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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 16858

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Josephine waited languidly while Kate chose a second-best cushion from the couch and, lifting the bandaged foot as gently as might be, placed it, with many little pats and pulls, under the afflicted member. Josephine screwed her lips into a soundless expression of pain, smiled afterwards when Kate glanced at her commiseratingly, and pulled a long, dark-brown braid forward over her chest.

"Do you want tea, Phenie?-or would you rather have chocolate to-day? I can make chocolate just as easy as not; I think I shall, anyway. Buddy is so fond of it and-"

"Is that man here yet?" Josephine's tone carried the full weight of her dislike of him.

"I don't know why you call him 'that man,' the way you do," Kate complained, turning her mind from the momentous decision between tea and chocolate. "Ford's simply fine! Chester thinks there's no one like him; and Buddy just tags him around everywhere. You can always," asserted Kate, with the positiveness of the person who accepts unquestioningly the beliefs of others, living by faith rather than reason, "depend upon the likes and dislikes of children and dogs, you know."

"Has the swelling gone out of his eyes?" Josephine inquired pointedly, with the irrelevance which seemed habitual to her and Kate when they conversed.

"Phenie, I don't think it's kind of you to harp on that. Yes, it has, if you want to know. He's positively handsome-or will be when the-when his nose heals perfectly. And I don't think that's anything one should hold against Ford; it seems narrow, dear."

"The skinned place?" Josephine's tone was perfectly innocent, and her fingers were busy with the wide, black bow which becomingly tied the end of the braid.

"Phenie! If you hadn't a sprained ankle, and weren't such a dear in every other respect, I'd shake you! It isn't fair. Because Ford was pounced upon by a lot of men-sixteen, Chester told me-"

"I suppose he counted the dead after the battle, and told Ches truthfully-"

"Phenie, that sounds catty! When you get down on a man, you're perfectly unmerciful, and Ford doesn't deserve it. You shouldn't judge men by the narrow, Eastern standards. I know it's awful for a man to drink and fight. But Ford wasn't altogether to blame. They got him to drinking and," she went on with her voice lowered to the pitch at which women are wont to relate horrid, immoral things, "-I wouldn't be surprised if they put something in it! Such things are done; I've heard of men being drugged and robbed and all sorts of things. And I'm just as much of an advocate for temperance as you are, Phenie-and I think Ford was just right to fight those men. There are," she declared wisely, "circumstances where it's perfectly just and right for a man to fight. I can imagine circumstances under which Chester would be justified in fighting-"

"In case sixteen men should hold his nose and pour drugged whisky down his throat?" Phenie inquired mildly, curling the end of her braid over a slim forefinger.

Mrs. Kate made an inarticulate sound which might almost be termed a snort, and walked from the room with her head well up and a manner which silently made plain to the onlooker that she might say many things which would effectually crush her opponent, but was magnanimously refraining from doing so.

Josephine did not even pay her the tribute of looking at her; she had at that moment heard a step upon the porch, and she was leaning to one side so that she might see who was coming into the dining-room. As it happened, it was Mason himself. Miss Josephine immediately lost interest in the arrival and took to tracing with her finger the outline of a Japanese lady with a startling coiffure and an immense bow upon her spine, who was simpering at a lotus bed on Josephine's kimono. She did not look up until some one stepped upon the porch again.

This time it was Ford, and he stopped and painstakingly removed the last bit of soil from his boot-soles upon the iron scraper which was attached to one end of the top step; when that duty had been performed, he paid further tribute to the immaculate house he was about to enter, by wiping his feet upon a mat placed with mathematical precision upon the porch, at the head of the steps. Josephine watched the ceremonial, and studied Ford's profile, and did not lay her head back upon the cushion behind her until he disappeared into the dining-room. Then she stared at a colored-crayon portrait of Buddy which hung on the wall opposite, and her eyes were the eyes of one who sees into the past.

Buddy, when he opened the door and projected himself into the room, startled her into a little exclamation.

"Dad says he'll carry you out to the table and you can have a whole side to yourself," he announced without preface. "They'll just pick up your chair, and pack chair and all in, and set you down as ee-asy-do you want to eat out there with us?"

Josephine hesitated for two seconds. "All right," she consented then, in a supremely indifferent tone which was of course quite wasted on Buddy, who immediately disappeared with a whoop.

"Come on, dad-she says yes, all right, she'll come," he announced gleefully. Buddy was Josephine's devoted admirer, at this point in their rather brief acquaintance; which, according to his mother's well-known theory, was convincing proof of her intrinsic worth-Mrs. Kate having frequently strengthened her championship of Ford to his detractor, Miss Josephine, by pointing out that Buddy was fond of him.

Josephine spent the brief interval in tucking back locks of hair and in rearranging the folds of her long, Japanese kimono, and managed to fall into a languidly indifferent attitude by the time Chester opened the door. Behind him came Ford; Miss Josephine moved her lips and tilted her head in a perfunctory greeting, and afterward gave him no more attention than if he had been a Pullman porter assisting with her suitcases. For the matter of that, she gave quite as much attention as she received from him-and Mason's lips twitched betrayingly at the spectacle.

Through dinner they seemed mutually agreed upon ignoring each other as much as was politely possible, which caused Mason to watch them with amusement, and afterwards relieve his feelings by talking about them to Kate in the kitchen.

"Gosh! Jo and Ford are sure putting up a good bluff," he chuckled, while he selected the freshest dish towel from the rack behind the pantry door. "They'd be sticking out their tongues at each other if they was twenty years younger; pity they ain't, too; it would be a relief to 'em both!"

"Phenie provokes me almost past endurance!" Mrs. Kate complained, burying two plump forearms in a dishpan of sudsy hot water, and bringing up a handful of silver. "It's because Ford had been fighting when he came here, and she knows he has been slightly addicted to liquor. She looks down on him, and I don't think it's fair. If a man wants to reform, I believe in helping him instead of pushing him father down." (Mrs. Kate had certain little peculiarities of speech; one was an italicized delivery, and another was the omission of an r now and then. She always said "father" when she really meant "farther.") "There's a lot that one can do to help. I believe in showing trust and confidence in a man, when he's trying to live down past mistakes. I think it was just fine of you to make him foreman here! If Phenie would only be nice to him, instead of turning up her nose the way she does! You see yourself how she treats Ford, and I just think it's a shame! I think he's just splendid!"

"She don't treat him any worse than he does her," observed Mason, just to the core. "Seems to me, if I was single, and a girl as pretty as Jo-"

"Well, I'm glad Ford has got spunk enough not to care," Mrs. Kate interposed hastily. "Phenie's pretty, of course-but it takes more than that to attract a man like Ford. You can't expect him to like her when she won't look at him, hardly; it makes me feel terribly, because he's sure to think it's because he-I've tried to make her see that it isn't right to condemn a man because he has made one mistake. He ought to be encouraged, instead of being made to feel that he is a-an outcast, practically. And-"

"Jo don't like Ford, because she's stuck on Dick," stated a shrill, positive young voice behind them, and Mrs. Kate turned sharply upon her offspring. "They was waving

hands to each other just now, through the window. I seen 'em," Buddy finished complacently. "Dick was down fixing the bridge, and-"

"Buddy, you run right out and play! You must not listen to older people and try to talk about some-thing you don't understand."

"Aw, I understand them two being stuck on each other," Buddy maintained loftily. "And I seen Dick-"

"Chase yourself outdoors, like your mother said; and don't butt in on-"

"Chester!" reproved Mrs. Kate, waving Buddy out of the kitchen. "How can you expect the child to learn good English, when you talk to him like that? Run along, Buddy, and play like a good boy." She gave him a little cake to accelerate his departure and to turn his mind from further argument, and after he was gone she swung the discussion to Buddy and his growing tendency toward grappling with problems beyond his seven years. Also, she pointed out the necessity for choosing one's language carefully in his presence.

Mason, therefore, finished wiping the dishes almost in silence, and left the house as soon as he was through, with the feeling that women were not by nature intended to be really companionable. He had, for instance, been struck with the humorous side of Ford and Josephine's perfectly ridiculous antipathy, and had lingered in the kitchen because of a half-conscious impulse to enjoy the joke with some one. And Mrs. Kate had not taken the view-point which appealed to him, but had been self-consciously virtuous in her determination to lend Ford a helping hand, and resentful because Josephine failed to feel also the urge of uplifting mankind.

Mason, poor man, was vaguely nettled; he did not see that Ford needed any settlement-worker encouragement. If he was let alone, and his moral regeneration forgotten, and he himself treated just like any other man, Mason felt that Ford would thereby have all the encouragement he needed. Ford was once more plainly content with life, and was taking it in twenty-four-hour doses again; healthful doses, these, and different in every respect from those days spent in the sordid round of ill-living in town; nor did he flay his soul with doubts lest he should disappoint this man who trusted him so rashly and so implicitly. Ford was busy at work which appealed to the best of him. He was thrown into companionship with men who perforce lived cleanly and naturally, and with Ches Mason, who was his friend. At meals he sometimes gave thought to Mrs. Kate, and frequently to Josephine. The first he admired impersonally for her housewifely skill, and smiled at secretly for her purely feminine outlook upon life and her positive views upon subjects of which she knew not half the alphabet. He had discovered that Mason did indeed refrain from smoking in the house because she discountenanced tobacco; and since she had a talent for making a man uncomfortably aware of her disapproval by certain wordless manifestations of scorn for his weaknesses, Ford also took to throwing away his cigarette before he crossed the bridge on his way to her domain. He did not, however, go so far as Ches, who kept his tobacco, pipe, and cigarette papers in the stable, and was always borrowing "the makings" from his men.

Ford also followed Mason's example in sterilizing his vocabulary whenever he crossed that boundary between the masculine and feminine element on the ranch, the bridge. Mrs. Kate did not approve of slang. Ford found himself carefully eliminating from his speech certain grammatical inaccuracies in her presence, and would not so much as split an infinitive if he remembered in time. It was trying, to be sure. Ford thanked God that he still retained a smattering of the rules he had reluctantly memorized in school, and that he was not married (at least, not uncomfortably so), and that he was not compelled to do more than eat his meals in the house. Mrs. Kate was a nice woman; Ford would tell any man so in perfect sincerity. He even considered her nice looking, with her smooth, brown hair which was never disordered, her fine, clear skin, her white teeth, her clear blue eyes, and her immaculate shirt-waists. But she was not a comfortable woman to be with; an ordinary human wearied of adjusting his speech, his manners, and his morals to her standard of propriety. Ford, quietly studying matrimony from the well-ordered example before him, began to congratulate himself upon not being able to locate his own wife-since accident had afflicted him with one. When he stopped, during these first busy days at the Double Cross, to think deeply or seriously upon the mysterious entanglement he had fallen into, he was inclined to the opinion that he had had a narrow escape. The woman might have remained in Sunset-and Ford flinched at the thought.

As to Josephine, Ford's thoughts dwelt with her oftener than they did with Mrs. Kate. The thought of her roused a certain resentment which bordered closely upon dislike. Still, she piqued his interest; for a week she was invisible to him, yet her presence in the house created a tangible atmosphere which he felt but could not explain. His first sight of her-beyond a fleeting glimpse once or twice through the window-had been that day when he had helped Mason carry her and her big chair into the dining-room. The brief contact had left with him a vision of the delicate parting in her soft, brown hair, and of long, thick lashes which curled daintily up from the shadow they made on her cheeks. He did not remember ever having seen a woman with such eyelashes. They impelled him to glance at her oftener than he would otherwise have done, and to wonder, now and then, if they did not make her eyes seem darker than they really were. He thought it strange that he had not noticed her lashes that day when he carried her from the house and back again-until he remembered that at first his haste had been extreme, and that when he took her from the bunk-house she had stared at him so that he would not look at her.

He did not know that Ches Mason was observant of his rather frequent glances at her during the meal, and he would have resented Mason's diagnosis of that particular symptom of interest. Ford would, if put to the question, have maintained quite sincerely that he was perfectly indifferent to Josephine, but that she did have remarkable eyelashes, and a man couldn't help looking at them.

After all, Ford's interest was centered chiefly upon his work. They were going to start the wagons out again to gather the calves for weaning, and he was absorbed in the endless details which fall upon the shoulders of the foreman. Even the fascination of a woman's beauty did not follow him much beyond the bridge.

Mason, hurrying from the feminine atmosphere at the house, found him seriously discussing with Buddy the diet and general care of Rambler, who had been moved into a roomy box stall for shelter. Buddy was to have the privilege of filling the manger with hay every morning after breakfast, and every evening just before supper. Upon Buddy also devolved the duty of keeping his drinking tub filled with clean water; and Buddy was making himself as tall as possible during the conference, and was crossing his heart solemnly while he promised, wide-eyed, to keep away from Rambler's heels.

"I never knew him to kick, or offer to; but you stay out of the stall, anyway. You can fill his tub through that hole in the wall. And you let Walt rub him down good every day-you see that he does it, Bud! And when he gets well, I'll let you ride him, maybe. Anyway, I leave him in your care, old-timer. And it's a privilege I wouldn't give every man. I think a heap of this horse." He turned at the sound of footsteps, and lowered an eyelid slowly for Mason's benefit. "Bud's going to have charge of Rambler while we're gone," he explained seriously. "I want to be sure he's in good hands."

The two men watched Buddy's departure for the house, and grinned over the manifest struggle between his haste to tell his mother and Jo, and his sense of importance over the trust.

"A kid of your own makes up for a whole lot," Mason observed abstractedly, reaching up to the narrow shelf where he kept his tobacco. "I wish I had two or three more; they give a man something to work for, and look ahead and plan for."

Ford, studying his face with narrowed eyelids, was more than ever thankful that he was not hampered by matrimony.

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