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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 16878

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"I Wish You'd Quit Believing in Me!"

A distant screaming roused Ford from his bitter mood of introspection. He raised his head and listened, his heavy-lidded eyes staring blankly at the wall opposite, before he sprang off the bunk, pulled on his boots, and rushed from the room. Outside, he hesitated long enough to discover which direction he must take to reach the woman who was screaming inarticulately, her voice vibrant with sheer terror. The sound came from the little, brown cottage that seemed trying modestly to hide behind a dispirited row of young cottonwoods across a deep, narrow gully, and he ran headlong toward it. He crossed the plank footbridge in a couple of long leaps, vaulted over the gate which barred his way, and so reached the house just as a woman whom he knew must be Mason's "Kate," jerked open the door and screamed "Chester!" almost in his face. Behind her rolled a puff of slaty blue smoke.

Ford pushed past her in the doorway without speaking; the smoke told its own urgent tale and made words superfluous. She turned and followed him, choking over the pungent smoke.

"Oh, where's Chester?" she wailed. "The whole garret's on fire-and I can't carry Phenie-and she's asleep and can't walk anyway!" She rushed half across the room and stopped, pointing toward a closed door, with Ford at her heels.

"She's in there!" she cried tragically. "Save her, quick-and I'll find Chester. You'd think, with all the men there are on this ranch, there'd be some one around-oh, and my new piano!"

She ran out of the house, scolding hysterically because the men were gone, and Ford laughed a little as he went to the door she had indicated. When his fingers touched the knob, it turned fumblingly under another hand than his own; the door opened, and he confronted the girl whom he had tried to befriend the day before. She had evidently just gotten out of bed, and into a flimsy blue kimono, which she was holding together at the throat with one hand, while with the other she steadied herself against the wall. She stared blankly into his eyes, and her face was very white indeed, with her hair falling thickly upon either side in two braids which reached to her hips.

Ford gave her one quick, startled glance, said "Come on," quite brusquely, and gathered her into his arms with as little sentiment as he would have bestowed upon the piano. His eyes smarted with the smoke, which blinded him so that he bumped into chairs on his way to the door. Outside he stopped, and looked down at the girl, wondering what he should do with her. Since Kate had stated emphatically that she could not walk, it seemed scarcely merciful to deposit her on the ground and leave her to her own devices. She had closed her eyes, and she looked unpleasantly like a corpse; and there was an insistent crackling up in the roof, which warned Ford that there was little time for the weighing of fine points. He was about to lay her on the bare ground, for want of a better place, when he glimpsed Mose running heavily across the bridge, and went hurriedly to meet him.

"Here! You take her down and put her in one of the bunks, Mose," he commanded, when Mose confronted him, panting a good deal because of his two hundred and fifty pounds of excess fat and a pair of down-at-the-heel slippers which hampered his movements appreciably. Mose looked at the girl and then at his two hands.

"I can't take her," he lamented. "I got m'hands full of aigs!"

Ford's reply was a sweep of the girl's inert figure against Mose's outstretched hands, which freed them effectually of their burden of eggs. "You darned chump, what's eggs in a case like this?" he cried sharply, and forced the girl into his arms. "You take her and put her on a bunk. I've got to put out that fire!"

So Mose, a reluctant knight and an awkward one, carried the girl to the bunk-house, and left Ford free to save the house if he could. Fortunately the fire had started in a barrel of old clothing which had stood too close to the stovepipe, and while the smoke was stifling, the flames were as yet purely local. And, more fortunately still, that day happened to be Mrs. Mason's wash-day and two tubs of water stood in the kitchen, close to the narrow stairway which led into the loft. Three or four pails of water and some quick work in running up and down the stairs was all that was needed. Ford, standing in the low, unfinished loft, looked at the rafter which was burnt half through, and wiped his perspiring face with his coat sleeve.

"Lordy me!" he observed aloud, "I sure didn't come any too soon!"

"Oh, it's all out! I don't know how I ever shall thank you in this world! With Phenie in bed with a sprained ankle so she couldn't walk, and the men all gone, I was just wild! I-why-" Kate, standing upon the stairs so that she could look into the loft, stopped suddenly and stared at Ford with some astonishment. Plainly, she had but then discovered that he was a stranger-and it was quite as plain that she was taking stock of his blackened eyes and other bruises, and that with the sheltered woman's usual tendency to exaggerate the disfigurements.

"That's all right; I don't need any thanks." Ford, seeing no other way of escape, approached her steadily, the empty bucket swinging in his hand. "The fire's all out, so there's nothing more I can do here, I guess."

"Oh, but you'll have to bring Josephine back!" Kate's eyes met his straightforward glance reluctantly, and not without reason; for Ford had dark, greenish purple areas in the region of his eyes, a skinned cheek, and a swollen lip; his chin was scratched and there was a bruise on his forehead where, on the night of his marriage, he had hit the floor violently under the impact of two or three struggling male humans. Although they were five days old-six, some of them-these divers battle-signs were perfectly visible, not to say conspicuous; so that Kate Mason was perhaps justified in her perfectly apparent diffidence in looking at him. So do we turn our eyes self-consciously away from a cripple, lest we give offense by gazing upon his misfortune.

"I can't carry her, and she can't walk-her ankle is sprained dreadfully. So if you'll bring her back to the house, I'll be ever so much-"

"Certainly; I'll bring her back right away." Ford came down the stairs so swiftly that she retreated in haste before him, and once down he did not linger; indeed, he almost ran from the house and from her embarrassed gratitude. On the way to the bunk-house it occurred to him that it might be no easy matter, now, for Mason to conceal Ford's identity and his sins. From the way in which she had stared wincingly at his battered countenance, he realized that she did, indeed, have ideals. Ford grinned to himself, wondering if Ches didn't have to do his smoking altogether in the bunk-house; he judged her to be just the woman to wage a war on tobacco, and swearing, and muddy boots, and drinking out of one's saucer, and all other weaknesses peculiar to the male of our species. He was inclined to pity Ches, in spite of his mental acknowledgment that she was a very nice woman indeed; and he was half inclined to tell Mason when he saw him that he'd have to look further for a foreman.

He found the girl lying upon a bunk just inside the door, still with closed eyes and that corpse-like look in her face. He was guilty of hoping that she would remain in that oblivious state for at least five minutes longer, but the hope was short-lived; for when he lifted her carefully in his arms, her eyes flew open and stared up at him intently.

Ford shut his lips grimly and tried not to mind that unwinking gaze while he carried her out and up the path, across the little bridge and on to the house, and deposited her gently upon her own bed. He had not spoken a word, nor had she. So he left her thankfully to Kate's tearful ministrations and hurried from the room.

"Lordy me!" he sighed, as he closed the door upon them and went back to the bunk-house, which he entered with a sigh of relief. One tribute he paid her, and one only: the tribute of feeling perturbed over her presence, and of going hot all over at the memory of her steady stare into his face. She was a queer girl, he told himself; but then, so far as he had discovered, all women were queer; the only difference being that some women were more so than others.

He sat down on the bunk where she ha

d lain, and speedily forgot the girl and the incident in facing the problem of that foremanship. He could not get away from the conviction that he was not to be trusted. He did not trust himself, and there was no reason why any man who knew him at all should trust him. Ches Mason was a good fellow; he meant well, Ford decided, but he simply did not realize what he was up against. He meant, therefore, to enlighten him further, and go his way. He was almost sorry that he had come.

Mason, when Ford confronted him later at the corral and bluntly stated his view of the matter, heard him through without a word, and did not laugh the issue out of the way, as he had been inclined to do before.

"I'll be all right for a month, maybe," Ford finished, "and that's as long as I can bank on myself. I tell you straight, Ches, it won't work. You may think you're hiring the same fellow that came out of the North with you-but you aren't. Why, damn it, there ain't a man I know that wouldn't give you the laugh if they knew the offer you've made me! They would, that's a fact. They'd laugh at you. You're all right, Ches, but I won't stand for a deal like that. I can't make good."

Mason waited until he was through. Then he came closer and put both hands on Ford's shoulders, so that they stood face to face, and he looked straight into Ford's discolored eyes with his own shining a little behind their encircling wrinkles.

"You can make good!" he said calmly. "I know it. All you need is a chance to pull up. Seeing you won't give yourself one, I'm giving it to you. You'll do for me what you won't do for yourself, Ford-and if there's a yellow streak in you, I never got a glimpse of it; and the yellow will sure come to the surface of a man when he's bucking a proposition like you and me bucked for two months. You didn't lay down on that job, and you were just a kid, you might say. Gosh, Ford, I'd bank on you any old time-put you on your mettle, and I would! You can make good here-and damn it, you will!"

"I wish I was as sure of that as you seem to be," Ford muttered uneasily, and turned away. Mason's easy chuckle followed him, and Ford swung about and faced him again.

"I haven't made any cast-iron promise-"

"Did I ask you to make any?" Mason's voice sharpened.

"But-Lordy me, Ches! How do you know I-"

"I know. That's enough."

"But-maybe I don't want the darned job. I never said-"

Mason was studying him, as a man studies the moods of an untamed horse. "I didn't think you'd dodge," he drawled, and the blood surged answeringly to Ford's cheeks. "You do want it."

"If I should happen to get jagged up in good shape, about the first thing I'd do would be to lick the stuffing out of you for being such a simple-minded cuss," Ford prophesied grimly, as one who knows well whereof he speaks.

"Ye-es-but you won't get jagged."

"Oh, Lord! I wish you'd quit believing in me! You used to have some sense," Ford grumbled. But he reached out and clenched his fingers upon Mason's arm so tight that Mason set his teeth, and he looked at him long, as if there was much that he would like to put into words and could not. "Say! You're white clear down to your toes, Ches," he said finally, and walked away hurriedly with his hat jerked low over his eyes.

Mason looked after him as long as he was in sight, and afterwards took off his hat, and wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. "Gosh!" he whispered fervently. "That was nip and tuck-but I got him, thank the Lord!" Whereupon he blew his nose violently, and went up to his supper with his hands in his pockets and his humorous lips pursed into a whistle.

Before long he was back, chuckling to himself as he bore down upon Ford in the corral, where he was industriously rubbing Rambler's sprained shoulder with liniment.

"The wife says you've got to come up to the house," he announced gleefully. "You've gone and done the heroic again, and she wants to do something to show her gratitude."

"You go back and tell your wife that I'm a bold, bad man and I won't come." Ford, to prove his sincerity, sat down upon the stout manger there, and crossed his legs with an air of finality.

"I did tell her," Mason confessed sheepishly. "She wanted to know who you was, and I told her before I thought. And she wanted to know what was the matter with your face, 'poor fellow,' and I told her that, too-as near as I knew it. I told her," he stated sweepingly, "that you'd been on a big jamboree and had licked fourteen men hand-running. There ain't," he confided with a twinkle, "any use at all in trying to keep a secret from your wife; not," he qualified, "from a wife like Kate! So she knows the whole darned thing, and she's sore as the deuce because I didn't bring you up to the house right away when you came. She thinks you're sufferin' from them wounds and she's going to doctor 'em. That's the way with a woman-you never can tell what angle she's going to look at a thing from. You're the man that packed me down out of the Wrangel mountains on your back, and that's enough for her-dang it, Kate thinks a lot of me! Besides, you done the heroic this afternoon. You've got to come."

"There ain't anything heroic in sloshing a few buckets of water on a barrel of burning rags," Ford belittled, seeking in his pockets for his cigarette papers.

"How about rescuing a lady?" Mason twitted. "You come along. I want you up there myself. Gosh! I want somebody I can talk to about something besides dresses and the proper way to cure sprained ankles, and whether the grocer sent out the right brand of canned peaches. Women are all right-but a man wants some one around to talk to. You ain't married!"

"Oh. Ain't I?" Ford snorted. "And what if I ain't?"

"Say, there's a mighty nice girl staying with us; the one you rescued. She's laid up now-got bucked off, or fell off, or something yesterday, and hurt her foot-but she's a peach, all right. You'll-"

"I know the lady," Ford cut in dryly. "I met her yesterday, and we commenced hating each other as soon as we got in talking distance. She sent me to catch her horse, and then she pulled out before I got back. She's a peach, all right!"

"Oh. You're the fellow!" Mason regarded him attentively. "Now, I don't believe she said a word to Kate about that, and she must have known who it was packed her out of the house. I wonder why she didn't say anything about it to Kate! But she wasn't to blame for leaving you out there, honest she wasn't. I went out to hunt her up-Kate got kinda worried about her-and she told me about you, and we did wait a little while. But it was getting cold, and she was hurt pretty bad and getting kinda wobbly, so I put her on my horse and brought her home. But she left a note for you, and I sent a man back after you with a horse. He come back and said he couldn't locate you. So we thought you'd gone to some other ranch." He stopped and looked quizzically at Ford. "So you're the man! And you're both here for the winter-at least, Kate says she's going to keep her all winter. Gosh! This is getting romantic!"

"Don't you believe it!" Ford urged emphatically. "I don't want to bump into her again; a little of her company will last me a long while!"

"Oh, you won't meet Jo to-night; Josephine, her name is. She's in bed, and will be for a week or so, most likely. You've just got to come, Ford. Kate'll be down here after you herself, if I go back without you-and she'll give me the dickens into the bargain. I want you to get acquainted with my kid-Buddy. He's down in the river field with the boys, but he'll be back directly. Greatest kid you ever saw, Ford! Only seven, and he can ride like a son-of-a-gun, and wears chaps and spurs, and can sling a loop pretty good, for a little kid! Come on!"

"Wel-ll, all right-but Lordy me! I do hate to, Ches, and that's a fact. Women I'm plumb scared of. I never met one in my life that didn't hand me a package of trouble so big I couldn't see around it. Why-" He shut his teeth upon the impulse to confide to Mason his matrimonial mischance.

"These two won't. My wife's the real goods, once you get to know her; a little fussy, maybe, over some things-most all women are. But she's all right, you bet. And Josephine's the proper stuff too. A little abrupt, maybe-"

"Abrupt!" Ford echoed, and laughed over the word. "Yes, she is what you might call a little-abrupt!"

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