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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 16194

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Foreman of the Double Cross

"Hell-o, Ford, where the blazes did you drop down from?" a welcoming voice yelled, when he was closing the gate of the corral behind him and thinking that it was like Ches Mason to have a fine, strong corral and gate, and then slur the details by using a piece of baling wire to fasten it. The last ounce of disgust with life slid from his mind when he heard the greeting, and he turned and gripped hard the gloved hand thrust toward him. Ches Mason it was-the same old Ches, with the same humorous wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, the same kindliness, the same hearty faith in the world as he knew it and in his fellowmen as he found them-the unquestioning faith that takes it for granted that the other fellow is as square as himself. Ford held his hand while he permitted himself a swift, reckoning glance which took in these familiar landmarks of the other's personality.

"Don't seem to have hurt you much-matrimony," he observed whimsically, as he dropped the hand. "You look just like you always did-with your hat on." In the West, not to say in every other locality, there is a time-honored joke about matrimony, for certain strenuous reasons, producing premature baldness.

Ches grinned and removed his hat. Eight years had heightened his forehead perceptibly and thinned the hair on his temples. "You see what it's done to me," he pointed out lugubriously. "You ain't married yourself, I suppose? You look like you'd met up with some kinda misfortune." Mason was regarding Ford's scarred face with some solicitude.

"Just got tangled up a little with my fellow-citizens, in Sunset," Ford explained drily. "I tried to see how much of the real stuff I could get outside of, and then how many I could lick." He shrugged his shoulders a little. "I did quite a lot of both," he added, as an afterthought.

Mason was rubbing his jaw reflectively and staring hard at Ford. "The wife's strong on the temperance dope," he said hesitatingly. "I reckon you'll want to bunk down with the boys till you grow some hide on your face-there's lady company up at the house, and-"

"The bunk-house for mine, then," Ford cut in hastily. "No lady can get within gunshot of me; not if I see her coming in time!" Though he smiled when he said it, there was meaning behind the mirth.

Mason pulled a splinter from a corral rail and began to snap off little bits with his fingers. "Kate will go straight up in the air with me if she knows you're here and won't come to the house, though," he considered uneasily. "She's kept a big package of gratitude tucked away with your name on it, ever since that Alaska deal. And lemme tell you, Ford, when a woman as good as Kate goes and gets grateful to a man-gosh! Had your dinner?"

"Not lately, I haven't," Ford declared. "I kinda remember eating, some time in the past; it was a long time ago, though."

Mason laughed and tagged the answer as being the natural exaggeration of a hungry man. "Well, come along and eat, then-if you haven't forgotten how to make your jaws go. I've got Mose Freeman cooking for me; you know Mose, don't you? Hired him the day after the Fourth; the Mitten outfit fired him for getting soused and trying to clean out the camp, and I nabbed him before they had time to forgive him. Way they had of disciplining him-when he'd go on a big tear they'd fire him for a few days and then take him back. But they can't git him now-not if I can help it. A better cook never throwed dishwater over a guy-rope than that same old Mose, but-" He stopped and looked at Ford hesitantly. "Say! I hate like the deuce to tie a string on you as soon as you hit the ranch, Ford, but-if you've got anything along, you won't spring it on Mose, will you? A fellow's got to watch him pretty close, or-"

"I haven't got a drop." Ford's tone was reprehensibly regretful.

"You do look as if you'd put it all under your belt," Mason retorted dryly. "Left anything behind?"

"Some spoiled beauties, and a nice new jail that was built by my admiring townspeople, with my name carved over the door. I didn't stay for the dedication services. Sunset was getting all fussed up over me and I thought I'd give them a chance to settle their nerves; loss of sleep sure plays hell with folks when their nerves are getting frazzly." He smiled disarmingly at Mason.

"I'd kinda lost track of you, Ches, till I got your letter. I've been traveling pretty swift, and that's no lie. I meant to write, but-you know how a man gets to putting things off. And then I took a notion to ride over this way, and sample your grub for a day or so, and abuse you a little to your face, you old highbinder!"

"Sure. I've been kinda looking for you, too. But-I wish you hadn't quite so big an assortment of battle-signs, Ford. Kate's got ideals and prejudices-and she don't know all your little personal traits. She's heard a lot about you, of course. We was married right after we came outa the North, you know, and of course-Well, you know how a woman sops up adventure stories; and seeing you was the star performer-"

"And that's a lie," Ford put in modestly, albeit a trifle bluntly.

"No, it ain't. She got the truth. And she's so darned grateful," he added lugubriously, "that I don't know how to square your record with that face! Unless we can rig up some yarn about a holdup-" He paused just outside the mess-house door and eyed Ford questioningly. "We might-"

"No, you don't. If you've gone and lied to her, and made me out a little tin angel, you deserve what's coming. Anyway, I won't stay long, and I'll stop down here with the boys. Call me Jack Jones and let it go at that. Honest, Ches, I don't want to get mixed up with no more females. I'm plumb scared of 'em. Lordy me, that coffee sure does smell good to me!"

Mason looked at him doubtfully, saw that Ford was, for the time being, absolutely devoid of anything remotely approaching penitence for his sins, or compunction over his appearance, or uneasiness over "Kate's" opinion of him. He was hungry. And since it is next to impossible to whip up the conscience of a man whose thoughts are concentrated upon his physical needs, Mason was wise enough to wait, though the one point which he considered of vital importance to them both-the question of Ford's acceptance or refusal of the foremanship of the Double Cross-had not yet been touched upon.

While Ford ate with a controlled voraciousness which spoke eloquently of his twenty-four hours of fasting and exposure, Mason gossiped inattentively and studied the man.

Eight years leave their impress of mental growth or deterioration upon a man. Outwardly Ford was not much changed since Mason had come with him out of Alaska and lost sight of him afterwards. There was the maturity which the man of thirty possessed and which the virile young fellow of twenty-one had lacked. There was the same straight glance, the same atmosphere of squareness and mental poise. Those were qualities which Mason set down as valuable factors in his estimate of the man. Besides, there were other signs which did not make so pleasant a reading.

Eight years-and a few of them, at least, had been spent wastefully in tearing down what the other years had built; Mason had heard that Ford was "going to the dogs," and that by the short trail men blazed for themselves centuries ago and which those who came after have made a highway-the whisky trail. Mason had heard, now and then, of ten thousand dollars coming to Ford upon the death of his father and going almost as suddenly as it had come. That, at least, had been the rumor. Also he had heard, just lately, that Ford had taken to gambling as a profession and to terrorizing Sunset periodically as a pastime. And Mason remembered the Ford Campbell who had carried him on his back out of a wild place in Alaska, and had nearly starved himself that the sick man's strength might not fail him utterly. He had remembered-had Ches Mason; and, being one of those tenacious souls who cling to friendship and to a resilient faith in the good that is in the wors

t of us, he had thrown out a tentative life-line, as it were, and hoped that Ford might clutch it before he became quite submerged in the sodden morass of inebriety.

Ford may or may not have grasped eagerly at the line. At any rate he was there in the mess-house of the Double Cross, and he was not quite so sodden as Mason had feared to find him-provided he found him at all. So much, at least, was encouraging, and for the rest, Mason was content to wait.

Mose, recognizing Ford at once, had asked him, with a comical attempt at secrecy, if he had anything to drink. When Ford shook his head, Mose stifled a sigh and went back to his dishwashing, not more than half convinced and inclined toward resentfulness. That a "booze-fighter" like Ford Campbell should come only a day's ride from town and not be fairly well supplied with whisky was too remarkable to be altogether plausible. He eyed the two sourly while they talked, and he did not bring forth one of the fresh pies he had baked, as he had meant to do.

It was not until Ford was ready to light his after-dinner cigarette that Mason led the way into the next room, which held the bunks and general belongings of the men, and closed the door so that they might talk in confidence without fear of Mose's loose tongue. Ford immediately pulled off his boots, laid himself down upon one of the bunks, doubled a pillow under his head, and began to eye Mason quizzically. Then he said:

"Say, you kinda played your hand face down, didn't you, Ches, when you wrote and asked me to come out here and take charge? Eight years is a long time to expect a man to stay right where he was when you saw him last. You've lost a whole lot of horse sense since I knew you."

"Well, what about it? You came, I notice." Mason grinned and would not help Ford otherwise to an understanding.

"I didn't come to hog-tie that foreman job, you chump. I just merely want to tell you that you'll get into all kinds of trouble, some day, if you go laying yourself wide open like that. Why, it's plumb crazy to offer a job like that to a fellow you haven't seen for as long as you have me. And if you heard anything about me, it's a cinch it wasn't what would recommend me to any Sunday-school as a teacher of their Bible class! How did you know I wouldn't take it? And let you in for-"

"Well, you're here, and I've seen you. The job's still waiting for you. You can start right in, to-morrow morning." Ches got out his pipe and began to fill it as calmly and with as much attention to the small details as if he were not mentally tensed for the struggle he knew was coming; a struggle which struck much deeper than the position he was offering Ford.

Ford almost dropped his cigarette in his astonishment. "Well, you damn' fool!" he ejaculated pityingly.

"Why? I thought you knew enough-you punched cows for the Circle for four or five years, didn't you? Nelson told me you were his top hand while you stayed with him, and that you ran the outfit one whole summer, when-"

"That ain't the point." A hot look had crept into Ford's face-a tinge which was not a flush-and a glow into his eyes. "I know the cow-business, far as that goes. It's me; you can't-why, Lordy me! You ought to be sent to Sulphur Springs and get your think-tank hoed out. Any man that will offer a foreman's job to a-a-"

"'A rooting, tooting, shooting, fighting son-of-a-gun, and a good one!'" assisted Mason equably. "'The only original go-getter-' Sure. That's all right."

The flush came slowly and darkened Ford's cheeks and brow and throat. He threw his half-smoked cigarette savagely at the hearth of the rusty box-stove, and scowled at the place where it fell. "Well, ain't that reason enough?" he demanded harshly, after a minute.

Mason had been studying that flush. He nodded assent to some question he had put to himself, and crowded tobacco into his pipe. "No reason at all, one way or the other. I need a foreman-one I can depend on. I've got to make a trip out to the Coast, this fall, and I've got to leave somebody here I can trust."

Ford shot him a quick, questioning glance, and bit his lip. "That," he said more calmly, "is just what I'm driving at. You can't trust me. You can't depend on me, Ches."

"Oh, yes I can," Mason contradicted blandly. "It's just because I can that I want you."

"You can't. You know damn' well you can't! Why, you-don't you know I've got the name of being a drunkard, and a-a bad actor all around? I'm not like I was eight years ago, remember. I've traveled a hard old trail since we bucked the snow together, Ches-and it's been mostly down grade. I was all right for awhile, and then I got ten thousand dollars, and it seemed a lot of money. I bought a fellow out-he had a ranch and a few head of horses-so he could take his wife back East to her mother. She was sick. I didn't want the darned ranch. And so help me, Ches, that's the only thing I've done in the last four years that I hadn't ought to be ashamed of. The rest of the money I just simply blew. I-well, you see me; you didn't want to take me up to the house to meet your wife, and I don't blame you. You'd be a chump if you did. And this is nothing out of the ordinary. I've got my face bunged up half the time, seems like." He thumped the pillow into a different position, settled his head against it, and looked at Mason with his old, whimsical smile. "So when you talk about that foreman job, and depending on me, you're-plumb delirious. I was going to write and tell you so, but I kept putting it off. And then I took a notion I'd hunt you up and give you some good advice. You're a good fellow, Ches, but the court ought to appoint a guardian for you."

"I'll stick around for three or four weeks," Mason observed, in the casual tone of one who is merely discussing the details of an everyday affair, "till the calves are all gathered. We're a little late this year, on account of old Slow dying right in round-up time. We got most of the beef shipped-all I care about gathering, this fall. I've got most all young stock, and it won't hurt to let 'em run another season; there ain't many. I'll let you take the wagons out, and I'll go with you till you get kinda harness-broke. And-"

"I told you I don't want the job." Ford's mouth was set grimly.

"You tried to tell me what I want and what I don't want," Mason corrected amiably. "Now I've got my own ideas on that subject. This here outfit belongs to me. I like to pick my men to suit myself; and if I want a certain man for foreman, I guess I've got a right to hire him-if he'll let himself be hired. I've picked my man. It don't make any difference to me how many times he played hookey when he was a kid, or how many men he's licked since he growed up. I've hired him to help run the Double Cross, and run it right; and I ain't a bit afraid but what he'll make good." He smiled and knocked the ashes gently from his pipe into the palm of his hand, because the pipe was a meerschaum just getting a fine, fawn coloring around the base of the bowl, and was dear to the heart of him. "Down to the last, white chip," he added slowly, "he'll make good. He ain't the kind of a man that will lay down on his job." He got up and yawned, elaborately casual in his manner.

"You lay around and take it easy this afternoon," he said. "I've got to jog over to the river field; the boys are over there, working a little bunch we threw in yesterday. To-morrow we can ride around a little, and kinda get the lay of the land. You better go by-low, right now-you look as if it wouldn't do you any harm!" Whereupon he wisely took himself off and left Ford alone.

The door he pulled shut after him closed upon a mental battle-ground. Ford did not go "by-low." Instead, he rolled over and lay with his face upon his folded arms, alive to the finger-tips; alive and fighting. For there are times when the soul of a man awakes and demands a reckoning, and reviews pitilessly the past and faces the future with the veil of illusion torn quite away-and does it whether the man will or no.

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