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Cow-Country By B. M. Bower Characters: 13693

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Buddy swung down from his horse, unsaddled it and went staggering to the stable wall with the burden of a stock-saddle much too big for him. He had to stand on his boot-toes to reach and pull the bridle down over the ears of Whitefoot, which turned with an air of immense relief into the corral gate and the hay piled at the further end. Buddy gave him one preoccupied glance and started for the cabin, walking with the cowpuncher's peculiar, bowlegged gait which comes of wearing chaps and throwing out the knees to overcome the stiffness of the leather. At thirteen Buddy was a cowboy from hat-crown to spurs-and at thirteen Buddy gloried in the fact. To-day, however, his mind was weighted with matters of more importance than himself.

"The Utes are having a war-dance, mother," he announced when he had closed the stout door of the kitchen behind him. "They mean it this time. I lay in the brush and watched them last night." He stood looking at his mother speculatively, a little grin on his face. "I told you, you can't change an Injun by learning him to eat with a knife and fork," he added. "Colorou ain't any whiter than he was before you set out to learn him manners. He was hoppin' higher than any of 'em."

"Teach, Buddy, not learn. You know better than to say 'learn him manners.'"

"Teach him manners," Buddy corrected himself obediently. "I was thinking more about what I saw than about grammar. Where's father? I guess I'd better tell him. He'll want to get the stock out of the mountains, I should think."

"Colorou will send me word before they take the warpath," mother observed reassuringly. "He always has. I gave him a whole pound of tea and a blue ribbon the last time he was here."

"Yes, and the last time they broke out they got away with more 'n a hundred head of cattle. You got to Laramie, all right, but he didn't tell father in time to make a roundup back in the foothills. They're DANCING, mother!"

"Well, I suppose We're due for an outbreak," sighed mother. "Colorou says he can't hold his young men off when some of the tribe have been killed. He himself doesn't countenance the stealing and the occasional killing of white men. There are bad Indians and good ones."

"I know a couple of good ones," Buddy murmured as he made for the wash basin. "It's the bad ones that were doing the dancing, mother," he flung over his shoulder. "And if I was you I'd take Dulcie and the cats and hit for Laramie. Colorou might get busy and forget to send word!"

"If I WAS you?" Mother came up and nipped his ear between thumb and finger. "Robert, I am discouraged over you. All that I teach you in the winter seems to evaporate from your mind during the summer when you go out riding with the boys."

Buddy wiped his face with an up-and-down motion on the roller towel and clanked across to the cupboard which he opened investigatively. "Any pie?" he questioned as he peered into the corners. "Say, if I had the handling of those Utes, mother, I'd fix 'em so they wouldn't be breaking out every few months and making folks leave their homes to be pawed over and burnt, maybe." He found a jar of fresh doughnuts and took three.

"They'll tromp around on your flower-beds-it just makes me SICK when I think how they'll muss things up around here! I wish now," He blurted unthinkingly, "that I hadn't killed the Injun that stole Rattler."

"Buddy! Not YOU." His mother made a swift little run across the kitchen and caught him on his lean, hard-muscled young shoulders. "You-you baby! What did you do? You didn't harm an Indian, did you, laddie?"

Buddy tilted his head downward so that she could not look into his eyes. "I dunno as I harmed him-much," he said, wiping doughnut crumbs from his mouth with one hasty sweep of his forearm. "But his horse came outa the brush, and he never. I guess I killed him, all right. Anyway, mother, I had to. He took a shot at me first. It was the day we lost Rattler and the bronks," He added accurately.

Mother did not say anything for a minute, and Buddy hung his head lower, dreading to see the hurt look which he felt was in her eyes.

"I have to pack a gun when I ride anywhere," he reminded her defensively. "It ain't to balance me on the horse, either. If Injuns take in after me, the gun's so I can shoot. And a feller don't shoot up in the air-and if an Injun is hunting trouble he oughta expect that maybe he might get shot sometime. You-you wouldn't want me to just run and let them catch me, would you?"

Mother's hand slipped up to his head and pressed it against her breast so that Buddy heard her heart beating steady and sweet and true. Mother wasn't afraid-never, never!

"I know-it's the dreadful necessity of defending our lives. But you're so young-just mother's baby man!"

Buddy looked up at her then, a laugh twinkling in his eyes. After all, mother understood.

"I'm going to be your baby man always if you want me to, mother," He whispered, closing his arms around her neck in a sturdy hug. "But I'm father's horse-wrangler, too. And a horse-wrangler has got to hold up his end. I-I didn't want to kill anybody, honest. But Injuns are different. You kill rattlers, and they ain't as mean as Injuns. That one I shot at was shooting at me before I even so much as knew there was one around. I just shot back. Father would, or anybody else."

"I know-I know," she conceded, the tender womanliness of her sighing over the need. In the next moment she was all mother, ready to fight for her young. "Buddy, never, never ride ANYWHERE without your rifle! And a revolver, too-be sure that it is in perfect condition. And-have you a knife? You're so LITTLE!" she wailed. "But father will need you, and he'll take care of you-and Colorou would not let you be hurt if he knew. But-Buddy, you must be careful, and always watching-never let them catch you off your guard. I shall be in Laramie before you and father and the boys, I suppose, if the Indians really do break out. And you must promise me-"

"I'll promise, mother. And don't you go and trust old Colorou an inch. He was jumping higher than any of 'em, and shaking his tomahawk and yelling-he'd have scalped me right there if he'd seen me watching 'em. Mother, I'm going to find father and tell him. And you may as well be packing up, and-don't leave my guitar for them to smash, will you, mother?"

His mother laughed then and pushed him toward the door. She had an idea of her own and she did not want to be hindered now in putting it into action. Up the creek, in the bank behind a clump of willows, was a small cave-or a large niche, one might call it-where many household treasures might be safely hidden, if one went carefully, wading in the creek to hide the tracks. She followed Buddy out, and called to Ezra who was chopping wood with a grunt for every fall of th

e axe and many rest-periods in the shade of the cottonwood tree.

At the stable, Buddy looked back and saw her talking earnestly to Ezra, who stood nodding his head in complete approval. Buddy's knowledge of women began and ended with his mother. Therefore, to him all women were wonderful creatures whom men worshipped ardently because they were created for the adoration of lesser souls. Buddy did not know what his mother was going to do, but he was sure that whatever she did would be right; so he hoisted his saddle on the handiest fresh horse, and loped off to drive in the remuda, feeling certain that his father would move swiftly to save his cattle that ranged back in the foothills, and that the saddle horses would be wanted at a moment's notice.

Also, he reasoned, the range horses (mares and colts and the unbroken geldings) would not be left to the mercy of the Indians. He did not quite know how his father would manage it, but he decided that he would corral the REMUDA first, and then drive in the other horses, that fed scattered in undisturbed possession of a favorite grassy creek-bottom farther up the Platte.

The saddle horses, accustomed to Buddy's driving, were easily corralled. The other horses were fat and "sassy" and resented his coming among them with the shrill whoop of authority. They gave him a hot hour's riding before they finally bunched and went tearing down the river bottom toward the ranch. Even so, Buddy left two of the wildest careening up a narrow gulch. He had not attempted to ride after them; not because he was afraid of Indians, for he was not. The war-dance held every young buck and every old one in camp beyond the Pass. But the margin of safety might be narrow, and Buddy was taking no chances that day.

When he was convinced that it was impossible for one boy to be in half a dozen places at once, and that the cowboys would be needed to corral the range bunch, Buddy whooped them all down the creek below the home ranch and let them go just as his father came riding up to the corral.

"They're war-dancing, father," Buddy shouted eagerly, slipping off his horse and wiping away the trickles of perspiration with a handkerchief not much redder than his face. "I drove all the horses down, so they'd be handy. Them range horses are pretty wild. There was two I couldn't get. What'll I do now?"

Bob Birnie looked at his youngest rider and smoothed his beard with one hand. "You're an ambitious lad, Buddy. It's the Utes you're meaning-or is it the horses?"

Buddy lifted his head and stared at his father disapprovingly.

"Colorou is going to break out. I know. They've got their war paint all on and they're dancing. I saw them myself. I was going after the gloves Colorou s squaw was making for me,-but I didn't get 'em. I laid in the brush and watched 'em dance." He stopped and looked again doubtfully at his father. "I thought you might want to get the cattle outa the way," he added. "I thought I could save some time-"

"You're sure about the paint?"

"Yes, I'm sure. And Colorou was just a-going it with his war bonnet on and shaking his tomahawk and yelling-"

"Ye did well, lad. We'll be leaving for Big Creek to-night, so run away now and rest yourself."

"Oh, and can I go?" Buddy's voice was shrill with eagerness.

"I'll need you, lad, to look after the horses. It will give me one more hand with the cattle. Now go tell Step-and-a-Half to make ready for a week on the trail, and to have supper early so he can make his start with the rest."

Buddy walked stiffly away to the cook's cabin where Step-and-a-Half sat leisurely gouging the worst blemishes out of soft, old potatoes with a chronic tendency to grow sprouts, before he peeled them for supper His crippled leg was thrust out straight, his hat was perched precariously over one ear because of the slanting sun rays through the window, and a half-smoked cigarette waggled uncertainly in the corner of his mouth while he sang dolefully a most optimistic ditty of the West:

"O give me a home where the buff-alo roam, Where the deer and the antelope play, Where never is heard a discouraging word And the sky is not cloudy all day."

"You're going to hear a discouraging word right now," Buddy broke in ruthlessly upon the song. Whereupon, with a bit of importance in his voice and in his manner, he proceeded to spoil Step-and-a-Half's disposition and to deepen, if that were possible, his loathing of Indians. Too often had he made dubious soup of his dishwater and the leavings from a roundup crew's dinner, and watched blanketed bucks smack lips over the mess, to run from them now without feeling utterly disgusted with life. Step-and-a-Half's vituperations could be heard above the clatter of pots and pans as he made ready for the journey.

That night's ride up the pass through the narrow range of high-peaked hills to the Tomahawk's farthest range on Big Creek was a tedious affair to Buddy. A man had been sent on a fast horse to warn the nearest neighbor, who in turn would warn the next,-until no settler would be left in ignorance of his danger. Ezra was already on the trail to Laramie, with mother and Dulcie and the cats and a slat box full of chickens, and a young sow with little pigs.

Buddy, whose word no one had questioned, who might pardonably have considered himself a hero, was concerned chiefly with his mother's flower garden which he had helped to plant and had watered more or less faithfully with creek water carried in buckets. He was afraid the Indians would step on the poppies and the phlox, and trample down the four o'clocks which were just beginning to branch out and look nice and bushy, and to blossom. The scent of the four o'clocks had been in his nostrils when he came out at dusk with his fur overcoat which mother had told him must not be left behind. Buddy himself merely liked flowers: but mother talked to them and kissed them just for love, and pitied them if Buddy forgot and let them go thirsty. He would have stayed to fight for mother's flower garden, if it would have done any good.

He was thinking sleepily that next year he would plant flowers in boxes that could be carried to the cave if the Indians broke out again, when Tex Farley poked him in the ribs and told him to wake up or he'd fall off his horse. It was a weary climb to the top of the range that divided the valley of Big Creek from the North Platte, and a wearier climb down. Twice Buddy caught himself on the verge of toppling out of the saddle. For after all he was only a thirteen-year Old boy, growing like any other healthy young animal. He had been riding hard that day and half of the preceding night when he had raced back from the Reservation to give warning of the impending outbreak. He needed sleep, and nature was determined that he should have it.

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