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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 7301

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The Problem of Getting Somewhere

Dawn came tardily after a long, cheerless night, during which the wind whined over the prairie and the stars showed dimly through a shifting veil of low-sweeping clouds. Ford had not slept much, for hunger and cold make poor bedfellows, and all the brush he could glean on that barren hillside, with the added warmth of his saddle-blanket wrapped about him, could no more make him comfortable than could cigarettes still the gnawing of his hunger.

When he could see across the coulée, he rose from where he had been sitting with his back to the ledge and his feet to the meager fire, brooding over all the unpleasant elements in his life thus far, particularly the feminine element. He folded the saddle-blanket along its original creases and went over to where Rambler stood dispiritedly with his back humped to the cold, creeping wind and his tail whipping between his legs when a sudden gust played with it. Ford shivered, and beat his gloved hands about his body, and looked up at the sky to see whether the sun would presently shine and send a little warmth to this bleak land where he wandered. He blamed the girl for all of this discomfort, and he told himself that the next time a woman appeared within his range of vision he would ride way around her. They invariably brought trouble; of various sorts and degrees, it is true, but trouble always. It was perfectly safe, he decided, to bank on that. And he wished, more than ever, that he had not improvidently given that pint of whisky to a disconsolate-looking sheep-herder he had met the day before on his way out from town; or that he had put two flasks in his pocket instead of one. In his opinion a good, big jolt right now would make a new man of him.

Rambler, as he had half expected, was obliged to do his walking with three legs only; which is awkward for a horse accustomed to four exceedingly limber ones, and does not make for speed, however great one's hurry. Ford walked around him twice, scooped water in his hands, and once more bathed the shoulder-not that he had any great faith in cold water as a liniment, but because there was nothing else that he could do, and his anxiety and his pity impelled service of some sort. He rubbed until his fingers were numb and his arm aching, tried him again, and gave up all hope of leading the horse to a ranch. A mile he might manage, if he had to but ten! He rubbed Rambler's nose commiseratingly, straightened his forelock, told him over and over that it was a darned shame, anyway, and finally turned to pick up his saddle. He could not leave that lying on the prairie for inquisitive kit-foxes to chew into shoestrings, however much he might dread the forty-pound burden of it on his shoulders. He was stooping to pick it up when he saw a bit of paper twisted and tied to the saddle-horn with a red ribbon.

"Lordy me!" he ejaculated ironically. "The lady left a note on my pillow-and I never received it in time! Now, ain't that a darned shame?" He plucked the knot loose, and held up the ribbon and the note, and laughed.

"'When this reaches you, I shall be far away, though it breaks my heart to go and this missive is mussed up scandalous with my bitter tears. Forgive me if you can, and forget me if you have to. It is better thus, for it couldn't otherwise was,'" he improvised mockingly, while his chilled fingers fumbled to release the paper, which was evidently a leaf torn from a man's memorandum book. "Lordy me, a letter from a lady! Ain't that sweet!"

When he read it, however, the smile vanished with a click of the teeth which betrayed his returning anger. One cold

, curt sentence bidding him wait until help came-that was all. His eye measured accusingly the wide margin left blank under the words; she had not omitted apology or explanation for lack of space, at any rate. His face grew cynically amused again.

"Oh, certainly! I'd roost on this side-hill for a month, if a lady told me to," he sneered, speaking aloud as he frequently did in the solitude of the range land. He glanced from ribbon to note, ended his indecision by stuffing the note carelessly into his coat pocket and letting the ribbon drop to the ground, and with a curl of the lips which betrayed his mental attitude toward all women and particularly toward that woman, picked up his saddle.

"I can't seem to recollect asking that lady for help, anyway," he summed up before he dismissed the subject from his mind altogether. "I was trying to help her; it sure takes a woman to twist things around so they point backwards!"

He turned and glanced pityingly at Rambler, watching him with ears perked forward inquiringly. "And I crippled a damned good horse trying to help a blamed poor specimen of a woman!" he gritted. "And didn't get so much as a pleasant word for it. I'll sure remember that!"

Rambler whinnied after him wistfully, and Ford set his teeth hard together and walked the faster, his shoulders slightly bent under the weight of the saddle. His own physical discomfort was nothing, beside the hurt of leaving his horse out there practically helpless; for a moment his fingers rested upon the butt of his six-shooter, while he considered going back and putting an end to life and misery for Rambler. But for all the hardness men had found in Ford Campbell, he was woman-weak where his horse was concerned. With cold reason urging him, he laid the saddle on the ground and went back, his hand clutching grimly the gun at his hip. Rambler's nicker of welcome stopped him half-way and held him there, hot with guilt.

"Oh, damn it, I can't!" he muttered savagely, and retraced his steps to where the saddle lay. After that he almost trotted down the coulée, and he would not look back again until it struck him as odd that the nickerings of the horse did not grow perceptibly fainter. With a queer gripping of the muscles in his throat he did turn, then, and saw Rambler's head over the little ridge he had just crossed. The horse was making shift to follow him rather than be left alone in that strange country. Ford waited, his lashes glistening in the first rays of the new-risen sun, until the horse came hobbling stiffly up to him.

"You old devil!" he murmured then, his contrite tone contrasting oddly with the words he used. "You contrary, ornery, old devil, you!" he repeated softly, rubbing the speckled nose with more affection than he had ever shown a woman. "You'd tag along, if-if you didn't have but one leg to carry you! And I was going to-" He could not bring himself to confess his meditated deed of mercy; it seemed black-hearted treachery, now, and he stood ashamed and humbled before the dumb brute that nuzzled him with such implicit faith.

It was slow journeying, after that. Ford carried the saddle on his own back rather than burden the horse with it, and hungry as he was, he stopped often and long, and massaged the sprained shoulder faithfully while Rambler rested it, with all his weight on his other legs and his nose rooting gently at Ford's bowed head.

A stray rider assured him that he was on the right trail, but it was past noon when he thankfully reached the Double Cross, threw his saddle down beside the stable door, and gave Rambler a chance at the hay in the corral.

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