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Cow-Country By B. M. Bower Characters: 13590

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

A woman was stooping at the woodpile, filling her arms with crooked sticks of rough-barked sage. From the color of her hair Bud knew that she was not Honey, and that she was therefore a stranger to him. But he swung off the path and went over to her as naturally as he would go to pick up a baby that had fallen.

"I'll carry that in for you," he said, and put out his hand to help her to her feet.

Before he touched her she was on her feet and looking at him. Bud could not remember afterwards that she had done anything else; he seemed to have seen only her eyes, and into them and beyond them to a soul that somehow made his heart tremble.

What she said, what he answered, was of no moment. He could not have told afterwards what it was. He stooped and filled his arms with wood, and walked ahead of her up the pathway to the kitchen door, and stopped when she flitted past him to show him where the wood-box stood. He was conscious then of her slenderness and of the lightness of her steps. He dropped the wood into the box behind the stove on which kettles were steaming. There was the smell of chicken stewing, and the odor of fresh-baked pies.

She smiled up at him and offered him a crisp, warn cookie with sugared top, and he saw her eyes again and felt the same tremor at his heart. He pulled himself together and smiled back at her, thanked her and went out, stumbling a little on the doorstep, the cookie untasted in his fingers.

He walked down to the corral and began fumbling at his pack, his thoughts hushed before the revelation that had come to him.

"Her hands-her poor, little, red hands!" he said in a whisper as the memory of them came suddenly. But it was her eyes that he was seeing with his mind; her eyes, and what lay deep within. They troubled him, shook him, made him want to use his man-strength against something that was hurting her. He did not know what it could be; he did not know that there was anything-but oddly the memory of his mother's white face back in the long ago, and of her tone when she said, "Oh, God, please!" came back and fitted themselves to the look in this woman's eyes.

Bud sat down on his canvas-wrapped bed and lifted his hat to rumple his hair and then smooth it again, as was his habit when worried. He looked at the cookie, and because he was hungry he ate it with a foolish feeling that he was being sentimental as the very devil, thinking how her hands had touched it. He rolled and smoked a cigarette afterwards, and wondered who she was and whether she was married, and what her first name was.

A quiet smoke will bring a fellow to his senses sometimes when nothing else will, and Bud managed, by smoking two cigarettes in rapid succession, to restore himself to some degree of sanity.

"Funny how she made me think of mother, back when I was a kid coming up from Texas," he mused. "Mother'd like her." It was the first time he had ever thought just that about a girl. "She's no relation to Honey," he added. "I'd bet a horse on that." He recalled how white and soft were Honey's hands, and he swore a little. "Wouldn't hurt her to get out there in the kitchen and help with the cooking," he criticised. Then suddenly he laughed. "Shucks a'mighty, as Pop says! with those two girls on the ranch I'll gamble Dave Truman has a full crew of men that are plumb willing to work for their board!"

The stage came, and Bud turned to it relievedly. After that, here came Dave Truman on a deep-cheated roan. Bud knew him by his resemblance to the old man, who came shuffling bent-backed from the machine-shed as Dave passed.

Pop beckoned, and Dave reined his horse that way and stopped at the shed door. The two talked for a minute and Dave rode on, passing Bud with a curt nod. Pop came over to where Bud stood leaning against the corral.

"How are you feeling, dad?" Bud grinned absently.

"Purty stiff an' sore, boy-my rheumatics is bad to-day." Pop winked solemnly. "I spoke to Dave about you wantin' a job, and I guess likely Dave'll put you on. They's plenty to do-hayin' comin' on and all that." He lowered his voice mysteriously, though there was no man save Bud within a hundred feet of him. "Don't ye go 'n talk horses-not yet. Don't let on like yore interested much. I'll tell yuh when to take 'em up."

The men came riding in from the hayfield, some in wagons, two astride harnessed work-horses, and one long-legged fellow in chaps on a mower, driving a sweaty team that still had life enough to jump sidewise when they spied Bud's pack by the corral. The stage driver sauntered up and spoke to the men. Bud went over and began to help unhitch the team from the mower, and the driver eyed him sharply while he grinned his greeting across the backs of the horses.

"Pop says you're looking for work," Dave Truman observed, coming up. "Well, if you ain't scared of it, I'll stake yuh to a hayfork after dinner. Where yuh from?"

"Just right now, I'm from the Muleshoe. Bud Birnie's my name. I was telling dad why I quit."

"Tell me," Dave directed briefly. "Pop ain't as reliable as he used to be. He'd never get it out straight."

"I quit," said Bud, "by special request." He pulled off his gloves carefully and held up his puffed knuckles. "I got that on Dirk Tracy."

The driver of the mower shot a quick, meaning glance at Dave, and laughed shortly. Dave grinned a little, but he did not ask what had been the trouble, as Bud had half expected him to do. Apparently Dave felt that he had received all the information he needed, for his next remark had to do with the heat. The day was a "weather breeder", he declared, and he was glad to have another man to put at the hauling.

An iron triangle beside the kitchen door clamored then, and Bud, looking quickly, saw the slim little woman with the big, troubled eyes striking the iron bar vigorously. Dave glanced at his watch and led the way to the house, the hay crew hurrying after him.

Fourteen men sat down to a long table with a great shuffling of feet and scraping of benches, and immediately began a voracious attack upon the heaped platters of chicken and dumplings and the bowls of vegetables. Bud found a place at the end where he could look into the kitchen, and his eyes went that way as often as they dared, following the swift motions of the little woman who poured coffee and filled empty dishes and said never a word to anyone.

He was on the point of believing her a daughter of the house when a square-jawed man of thirty, or thereabout, who sat at Bud's right hand, called her to him as he might have called his dog, by snapping his fingers.

She came and stood beside Bud while the man spoke to her in an arrogant undertone.

"Marian, I told yuh I wanted tea for dinner after this. D'you bring me coffe

e on purpose, just to be onery? I thought I told yuh to straighten up and quit that sulkin'. I ain't going to have folks think--"

"Oh, be quiet! Shame on you, before everyone!" she whispered fiercely while she lifted the cup and saucer.

Bud went hot all over. He did not look up when she returned presently with a cup of tea, but he felt her presence poignantly, as he had never before sensed the presence of a woman. When he was able to swallow his wrath and meet calmly the glances of these strangers he turned his head casually and looked the man over.

Her husband, he guessed the fellow to be. No other relationship could account for that tone of proprietorship, and there was no physical resemblance between the two. A mean devil, Bud called him mentally, with a narrow forehead, eyes set too far apart and the mouth of a brute. Someone spoke to the man, calling him Lew, and he answered with rough good humor, repeating a stale witticism and laughing at it just as though he had not heard others say it a hundred times.

Bud looked at him again and hated him, but he did not glance again at the little woman named Marian; for his own peace of mind he did not dare. He thought that he knew now what it was he had seen in the depth of her eyes, but there seemed to be nothing that he could do to help.

That evening after supper Honey Krause called to him when he was starting down to the bunk-house with the other men. What she said was that she still had his guitar and mandolin, and that they needed exercise. What she looked was the challenge of a born coquette. In the kitchen dishes were rattling, but after they were washed there would be a little leisure, perhaps, for the kitchen drudge. Bud's impulse to make his sore hands an excuse for refusing evaporated. It might not be wise to place himself deliberately in the way of getting a hurt-but youth never did stop to consult a sage before following the lure of a woman's eyes.

He called back to Honey that those instruments ought to have been put in the hayfield, where there was more exercise than the men could use. "You boys ought to come and see me safe through with it," he added to the loitering group around him. "I'm afraid of women."

They laughed and two or three went with him. Lew went on to the corral and presently appeared on horseback, riding up to the kitchen and leaving his horse standing at the corner while he went inside and talked to the woman he had called Marian.

Bud was carrying his guitar outside, where it was cooler, when he heard the fellow's arrogant voice. The dishes ceased rattling for a minute, and there was a sharp exclamation, stifled but unmistakable. Involuntarily Bud made a movement in that direction, when Honey's voice stopped him with a subdued laugh.

"That's only Lew and Mary Ann," she explained carelessly. "They have a spat every time they come within gunshot of each other."

The lean fellow who had driven the mower, and whose name was Jerry Myers, edged carelessly close to Bud and gave him a nudge with his elbow, and a glance from under his eyebrows by way of emphasis. He turned his head slightly, saw that Honey had gone into the house, and muttered just above a whisper, "Don't see or hear anything. It's all the help you can give her. And for Lord's sake don't let on to Honey like you-give a cuss whether it rains or not, so long 's it don't pour too hard the night of the dance."

Bud looked up at the darkening sky speculatively, and tried not to hear the voices in the kitchen, one of which was brutally harsh while the other told of hate and fear suppressed under gentle forbearance. The harsh voice was almost continuous, the other infrequent, reluctant to speak at all. Bud wanted to go in and smash his guitar over the fellow's head, but Jerry's warning held him. There were other ways, however, to help; if he must not drive off the tormentor, then he would call him away. He ignored his bruised knuckles and plucked the guitar strings as if he held a grudge against them, and then began to sing the first song that came into his mind-one that started in a rollicky fashion.

Men came straggling up from the bunk-house before he had finished the first chorus, and squatted on their heels to listen, their cigarettes glowing like red fingertips in the dusk. But the voice in the kitchen talked on. Bud tried another-one of those old-time favorites, a "laughing coon" song, though he felt little enough in the mood for it. In the middle of the first laugh he heard the kitchen door slam, and Lew's footsteps coming around the corner. He listened until the song was done, then mounted and rode away, Bud's laugh following him triumphantly-though Lew could not have guessed its meaning.

Bud sang for two hours expectantly, but Marian did not appear, and Bud went off to the bunk-house feeling that his attempt to hearten her had been a failure. Of Honey he did not think at all, except to wonder if the two women were related in any way, and to feel that if they were Marian was to be pitied. At that point Jerry overtook him and asked for a match, which gave him an excuse to hold Bud behind the others.

"Honey like to have caught me, to-night," Jerry observed guardedly. "I had to think quick. I'll tell you the lay of the land, Bud, seeing you're a stranger here. Marian's man, Lew, he's a damned bully and somebody is going to draw a fine bead on him some day when he ain't looking. But he stands in, so the less yuh take notice the better. Marian, she's a fine little woman that minds her own business, but she's getting a cold deck slipped into the game right along. Honey's jealous of her and afraid somebody'll give her a pleasant look. Lew's jealous, and he watches her like a cat watches a mouse it's caught and wants to play with. Between the two of 'em Marian has a real nice time of it. I'm wising you up so you won't hand her any more misery by trying to take her part. Us boys have learned to keep our mouths shut."

"Glad you told me," Bud muttered. "Otherwise--"

"Exactly," Jerry agreed understandingly. "Otherwise any of us would."

He stopped and then spoke in a different tone. "If Lew stays off the ranch long enough, maybe you'll get to hear her sing. Wow-ee, but that lady has sure got the meadow-larks whipped! But look out for Honey, old-timer."

Bud laughed unmirthfully. "Looks to me as if you aren't crazy over Honey," he ventured. "What has she done to you?"

"Her?" Jerry inspected his cigarette, listened to the whisper of prudence in his ear, and turned away. "Forget it. I never said a word." He swept the whole subject from him with a comprehensive gesture, and snorted. "I'm gettin' as bad as Pop," he grinned. "But lemme tell yuh something. Honey Krause runs more 'n the post-office."

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