He pulled a handful of the long grass which grows best among bushes. It was dead now, and dry. He twisted it into a makeshift torch, lighted and held it high, so that its blaze made a great disk of brightness all around him. While it burned he looked for her, and when it grew to black cinders and was near to scorching his hand, he made another and looked farther. He laid aside his dignity and called, and while his voice went booming full-lunged through the whispering silence of that empty land, he twisted the third torch, and stamped the embers of the second into the earth that it might not fire the prairie.
There was no dodging the fact; the girl was gone. When Ford was perfectly sure of it, he stamped the third torch to death with vicious heels, went back to the horse, and urged him to limp up the hill. He did not say anything then or think anything much; at least, he did not think coherently. He was so full of a wordless rage against the girl, that he did not at first feel the need of expression. She had made a fool of him.
He remembered once shooting a big, beautiful, blacktail doe. She had dropped limply in her tracks and lain there, and he had sauntered up and stood looking at her stretched before him. He was out of meat, and the doe meant all that hot venison steaks and rich, brown gravy can mean to a man meat-hungry. While he unsheathed his hunting knife, he gloated over the feast he would have, that night. And just when he had laid his rifle against a rock and knelt to bleed her, the deer leaped from under his hand and bounded away over the hill. He had not said a word on that occasion, either.
This night, although the case was altogether different and the disappearance of the girl was in no sense a disaster—rather a relief, if anything—he felt that same wordless rage, the same sense of utter chagrin. She had made a fool of him. After awhile he felt his jaws aching with the vicelike pressure of his teeth together.
They topped the ridge, Rambler hobbling stiffly. Ford had in mind a sheltering rim of sandstone at the nearest point of the coulee he had crossed in searching for the girl's horse, and made for it. He had noticed a spring there, and while the water might not be good, the shelter would be welcome, at any rate.
He had the saddle off Rambler, the shoulder bathed with cold water from the spring, and was warming his wet hands over a little fire when the first gleam of humor struck through his anger and lighted for a moment the situation.
"Lordy me! I must be a hoodoo, where women are concerned," he said, kicking the smoking stub of a bush into the blaze. "Soon as one crosses my trail, she goes and disappears off the face of the earth!" He fumbled for his tobacco and papers. It was a "dry camp" he was making that night, and a smoke would have to serve for a supper. He held his book of papers absently while he stared hard at the fire.
"It ain't such a bad hoodoo," he mused. "I can spare this particular girl just as easy as not; and the other one, too, for that matter."
After a minute spent in blowing apart the thin leaves and selecting a paper:
"Queer where she got to—and it's a darned mean trick to play on a man that was just trying to help her out of a fix. Why, I wouldn't treat a stray dog that way! Darn these women!"
The Problem of Getting Somewhere
Dawn came tardily after a long, cheerless night, during which the wind whined over the prairie and the stars showed dimly through a shifting veil of low-sweeping clouds. Ford had not slept much, for hunger and cold make poor bedfellows, and all the brush he could glean on that barren hillside, with the added warmth of his saddle-blanket wrapped about him, could no more make him comfortable than could cigarettes still the gnawing of his hunger.
When he could see across the coulee, he rose from where he had been sitting with his back to the ledge and his feet to the meager fire, brooding over all the unpleasant elements in his life thus far, particularly the feminine element. He folded the saddle-blanket along its original creases and went over to where Rambler stood dispiritedly with his back humped to the cold, creeping wind and his tail whipping between his legs when a sudden gust played with it. Ford shivered, and beat his gloved hands about his body, and looked up at the sky to see whether the sun would presently shine and send a little warmth to this bleak land where he wandered. He blamed the girl for all of this discomfort, and he told himself that the next time a woman appeared within his range of vision he would ride way around her. They invariably brought trouble; of various sorts and degrees, it is true, but trouble always. It was perfectly safe, he decided, to bank on that. And he wished, more than ever, that he had not improvidently given that pint of whisky to a disconsolate-looking sheep-herder he had met the day before on his way out from town; or that he had put two flasks in his pocket instead of one. In his opinion a good, big jolt right now would make a new man of him.
Rambler, as he had half expected, was obliged to do his walking with three legs only; which is awkward for a horse accustomed to four exceedingly limber ones, and does not make for speed, however great one's hurry. Ford walked around him twice, scooped water in his hands, and once more bathed the shoulder—not that he had any great faith in cold water as a liniment, but because there was nothing else that he could do, and his anxiety and his pity impelled service of some sort. He rubbed until his fingers were numb and his arm aching, tried him again, and gave up all hope of leading the horse to a ranch. A mile he might manage, if he had to but ten! He rubbed Rambler's nose commiseratingly, straightened his forelock, told him over and over that it was a darned shame, anyway, and finally turned to pick up his saddle. He could not leave that lying on the prairie for inquisitive kit-foxes to chew into shoestrings, however much he might dread the forty-pound burden of it on his shoulders. He was stooping to pick it up when he saw a bit of paper twisted and tied to the saddle-horn with a red ribbon.
"Lordy me!" he ejaculated ironically. "The lady left a note on my pillow—and I never received it in time! Now, ain't that a darned shame?" He plucked the knot loose, and held up the ribbon and the note, and laughed.
"'When this reaches you, I shall be far away, though it breaks my heart to go and this missive is mussed up scandalous with my bitter tears. Forgive me if you can, and forget me if you have to. It is better thus, for it couldn't otherwise was,'" he improvised mockingly, while his chilled fingers fumbled to release the paper, which was evidently a leaf torn from a man's memorandum book. "Lordy me, a letter from a lady! Ain't that sweet!"
When he read it, however, the smile vanished with a click of the teeth which betrayed his returning anger. One cold, curt sentence bidding him wait until help came—that was all. His eye measured accusingly the wide margin left blank under the words; she had not omitted apology or explanation for lack of space, at any rate. His face grew cynically amused again.
"Oh, certainly! I'd roost on this side-hill for a month, if a lady told me to," he sneered, speaking aloud as he frequently did in the solitude of the range land. He glanced from ribbon to note, ended his indecision by stuffing the note carelessly into his coat pocket and letting the ribbon drop to the ground, and with a curl of the lips which betrayed his mental attitude toward all women and particularly toward that woman, picked up his saddle.
"I can't seem to recollect asking that lady for help, anyway," he summed up before he dismissed the subject from his mind altogether. "I was trying to help her; it sure takes a woman to twist things around so they point backwards!"
He turned and glanced pityingly at Rambler, watching him with ears perked forward inquiringly. "And I crippled a damned good horse trying to help a blamed poor specimen of a woman!" he gritted. "And didn't get so much as a pleasant word for it. I'll sure remember that!"
Rambler whinnied after him wistfully, and Ford set his teeth hard together and walked the faster, his shoulders slightly bent under the weight of the saddle. His own physical discomfort was nothing, beside the hurt of leaving his horse out there practically helpless; for a moment his fingers rested upon the butt of his six-shooter, while he considered going back and putting an end to life and misery for Rambler. But for all the hardness men had found in Ford Campbell, he was woman-weak where his horse was concerned. With cold reason urging him, he laid the saddle on the ground and went back, his hand clutching grimly the gun at his hip. Rambler's nicker of welcome stopped him half-way and held him there, hot with guilt.
"Oh, damn it, I can't!" he muttered savagely, and retraced his steps to where the saddle lay. After that he almost trotted down the coulee, and he would not look back again until it struck him as odd that the nickerings of the horse did not grow perceptibly fainter. With a queer gripping of the muscles in his throat he did turn, then, and saw Rambler's head over the little ridge he had just crossed. The horse was making shift to follow him rather than be left alone in that strange country. Ford waited, his lashes glistening in the first rays of the new-risen sun, until the horse came hobbling stiffly up to him.
"You old devil!" he murmured then, his contrite tone contrasting oddly with the words he used. "You contrary, ornery, old devil, you!" he repeated softly, rubbing the speckled nose with more affection than he had ever shown a woman. "You'd tag along, if—if you didn't have but one leg to carry you! And I was going to—" He could not bring himself to confess his meditated deed of mercy; it seemed black-hearted treachery, now, and he stood ashamed and humbled before the dumb brute that nuzzled him with such implicit faith.
It was slow journeying, after that. Ford carried the saddle on his own back rather than burden the horse with it, and hungry as he was, he stopped often and long, and massaged the sprained shoulder faithfully while Rambler rested it, with all his weight on his other legs and his nose rooting gently at Ford's bowed head.
A stray rider assured him that he was on the right trail, but it was past noon when he thankfully reached the Double Cross, threw his saddle down beside the stable door, and gave Rambler a chance at the hay in the corral.
The Foreman of the Double Cross
"Hell-o, Ford, where the blazes did you drop down from?" a welcoming voice yelled, when he was closing the gate of the corral behind him and thinking that it was like Ches Mason to have a fine, strong corral and gate, and then slur the details by using a piece of baling wire to fasten it. The last ounce of disgust with life slid from his mind when he heard the greeting, and he turned and gripped hard the gloved hand thrust toward him. Ches Mason it was—the same old Ches, with the same humorous wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, the same kindliness, the same hearty faith in the world as he knew it and in his fellowmen as he found them—the unquestioning faith that takes it for granted that the other fellow is as square as himself. Ford held his hand while he permitted himself a swift, reckoning glance which took in these familiar landmarks of the other's personality.
"Don't seem to have hurt you much—matrimony," he observed whimsically, as he dropped the hand. "You look just like you always did—with your hat on." In the West, not to say in every other locality, there is a time-honored joke about matrimony, for certain strenuous reasons, producing premature baldness.
Ches grinned and removed his hat. Eight years had heightened his forehead perceptibly and thinned the hair on his temples. "You see what it's done to me," he pointed out lugubriously. "You ain't married yourself, I suppose? You look like you'd met up with some kinda misfortune." Mason was regarding Ford's scarred face with some solicitude.
"Just got tangled up a little with my fellow-citizens, in Sunset," Ford explained drily. "I tried to see how much of the real stuff I could get outside of, and then how many I could lick." He shrugged his shoulders a little. "I did quite a lot of both," he added, as an afterthought.
Mason was rubbing his jaw reflectively and staring hard at Ford. "The wife's strong on the temperance dope," he said hesitatingly. "I reckon you'll want to bunk down with the boys till you grow some hide on your face—there's lady company up at the house, and—"
"The bunk-house for mine, then," Ford cut in hastily. "No lady can get within gunshot of me; not if I see her coming in time!" Though he smiled when he said it, there was meaning behind the mirth.
Mason pulled a splinter from a corral rail and began to snap off little bits with his fingers. "Kate will go straight up in the air with me if she knows you're here and won't come to the house, though," he considered uneasily. "She's kept a big package of gratitude tucked away with your name on it, ever since that Alaska deal. And lemme tell you, Ford, when a woman as good as Kate goes and gets grateful to a man—gosh! Had your dinner?"
"Not lately, I haven't," Ford declared. "I kinda remember eating, some time in the past; it was a long time ago, though."
Mason laughed and tagged the answer as being the natural exaggeration of a hungry man. "Well, come along and eat, then—if you haven't forgotten how to make your jaws go. I've got Mose Freeman cooking for me; you know Mose, don't you? Hired him the day after the Fourth; the Mitten outfit fired him for getting soused and trying to clean out the camp, and I nabbed him before they had time to forgive him. Way they had of disciplining him—when he'd go on a big tear they'd fire him for a few days and then take him back. But they can't git him now—not if I can help it. A better cook never throwed dishwater over a guy-rope than that same old Mose, but—" He stopped and looked at Ford hesitantly. "Say! I hate like the deuce to tie a string on you as soon as you hit the ranch, Ford, but—if you've got anything along, you won't spring it on Mose, will you? A fellow's got to watch him pretty close, or—"
"I haven't got a drop." Ford's tone was reprehensibly regretful.
"You do look as if you'd put it all under your belt," Mason retorted dryly. "Left anything behind?"
"Some spoiled beauties, and a nice new jail that was built by my admiring townspeople, with my name carved over the door. I didn't stay for the dedication services. Sunset was getting all fussed up over me and I thought I'd give them a chance to settle their nerves; loss of sleep sure plays hell with folks when their nerves are getting frazzly." He smiled disarmingly at Mason.
"I'd kinda lost track of you, Ches, till I got your letter. I've been traveling pretty swift, and that's no lie. I meant to write, but—you know how a man gets to putting things off. And then I took a notion to ride over this way, and sample your grub for a day or so, and abuse you a little to your face, you old highbinder!"
"Sure. I've been kinda looking for you, too. But—I wish you hadn't quite so big an assortment of battle-signs, Ford. Kate's got ideals and prejudices—and she don't know all your little personal traits. She's heard a lot about you, of course. We was married right after we came outa the North, you know, and of course—Well, you know how a woman sops up adventure stories; and seeing you was the star performer—"
"And that's a lie," Ford put in modestly, albeit a trifle bluntly.
"No, it ain't. She got the truth. And she's so darned grateful," he added lugubriously, "that I don't know how to square your record with that face! Unless we can rig up some yarn about a holdup—" He paused just outside the mess-house door and eyed Ford questioningly. "We might—"
"No, you don't. If you've gone and lied to her, and made me out a little tin angel, you deserve what's coming. Anyway, I won't stay long, and I'll stop down here with the boys. Call me Jack Jones and let it go at that. Honest, Ches, I don't want to get mixed up with no more females. I'm plumb scared of 'em. Lordy me, that coffee sure does smell good to me!"
Mason looked at him doubtfully, saw that Ford was, for the time being, absolutely devoid of anything remotely approaching penitence for his sins, or compunction over his appearance, or uneasiness over "Kate's" opinion of him. He was hungry. And since it is next to impossible to whip up the conscience of a man whose thoughts are concentrated upon his physical needs, Mason was wise enough to wait, though the one point which he considered of vital importance to them both—the question of Ford's acceptance or refusal of the foremanship of the Double Cross—had not yet been touched upon.
While Ford ate with a controlled voraciousness which spoke eloquently of his twenty-four hours of fasting and exposure, Mason gossiped inattentively and studied the man.
Eight years leave their impress of mental growth or deterioration upon a man. Outwardly Ford was not much changed since Mason had come with him out of Alaska and lost sight of him afterwards. There was the maturity which the man of thirty possessed and which the virile young fellow of twenty-one had lacked. There was the same straight glance, the same atmosphere of squareness and mental poise. Those were qualities which Mason set down as valuable factors in his estimate of the man. Besides, there were other signs which did not make so pleasant a reading.
Eight years—and a few of them, at least, had been spent wastefully in tearing down what the other years had built; Mason had heard that Ford was "going to the dogs," and that by the short trail men blazed for themselves centuries ago and which those who came after have made a highway—the whisky trail. Mason had heard, now and then, of ten thousand dollars coming to Ford upon the death of his father and going almost as suddenly as it had come. That, at least, had been the rumor. Also he had heard, just lately, that Ford had taken to gambling as a profession and to terrorizing Sunset periodically as a pastime. And Mason remembered the Ford Campbell who had carried him on his back out of a wild place in Alaska, and had nearly starved himself that the sick man's strength might not fail him utterly. He had remembered—had Ches Mason; and, being one of those tenacious souls who cling to friendship and to a resilient faith in the good that is in the worst of us, he had thrown out a tentative life-line, as it were, and hoped that Ford might clutch it before he became quite submerged in the sodden morass of inebriety.
Ford may or may not have grasped eagerly at the line. At any rate he was there in the mess-house of the Double Cross, and he was not quite so sodden as Mason had feared to find him—provided he found him at all. So much, at least, was encouraging, and for the rest, Mason was content to wait.
Mose, recognizing Ford at once, had asked him, with a comical attempt at secrecy, if he had anything to drink. When Ford shook his head, Mose stifled a sigh and went back to his dishwashing, not more than half convinced and inclined toward resentfulness. That a "booze-fighter" like Ford Campbell should come only a day's ride from town and not be fairly well supplied with whisky was too remarkable to be altogether plausible. He eyed the two sourly while they talked, and he did not bring forth one of the fresh pies he had baked, as he had meant to do.
It was not until Ford was ready to light his after-dinner cigarette that Mason led the way into the next room, which held the bunks and general belongings of the men, and closed the door so that they might talk in confidence without fear of Mose's loose tongue. Ford immediately pulled off his boots, laid himself down upon one of the bunks, doubled a pillow under his head, and began to eye Mason quizzically. Then he said:
"Say, you kinda played your hand face down, didn't you, Ches, when you wrote and asked me to come out here and take charge? Eight years is a long time to expect a man to stay right where he was when you saw him last. You've lost a whole lot of horse sense since I knew you."
"Well, what about it? You came, I notice." Mason grinned and would not help Ford otherwise to an understanding.
"I didn't come to hog-tie that foreman job, you chump. I just merely want to tell you that you'll get into all kinds of trouble, some day, if you go laying yourself wide open like that. Why, it's plumb crazy to offer a job like that to a fellow you haven't seen for as long as you have me. And if you heard anything about me, it's a cinch it wasn't what would recommend me to any Sunday-school as a teacher of their Bible class! How did you know I wouldn't take it? And let you in for—"
"Well, you're here, and I've seen you. The job's still waiting for you. You can start right in, to-morrow morning." Ches got out his pipe and began to fill it as calmly and with as much attention to the small details as if he were not mentally tensed for the struggle he knew was coming; a struggle which struck much deeper than the position he was offering Ford.
Ford almost dropped his cigarette in his astonishment. "Well, you damn' fool!" he ejaculated pityingly.
"Why? I thought you knew enough—you punched cows for the Circle for four or five years, didn't you? Nelson told me you were his top hand while you stayed with him, and that you ran the outfit one whole summer, when—"
"That ain't the point." A hot look had crept into Ford's face—a tinge which was not a flush—and a glow into his eyes. "I know the cow-business, far as that goes. It's me; you can't—why, Lordy me! You ought to be sent to Sulphur Springs and get your think-tank hoed out. Any man that will offer a foreman's job to a—a—"
"'A rooting, tooting, shooting, fighting son-of-a-gun, and a good one!'" assisted Mason equably. "'The only original go-getter—' Sure. That's all right."
The flush came slowly and darkened Ford's cheeks and brow and throat. He threw his half-smoked cigarette savagely at the hearth of the rusty box-stove, and scowled at the place where it fell. "Well, ain't that reason enough?" he demanded harshly, after a minute.
Mason had been studying that flush. He nodded assent to some question he had put to himself, and crowded tobacco into his pipe. "No reason at all, one way or the other. I need a foreman—one I can depend on. I've got to make a trip out to the Coast, this fall, and I've got to leave somebody here I can trust."
Ford shot him a quick, questioning glance, and bit his lip. "That," he said more calmly, "is just what I'm driving at. You can't trust me. You can't depend on me, Ches."
"Oh, yes I can," Mason contradicted blandly. "It's just because I can that I want you."
"You can't. You know damn' well you can't! Why, you—don't you know I've got the name of being a drunkard, and a—a bad actor all around? I'm not like I was eight years ago, remember. I've traveled a hard old trail since we bucked the snow together, Ches—and it's been mostly down grade. I was all right for awhile, and then I got ten thousand dollars, and it seemed a lot of money. I bought a fellow out—he had a ranch and a few head of horses—so he could take his wife back East to her mother. She was sick. I didn't want the darned ranch. And so help me, Ches, that's the only thing I've done in the last four years that I hadn't ought to be ashamed of. The rest of the money I just simply blew. I—well, you see me; you didn't want to take me up to the house to meet your wife, and I don't blame you. You'd be a chump if you did. And this is nothing out of the ordinary. I've got my face bunged up half the time, seems like." He thumped the pillow into a different position, settled his head against it, and looked at Mason with his old, whimsical smile. "So when you talk about that foreman job, and depending on me, you're—plumb delirious. I was going to write and tell you so, but I kept putting it off. And then I took a notion I'd hunt you up and give you some good advice. You're a good fellow, Ches, but the court ought to appoint a guardian for you."
"I'll stick around for three or four weeks," Mason observed, in the casual tone of one who is merely discussing the details of an everyday affair, "till the calves are all gathered. We're a little late this year, on account of old Slow dying right in round-up time. We got most of the beef shipped—all I care about gathering, this fall. I've got most all young stock, and it won't hurt to let 'em run another season; there ain't many. I'll let you take the wagons out, and I'll go with you till you get kinda harness-broke. And—"
"I told you I don't want the job." Ford's mouth was set grimly.
"You tried to tell me what I want and what I don't want," Mason corrected amiably. "Now I've got my own ideas on that subject. This here outfit belongs to me. I like to pick my men to suit myself; and if I want a certain man for foreman, I guess I've got a right to hire him—if he'll let himself be hired. I've picked my man. It don't make any difference to me how many times he played hookey when he was a kid, or how many men he's licked since he growed up. I've hired him to help run the Double Cross, and run it right; and I ain't a bit afraid but what he'll make good." He smiled and knocked the ashes gently from his pipe into the palm of his hand, because the pipe was a meerschaum just getting a fine, fawn coloring around the base of the bowl, and was dear to the heart of him. "Down to the last, white chip," he added slowly, "he'll make good. He ain't the kind of a man that will lay down on his job." He got up and yawned, elaborately casual in his manner.
"You lay around and take it easy this afternoon," he said. "I've got to jog over to the river field; the boys are over there, working a little bunch we threw in yesterday. To-morrow we can ride around a little, and kinda get the lay of the land. You better go by-low, right now—you look as if it wouldn't do you any harm!" Whereupon he wisely took himself off and left Ford alone.
The door he pulled shut after him closed upon a mental battle-ground. Ford did not go "by-low." Instead, he rolled over and lay with his face upon his folded arms, alive to the finger-tips; alive and fighting. For there are times when the soul of a man awakes and demands a reckoning, and reviews pitilessly the past and faces the future with the veil of illusion torn quite away—and does it whether the man will or no.
"I Wish You'd Quit Believing in Me!"
A distant screaming roused Ford from his bitter mood of introspection. He raised his head and listened, his heavy-lidded eyes staring blankly at the wall opposite, before he sprang off the bunk, pulled on his boots, and rushed from the room. Outside, he hesitated long enough to discover which direction he must take to reach the woman who was screaming inarticulately, her voice vibrant with sheer terror. The sound came from the little, brown cottage that seemed trying modestly to hide behind a dispirited row of young cottonwoods across a deep, narrow gully, and he ran headlong toward it. He crossed the plank footbridge in a couple of long leaps, vaulted over the gate which barred his way, and so reached the house just as a woman whom he knew must be Mason's "Kate," jerked open the door and screamed "Chester!" almost in his face. Behind her rolled a puff of slaty blue smoke.
Ford pushed past her in the doorway without speaking; the smoke told its own urgent tale and made words superfluous. She turned and followed him, choking over the pungent smoke.
"Oh, where's Chester?" she wailed. "The whole garret's on fire—and I can't carry Phenie—and she's asleep and can't walk anyway!" She rushed half across the room and stopped, pointing toward a closed door, with Ford at her heels.
"She's in there!" she cried tragically. "Save her, quick—and I'll find Chester. You'd think, with all the men there are on this ranch, there'd be some one around—oh, and my new piano!"
She ran out of the house, scolding hysterically because the men were gone, and Ford laughed a little as he went to the door she had indicated. When his fingers touched the knob, it turned fumblingly under another hand than his own; the door opened, and he confronted the girl whom he had tried to befriend the day before. She had evidently just gotten out of bed, and into a flimsy blue kimono, which she was holding together at the throat with one hand, while with the other she steadied herself against the wall. She stared blankly into his eyes, and her face was very white indeed, with her hair falling thickly upon either side in two braids which reached to her hips.
Ford gave her one quick, startled glance, said "Come on," quite brusquely, and gathered her into his arms with as little sentiment as he would have bestowed upon the piano. His eyes smarted with the smoke, which blinded him so that he bumped into chairs on his way to the door. Outside he stopped, and looked down at the girl, wondering what he should do with her. Since Kate had stated emphatically that she could not walk, it seemed scarcely merciful to deposit her on the ground and leave her to her own devices. She had closed her eyes, and she looked unpleasantly like a corpse; and there was an insistent crackling up in the roof, which warned Ford that there was little time for the weighing of fine points. He was about to lay her on the bare ground, for want of a better place, when he glimpsed Mose running heavily across the bridge, and went hurriedly to meet him.
"Here! You take her down and put her in one of the bunks, Mose," he commanded, when Mose confronted him, panting a good deal because of his two hundred and fifty pounds of excess fat and a pair of down-at-the-heel slippers which hampered his movements appreciably. Mose looked at the girl and then at his two hands.
"I can't take her," he lamented. "I got m'hands full of aigs!"
Ford's reply was a sweep of the girl's inert figure against Mose's outstretched hands, which freed them effectually of their burden of eggs. "You darned chump, what's eggs in a case like this?" he cried sharply, and forced the girl into his arms. "You take her and put her on a bunk. I've got to put out that fire!"
So Mose, a reluctant knight and an awkward one, carried the girl to the bunk-house, and left Ford free to save the house if he could. Fortunately the fire had started in a barrel of old clothing which had stood too close to the stovepipe, and while the smoke was stifling, the flames were as yet purely local. And, more fortunately still, that day happened to be Mrs. Mason's wash-day and two tubs of water stood in the kitchen, close to the narrow stairway which led into the loft. Three or four pails of water and some quick work in running up and down the stairs was all that was needed. Ford, standing in the low, unfinished loft, looked at the rafter which was burnt half through, and wiped his perspiring face with his coat sleeve.
"Lordy me!" he observed aloud, "I sure didn't come any too soon!"
"Oh, it's all out! I don't know how I ever shall thank you in this world! With Phenie in bed with a sprained ankle so she couldn't walk, and the men all gone, I was just wild! I—why—" Kate, standing upon the stairs so that she could look into the loft, stopped suddenly and stared at Ford with some astonishment. Plainly, she had but then discovered that he was a stranger—and it was quite as plain that she was taking stock of his blackened eyes and other bruises, and that with the sheltered woman's usual tendency to exaggerate the disfigurements.
"That's all right; I don't need any thanks." Ford, seeing no other way of escape, approached her steadily, the empty bucket swinging in his hand. "The fire's all out, so there's nothing more I can do here, I guess."
"Oh, but you'll have to bring Josephine back!" Kate's eyes met his straightforward glance reluctantly, and not without reason; for Ford had dark, greenish purple areas in the region of his eyes, a skinned cheek, and a swollen lip; his chin was scratched and there was a bruise on his forehead where, on the night of his marriage, he had hit the floor violently under the impact of two or three struggling male humans. Although they were five days old—six, some of them—these divers battle-signs were perfectly visible, not to say conspicuous; so that Kate Mason was perhaps justified in her perfectly apparent diffidence in looking at him. So do we turn our eyes self-consciously away from a cripple, lest we give offense by gazing upon his misfortune.
"I can't carry her, and she can't walk—her ankle is sprained dreadfully. So if you'll bring her back to the house, I'll be ever so much—"
"Certainly; I'll bring her back right away." Ford came down the stairs so swiftly that she retreated in haste before him, and once down he did not linger; indeed, he almost ran from the house and from her embarrassed gratitude. On the way to the bunk-house it occurred to him that it might be no easy matter, now, for Mason to conceal Ford's identity and his sins. From the way in which she had stared wincingly at his battered countenance, he realized that she did, indeed, have ideals. Ford grinned to himself, wondering if Ches didn't have to do his smoking altogether in the bunk-house; he judged her to be just the woman to wage a war on tobacco, and swearing, and muddy boots, and drinking out of one's saucer, and all other weaknesses peculiar to the male of our species. He was inclined to pity Ches, in spite of his mental acknowledgment that she was a very nice woman indeed; and he was half inclined to tell Mason when he saw him that he'd have to look further for a foreman.
He found the girl lying upon a bunk just inside the door, still with closed eyes and that corpse-like look in her face. He was guilty of hoping that she would remain in that oblivious state for at least five minutes longer, but the hope was short-lived; for when he lifted her carefully in his arms, her eyes flew open and stared up at him intently.
Ford shut his lips grimly and tried not to mind that unwinking gaze while he carried her out and up the path, across the little bridge and on to the house, and deposited her gently upon her own bed. He had not spoken a word, nor had she. So he left her thankfully to Kate's tearful ministrations and hurried from the room.
"Lordy me!" he sighed, as he closed the door upon them and went back to the bunk-house, which he entered with a sigh of relief. One tribute he paid her, and one only: the tribute of feeling perturbed over her presence, and of going hot all over at the memory of her steady stare into his face. She was a queer girl, he told himself; but then, so far as he had discovered, all women were queer; the only difference being that some women were more so than others.
He sat down on the bunk where she had lain, and speedily forgot the girl and the incident in facing the problem of that foremanship. He could not get away from the conviction that he was not to be trusted. He did not trust himself, and there was no reason why any man who knew him at all should trust him. Ches Mason was a good fellow; he meant well, Ford decided, but he simply did not realize what he was up against. He meant, therefore, to enlighten him further, and go his way. He was almost sorry that he had come.
Mason, when Ford confronted him later at the corral and bluntly stated his view of the matter, heard him through without a word, and did not laugh the issue out of the way, as he had been inclined to do before.
"I'll be all right for a month, maybe," Ford finished, "and that's as long as I can bank on myself. I tell you straight, Ches, it won't work. You may think you're hiring the same fellow that came out of the North with you—but you aren't. Why, damn it, there ain't a man I know that wouldn't give you the laugh if they knew the offer you've made me! They would, that's a fact. They'd laugh at you. You're all right, Ches, but I won't stand for a deal like that. I can't make good."
Mason waited until he was through. Then he came closer and put both hands on Ford's shoulders, so that they stood face to face, and he looked straight into Ford's discolored eyes with his own shining a little behind their encircling wrinkles.
"You can make good!" he said calmly. "I know it. All you need is a chance to pull up. Seeing you won't give yourself one, I'm giving it to you. You'll do for me what you won't do for yourself, Ford—and if there's a yellow streak in you, I never got a glimpse of it; and the yellow will sure come to the surface of a man when he's bucking a proposition like you and me bucked for two months. You didn't lay down on that job, and you were just a kid, you might say. Gosh, Ford, I'd bank on you any old time—put you on your mettle, and I would! You can make good here—and damn it, you will!"
"I wish I was as sure of that as you seem to be," Ford muttered uneasily, and turned away. Mason's easy chuckle followed him, and Ford swung about and faced him again.
"I haven't made any cast-iron promise—"
"Did I ask you to make any?" Mason's voice sharpened.
"But—Lordy me, Ches! How do you know I—"
"I know. That's enough."
"But—maybe I don't want the darned job. I never said—"
Mason was studying him, as a man studies the moods of an untamed horse. "I didn't think you'd dodge," he drawled, and the blood surged answeringly to Ford's cheeks. "You do want it."
"If I should happen to get jagged up in good shape, about the first thing I'd do would be to lick the stuffing out of you for being such a simple-minded cuss," Ford prophesied grimly, as one who knows well whereof he speaks.
"Ye-es—but you won't get jagged."
"Oh, Lord! I wish you'd quit believing in me! You used to have some sense," Ford grumbled. But he reached out and clenched his fingers upon Mason's arm so tight that Mason set his teeth, and he looked at him long, as if there was much that he would like to put into words and could not. "Say! You're white clear down to your toes, Ches," he said finally, and walked away hurriedly with his hat jerked low over his eyes.
Mason looked after him as long as he was in sight, and afterwards took off his hat, and wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. "Gosh!" he whispered fervently. "That was nip and tuck—but I got him, thank the Lord!" Whereupon he blew his nose violently, and went up to his supper with his hands in his pockets and his humorous lips pursed into a whistle.
Before long he was back, chuckling to himself as he bore down upon Ford in the corral, where he was industriously rubbing Rambler's sprained shoulder with liniment.
"The wife says you've got to come up to the house," he announced gleefully. "You've gone and done the heroic again, and she wants to do something to show her gratitude."
"You go back and tell your wife that I'm a bold, bad man and I won't come." Ford, to prove his sincerity, sat down upon the stout manger there, and crossed his legs with an air of finality.
"I did tell her," Mason confessed sheepishly. "She wanted to know who you was, and I told her before I thought. And she wanted to know what was the matter with your face, 'poor fellow,' and I told her that, too—as near as I knew it. I told her," he stated sweepingly, "that you'd been on a big jamboree and had licked fourteen men hand-running. There ain't," he confided with a twinkle, "any use at all in trying to keep a secret from your wife; not," he qualified, "from a wife like Kate! So she knows the whole darned thing, and she's sore as the deuce because I didn't bring you up to the house right away when you came. She thinks you're sufferin' from them wounds and she's going to doctor 'em. That's the way with a woman—you never can tell what angle she's going to look at a thing from. You're the man that packed me down out of the Wrangel mountains on your back, and that's enough for her—dang it, Kate thinks a lot of me! Besides, you done the heroic this afternoon. You've got to come."
"There ain't anything heroic in sloshing a few buckets of water on a barrel of burning rags," Ford belittled, seeking in his pockets for his cigarette papers.
"How about rescuing a lady?" Mason twitted. "You come along. I want you up there myself. Gosh! I want somebody I can talk to about something besides dresses and the proper way to cure sprained ankles, and whether the grocer sent out the right brand of canned peaches. Women are all right—but a man wants some one around to talk to. You ain't married!"
"Oh. Ain't I?" Ford snorted. "And what if I ain't?"
"Say, there's a mighty nice girl staying with us; the one you rescued. She's laid up now—got bucked off, or fell off, or something yesterday, and hurt her foot—but she's a peach, all right. You'll—"
"I know the lady," Ford cut in dryly. "I met her yesterday, and we commenced hating each other as soon as we got in talking distance. She sent me to catch her horse, and then she pulled out before I got back. She's a peach, all right!"
"Oh. You're the fellow!" Mason regarded him attentively. "Now, I don't believe she said a word to Kate about that, and she must have known who it was packed her out of the house. I wonder why she didn't say anything about it to Kate! But she wasn't to blame for leaving you out there, honest she wasn't. I went out to hunt her up—Kate got kinda worried about her—and she told me about you, and we did wait a little while. But it was getting cold, and she was hurt pretty bad and getting kinda wobbly, so I put her on my horse and brought her home. But she left a note for you, and I sent a man back after you with a horse. He come back and said he couldn't locate you. So we thought you'd gone to some other ranch." He stopped and looked quizzically at Ford. "So you're the man! And you're both here for the winter—at least, Kate says she's going to keep her all winter. Gosh! This is getting romantic!"
"Don't you believe it!" Ford urged emphatically. "I don't want to bump into her again; a little of her company will last me a long while!"
"Oh, you won't meet Jo to-night; Josephine, her name is. She's in bed, and will be for a week or so, most likely. You've just got to come, Ford. Kate'll be down here after you herself, if I go back without you—and she'll give me the dickens into the bargain. I want you to get acquainted with my kid—Buddy. He's down in the river field with the boys, but he'll be back directly. Greatest kid you ever saw, Ford! Only seven, and he can ride like a son-of-a-gun, and wears chaps and spurs, and can sling a loop pretty good, for a little kid! Come on!"
"Wel-ll, all right—but Lordy me! I do hate to, Ches, and that's a fact. Women I'm plumb scared of. I never met one in my life that didn't hand me a package of trouble so big I couldn't see around it. Why—" He shut his teeth upon the impulse to confide to Mason his matrimonial mischance.
"These two won't. My wife's the real goods, once you get to know her; a little fussy, maybe, over some things—most all women are. But she's all right, you bet. And Josephine's the proper stuff too. A little abrupt, maybe—"
"Abrupt!" Ford echoed, and laughed over the word. "Yes, she is what you might call a little—abrupt!"
Josephine waited languidly while Kate chose a second-best cushion from the couch and, lifting the bandaged foot as gently as might be, placed it, with many little pats and pulls, under the afflicted member. Josephine screwed her lips into a soundless expression of pain, smiled afterwards when Kate glanced at her commiseratingly, and pulled a long, dark-brown braid forward over her chest.
"Do you want tea, Phenie?—or would you rather have chocolate to-day? I can make chocolate just as easy as not; I think I shall, anyway. Buddy is so fond of it and—"
"Is that man here yet?" Josephine's tone carried the full weight of her dislike of him.
"I don't know why you call him 'that man,' the way you do," Kate complained, turning her mind from the momentous decision between tea and chocolate. "Ford's simply fine! Chester thinks there's no one like him; and Buddy just tags him around everywhere. You can always," asserted Kate, with the positiveness of the person who accepts unquestioningly the beliefs of others, living by faith rather than reason, "depend upon the likes and dislikes of children and dogs, you know."
"Has the swelling gone out of his eyes?" Josephine inquired pointedly, with the irrelevance which seemed habitual to her and Kate when they conversed.
"Phenie, I don't think it's kind of you to harp on that. Yes, it has, if you want to know. He's positively handsome—or will be when the—when his nose heals perfectly. And I don't think that's anything one should hold against Ford; it seems narrow, dear."
"The skinned place?" Josephine's tone was perfectly innocent, and her fingers were busy with the wide, black bow which becomingly tied the end of the braid.
"Phenie! If you hadn't a sprained ankle, and weren't such a dear in every other respect, I'd shake you! It isn't fair. Because Ford was pounced upon by a lot of men—sixteen, Chester told me—"
"I suppose he counted the dead after the battle, and told Ches truthfully—"
"Phenie, that sounds catty! When you get down on a man, you're perfectly unmerciful, and Ford doesn't deserve it. You shouldn't judge men by the narrow, Eastern standards. I know it's awful for a man to drink and fight. But Ford wasn't altogether to blame. They got him to drinking and," she went on with her voice lowered to the pitch at which women are wont to relate horrid, immoral things, "—I wouldn't be surprised if they put something in it! Such things are done; I've heard of men being drugged and robbed and all sorts of things. And I'm just as much of an advocate for temperance as you are, Phenie—and I think Ford was just right to fight those men. There are," she declared wisely, "circumstances where it's perfectly just and right for a man to fight. I can imagine circumstances under which Chester would be justified in fighting—"
"In case sixteen men should hold his nose and pour drugged whisky down his throat?" Phenie inquired mildly, curling the end of her braid over a slim forefinger.
Mrs. Kate made an inarticulate sound which might almost be termed a snort, and walked from the room with her head well up and a manner which silently made plain to the onlooker that she might say many things which would effectually crush her opponent, but was magnanimously refraining from doing so.
Josephine did not even pay her the tribute of looking at her; she had at that moment heard a step upon the porch, and she was leaning to one side so that she might see who was coming into the dining-room. As it happened, it was Mason himself. Miss Josephine immediately lost interest in the arrival and took to tracing with her finger the outline of a Japanese lady with a startling coiffure and an immense bow upon her spine, who was simpering at a lotus bed on Josephine's kimono. She did not look up until some one stepped upon the porch again.
This time it was Ford, and he stopped and painstakingly removed the last bit of soil from his boot-soles upon the iron scraper which was attached to one end of the top step; when that duty had been performed, he paid further tribute to the immaculate house he was about to enter, by wiping his feet upon a mat placed with mathematical precision upon the porch, at the head of the steps. Josephine watched the ceremonial, and studied Ford's profile, and did not lay her head back upon the cushion behind her until he disappeared into the dining-room. Then she stared at a colored-crayon portrait of Buddy which hung on the wall opposite, and her eyes were the eyes of one who sees into the past.
Buddy, when he opened the door and projected himself into the room, startled her into a little exclamation.
"Dad says he'll carry you out to the table and you can have a whole side to yourself," he announced without preface. "They'll just pick up your chair, and pack chair and all in, and set you down as ee-asy—do you want to eat out there with us?"
Josephine hesitated for two seconds. "All right," she consented then, in a supremely indifferent tone which was of course quite wasted on Buddy, who immediately disappeared with a whoop.
"Come on, dad—she says yes, all right, she'll come," he announced gleefully. Buddy was Josephine's devoted admirer, at this point in their rather brief acquaintance; which, according to his mother's well-known theory, was convincing proof of her intrinsic worth—Mrs. Kate having frequently strengthened her championship of Ford to his detractor, Miss Josephine, by pointing out that Buddy was fond of him.
Josephine spent the brief interval in tucking back locks of hair and in rearranging the folds of her long, Japanese kimono, and managed to fall into a languidly indifferent attitude by the time Chester opened the door. Behind him came Ford; Miss Josephine moved her lips and tilted her head in a perfunctory greeting, and afterward gave him no more attention than if he had been a Pullman porter assisting with her suitcases. For the matter of that, she gave quite as much attention as she received from him—and Mason's lips twitched betrayingly at the spectacle.
Through dinner they seemed mutually agreed upon ignoring each other as much as was politely possible, which caused Mason to watch them with amusement, and afterwards relieve his feelings by talking about them to Kate in the kitchen.
"Gosh! Jo and Ford are sure putting up a good bluff," he chuckled, while he selected the freshest dish towel from the rack behind the pantry door. "They'd be sticking out their tongues at each other if they was twenty years younger; pity they ain't, too; it would be a relief to 'em both!"
"Phenie provokes me almost past endurance!" Mrs. Kate complained, burying two plump forearms in a dishpan of sudsy hot water, and bringing up a handful of silver. "It's because Ford had been fighting when he came here, and she knows he has been slightly addicted to liquor. She looks down on him, and I don't think it's fair. If a man wants to reform, I believe in helping him instead of pushing him father down." (Mrs. Kate had certain little peculiarities of speech; one was an italicized delivery, and another was the omission of an r now and then. She always said "father" when she really meant "farther.") "There's a lot that one can do to help. I believe in showing trust and confidence in a man, when he's trying to live down past mistakes. I think it was just fine of you to make him foreman here! If Phenie would only be nice to him, instead of turning up her nose the way she does! You see yourself how she treats Ford, and I just think it's a shame! I think he's just splendid!"
"She don't treat him any worse than he does her," observed Mason, just to the core. "Seems to me, if I was single, and a girl as pretty as Jo—"
"Well, I'm glad Ford has got spunk enough not to care," Mrs. Kate interposed hastily. "Phenie's pretty, of course—but it takes more than that to attract a man like Ford. You can't expect him to like her when she won't look at him, hardly; it makes me feel terribly, because he's sure to think it's because he—I've tried to make her see that it isn't right to condemn a man because he has made one mistake. He ought to be encouraged, instead of being made to feel that he is a—an outcast, practically. And—"
"Jo don't like Ford, because she's stuck on Dick," stated a shrill, positive young voice behind them, and Mrs. Kate turned sharply upon her offspring. "They was waving hands to each other just now, through the window. I seen 'em," Buddy finished complacently. "Dick was down fixing the bridge, and—"
"Buddy, you run right out and play! You must not listen to older people and try to talk about some-thing you don't understand."
"Aw, I understand them two being stuck on each other," Buddy maintained loftily. "And I seen Dick—"
"Chase yourself outdoors, like your mother said; and don't butt in on—"
"Chester!" reproved Mrs. Kate, waving Buddy out of the kitchen. "How can you expect the child to learn good English, when you talk to him like that? Run along, Buddy, and play like a good boy." She gave him a little cake to accelerate his departure and to turn his mind from further argument, and after he was gone she swung the discussion to Buddy and his growing tendency toward grappling with problems beyond his seven years. Also, she pointed out the necessity for choosing one's language carefully in his presence.
Mason, therefore, finished wiping the dishes almost in silence, and left the house as soon as he was through, with the feeling that women were not by nature intended to be really companionable. He had, for instance, been struck with the humorous side of Ford and Josephine's perfectly ridiculous antipathy, and had lingered in the kitchen because of a half-conscious impulse to enjoy the joke with some one. And Mrs. Kate had not taken the view-point which appealed to him, but had been self-consciously virtuous in her determination to lend Ford a helping hand, and resentful because Josephine failed to feel also the urge of uplifting mankind.
Mason, poor man, was vaguely nettled; he did not see that Ford needed any settlement-worker encouragement. If he was let alone, and his moral regeneration forgotten, and he himself treated just like any other man, Mason felt that Ford would thereby have all the encouragement he needed. Ford was once more plainly content with life, and was taking it in twenty-four-hour doses again; healthful doses, these, and different in every respect from those days spent in the sordid round of ill-living in town; nor did he flay his soul with doubts lest he should disappoint this man who trusted him so rashly and so implicitly. Ford was busy at work which appealed to the best of him. He was thrown into companionship with men who perforce lived cleanly and naturally, and with Ches Mason, who was his friend. At meals he sometimes gave thought to Mrs. Kate, and frequently to Josephine. The first he admired impersonally for her housewifely skill, and smiled at secretly for her purely feminine outlook upon life and her positive views upon subjects of which she knew not half the alphabet. He had discovered that Mason did indeed refrain from smoking in the house because she discountenanced tobacco; and since she had a talent for making a man uncomfortably aware of her disapproval by certain wordless manifestations of scorn for his weaknesses, Ford also took to throwing away his cigarette before he crossed the bridge on his way to her domain. He did not, however, go so far as Ches, who kept his tobacco, pipe, and cigarette papers in the stable, and was always borrowing "the makings" from his men.
Ford also followed Mason's example in sterilizing his vocabulary whenever he crossed that boundary between the masculine and feminine element on the ranch, the bridge. Mrs. Kate did not approve of slang. Ford found himself carefully eliminating from his speech certain grammatical inaccuracies in her presence, and would not so much as split an infinitive if he remembered in time. It was trying, to be sure. Ford thanked God that he still retained a smattering of the rules he had reluctantly memorized in school, and that he was not married (at least, not uncomfortably so), and that he was not compelled to do more than eat his meals in the house. Mrs. Kate was a nice woman; Ford would tell any man so in perfect sincerity. He even considered her nice looking, with her smooth, brown hair which was never disordered, her fine, clear skin, her white teeth, her clear blue eyes, and her immaculate shirt-waists. But she was not a comfortable woman to be with; an ordinary human wearied of adjusting his speech, his manners, and his morals to her standard of propriety. Ford, quietly studying matrimony from the well-ordered example before him, began to congratulate himself upon not being able to locate his own wife—since accident had afflicted him with one. When he stopped, during these first busy days at the Double Cross, to think deeply or seriously upon the mysterious entanglement he had fallen into, he was inclined to the opinion that he had had a narrow escape. The woman might have remained in Sunset—and Ford flinched at the thought.
As to Josephine, Ford's thoughts dwelt with her oftener than they did with Mrs. Kate. The thought of her roused a certain resentment which bordered closely upon dislike. Still, she piqued his interest; for a week she was invisible to him, yet her presence in the house created a tangible atmosphere which he felt but could not explain. His first sight of her—beyond a fleeting glimpse once or twice through the window—had been that day when he had helped Mason carry her and her big chair into the dining-room. The brief contact had left with him a vision of the delicate parting in her soft, brown hair, and of long, thick lashes which curled daintily up from the shadow they made on her cheeks. He did not remember ever having seen a woman with such eyelashes. They impelled him to glance at her oftener than he would otherwise have done, and to wonder, now and then, if they did not make her eyes seem darker than they really were. He thought it strange that he had not noticed her lashes that day when he carried her from the house and back again—until he remembered that at first his haste had been extreme, and that when he took her from the bunk-house she had stared at him so that he would not look at her.
He did not know that Ches Mason was observant of his rather frequent glances at her during the meal, and he would have resented Mason's diagnosis of that particular symptom of interest. Ford would, if put to the question, have maintained quite sincerely that he was perfectly indifferent to Josephine, but that she did have remarkable eyelashes, and a man couldn't help looking at them.
After all, Ford's interest was centered chiefly upon his work. They were going to start the wagons out again to gather the calves for weaning, and he was absorbed in the endless details which fall upon the shoulders of the foreman. Even the fascination of a woman's beauty did not follow him much beyond the bridge.
Mason, hurrying from the feminine atmosphere at the house, found him seriously discussing with Buddy the diet and general care of Rambler, who had been moved into a roomy box stall for shelter. Buddy was to have the privilege of filling the manger with hay every morning after breakfast, and every evening just before supper. Upon Buddy also devolved the duty of keeping his drinking tub filled with clean water; and Buddy was making himself as tall as possible during the conference, and was crossing his heart solemnly while he promised, wide-eyed, to keep away from Rambler's heels.
"I never knew him to kick, or offer to; but you stay out of the stall, anyway. You can fill his tub through that hole in the wall. And you let Walt rub him down good every day—you see that he does it, Bud! And when he gets well, I'll let you ride him, maybe. Anyway, I leave him in your care, old-timer. And it's a privilege I wouldn't give every man. I think a heap of this horse." He turned at the sound of footsteps, and lowered an eyelid slowly for Mason's benefit. "Bud's going to have charge of Rambler while we're gone," he explained seriously. "I want to be sure he's in good hands."
The two men watched Buddy's departure for the house, and grinned over the manifest struggle between his haste to tell his mother and Jo, and his sense of importance over the trust.
"A kid of your own makes up for a whole lot," Mason observed abstractedly, reaching up to the narrow shelf where he kept his tobacco. "I wish I had two or three more; they give a man something to work for, and look ahead and plan for."
Ford, studying his face with narrowed eyelids, was more than ever thankful that he was not hampered by matrimony.
In Which the Demon Opens an Eye and Yawns
A storm held the Double Cross wagons in a sheltered place in the hills, ten miles from the little town where Ford had spent a night on his way to the ranch a month before. Mason, taking the inaction as an excuse, rode home to his family and left Ford to his own devices with no compunctions whatever. He should, perhaps, have known better; but he was acting upon his belief that nothing so braces a man as the absolute confidence of his friends, and to have stayed in camp on Ford's account would, according to Mason's code, have been an affront to Ford's manifest determination to "make good."
It is true that neither had mentioned the matter since the day of Ford's arrival at the ranch; men do not, as a rule, harp upon the deeper issues within their lives. For that month, it had been as though the subject of intemperance concerned them as little as the political unrest of a hot-tempered people beyond the equator. They had argued the matter to a more or less satisfactory conclusion, and had let it rest there.
Ford had ridden with him a part of the way, and when they came to a certain fork in the trail, he had sent a whimsically solemn message to Buddy, had pulled the collar of his coat closer together under his chin, and had faced the wind with a clean conscience, and with bowed head and hat pulled low over his brows. There were at least three perfectly valid reasons why Ford should ride into town that day. He wanted heavier socks and a new pair of gloves; he was almost out of tobacco, and wanted to see if he could "pick up" another man so that the hours of night-guarding might not fall so heavily upon the crew. Ford had been standing the last guard himself, for the last week, to relieve the burden a little, and Mason had been urgent on the subject of another man—or two, he suggested, would be better. Ford did his simple shopping, therefore, and then rode up to the first saloon on the one little street, and dismounted with a mind at ease. If idle men were to be found in that town, he would have to look for them in a saloon; a fact which every one took for granted, like the shortening of the days as winter approached.
Perhaps he over-estimated his powers of endurance, or under-estimated the strength of his enemy. Certain it is that he had no intention of drinking whisky when he closed the door upon the chill wind; and yet, he involuntarily walked straight up to the bar. There he stuck. The bartender waited expectantly. When Ford, with a sudden lift of his head, turned away to the stove, the man looked after him curiously.
At the stove Ford debated with himself while he drew off his gloves and held his fingers to the welcome heat which emanated from a red glow where the fire burned hottest within. He had not made any promise to himself or any one else, he remembered. He had simply resolved that he would make good, if it were humanly possible to do so. That, he told himself, did not necessarily mean that he should turn a teetotaler out and out. Taking a drink, when a man was cold and felt the need of it, was not—
At that point in the argument two of his own men entered, stamping noisily upon the threshold. They were laughing, from pure animal satisfaction over the comforts within, rather than at any tangible cause for mirth, and they called to Ford with easy comradeship. Dick Thomas—the Dick whom Buddy had mentioned in connection with Josephine—waved his hand hospitably toward the bar.
"Come on, Campbell," he invited. He may have seen the hesitancy in Ford's face, for he laughed. "I believe in starting on the inside and driving the frost out," he said.
The two poured generously from the bottle which the bartender pushed within easy reach, and Ford watched them. There was a peculiar lift to Dick's upper lip—the lift which comes when scorn is the lever. Ford's eyes hardened a little; he walked over and stood beside Dick, and he took a drink as unemotionally as if it had been water. He ordered another round, threw a coin upon the bar, and walked out. He had rather liked Dick, in an impersonal sort of way, but that half-sneer clung disagreeably to his memory. A man likes to be held the master—be the slave circumstance, danger, an opposing human, or his own appetite; and although Ford was not the type of man who troubles himself much about the opinions of his fellows, it irked him much that Dick or any other man should sneer at him for a weakling.
He went to another saloon, found and hired a cow-puncher strayed up from Valley County, and when Dick came in, a half-hour later, Ford went to the bar and deliberately "called up the house." He had been minded to choose a mineral water then, but he caught Dick's mocking eye upon him, and instead took whisky straight, and stared challengingly at the other over the glass tilted against his lips.
After that, the liquor itself waged relentless war against his good resolutions, so that it did not need the urge of Dick's fancied derision to send him down the trail which the past had made familiar. He sat in to a poker game that was creating a small zone of subdued excitement at the far end of the room, and while he was arranging his stacks of red, white, and blue chips neatly before him, he was unpleasantly conscious of Dick's supercilious smile. Never mind—he was not the first foreman who ever played poker; they all did, when the mood seized them. Ford straightened his shoulders instinctively, in defiance of certain inner misgivings, and pushed forward his ante of two white chips.
Jim Felton came up and stood at his shoulder, watching the game in silence; and although he did not once open his lips except to let an occasional thin ribbon of cigarette smoke drift out and away to mingle with the blue cloud which hung under the ceiling, Ford sensed a certain good-will in his nearness, just as intangibly and yet as surely as he sensed Dick's sardonic amusement at his apparent lapse.
With every bet he made and won he felt that silent approbation behind him; insensibly it steadied Ford and sharpened his instinct for reading the faces of the other players, so that the miniature towers of red chips and blue grew higher until they threatened to topple—whereupon other little towers began to grow up around them. And the men in the saloon began to feel the fascination of his success, so that they grouped themselves about his chair and peered down over his shoulder at the game.
Ford gave them no thought, except a vague satisfaction, now and then, that Jim Felton stuck to his post. Later, when he caught the dealer, a slit-eyed, sallow-skinned fellow with fingers all too nimble, slipping a card from the bottom of the deck, and gave him a resounding slap which sent him and his cards sprawling all over that locality, he should have been more than ever glad that Jim was present.
Jim kept back the gambler's partner and the crowd and gave Ford elbow-room and some moral support, which did its part, in that it prevented any interference with the chastisement Ford was administering.
It was not a fight, properly speaking. The gambler, once Ford had finished cuffing him and stating his opinion of cheating the while, backed away and muttered vague threats and maledictions. Ford gathered together what chips he felt certain were his, and cashed them in with a certain grim insistence of manner which brooked no argument. After that he left the saloon, with Jim close behind him.
"If you're going back to camp now, I reckon I'll ride along," said Jim, at his elbow. "There's just nice time to get there for supper—and I sure don't want to miss flopping my lip over Mose's beefsteak; that yearling we beefed this morning is going to make some fine eating, if you ask me." His tone was absolutely devoid of anything approaching persuasion; it simply took a certain improbable thing as a commonplace fact, and it tilted the balance of Ford's intentions.
He did not go on to the next saloon, as he had started to do, but instead he followed Jim to the livery stable and got his horse, without realizing that Jim had anything to do with the change of impulse. So Ford went to camp, instead of spending the night riotously in town as he would otherwise have done, and contented himself with cursing the game, the gambler who would have given a "crooked deal," the town, and all it contained. A mile out, he would have returned for a bottle of whisky; but Jim said he had enough for two, and put his horse into a lope. Ford, swayed by a blind instinct to stay with the man who seemed friendly, followed the pace he set and so was unconsciously led out of the way of further temptation. And so artfully was he led, that he never once suspected that he did not go of his own accord.
Neither did he suspect that Jim's stumbling and immediate spasm of regretful profanity at the bed-wagon where they unsaddled, was the result of two miles of deep cogitation, and calculated to account plausibly for not being able to produce a full flask upon demand. Jim swore volubly and said he had "busted the bottle" by falling against the wagon wheel; and Ford, for a wonder, believed and did not ask for proof. He muddled around camp for a few indecisive minutes, then rolled himself up like a giant cocoon in his blankets, and slept heavily through the night.
He awoke at daylight, found himself fully clothed and with a craving for whisky which he knew of old, and tried to remember just what had occurred the night before; when he could not recall anything very distinctly, he felt the first twinge of fear that he had known for years.
"Lordy me! I wonder what kinda fool I made of myself, anyway!" he thought distressfully. Later, when he discovered more money in his pockets than his salary would account for, and remembered playing poker, and having an argument of some sort with some one, his distress grew upon him. In reality he had not done anything disgraceful, according to the easy judgment of his fellows; but Ford did not know that, and he flayed himself unmercifully for a spineless, drunken idiot whom no man could respect or trust. It seemed to him that the men eyed him askance; though they were merely envious over his winnings and inclined to admire the manner in which he had shown his disapproval of the dealer's attempt at cheating.
He dreaded Mason's return, and yet he was anxious to see him and tell him, once for all, that he was not to be trusted. He held aloof from Jim and he was scantily civil to Dick Thomas, whose friendship rang false. He pushed the work ahead while the air was still alive with swirls of mote-like snowflakes, and himself bore the brunt of it just to dull that gnawing self-disgust which made his waking hours a mental torment.
Before, when disgust had seized upon him in Sunset, it had been an abstract rebellion against the futility of life as he was living it. This was different: This was a definite, concrete sense of failure to keep faith with himself and with Mason; the sickening consciousness of a swinish return to the wallow; a distrust of himself that was beyond any emotion he had ever felt in his life.
So, for a week of hard work and harder thinking. Mason sent word by a migratory cowboy, who had stopped all night at the ranch and whom he had hired and sent on to camp, that he would not return to the round-up, and that Ford was to go ahead as they had planned. That balked Ford's determination to turn the work over to Mason and leave the country, and, after the first day of inner rebellion, he settled down insensibly to the task before him and let his own peculiar moral problem wait upon his leisure. He did not dream that the cowboy had witnessed his chastisement of the gambler and had gleefully, and in perfect innocence, recounted the incident at the Double Cross ranch, and that Mason had deliberately thrown Ford upon his own resources in obedience to his theory that nothing so braces a man as responsibility.
Ford went about his business with grim industry and a sureness of judgment born of his thorough knowledge of range work. There was the winnowing process which left the bigger, stronger calves in charge of two men, at a line camp known locally as Ten Mile, and took the younger ones on to the home ranch, where hay and shelter were more plentiful and the loss would be correspondingly less.
Not until the last cow of the herd was safe inside the big corral beyond the stables, did Ford relax his vigilance and ride over to where Ches Mason and Buddy were standing in the shelter of the stable, waiting to greet him.
"Good boy!" cried Mason, when Ford dismounted and flung the stirrup up over the saddle, that he might loosen the latigo and free his steaming horse of its burden. "I didn't look for you before to-morrow night, at the earliest. But I'm mighty glad you're here, let me tell you. That leaves me free to hit the trail to-morrow. I've got to make a trip home; the old man's down with inflammatory rheumatism, and they want me to go—haven't been home for six years, so I guess they've got a license to put in a bid for a month or two of my time, huh? I didn't want to pull out, though, till you showed up. I'm kinda leery about leaving the women alone, with just a couple of sow-egians on the ranch. Bud, you go get a pan of oats for old Schley. Supper's about ready, Ford. Have the boys shovel some hay into the corral, and we'll leave the bunch there till morning. Say, the wagons didn't beat you much; they never pulled in till after three. Mose says the going's bad, on them dobe patches."
Not much of an opening, that, for saying what Ford felt he was in duty bound to say. He was constrained to wait until a better opportunity presented itself—and, as is the way with opportunity, it did not seem as if it would ever come of its own accord. There was Buddy, full of exciting anecdotes about Rambler, and how he had rubbed the liniment on, all alone, and Rambler never kicked or did a thing; and how he and Josephine rode clear over to Jenson's and got caught in the storm and almost got lost—only Buddy's horse knew the way home. And, later, there was Mrs. Kate's excellent supper and gracious welcome, and an evening devoted to four-handed cribbage—with Josephine and Mason as implacable adversaries—and a steady undercurrent of latent hostility between him and the girl, which prevented his thinking much about himself and his duty to Mason. There was everything, in fact, to thwart a man's resolution to discharge honorably a disagreeable duty, and to distract his attention.
Ford went to bed with the baffled sense of being placed in a false position against his will; and, man-like, he speedily gave over thinking of that, and permitted his thoughts to dwell upon a certain face which owned a perfectly amazing pair of lashes, and upon a manner tantalizingly aloof, with glimpses now and then of fascinating possibilities in the way of comradeship, when the girl inadvertently lowered her guard in the excitement of close playing.
"It's Going to Be an Uphill Climb!"
Ford was no moral weakling except, perhaps, when whisky and he came to hand-grips. He had made up his mind that Mason must be told of his backsliding, and protected from the risk of leaving a drunkard in charge of his ranch. And when he saw that the opportunity for opening the subject easily did not show any sign of presenting itself, he grimly interrupted Mason in the middle of a funny story about Josephine and Buddy and Kate, involving themselves in a three-cornered argument to the complete discomfiture of the women.
"I tell you, Ford, that kid's a corker! Kate's got all kinds of book theories about raising children, but they don't none of 'em work, with Bud. He gets the best of her right along when she starts to reason with him. Gosh! You can't reason with a kid like Bud; you've got to take him on an equal footing, and when he goes too far, just set down on him and no argument about it. Kate's going to have her hands full while I'm gone, if—"
"She sure will, Ches, unless you get somebody here you can depend on," was the way in which Ford made his opportunity. "You've got the idea, somehow, that cutting out whisky is like getting rid of a mean horse. It's something you don't—"
"Oh, don't go worrying over that, no more," Mason expostulated hastily. "Forget it. That's the quickest cure; try Christian Science dope on it. The more you worry about it, the more—"
"But wait till I tell you! That day I went to town, and you came on home, I got drunk as a fool, Ches. I don't know what all I did, but I know—"
"Well, I know—more about it than you do, I reckon," Mason cut in dryly. "I was told five different times, by one stranger and four of these here trouble-peddlin' friends that clutter the country. That's all right, Ford. A little slip like that—" He held out his hand for Ford's sack of tobacco.
"I ain't the least bit uneasy over that, old man. I'm just as sure as I stand here that you're going to pull up, all right."
"I know you are, Ches." Ford's voice was humble. "That's the hell of it. You're more sure than sensible—but—But look at it like I was a stranger, Ches. Just forget you ever knew me when I was kinda half-way decent. You ain't a fool, even if you do act like one. You know what I'm up against. I'm going to put up the damnedest fight I've got in me, but I don't want you to take any gamble on it. Maybe I'll win, and then again maybe I won't. Maybe I'll go down and out. I don't know—I don't feel half as sure of myself as I did before I made that bobble in town. Before that, I did kinda have an idea that all there was to it was to quit. I thought, once I made up my mind, that would settle it. But that's just the commencement; you've got to fight something inside of you that's as husky a fighter as you are. You've got to—"
"There!" Mason reached out and tapped him impressively on the arm with a match he was about to light. "Now you've got the bull right by the horns! You ain't so darned sure of yourself now—and so I'm dead willing to gamble on you. I ain't a bit afraid to go off and let you have full swing."
"Well, I hope you won't feel like kicking me all over the ranch when you get back," Ford said, after a long pause, during which Mason's whole attention seemed centered upon his cigarette. "It's going to be an uphill climb, old-timer—and a blamed long hill at that. And it's going to be pretty darned slippery, in places."
"I sabe that, all right," grinned Mason. "But I sabe you pretty well, too. You'll dig in your toes and hang on by your eye-winkers if you have to. But you'll get up, all right; I'll bank on that.
"Speaking of booze-fighters," he went on, without giving Ford a chance to contradict him, "I wish you'd keep an eye on old Mose. Now, there's a man that'll drink whisky as long as it's made, if he can get it. I wouldn't trust that old devil as far as I can throw him, and that's a fact. I have to watch pretty close, to keep it off the ranch, and him on. It's the only way to get along with him—he's apt to run amuck, if he gets full enough; and good cooks are as scarce as good foremen." A heartening smile went with the last sentence.
"If he does make connections with the booze, don't can him, Ford, if you can help it. Just shut him up somewhere till he gets over it. There's nothing holds good men with an outfit like the right kind of grub—and Mose sure can cook. The rest of the men you can handle to suit yourself. Slim and Johnnie are all right over at Ten Mile—you made a good stab when you picked them two out—and you will want a couple of fellows here besides Walt, to feed them calves. When the cows are throwed back on the range and the fences gone over careful—I ought to have tended to that before, but I got to putting it off—you can pay off what men you don't need or want."
There was no combating the friendship of a man like that. Ford mentally squared his shoulders and set his feet upon the uphill trail.
He realized to the full the tribute Mason paid to his innate trustworthiness by leaving him there, master of the ranch and guardian of his household god—and goddess, to say nothing of Josephine, whom Mason openly admired and looked upon as one of the family.
Of a truth, it would seem that she had really become so. Ford had gathered, bit by bit, the information that she was quite alone in the world, so far as immediate relatives were concerned, and that she was Kate's cousin, and that Kate insisted that this was to be her home, from now on. Josephine's ankle was well enough now so that she was often to be met in unexpected places about the ranch, he discovered. And though she was not friendly, she was less openly antagonistic than she had been—and when all was said and done, eminently able to take care of herself.
So also was Kate, for that matter. No sooner was her beloved Chester out of sight over the hill a mile away, than Mrs. Kate dried her wifely tears and laid hold of her scepter with a firmness that amused Ford exceedingly. She ordered Dick up to work in the depressed-looking area before the house, which she called her flower garden, a task which Dick seemed perfectly willing to perform, by the way—although his assistance would have been more than welcome at other work than tying scraggly rose bushes and protecting them from the winter already at hand.
As to Buddy, he surely would have resented, more keenly than the women, the implication that he needed any one to take care of him. Buddy's allegiance to Ford was wavering, at that time. Dick had gone to some trouble to alter an old pair of chaps so that Buddy could wear them, and his star was in the ascendant; a pair of chaps with fringes were, in Buddy's estimation, a surer pledge of friendship and favor than the privilege of feeding a lame horse.
Buddy was rather terrible, sometimes. He had a way of standing back unnoticed, and of listening when he was believed to be engrossed in his play. Afterward he was apt to say the things which should not be said; in other words, he was the average child of seven, living without playmates, and so forced by his environment to interest himself in the endless drama played by the grown-ups around him. Buddy, therefore, was not unusually startling, one day at dinner, when he looked up from spatting his potato into a flat cake on his plate.
"What hill you going to climb, Ford?" was his manner of exploding his bomb. "Bald pinnacle? I can climb that hill myself."
"I don't know as I'm going to climb any hills at all," Ford said indulgently, accepting another helping of potato salad from Mrs. Kate.
"You told dad before he went to gran'ma's house you was going to climb a big, long hill, and he was more sure than sensible." He giggled and showed where two front teeth were missing from among their fellows. "Dad told him he'd make it, but he'd have to dig in his toes and hang on by his eye-winkers," he added to the two women. "Gee! I'd like to see Ford hang onto a hill by his eye-winkers. Jo could do it—she's got winkers six feet long."
Miss Josephine had been looking at Ford's face going red, as enlightenment came to him, but when she caught a quick glance leveled at her lashes, she drooped them immediately so that they almost touched her cheeks. Bud gave a squeal and pointed to her with his fork.
"Jo's blushing! I guess she's ashamed because she's got such long winkers, and Ford keeps looking at 'em all the time. Why don't you shave 'em off with dad's razor? Then Ford would like you, maybe. He don't now. He told dad—"
"Robert Chester Mason, do you want me to get the hairbrush?" This, it need not be explained, from Mrs. Kate, in a voice that portended grave disaster.
"I guess we can get along without it, mamma," Buddy answered her, with an ingratiating smile. Even in the first seven years of one's life, one learns the elementary principles of diplomacy. He did not retire from the conversation, but he prudently changed the subject to what he considered a more pleasant channel.
"Dick likes you anyway, Jo," he informed her soothingly. "He likes you, winkers and all. I can tell, all right. When you go out for a ride he gives me nickels if I tell him where—"
"Oh, all right." Buddy's tone was wearily tolerant. "A man never knows what to talk about to women, anyway. I'd hate to be married to 'em—wouldn't you, Ford?"
"A little boy like you—" began his mother, somewhat pinker of cheeks than usual.
"I guess I'm pretty near a man, now." He turned his eyes to Ford, consciously ignoring the feminine members of his family. "If I had a wife," he stated calmly, "I'd snub her up to a post and then I'd talk to her about anything I damn pleased!"
Mrs. Kate rose up then in all the terrifying dignity of outraged motherhood, grasped Buddy by the wrist, and led him away, in the direction of the hairbrush, if one would judge by Buddy's reluctance to go.
"So you are going to climb the—Big Hill, are you?" Miss Josephine observed, when the two were quite alone. "It is to be hoped, Mr. Campbell, that you won't find it as steep as it looks—from the bottom."
Ford was not an adept at reading what lies underneath the speech of a woman. To himself he accented the last three words, so that they overshadowed all the rest and made her appear to remind him where he stood—at the bottom.
"I suppose a hollow does look pretty high, to a man down a well," he retorted, glancing into his teacup because he felt and was resisting an impulse to look at her.
"One can always keep climbing," she murmured, "and never give up—" Miss Josephine, also, was tilting her teacup and looking studiously into it as if she would read her fortune in the specks of tea leaves there.
"Like the frog in the well—that climbed one jump and fell back two!" he interrupted, but she paid no attention, and went on.
"And the reward for reaching the top—"
"Is there supposed to be a reward?" Ford could not tell why he asked her that, nor why he glanced stealthily at her from under his eyebrows as he awaited her reply.
"There—might—there usually is a reward for any great achievement—and—" Miss Josephine was plainly floundering where she had hoped to float airily upon the surface.
"What's the reward for—climbing hills, for instance?" He looked at her full, now, and his lips were ready to smile.
Miss Josephine looked uneasily at the door. "I—really, I never—investigated the matter at all." She gave a twitch of shoulders and met his eyes steadily. "The inner satisfaction of having climbed the hill, I suppose," she said, in the tone of one who has at last reached firm ground. "Will you have more tea, Mr. Campbell?"
Her final words were chilly and impersonal, but Ford left the table, smiling to himself. At the door he met Dick, whom Buddy had mentioned with disaster to himself. Dick saw the smile, and within the room he saw Miss Josephine sitting alone, her chin resting in her two palms and her eyes fixed upon vacancy.
"Hello," Ford greeted somewhat inattentively. "Do you want me for anything, Dick?"
"Can't say I do," drawled Dick, brushing past Ford in the doorway.
Ford hesitated long enough to give him a second glance—an attentive enough glance this time—and went his way; without the smile, however.
"Lordy me!" he said to himself, when his foot touched the bridge, but he did not add anything to the exclamation. He was wondering when it was that he had begun to dislike Dick Thomas; a long while, it seemed to him, though he had never till just now quite realized it, beyond resenting his covert sneer that day in town. He had once or twice since suspected Dick of a certain disappointment that he himself was not foreman of the Double Cross, and once he had asked Mason why he hadn't given the place to Dick.
"Didn't want to," Mason had replied succinctly, and let it go at that.
If Dick cherished any animosity, however, he had not made it manifest in actual hostility. On the contrary, he had shown a distinct inclination to be friendly; a friendliness which led the two to pair off frequently when they were riding, and to talk over past range experiences more or less intimately. Looking back over the six weeks just behind him, Ford could not remember a single incident—a sentence, even—that had been unpleasant, unless he clung to his belief in Dick's contempt, and that he had since set down to his own super-sensitiveness. And yet—
"He's got bad eyes," he concluded. "That's what it is; I never did like eyes the color of polished steel; nickel-plated eyes, I call 'em; all shine and no color. Still, a man ain't to blame for his eyes."
Then Dick overtook him with Buddy trailing, red-eyed, at his heels, and Ford forgot, in the work to be done that day, all about his speculations. He involved himself in a fruitless argument with Buddy, upon the subject of what a seven-year-old can stand in the way of riding, and yielded finally before the quiver of Buddy's lips. They were only going over on Long Ridge, anyway, and the day was fine, and Buddy had frequently ridden as far, according to Dick. Indeed, it was Dick's easy-natured, "Ah, let the kid go, why don't you?" which gave Ford an excuse for reconsidering.
And Buddy repaid him after his usual fashion. At the supper table he looked up, round-eyed, from his plate.
"Gee, but I'm hungry!" he sighed. "I eat and eat, just like a horse eating hay, and I just can't fill up the hole in me."
"There, never mind, honey," Mrs. Kate interposed hastily, fearing worse. "Do you want more bread and butter?"
"Yes—you always use bread for stuffing, don't you? I want to be stuffed. All the way home my b—my stomerch was a-flopping against my backbone, just like Dick's. Only Dick said—"
"Never mind what Dick said." Mrs. Kate thrust the bread toward him, half buttered.
"Dick's mad, I guess. He's mad at Ford, too."
Buddy regarded his mother gravely over the slice of bread.
"First I've heard of it," Ford remarked lightly. "I think you must be mistaken, old-timer."
But Buddy never considered himself mistaken about anything, and he did not like being told that he was, even when the pill was sweetened with the term "old-timer." He rolled his eyes at Ford resentfully.
"Dick is mad! He got mad when you galloped over where Jo's red ribbon was hanging onto a bush. I saw him a-scowling when you rolled it up and put it in your shirt pocket. Dick wanted that ribbon for his bridle; and you better give it to him. Jo ain't your girl. She's Dick's girl. And you have to tie the ribbon of your bestest girl on your bridle. That's why," he added, with belated gallantry, "I tie my own mamma's ribbons on mine. And," he returned with terrible directness to the real issue, "Jo's Dick's girl, 'cause he said so. I heard him tell Jim Felton she's his steady, all right—and you are his girl, ain't you, Jo?"
His mother had tried at first to stop him, had given up in despair, and was now sitting in a rather tragic calm, waiting for what might come of his speech.
Josephine might have saved herself some anxious moments, if she had been so minded; perhaps she would have been minded, if she had not caught Ford's eyes fixed rather intently upon her, and sensed the expectancy in them. She bit her lip, and then she laughed.
"A man shouldn't make an assertion of that sort," she said quizzically, in the direction of Buddy—though her meaning went straight across the table to another—"unless he has some reason for feeling very sure."
Buddy tried to appear quite clear as to her meaning. "Well, if you are Dick's girl, then you better make Ford give that ribbon—"
"I have plenty of ribbons, Buddy," Josephine interrupted, smiling at him still. "Don't you want one?"
"I tie my own mamma's ribbons on my bridle," Buddy rebuffed. "My mamma is my girl—you ain't. You can give your ribbons to Dick."
"Mamma won't be your girl if you don't stop talking so much at the table—and elsewhere," Mrs. Kate informed him sternly, with a glance of trepidation at the others. "A little boy mustn't talk about grown-ups, and what they do or say."
"What can I talk about, then? The boys talk about their girls all the time—"
"I wish to goodness I had let you go with your dad. I shall not let you eat with us, anyway, if you don't keep quiet. You're getting perfectly impossible." Which even Buddy understood as a protest which was not to be taken seriously.
Ford stayed long enough to finish drinking his tea, and then he left the house with what he privately considered a perfectly casual manner. As a matter of fact, he was extremely self-conscious about it, so that Mrs. Kate felt justified in mentioning it, and in asking Josephine a question or two—when she had prudently made an errand elsewhere for Buddy.
Josephine, having promptly disclaimed all knowledge or interest pertaining to the affair, Mrs. Kate spoke her mind plainly.
"If Ford's going to fall in love with you, Phenie," she said, "I think you're foolish to encourage Dick. I believe Ford is falling in love with you. I never thought he even liked you till to-night, but what Buddy said about that ribbon—"
"I don't suppose Bud knows what he's talking about—any more than you do," snapped Josephine. "If you're determined that I shall have a love affair on this ranch, I'm going home." She planted her chin in her two palms, just as she had done at dinner, and stared into vacancy.
"Where?" asked Mrs. Kate pointedly, and then atoned for it whole-heartedly. "There, I didn't mean that—only—this is your home. It's got to be; I won't let it be anywhere else. And you needn't have any love affair, Phene—you know that. Only you shan't hurt Ford. I think he's perfectly splendid! What he did for Chester—I—I can't think of that without getting a lump in my throat, Phene. Think of it! Going without food himself, because there wasn't enough for two, and—and—well, he just simply threw away his own chance of getting through, to give Chester a better one. It was the bravest thing I ever heard of! And the way he has conquered—?"
"How do you know he has conquered? Rumor says he hasn't. And lots of men save other men's lives; it's being done every day, and no one hears much about it. You think it was something extraordinary, just because it happened to be Chester that was saved. Anybody will do all he can for a sick partner, when they're away out in the wilds. I haven't a doubt Dick would have done the very same thing, when it comes to that." Josephine got up from the table then, and went haughtily into her own room.
Mrs. Kate retired quite as haughtily into the kitchen, and there was a distinct coolness between them for the rest of the day, and a part of the next. The chill of it affected Ford sufficiently to keep him away from the house as much as possible, and unusually silent and unlike himself when he was with the men.
But, unlike many another, he did not know that his recurrent dissatisfaction with life was directly traceable to the apparent intimacy between Josephine and Dick. Ford, if he had tried to put his gloomy unrest into words, would have transposed his trouble and would have mistaken effect for cause. In other words, he would have ignored Josephine and Dick entirely, and would have said that he wanted whisky—and wanted it as the damned are said to want water.
At Hand-Grips with the Demon
Mose was mad. He was flinging tinware about the kitchen with a fine disregard of the din or the dents, and whenever the blue cat ventured out from under the stove, he kicked at it viciously. He was mad at Ford; and when a man gets mad at his foreman—without knowing that the foreman has been instructed to bear with his faults and keep him on the pay-roll at any price—he must, if he be the cook, have recourse to kicking cats and banging dishes about, since he dare not kick the foreman. For in late November "jobs" are not at all plentiful in the range land, and even an angry cook must keep his job or face the world-old economic problem of food, clothing, and shelter.