reins, set his feet in the stirrups and shrilled, "Go, gol darn ye!"
They went, like two scared rabbits down the smooth, yellow stretch of packed sand. Pop's elbows stuck straight out, he held the reins high and leaned far over Smoky's neck, his eyes glaring. Bud—oh, never worry about Bud! In the years that lay between thirteen and twenty-one Bud had learned a good many things, and one of them was how to get out of a horse all the speed there was in him.
They went past the quarter-post and a furlong beyond before either could pull up. Pop was pale and triumphant, and breathing harder than his mount.
"Here 's your dollar, Pop—and don't you talk in your sleep!" Bud admonished, smiling as he held out the dollar, but with an anxious tone in his voice. "If this is the best running horse you've got in the valley, I may get some action, next Sunday!"
Pop dismounted, took the dollar with a grin and mounted Boise—and that in spite of the fact that Boise was keyed up and stepping around and snorting for another race. Bud watched Pop queerly, remembering how feeble had been the old man whom he had met at the corral.
"Say, Pop, you ought to race a little every day," he bantered. "You're fifteen years younger than you were an hour ago."
For answer Pop felt of his back and groaned. "Oh, I'll pay fer it, young feller! I don't look fer much peace with my back fer a week, after this. But you kin make sure of one thing, and that is, I ain't goin' to talk in my sleep none. By Christmas, We'll make this horse of yours bring us in something! I guess you better turn yore horses all out in the pasture. Dave, he'll give yuh work all right. I'll fix it with Dave. And you listen to Pop, young feller. I'll show ye a thing or two about runnin' horses. You'n me'll clean up a nice little bunch of money-HE-HE!-beat Boise in a quarter dash! Tell that to Dave, an' he wouldn't b'lieve ye!"
When Pop got off at the back of the stable he could scarcely move, he was so stiff. But his mind was working well enough to see that Bud rubbed the saddle print off Boise and turned his own horses loose in the pasture, before he let him go on to the house. The last Bud heard from Pop that forenoon was a senile chuckle and a cackling, "Outrun Boise in a quarter dash! Shucks a'mighty! But I knew it—I knew he had the speed—sho! Ye can't fool ole Pop—shucks!"
CHAPTER TEN: BUD MEETS THE WOMAN
A woman was stooping at the woodpile, filling her arms with crooked sticks of rough-barked sage. From the color of her hair Bud knew that she was not Honey, and that she was therefore a stranger to him. But he swung off the path and went over to her as naturally as he would go to pick up a baby that had fallen.
"I'll carry that in for you," he said, and put out his hand to help her to her feet.
Before he touched her she was on her feet and looking at him. Bud could not remember afterwards that she had done anything else; he seemed to have seen only her eyes, and into them and beyond them to a soul that somehow made his heart tremble.
What she said, what he answered, was of no moment. He could not have told afterwards what it was. He stooped and filled his arms with wood, and walked ahead of her up the pathway to the kitchen door, and stopped when she flitted past him to show him where the wood-box stood. He was conscious then of her slenderness and of the lightness of her steps. He dropped the wood into the box behind the stove on which kettles were steaming. There was the smell of chicken stewing, and the odor of fresh-baked pies.
She smiled up at him and offered him a crisp, warn cookie with sugared top, and he saw her eyes again and felt the same tremor at his heart. He pulled himself together and smiled back at her, thanked her and went out, stumbling a little on the doorstep, the cookie untasted in his fingers.
He walked down to the corral and began fumbling at his pack, his thoughts hushed before the revelation that had come to him.
"Her hands—her poor, little, red hands!" he said in a whisper as the memory of them came suddenly. But it was her eyes that he was seeing with his mind; her eyes, and what lay deep within. They troubled him, shook him, made him want to use his man-strength against something that was hurting her. He did not know what it could be; he did not know that there was anything—but oddly the memory of his mother's white face back in the long ago, and of her tone when she said, "Oh, God, please!" came back and fitted themselves to the look in this woman's eyes.
Bud sat down on his canvas-wrapped bed and lifted his hat to rumple his hair and then smooth it again, as was his habit when worried. He looked at the cookie, and because he was hungry he ate it with a foolish feeling that he was being sentimental as the very devil, thinking how her hands had touched it. He rolled and smoked a cigarette afterwards, and wondered who she was and whether she was married, and what her first name was.
A quiet smoke will bring a fellow to his senses sometimes when nothing else will, and Bud managed, by smoking two cigarettes in rapid succession, to restore himself to some degree of sanity.
"Funny how she made me think of mother, back when I was a kid coming up from Texas," he mused. "Mother'd like her." It was the first time he had ever thought just that about a girl. "She's no relation to Honey," he added. "I'd bet a horse on that." He recalled how white and soft were Honey's hands, and he swore a little. "Wouldn't hurt her to get out there in the kitchen and help with the cooking," he criticised. Then suddenly he laughed. "Shucks a'mighty, as Pop says! with those two girls on the ranch I'll gamble Dave Truman has a full crew of men that are plumb willing to work for their board!"
The stage came, and Bud turned to it relievedly. After that, here came Dave Truman on a deep-cheated roan. Bud knew him by his resemblance to the old man, who came shuffling bent-backed from the machine-shed as Dave passed.
Pop beckoned, and Dave reined his horse that way and stopped at the shed door. The two talked for a minute and Dave rode on, passing Bud with a curt nod. Pop came over to where Bud stood leaning against the corral.
"How are you feeling, dad?" Bud grinned absently.
"Purty stiff an' sore, boy—my rheumatics is bad to-day." Pop winked solemnly. "I spoke to Dave about you wantin' a job, and I guess likely Dave'll put you on. They's plenty to do—hayin' comin' on and all that." He lowered his voice mysteriously, though there was no man save Bud within a hundred feet of him. "Don't ye go 'n talk horses—not yet. Don't let on like yore interested much. I'll tell yuh when to take 'em up."
The men came riding in from the hayfield, some in wagons, two astride harnessed work-horses, and one long-legged fellow in chaps on a mower, driving a sweaty team that still had life enough to jump sidewise when they spied Bud's pack by the corral. The stage driver sauntered up and spoke to the men. Bud went over and began to help unhitch the team from the mower, and the driver eyed him sharply while he grinned his greeting across the backs of the horses.
"Pop says you're looking for work," Dave Truman observed, coming up. "Well, if you ain't scared of it, I'll stake yuh to a hayfork after dinner. Where yuh from?"
"Just right now, I'm from the Muleshoe. Bud Birnie's my name. I was telling dad why I quit."
"Tell me," Dave directed briefly. "Pop ain't as reliable as he used to be. He'd never get it out straight."
"I quit," said Bud, "by special request." He pulled off his gloves carefully and held up his puffed knuckles. "I got that on Dirk Tracy."
The driver of the mower shot a quick, meaning glance at Dave, and laughed shortly. Dave grinned a little, but he did not ask what had been the trouble, as Bud had half expected him to do. Apparently Dave felt that he had received all the information he needed, for his next remark had to do with the heat. The day was a "weather breeder", he declared, and he was glad to have another man to put at the hauling.
An iron triangle beside the kitchen door clamored then, and Bud, looking quickly, saw the slim little woman with the big, troubled eyes striking the iron bar vigorously. Dave glanced at his watch and led the way to the house, the hay crew hurrying after him.
Fourteen men sat down to a long table with a great shuffling of feet and scraping of benches, and immediately began a voracious attack upon the heaped platters of chicken and dumplings and the bowls of vegetables. Bud found a place at the end where he could look into the kitchen, and his eyes went that way as often as they dared, following the swift motions of the little woman who poured coffee and filled empty dishes and said never a word to anyone.
He was on the point of believing her a daughter of the house when a square-jawed man of thirty, or thereabout, who sat at Bud's right hand, called her to him as he might have called his dog, by snapping his fingers.
She came and stood beside Bud while the man spoke to her in an arrogant undertone.
"Marian, I told yuh I wanted tea for dinner after this. D'you bring me coffee on purpose, just to be onery? I thought I told yuh to straighten up and quit that sulkin'. I ain't going to have folks think——"
"Oh, be quiet! Shame on you, before everyone!" she whispered fiercely while she lifted the cup and saucer.
Bud went hot all over. He did not look up when she returned presently with a cup of tea, but he felt her presence poignantly, as he had never before sensed the presence of a woman. When he was able to swallow his wrath and meet calmly the glances of these strangers he turned his head casually and looked the man over.
Her husband, he guessed the fellow to be. No other relationship could account for that tone of proprietorship, and there was no physical resemblance between the two. A mean devil, Bud called him mentally, with a narrow forehead, eyes set too far apart and the mouth of a brute. Someone spoke to the man, calling him Lew, and he answered with rough good humor, repeating a stale witticism and laughing at it just as though he had not heard others say it a hundred times.
Bud looked at him again and hated him, but he did not glance again at the little woman named Marian; for his own peace of mind he did not dare. He thought that he knew now what it was he had seen in the depth of her eyes, but there seemed to be nothing that he could do to help.
That evening after supper Honey Krause called to him when he was starting down to the bunk-house with the other men. What she said was that she still had his guitar and mandolin, and that they needed exercise. What she looked was the challenge of a born coquette. In the kitchen dishes were rattling, but after they were washed there would be a little leisure, perhaps, for the kitchen drudge. Bud's impulse to make his sore hands an excuse for refusing evaporated. It might not be wise to place himself deliberately in the way of getting a hurt—but youth never did stop to consult a sage before following the lure of a woman's eyes.
He called back to Honey that those instruments ought to have been put in the hayfield, where there was more exercise than the men could use. "You boys ought to come and see me safe through with it," he added to the loitering group around him. "I'm afraid of women."
They laughed and two or three went with him. Lew went on to the corral and presently appeared on horseback, riding up to the kitchen and leaving his horse standing at the corner while he went inside and talked to the woman he had called Marian.
Bud was carrying his guitar outside, where it was cooler, when he heard the fellow's arrogant voice. The dishes ceased rattling for a minute, and there was a sharp exclamation, stifled but unmistakable. Involuntarily Bud made a movement in that direction, when Honey's voice stopped him with a subdued laugh.
"That's only Lew and Mary Ann," she explained carelessly. "They have a spat every time they come within gunshot of each other."
The lean fellow who had driven the mower, and whose name was Jerry Myers, edged carelessly close to Bud and gave him a nudge with his elbow, and a glance from under his eyebrows by way of emphasis. He turned his head slightly, saw that Honey had gone into the house, and muttered just above a whisper, "Don't see or hear anything. It's all the help you can give her. And for Lord's sake don't let on to Honey like you—give a cuss whether it rains or not, so long 's it don't pour too hard the night of the dance."
Bud looked up at the darkening sky speculatively, and tried not to hear the voices in the kitchen, one of which was brutally harsh while the other told of hate and fear suppressed under gentle forbearance. The harsh voice was almost continuous, the other infrequent, reluctant to speak at all. Bud wanted to go in and smash his guitar over the fellow's head, but Jerry's warning held him. There were other ways, however, to help; if he must not drive off the tormentor, then he would call him away. He ignored his bruised knuckles and plucked the guitar strings as if he held a grudge against them, and then began to sing the first song that came into his mind—one that started in a rollicky fashion.
Men came straggling up from the bunk-house before he had finished the first chorus, and squatted on their heels to listen, their cigarettes glowing like red fingertips in the dusk. But the voice in the kitchen talked on. Bud tried another—one of those old-time favorites, a "laughing coon" song, though he felt little enough in the mood for it. In the middle of the first laugh he heard the kitchen door slam, and Lew's footsteps coming around the corner. He listened until the song was done, then mounted and rode away, Bud's laugh following him triumphantly—though Lew could not have guessed its meaning.
Bud sang for two hours expectantly, but Marian did not appear, and Bud went off to the bunk-house feeling that his attempt to hearten her had been a failure. Of Honey he did not think at all, except to wonder if the two women were related in any way, and to feel that if they were Marian was to be pitied. At that point Jerry overtook him and asked for a match, which gave him an excuse to hold Bud behind the others.
"Honey like to have caught me, to-night," Jerry observed guardedly. "I had to think quick. I'll tell you the lay of the land, Bud, seeing you're a stranger here. Marian's man, Lew, he's a damned bully and somebody is going to draw a fine bead on him some day when he ain't looking. But he stands in, so the less yuh take notice the better. Marian, she's a fine little woman that minds her own business, but she's getting a cold deck slipped into the game right along. Honey's jealous of her and afraid somebody'll give her a pleasant look. Lew's jealous, and he watches her like a cat watches a mouse it's caught and wants to play with. Between the two of 'em Marian has a real nice time of it. I'm wising you up so you won't hand her any more misery by trying to take her part. Us boys have learned to keep our mouths shut."
"Glad you told me," Bud muttered. "Otherwise——"
"Exactly," Jerry agreed understandingly. "Otherwise any of us would."
He stopped and then spoke in a different tone. "If Lew stays off the ranch long enough, maybe you'll get to hear her sing. Wow-ee, but that lady has sure got the meadow-larks whipped! But look out for Honey, old-timer."
Bud laughed unmirthfully. "Looks to me as if you aren't crazy over Honey," he ventured. "What has she done to you?"
"Her?" Jerry inspected his cigarette, listened to the whisper of prudence in his ear, and turned away. "Forget it. I never said a word." He swept the whole subject from him with a comprehensive gesture, and snorted. "I'm gettin' as bad as Pop," he grinned. "But lemme tell yuh something. Honey Krause runs more 'n the post-office."
CHAPTER ELEVEN: GUILE AGAINST THE WILY
Bud liked to have his life run along accustomed lines with a more or less perfect balance of work and play, friendships and enmities. He had grown up with the belief that any mystery is merely a synonym for menace. He had learned to be wary of known enemies such as Indians and outlaws, and to trust implicitly his friends. To feel now, without apparent cause, that his friends might be enemies in disguise, was a new experience that harried him.
He had come to Little Lost on Tuesday, straight from the Muleshoe where his presence was no longer desired for some reason not yet satisfactorily explained to him. You know what happened on Tuesday. That night the land crouched under a terrific electric storm, with crackling swords of white death dazzling from inky black clouds, and ear-splitting thunder close on the heels of it. Bud had known such storms all his life, yet on this night he was uneasy, vaguely disturbed. He caught himself wondering if Lew Morris's wife was frightened, and the realization that he was worrying about her fear worried him more than ever and held him awake long after the fury of the storm had passed.
Next day, when he came in at noon, there was Hen, from the Muleshoe, waiting for dinner before he rode back with the mail. Hen's jaw dropped when he saw Bud riding on a Little Lost hay-wagon, and his eyes bulged with what Bud believed was consternation. All through the meal Bud had caught Hen eyeing him miserably, and looking stealthily from him to the others. No one paid any attention, and for that Bud was rather thankful; he did not want the Little Lost fellows to think that perhaps he had done something which he knew would hang him if it were discovered, which, he decided, was the mildest interpretation a keen observer would be apt to make of Hen's behavior.
When he went out, Hen was at his heels, trying to say something in his futile, tongue-tied gobble. Bud stopped and looked at him tolerantly. "Hen, It's no use—you might as well be talking Chinese, for all I know. If it's important, write it down or I'll never know what's on your mind."
He pulled a note-book and a pencil from his vest-pocket and gave them to Hen, who looked at him dumbly, worked his Adam's apple violently and retreated to his horse, fumbled the mail which was tied in the bottom of a flour sack for safe keeping, sought a sheltered place where he could sit down, remained there a few minutes, and then returned to his horse He beckoned to Bud, who was watching him curiously; and when Bud went over to him said something unintelligible and handed back the note-book, motioning for caution when Bud would have opened the book at once.
So Bud thanked him gravely, but with a twinkle in his eyes, and waited until Hen had gone and he was alone before he read the message. It was mysterious enough, certainly. Hen had written in a fine, cramped, uneven hand:
"You bee carful. bern this up and dent let on like you no anything but i warn you be shure bern this up."
Bud tore out the page and burned it as requested, and since he was not enlightened by the warning he obeyed Hen's instructions and did not "let on." But he could not help wondering, and was unconsciously prepared to observe little things which ordinarily would have passed unnoticed.
At the dance on Friday night, for instance, there was a good deal of drinking and mighty little hilarity. Bud had been accustomed to loud talk and much horseplay outside among the men on such occasions, and even a fight or two would be accepted as a matter of course. But though several quart bottles were passed around during the night and thrown away empty into the bushes, the men went in and danced and came out again immediately to converse confidentially in small groups, or to smoke without much speech. The men of Burroback Valley were not running true to form.
The women were much like all the women of cow-country: mothers with small children who early became cross and sleepy and were hushed under shawls on the most convenient bed, a piece of cake in their hands; mothers whose faces were lined too soon with work and ill-health, and with untidy hair that became untidier as the dance progressed. There were daughters—shy and giggling to hide their shyness—Bud knew their type very well and made friends with them easily, and immediately became the centre of a clamoring audience after he had sung a song or two.
There was Honey, with her inscrutable half smile and her veiled eyes, condescending to graciousness and quite plainly assuming a proprietary air toward Bud, whom she put through whatever musical paces pleased her fancy. Bud, I may say, was extremely tractable. When Honey said sing, Bud sang; when she said play, Bud sat down to the piano and played until she asked him to do something else. It was all very pleasant for Honey—and Bud ultimately won his point—Honey decided to extend her graciousness a little.
Why hadn't Bud danced with Marian? He must go right away and ask her to dance. Just because Lew was gone, Marian need not be slighted—and besides, there were other fellows who might want a little of Honey's time.
So Bud went away and found Marian in the pantry, cutting cakes while the coffee boiled, and asked her to dance. Marian was too tired, and' she had not the time to spare; wherefore Bud helped himself to a knife and proceeded to cut cakes with geometrical precision, and ate all the crumbs. With his hands busy, he found the courage to talk to her a little. He made Marian laugh out loud and it was the first time he had ever heard her do that.
Marian disclosed a sense of humor, and even teased Bud a little about Honey. But her teasing lacked that edge of bitterness which Bud had half expected in retaliation for Honey's little air of superiority.
"Your precision in cutting cakes is very much like your accurate fingering of the piano," she observed irrelevantly, surveying his work with her lips pursed. "A pair of calipers would prove every piece exactly, the same width; and even when you play a Meditation? I'm sure the metronome would waggle in perfect unison with your tempo. I wonder—" She glanced up at him speculatively. "—I wonder if you think with such mathematical precision. Do you always find that two and two make four?"
"You mean, have I any imagination whatever?" Bud looked away from her eyes—toward the uncurtained, high little window. A face appeared there, as if a tall man had glanced in as he was passing by and halted for a second to look. Bud's eyes met full the eyes of the man outside, who tilted his head backward in a significant movement and passed on. Marian turned her head and caught the signal, looked at Bud quickly, a little flush creeping into her cheeks.