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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 20437

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"It's Going to Be an Uphill Climb!"

Ford was no moral weakling except, perhaps, when whisky and he came to hand-grips. He had made up his mind that Mason must be told of his backsliding, and protected from the risk of leaving a drunkard in charge of his ranch. And when he saw that the opportunity for opening the subject easily did not show any sign of presenting itself, he grimly interrupted Mason in the middle of a funny story about Josephine and Buddy and Kate, involving themselves in a three-cornered argument to the complete discomfiture of the women.

"I tell you, Ford, that kid's a corker! Kate's got all kinds of book theories about raising children, but they don't none of 'em work, with Bud. He gets the best of her right along when she starts to reason with him. Gosh! You can't reason with a kid like Bud; you've got to take him on an equal footing, and when he goes too far, just set down on him and no argument about it. Kate's going to have her hands full while I'm gone, if-"

"She sure will, Ches, unless you get somebody here you can depend on," was the way in which Ford made his opportunity. "You've got the idea, somehow, that cutting out whisky is like getting rid of a mean horse. It's something you don't-"

"Oh, don't go worrying over that, no more," Mason expostulated hastily. "Forget it. That's the quickest cure; try Christian Science dope on it. The more you worry about it, the more-"

"But wait till I tell you! That day I went to town, and you came on home, I got drunk as a fool, Ches. I don't know what all I did, but I know-"

"Well, I know-more about it than you do, I reckon," Mason cut in dryly. "I was told five different times, by one stranger and four of these here trouble-peddlin' friends that clutter the country. That's all right, Ford. A little slip like that-" He held out his hand for Ford's sack of tobacco.

"I ain't the least bit uneasy over that, old man. I'm just as sure as I stand here that you're going to pull up, all right."

"I know you are, Ches." Ford's voice was humble. "That's the hell of it. You're more sure than sensible-but-But look at it like I was a stranger, Ches. Just forget you ever knew me when I was kinda half-way decent. You ain't a fool, even if you do act like one. You know what I'm up against. I'm going to put up the damnedest fight I've got in me, but I don't want you to take any gamble on it. Maybe I'll win, and then again maybe I won't. Maybe I'll go down and out. I don't know-I don't feel half as sure of myself as I did before I made that bobble in town. Before that, I did kinda have an idea that all there was to it was to quit. I thought, once I made up my mind, that would settle it. But that's just the commencement; you've got to fight something inside of you that's as husky a fighter as you are. You've got to-"

"There!" Mason reached out and tapped him impressively on the arm with a match he was about to light. "Now you've got the bull right by the horns! You ain't so darned sure of yourself now-and so I'm dead willing to gamble on you. I ain't a bit afraid to go off and let you have full swing."

"Well, I hope you won't feel like kicking me all over the ranch when you get back," Ford said, after a long pause, during which Mason's whole attention seemed centered upon his cigarette. "It's going to be an uphill climb, old-timer-and a blamed long hill at that. And it's going to be pretty darned slippery, in places."

"I sabe that, all right," grinned Mason. "But I sabe you pretty well, too. You'll dig in your toes and hang on by your eye-winkers if you have to. But you'll get up, all right; I'll bank on that.

"Speaking of booze-fighters," he went on, without giving Ford a chance to contradict him, "I wish you'd keep an eye on old Mose. Now, there's a man that'll drink whisky as long as it's made, if he can get it. I wouldn't trust that old devil as far as I can throw him, and that's a fact. I have to watch pretty close, to keep it off the ranch, and him on. It's the only way to get along with him-he's apt to run amuck, if he gets full enough; and good cooks are as scarce as good foremen." A heartening smile went with the last sentence.

"If he does make connections with the booze, don't can him, Ford, if you can help it. Just shut him up somewhere till he gets over it. There's nothing holds good men with an outfit like the right kind of grub-and Mose sure can cook. The rest of the men you can handle to suit yourself. Slim and Johnnie are all right over at Ten Mile-you made a good stab when you picked them two out-and you will want a couple of fellows here besides Walt, to feed them calves. When the cows are throwed back on the range and the fences gone over careful-I ought to have tended to that before, but I got to putting it off-you can pay off what men you don't need or want."

There was no combating the friendship of a man like that. Ford mentally squared his shoulders and set his feet upon the uphill trail.

He realized to the full the tribute Mason paid to his innate trustworthiness by leaving him there, master of the ranch and guardian of his household god-and goddess, to say nothing of Josephine, whom Mason openly admired and looked upon as one of the family.

Of a truth, it would seem that she had really become so. Ford had gathered, bit by bit, the information that she was quite alone in the world, so far as immediate relatives were concerned, and that she was Kate's cousin, and that Kate insisted that this was to be her home, from now on. Josephine's ankle was well enough now so that she was often to be met in unexpected places about the ranch, he discovered. And though she was not friendly, she was less openly antagonistic than she had been-and when all was said and done, eminently able to take care of herself.

So also was Kate, for that matter. No sooner was her beloved Chester out of sight over the hill a mile away, than Mrs. Kate dried her wifely tears and laid hold of her scepter with a firmness that amused Ford exceedingly. She ordered Dick up to work in the depressed-looking area before the house, which she called her flower garden, a task which Dick seemed perfectly willing to perform, by the way-although his assistance would have been more than welcome at other work than tying scraggly rose bushes and protecting them from the winter already at hand.

As to Buddy, he surely would have resented, more keenly than the women, the implication that he needed any one to take care of him. Buddy's allegiance to Ford was wavering, at that time. Dick had gone to some trouble to alter an old pair of chaps so that Buddy could wear them, and his star was in the ascendant; a pair of chaps with fringes were, in Buddy's estimation, a surer pledge of friendship and favor than the privilege of feeding a lame horse.

Buddy was rather terrible, sometimes. He had a way of standing back unnoticed, and of listening when he was believed to be engrossed in his play. Afterward he was apt to say the things which should not be said; in other words, he was the average child of seven, living without playmates, and so forced by his environment to interest himself in the endless drama played by the grown-ups around him. Buddy, therefore, was not unusually startling, one day at dinner, when he looked up from spatting his potato into a flat cake on his plate.

"What hill you going to climb, Ford?" was his manner of exploding his bomb. "Bald pinnacle? I can climb that hill myself."

"I don't know as I'm going to climb any hills at all," Ford said indulgently, accepting another helping of potato salad from Mrs. Kate.

"You told dad before he went to gran'ma's house you was going to climb a big, long hill, and he was more sure than sensible." He giggled and showed where two front teeth were missing from among their fellows. "Dad told him he'd make it, but he'd have to dig in his toes and hang on by his eye-winkers," he added to the two women. "Gee! I'd like to see Ford hang onto a hill by his eye-winkers. Jo could do it-she's got winkers six feet long."

Miss Josephine had been looking at Ford's face going red, as enlightenment came to him, but when she caught a quick glance leveled at her lashes, she drooped them immediately so that they almost touched her cheeks. Bud gave a squeal and pointed to her with his fork.

"Jo's blushing! I guess she's ashamed because she's got such long winkers, and Ford keeps looking at 'em all the time. Why don't you shave 'em off with dad's razor? Then Ford would like you, maybe. He don't now. He told dad-"

"Robert Chester Mason, do you want me to get the hairbrush?" This, it need not be explained, from Mrs. Kate, in a voice that portended grave disaster.

"I guess we can get along without it, mamma," Buddy answered her, with an ingratiating smile. Even in the first seven years of one's life, one learns the elementary principles of diplomacy. He did not retire from the conversation, but he prudently changed the subject to what he considered a more pleasant channel.

"Dick likes you anyway, Jo," he informed her soothingly. "He likes you, winkers and all. I can tell, all right. When you go out for a ride he gives me nickels if I tell him where-"

"Robert Ches-"

"Oh, all right." Buddy's tone was wearily tolerant. "A man never knows what to talk about to women, anyway. I'd hate to be married to 'em-wouldn't you, Ford?"

"A little boy like you-" began his mother, somewhat pinker of cheeks than usual.

"I guess I'm pretty near a man, now." He turned his eyes to Ford, consciously ignoring the feminine members of his family. "If I had a wife," he stated calmly, "I'd snub her up to a post and then I'd talk to her about anything I damn pleased!"

Mrs. Kate rose up then in all the terrifying dignity of outraged motherhood, grasped Buddy by the wrist, and led him away, in the direction of the hairbrush, if one would judge by Buddy's reluctance to go.

"So you are going to climb the-Big Hill, are you?" Miss Josephine observed, when the two were quite alone. "It is to be hoped, Mr. Campbell, that you won't find it as steep as it looks-from the bottom."

Ford was not an adept at reading what lies und

erneath the speech of a woman. To himself he accented the last three words, so that they overshadowed all the rest and made her appear to remind him where he stood-at the bottom.

"I suppose a hollow does look pretty high, to a man down a well," he retorted, glancing into his teacup because he felt and was resisting an impulse to look at her.

"One can always keep climbing," she murmured, "and never give up-" Miss Josephine, also, was tilting her teacup and looking studiously into it as if she would read her fortune in the specks of tea leaves there.

"Like the frog in the well-that climbed one jump and fell back two!" he interrupted, but she paid no attention, and went on.

"And the reward for reaching the top-"

"Is there supposed to be a reward?" Ford could not tell why he asked her that, nor why he glanced stealthily at her from under his eyebrows as he awaited her reply.

"There-might-there usually is a reward for any great achievement-and-" Miss Josephine was plainly floundering where she had hoped to float airily upon the surface.

"What's the reward for-climbing hills, for instance?" He looked at her full, now, and his lips were ready to smile.

Miss Josephine looked uneasily at the door. "I-really, I never-investigated the matter at all." She gave a twitch of shoulders and met his eyes steadily. "The inner satisfaction of having climbed the hill, I suppose," she said, in the tone of one who has at last reached firm ground. "Will you have more tea, Mr. Campbell?"

Her final words were chilly and impersonal, but Ford left the table, smiling to himself. At the door he met Dick, whom Buddy had mentioned with disaster to himself. Dick saw the smile, and within the room he saw Miss Josephine sitting alone, her chin resting in her two palms and her eyes fixed upon vacancy.

"Hello," Ford greeted somewhat inattentively. "Do you want me for anything, Dick?"

"Can't say I do," drawled Dick, brushing past Ford in the doorway.

Ford hesitated long enough to give him a second glance-an attentive enough glance this time-and went his way; without the smile, however.

"Lordy me!" he said to himself, when his foot touched the bridge, but he did not add anything to the exclamation. He was wondering when it was that he had begun to dislike Dick Thomas; a long while, it seemed to him, though he had never till just now quite realized it, beyond resenting his covert sneer that day in town. He had once or twice since suspected Dick of a certain disappointment that he himself was not foreman of the Double Cross, and once he had asked Mason why he hadn't given the place to Dick.

"Didn't want to," Mason had replied succinctly, and let it go at that.

If Dick cherished any animosity, however, he had not made it manifest in actual hostility. On the contrary, he had shown a distinct inclination to be friendly; a friendliness which led the two to pair off frequently when they were riding, and to talk over past range experiences more or less intimately. Looking back over the six weeks just behind him, Ford could not remember a single incident-a sentence, even-that had been unpleasant, unless he clung to his belief in Dick's contempt, and that he had since set down to his own super-sensitiveness. And yet-

"He's got bad eyes," he concluded. "That's what it is; I never did like eyes the color of polished steel; nickel-plated eyes, I call 'em; all shine and no color. Still, a man ain't to blame for his eyes."

Then Dick overtook him with Buddy trailing, red-eyed, at his heels, and Ford forgot, in the work to be done that day, all about his speculations. He involved himself in a fruitless argument with Buddy, upon the subject of what a seven-year-old can stand in the way of riding, and yielded finally before the quiver of Buddy's lips. They were only going over on Long Ridge, anyway, and the day was fine, and Buddy had frequently ridden as far, according to Dick. Indeed, it was Dick's easy-natured, "Ah, let the kid go, why don't you?" which gave Ford an excuse for reconsidering.

And Buddy repaid him after his usual fashion. At the supper table he looked up, round-eyed, from his plate.

"Gee, but I'm hungry!" he sighed. "I eat and eat, just like a horse eating hay, and I just can't fill up the hole in me."

"There, never mind, honey," Mrs. Kate interposed hastily, fearing worse. "Do you want more bread and butter?"

"Yes-you always use bread for stuffing, don't you? I want to be stuffed. All the way home my b-my stomerch was a-flopping against my backbone, just like Dick's. Only Dick said-"

"Never mind what Dick said." Mrs. Kate thrust the bread toward him, half buttered.

"Dick's mad, I guess. He's mad at Ford, too."

Buddy regarded his mother gravely over the slice of bread.

"First I've heard of it," Ford remarked lightly. "I think you must be mistaken, old-timer."

But Buddy never considered himself mistaken about anything, and he did not like being told that he was, even when the pill was sweetened with the term "old-timer." He rolled his eyes at Ford resentfully.

"Dick is mad! He got mad when you galloped over where Jo's red ribbon was hanging onto a bush. I saw him a-scowling when you rolled it up and put it in your shirt pocket. Dick wanted that ribbon for his bridle; and you better give it to him. Jo ain't your girl. She's Dick's girl. And you have to tie the ribbon of your bestest girl on your bridle. That's why," he added, with belated gallantry, "I tie my own mamma's ribbons on mine. And," he returned with terrible directness to the real issue, "Jo's Dick's girl, 'cause he said so. I heard him tell Jim Felton she's his steady, all right-and you are his girl, ain't you, Jo?"

His mother had tried at first to stop him, had given up in despair, and was now sitting in a rather tragic calm, waiting for what might come of his speech.

Josephine might have saved herself some anxious moments, if she had been so minded; perhaps she would have been minded, if she had not caught Ford's eyes fixed rather intently upon her, and sensed the expectancy in them. She bit her lip, and then she laughed.

"A man shouldn't make an assertion of that sort," she said quizzically, in the direction of Buddy-though her meaning went straight across the table to another-"unless he has some reason for feeling very sure."

Buddy tried to appear quite clear as to her meaning. "Well, if you are Dick's girl, then you better make Ford give that ribbon-"

"I have plenty of ribbons, Buddy," Josephine interrupted, smiling at him still. "Don't you want one?"

"I tie my own mamma's ribbons on my bridle," Buddy rebuffed. "My mamma is my girl-you ain't. You can give your ribbons to Dick."

"Mamma won't be your girl if you don't stop talking so much at the table-and elsewhere," Mrs. Kate informed him sternly, with a glance of trepidation at the others. "A little boy mustn't talk about grown-ups, and what they do or say."

"What can I talk about, then? The boys talk about their girls all the time-"

"I wish to goodness I had let you go with your dad. I shall not let you eat with us, anyway, if you don't keep quiet. You're getting perfectly impossible." Which even Buddy understood as a protest which was not to be taken seriously.

Ford stayed long enough to finish drinking his tea, and then he left the house with what he privately considered a perfectly casual manner. As a matter of fact, he was extremely self-conscious about it, so that Mrs. Kate felt justified in mentioning it, and in asking Josephine a question or two-when she had prudently made an errand elsewhere for Buddy.

Josephine, having promptly disclaimed all knowledge or interest pertaining to the affair, Mrs. Kate spoke her mind plainly.

"If Ford's going to fall in love with you, Phenie," she said, "I think you're foolish to encourage Dick. I believe Ford is falling in love with you. I never thought he even liked you till to-night, but what Buddy said about that ribbon-"

"I don't suppose Bud knows what he's talking about-any more than you do," snapped Josephine. "If you're determined that I shall have a love affair on this ranch, I'm going home." She planted her chin in her two palms, just as she had done at dinner, and stared into vacancy.

"Where?" asked Mrs. Kate pointedly, and then atoned for it whole-heartedly. "There, I didn't mean that-only-this is your home. It's got to be; I won't let it be anywhere else. And you needn't have any love affair, Phene-you know that. Only you shan't hurt Ford. I think he's perfectly splendid! What he did for Chester-I-I can't think of that without getting a lump in my throat, Phene. Think of it! Going without food himself, because there wasn't enough for two, and-and-well, he just simply threw away his own chance of getting through, to give Chester a better one. It was the bravest thing I ever heard of! And the way he has conquered-?"

"How do you know he has conquered? Rumor says he hasn't. And lots of men save other men's lives; it's being done every day, and no one hears much about it. You think it was something extraordinary, just because it happened to be Chester that was saved. Anybody will do all he can for a sick partner, when they're away out in the wilds. I haven't a doubt Dick would have done the very same thing, when it comes to that." Josephine got up from the table then, and went haughtily into her own room.

Mrs. Kate retired quite as haughtily into the kitchen, and there was a distinct coolness between them for the rest of the day, and a part of the next. The chill of it affected Ford sufficiently to keep him away from the house as much as possible, and unusually silent and unlike himself when he was with the men.

But, unlike many another, he did not know that his recurrent dissatisfaction with life was directly traceable to the apparent intimacy between Josephine and Dick. Ford, if he had tried to put his gloomy unrest into words, would have transposed his trouble and would have mistaken effect for cause. In other words, he would have ignored Josephine and Dick entirely, and would have said that he wanted whisky-and wanted it as the damned are said to want water.

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