But if he dared not speak his mind plainly to Ford, he was not averse to pouring his woes into the first sympathetic ear that came his way. It happened that upon this occasion the ear arrived speedily upon the head of Dick Thomas.
"Matter, Mose?" he queried, sidestepping the cat, which gave a long leap straight for the door, when it opened. "Cat been licking the butter again?"
Mose grunted and slammed three pie tins into a cupboard with such force that two of them bounced out and rolled across the floor. One came within reach of his foot, and he kicked it into the wood-box, and swore at it while it was on the way. "And I wisht it was Ford Campbell himself, the snoopin', stingy, kitchen-grannying, booze-fightin', son-of-a-sour-dough bannock!" he finished prayerfully.
"He surely hasn't tried to mix in here, and meddle with you?" Dick asked, helping himself to a piece of pie. You know the tone; it had just that inflection of surprised sympathy which makes you tell your troubles without that reservation which a more neutral listener would unconsciously impel.
I am not going to give Mose's version, because he warped the story to make it fit his own indignation, and did not do Ford justice. This, then, is the exact truth:
Ford chanced to be walking up along the edge of the gully which ran past the bunk-house, and into which empty cans and other garbage were thrown. Sometimes a can fell short, so that all the gully edge was liberally decorated with a gay assortment of canners' labels. Just as he had come up, Mose had opened the kitchen door and thrown out a cream can, which had fallen in front of Ford and trickled a white stream upon the frozen ground. Ford had stooped and picked up the can, had shaken it, and heard the slosh which told of waste. He had investigated further, and decided that throwing out a cream can before it was quite empty was not an accident with Mose, but might be termed a habit. He had taken Exhibit A to the kitchen, but had laughed while he spoke of it. And these were his exact words:
"Lordy me, Mose! Somebody's liable to come here and get rich off us, if we don't look out. He'll gather up the cream cans you throw into the discard and start a dairy on the leavings." Then he had set the can down on the water bench beside the door and gone away.
"I've been cookin' for cow-camps ever since I got my knee stiffened up so's't I couldn't ride—and that's sixteen year ago last Fourth—and it's the first time I ever had any darned foreman go snoopin' around my back door to see if I scrape out the cans clean!" Mose seated himself upon a corner of the table with the stiff leg for a brace and the good one swinging free, and folded his bare arms upon his heaving chest.
"And that ain't all, Dick," he went on aggrievedly. "He went and cut down the order I give him for grub. That's something Ches never done—not with me, anyway. Asked me—asked me, what I wanted with so much choc'late. And I wanted boiled cider for m' mince-meat, and never got it. And brandy, too—only I didn't put that down on the list; I knowed better than to write it out. But I give Jim money—out uh my own pocket!—to git some with, and he never done it. Said Ford told him p'tic'ler not to bring out nothin' any nearer drinkable than lemon extract! I've got a darned good mind," he added somberly, "to fire the hull works into the gully. He don't belong on no cow ranch. Where he'd oughta be is runnin' the W.C.T.U. So darned afraid of a pint uh brandy—"
"If I was dead sure your brains wouldn't get to leaking out your mouth," Dick began guardedly, "I might put you wise to something." He took a drink of water, opened the door that he might throw out what remained in the dipper, and made sure that no one was near the bunk-house before he closed the door again. Mose watched him interestedly.
"You know me, Dick—I never do tell all I know," he hinted heavily.
"Well," Dick stood with his hand upon the door-knob and a sly grin upon his face, "I ain't saying a word about anything. Only—if you might happen to want some—eggs—for your mince pies, you might look good under the southeast corner of the third haystack, counting from the big corral. I believe there's a—nest—there."
"The deuce!" Mose brightened understandingly and drummed with his fingers upon his bare, dough-caked forearm. "Do yuh know who—er—what hen laid 'em there?"
"I do," said Dick with a rising inflection. "The head he-hen uh the flock. But if I was going to hunt eggs, I'd take down a chiny egg and leave it in the nest, Mose."
"But I ain't got—" Mose caught Dick's pale glance resting with what might be considered some significance upon the vinegar jug, and he stopped short. "That wouldn't work," he commented vaguely.
"Well, I've got to be going. Boss might can me if he caught me loafing around here, eating pie when I ought to be working. Ford's a fine fellow, don't you think?" He grinned and went out, and immediately returned, complaining that he never could stand socks with a hole in the toe, and he guessed he'd have to hunt through his war-bag for a good pair.
Mose, as need scarcely be explained, went immediately to the stable to hunt eggs; and Dick, in the next room, smiled to himself when he heard the door slam behind him. Dick did not change his socks just then; he went first into the kitchen and busied himself there, and he continued to smile to himself. Later he went out and met Ford, who was riding moodily up from the river field.
"Say, I'm going to be an interfering kind of a cuss, and put you next to something," he began, with just the right degree of hesitation in his manner. "It ain't any of my business, but—" He stopped and lighted a cigarette. "If you'll come up to the bunk-house, I'll show you something funny!"
Ford dismounted in silence, led his horse into the stable, and without waiting to unsaddle, followed Dick.
"We've got to hurry, before Mose gets back from hunting eggs," Dick remarked, by way of explaining the long strides he took. "And of course I'm taking it for granted, Ford, that you won't say anything. I kinda thought you ought to know, maybe—but I'd never say a word if I didn't feel pretty sure you'd keep it behind your teeth."
"Well—I'm waiting to see what it is," Ford replied non-committally.
Dick opened the kitchen door, and led Ford through that into the bunk-room. "You wait here—I'm afraid Mose might come back," he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he had a gallon jug in his hand. He was still smiling.
"I went to mix me up some soda-water for heartburn," he said, "and when I picked up this jug, Mose took it out of my hand and said it was boiled cider, that he'd got for mince-meat. So when he went out, I took a taste. Here: You sample it yourself, Ford. If that's boiled cider, I wouldn't mind having a barrel!"
Ford took the jug, pulled the cork, and sniffed at the opening. He did not say anything, but he looked up at Dick significantly.
"Taste it once!" urged Dick innocently. "I'd just like to have you see the brand of slow poison a fool like Mose will pour down him."
Ford hesitated, sniffed, started to set down the jug, then lifted it and took a swallow.
"That isn't as bad as some I've seen," he pronounced evenly, shoving in the cork. "Nor as good," he added conservatively. "I wonder where he got it."
"Search me—oh, by jiminy, here he comes! I'm going to take a scoot, Ford. Don't give me away, will you? And if I was you, I wouldn't say anything to Mose—I know that old devil pretty well. He'll keep mighty quiet about it himself—unless you jump him about it. Then he'll roar around to everybody he sees, and claim it was a plant."
He slid stealthily through the outer door, and Ford saw him run down into the gully and disappear, while Mose was yet half-way from the stable.
Ford sat on the edge of a bunk and looked at the jug beside him. If Dick had deliberately planned to tempt him, he had chosen the time well; and if he had not done it deliberately, there must have been a malignant spirit abroad that day.
For twenty-four hours Ford had been more than usually restless and moody. Even Buddy had noticed that, and complained that Ford was cross and wouldn't talk to him; whereupon Mrs. Kate had scolded Josephine and accused her of being responsible for his gloom and silence. Since Josephine's conscience sustained the charge, she resented the accusation and proceeded deliberately to add to its justice; which did not make Ford any the happier, you may be sure. For when a man reaches that mental state which causes him to carry a girl's ribbon folded carefully into the most secret compartment of his pocketbook, and to avoid the girl herself and yet feel like committing assault and battery with intent to kill, because some other man occasionally rides with her for an hour or two, he is extremely sensitive to averted glances and chilly tones and monosyllabic conversation.
Since the day before, when she had ridden as far as the stage road with Dick, when he went to the line-camp, Ford had been fighting the desire to saddle a horse and ride to town; and the thing that lured him townward confronted him now in that gray stone jug with the brown neck and handle.
He lifted the jug, shook it tentatively, pulled out the cork with a jerk that was savage, and looked around the room for some place where he might empty the contents and have done with temptation; but there was no receptacle but the stove, so he started to the door with it, meaning to pour it on the ground. Mose just then shambled past the window, and Ford sat down to wait until the cook was safe in the kitchen. And all the while the cork was out of that jug, so that the fumes of the whisky rose maddeningly to his nostrils, and the little that he had swallowed whipped the thirst-devil to a fury of desire.
In the kitchen, Mose rattled pans and hummed a raucous tune under his breath, and presently he started again for the stable. Dick, desultorily bracing a leaning post of one of the corrals, saw him coming and grinned. He glanced toward the bunk-house, where Ford still lingered, and the grin grew broader. After that he went all around the corral with his hammer and bucket of nails, tightening poles and braces and, incidentally, keeping an eye upon the bunk-house; and while he worked, he whistled and smiled by turns. Dick was in an unusually cheerful mood that day.
Mose came shuffling up behind him and stood with his stiff leg thrust forward and his hands rolled up in his apron. Dick could see that he had something clasped tightly under the wrappings.
"Say, that he-hen—she laid twice in the same place!" Mose announced confidentially. "Got 'em both—for m'mince pies!" He waggled his head, winked twice with his left eye, and went back to the bunk-house.
Still Ford did not appear. Josephine came, however, in riding skirt and gray hat and gauntlets, treading lightly down the path that lay all in a yellow glow which was not so much sunlight as that mellow haze which we call Indian Summer. She looked in at the stable, and then came straight over to Dick. There was, when Josephine was her natural self, something very direct and honest about all her movements, as if she disdained all feminine subterfuges and took always the straight, open trail to her object.
"Do you know where Mr. Campbell is, Dick?" she asked him, and added no explanation of her desire to know.
"I do," said Dick, with the rising inflection which was his habit, when the words were used for a bait to catch another question.
"Well, where is he, then?"
Dick straightened up and smiled down upon her queerly. "Count ten before you ask me that again," he parried, "because maybe you'd rather not know."
Josephine lifted her chin and gave him that straight, measuring stare which had so annoyed Ford the first time he had seen her. "I have counted," she said calmly after a pause. "Where is Mr. Campbell, please?"—and the "please" pushed Dick to the very edge of her favor, it was so coldly formal.
"Well, if you're sure you counted straight, the last time I saw him he was in the bunk-house."
"Well?" The tone of her demanded more.
"He was in the bunk-house—sitting close up to a gallon jug of whisky." His eyelids flickered. "He's there yet—but I wouldn't swear to the gallon—"
"Thank you very much." This time her tone pushed him over the edge and into the depths of her disapproval. "I was sure I could depend upon you—to tell!"
"What else could I do, when you asked?"
But she had her back to him, and was walking away up the path, and if she heard, she did not trouble to answer. But in spite of her manner, Dick smiled, and brought the hammer down against a post with such force that he splintered the handle.
"Something's going to drop on this ranch, pretty quick," he prophesied, looking down at the useless tool in his hand. "And if I wanted to name it, I'd call it Ford." He glanced up the path to where Josephine was walking straight to the west door of the bunk-house, and laughed sourly. "Well, she needn't take my word for it if she don't want to, I guess," he muttered. "Nothing like heading off a critter—or a woman—in time!"
Josephine did not hesitate upon the doorstep. She opened the door and went in, and shut the door behind her before the echo of her step had died. Ford was lying as he had lain once before, upon a bunk, with his face hidden in his folded arms. He did not hear her—at any rate he did not know who it was, for he did not lift his head or stir.
Josephine looked at the jug upon the floor beside him, bent and lifted it very gently from the floor; tilted it to the window so that she could look into it, tilted her nose at the odor, and very, very gently put it back where she had found it. Then she stood and looked down at Ford with her eyebrows pinched together.
She did not move, after that, and she certainly did not speak, but her presence for all that became manifest to him. He lifted his head and stared at her over an elbow; and his eyes were heavy with trouble, and his mouth was set in lines of bitterness.
"Did you want me for something?" he asked, when he saw that she was not going to speak first.
She shook her head. "Is it—pretty steep?" she ventured after a moment, and glanced down at the jug.
He looked puzzled at first, but when his own glance followed hers, he understood. He stared up at her somberly before he let his head drop back upon his arms, so that his face was once more hidden.
"You've never been in bell, I suppose," he told her, and his voice was dull and tired. After a minute he looked up at her impatiently. "Is it fun to stand and watch a man—What do you want, anyway? It doesn't matter—to you."
"Are you sure?" she retorted sharply. "And—suppose it doesn't. I have Kate to think of, at least."
He gave a little laugh that came nearer being a snort. "Oh, if that's all, you needn't worry. I'm not quite that far gone, thank you!"
"I was thinking of the ranch, and of her ideals, and her blind trust in you, and of the effect on the men," she explained impatiently.
He was silent a moment. "I'm thinking of myself!" he told her grimly then.
"And—don't you ever—think of me?" She set her teeth sharply together after the words were out, and watched him, breathing quickly.
Ford sprang up from the bunk and faced her with stern questioning in his eyes, but she only flushed a little under his scrutiny. Her eyes, he noticed, were clear and steady, and they had in them something of that courage which fears but will not flinch.
"I don't want to think of you!" he said, lowering his voice unconsciously. "For the last month I've tried mighty hard not to think of you. And if you want to know why—I'm married!"
She leaned back against the door and stared up at him with widening pupils. Ford looked down and struck the jug with his toe. "That thing," he said slowly, "I've got to fight alone. I don't know which is going to come out winner, me or the booze. I—don't—know." He lifted his head and looked at her. "What did you come in here for?" he asked bluntly.
She caught her breath, but she would not dodge. Ford loved her for that. "Dick told me—and I was—I wanted to—well, help. I thought I might—sometimes when the climb is too steep, a hand will keep one from—slipping."
"What made you want to help? You don't even like me." His tone was flat and unemotional, but she did not seem able to meet his eyes. So she looked down at the jug.
"Dick said—but the jug is full practically. I don't understand how—"
"It isn't as full as it ought to be; it lacks one swallow." He eyed it queerly. "I wish I knew how much it would lack by dark," he said.
She threw out an impulsive hand. "Oh, but you must make up your mind! You mustn't temporize like that, or wonder—or—"
"This," he interrupted rather flippantly, "is something little girls can't understand. They'd better not try. This isn't a woman's problem, to be solved by argument. It's a man's fight!"
"But if you would just make up your mind, you could win."
"Could I?" His tone was amusedly skeptical, but his eyes were still somber.
"Even a woman," she said impatiently, "knows that is not the way to win a fight—to send for the enemy and give him all your weapons, and a plan of the fortifications, and the password; when you know there's no mercy to be hoped for!"
He smiled at her simile, and at her earnestness also, perhaps; but that black gloom remained, looking out of his eyes.
"What made you send for it? A whole gallon!"
"I didn't send for it. That jug belongs to Mose," he told her simply. "Dick told me Mose had it; rather, Dick went into the kitchen and got it, and turned it over to me." In spite of the words, he did not give one the impression that he was defending himself; he was merely offering an explanation because she seemed to demand one.
"Dick got it and turned it over to you!" Her forehead wrinkled again into vertical lines. She studied him frowningly. "Will you give it to me?" she asked directly.
Ford folded his arms and scowled down at the jug. "No," he refused at last, "I won't. If booze is going to be the boss of me I want to know it. And I can't know it too quick."
"But—you're only human, Ford!"
"Sure. But I'm kinda hoping I'm a man, too." His eyes lightened a little while they rested upon her.
"But you've got the poison of it—it's like a traitor in your fort, ready to open the door. You can't do it! I—oh, you'll never understand why, but I can't let you risk it. You've got to let me help; give it to me, Ford!"
"No, You go on to the house, and don't bother about me. You can't help—nobody can. It's up to me."
She struck her hands together in a nervous rage. "You want to keep it because you want to drink it! If you didn't want it, you'd hate to be near it. You'd want some one to take it away. You just want to get drunk, and be a beast. You—you—oh—you don't know what you're doing, or how much it means! You don't know!" Her hands went up suddenly and covered her face.
Ford walked the length of the room away from her, turned and came back until he faced her where she stood leaning against the door, with her face still hidden behind her palms. He reached out his arms to her, hesitated, and drew them back.
"I wish you'd go," he said. "There are some things harder to fight than whisky. You only make it worse."
"I'll go when you give me that." She flung a hand out toward the jug.
"You'll go anyway!" He took her by the arm, quietly pulled her away from the door, opened it, and then closed it while, for just a breath or two, he held her tightly clasped in his arms. Very gently, after that, he pushed her out upon the doorstep and shut the door behind her. The lock clicked a hint which she could not fail to hear and understand. He waited until he heard her walk away, sat down with the air of a man who is very, very weary, rested his elbows upon his knees, and with his hands clasped loosely together, he glowered at the jug on the floor. Then the soul of Ford Campbell went deep down into the pit where all the devils dwell.
A Plan Gone Wrong
It was Mose crashing headlong into the old messbox where he kept rattly basins, empty lard pails, and such, that roused Ford. He got up and went into the kitchen, and when he saw what was, the matter, extricated Mose by the simple method of grabbing his shoulders and pulling hard; then he set the cook upon his feet, and got full in his face the unmistakable fumes of whisky.
"What? You got another jug?" he asked, with some disgust, steadying Mose against the wall.
"Ah—I ain't got any jug uh nothin'," Mose protested, rather thickly. "And I never took them bottles outa the stack; that musta been Dick done that. Get after him about it; he's the one told me where yuh hid 'em—but I never touched 'em, honest I never. If they're gone, you get after Dick. Don't yuh go 'n' lay it on me, now!" He was whimpering with maudlin pathos before he finished. Ford scowled at him thoughtfully.
"Dick told you about the bottles in the haystack, did he?" he asked. "Which stack was it? And how many bottles?"
Mose gave him a bleary stare. "Aw, you know. You hid 'em there yourself! Dick said so. I ain't goin' to say which stack, or how many bottles—or—any other—darn thing about it." He punctuated his phrases by prodding a finger against Ford's chest, and he wagged his head with all the self-consciousness of spurious virtue. "Promised Dick I wouldn't, and I won't. Not a—darn—word about it. Wanted some—for m' mince-meat, but I never took any outa the haystack." Whereupon he began to show a pronounced limpness in his good leg, and a tendency to slide down upon the floor.
Ford piloted him to a chair, eased him into it, and stood over him in frowning meditation. Mose was drunk; absolutely, undeniably drunk. It could not have been the jug, for the jug was full. Till then the oddity of a full jug of whisky in Mose's kitchen after at least twenty-four hours must have elapsed since its arrival, had not occurred to him. He had been too preoccupied with his own fight to think much about Mose.
"Shay, I never took them bottles outa the stack," Mose looked up to protest solemnly. "Dick never told me about 'em, neither. Dick tol' me—" tapping Ford's arm with his finger for every word, "—'at there was aigs down there, for m' mince-meat." He stopped suddenly and goggled up at Ford. "Shay, yuh don't put aigs in—mince-meat," he informed him earnestly. "Not a darn aig! That's what Dick tol' me—aigs for m' mince-meat. Oh, I knowed right off what he meant, all right," he explained proudly. "He didn't wanta come right out 'n' shay what it was—an' I—got—the—aigs!"
"Yes—how many—eggs?" Ford held himself rigidly quiet.
"Two quart—aigs!" Mose laughed at the joke. "I wisht," he added pensively, "the hens'd all lay them kinda aigs. I'd buy up all the shickens in—the whole worl'." He gazed raptly upon the vision the words conjured. "Gee! Quart aigs—'n' all the shickens in the worl' layin' reg'lar!"
"Have you got any left?"
"No—honest. Used 'em all up—for m' mince-meat!"
Ford knew he was lying. His eyes searched the untidy tables and the corners filled with bags and boxes. Mose was a good cook, but his ideas of order were vague, and his system of housekeeping was the simple one of leaving everything where he had last been using it, so that it might be handy when he wanted it again. A dozen bottles might be concealed there, like the faces in a picture-puzzle, and it would take a housecleaning to disclose them all. But Ford, when he knew that no bottle had been left in sight, began turning over the bags and looking behind the boxes.
He must have been "growing warm" when he stood wondering whether it was worth while to look into the flour-bin, for Mose gave an inarticulate snarl and pounced on him from behind. The weight of him sent Ford down on all fours and kept him there for a space, and even after he was up he found himself quite busy. Mose was a husky individual, with no infirmity of the arms and fists, even if he did have a stiff leg, and drunkenness frequently flares and fades in a man like a candle guttering in the wind. Besides, Mose was fighting to save his whisky.
Still, Ford had not sent all of Sunset into its cellars, figuratively speaking, for nothing; and while a man may feel more enthusiasm for fighting when under the influence of the stuff that cheers sometimes and never fails to inebriate, the added incentive does not necessarily mean also added muscular development or more weight behind the punch. Ford, fighting as he had always fought, be he drunk or sober, came speedily to the point where he could inspect a skinned knuckle and afterwards gaze in peace upon his antagonist.
He was occupied with both diversions when the door was pushed open as by a man in great haste. He looked up from the knuckle into the expectant eyes of Jim Felton, and over the shoulder of Jim he saw a gloating certainty writ large upon the face of Dick Thomas. They had been running; he could tell that by their uneven breathing, and it occurred to him that they must have heard the clamor when he pitched Mose head first into the dish cupboard. There had been considerable noise about that time, he remembered; they must also have heard the howl Mose gave at the instant of contact. Ford glanced involuntarily at that side of the room where stood the cupboard, and mentally admitted that it looked like there had been a slight disagreement, or else a severe seismic disturbance; and Montana is not what one calls an earthquake country. His eyes left the generous sprinkle of broken dishes on the floor, with Mose sprawled inertly in their midst, looking not unlike a broken platter himself—or one badly nicked—and rested again upon the grinning face behind the shoulder of Jim Felton.
Ford was ever a man of not many words, even when he had a grievance. He made straight for Dick, and when he had pushed Jim out of the way, he reached him violently. Dick tottered upon the step and went off backward, and Ford landed upon him fairly and with full knowledge and intent.
Jim Felton was a wise young man. He stood back and let them fight it out, and when it was over he said never a word until Dick had picked himself up and walked off, holding to his nose a handkerchief that reddened rapidly.
"Say, you are a son-of-a-gun to fight," he observed admiringly then to Ford. "Don't you know Dick's supposed to be abso-lute-ly unlickable?"
"May be so—but he sure shows all the symptoms of being licked right at present." Ford moved a thumb joint gently to see whether it was really dislocated or merely felt that way.
"He's going up to the house now, to tell the missus," remarked Jim, craning his neck from the doorway.
"If he does that," Ford replied calmly, "I'll half kill him next time. What I gave him just now is only a sample package left on the doorstep to try." He sat down upon a corner of the table and began to make himself a smoke. "Is he going up to the house—honest?" He would not yield to the impulse to look and see for himself.
"We-el, the trail he's taking has no other logical destination," drawled Jim. "He's across the bridge." When Ford showed no disposition to say anything to that, Jim came in and closed the door. "Say, what laid old Mose out so nice?" he asked, with an indolent sort of curiosity. "Booze? Or just bumps?"
"A little of both," said Ford indifferently, between puffs. He was thinking of the tale Dick would tell at the house, and he was thinking of the probable effect upon one listener; the other didn't worry him, though he liked Mrs. Kate very much.
Jim went over and investigated; discovering that Mose was close to snoring, he sat upon a corner of the other table, swung a spurred boot, and regarded Ford interestedly over his own cigarette building. "Say, for a man that's supposed to be soused," he began, after a silence, "you act and talk remarkably lucid. I wish I could carry booze like that," he added regretfully. "But I can't; my tongue and my legs always betray the guilty secret. Have you got any particular system, or is it just a gift?"
"No"—Ford shook his head—"nothing like that. I just don't happen to be drunk." He eyed Jim sharply while he considered within himself. "It looks to me," he began, after a moment, "as if our friend Dick had framed up a nice little plant. One way and another I got wise to the whole thing; but for the life of me, I can't see what made him do it. Lordy me! I never kicked him on any bunion!" He grinned, as memory flashed a brief, mental picture of Sunset and certain incidents which occurred there. But memory never lets well enough alone, and one is lucky to escape without seeing a picture that leaves a sting; Ford's smile ended in a scowl.
"Jealousy, old man," Jim pronounced without hesitation. "Of course, I don't know the details, but—details be darned. If he has tried to hand you a package, take it from me, jealousy's the string he tied it with. I don't mind saying that Dick told me when I first rode up to the corral that you and Mose were both boozing up to beat the band; and right after that we heard a deuce of a racket up here, and it did look—" He waved an apologetic hand at Mose and the fragments of pottery which framed like a "still life" picture on the floor, and let it go at that. "I'm strong for you, Ford," he added, and his smile was frank and friendly. "Double Cross is the name of this outfit, but I'm all in favor of running that brand on the cow-critters and keeping it out of the bunk-house. If you should happen to feel like elucidating—" he hinted delicately.
Ford had always liked Jim Felton; now he warmed to him as a real friend, and certain things he told him. As much about the jug with the brown neck and handle as concerned Dick, and all he knew of the bottles in the haystack, while Jim smoked, and swung the foot which did not rest upon the floor, and listened.
"Sounds like Dick, all right," he passed judgment, when Ford had finished. "He counted on your falling for the jug—and oh, my! It was a beautiful plant. I'd sure hate to have anybody sing 'Yield not to temptation' at me, if a gallon jug of the real stuff fell into my arms and nobody was looking." He eyed Ford queerly. "You've got quite a reputation—" he ventured.
"Well, I earned it," Ford observed laconically.
"Dick banked on it—I'd stake my whole stack of blues on that. And after you'd torn up the ranch, and pitched the fragments into the gulch, he'd hold the last trump, with all high cards to keep the lead. Whee!" He meditated admiringly upon the strategy. "But what I can't seem to understand," he said frankly, "is why the deuce it didn't work! Is your swallower out of kilter? If you don't mind my asking!"
"I never noticed that it was paralyzed," Ford answered grimly. He got up, lifted a lid of the stove, and threw in the cigarette stub mechanically. Then he bethought him of his interrupted search, and prodded a long-handled spoon into the flour bin, struck something smooth and hard, and drew out a befloured, quart bottle half full of whisky. He wiped the bottle carefully, inspected it briefly, and pitched it into the gully, where it smashed odorously upon a rock. Jim, watching him, knew that he was thinking all the while of something else. When Ford spoke, he proved it.
"Are you any good at all in the kitchen, Jim?" he asked, turning to him as if he had decided just how he would meet the situation.
"Well, I hate to brag, but I've known of men eating my grub and going right on living as if nothing had happened," Jim admitted modestly.
"Well, you turn yourself loose in here, will you? The boys will be good and empty when they come—it's dinner time right now. I'll help you carry Mose out of the way before I go."
Jim looked as if he would like to ask what Ford meant to do, but he refrained. There was something besides preoccupation in Ford's face, and it did not make for easy questioning. Jim did yield to his curiosity to the extent of watching through a window, when Ford went out, to see where he was going; and when he saw Ford had the jug, and that he took the path which led across the little bridge and so to the house, he drew back and said "Whee-e-e!" under his breath. Then he remarked to the recumbent Mose, who was not in a condition either to hear or understand: "I'll bet you Dick's got all he wants, right now, without any postscript." After which Jim hunted up a clean apron and proceeded, with his spurs on his heels, his hat on the back of his head, and a smile upon his lips, to sweep out the broken dishes so that he might walk without hearing them crunch unpleasantly under his boots. "I'll take wildcats in mine, please," he remarked once irrelevantly aloud, and smiled again.
The Feminine Point of View
When Ford stepped upon the porch with the jug in his hand, he gave every indication of having definitely made up his mind. When he glimpsed Josephine's worried face behind the lace curtain in the window, he dropped the jug lower and held it against his leg in such a way as to indicate that he hoped she could not see it, but otherwise he gave no sign of perturbation. He walked along the porch to the door of his own room, went in, locked the door after him, and put the jug down on a chair. He could hear faint sounds of dishes being placed upon the table in the dining-room, which was next to his own, and he knew that dinner was half an hour late; which was unusual in Mrs. Kate's orderly domain. Mrs. Kate was one of those excellent women whose house is always immaculate, whose meals are ever placed before one when the clock points to a certain hour, and whose table never lacks a salad and a dessert—though how those feats are accomplished upon a cattle ranch must ever remain a mystery. Ford was therefore justified in taking the second look at his watch and in holding it up to his ear, and also in lifting his eyebrows when all was done. Fifteen minutes by the watch it was before he heard the silvery tinkle of the tea bell, which was one of the ties which bound Mrs. Kate to civilization, and which announced that he might enter the dining-room.
He went in as clean and fresh and straight-backed and quiet as ever he had done, and when he saw that the room was empty save for Buddy, perched upon his long-legged chair with his heels hooked over the top round and a napkin tucked expectantly inside the collar of his blue blouse, he took in the situation and sat down without waiting for the women. The very first glance told him that Mrs. Kate had never prepared that meal. It was, putting it bluntly, a scrappy affair hastily gathered from various shelves in the pantry and hurriedly arranged haphazard upon the table.
Buddy gazed upon the sprinkle of dishes with undisguised dissatisfaction. "There ain't any potatoes," he announced gloomily. "My own mamma always cooks potatoes. Josephine's the limit! I been working to-day. I almost dug out a badger, over by the bluff. I got where I could hear him scratching to get away, and then it was all rocks, so I couldn't dig any more. Gee, it was hard digging! And I'm just about starved, if you want to know. And there ain't any potatoes."
"Bread and butter is fine when you're hungry," Ford suggested, and spread a slice for Buddy, somewhat inattentively, because he was also keeping an eye upon the kitchen door, where he had caught a fleeting glimpse of Josephine looking in at him.
"You're putting the butter all in one place," Buddy criticised, with his usual frankness. "I guess you're drunk, all right. If you're too drunk to spread butter, let me do it."
"What makes you think I'm drunk?" Ford questioned, lowering his voice because of the person he suspected was in the kitchen.
"Mamma and Jo was quarreling about it; that's why. And my own mamma cried, and shut the door, and wouldn't let me go in. And Jo pretty near cried too, all right. I guess she did, only not when any one was looking. Her eyes are awful red, anyway." Buddy took great, ravenous bites of the bread and butter and eyed Ford unwinkingly.
"What's disslepointed?" he demanded abruptly, after he had given himself a white mustache with his glass of milk.
"Why do you want to know?"
"That's what my own mamma is, and that's what Jo is. Only my own mamma is it about you, and Jo's it about mamma. Say, did you lick Dick? Jo told my own mamma she wisht you'd killed him. Jo's awful mad to-day. I guess she's mad at Dick, because he ain't very much of a fighter. Did you lick him easy? Did you paste him one in the jaw?"
Josephine entered then with Ford's belated tea. Her eyelids were pink, as Buddy had told him, and she did not look at him while she filled his cup.
"Kate has a sick headache," she explained primly, "and I did the best I could with lunch. I hope it's—"
"It is," Ford interrupted reassuringly. "Everything is fine and dandy."
"You didn't cook any potatoes!" Buddy charged mercilessly. "And Ford's too drunk to put the butter on right. I'm going to tell my dad that next time he goes to Oregon I'm going along. This outfit will sure go to the devil if he stays much longer!"
"Where did you hear that, Bud?" Josephine asked, still carefully avoiding a glance at Ford.
"Well, Dick said it would go to the devil. I guess," he added on his own account, with an eloquent look at the table, "it's on the trail right now."
Ford looked at Josephine, opened his lips to say that it might still be headed off, and decided not to speak. There was a stubborn streak in Ford Campbell. She had said some bitter things, in her anger. Perhaps she had not entirely believed them herself, and perhaps Mrs. Kate had not been accurately quoted by her precocious young son; she may not have said that she was disappointed in Ford. They might not have believed whatever it was Dick told them, and they might still have full confidence in him, Ford Campbell. Still, there was the stubborn streak which would not explain or defend. So he left the table, and went into his own room without any word save a muttered excuse; and that in spite of the fact that Josephine looked full at him, at last, and with a wistfulness that moved him almost to the point of taking her in his arms and kissing away the worry—if he could.
He went up to the table where stood the jug, looked at it, lifted it, and set it down again. Then he lifted it again and pulled the cork out with a jerk, wondering if the sound of it had reached through the thin partition to the ears of Josephine; he was guilty of hoping so. He put back the cork—this time carefully—walked to the outer door, turned the key, opened the door, and closed it again with a slam. Then, with a grim set of the lips, he walked softly into the closet and pulled the door nearly shut.
He knew there was a chance that Josephine, if she were interested in his movements, would go immediately into the sitting-room, where she could see the path, and would know that he had not really left the house. But she did not, evidently. She sat long enough in the dining-room for Ford to call himself a name or two and to feel exceedingly foolish over the trick, and to decide that it was a very childish one for a grown man to play upon a woman. Then she pushed back her chair, came straight toward his room, opened the door, and looked in; Ford knew, for he saw her through the crack he had left in the closet doorway. She stood there looking at the jug on the table, then went up and lifted it, much as Ford had done, and pulled the cork with a certain angry defiance. Perhaps, he guessed shrewdly, Josephine also felt rather foolish at what she was doing—and he smiled over the thought.
Josephine turned the jug to the light, shut one eye into an adorable squint, and peered in. Then she set the jug down and pushed the cork slowly into place; and her face was puzzled. Ford could have laughed aloud when he saw it, but instead he held his breath for fear she should discover him. She stood very still for a minute or two, staring at nothing at all; moved the jug into the exact place where it had stood before, and went out of the room on her toes.
So did Ford, for that matter, and he was in a cold terror lest she should look out and see him walking down the path where he should logically have walked more than five minutes before. He did not dare to turn and look—until he was outside the gate; then inspiration came to aid him and he went back boldly, stepped upon the porch with no effort at silence, opened his door, and went in as one who has a right there.
He heard the click of dishes which told that she was clearing the table, and he breathed freer. He walked across the room, waited a space, and walked back again, and then went out with his heart in its proper position in his chest; Ford was unused to feeling his heart rise to his palate, and the sensation was more novel than agreeable. When he went again down the path, there was a certain exhilaration in his step. His thoughts arranged themselves in clear-cut sentences, as if he were speaking, instead of those vague, almost wordless impressions which fill the brain ordinarily.
"She's keeping cases on that jug. She must care, or she wouldn't do that. She's worried a whole lot; I could see that, all along. Down at the bunk-house she called me Ford twice—and she said it meant a lot to her, whether I make good or not. I wonder—Lordy me! A man could make good, all right, and do it easy, if she cared! She doesn't know what to think—that jug staying right up to high-water mark, like that!" He laughed then, silently, and dwelt upon the picture she had made while she had stood there before the table.
"Lord! she'd want to kill me if she knew I hid in that closet, but I just had a hunch—that is, if she cared anything about it. I wonder if she did really say she wished I'd killed Dick?
"Anyway, I can fight it now, with her keeping cases on the quiet. I know I can fight it. Lordy me, I've got to fight it! I've got to make good; that's all there is about it. Wonder what she'll think when she sees that jug don't go down any? Wonder—oh, hell! She'd never care anything about me. If she did—" His thoughts went hazy with vague speculation, then clarified suddenly into one hard fact, like a rock thrusting up through the lazy sweep of a windless tide. "If she did care, I couldn't do anything. I'm married!"
His step lost a little of its spring, then, and he went into the bunk-house with much the same expression on his face as when he had left it an hour or so before.
He did not see Dick that day. The other boys watched him covertly, it seemed to him, and showed a disposition to talk among themselves. Jim was whistling cheerfully in the kitchen. He turned his head and laughed when Ford went in.
"I found a dead soldier behind the sack of spuds," Jim announced, and produced an empty bottle, mate to the one Ford had thrown into the gully. "And Dick didn't seem to have any appetite at all, and Mose is still in Sleepytown. I guess that's all the news at this end of the line. Er—hope everything is all right at the house?"
"Far as I could see, it was," Ford replied, with an inner sense of evasion. "I guess we'll just let her go as she looks, Jim. Did you say anything to the boys?"
Jim reddened under his tan, but he laughed disarmingly. "I cannot tell a lie," he confessed honestly, "and it was too good to keep to myself. I'm the most generous fellow you ever saw, when it comes to passing along a good story that won't hurt anybody's digestion. You don't care, do you? The joke ain't on you."
"If you'd asked me about it, I'd have said keep it under your hat. But—"
"And that would have been a sin and a shame," argued Jim, licking a finger he had just scorched on a hot kettle-handle. "The fellows all like a good story—and it don't sound any worse because it's on Dick. And say! I kinda got a clue to where he connected with that whisky. Walt says he come back from the line-camp with his overcoat rolled up and tied behind the saddle—and it wasn't what you could call a hot night, either. He musta had that jug wrapped up in it. I'll bet he sent in by Peterson, the other day, for it. He was over there, I know. He's sure a deliberate kind of a cuss, isn't he? Must have had this thing all figured out a week ago. The boys are all tickled to death at the way he got it in the neck; they know Dick pretty well. But if you'd told me not to say anything, I'd have said he stubbed his toe on his shadow and fell all over himself, and let it go at that."
"Lordy me! Jim, you needn't worry about it; you ought to know you can't keep a thing like this quiet, on a ranch. It doesn't matter much how he got that whisky here, either; I know well enough you didn't haul it out. I'd figured it out about as Walt says.
"Say, it looks as if you'll have to wrastle with the pots and pans till to-morrow. The lower fence I'll ride, this afternoon; did you get clear around the Pinnacle field?"
"I sure did—and she's tight as a drum. Say, Mose is a good cook, but he's a mighty punk housekeeper, if you ask me. I'm thinking of getting to work here with a hoe!"
So life, which had of late loomed big and bitter before the soul of Ford, slipped back into the groove of daily routine.
Into its groove of routine slipped life at the Double Cross, but it did not move quite as smoothly as before. It was as if the "hill" which Ford was climbing suffered small landslides here and there, which threatened to block the trail below. Sometimes—still keeping to the simile—it was but a pebble or two kicked loose by Ford's heel; sometimes a bowlder which one must dodge.
Dick, for instance, must have likened Mose to a real landslide when he came at him the next day, with a roar of rage and the rolling-pin. Mose had sobered to the point where he wondered how it had all happened, and wanted to get his hands in the wool of the "nigger" said to lurk in woodpiles. He asked Jim, with various embellishments of speech, what it was all about, and Jim told him and told him truly.
"He was trying to queer you with the outfit, Mose, and that's a fact," he finished; which was the only exaggeration Jim was guilty of, for Dick had probably thought very little of Mose and his ultimate standing with the Double Cross. "And he was trying to queer Ford—but you can search me for the reason why he didn't make good, there."
Mose, like many of us, was a self-centered individual. He wasted a minute, perhaps, thinking of the trick upon Ford; but he spent all of that forenoon and well into the afternoon in deep meditation upon the affair as it concerned himself. And the first time Dick entered the presence of the cook, he got the result of Mose's reasoning.
"Tried to git me in bad, did yuh? Thought you'd git me fired, hey?" he shouted, as a sort of punctuation to the belaboring.
A rolling pin is considered a more or less fearsome weapon in the hands of a woman, I believe; when wielded by an incensed man who stands close to six feet and weighs a solid two hundred pounds, and who has the headache which follows inevitably in the wake of three pints of whisky administered internally in the short space of three hours or so, a rolling-pin should justly be classed with deadly weapons.
Jim said afterward that he never had believed it possible to act out the rough stuff of the silly supplements in the Sunday papers, but after seeing Mose perform with that rolling-pin, he was willing to call every edition of the "funny papers" realistic to a degree. Since it was Jim who helped pull Mose off, naturally he felt qualified to judge. Jim told Ford about the affair with sober face and eyes that laughed.
"And where's Dick?" Ford asked him, without committing himself upon the justice of the chastisement.
"Gone to bed, I believe. He didn't come out with anything worse than bumps, I guess—but what I saw of them are sure peaches; or maybe Italian prunes would hit them off closer; they're a fine purple shade. I ladled Three H all over him."
"I thought Dick was a fighter from Fighterville," grinned Ford, trying hard to remain non-committal and making a poor job of it.
"Well, he is, when he can stand up and box according to rule, or hit a man when he isn't looking. But my, oh! This wasn't a fight, Ford; this was like the pictures you see of an old woman lambasting her son-in-law with an umbrella. Dick never got a chance to begin. Whee-ee! Mose sure can handle a rolling-pin some!"
Ford laughed and went up to the house to his supper, and to the constrained atmosphere which was telling on his nerves more severely than did the gallon jug in his closet, and the moral effort it cost to keep that jug full to the neck.
He went in quietly, threw his hat on the bed, and sat down with an air of discouragement. It was not yet six o'clock, and he knew that Mrs. Kate would not have supper ready; but he wanted a quiet place in which to think, and he was closer to Josephine; though he would never have admitted to himself that her nearness was any comfort to him. He did admit, however, that the jug with the brown neck and handle pulled him to the room many times in spite of himself. He would take it from the corner of the closet and let his fingers close over the cork, but so far he had never yielded beyond that point. Always he had been able to set the jug back unopened.
He was getting circles under his eyes, two new creases had appeared on each side of his whimsical lips, and a permanent line was forming between his eyebrows; but he had not opened the jug, and it had been in his possession thirty-six hours. Thirty-six hours is not long, to be sure, when life runs smoothly with slight incidents to emphasize the figures on the dial, but it may seem long to the poor devil on the rack.
Just now Ford was trying to forget that a gallon of whisky stood in the right-hand corner of his closet, behind a pair of half-worn riding-boots that pinched his instep so that he seldom wore them, and that he had only to take the jug out from behind the boots, pull the cork, and lift the jug to his lips—
He caught himself leaning forward and staring at the closet door until his eyes ached with the strain. He drew back and passed his hand over his forehead; it ached, and he wanted to think about what he ought to do with Dick. He did not like to discharge him without first consulting Mrs. Kate, for he knew that Ches Mason was in the habit of talking things over with her, and since Mason was gone, she had assumed an air of latent authority. But Mrs. Kate had looked at him with such reproachful eyes, that day at dinner, and her voice had sounded so squeezed and unnatural, that he had felt too far removed from her for any discussion whatever to take place between them.
Besides, he knew he could prove absolutely nothing against Dick, if Dick were disposed toward flat denial. He might suspect—but the facts showed Ford the aggressor, and Mose also. What if Mrs. Kate declined to believe that Dick had put that jug of whisky in the kitchen, and had afterward given it to Ford? Ford had no means of knowing just what tale Dick had told her, but he did know that Mrs. Kate eyed him doubtfully, and that her conversation was forced and her manner constrained.
And Josephine was worse. Josephine had not spoken to him all that day. At breakfast she had not been present, and at dinner she had kept her eyes upon her plate and had nothing to say to any one.
He wished Mason was home, so that he could leave. It wouldn't matter then, he tried to believe, what he did. He even dwelt upon the desire of Mason's return to the extent of calculating, with his eyes upon the fancy calendar on the wall opposite, the exact time of his absence. Ten days—there was no hope of release for another month, at least, and Ford sighed unconsciously when he thought of it; for although a month is not long, there was Josephine refusing to look at him, and there was Dick—and there was the jug in the closet.
As to Josephine, there was no help for it; he could not avoid her without making the avoidance plain to all observers, and Ford was proud. As to Dick, he would not send him off without some proof that he had broken an unwritten law of the Double Cross and brought whisky to the ranch; and of that he had no proof. As to his suspicions—well, he considered that Dick had almost paid the penalty for having roused them, and the matter would have to rest where it was; for Ford was just. As to the jug, he could empty it upon the ground and be done with that particular form of torture. But he felt sure that Josephine was secretly "keeping cases" on the jug; and Ford was stubborn.
That night Ford did not respond to the tinkle of the tea bell. His head ached abominably, and he did not want to see Josephine's averted face opposite him at the table. He lay still upon the bed where he had finally thrown himself, and let the bell tinkle until it was tired.
They sent Buddy in to see why he did not come. Buddy looked at him with the round, curious eyes of precocious childhood and went back and reported that Ford wasn't asleep, but was just lying there mad. Ford heard the shrill little voice innocently maligning him, and swore to himself; but, he did not move for all that. He lay thinking and fighting discouragement and thirst, while little table sounds came through the partition and made a clicking accompaniment to his thoughts.
If he were free, he was wondering between spells of temptation, would it do any good? Would Josephine care? There was no answer to that, or if there was he did not know what it was.
After awhile the two women began talking; he judged that Buddy had left them, because it was sheer madness to speak so freely before him. At first he paid no attention to what they were saying, beyond a grudging joy in the sound of Josephine's voice. It had come to that, with Ford! But when he heard his name spoken, and by her, he lifted shamelessly to an elbow and listened, glad that the walls were so thin, and that those who dwell in thin-partitioned houses are prone to forget that the other rooms may not be quite empty. They two spent most of their waking hours alone together, and habit breeds carelessness always.
"Do you suppose he's drunk?" Mrs. Kate asked, and her voice was full of uneasiness. "Chester says he's terrible when he gets started. I was sure he was perfectly safe! I just can't stand it to have him like this. Dick told me he's drinking a little all the time, and there's no telling when he'll break out, and—Oh, I think it's perfectly terrible!"
"Hsh-sh," warned Josephine.
"He went out, quite a while ago. I heard him," said Mrs. Kate, with rash certainty. "He hasn't been like himself since that day he fought Dick. He must be—"
"But how could he?" Josephine's voice interrupted sharply. "That jug he's got is full yet."
Ford could imagine Mrs. Kate shaking her head with the wisdom born of matrimony.
"Don't you suppose he could keep putting in water?" she asked pityingly. Ford almost choked when he heard that!
"I don't believe he would." Josephine's tone was dubious. "It doesn't seem to me that a man would do that; he'd think he was just spoiling what was left. That," she declared with a flash of inspiration, "is what a woman would do. And a man always does something different!" There was a pathetic note in the last sentence, which struck Ford oddly.
"Don't think you know men, my dear, until you've been married to one for eight years or so," said Mrs. Kate patronizingly. "When you've been—"
"Oh, for mercy's sake, do you think they're all alike?" Josephine's voice was tart and impatient. "I know enough about men to know they're all different. You can't judge one by another. And I don't believe that Ford is drinking at all. He's just—"
"Just what?—since you know so well!" Mrs. Kate was growing ironical.
"He's trying not to—and worrying." Her voice lowered until it took love to hear it. Ford did hear, and his breath came fast. He did not catch Mrs. Kate's reply; he was not in love with Mrs. Kate, and he was engaged in letting the words of Josephine sink into his very soul, and in telling himself over and over that she understood. It seemed to him a miracle of intuition, that she should sense the fight he was making; and since he felt that way about it, it was just as well he did not know that Jim Felton sensed it quite as keenly as Josephine—and with a far greater understanding of how bitter a fight it was, and for that reason a deeper sympathy.
"I wish Chester was here!" wailed Mrs. Kate, across the glow of his exultant thoughts. "I'm afraid to say anything to him myself, he's so morose. It's a shame, because he's so splendid when he's—himself."
"He's as much himself now as ever he was," Josephine defended hotly. "When he's drinking he's altogether—"
"You never saw him drunk," Mrs. Kate pointed to the weak spot in Josephine's defense of him. "Dick says—"
"Oh, do you believe everything Dick says? A week ago you were bitter against Dick and all enthusiasm for Ford."
"You were flirting with Dick then, and you'd hardly treat Ford decently. And Ford hadn't gone to drink—"
"Will you hush?" There were tears of anger in Josephine's voice. "He isn't, I tell you!"
"What does he keep that jug in the closet for? And every few hours he comes up to the house and goes into his room—and he never did that before. And have you noticed his eyes? He'll scarcely talk any more, and he just pretends to eat. At dinner to-day he scarcely touched a thing! It's a sure sign, Phenie."
Ford was growing tired of that sort of thing. It dimmed the radiance of Josephine's belief in him, to have Mrs. Kate so sure of his weakness. He got up from the bed as quietly as he could and left the house. He was even more thoughtful, after that, but not quite so gloomy—if one cared enough for his moods to make a fine distinction.
Have you ever observed the fact that many of life's grimmest battles and deepest tragedies scarce ripple the surface of trivial things? We are always rubbing elbows with the big issues and never knowing anything about it. Certainly no one at the Double Cross guessed what was always in the mind of the foreman. Jim thought he was "sore" because of Dick. Dick thought Ford was jealous of him, and trying to think of some scheme to "play even," without coming to open war. Mrs. Kate was positive, in her purely feminine mind—which was a very good mind, understand, but somewhat inadequate when brought to bear upon the big problems of life—that Ford was tippling in secret. Josephine thought—just what she said, probably, upon the chill day when she calmly asked Ford at the breakfast table if he would let her go with him.
Ford had casually remarked, in answer to a diffident question from Mrs. Kate, that he was going to ride out on Long Ridge and see if any stock was drifting back toward the ranch. He hadn't sent any one over that way for several days. Ford, be it said, had announced his intention deliberately, moved by a vague, unreasoning impulse.
"Can I go?" teased Buddy, from sheer force of habit; no one ever mentioned going anywhere, but Buddy shot that question into the conversation.
"No, you can't. You can't, with that cold," his mother vetoed promptly, and Buddy, whimpering over his hot cakes, knew well the futility of argument, when Mrs. Kate used that tone of finality.
"Will you let me go?" Josephine asked unexpectedly, and looked straight at Ford. But though her glance was direct, it was unreadable, and Ford mentally threw up his hands after one good look at her, and tried not to betray the fact that this was what he had wanted, but had not hoped for.
"Sure, you can go," he said, with deceitful brevity. Josephine had not spoken to him all the day before, except to say good-morning when he came in to his breakfast. Ford made no attempt to understand her, any more. He was carefully giving her the lead, as he would have explained it, and was merely following suit until he got a chance to trump; but he was beginning to have a discouraged feeling that the game was hers, and that he might as well lay down his hand and be done with it. Which, when he brought the simile back to practical affairs, meant that he was thinking seriously of leaving the ranch and the country just as soon as Mason returned.
He was thinking of trying the Argentine Republic for awhile, if he could sell the land which he had rashly bought while he was getting rid of his inheritance.
She did not offer any excuse for the request, as most women would have done. Neither did she thank him, with lips or with eyes, for his ready consent. She seemed distrait—preoccupied, as if she, also, were considering some weighty question.
Ford pushed back his chair, watching her furtively. She rose with Kate, and glanced toward the window.
"I suppose I shall need my heaviest sweater," she remarked practically, and as if the whole affair were too commonplace for discussion. "It does look threatening. How soon will you want to start?" This without looking toward Ford at all.
"Right away, if that suits you." Ford was still watchful, as if he had not quite given up hope of reading her meaning.
She told him she would be ready by the time he had saddled, and she appeared in the stable door while he was cinching the saddle on the horse he meant to ride.
"I hope you haven't given me Dude," she said unemotionally. "He's supposed to be gentle—but he bucked me off that day I sprained my ankle, and all the excuse he had was that a rabbit jumped out from a bush almost under his nose. I've lost faith in him since. Oh—it's Hooligan, is it? I'm glad of that; Hooligan's a dear—and he has the easiest gallop of any horse on the ranch. Have you tried him yet, Ford?"
The heart of Ford lifted in his chest at her tone and her words, along toward the last. He forgot the chill of her voice in the beginning, and he dwelt greedily upon the fact that once more she had called him Ford. But his joy died suddenly when he led his horse out and discovered that Dick and Jim Felton were coming down the path, within easy hearing of her. Ford did not know women very well, but most men are born with a rudimentary understanding of them. He suspected that her intimacy of tone was meant for Dick's benefit; and when they had ridden three or four miles and her share of the conversation during that time had consisted of "yes" twice, "no" three times, and one "indeed," he was sure of it.
So Ford began to wonder why she came at all—unless that, also, was meant to discipline Dick—and his own mood became a silent one. He did not, he told himself indignantly, much relish being used as a club to beat some other man into good behavior.
They rode almost to Long Ridge before Ford discovered that Josephine was stealing glances at his face whenever she thought he was not looking, and that the glances were questioning, and might almost be called timid. He waited until he was sure he was not mistaken, and then turned his head unexpectedly, and smiled into her startled eyes.
"What is it?" he asked, still smiling at her. "I won't bite. Say it, why don't you?"
She bit her lips and looked away.
"I wanted to ask something—ask you to do something," she said, after a minute. And then hurriedly, as if she feared her courage might ebb and leave her stranded, "I wish you'd give me that—jug!"
Sheer surprise held Ford silent, staring at her.
"I don't ask many favors—I wish you'd grant just that one. I wouldn't ask another."
"What do you want of it?"
"Oh—" she stopped, then plunged on recklessly. "It's getting on my nerves so! And if you gave it to me, you wouldn't have to fight the temptation—"
"Why wouldn't I? There's plenty more where that came from," he reminded her.
"But it wouldn't be right where you could get it any time the craving came. Won't you let me take it?" He had never before heard that tone from her; but he fought down the thrill of it and held himself rigidly calm.
"Oh, I don't know—the jug's doing all right, where it is," he evaded; what he wanted most was to get at her real object, and, man-like, to know beyond doubt whether she really cared.
"But you don't—you never touch it," she urged. "I know, because—well, because every day I look into it! I suppose you'll say I have no right, that it's spying, or something. But I don't care for that. And I can see that it's worrying you dreadfully. And if you don't drink any of it, why won't you let me have it?"
"If I don't drink it; what difference does it make who has it?" he countered.
"I'm afraid there'll be a time when you'll yield, just because you are blue and discouraged—or something; whatever mood it is that makes the temptation hardest to resist. I know myself that things are harder to endure some days than they are others." She stopped and looked at him in that enigmatical way she had. "You may not know it—but I've been staying here just to see whether you fail or succeed. I thought I understood a little of why you came, and I—I stayed." She leaned and twisted a wisp of Hooligan's mane nervously, and Ford noticed how the color came and went in the cheek nearest him.
"I—oh, it's awfully hard to say what I want to say, and not have it sound different," she began again, without looking at him. "But if you don't understand what I mean—" Her teeth clicked suggestively.
Ford leaned to her. "Say it anyway and take a chance," he urged, and his voice was like a kiss, whether he knew it or not. He did know that she caught her breath at the words or the tone, and that the color flamed a deeper tint in her cheek and then faded to a faint glow.
"What I mean is that I appreciate the way you have acted all along. I—it wasn't an easy situation to meet, and you have met it like a man—and a gentleman. I was afraid of you at first, and I misunderstood you completely. I'm ashamed to confess it, but it's true. And I want to see you make good in this thing you have attempted; and if there's anything on earth that I can do to help you, I want you to let me do it. You will, won't you?" She looked at him then with clear, honest eyes. "It's my way of wanting to thank you for—for not taking any advantage, or trying to, of—your—position that night."
Ford's own cheeks went hot. "I thought you knew all along that I wasn't a cur, at least," he said harshly. "I never knew before that you had any reason to be afraid of me, that night. If I'd known that—but I thought you just didn't like me, and let it go at that. And what I said I meant. You needn't feel that you have anything to thank me for; I haven't done a thing that deserves thanks—or fear either, for that matter."
"I thought you understood, when I left—"
"I didn't worry much about it, one way or the other," he cut in. "I hunted around for you, of course, and when I saw you'd pulled out for good, I went over the hill and camped. I didn't get the note till next morning; and I don't know," he added, with a brief smile, "as that did much toward making me understand. You just said to wait till some one came after me. Well, I didn't wait." He laughed and leaned toward her again. "Now there seems a chance of our being—pretty good friends," he said, in the caressing tone he had used before, and of which he was utterly unconscious, "we won't quarrel about that night, will we? You got home all right, and so did I. We'll forget all about it. Won't we?" He laid a hand on the horn of her saddle so that they rode close together, and tried futilely to read what was in her face, since she did not speak.
Josephine stared blankly at the brown slope before them. Her lips were set firmly together, and her brows were contracted also, and her gloved fingers gripped the reins tightly. She paid not the slightest attention to Ford's hand upon her saddle horn, nor at the steady gaze of his eyes. Later, when Ford observed the rigidity of her whole pose and sensed that mental withdrawing which needs no speech to push one off from the more intimate ground of companionship, he wondered a little. Without in the least knowing why he felt rebuffed, he took away his hand, and swung his horse slightly away from her; his own back stiffened a little in response to the chilled atmosphere.
"Yes," she said at last, "we'll forget all about it, Mr. Campbell."
"You called me Ford, a while ago," he hinted.
"Did I? One forms the habit of picking up a man's given name, out here in the West, I find. I'm sorry—"
"I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to do it again. All the time," he added boldly.
He caught the gleam of her eyes under her heavy lashes, as she glanced at him sidelong.
"If you go looking at me out of the corner of your eyes," he threatened recklessly, kicking his horse closer, "I'm liable to kiss you!"
And he did, before she could draw away.
"I've been kinda thinking maybe I'm in love with you, Josephine," he murmured, holding her close. "And now I'm dead sure of it. And if you won't love me back why—there'll be something doing, that's all!"
"Yes? And what would you do, please?" Her tone was icy, but he somehow felt that the ice was very, very thin, and that her heart beat warm beneath. She drew herself free, and he let her go.
"I dunno," he confessed whimsically. "But Lordy me! I'd sure do something!"
"Look for comfort in that jug, I suppose you mean?"
"No, I don't mean that." He stopped and considered, his forehead creased as if he were half angry at the imputation. "I'm pretty sure of where I stand, on that subject. I've done a lot of thinking, since I hit the Double Cross—and I've cut out whisky for good.
"I know what you thought, and what Mrs. Kate thinks yet; and I'll admit it was mighty tough scratching for a couple of days after I got hold of that jug. But I found out which was master—and it wasn't the booze!" He looked at her with eyes that shone. "Josie, girl, I took a long chance—but I put it up to myself this way, when the jug seemed to be on top. I told myself it was whisky or you; not that exactly, either. It's hard to say just what I do mean. Not you, maybe—but what you stand for. What I could get out of life, if I was straight and lived clean, and had a little woman like you. It may not be you at all; that's as you—"
He stopped as if some one had laid a hand over his mouth. It was not as she said. It might have been, only for that drunken marriage of his. Never before had he hated whisky as bitterly as he did then, when he remembered what it had done for him that night in Sunset, and what it was doing now. It closed his lips upon what he would have given much to be able to say; for he was a man with all the instincts of chivalry and honor—and he loved the girl. It was, he realized bitterly, just because he did love her so well, that he could not say more. He had said too much already; but her nearness had gone to his head, and he had forgotten that he was not free to say what he felt.
Perhaps Josephine mistook his sudden silence for trepidation, or humility. At any rate she reined impulsively close, and reached out and caught the hand hanging idly at his side.
"Ford, I'm no coquette," she said straightforwardly, with a blush for maiden-modesty's sake. "I believe you; absolutely and utterly I believe you. If you had been different at first—if you had made any overtures whatever toward—toward lovemaking, I should have despised you. I never would have loved you in this world! But you didn't. You kept at such a distance that I—I couldn't help thinking about you and studying you. And lately—when I knew you were fighting the—the habit—I loved you for the way you did fight. I was afraid, too. I used to slip into your room every time you left it, and look—and I just ached to help you! But I knew I couldn't do a thing; and that was the hardest part. All I could do was stand back—clear back out of sight, and hope. And—and love you, too, Ford. I'm proud of you! I'm proud to think that I—I love a man that is a man; that doesn't sit down and whine because a fight is hard, or give up and say it's no use. I do despise a moral weakling, Ford. I don't mind what you have been; it's what you are, that counts with me. And you're a man, every inch of you. I'm not a bit afraid you'll weaken. Only," she added half apologetically, "I did want you to give me the—the jug, because I couldn't bear to see you look so worried." She gave his fingers an adorable little squeeze, and flung his hand away from her, and laughed in a way to set his heart pounding heavily in his chest. "Now you know where I stand, Mr. Man," she cried lightly, "so let's say no more about it. I bet I can beat you across this flat!" She laughed again, wrinkled her nose at him impertinently, and was off in a run.
If she had waited, Ford would have told her. If she had given him a chance, he would have told her afterward; but she did not. She was extremely careful not to let their talk become intimate, after that. She laughed, she raced Hooligan almost to the point of abuse, she chattered about everything under the sun that came into her mind, except their own personal affairs or anything that could possibly lead up to the subject.
Ford, for a time, watched for an opening honestly; saw at last the impossibility of telling her—unless indeed he shouted, "Say, I'm a married man!" to her without preface or extenuating explanation—and yielded finally to the reprieve the fates sent him.
To Find and Free a Wife
Ford spent the rest of that day and all of the night that followed, in thinking what would be the best and the easiest method of gaining the point he wished to reach. All along he had been uncomfortably aware of his matrimonial entanglement and had meant, as soon as he conveniently could, to try and discover who was his wife, and how best to free himself and her. He had half expected that she herself would do something to clear the mystery. She had precipitated the marriage, he constantly reminded himself, and it was reasonable to expect that she would do something; though what, Ford could only conjecture.
When he faced Josephine across the breakfast table the next morning, and caught the shy glance she gave him when Mrs. Kate was not looking, a plan he had half formed crystallized into a determination. He would not tell her anything about it until he knew just what he was up against, and how long it was going to take him to free himself. And since he could not do anything about it while he rode and planned and gave orders at the Double Cross, he swallowed his breakfast rather hurriedly and went out to find Jim Felton.
"Say, Jim," he began, when he ran that individual to earth in the stable, where, with a pair of sheep shears, he was roaching the mane of a shaggy old cow pony to please Buddy, who wanted to make him look like a circus horse, even if there was no hope of his ever acting like one. "I'm going to hand you the lines and let you drive, for a few days. I've got to scout around on business of my own, and I don't know just how long it's going to take me. I'm going right away—to-day."
"Yeah?" Jim poised the shears in air and regarded him quizzically over the pony's neck. "Going to pass me foreman's privilege—to hire and fire?" he grinned. "Because I may as well tell you that if you do, Dick won't be far behind you on the trail."
"Oh, darn Dick. I'll fire him myself, maybe, before I leave. Yes," he added, thinking swiftly of Josephine as the object of Dick's desires, "that's what I'll do. Maybe it'll save a lot of trouble while I'm gone. He's a tricky son-of-a-gun."
"You're dead right; he is," Jim agreed. And then, dryly: "Grandmother just died?"
"Oh, shut up. This ain't an excuse—it's business. I've just got to go, and that's all there is to it. I'll fix things with the missus, and tell her you're in charge. Anyway, I won't be gone any longer than I can help."
"I believe that, too," said Jim softly, and busied himself with the shears.
Ford looked at him sharply, in doubt as to just how much or how little Jim meant by that. He finally shrugged his shoulders and went away to tell Mrs. Kate, and found that a matter which required more diplomacy than he ever suspected he possessed. But he did tell her, and he hoped that she believed the reason he gave for going, and also had some faith in his assurance that he would be back, probably, in a couple of days—or as soon afterwards as might be.
"There's nothing but chores to do now around the ranch, and Jack will ride fence," he explained unnecessarily, to cover his discomfort at her coldness. "Jim can look after things just as well as I can. There won't be any need to start feeding the calves, unless it storms; and if it does, Jim and Jack will go ahead, all right. I'm going to let Dick and Curly go. We don't need more than two men besides Walt, from now on."
"I wish Chester was here," said Mrs. Kate ambiguously.
Ford did not ask her why she wished that. He told her good-by as hastily as if he had to run to catch a train, and left her. He hoped he would be lucky enough to see Josephine—and then he hoped quite as sincerely that he would not see her, after all. It would be easier to go without her clear eyes asking him why.
What he meant to do first was to find Rock, and see if he had been sober enough that night in Sunset to remember what happened at the marriage ceremony, and could give him some clue as to the woman's identity and whereabouts. If he failed there, he intended to hunt up the preacher. That, also, presented certain difficulties, but Ford was in the mood to overcome obstacles. Once he discovered who the woman was, it seemed to him that there should be no great amount of trouble in getting free. As he understood it, he was not the man she had intended to marry; and not being the man she wanted, she certainly could not be over-anxious to cling to him.
While he galloped down the trail to town, he went over the whole thing again in his mind, to see if there might be some simpler plan than the one he had formed in the night.
"No, sir—it's Rock I've got to see first," he concluded. "But Lord only knows where I'll find him; Rock never does camp twice in the same place. Never knew him to stay more than a month with one outfit. But I'll find him, all right!"
And by one of those odd twists of circumstances which sets men to wondering if there is such a thing as telepathy and a specifically guiding hand and the like, it was Rock and none other whom he met fairly in the trail before he had gone another mile.
"Well, I'll be gol darned!" Ford whispered incredulously to himself, and pulled up short in the trail to wait for him.
Rock came loping up with elbows flapping loosely, as was his ungainly habit. His grin was wide and golden as of yore, his hat at the same angle over his right eyebrow.
"Gawd bless you, brother! May peace ride behind your cantle!" he declaimed unctuously, for Rock was a character, in his way, and in his speech was not in the least like other men. "Whither wendest thou?"
"My wending is all over for the present," said Ford, wheeling his horse short around, that he might ride alongside the other. "I started out to hunt you up, you old devil. How are you, anyway?"
"It is well with me, and well with my soul—what little I've got—but it ain't so well with my winter grub-stake. I'm just as tickled to see you as you ever dare be to meet up with me, and that's no lie. I heard you've got a stand-in with the Double Cross, and seeing they ain't on to my little peculiarities, I thought I'd ride out and see if I couldn't work you for a soft snap. Got any ducks out there you want led to water?"
"Maybe—I dunno. I just canned two men this morning, before I left." Ford was debating with himself how best to approach the subject to him most important.
"Good ee-nough! I can take the place of those two men; eat their share of grub, do their share of snoring, and shirk their share of work, and drink their share of booze—oh, lovely! But, in the words of the dead, immortal Shakespeare, 'What's eating you?' You look to me as if you hadn't enjoyed the delights of a good, stiff jag since—" He waved a hand vaguely. "Ain't a scar on you, so help me!" He regarded Ford with frank curiosity.
"Oh, yes there is. I've got the hide peeled off two knuckles, and one of my thumbs is just getting so it will move without being greased," Ford assured him, and then went straight at what was on his mind.
"Say, Rock, I was told that you had a hand in my getting married, back in Sunset that night."
Rock made his horse back until it nearly fell over a rock; his face showed exaggerated symptoms of terror.
"I couldn't help it," he wailed. "Spare muh—for muh poor mother's sake, oh spare muh life!" Whereat Ford laughed, just as Rock meant that he should do. "You licked Bill twice for that, they tell me," Rock went on, quitting his foolery and coming up close again. "And you licked the preacher that night, and—so the tale runneth—like to have put the whole town on the jinks. Is there anything in particular you'd like to do to me?"
"I just want you to tell me who I married—if you can." Ford reddened as the other stared, but he did not stop. "I was so darned full that night I let the whole business ooze out of my memory, and I haven't been able to—"
Rock was leaning over the saddle horn, howling and watery-eyed. Ford looked at him with a dawning suspicion.
"It did strike me, once or twice," he said grimly, "that the whole thing was a put-up job. If you fellows rigged up a josh like that, and let it go as far as this, may the Lord have mercy on your souls, for I won't!"
But Rock could only wave him off weakly; so Ford waited until he had recovered. Even then, it took some talking to convince Rock that the affair was truly serious and not to be treated any longer as a joke.
"Why, damn it, man, I'm in love with a girl and I want to marry her if I can get rid of this other darned, mysterious, Tom-fool of a woman," Ford gritted at last, in sheer desperation. "Or if it's just a josh, by this and by that I mean to find it out."
Rock sobered then. "It ain't any josh," he said, with convincing earnestness. "You got married, all right enough. And if it's as you say, Ford, I sure am sorry for it. I don't know the girl's name. I'd know her quick enough if I should see her, but I can't tell you who she was."
Ford swore, of course. And Rock listened sympathetically until he was done.
"That's the stuff; get it out of your system, Ford, and then you'll feel better. Then we can put our heads together and see if there isn't some way to beat this combination."
"Could you spot the preacher, do you reckon?" asked Ford more calmly.
"I could—if he didn't see us coming," Rock admitted guardedly. "Name of Sanderson, I believe. I've seen him around Garbin. He could tell—he must have some record of it; but would he?"
"Don't you know, even, why she came and glommed onto me like that?" Ford's face was as anxious as his tone.
"Only what you told me, confidentially, in a corner afterwards," said Rock regretfully. "Maybe you told it straight, and maybe you didn't; there's no banking on a man's imagination when he's soused. But the way you told it to me was this:
"You said the girl told you that she was working for some queer old party—an old lady with lots of dough; and she made her will and give her money all to some institution—hospital or some darned thing, I forget just what, or else you didn't say. Only, if this girl would marry her son within a certain time, he could have the wad. Seems the son was something of a high-roller, and the old lady knew he'd blow it in, if it was turned over to him without any ballast, like; and the girl was supposed to be the ballast, to hold him steady. So the old lady, or else it was the girl, writes to this fellow, and he agrees to hook up with the lady and take the money and behave himself. Near as I could make it out, the time was just about up before the girl took matters into her own hand, and come out on a hunt for this Frank Cameron. How she happened to sink her rope on you instead, and take her turns before she found out her mistake, you'll have to ask her—if you ever see her again.
"But this much you told me—and I think you got it straight. The girl was willing to marry you—or Frank Cameron—so he could get what belonged to him. She wasn't going to do any more, though, and you told me"—Rock's manner became very impressive here—"that you promised her, as a man and a gentleman, that you wouldn't ever bother her, and that she was to travel her own trail, and she didn't want the money. She just wanted to dodge that fool will, seems like. Strikes me I'd a let the fellow go plumb to Guinea, if I was in her place, but women get queer notions of duty, and the like of that, sometimes. Looks to me like a fool thing for a woman to do, anyway."
Though they talked a good while about it, that was all the real information which Ford could gain. He would have to find the minister and persuade him to show the record of the marriage, and after that he would have to find the girl.
Before they reached that definite conclusion, the storm which had been brewing for several days swooped down upon them, and drove Ford to the alternative of riding in the teeth of it to town, which was not only unpleasant but dangerous, if it grew any worse, or retracing his steps to the Double Cross and waiting there until it was over. So that is what he did, with Rock to bear him willing company.
They met Dick and Curly on the way, and though Ford stopped them and suggested that they turn back also, neither would do so. Curly intimated plainly that the joys of town were calling to him from afar, and that facing a storm was merely calculated to make his destination more alluring by contrast. "Turn back with two months' wages burning up my inside pocket? Oh, no!" he laughed, and rode on. Dick did not say why, but he rode on also. Ford turned in the saddle and looked after them, as they disappeared in a swirl of fine snow.
"That's what I ought to do," he said, "but I'm not going to do it, all the same."
"Which only goes to prove," bantered Rock, "that the Double Cross pulls harder than all the preacher could tell you. I wonder if there isn't a girl at the Double Cross, now!"
"There is," Ford confessed, with a grin of embarrassment. "And you shut up."
"I just had a hunch there was," Rock permitted himself to say meekly, before he dropped the subject.
It was ten minutes before Ford spoke again.
"I'll take you up to the house and introduce you to her, Rock, if you'll behave yourself," he offered then, with a shyness in his manner that nearly set Rock off in one of his convulsions of mirth. "But the missus isn't wise—so watch out. And if you don't behave yourself," he added darkly, "I'll knock your block off."
"Sure. But my block is going to remain right where it's at," Rock assured him, which was a tacit promise of as perfect behavior as he could attain.
They looked like snow men when they unsaddled, with the powdery snow beaten into the very fabric of their clothing, and Ford suggested that they go first to the bunk-house to thaw out. "I'd sure hate to pack all this snow into Mrs. Kate's parlor," he added whimsically. "She's the kind of housekeeper that grabs the broom the minute you're gone, to sweep your tracks off the carpet. Awful nice little woman, but—"
"But not The One," chuckled Rock, treading close upon Ford's heels. "And I'll bet fifteen cents," he offered rashly, looking up, "that the person hitting the high places for the bunk-house is The One."
"How do you know?" Ford demanded, while his eyes gladdened at sight of Josephine, with a Navajo blanket flung over her head, running down the path through the blizzard to the bunk-house kitchen.
"'Cause she shied when she saw you coming. Came pretty near breaking back on you, too," Rock explained shrewdly.
They reached the kitchen together, and Ford threw open the door, and held it for her to pass.
"I came after some of Mose's mince-meat," she explained hastily. "It's a terrible storm, isn't it? I'm glad it didn't strike yesterday. I thought you were going to be gone for several days."
Ford, with embarrassed haste to match her own, presented Rock in the same breath with wishing that Rock was elsewhere; for Mose was not in the kitchen, and he had not had more than a few words with her for twenty-four hours. He was perilously close to forgetting his legal halter when he looked at her.
She was, he thought, about as sweet a picture of a woman as a man need ever look upon, as she stood there with the red Navajo blanket falling back from her dark hair, and with her wide, honest eyes fixed upon Rock. She was blushing, as if she, too, wished Rock elsewhere. She turned impulsively, set down the basin she had been holding in her arm, and pulled the blanket up so that it framed her face bewitchingly.
"Mose can bring up the mince-meat when he comes—since he isn't here," she said hurriedly. "We weren't looking for you back, but dinner will be ready in half an hour or so, I think." She pulled open the door and went out into the storm.
Rock stared at the door, still quivering with the slam she had given it. Then he looked at Ford, and afterward sat down weakly upon a stool, and began dazedly pulling the icicles from his mustache.
"Well—I'll—be—cremated!" he said in a whisper.
"And what's eating you, Rock?" Ford quizzed gayly. He had seen something in the eyes of Josephine, when he met her, that had set his blood jumping again. "Did Miss Melby—"
"Miss Melby my granny!" grunted Rock, in deep disgust. "That there is your wife!"
Ford backed up against the wall and stared at him blankly. Afterward he took a deep breath and went out as though the place was on fire.
What Ford Found at the Top
Ford Campbell was essentially a man of action; he did not waste ten seconds in trying to deduce the whys and hows of the amazing fact; he would have a whole lifetime in which to study them. He started for the house, and the tracks he made in the loose, shifting snow were considerably more than a yard apart. He even forgot to stamp off the clinging snow and scour his boot-soles upon the porch rug, and when he went striding in, he pushed the door only half shut behind him, so that it swung in the wind and let a small drift collect upon the parlor carpet, until Mrs. Kate, feeling a draught, discovered it, and was shocked beyond words at the sacrilege.
Ford went into the dining-room, crossed it in just three strides, and ran his quarry to earth in the kitchen, where she was distraitly setting out biscuit materials. He started toward her, realized suddenly that the all-observing Buddy was at his very heels, and delayed the reckoning while he led that terrible man-child to his mother.
"I wish you'd close-herd this kid for about four hours," he told Mrs. Kate bluntly, and left her looking scared and unconsciously posing as protective motherhood, her arm around the outraged Robert Chester Mason. Mrs. Kate was absolutely convinced that Ford was at last really drunk and "on the rampage," and she had a terrible vision of slain girlhood in the kitchen, so that she was torn between mother-love and her desire to protect Phenie. But Ford had looked so threateningly at her and Buddy that she could not bring herself to attract his attention to the child or herself. Phenie had plenty of spirit; she could run down to the bunk-house—Mrs. Kate heard a door slam then, and shuddered. Phenie, she judged swiftly, had locked herself into the pantry.
Phenie had. Or, to be exact, she had run in and slammed the door shut in Ford's very face, and she was leaning her weight against it. Mrs. Kate, pressing the struggling Buddy closer to her, heard voices, a slight commotion, and then silence. She could bear no more. She threw a shawl over her head, grasped Buddy firmly by the arm, and fled in terror to the bunk-house.
The voices were a brief altercation between Ford and Josephine, on the subject of opening the door, before it was removed violently from its hinges. The commotion was when Josephine, between tears and laughter, failed to hold the door against the pressure of a strong man upon the other side, and, suddenly giving over the attempt, was launched against a shelf and dislodged three tin pans, which she barely saved from falling with a great clatter to the floor. The silence—the silence should explain itself; but since humanity is afflicted with curiosity, and demands details, this is what occurred immediately after Josephine had been kissed four times for her stubbornness, and the pans had been restored to their proper place.
"Say! Are you my wife?" was the abrupt question which Ford asked, and kissed her again while he waited for an answer.
"Why, yes—what makes you ask that? Of course I am; that is—" Josephine twisted in his arms, so that she could look into his face. She did not laugh at him, however. She was staring at him with that keen, measuring look which had so incensed him, when he had first met her. "I don't understand you at all, Ford," she said at last, with a frown of puzzlement. "I never have, for that matter. I'd think I was beginning to, and then you would say or do something that would put me all at sea. What do you mean, anyway?"
Ford told her what he meant; told her humbly, truthfully, with never an excuse for himself. And it speaks well for the good sense of Josephine that she heard him through with neither tears, laughter, nor anger to mar his trust in her.
"Of course, I knew you had been drinking, that night," she said, when his story was done, and his face was pressed lightly against the white parting in her soft, brown hair. "I saw it, after—after the ceremony. You—you were going to kiss me, and I caught the odor of liquor, and I felt that you wouldn't have done that if you had been yourself; it frightened me, a little. But you talked perfectly straight, and I never knew you weren't the man—Frank Cameron—until you came here. Then I saw you couldn't be he. Chester had known you when Frank was at home with his mother—I compared dates and was sure of that—and he called you Ford Campbell. So then I saw what a horrible blunder I'd made, and I was worried nearly to death! But I couldn't see what I could do about it, and you didn't—"
"Say, what about this Frank Cameron, anyway?" Ford demanded, with true male jealousy. "What did you want to marry him for? You couldn't have known him, or—"
"Oh, you wouldn't understand—" Josephine gave a little, impatient turn of the head, "unless you knew his mother. I did know Frank, a long time ago, when I was twelve or thirteen, and when I saw you, I thought he'd changed a lot. But it was his mother; she was the dearest thing, but—queer. Sort of childish, you know. And she just worshiped Frank, and used to watch for the postman—oh, it was too pitiful! Sometimes I'd write a letter myself, and pretend it was from him, and read it to her; her eyes were bad, so it was easy—"
"Where was this Frank?" Ford interrupted.
"Oh, I don't know! I never did know. Somewhere out West, we thought. I used to make believe the letters came from Helena, or Butte, because that was where she heard from him last. He was always promising to come home—in the letters. That used to make her so much better," she explained naively. "And sometimes she'd be able to go out in the yard and fuss with her flowers, after one like that. But he never came, and so she got the notion that he was wild and a spendthrift. I suppose he was, or he'd have written, or something. She had lots and lots of money and property, you know.
"Well," Josephine took one of Ford's hand and patted it reassuringly, "she got the notion that I must marry Frank, when he came home. I tried to reason her out of that, and it only made her worse. It grew on her, and I got so I couldn't bear to write any more letters, and that made it worse still. She made a will that I must marry Frank within a year after she died, or he wouldn't get anything but a hundred dollars—and she was worth thousands and thousands." Josephine snuggled closer. "She was shrewd, too. I was not to get anything except a few trinkets. And if we didn't marry, the money would all go to an old ladies' home.
"So, when she died, I felt as if I ought to do something, you see. It didn't seem right to let him lose the property, even if he wouldn't write to his mother. So I had the lawyers try to find him. I thought I could marry him, and let him get the property, and then—well, I counted on getting a divorce." She looked up quickly into Ford's face.