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Cow-Country By B. M. Bower Characters: 22484

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

"Bud, you're fourteen kinds of a damn fool and I can prove it," Jerry announced without prelude of any kind save, perhaps, the viciousness with which he thrust a pitchfork into a cock of hay. The two were turning over hay-cocks that had been drenched with another unwelcome storm, and they had not been talking much. "Forking" soggy hay when the sun is blistering hot and great, long-billed mosquitoes are boring indefatigably into the back of one's neck is not a pastime conducive to polite and animated conversation.

"Fly at it," Bud invited, resting his fork while he scratched a smarting shoulder. "But you can skip some of the evidence. I know seven of the kinds, and I plead guilty. Any able-bodied man who will deliberately make a barbecue of himself for a gang of blood-thirsty insects ought to be hanged. What's the rest?"

"You can call that mild," Jerry stated severely. "Bud, you're playing to lose the shirt off your back. You've got a hundred dollar forfeit up on next Sunday's running match, so you'll run if you have to race Boise afoot. That's all right if you want the risk-but did it ever occur to you that if all the coin in the neighborhood is collected in one man's pocket, there'll be about as many fellows as there are losers, that will lay awake till sun-up figuring how to heel him and ride off with the roll? I ain't over-stocked with courage, myself. I'd rather be broke in Burroback Valley than owner of wealth. It's healthier."

He thrust his fork into another settled heap, lifted it clear of the ground with one heave of his muscular shoulders, and heard within a strident buzzing. He held the hay poised until a mottled gray snake writhed into view, its ugly jaws open and its fangs showing malevolently.

"Grab him with your fork, Bud," Jerry said coolly. "A rattler-the valley's full of 'em,-some of 'em 's human."

The snake was dispatched and the two went on to the next hay-cock. Bud was turning over more than the hay, and presently he spoke more seriously than was his habit with Jerry.

"You're full enough of warnings, Jerry. What do you want me to do about it?"

"Drift," Jerry advised. "There's moral diseases just as catching as smallpox. This part of the country has been settled up by men that came here first because they wanted to hide out. They've slipped into darn crooked ways, and the rest has either followed suit or quit. All through this rough country. It's the same-over in the Black Rim, across Thunder Mountains, and beyond that to the Sawtooth, a man that's honest is a man that's off his range. I'd like to see you pull out-before you're planted."

Bud looked at Jerry, studied him, feature by feature. "Then what are you doing here?" he demanded bluntly. "Why haven't you pulled out?"

"Me?" Jerry bit his lip. "Bud, I'm going to take a chance and tell you the God's-truth. I dassent. I'm protected here because I keep my mouth shut, and because they know I've got to or they can hand me over. I had some trouble. I'm on the dodge, and Little Lost is right handy to the Sinks and-Catrock Canyon. There ain't a sheriff in Idaho that would have one chance in a thousand of getting me here. But you-say!" He faced Bud. "You ain't on the dodge, too, are yuh?"

"Nope," Bud grinned. "Over at the Muleshoe they seemed to think I was. I just struck out for myself, and I want to show up at home some day with a stake I made myself. It's just a little argument with my dad that I want to settle. And," he added frankly, "I seem to have struck the right place to make money quickly. The very fact that they're a bunch of crooks makes my conscience clear on the point of running my horse. I'm not cheating them out of a cent. If Jeff's horse is faster than Smoky, Jeff is privileged to let him out and win if he can. It isn't my fault if he 's playing to let me win from the whole bunch in the hope that he can hold me up afterwards and get the roll. It's straight 'give and take'-and so far I've been taking."

Jerry worked for a while, moodily silent. "What I'd like is to see you take the trail; while the takin's good," he said later. "I've got to keep my mouth shut. But I like yuh, Bud. I hate like hell to see you walking straight into a trap."

"Say, I'm as easily trapped as a mountain lion," Bud told him confidently.

Whereat Jerry looked at him pityingly. "You going to that dance up at Morgan's?"

"Sure! I'm going to take Honey and-I think Mrs. Morris if she decides to go. Honey mentioned it last night. Why?"

"Oh, nothing." Jerry shouldered his fork and went off to where a jug of water was buried in the hay beside a certain boulder which marked the spot. He drank long, stopped for a short gossip with Charley, who strolled over for a drink, and went to work on another row.

Bud watched him, and wondered if Jerry had changed rows to avoid further talk with him; and whether Jerry had merely been trying to get information from him, and had either learned what he wanted to know, or had given up the attempt. Bud reviewed mentally their desultory conversation and decided that he had accidentally been very discreet. The only real bit of information he had given Jerry was the fact that he was not "on the dodge"-a criminal in fear of the law-and that surely could harm no man.

That he intended to run against Boise on Sunday was common knowledge; also that he had a hundred dollar forfeit up on the race. And that he was going to a dance with Honey was of no consequence that he could see.

Bud was beginning to discount the vague warnings he had received. Unless something definite came within his knowledge he would go about his business exactly as if Burroback Valley were a church-going community. He would not "drift."

But after all he did not go to the dance with Honey, or with anyone. He came to the supper-table freshly shaved and dressed for the occasion, ate hungrily and straightway became a very sick young man. He did not care if there were forty dances in the Valley that night. His head was splitting, his stomach was in a turmoil. He told Jerry to go ahead with Honey, and if he felt better after a while he would follow. Jerry at first was inclined to scepticism, and accused Bud of crawfishing at the last minute. But within ten minutes Bud had convinced him so completely that Jerry insisted upon staying with him. By then Bud was too sick to care what was being done, or who did it. So Jerry stayed.

Honey came to the bunk-house in her dance finery, was met in the doorway by Jerry and was told that this was no place for a lady, and reluctantly consented to go without her escort.

A light shone dimly in the kitchen after the dancers had departed, wherefore Jerry guessed that Marian had not gone with the others, and that he could perhaps get hold of mustard for an emetic or a plaster-Jerry was not sure which remedy would be best, and the patient, wanting to die, would not be finicky. He found Marian measuring something drop by drop into half a glass of water. She turned, saw who had entered, and carefully counted three more drops, corked the bottle tightly and slid it into her apron pocket, and held out the glass to Jerry.

"Give him this," she said in a soft undertone. "I'm sorry, but I hadn't a chance to say a word to the boy, and so I couldn't think of any other way of making sure he would not go up to Morgan's. I put something into his coffee to make him sick. You may tell him, Jerry, if you like. I should, if I had the chance. This will counteract the effects of the other so that he will be all right in a couple of hours."

Jerry took the glass and stood looking at her steadily. "That sure was one way to do it," he observed, with a quirk of the lips. "It's none of my business, and I ain't asking any questions, but-"

"Very sensible, I'm sure," Marian interrupted him. "I wish he'd leave the country. Can't you-?"

"No. I told him to pull out, and he just laughed at me. I knowed they was figuring on ganging together to-night-"

Marian closed her hands together with a gesture of impatience. "Jerry, I wish I knew just how bad you are!" she exclaimed. "Do you dare stand by him? Because this thing is only beginning. I couldn't bear to see him go up there to-night, absolutely unsuspecting-and so I made him sick. Tell that to anyone, and you can make me-"

"Say, I ain't a damned skunk!" Jerry muttered. "I'm bad enough, maybe. At any rate you think so." Then, as usually happened, Jerry decided to hold his tongue. He turned and lifted the latch of the screen door. "You sure made a good job of it," he grinned. "I'll go an' pour this into Bud 'fore he loses his boots!"

He did so, and saved Bud's boots and half a night's sleep besides. Moreover, when Bud, fully recovered, searched his memory of that supper and decided that it was the sliced cucumbers that had disagreed with him, Jerry gravely assured him that it undoubtedly was the combination of cucumber and custard pie, and that Bud was lucky to be alive after such reckless eating.

Having missed the dance altogether, Bud looked forward with impatience to Sunday. It is quite possible that others shared with him that impatience, though we are going to adhere for a while to Bud's point of view and do no more than guess at the thoughts hidden behind the fair words of certain men in the Valley.

Pop's state of mind we are privileged to know, for Pop was seen making daily pilgrimage to the pasture where he could watch Smoky limping desultorily here and there with Stopper and Sunfish. On Saturday afternoon Bud saw Pop trying to get his hands on Smoky, presumably to examine the lame ankle. But three legs were all Smoky needed to keep him out of Pop's reach. Pop forgot his rheumatism and ran pretty fast for a man his age, and when Bud arrived Pop's vocabulary had limbered up to a more surprising activity than his legs.

"Want to bet on yourself, Pop?" Bud called out when Pop was running back and forth, hopefully trying to corner Smoky in a rocky draw. "I'm willing to risk a dollar on you, anyway."

Pop whirled upon him and hurled sentences not written in the book of Parlor Entertainment. The gist of it was that he had been trying all the week to have a talk with Bud, and Bud had plainly avoided him after promising to act upon Pop's advice and run so as to make some money.

"Well, I made some," Bud defended. "If you didn't, it's just because you didn't bet strong enough."

"I want to look at that horse's hind foot," Pop insisted.

"No use. He's too lame to run against Boise. You can see that yourself."

Pop eyed Bud suspiciously, pulling his beard. "Are you fixin' to double-cross me, young feller?" he wanted to know. "I went and made some purty big bets on this race. If you think yo're goin' to fool ole Pop, you 'll wish you hadn't. You got enemies already in this valley, lemme tell yuh. The Muleshoe ain't any bunch to fool with, and I'm willing to say 't they're laying fer yuh. They think," he added shrewdly, "'t you're a spotter, or something. Air yuh?"

"Of course I am, Pop! I've spotted a way to make money and have fun while I do it." Bud looked at the old man, remembered Marian's declaration that Pop was not very reliable, and groped menta

lly for a way to hearten the old man without revealing anything better kept to himself, such as the immediate effect of a horse hair tied just above a horse's hoof, also the immediate result of removing that hair. Wherefore, he could not think of much to say, except that he would not attempt to run a lame horse against Boise.

"All I can say is, to-morrow morning you keep your eyes open, Pop, and your tongue between your teeth. And no matter what comes up, you use your own judgment."

To-morrow morning Pop showed that he was taking Bud's advice. When the crowd began to gather-much earlier than usual, by the way, and much larger than any crowd Bud had seen in the valley-Pop was trotting here and there, listening and pulling his whiskers and eyeing Bud sharply whenever that young man appeared in his vicinity.

Bud led Smoky up at noon-and Smoky was still lame. Dave looked at him and at Bud, and grinned. "I guess that forfeit money's mine," he said in his laconic way. "No use running that horse. I could beat him afoot."

This was but the beginning. Others began to banter and jeer Bud, Jeff's crowd taunting him with malicious glee. The singin' kid was going to have some of the swelling taken out of his head, they chortled. He had been crazy enough to put up a forfeit on to-day's race, and now his horse had just three legs to run on.

"Git out afoot, kid!" Jeff Hall yelled. "If you kin run half as fast as you kin talk, you'll beat Boise four lengths in the first quarter!"

Bud retorted in kind, and led Smoky around the corral as if he hoped that the horse would recover miraculously just to save his master's pride. The crowd hooted to see how Smoky hobbled along, barely touching the toe of his lame foot to the ground. Bud led him back to the manger piled with new hay, and faced the jeering crowd belligerently. Bud noticed several of the Muleshoe men in the crowd, no doubt drawn to Little Lost by the talk of Bud's spectacular winnings for two Sundays. Hen was there, and Day Masters and Cub. Also there were strangers who had ridden a long way, judging by their sweaty horses. In the midst of the talk and laughter Dave led out Boise freshly curried and brushed and arching his neck proudly.

"No use, Bud," he said tolerantly. "I guess you're set back that forfeit money-unless you want to go through the motions of running a lame horse."

"No, sir, I'm not going to hand over any forfeit money without making a fight for it!" Bud told him, anger showing in his voice. "I'm no such piker as that. I won't run Smoky, lame as he is "-Bud probably nudged his own ribs when he said that!-"but if you'll make it a mile, I'll catch up my old buckskin packhorse and run the race with him, by thunder! He's not the quickest horse in the world, but he sure can run a long while!"

They yelled and slapped one another on the back, and otherwise comported themselves as though a great joke had been told them; never dreaming, poor fools, that a costly joke was being perpetrated.

"Go it, kid. You run your packhorse, and I'll rive yuh five to one on him!" a friend of Jeff Hall's yelled derisively.

"I'll just take you up on that, and I'll make it one hundred dollars," Bud shouted back. "I'd run a turtle for a quarter, at those odds!"

The crowd was having hysterics when Bud straddled a Little Lost horse and, loudly declaring that he would bring back Sunfish, led Smoky limping back to the pasture. He returned soon, leading the buckskin. The crowd surged closer, gave Sunfish a glance and whooped again. Bud's face was red with apparent anger, his eyes snapped. He faced them defiantly, his hand on Sunfish's thin, straggling mane.

"You're such good sports, you'll surely appreciate my feelings when I say that this horse is mine, and I'm going to run him and back him to win!" he cried. "I may be a darn fool, but I'm no piker. I know what this horse can do when I try to catch him up on a frosty morning-and I'm going to see if he can't go just as fast and just as long when I'm on him as he can when I'm after him."

"We'll go yuh, kid! I'll bet yuh five to one," a man shouted. "You name the amount yourself."

"Fifty," said Bud, and the man nodded and jotted down the amount.

"Bud, you're a damn fool. I'll bet you a hundred and make it ten to one," drawled Dave, stroking Boise's face affectionately while he looked superciliously at Sunfish standing half asleep in the clamor, with his head sagging at the end of his long, ewe neck. "But if you'll take my advice, go turn that fool horse back in the pasture and run the bay if you must run something."

"The bay's a rope horse. I don't want to spoil him by running him. That little horse saved my life, down in the Sinks. No, Sunfish has run times enough from me-now he 's got to run for me, by thunder. I'll bet on him, too!"

Jeff pushed his way through to Bud. He was smiling with that crafty look in his eyes which should have warned a child that the smile went no deeper than his lips.

"Bud, doggone it, I like yore nerve. Besides, you owe me something for the way you trimmed me last Sunday. I'll just give you fifteen to one, and you put up Skeeter at seventy-five, and as much money as yo're a mind to. A pile of it come out of my pocket, so-"

"Well, don't holler your head off, Jeff. How's two hundred?"

"Suits me, kid." He winked at the others, who knew how sure a thing he had to back his wager. "It 'll be a lot of money if I should lose-" He turned suddenly to Dave. "How much was that you put up agin the kid, Dave?"

"One hundred dollars, and a ten-to-one shot I win," Dave drawled. "That ought to satisfy yuh it ain't a frame-up. The kid's crazy, that's all."

"Oh! Am I?" Bud turned hotly. "Well, I've bet half of all the money I have in the world. And I'm game for the other half-" He stopped abruptly, cast one look at Sunfish and another at Boise, stepping about uneasily, his shiny coat rippling, beautiful. He turned and combed Sunfish's scanty mane with his gloved fingers. Those nearest saw that his lips were trembling a little and mistook his hidden emotion for anger.

"You got him going," a man whispered in Jeff's ear. "The kid's crazy mad. He'll bet the shirt off his back if yuh egg him on a little more."

Jeff must have decided to "egg" Bud on. By the time the crowd had reached the course, and the first, more commonplace races were over, the other half of his money was in the hands of the stake-holder, who happened on this day to be Jerry. And the odds varied from four to one up to Jeff Hall's scornful fifteen.

"Bet yuh five hundred dollars against your bay horse," Lew offered when Bud confessed that he had not another dollar to bet.-

"All right, it's a go with me," Bud answered recklessly. "Get his hundred, Jerry, and put down Stopper."

"What's that saddle worth?" another asked meaningly.

"One hundred dollars," snapped Bud. "And if you want to go further, there are my chaps and spurs and this silver-mounted bridle-and my boots and hat-and I'll throw in Sunfish for whatever you say his hide's worth. Who wants the outfit?"

"I'll take 'em," said Jeff, and permitted Jerry and Dave to appraise the outfit, which Bud piled contemptuously in a heap.

He mounted Sunfish bareback with a rope halter. Bud was bareheaded and in his sock feet. His eyes were terribly blue and bright, and his face was flushed as a drunken man's. He glanced over to the bank where the women and children were watching. It seemed to him that one woman fluttered her handkerchief, and his heart beat unevenly for a minute.

Then he was riding at a walk down the course to the farthest post, and the crowd was laughing at the contrast between the two horses. Boise stepped springily, tossing his head, his eyes ablaze with ardor for the race. Beside him Sunfish walked steadily as if he were carrying a pack. He was not a pretty horse to look at. His neck was long and thin, his mane and tail scanty and uneven, a nondescript sorrel. His head looked large, set on the end of that neck, his nose was dished in and his eyes had a certain veiled look, as if he were hiding a bad disposition under those droopy lids. Without a saddle he betrayed his high, thin withers, the sway in his back, his high hip bones. His front legs were flat, with long, stringy-looking muscles under his unkempt buckskin hide. Even the women laughed at Sunfish.

Beside them two men rode, the starter and another to see that the start was fair. So they receded down the flat, yellow course and dwindled to mere miniature figures against the sand, so that one could not tell one horse from another.

The crowd bunched, still laughing at how the singin' kid was going to feel when he rode again to meet them. It would cure him of racing, they said. It would be a good lesson; serve him right for coming in there and thinking, because he had cleaned up once or twice, that he could not be beaten.

"Here they come," Jeff Hall announced satisfiedly, and spat into the sand as a tiny blue puff of smoke showed beside one of the dots, and two other dots began to grow perceptibly larger within a yellow cloud which rolled along the earth.

Men reined this way and that, or stood on their toes if they were afoot, the better to see the two rolling dots. In a moment one dot seemed larger than the other. One could glimpse the upflinging of knees as two horses leaped closer and closer.

"Well-l-he's keepin' Dave in sight-that's more than what I expected he'd do," Jeff observed.

It was Pop who suddenly gave a whoop that cracked and shrilled into falsetto.

"Shucks a'mighty! Dave, he's a-whippin' up to keep the KID in sight!" he quavered. "Shucks-a'MIGHTY, he 's a-comin'!"

He was. Lying forward flattened along Sunfish's hard-muscled shoulders, Bud was gaining and gaining-one length, then two lengths as he shot under the wire, slowed and rode back to find a silent crowd watching him.

He was clothed safely again in chaps, boots, spurs, hat-except that I have named the articles backward; cowpuncher that he was, Bud put on his hat before he even reached for his boots-and was collecting his wagers relentlessly as Shylock ever took his toll, before he paid any attention to the atmosphere around him. Then, because someone shouted a question three inches from his ear, Bud turned and laughed as he faced them.

"Why, sure he's from running stock! I never said he wasn't-because none of you make-believe horsemen had sense enough to see the speed in him and get curious. You bush-racers never saw a real race-horse before, I guess. They aren't always pretty to look at, you know. Sunfish has all the earmarks of speed if you know how to look for them. He's thoroughbred; sired by Trump, out of Kansas Chippy-if that means anything to you fellows." He looked them over, eyes meeting eyes until his glance rested on Jeff Hall. "I've got his registration papers in my grip, if you aren't convinced. And," he added by way of rubbing it in, "I guess I've got about all the money there is in this valley."

"No, you ain't!" Pop Truman cackled, teetering backward and forward while he counted his winnings. "I bet on ye, young feller. Brought me in something, too. It did so!"

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