THE UPHILL CLIMB
B. M. BOWER
Author of Good Indian, Chip, of the Flying U, etc.
With Illustrations by CHARLES M. RUSSELL
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
I "Married! And I Don't Know Her Name!" II Wanted: Information III One Way to Drown Sorrow IV Reaction V "I Can Spare this Particular Girl" VI The Problem of Getting Somewhere VII The Foreman of the Double Cross VIII "I Wish You'd Quit Believing in Me!" IX Impressions X In Which the Demon Opens an Eye and Yawns XI "It's Going to Be an Uphill Climb!" XII At Hand-Grips with the Demon XIII A Plan Gone Wrong XIV The Feminine Point of View XV The Climb XVI To Find and Free a Wife XVII What Ford Found at the Top
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Hell-o, Ford, where the blazes did you drop down from?" a welcoming voice yelled. (Frontispiece)
She lifted her head and looked at him, and drew away.
Dick tottered upon the step and went off backward.
"Ford, I'm no coquette," she said straightforwardly.
"Married! And I Don't Know Her Name!"
Ford lifted his arms above his head to yawn as does a man who has slept too heavily, found his biceps stiffened and sore, and massaged them gingerly with his finger-tips. His eyes took on the vacancy of memory straining at the leash of forgetfulness. He sighed largely, swung his head slowly from left to right in mute admission of failure to grasp what lay just behind his slumber, and thereby discovered other muscles that protested against sudden movement. He felt his neck with a careful, rubbing gesture. One hand strayed to his left cheekbone, hovered there tentatively, wandered to the bridge of his nose, and from there dropped inertly to the bed.
"Lordy me! I must have been drunk last night," he said aloud, mechanically taking the straight line of logic from effect to cause, as much experience had taught him to do.
"You was—and then some," replied an unemotional voice from somewhere behind him.
"Oh! That you, Sandy?" Ford lay quiet, trying to remember. His finger-tips explored the right side of his face; now and then he winced under their touch, light as it was.
"I must have carried an awful load," he decided, again unerringly taking the backward trail from effect to cause. Later, logic carried him farther. "Who'd I lick, Sandy?"
"Several." The unseen Sandy gave one the impression of a man smoking and speaking between puffs. "Can't say just who—you did start in on. You wound up on—the preacher."
"Preacher?" Ford's tone matched the flicker of interest in his eyes.
Ford meditated a moment. "I don't recollect ever licking a preacher before," he observed curiously.
Life, stale and drab since his eyes opened, gathered to itself the pale glow of awakening interest. Ford rose painfully, inch by inch, until he was sitting upon the side of the bed, got from there to his feet, looked down and saw that he was clothed to his boots, and crossed slowly to where a cheap, flyspecked looking-glass hung awry upon the wall. His self-inspection was grave and minute. His eyes held the philosophic calm of accustomedness.
"Who put this head on me, Sandy?" he inquired apathetically. "The preacher?"
"I d' know. You had it when you come up outa the heap. You licked the preacher afterwards, I think."
Sandy was reading a ragged-backed novel while he smoked; his interest in Ford and Ford's battered countenance was plainly perfunctory.
Outside, the rain fell aslant in the wind and drummed dismally upon the little window beside Sandy. It beat upon the door and trickled underneath in a thin rivulet to a shallow puddle, formed where the floor was sunken. A dank warmth and the smell of wet wood heating to the blazing point pervaded the room and mingled with the coarse aroma of cheap, warmed-over coffee.
"Did anybody get married last night?" The leash of forgetfulness was snapping, strand by strand. Troubled remembrance peered out from behind the philosophic calm in Ford's eyes.
"Unh-hunh." Sandy turned a leaf and at the same time flicked the ashes from his cigarette with a mechanical finger movement. "You did." He looked briefly up from the page. "That's why you licked the preacher," he assisted, and went back to his reading.
A subdued rumble of mid-autumn thunder jarred sullenly overhead. Ford ceased caressing the purple half-moon which inclosed his left eye and began moodily straightening his tie.
"Now what'n hell did I do that for?" he inquired complainingly.
"Search me," mumbled Sandy over his book. He read half a page farther. "Do what for?" he asked, with belated attention.
Ford swore and went over and lifted the coffeepot from the stove, shook it, looked in, and made a grimace of disgust as the steam smote him in the face. "Paugh!" He set down the pot and turned upon Sandy.
"Get your nose out of that book a minute and talk!" he commanded in a tone beseeching for all its surly growl. "You say I got married. I kinda recollect something of the kind. What I want to know is who's the lady? And what did I do it for?" He sat down, leaned his bruised head upon his palms, and spat morosely into the stove-hearth. "Lordy me," he grumbled. "I don't know any lady well enough to marry her—and I sure can't think of any female lady that would marry me—not even by proxy!"
Sandy closed the book upon a forefinger and regarded Ford with that blend of pity, amusement, and tolerance which is so absolutely unbearable to one who has behaved foolishly and knows it. Ford would not have borne the look if he had seen it; but he was caressing a bruise on the point of his jaw and staring dejectedly into the meager blaze which rimmed the lower edge of the stove's front door, and so remained unconscious of his companion's impertinence.
"Who was the lady, Sandy?" he begged dispiritedly, after a silence.
"Search me" Sandy replied again succinctly. "Some stranger that blew in here with a license and the preacher and said you was her fee-ancy." (Sandy read romances, mostly, and permitted his vocabulary to profit thereby.) "You never denied it, even when she said your name was a nomdy gair; and you let her marry you, all right."
"Are you sure of that?" Ford looked up from under lowering eyebrows.
"Unh-hunh—that's what you done, all right." Sandy's voice was dishearteningly positive.
"Lordy me!" gasped Ford under his breath.
There was a silence which slid Sandy's interest back into his book. He turned a leaf and was half-way down the page before he was interrupted by more questions.
"Say! Where's she at now?" Ford spoke with a certain furtive lowering of his voice.
"I d' know." Sandy read a line with greedy interest. "She took the 'leven-twenty," he added then. Another mental lapse. "You seen her to the train yourself."
"The hell I did!" Ford's good eye glared incredulity, but Sandy was again following hungrily the love-tangle of an unpronounceable count in the depths of the Black Forest, and he remained perfectly unconscious of the look and the mental distress which caused it. Ford went back to studying the meager blaze and trying to remember. He might be able to extract the whole truth from Sandy, but that would involve taking his novel away from him—by force, probably; and the loss of the book would be very likely to turn Sandy so sullen that he would refuse to answer, or to tell the truth, at any rate; and Ford's muscles were very, very sore. He did not feel equal to a scuffle with Sandy, just then. He repeated something which sounded like an impromptu litany and had to do with the ultimate disposal of his own soul.
"Hunh?" asked Sandy.
Whereupon Ford, being harassed mentally and in great physical discomfort as well, specifically disposed of Sandy's immortal soul also.
Sandy merely grinned at him. "You don't want to take it to heart like that," he remonstrated cheerfully.
Ford, by way of reply, painstakingly analyzed the chief deficiencies of Sandy's immediate relatives, and was beginning upon his grandparents when Sandy reached barren ground in the shape of three long paragraphs of snow, cold, and sunrise artistically blended with prismatic adjectives. He waded through the first paragraph and well into the second before he mired in a hopeless jumble of unfamiliar polysyllables. Sandy was not the skipping kind; he threw the book upon a bench and gave his attention wholly to his companion in time to save his great-grandfather from utter condemnation.
"What's eating you, Ford?" he began pacifically—for Sandy was a weakling. "You might be a lot worse off. You're married, all right enough, from all I c'n hear—but she's left town. It ain't as if you had to live with her."
Ford looked at him a minute and groaned dismally.
"Oh, I ain't meaning anything against the lady herself," Sandy hastened to assure him. "Far as I know, she's all right—"
"What I want to know," Ford broke in, impatient of condolence when he needed facts, "is, who is she? And what did I go and marry her for?"
"Well, you'll have to ask somebody that knows. I never seen her, myself, except when you was leadin' her down to the depot, and you and her talked it over private like—the way I heard it. I was gitting a hair-cut and shampoo at the time. First I heard, you was married. I should think you'd remember it yourself." Sandy looked at Ford curiously.
"I kinda remember standing up and holding hands with some woman and somebody saying: 'I now pronounce you man and wife,'" Ford confessed miserably, his face in his hands again. "I guess I must have done it, all right."
Sandy was kind enough when not otherwise engaged. He got up and put a basin of water on the stove to warm, that Ford might bathe his hurts, and he made him a very creditable drink with lemon and whisky and not too much water.
"The way I heard it," he explained further, "this lady come to town looking for Frank Ford Cameron, and seen you, and said you was him. So—"
"I ain't," Ford interrupted indignantly. "My name's Ford Campbell and I'll lick any darned son-of-a-gun—"
"Likely she made a mistake," Sandy soothed. "Frank Ford Cameron, she had you down for, and you went ahead and married her willing enough. Seems like there was some hurry-up reason that she explained to you private. She had the license all made out and brought a preacher down from Garbin. Bill Wright said he overheard you tellin' her you'd do anything to oblige a lady—"
"That's the worst of it; I'm always too damned polite when I'm drunk!" grumbled Ford.
Sandy, looking upon his bruised and distorted countenance and recalling, perhaps, the process by which Ford reached that lamentable condition, made a sound like a diplomatically disguised laugh. "Not always," he qualified mildly.
"Anyway," he went on, "you sure married her. That's straight goods. Bill Wright and Rock was the witnesses. And if you don't know why you done it—" Sandy waved his hands to indicate his inability to enlighten Ford. "Right afterwards you went out to the bar and had another drink—all this takin' place in the hotel dining-room, and Mother McGrew down with neuralagy and not bein' present—and one drink leads to another, you know. I come in then, and the bunch was drinkin' luck to you fast as Sam could push the bottles along. Then you went back to the lady—and if you don't know what took place you can search me—and pretty soon Bill said you'd took her and her grip to the depot. Anyway, when you come back, you wasn't troubled with no attack of politeness!
"You went in the air with Bill, first," continued Sandy, testing with his finger the temperature of the water in the basin, "and bawled him out something fierce for standing by and seeing you make a break like that without doing something. You licked him—and then Rock bought in because some of your remarks kinda included him too. I d' know," said Sandy, scratching his unshaven jaw reflectively, "just how the fight did go between you 'n' Rock. You was both using the whole room, I know. Near as I could make out, you—or maybe it was Rock—tromped on Big Jim's bunion. This cold spell's hard on bunions—and Big Jim went after you both with blood in his eye.
"After that"—Sandy spread his arms largely—"it was go-as-you-please. Sam and me was the only ones that kept out, near as I can recollect, and when it thinned up a bit, you had Aleck down and was pounding the liver outa him, and Big Jim was whanging away at you, and Rock was clawin' Jim in the back of the neck, and you was all kickin' like bay steers in brandin' time. I reached in under the pile and dragged you out by one leg and left the rest of 'em fighting. They never seemed to miss you none." He grinned. "Jim commenced to bump Aleck's head up and down on the floor instead of you—and I knew he didn't have nothing against Aleck."
"Bill, he'd quit right in the start." Sandy's grin became a laugh. "Seems like pore old Bill always gits in bad when you commence on your third pint. You wasn't through, though, seems like. You was going to start in at the beginning and en-core the whole performance, and you started out after Bill. Bill, he was lookin' for a hole big enough to crawl into by that time. But you run into the preacher. And you licked him to a fare-you-well and had him crying real tears before I or anybody else could stop you."
"What'd I lick him for?" Ford inquired in a tone of deep discouragement.
Sandy's indeterminate, blue-gray eyes rounded with puzzlement.
"Search me," he repeated automatically. But later he inadvertently shed enlightenment. He laughed, bending double, and slapping his thigh at the irresistible urge of a mental picture.
"Thought I'd die," he gasped. "Me and Sam was watching from the door. You had the preacher by the collar, shakin' him, and once in awhile liftin' him clean off the ground on the toe of your boot; and you kept saying: 'A sober man, and a preacher—and you'd marry that girl to a fellow like me!' And then biff! And he'd let out a squawk. 'A drinkin', fightin', gamblin' son-of-a-gun like me, you swine!' you'd tell him. And when we finally pulled you loose, he picked up his hat and made a run for it."
Ford meditated gloomily. "I'll lick him again, and lick him when I'm sober, by thunder!" he promised grimly. "Who was he, do you know?"
"No, I don't. Little, dried-up geezer with a nose like a kit-fox's and a whine to his voice. He won't come around here no more."
The door opened gustily and a big fellow with a skinned nose and a whimsical pair of eyes looked in, hesitated while he stared hard at Ford, and then entered and shut the door by the simple method of throwing his shoulders back against it.
"Hello, old sport—how you comin'?" he cried cheerfully. "Kinda wet for makin' calls, but when a man's loaded down with a guilty conscience—" He sighed somewhat ostentatiously and pulled forward a chair rejuvenated with baling-wire braces between the legs, and a cowhide seat. "What's that cookin'—coffee, or sheep-dip?" he inquired facetiously of Sandy, though his eyes dwelt solicitously upon Ford's bowed head. He leaned forward and slapped Ford in friendly fashion upon the shoulder.
"Buck up—'the worst is yet to come,'" he shouted, and laughed with an exaggeration of cheerfulness. "You can't ever tell when death or matrimony's goin' to get a man. By hokey, seems like there's no dodgin' either one."
Ford lifted a bloodshot eye to the other. "And I always counted you for a friend, Bill," he reproached heavily. "Sandy says I licked you good and plenty. Well, looks to me like you had it coming, all right."
"Well—I got it, didn't I?" snorted Bill, his hand lifting involuntarily to his nose. "And I ain't bellering, am I?" His mouth took an abused, downward droop. "I ain't holdin' any grudge, am I? Why, Sandy here can tell you that I held one side of you up whilst he was leadin' the other side of you home! And I am sorry I stood there and seen you get married off and never lifted a finger; I'm darned sorry. I shoulda hollered misdeal, all right. I know it now." He pulled remorsefully at his wet mustache, which very much resembled a worn-out sharing brush.
Ford straightened up, dropped a hand upon his thigh, and thereby discovered another sore spot, which he caressed gently with his palm.
"Say, Bill, you were there, and you saw her. On the square now—what's she like? And what made me marry her?"
Bill pulled so hard upon his mustache that his teeth showed; his breath became unpleasantly audible with the stress of emotion. "So help me, I can't tell you what she's like, Ford," he confessed. "I don't remember nothing about her looks, except she looked good to me, and I never seen her before, and her hair wasn't red—I always remember red hair when I see it, drunk or sober. You see," he added as an extenuation, "I was pretty well jagged myself. I musta been. I recollect I was real put out because my name wasn't Frank Ford—By hokey!" He laid an impressive forefinger upon Ford's knee and tapped several times. "I never knew your name was rightly Frank Ford Cameron. I always—"
"It ain't." Ford winced and drew away from the tapping process, as if his knee also was sensitive that morning.
"You told her it was. I mind that perfectly, because I was so su'prised I swore right out loud and was so damned ashamed I couldn't apologize. And say! She musta been a real lady or I wouldn't uh felt that way about it!" Bill glanced triumphantly from one to the other. "Take it from me, you married a lady, Ford. Drunk or sober, I always make it a point to speak proper before the ladies—t'other kind don't count—and when I make a break, you betcher life I remember it. She's a real lady—I'd swear to that on a stack uh bibles ten feet high!" He settled back and unbuttoned his steaming coat with the air of a man who has established beyond question the vital point of an argument.
"Did I tell her so myself, or did I just let it go that way?" Ford, as his brain cleared, stuck close to his groping for the essential facts.
"Well, now—I ain't dead sure as to that. Maybe Rock'll remember. Kinda seems to me now, that she asked you if you was really Frank Ford Cameron, and you said: 'I sure am,' or something like that. The preacher'd know, maybe. He musta been the only sober one in the bunch—except the girl. But you done chased him off, so—"
"Sandy, I wish you'd go hunt Rock up and tell him I want to see him." Ford spoke with more of his natural spirit than he had shown since waking.
"Rock's gone on out to Riley's camp," volunteered Bill. "Left this morning, before the rain started in."
"What was her name—do you know?" Ford went back to the mystery.
"Ida—or was it Jenny? Some darned name—I heard it, when the preacher was marrying you." Bill was floundering hopelessly in mental fog, but he persisted. "And I seen it wrote in the paper I signed my name to. I mind she rolled up the paper afterwards and put it—well, I dunno where, but she took it away with her, and says to you: 'That's safe, now'—or 'You're safe,' or 'I'm safe,'—anyway, some darned thing was safe. And I was goin' to kiss the bride—mebbe I did kiss her—only I'd likely remember it if I had, drunk or sober! And—oh, now I got it!" Bill's voice was full of elation. "You was goin' to kiss the bride—that was it, it was you goin' to kiss her, and she slap—no, by hokey, she didn't slap you, she just—or was it Rock, now?" Doubt filled his eyes distressfully. "Darn my everlastin' hide," he finished lamely, "there was some kissin' somew'ere in the deal, and I mind her cryin' afterwards, but whether it was about that, or—Say, Sandy, what was it Ford was lickin' the preacher for? Wasn't it for kissin' the bride?"
"It was for marrying him to her," Sandy informed him sententiously.
Ford got up and went to the little window and looked out. Presently he came back to the stove and stood staring disgustedly down upon the effusively friendly Bill, leering up at him pacifically.
"If I didn't feel so rotten," he said glumly, "I'd give you another licking right now, Bill—you boozing old devil. I'd like to lick every darned galoot that stood back and let me in for this. You'd ought to have stopped me. You'd oughta pounded the face off me before you let me do such a fool thing. That," he said bitterly, "shows how much a man can bank on his friends!"
"It shows," snorted Bill indignantly, "how much he can bank on himself!"
"On whisky, to let him in for all kinds uh trouble," revised Sandy virtuously. Sandy had a stomach which invariably rebelled at the second glass and therefore, remaining always sober perforce, he took to himself great credit for his morality.
"Married!—and I don't so much as know her name!" gritted Ford, and went over and laid himself down upon the bed, and sulked for the rest of that day of rain and gloom.
Sulking never yet solved a mystery nor will it accomplish much toward bettering an unpleasant situation. After a day of unmitigated gloom and a night of uneasy dreams, Ford awoke to a white, shifting world of the season's first blizzard, and to something like his normal outlook upon life.
That outlook had ever been cheerful, with the cheerfulness which comes of taking life in twenty-four-hour doses only, and of looking not too far ahead and backward not at all. Plenty of persons live after that fashion and thereby attain middle life with smooth foreheads and cheeks unlined by thought; and Ford was therefore not much different from his fellows. Never before had he found himself with anything worse than bodily bruises to sour life for him after a tumultuous night or two in town, and the sensation of a discomfort which had not sprung from some well-defined physical sense was therefore sufficiently novel to claim all his attention.
It was not the first time he had fought and forgotten it afterwards. Nor was it a new experience for him to seek information from his friends after a night full of incident. Sandy he had always found tolerably reliable, because Sandy, being of that inquisitive nature so common to small persons, made it a point to see everything there was to be seen; and his peculiar digestive organs might be counted upon to keep him sober. It was a real grievance to Ford that Sandy should have chosen the hour he did for indulging in such trivialities as hair-cuts and shampoos, while events of real importance were permitted to transpire unseen and unrecorded. Ford, when the grievance thrust itself keenly upon him, roused the recreant Sandy by pitilessly thrusting an elbow against his diaphragm.
Sandy grunted at the impact and sat bolt upright in bed before he was fairly awake. He glanced reproachfully down at Ford, who stared back at him from a badly crumpled pillow.
"Get up," growled Ford, "and start a fire going, darn you. You kept me awake half the night, snoring. I want a beefsteak with mushrooms, devilled kidneys, waffles with honey, and four banana fritters for breakfast. I'll take it in bed; and while I'm waiting, you can bring me the morning paper and a package of Egyptian Houris."
Sandy grunted again, slid reluctantly out into the bitterly cold room, and crept shivering into his clothes. He never quite understood Ford's sense of humor, at such times, but he had learned that it is more comfortable to crawl out of bed than to be kicked out, and that vituperation is a mere waste of time when matched against sheer heartlessness and a superior muscular development.
"Y' ought to make your wife build the fires," he taunted, when he was clothed and at a safe distance from the bed. He ducked instinctively afterwards, but Ford was merely placing a match by itself on the bench close by.
"That's one," Ford remarked calmly. "I'm going to thrash every misguided humorist who mentions that subject to me in anything but a helpful spirit of pure friendship. I'm going to give him a separate licking for every alleged joke. I'll want two steaks, Sandy. I'll likely have to give you about seven distinct wallopings. Hand me some more matches to keep tally with. I don't want to cheat you out of your just dues."
Sandy eyed him doubtfully while he scraped the ashes from the grate.
"You may want a dozen steaks, but that ain't saying you're going to git 'em," he retorted, with a feeble show of aggression. "And 's far as licking me goes—" He stopped to blow warmth upon his fingers, which were numbed with their grasp of the poker. "As for licking me, I guess you'll have to do that on the strength uh bacon and sour-dough biscuits; if you do it at all, which I claim the privilege uh doubting a whole lot."
Ford laughed a little at the covert challenge, made ridiculous by Sandy's diminutive stature, pulled the blankets up to his eyes, and dozed off luxuriously; and although it is extremely tiresome to be told in detail just what a man dreams upon certain occasions, he did dream, and it was something about being married. At any rate, when the sizzling of bacon frying invaded even his slumber and woke him, he felt a distinct pang of disappointment that it was Sandy's carroty head bent over the frying-pan, instead of a wife with blond hair which waved becomingly upon her temples.
"Wonder what color her hair is, anyway," he observed inadvertently, before he was wide enough awake to put the seal of silence on his musings.
"I asked when those banana fritters are coming up," lied Ford, getting out of bed and yawning so that his swollen jaw hurt him, and relapsed into his usual taciturnity, which was his wall of defense against Sandy's inquisitiveness.
He ate his breakfast almost in silence, astonishing Sandy somewhat by not complaining of the excess of soda in the biscuits. Ford was inclined toward fastidiousness when he was sober—a trait which caused men to suspect him of descending from an upper stratum of society; though just when, or just where, or how great that descent had been, they had no means of finding out. Ford, so far as his speech upon the subject was concerned, had no existence previous to his appearance in Montana, five or six years before; but he bore certain earmarks of a higher civilization which, in Sandy's mind, rather concentrated upon a pronounced distaste for soda-yellowed bread, warmed-over coffee, and scorched bacon. That he swallowed all these things and seemed not to notice them, struck Sandy as being almost as remarkable as his matrimonial adventure.
When he had eaten, Ford buttoned himself into his overcoat, pulled his moleskin cap well down, and went out into the storm without a word to Sandy, which was also unusual; it was Ford's custom to wash the dishes, because he objected to Sandy's economy of clean, hot water. Sandy flattened his nose against the window, saw that Ford, leaning well forward against the drive of the wind, was battling his way toward the hotel, and guessed shrewdly that he would see him no more that day.
"He better keep sober till his knuckles git well, anyway," he mumbled disapprovingly. "If he goes to fighting, the shape he's in now—"
Ford had no intention of fighting. He went straight up to the bar, it is true, but that was because he saw that Sam was at that moment unoccupied, save with a large lump of gum. Being at the bar, he drank a glass of whisky; not of deliberate intent, but merely from force of habit. Once down, however, the familiar glow of it through his being was exceedingly grateful, and he took another for good measure.
"H'lo, Ford," Sam bethought him to say, after he had gravely taken mental note of each separate scar of battle, and had shifted his cud to the other side of his mouth, and had squeezed it meditatively between his teeth. "Feel as rocky as you look?"
"Possibly." Ford's eyes forbade further personalities. "I'm out after information, Sam, and if you've got any you aren't using, I'd advise you to pass it over; I can use a lot, this morning. Were you sober, night before last?"
Sam chewed solemnly while he considered. "Tolerable sober, yes," he decided at last. "Sober enough to tend to business; why?"
With his empty glass Ford wrote invisible scrolls upon the bar. "I—did you happen to see—my—the lady I married?" He had been embarrassed at first, but when he finished he was glaring a challenge which shifted the disquiet to Sam's manner.
"No. I was tendin' bar all evenin'—and she didn't come in here."
Ford glanced behind him at the sound of the door opening, saw that it was only Bill, and leaned over the bar for greater secrecy, lowering his voice as well.
"Did you happen to hear who she was?"
Sam stared and shook his head.
"Don't you know anything about her at all—where she came from—and why, and where she went?"
Sam backed involuntarily. Ford's tone made it a crime either to know these things or to be guilty of ignorance; which, Sam could not determine. Sam was of the sleek, oily-haired type of young men, with pimples and pale eyes and a predilection for gum and gossip. He was afraid of Ford and he showed it.
"That's just what (no offense, Ford—I ain't responsible) that's what everybody's wondering. Nobody seems to know. They kinda hoped you'd explain—"
"Sure!" Ford's tone was growing extremely ominous. "I'll explain a lot of things—if I hear any gabbling going on about my affairs." He was seized then with an uncomfortable feeling that the words were mere puerile blustering and turned away from the bar in disgust.
In disgust he pulled open the door, flinched before the blast of wind and snow which smote him full in the face and blinded him, and went out again into the storm. The hotel porch was a bleak place, with snow six inches deep and icy boards upon which a man might easily slip and break a bone or two, and with a whine overhead as the wind sucked under the roof. Ford stood there so long that his feet began to tingle. He was not thinking; he was merely feeling the feeble struggles of a newborn desire to be something and do something worth while—a desire which manifested itself chiefly in bitterness against himself as he was, and in a mental nausea against the life he had been content to live.
The mystery of his marriage was growing from a mere untoward incident of a night's carouse into a baffling thing which hung over him like an impending doom. He was not the sort of man who marries easily. It seemed incredible that he could really have done it; more incredible that he could have done it and then have wiped the slate of his memory clean; with the crowning impossibility that a strange young woman could come into town, marry him, and afterward depart and no man know who she was, whence she had come, or where she had gone. Ford stepped suddenly off the porch and bored his way through the blizzard toward the depot. The station agent would be able to answer the last question, at any rate.
The agent, however, proved disappointingly ignorant of the matter. He reminded Ford that there had not been time to buy a ticket, and that the girl had been compelled to run down the platform to reach the train before it started, and that the wheels began to turn before she was up the steps of the day coach.
"And don't you remember turning around and saying to me: 'I'm a poor married man, but you can't notice the scar,' or something like that?" The agent was plainly interested and desirous of rendering any assistance possible, and also rather diffident about discussing so delicate a matter with a man like Ford.
Ford drummed his fingers impatiently upon the shelf outside the ticket window. "I don't remember a darned thing about it," he confessed glumly. "I can't say I enjoy running all around town trying to find out who it was I married, and why I married her, and where she went afterwards, but that's just the kinda fix I'm in, Lew. I don't suppose she came here and did it just for fun—and I can't figure out any other reason, unless she was plumb loco. From all I can gather, she was a nice girl, and it seems she thought I was Frank Ford Cameron—which I am not!" He laughed, as a man will laugh sometimes when he is neither pleased nor amused.
"I might ask McCreery—he's conductor on Fourteen. He might remember where she wanted to go," the agent suggested hesitatingly. "And say! What's the matter with going up to Garbin and looking up the record? She had to get the license there, and they'd have her name, age, place of residence, and—and whether she's white or black." The agent smiled uncertainly over his feeble attempt at a joke. "I got a license for a friend once," he explained hastily, when he saw that Ford's face did not relax a muscle. "There's a train up in forty minutes—"
"Sure, I'll do that." Ford brightened. "That must be what I've been trying to think of and couldn't. I knew there was some way of finding out. Throw me a round-trip ticket, Lew. Lordy me! I can't afford to let a real, live wife slip the halter like this and leave me stranded and not knowing a thing about her. How much is it?"
The agent slid a dark red card into the mouth of his office stamp, jerked down the lever, and swung his head quickly toward the sounder chattering hysterically behind him. His jaw slackened as he listened, and he turned his eyes vacantly upon Ford for a moment before he looked back at the instrument.
"Well, what do you know about that?" he queried, under his breath, released the ticket from the grip of the stamp, and flipped it into the drawer beneath the shelf as if it were so much waste paper.
"That's my ticket," Ford reminded him levelly.
"You don't want it now, do you?" The agent grinned at him. "Oh, I forgot you couldn't read that." He tilted his head back toward the instrument. "A wire just went through—the court-house at Garbin caught fire in the basement—something about the furnace, they think—and she's going up in smoke. Hydrants are froze up so they can't get water on it. That fixes your looking up the record, Ford."
Ford stared hard at him. "Well, I might hunt up the preacher and ask him," he said, his tone dropping again to dull discouragement.
The agent chuckled. "From all I hear," he observed rashly, "you've made that same preacher mighty hard to catch!"
Ford drummed upon the shelf and scowled at the smoke-blackened window, beyond which the snow was sweeping aslant. Upon his own side of the ticket window, the agent pared his nails with his pocket-knife and watched him furtively.
"Oh, hell! What do I care, anyway?" Revulsion seized Ford harshly. "I guess I can stand it if she can. She came here and married me—it isn't my funeral any more than it is hers. If she wants to be so darned mysterious about it, she can go plumb—to—New York!" There were a few decent traits in Ford Campbell; one was his respect for women, a respect which would not permit him to swear about this wife of his, however exasperating her behavior.
"That's the sensible way to look at it, of course," assented the agent, who made it a point to agree always with a man of Ford's size and caliber, on the theory that amiability means popularity, and that placation is better than plasters. "You sure ought to let her do the hunting—and the worrying, too. You aren't to blame if she married you unawares. She did it all on her own hook—and she must have known what she was up against."
"No, she didn't," flared Ford unexpectedly. "She made a mistake, and I wanted to point it out to her and help her out of it if I could. She took me for some one else, and I was just drunk enough to think it was a joke, I suppose, and let it go that way. I don't believe she found out she tied up to the wrong man. It's entirely my fault, for being drunk."
"Well, putting it that way, you're right about it," agreed the adaptable Lew. "Of course, if you hadn't been—"
"If whisky's going to let a fellow in for things like this, it's time to cut it out altogether." Ford was looking at the agent attentively.
"That's right," assented the other unsuspectingly. "Whisky is sure giving you the worst of it all around. You ought to climb on the water-wagon, Ford, and that's a fact. Whisky's the worst enemy you've got."
"Sure. And I'm going to punish all of it I can get my hands on!" He turned toward the door. "And when I'm good and full of it," he added as an afterthought, "I'm liable to come over here and lick you, Lew, just for being such an agreeable cuss. You better leave your mother's address handy." He laughed a little to himself as he pulled the door shut behind him. "I bet he'll keep the frost thawed off the window to-day, just to see who comes up the platform," he chuckled.
He would have been more amused if he had seen how the agent ducked anxiously forward to peer through the ticket window whenever the door of the waiting room opened, and how he started whenever the snow outside creaked under the tread of a heavy step; and he would have been convulsed with mirth if he had caught sight of the formidable billet of wood which Lew kept beside his chair all that day, and had guessed its purpose, and that it was a mute witness to the reputation which one Ford Campbell bore among his fellows. Lew was too wise to consider for a moment the revolver meant to protect the contents of the safe. Even the unintelligent know better than to throw a lighted match into a keg of gunpowder.
Ford leaned backward against the push of the storm and was swept up to the hotel. He could not remember when he had felt so completely baffled; the incident of the girl and the ceremony was growing to something very like a calamity, and the mystery which surrounded it began to fret him intolerably; and the very unusualness of a trouble he could not settle with his fists whipped his temper to the point of explosion. He caught himself wavering, nevertheless, before the wind-swept porch of the hotel "office." That, too, was strange. Ford was not wont to hesitate before entering a saloon; more often he hesitated about leaving.
"What's the matter with me, anyway?" he questioned himself impatiently. "I'm acting like I hadn't a right to go in and take a drink when I feel like it! If just a slight touch of matrimony acts like that with a man, what can the real thing be like? I always heard it made a fool of a fellow." To prove to himself that he was still untrammeled and at liberty to follow his own desire, he stamped across the porch, threw open the door, and entered with a certain defiance of manner.
Behind the bar, Sam was laughing with his mouth wide open so that his gum showed shamelessly. Bill and Aleck and Big Jim were leaning heavily upon the bar, laughing also.
"I'll bet she's a Heart-and-Hander, tryin' a new scheme to git a man. Think uh nabbing a man when he's drunk. That's a new one," Sam brought his lips close enough together to declare, and chewed vigorously upon the idea,—until he glanced up and saw Ford standing by the door. He turned abruptly, caught up a towel, and began polishing the bar with the frenzy of industry which never imposes upon one in the slightest degree.
Bill glanced behind him and nudged Aleck into caution, and in the silence which followed, the popping of a piece of slate-veined coal in the stove sounded like a volley of small-caliber pistol shots.
One Way to Drown Sorrow
Ford walked up to the bar, with a smile upon his face which Sam misunderstood and so met with a conciliatory grin and a hand extended toward a certain round, ribbed bottle with a blue-and-silver label. Ford waved away the bottle and leaned, not on the bar but across it, and clutching Sam by the necktie, slapped him first upon one ear and next upon the other, until he was forced by the tingling of his own fingers to desist. By that time Sam's green necktie was pulled tight just under his nose, and he had swallowed his gum—which, considering the size of the lump, was likely to be the death of him.
Ford did not say a word. He permitted Sam to jerk loose and back into a corner, and he watched the swift crimsoning of his ears with a keen interest. Since Sam's face had the pasty pallor of the badly scared, the ears appeared much redder by contrast than they really were. Next, Ford turned his attention to the man beside him, who happened to be Bill. For one long minute the grim spirit of war hovered just over the two.
"Aw, forget it, Ford," Bill urged ingratiatingly at last. "You don't want to lick anybody—least of all old Bill! Look at them knuckles! You couldn't thump a feather bed. Anyway, you got the guilty party when you done slapped Sam up to a peak and then knocked the peak off. Made him swaller his cud, too, by hokey! Say, Sam, my old dad used to feed a cow on bacon-rinds when she done lost her cud. You try it, Sam. Mebby it might help them ears! Shove that there trouble-killer over this way, Sammy, and don't look so fierce at your uncle Bill; he's liable to turn you across his knee and dust your pants proper." He turned again to Ford, scowling at the group and at life in general, while the snow melted upon his broad shoulders and trickled in little, hurrying drops down to the nearest jumping-off place. "Come, drownd your sorrer," Bill advised amiably. "Nobody said nothing but Sammy, and I'll gamble he wishes he hadn't, now." If his counsel was vicious, his smile was engaging—which does not, in this instance, mean that it was beautiful.
Ford's fingers closed upon the bottle, and with reprehensible thoroughness he proceeded to drown what sorrows he then possessed. Unfortunately he straightway produced a fresh supply, after his usual method. In two hours he was flushed and argumentative. In three he had whipped Bill—cause unknown to the chronicler, and somewhat hazy to Ford also after it was all over. By mid-afternoon he had Sammy entrenched in the tiny stronghold where barreled liquors were kept, and scared to the babbling stage. Aleck had been put to bed with a gash over his right eye where Ford had pointed his argument with a beer glass, and Big Jim had succumbed to a billiard cue directed first at his most sensitive bunion and later at his head. Ford was not using his fists, that day, because even in his whisky-brewed rage he remembered, oddly enough, his skinned knuckles.
Others had come—in fact, the entire male population of Sunset was hovering in the immediate vicinity of the hotel—but none had conquered. There had been considerable ducking to avoid painful contact with flying glasses from the bar, and a few had retreated in search of bandages and liniment; the luckier ones remained as near the storm-center as was safe and expostulated. To those Ford had but one reply, which developed into a sort of war-chant, discouraging to the peace-loving listeners.
"I'm a rooting, tooting, shooting, fighting son-of-a-gun—and a good one!" Ford would declaim, and with deadly intent aim a lump of coal, billiard ball, or glass at some unfortunate individual in his audience. "Hit the nigger and get a cigar! You're just hanging around out there till I drink myself to sleep—but I'm fooling you a few! I'm watching the clock with one eye, and I take my dose regular and not too frequent. I'm going to kill off a few of these smart boys that have been talking about me and my wife. She's a lady, my wife is, and I'll kill the first man that says she isn't." (One cannot, you will understand, be too explicit in a case like this; not one thousandth part as explicit as Ford was.)
"I'm going to begin on Sam, pretty quick," he called through the open door. "I've got him right where I want him." And he stated, with terrible exactness, his immediate intentions towards the bartender.
Behind his barricade of barrels, Sam heard and shivered like a gun-shy collie at a turkey shoot; shivered until human nerves could bear no more, and like the collie he left the storeroom and fled with a yelp of sheer terror. Ford turned just as Sam shot through the doorway into the dining-room, and splintered a beer bottle against the casing; glanced solemnly up at the barroom clock and, retreating to the nearly denuded bar, gravely poured himself another drink; held up the glass to the dusk-filmed window, squinted through it, decided that he needed a little more than that, and added another teaspoonful. Then he poured the contents of the glass down his throat as if it were so much water, wiped his lips upon a bar towel, picked a handful of coal from the depleted coal-hod, went to the door, and shouted to those outside to produce Sam, that he might be killed in an extremely unpleasant manner.
The group outside withdrew across the street to grapple with the problem before them. It was obviously impossible for civilized men to sacrifice Sam, even if they could catch him—which they could not. Sam had bolted through the dining-room, upset the Chinaman in the kitchen, and fallen over a bucket of ashes in the coal-shed in his flight for freedom. He had not stopped at that, but had scurried off up the railroad track. The general opinion among the spectators was that he had, by this time, reached the next station and was hiding in a cellar there.
Bill Wright hysterically insisted that it was up to Tom Aldershot, who was a deputy town marshal. Tom, however, was working on the house he hoped to have ready for his prospective bride by Thanksgiving, and hated to be interrupted for the sake of a few broken heads only.
"He ain't shooting up nobody," he argued from the platform, where he was doing "inside work" on his dining-room while the storm lasted. "He never does cut loose with his gun when he's drunk. If I arrested him, I'd have to take him clear up to Garbin—and I ain't got time. And it wouldn't be nothin' but a charge uh disturbin' the peace, when I got him there. Y'oughta have a jail in Sunset, like I've been telling yuh right along. Can't expect a man to stop his work just to take a man to jail—not for anything less than murder, anyhow."
Some member of the deputation hinted a doubt of his courage, and Tom flushed.
"I ain't scared of him," he snorted indignantly. "I should say not! I'll go over and make him behave—as a man and a citizen. But I ain't going to arrest him as an officer, when there ain't no place to put him." Tom reluctantly threw down his hammer, grumbling because they would not wait till it was too dark to drive nails, but must cut short his working day, and went over to the hotel to quell Ford.
Ingress by way of the front door was obviously impracticable; the marshal ducked around the corner just in time to avoid a painful meeting with a billiard ball. Mother McGrew had piled two tables against the dining-room door and braced them with the mop, and stubbornly refused to let Tom touch the barricade either as man or officer of the law.
"Well, if I can't get in, I can't do nothing," stated Tom, with philosophic calm.
"He's tearing up the whole place, and he musta found all them extra billiard balls Mike had under the bar, and is throwin' 'em away," wailed Mrs. McGrew, "and he's drinkin' and not payin'. The damage that man is doin' it would take a year's profits to make up. You gotta do something, Tom Aldershot—you that calls yourself a marshal, swore to pertect the citizens uh Sunset! No, sir—I ain't a-goin' to open this door, neither. I'm tryin' to save the dishes, if you want to know. I ain't goin' to let my cups and plates foller the glasses in there. A town full uh men—and you stand back and let one crazy—"
Tom had heard Mrs. McGrew voice her opinion of the male population of Sunset on certain previous occasions. He left her at that point, and went back to the group across the street.
At length Sandy, whose imagination had been developed somewhat beyond the elementary stage by his reading of romantic fiction, suggested luring Ford into the liquor room by the simple method of pretending an assault upon him by way of the storeroom window, which could be barred from without by heavy planks. Secure in his belief in Ford's friendship for him, Sandy even volunteered to slam the door shut upon Ford and lock it with the padlock which guarded the room from robbery. Tom took a chew of tobacco, decided that the ruse might work, and donated the planks for the window.
It did work, up to a certain point. Ford heard a noise in the storeroom and went to investigate, caught a glimpse of Tom Aldershot apparently about to climb through the little window, and hurled a hammer and considerable vituperation at the opening. Whereupon Sandy scuttled in and slammed the door, according to his own plan, and locked it. There was a season of frenzied hammering outside, and after that Sunset breathed freer, and discussed the evils of strong drink, and washed down their arguments by copious draughts of the stuff they maligned.
Later, they had to take him out of the storeroom, because he insisted upon knocking the bungs out of all the barrels and letting the liquor flood the floor, and Mike McGrew's wife objected to the waste, on the ground that whisky costs money. They fell upon him in a body, bundled him up, hustled him over to the ice-house, and shut him in; and within ten minutes he kicked three boards off one side and emerged breathing fire and brimstone like the dragons of old. He had forgotten about wanting to kill Sam; he was willing—nay, anxious—to murder every male human in Sunset.
They did not know what to do with him after that. They liked Ford when he was sober, and so they hated to shoot him, though that seemed the only way in which they might dampen his enthusiasm for blood. Tom said that, if he failed to improve in temper by the next day, he would try and land him in jail, though it did seem rigorous treatment for so common a fault as getting drunk. Meanwhile they kept out of his way as well as they could, and dodged missiles and swore. Even that was becoming more and more difficult—except the swearing—because Ford developed a perfectly diabolic tendency to empty every store that contained a man, so that it became no uncommon sight to see a back door belching forth hurrying figures at the most unseasonable times. No man could lift a full glass, that night, and feel sure of drinking the contents undisturbed; whereat Sunset grumbled while it dodged.
It may have been nine o'clock before the sporadic talk of a jail crystallized into a definite project which, it was unanimously agreed, could not too soon be made a reality.
They built the jail that night, by the light of bonfires which the slightly wounded kept blazing in the intervals of standing guard over the workers; ready to give warning in case Ford appeared as a war-cloud on their horizon. There were fifteen able-bodied men, and they worked fast, with Ford's war-chant in the saloon down the street as an incentive to speed. They erected it close to Tom Aldershot's house, because the town borrowed lumber from him and they wanted to save carrying, and because it was Tom's duty to look after the prisoner, and he wanted the jail handy, so that he need not lose any time from his house-building.
They built it strong, and they built it tight, without any window save a narrow slit near the ceiling; they heated it by setting a stove outside under a shelter, where Tom could keep up the fire without the risk of going inside, and ran pipe and a borrowed "drum" through the jail high enough so that Ford could not kick it. And to discourage any thought of suicide by hanging, they ceiled the place tightly with Tom's matched flooring of Oregon pine. Tom did not like that, and said so; but the citizens of Sunset nailed it on and turned a deaf ear to his complaints.
Chill dawn spread over the town, dulling the light of the fires and bringing into relief the sodden tramplings in the snow around the jail, with the sharply defined paths leading to Tom Aldershot's lumber-pile. The watchers had long before sneaked off to their beds, for not a sign of Ford had they seen since midnight. The storm had ceased early in the evening and all the sky was glowing crimson with the coming glory of the sun. The jail was almost finished. Up on the roof three crouching figures were nailing down strips of brick-red building paper as a fair substitute for shingles, and on the side nearest town the marshal and another were holding a yard-wide piece flat against the wall with fingers that tingled in the cold, while Bill Wright fastened it into place with shingle nails driven through tin disks the size of a half-dollar.
Ford, partly sober after a sleep on the billiard table in the hotel barroom, heard the hammering, wondered what industrious soul was up and doing carpenter work at that unseemly hour, and after helping himself to a generous "eye-opener" at the deserted bar, found his cap and went over to investigate. He was much surprised to see Bill Wright working, and smiled to himself as he walked quietly up to him through the soft, step-muffling snow.
"What you doing, Bill—building a chicken house?" he asked, a quirk of amusement at the corner of his lips.
Bill jumped and came near swallowing a nail; so near that his eyes bulged at the feel of it next his palate. Tom Aldershot dropped his end of the strip of paper, which tore with a dull sound of ripping, and remarked that he would be damned. Necks craned, up on the roof, and startled eyes peered down like chipmunks from a tree. Some one up there dropped a hammer which hit Bill on the head, but no one said a word.
"You act like you were nervous, this morning," Ford observed, in the tone which indicates a conscious effort at good-humored ignorance. "Working on a bet, or what?"
"What!" snarled Bill sarcastically. "I wisht, Ford, next time you bowl up, you'd pick on somebody that ain't too good a friend to fight back! I'm gittin' tired, by hokey—"
"What—did I lick you again, Bill?" Ford's smile was sympathetic to a degree. "That's too bad, now. Next time you want to hunt a hole and crawl into it, Bill. I don't want to hurt you—but seems like I've kinda got the habit. You'll have to excuse me." He hunched his shoulders at the chill of the morning and walked around the jail, inspecting it with half-hearted interest.
"What is this, anyway?" he inquired of Tom. "Smoke-house?"
"It's a jail," snapped Tom. "To put you into if you don't watch your dodgers. What 'n thunder you want to carry on like you did last night, for? And then go and sober up just when we've got a jail built to put you into! That ain't no way for a man to do—I'll leave it to Bill if it is! I've a darned good mind to swear out a warrant, anyway, Ford, and pinch you for disturbin' the peace! That's what I ought to do, all right." Tom beat his hands about his body and glared at Ford with his ultra-official scowl.
"All right, if you want to do it." Ford's tone embellished the reply with a you-take-the-consequences sort of indifference. "Only, I'd advise you never to turn me loose again if you do lock me up in this coop once."
"I know I wouldn't uh worked all night on the thing if I'd knowed you was goin' to sleep it off," Bill complained, with deep reproach in his watery eyes. "I made sure you was due to keep things agitated around here for a couple uh days, at the very least, or I never woulda drove a nail, by hokey!"
"It is a darned shame, to have a nice, new jail and nobody to use it on," sympathized Ford, his eyes half-closed and steely. "I'd like to help you out, all right. Maybe I'd better kill you, Bill; they might stretch a point and call it manslaughter—and I could use the bounty to help pay a lawyer, if it ever come to a head as a trial."
Whereat Bill almost wept.
Ford pushed his hands deep into his pockets and walked away, sneering openly at Bill, the marshal, the jail, and the town which owned it, and at wives and matrimony and the world which held all these vexations.
He went straight to the shack, drank a cup of coffee, and packed everything he could find that belonged to him and was not too large for easy carrying on horseback; and when Sandy, hovering uneasily around him, asked questions, he told him briefly to go off in a corner and lie down; which advice Sandy understood as an invitation to mind his own affairs.
Like Bill, Sandy could have wept at the ingratitude of this man. But he asked no more questions and he made no more objections. He picked up the story of the unpronounceable count who owned the castle in the Black Forest and had much tribulation and no joy until the last chapter, and when Ford went out, with his battered, sole-leather suitcase and his rifle in its pigskin case, he kept his pale eyes upon his book and refused even a grunt in response to Ford's grudging: "So long, Sandy."
Even when a man consistently takes Life in twenty-four-hour doses and likes those doses full-flavored with the joys of this earth, there are intervals when the soul of him is sick, and Life becomes a nauseous progression of bleak futility. He may, in his revulsion against it, attempt to end it all; he may, in sheer disgust of it, take his doses stronger than ever before, as if he would once for all choke to death that part of him which is fine enough to rebel against it; he may even forswear, in melancholy penitence, that which has served to give it flavor, and vow him vows of abstemiousness at which the grosser part of him chuckles ironically; or, he may blindly follow the first errant impulse for change of environment, in the half-formed hope that new scenes may, without further effort on his part, serve to make of him a new man—a man for whom he can feel some respect.
Ford did none of these things, however. The soul-sick incentive was there, and if he had been a little less of a reasoning animal and a little less sophisticated, he would probably have forsworn strong drink just as he forswore all responsibility for his inadvertent marriage. His reason and his experience saved him from cluttering his conscience with broken vows, although he did yield to the impulse of change to the extent of leaving Sunset while yet the inhabitants were fortifying themselves for the ardors of the day with breakfast and some wild prophecies concerning Ford's next outbreak.
Apprehension over Bill's immediate future was popular amongst his friends, Ford's sardonic reference to manslaughter and bounty being repeated often enough in Bill's presence to keep that peace-loving gentleman in a state of trepidation which he sought to hide behind vague warnings.
"He better think twicet before he comes bothering around me, by hokey!" Bill would mutter darkly. "I've stood a hull lot from Ford; I like 'im, when he's himself. But I've stood about as much as a man can be expected to stand. And he better look out! That's all I got to say—he better look out!" Bill himself, it may be observed incidentally, spent the greater portion of that day in "looking out." He was careful not to sit down with his back to a door, for instance, and was keenly interested when a knob turned beneath unseen fingers, and plainly relieved when another than Ford entered his presence. Bill's mustache was nearly pulled from its roots, that day—but that is not important to the story, which has to do with Ford Campbell, sometime the possessor of a neat legacy in coin, later a rider of the cattle ranges, last presiding genius over the poker table in Scotty's back room in Sunset, always an important factor—and too often a disturbing element—in any community upon which he chose to bestow his dynamic presence.
Scotty hoped that Ford would show up for business when the lamps were lighted, that night. There had been some delicacy on the part of Ford's acquaintances that day in the matter of calling upon him at the shack. They believed—and hoped—that Ford was "sleeping it off," and there was a unanimous reluctance to disturb his slumbers. Sandy, indulging himself in the matter of undisturbed spinal tremors over "The Haunted Chamber," had not left shelter, save when the more insistent shiverings of chilled flesh recalled him from his pleasurable nerve-crimplings and drove him forth to the woodpile. So that it was not until evening was well advanced that Sunset learned that Ford was no longer a potential menace within its meager boundaries. Bill took a long breath, observed meaningly that "He'd better go—whilst his credit's good, by hokey!" and for the first time that day sat down with his back toward an outer door.
Ford was not worrying about Sunset half as much as Sunset was worrying about him. He was at that moment playing pinochle half-heartedly with a hospitable sheep-herder, under the impression that, since his host had frankly and profanely professed a revulsion against solitaire and a corresponding hunger for pinochle, his duty as a guest lay in satisfying that hunger. He played apathetically, overlooked several melts he might have made, and so lost three games in succession to the gleeful herder, who had needed the diversion almost as much as he needed a hair-cut.
His sense of social responsibility being eased thereby, Ford took his headache and his dull disgust with life to the wall side of the herder's frowsy bunk, and straightway forgot both in heavy slumber, leaving to the morrow any definite plan for the near future—the far future being as little considered as death and what is said to lie beyond.
That day had done for him all he asked of it. It had put him thirty miles and more from Sunset, against which he felt a resentment which it little deserved; of a truth it was as inoffensive a hamlet as any in that region, and its sudden, overweening desire for a jail was but a legitimate impulse toward self-preservation. The fault was Ford's, in harassing the men of Sunset into action. But several times that day, and again while he was pulling the stale-odored blankets snugly about his ears, Ford anathematized the place as "a damned, rotten hole," and was as nearly thankful as his mood would permit, when he remembered that it lay far behind him and was likely to be farther before his journeyings were done.
Sleep held him until daylight seeped in through the one dingy window. Ford awoke to the acrid smell of scorched bacon, thought at first that Sandy was once more demonstrating his inefficiency as a cook, and when he remembered that Sandy's name was printed smudgily upon that page of his life which he had lately turned down as a blotted, unlearned lesson is pushed behind an unwilling schoolboy, he began to consider seriously his next step.
Outside, the sheep were blatting stridently their demand for breakfast. The herder bolted coffee and coarse food until he was filled, and went away to his dreary day's work, telling Ford to make himself at home, and flinging back a hope of further triumphs in pinochle, that night.
Ford washed the dishes, straightened the blankets in the bunk, swept the grimy floor as well as he could with the stub of broom he found, filled the wood-box and then, being face to face with his day and the problem it held, rolled a cigarette, and smoked it in deep meditation.
He wanted to get away from town, and poker games, and whisky, and the tumult it brewed. Something within him hungered for clean, wind-swept reaches and the sane laughter of men, and Ford was accustomed to doing, or at least trying to do, the thing he wanted to do. He was not getting into the wilderness because of any inward struggle toward right living, but because he was sick of town and the sordid life he had lived there.
Somewhere, back toward the rim of mountains which showed a faint violet against the sky to the east, he owned a friend; and that friend owned a stock ranch which, Ford judged, must be of goodly extent; two weeks before, hearing somehow that Ford Campbell was running a poker game in Sunset, the friend had written and asked him to come and take charge of his "outfit," on the plea that, his foreman having died, he was burdened with many cares and in urgent need of help.
Ford, giving the herder's frying-pan a last wipe with the dish-cloth, laughed at the thought of taking the responsibility offered him in that letter. It occurred to him, however, that the Double Cross (which was the brand-name of Mason's ranch) might be a pleasant place to visit. It was long since he had seen Ches—and there had been a time when one bed held the two of them through many a long, weary night; when one frying-pan cooked the scanty food they shared between them. And there had been a season of grinding days and anxious, black nights between, when the one problem, to Ford, consisted of getting Ches Mason out of the wild land where they wandered, and getting him out alive. The problem Ford solved and at the solution men wondered. Afterward they had drifted apart, but the memory of those months would hold them together with a bond which not even time could break—a bond which would pull taut whenever they met.
Ford set down the frying-pan and went to the door and looked out. A chinook had blown up in the night, and although the wind was chill, the snow had disappeared, save where drifts clung to the hollows, shrinking and turning black beneath the sweeping gusts; sodden masses which gave to the prairie a dreary aspect of bleak discomfort. But Ford was well pleased at the sight of the brown, beaten grasses. Impulse was hardening to decision while he stared across the empty land toward the violet rim of hills; a decision to ride over to the Double Cross, and tell Ches Mason to his face that he was a chump, and have a smoke with the old Turk, anyway. Ches had married, since that vividly remembered time when adventure changed to hardship and hazard and walked hand in hand with them through the wild places. Ford wondered fleetingly if matrimony had changed old Ches; probably not—at least, not in those essential man-traits which appeal to men. Ford suddenly hungered for the man's hearty voice, where kindly humor lurked always, and for a grip of his hand.
It was like him to forget all about the herder and the promise of pinochle that night. He went eagerly to the decrepit little shed which housed Rambler, his long-legged, flea-bitten gray; saddled him purposefully and rode away toward the violet hills at the trail-trot which eats up the miles with the least effort.
That night, although he slept in a hamlet which called itself a town, his purpose kept firm hold of him, and he rode away at a decent hour the next morning,—and he rode sober. He kept his face toward the hills, and he did not trouble himself with any useless analysis of his unusual temperateness. He was going to blow in to the Double Cross some time before he slept that night, and have a talk with Ches. He had a pint of fairly good whisky in his pocket, in case he felt the need of a little on the way, and beyond those two satisfactory certainties he did not attempt to reason. They were significant, in a way, to a man with a tendency toward introspection; but Ford was interested in actualities and never stopped to wonder why he bought a pint, rather than a quart, or why, with Ches Mason in his mind, he declined to "set in" to the poker game which was running to tempting jackpots, the night before; or why he took one glass of wine before he mounted Rambler and let it go at that. He never once dreamed that the memory of cheerful, steady-going Ches influenced him toward starting on his friendly pilgrimage the Ford Campbell whom Mason had known eight years before; a very different Ford Campbell, be it said, from the one who had caused a whole town to breathe freer for his absence.
Of his wife Ford had thought less often and less uncomfortably since he left the town wherein had occurred the untoward incident of his marriage. He was not unaccustomed to doing foolish things when he was drunk, and as a rule he made it a point to ignore them afterwards. His mysterious, matrimonial accident was beginning to seem less of a real catastrophe than before, and the anticipation of meeting Ches Mason was rapidly taking precedence of all else in his mind.
So, with almost his normal degree of careless equanimity, he faced again the rim of hills—nearer they were now, with a deeper tinge that was almost purple where the shadows lined them here and there. Somewhere out that way lay the Double Cross ranch. Forty miles, one man told him it was; another, forty-three. At best it was far enough for the shortened daylight of one fall day to cover the journey. Ford threw away the stub of his after-breakfast cigarette and swung into the trail at a lope.
"I Can Spare this Particular Girl"
Ford's range-trained vision told him, while yet afar off, that the lone horse feeding upon a side hill was saddled and bridled, with reins dragging; the telltale, upward toss of its head when it started on to find a sweeter morsel was evidence enough of the impeding bridle, even before he was near enough to distinguish the saddle.
Your true range man owns blood-relationship with the original Good Samaritan; Ford swung out of the trail and untied his rope as a matter of course. The master of the animal might have turned him loose to feed, but if that were the case, he had strayed farther than was ever intended; the chances, since no human being was in sight, were all against design and in favor of accident. At any rate Ford did not hesitate. It is not good to let a horse run loose upon the range with a saddle cinched upon its back, as every one knows.
Ford was riding along the sheer edge of a water-worn gully, seeking a place where he might safely jump it—or better, a spot where the banks sloped so that he might ride down into it and climb the bank beyond—when he saw a head and pair of shoulders moving slowly along, just over the brow of the hill where fed the stray. He watched, and when the figure topped the ridge and started down the slope which faced him, his eyes widened a trifle in surprise.
Skirts to the tops of her shoes betrayed her a woman. She limped painfully, so that Ford immediately pictured to himself puckered eyebrows and lips pressed tightly together. "And I'll bet she's crying, too," he summed up aloud. While he was speaking, she stumbled and fell headlong.
When he saw that she made no attempt to rise, but lay still just as she had fallen, Ford looked no longer for an easy crossing. He glanced up and down the washout, saw no more promising point than where he was, wheeled and rode back twenty yards or so, turned and drove deep his spurs.
It was a nasty jump, and he knew it all along. When Rambler rose gamely to it, with tensed muscles and forefeet flung forward to catch the bank beyond, he knew it better. And when, after a sickening minute of frenzied scrambling at the crumbling edge, they slid helplessly to the bottom, he cursed his idiocy for ever attempting it.
Rambler got up with a pronounced limp, but Ford had thrown himself from the saddle and escaped with nothing worse than a skinned elbow. They were penned, however, in a box-like gully ten feet deep, and there was nothing to do but follow it to where they might climb out. Ford was worried about the girl, and made a futile attempt to stand in the saddle and from there climb up to the level. But Rambler, lame as he was, plunged so that Ford finally gave it up and started down the gulch, leading Rambler by the reins.
There were many sharp turns and temper-trying windings, and though it narrowed in many places so that there was barely room for them to pass, it never grew shallower; indeed, it grew always deeper; and then, without any warning, it stopped abruptly upon a coulee's rim, with jumbled rocks and between them a sheer descent to the slope below. Ford guessed then that he was boxed up in one of the main waterways of the foot-hills he had been skirting for the past hour or so, and that he should have ridden up the gulch instead of down it.
He turned, though the place was so narrow that Rambler's four feet almost touched one another and his rump scraped the bank, as Ford pulled him round, and retraced his steps. It was too rough for riding, even if he had not wanted to save the horse, and he had no idea how far he must go before he could get out. Ford, at that time, was not particularly cheerful.
He must have gone a mile and more before he reached the point where, by hard scrambling, he attained level ground upon the same side as the girl. Ten minutes he spent in urging Rambler up the bank, and when the horse stood breathing heavily beside him, Ford knew that, for all the good there was in him at present, he might as well have left him at the bottom. He walked around him, rubbing leg and shoulder muscles until he located the hurt, and shook his head when all was done. Then he started on slowly, with Rambler hobbling painfully after him. Ford knew that every rod would aggravate that strained shoulder and that a stop would probably make it impossible for the horse to go on at all.
He was not quite sure, after all those windings where he could not see, just where it was he had seen the girl, but he recognized at last the undulating outline of the ridge over which she had appeared, and made what haste he could up the slope. The grazing horse was no longer in sight, though he knew it might be feeding in a hollow near by.
He had almost given up hope of finding her, when he turned his head and saw her off to one side, lying half concealed by a clump of low rose bushes. She was not unconscious, as he had thought, but was crying silently, with her face upon her folded arms and her hat askew over one ear. He stooped and touched her upon the shoulder.
She lifted her head and looked at him, and drew away with a faint, withdrawing gesture, which was very slight in itself but none the less eloquent and unmistakable. Ford backed a step when he saw it and closed his lips without speaking the words he had meant to say.
"Well, what do you want?" the girl asked ungraciously, after a minute spent in fumbling unseen hairpins and in straightening her hat. "I don't know why you're standing there like that, staring at me. I don't need any help."
"Appearances are deceitful, then," Ford retorted. "I saw you limping over the hill, after your horse, and I saw you fall down and stay down. I had an idea that a little help would be acceptable, but of course—"
"That was an hour ago," she interrupted accusingly, with a measuring glance at the sun, which was settling toward the sky-line.
"I had trouble getting across that washout down there. I don't know this part of the country, and I went down it instead of up. What are you crying about—if you don't need any help?"
She eyed him askance, and chewed upon a corner of her lip, and flipped the upturned hem of her riding skirt down over one spurred foot with a truly feminine instinct, before she answered him. She seemed to be thinking hard and fast, and she hesitated even while she spoke. Ford wondered at the latent antagonism in her manner.
"I was crying because my foot hurts so and because I don't see how I'm going to get back to the ranch. I suppose they'll hunt me up if I stay away long enough—but it's getting toward night, and—I'm scared to death of coyotes, if you must know!"
Ford laughed—at her defiance, in the face of her absolute helplessness, more than at what she said. "And you tell me you don't need any help?" he bantered.
"I might borrow your horse," she suggested coldly, as if she grudged yielding even that much to circumstance. "Or you might catch mine for me, I suppose."
"Sure. But you needn't hate me because you're in trouble," he hinted irrelevantly. "I'm not to blame, you know."
"I—I hate to ask help from—a stranger," she said, watching him from under her lashes. "And I can't help showing what I feel. I hate to feel under an obligation—"
"If that's all, forget it," he assured her calmly. "It's a law of the open—to help a fellow out in a pinch. When I headed for here, I thought it was a man had been set afoot."
She eyed him curiously. "Then you didn't know—"
"I thought you were a man," he repeated. "I didn't come just because I saw it was a girl. You needn't feel under any obligation whatever. I'm a stranger in the country and a stranger to you. I'm perfectly willing to stay that way, if you prefer. I'm not trying to scrape acquaintance on the strength of your being in trouble; but you surely don't expect a man to ride on and leave a woman out here on the bald prairie—do you? Especially when she's confessed she's afraid of the dark—and coyotes!"
She was staring at him while he spoke, and she continued to stare after he had finished; the introspective look which sees without seeing, it became at last, and Ford gave a shrug at her apparent obstinacy and turned away to where Rambler stood with his head drooped and his eyes half closed. He picked up the reins and chirped to him, and the horse hesitated, swung his left foot painfully forward, hobbled a step, and looked at Ford reproachfully.
"Your horse is crippled as badly as I am, it would seem," the girl observed, from where she sat watching them.
"I strained his shoulder, trying to make him jump that washout. That was when I first got sight of you over here. We went to the bottom and it took me quite a while to find a way out. That's why I was so long getting here." Ford explained indifferently, with his back to her, while he rubbed commiseratingly the swelling shoulder.
"Oh." The girl waited. "It seems to me you need help yourself. I don't see how you expect to help any one else, with your horse in that condition," she added. And when he still did not speak, she asked: "Do you know how far it is to the nearest ranch?"
"No. I told you I'm a stranger in this country. I was heading for the Double Cross, but I don't know just—"
"We're eight miles, straight across, from there; ten, the way we would have to go to get there. There are other washouts in this country—which it is unwise to attempt jumping, Mr.—"
"Campbell," Ford supplied shortly.
"I beg your pardon? You mumbled—"
"Campbell!" Ford was tempted to shout it but contented himself with a tart distinctness. A late, untoward incident had made him somewhat touchy over his name, and he had not mumbled.
"Oh. Did you skin your face and blacken your eye, Mr. Campbell, when you tried to jump that washout?"
"No." Ford did not offer any explanation. He remembered the scars of battle which were still plainly visible upon his countenance, and he turned red while he bent over the fore ankles of Rambler, trying to discover other sprains. He felt that he was going to dislike this girl very much before he succeeded in getting her to shelter. He could not remember ever meeting before a woman under forty with so unpleasant a manner and with such a talent for disagreeable utterances.
"Then you must have been fighting a wildcat," she hazarded.
"Pardon me; is this a Methodist experience meeting?" he retorted, looking full at her with lowering brows. "It seems to me the only subject which concerns us mutually is the problem of getting to a ranch before dark."
"You'll have to solve it yourself. I never attempt puzzles." The girl, somewhat to his surprise, showed no resentment at his rebuff. Indeed, he began to suspect her of being secretly amused. He began also mentally to accuse her of not being too badly hurt to walk, if she wanted to; indeed, his skepticism went so far as to accuse her of deliberately baiting him—though why, he did not try to conjecture. Women were queer. Witness his own late experience with one.
Being thus in a finely soured mood, Ford suggested that, as she no doubt knew the shortest way to the nearest ranch, they at least make a start in that direction.
"How?" asked the girl, staring up at him from where she sat beside the rose bushes.
"By walking, I suppose—unless you expect me to carry you." Ford's tone was not in any degree affable.
"I fancy it would be asking too great a favor to suggest that you catch my horse for me?"
Ford dropped Rambler's reins and turned to her, irritated to the point where he felt a distinct desire to shake her.
"I'd far rather catch your horse, even if I had to haze him all over the country, than carry you," he stated bluntly.
"Yes. I suspected that much." She had plucked a red seed-ball off the bush nearest her and was nibbling daintily the sweet pulp off the outside.
"Where is the horse?" Ford was holding himself rigidly hack from an outburst of temper.
"Oh, I don't know, I'm sure." She picked another seed-ball and began upon it. "He should be somewhere around, unless he has taken a notion to go home."
Ford said something under his breath and untied his rope from the saddle. He knew about where the horse had been feeding when he saw him, and he judged that it would naturally graze in the direction of home—which would probably be somewhere off to the southeast, since the trail ran more or less in that direction. Without a word to the girl, or a glance toward her, he started up the hill, hoping to get his bearings and a sight of the horse from the top. He could not remember when he had been so angry with a woman. "If she was a man," he gritted as he climbed, "I'd give her a thrashing or leave her out there, just as she deserves. That's the worst of dealing with a woman—she can always hand it to you, and you've got to give her a grin and thank-you, because she ain't a man."
He glanced back, then, and saw her sitting with her head dropped forward upon her hands. There was something infinitely pitiful and lonely in her attitude, and he knitted his brows over the contrast between it and her manner when he left her. "I don't suppose a woman knows, herself, what she means, half the time," he hazarded impatiently. "She certainly didn't have any excuse for throwing it into me the way she did; maybe she's sorry for it now."
After that his anger cooled imperceptibly, and he hurried a little faster because the day was waning with the chill haste of mid-autumn, and he recalled what she had said at first about being afraid of coyotes. And, although the storm of three days ago had been swept into mere memory by that sudden chinook wind, and the days were once more invitingly warm and hazily tranquil, night came shiveringly upon the land and the unhoused thought longingly of hot suppers and the glow of a fire.
The girl's horse was, he believed, just disappearing into a deep depression half a mile farther on; but when he reached the place where he had seen it, there was nothing in sight save a few head of cattle and a coyote trotting leisurely up the farther slope. He went farther down the shallow coulee, then up to the high level beyond, his rope coiled loosely over one arm with the end dragging a foot behind him. But there was nothing to be seen from up there, except that the sun was just a red disk upon the far-off hills, and that the night was going to be uncomfortably cool if that wind kept blowing from the northwest.
He began to feel slightly uneasy about the girl, and to regret wasting any time over her horse, and to fear that he might not be able to get close enough to rope the beast, even if he did see him.
He turned back then and walked swiftly through the dusk toward the ridge, beyond which she and Rambler were waiting. But it was a long way—much farther than he had realized until he came to retrace his steps—and the wind blew up a thin rift of clouds which made the darkness come quickly. He found it difficult to tell exactly at which point he had crossed the ridge, coming over; and although experience in the open develops in a man a certain animal instinct for directions handed down by our primitive ancestry, Ford went wide in his anxiety to take the shortest way back to his unwilling protegee. The westering slope was lighter, however, and five minutes of wandering along the ridge showed him a dim bulk which he knew was Rambler. He hurried to the place, and the horse whinnied shrilly as he approached.
"I looked as long as I could see, almost, but I couldn't locate your horse," Ford remarked to the dark shadow of the rose bushes. "I'll put you on mine. It will be slow going, of course—lame as he is—but I guess we can manage to get somewhere."
He waited for the chill, impersonal reply. When she did not speak, he leaned and peered at the spot where he knew she must be. "If you want to try it, we'd better be starting," he urged sharply. "It's going to be pretty cold here on this side-hill."
When there was silence still—and he gave her plenty of time for reply—Ford stooped and felt gropingly for her, thinking she must be asleep. He glanced back at Rambler; unless the horse had moved, she should have been just there, under his hands; or, he thought, she may have moved to some other spot, and be waiting in the dark to see what he would do. His palms touched the pressed grasses where she had been, but he did not say a word. He would not give her that satisfaction; and he told himself grimly that he had his opinion of a girl who would waste time in foolery, out here in the cold—with a sprained ankle, to boot.