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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 20954

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


At Hand-Grips with the Demon

Mose was mad. He was flinging tinware about the kitchen with a fine disregard of the din or the dents, and whenever the blue cat ventured out from under the stove, he kicked at it viciously. He was mad at Ford; and when a man gets mad at his foreman-without knowing that the foreman has been instructed to bear with his faults and keep him on the pay-roll at any price-he must, if he be the cook, have recourse to kicking cats and banging dishes about, since he dare not kick the foreman. For in late November "jobs" are not at all plentiful in the range land, and even an angry cook must keep his job or face the world-old economic problem of food, clothing, and shelter.

But if he dared not speak his mind plainly to Ford, he was not averse to pouring his woes into the first sympathetic ear that came his way. It happened that upon this occasion the ear arrived speedily upon the head of Dick Thomas.

"Matter, Mose?" he queried, sidestepping the cat, which gave a long leap straight for the door, when it opened. "Cat been licking the butter again?"

Mose grunted and slammed three pie tins into a cupboard with such force that two of them bounced out and rolled across the floor. One came within reach of his foot, and he kicked it into the wood-box, and swore at it while it was on the way. "And I wisht it was Ford Campbell himself, the snoopin', stingy, kitchen-grannying, booze-fightin', son-of-a-sour-dough bannock!" he finished prayerfully.

"He surely hasn't tried to mix in here, and meddle with you?" Dick asked, helping himself to a piece of pie. You know the tone; it had just that inflection of surprised sympathy which makes you tell your troubles without that reservation which a more neutral listener would unconsciously impel.

I am not going to give Mose's version, because he warped the story to make it fit his own indignation, and did not do Ford justice. This, then, is the exact truth:

Ford chanced to be walking up along the edge of the gully which ran past the bunk-house, and into which empty cans and other garbage were thrown. Sometimes a can fell short, so that all the gully edge was liberally decorated with a gay assortment of canners' labels. Just as he had come up, Mose had opened the kitchen door and thrown out a cream can, which had fallen in front of Ford and trickled a white stream upon the frozen ground. Ford had stooped and picked up the can, had shaken it, and heard the slosh which told of waste. He had investigated further, and decided that throwing out a cream can before it was quite empty was not an accident with Mose, but might be termed a habit. He had taken Exhibit A to the kitchen, but had laughed while he spoke of it. And these were his exact words:

"Lordy me, Mose! Somebody's liable to come here and get rich off us, if we don't look out. He'll gather up the cream cans you throw into the discard and start a dairy on the leavings." Then he had set the can down on the water bench beside the door and gone away.

"I've been cookin' for cow-camps ever since I got my knee stiffened up so's't I couldn't ride-and that's sixteen year ago last Fourth-and it's the first time I ever had any darned foreman go snoopin' around my back door to see if I scrape out the cans clean!" Mose seated himself upon a corner of the table with the stiff leg for a brace and the good one swinging free, and folded his bare arms upon his heaving chest.

"And that ain't all, Dick," he went on aggrievedly. "He went and cut down the order I give him for grub. That's something Ches never done-not with me, anyway. Asked me-asked me, what I wanted with so much choc'late. And I wanted boiled cider for m' mince-meat, and never got it. And brandy, too-only I didn't put that down on the list; I knowed better than to write it out. But I give Jim money-out uh my own pocket!-to git some with, and he never done it. Said Ford told him p'tic'ler not to bring out nothin' any nearer drinkable than lemon extract! I've got a darned good mind," he added somberly, "to fire the hull works into the gully. He don't belong on no cow ranch. Where he'd oughta be is runnin' the W.C.T.U. So darned afraid of a pint uh brandy-"

"If I was dead sure your brains wouldn't get to leaking out your mouth," Dick began guardedly, "I might put you wise to something." He took a drink of water, opened the door that he might throw out what remained in the dipper, and made sure that no one was near the bunk-house before he closed the door again. Mose watched him interestedly.

"You know me, Dick-I never do tell all I know," he hinted heavily.

"Well," Dick stood with his hand upon the door-knob and a sly grin upon his face, "I ain't saying a word about anything. Only-if you might happen to want some-eggs-for your mince pies, you might look good under the southeast corner of the third haystack, counting from the big corral. I believe there's a-nest-there."

"The deuce!" Mose brightened understandingly and drummed with his fingers upon his bare, dough-caked forearm. "Do yuh know who-er-what hen laid 'em there?"

"I do," said Dick with a rising inflection. "The head he-hen uh the flock. But if I was going to hunt eggs, I'd take down a chiny egg and leave it in the nest, Mose."

"But I ain't got-" Mose caught Dick's pale glance resting with what might be considered some significance upon the vinegar jug, and he stopped short. "That wouldn't work," he commented vaguely.

"Well, I've got to be going. Boss might can me if he caught me loafing around here, eating pie when I ought to be working. Ford's a fine fellow, don't you think?" He grinned and went out, and immediately returned, complaining that he never could stand socks with a hole in the toe, and he guessed he'd have to hunt through his war-bag for a good pair.

Mose, as need scarcely be explained, went immediately to the stable to hunt eggs; and Dick, in the next room, smiled to himself when he heard the door slam behind him. Dick did not change his socks just then; he went first into the kitchen and busied himself there, and he continued to smile to himself. Later he went out and met Ford, who was riding moodily up from the river field.

"Say, I'm going to be an interfering kind of a cuss, and put you next to something," he began, with just the right degree of hesitation in his manner. "It ain't any of my business, but-" He stopped and lighted a cigarette. "If you'll come up to the bunk-house, I'll show you something funny!"

Ford dismounted in silence, led his horse into the stable, and without waiting to unsaddle, followed Dick.

"We've got to hurry, before Mose gets back from hunting eggs," Dick remarked, by way of explaining the long strides he took. "And of course I'm taking it for granted, Ford, that you won't say anything. I kinda thought you ought to know, maybe-but I'd never say a word if I didn't feel pretty sure you'd keep it behind your teeth."

"Well-I'm waiting to see what it is," Ford replied non-committally.

Dick opened the kitchen door, and led Ford through that into the bunk-room. "You wait here-I'm afraid Mose might come back," he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he had a gallon jug in his hand. He was still smiling.

"I went to mix me up some soda-water for heartburn," he said, "and when I picked up this jug, Mose took it out of my hand and said it was boiled cider, that he'd got for mince-meat. So when he went out, I took a taste. Here: You sample it yourself, Ford. If that's boiled cider, I wouldn't mind having a barrel!"

Ford took the jug, pulled the cork, and sniffed at the opening. He did not say anything, but he looked up at Dick significantly.

"Taste it once!" urged Dick innocently. "I'd just like to have you see the brand of slow poison a fool like Mose will pour down him."

Ford hesitated, sniffed, started to set down the jug, then lifted it and took a swallow.

"That isn't as bad as some I've seen," he pronounced evenly, shoving in the cork. "Nor as good," he added conservatively. "I wonder where he got it."

"Search me-oh, by jiminy, here he comes! I'm going to take a scoot, Ford. Don't give me away, will you? And if I was you, I wouldn't say anything to Mose-I know that old devil pretty well. He'll keep mighty quiet about it himself-unless you jump him about it. Then he'll roar around to everybody he sees, and claim it was a plant."

He slid stealthily through the outer door, and Ford saw him run down into the gully and disappear, while Mose was yet half-way from the stable.

Ford sat on the edge of a bunk and looked at the jug beside him. If Dick had deliberately planned to tempt him, he had chosen the time well; and if he had not done it deliberately, there must have been a malignant spirit abroad that day.

For twenty-four hours Ford had been more than usually restless and moody. Even Buddy had noticed that, and complained that Ford was cross and wouldn't talk to him; whereupon Mrs. Kate had scolded Josephine and accused her of being responsible for his gloom and silence. Since Josephine's conscience sustained the charge, she resented the accusation and proceeded deliberately to add to its justice; which did not make Ford any the happier, you may be sure. For when a man reaches that mental state which causes him to carry a girl's ribbon folded carefully into the most secret compartment of his pocketbook, and to avoid the girl herself and yet feel like committing assault and battery with intent to kill, because some other man occasionally rides with her for an hour or two, he is extremely sensitive to averted glances and chilly tones and monosyllabic conversation.

Since the day before, when she had ridden as far as the stage road with Dick, when he went to the line-camp, Ford had been fighting the desire to saddle a horse and ride to town; and the thing that lured him townward confronted him now in that gray stone jug with the brown neck and handle.

He lifted the jug, shook it tentatively, pulled out the cork with a jerk that was savage, and looked around the room for some place where he might empty the contents and have done with temptation; but there was no receptacle but the stove, so he started to the door with it, meaning to pour it on the ground. Mose just then shambled past the window, and Ford sat down to wait until the cook was safe in the kitchen. And all the while the cork was out of that jug, so that the fumes of the whi

sky rose maddeningly to his nostrils, and the little that he had swallowed whipped the thirst-devil to a fury of desire.

In the kitchen, Mose rattled pans and hummed a raucous tune under his breath, and presently he started again for the stable. Dick, desultorily bracing a leaning post of one of the corrals, saw him coming and grinned. He glanced toward the bunk-house, where Ford still lingered, and the grin grew broader. After that he went all around the corral with his hammer and bucket of nails, tightening poles and braces and, incidentally, keeping an eye upon the bunk-house; and while he worked, he whistled and smiled by turns. Dick was in an unusually cheerful mood that day.

Mose came shuffling up behind him and stood with his stiff leg thrust forward and his hands rolled up in his apron. Dick could see that he had something clasped tightly under the wrappings.

"Say, that he-hen-she laid twice in the same place!" Mose announced confidentially. "Got 'em both-for m'mince pies!" He waggled his head, winked twice with his left eye, and went back to the bunk-house.

Still Ford did not appear. Josephine came, however, in riding skirt and gray hat and gauntlets, treading lightly down the path that lay all in a yellow glow which was not so much sunlight as that mellow haze which we call Indian Summer. She looked in at the stable, and then came straight over to Dick. There was, when Josephine was her natural self, something very direct and honest about all her movements, as if she disdained all feminine subterfuges and took always the straight, open trail to her object.

"Do you know where Mr. Campbell is, Dick?" she asked him, and added no explanation of her desire to know.

"I do," said Dick, with the rising inflection which was his habit, when the words were used for a bait to catch another question.

"Well, where is he, then?"

Dick straightened up and smiled down upon her queerly. "Count ten before you ask me that again," he parried, "because maybe you'd rather not know."

Josephine lifted her chin and gave him that straight, measuring stare which had so annoyed Ford the first time he had seen her. "I have counted," she said calmly after a pause. "Where is Mr. Campbell, please?"-and the "please" pushed Dick to the very edge of her favor, it was so coldly formal.

"Well, if you're sure you counted straight, the last time I saw him he was in the bunk-house."

"Well?" The tone of her demanded more.

"He was in the bunk-house-sitting close up to a gallon jug of whisky." His eyelids flickered. "He's there yet-but I wouldn't swear to the gallon-"

"Thank you very much." This time her tone pushed him over the edge and into the depths of her disapproval. "I was sure I could depend upon you-to tell!"

"What else could I do, when you asked?"

But she had her back to him, and was walking away up the path, and if she heard, she did not trouble to answer. But in spite of her manner, Dick smiled, and brought the hammer down against a post with such force that he splintered the handle.

"Something's going to drop on this ranch, pretty quick," he prophesied, looking down at the useless tool in his hand. "And if I wanted to name it, I'd call it Ford." He glanced up the path to where Josephine was walking straight to the west door of the bunk-house, and laughed sourly. "Well, she needn't take my word for it if she don't want to, I guess," he muttered. "Nothing like heading off a critter-or a woman-in time!"

Josephine did not hesitate upon the doorstep. She opened the door and went in, and shut the door behind her before the echo of her step had died. Ford was lying as he had lain once before, upon a bunk, with his face hidden in his folded arms. He did not hear her-at any rate he did not know who it was, for he did not lift his head or stir.

Josephine looked at the jug upon the floor beside him, bent and lifted it very gently from the floor; tilted it to the window so that she could look into it, tilted her nose at the odor, and very, very gently put it back where she had found it. Then she stood and looked down at Ford with her eyebrows pinched together.

She did not move, after that, and she certainly did not speak, but her presence for all that became manifest to him. He lifted his head and stared at her over an elbow; and his eyes were heavy with trouble, and his mouth was set in lines of bitterness.

"Did you want me for something?" he asked, when he saw that she was not going to speak first.

She shook her head. "Is it-pretty steep?" she ventured after a moment, and glanced down at the jug.

He looked puzzled at first, but when his own glance followed hers, he understood. He stared up at her somberly before he let his head drop back upon his arms, so that his face was once more hidden.

"You've never been in bell, I suppose," he told her, and his voice was dull and tired. After a minute he looked up at her impatiently. "Is it fun to stand and watch a man-What do you want, anyway? It doesn't matter-to you."

"Are you sure?" she retorted sharply. "And-suppose it doesn't. I have Kate to think of, at least."

He gave a little laugh that came nearer being a snort. "Oh, if that's all, you needn't worry. I'm not quite that far gone, thank you!"

"I was thinking of the ranch, and of her ideals, and her blind trust in you, and of the effect on the men," she explained impatiently.

He was silent a moment. "I'm thinking of myself!" he told her grimly then.

"And-don't you ever-think of me?" She set her teeth sharply together after the words were out, and watched him, breathing quickly.

Ford sprang up from the bunk and faced her with stern questioning in his eyes, but she only flushed a little under his scrutiny. Her eyes, he noticed, were clear and steady, and they had in them something of that courage which fears but will not flinch.

"I don't want to think of you!" he said, lowering his voice unconsciously. "For the last month I've tried mighty hard not to think of you. And if you want to know why-I'm married!"

She leaned back against the door and stared up at him with widening pupils. Ford looked down and struck the jug with his toe. "That thing," he said slowly, "I've got to fight alone. I don't know which is going to come out winner, me or the booze. I-don't-know." He lifted his head and looked at her. "What did you come in here for?" he asked bluntly.

She caught her breath, but she would not dodge. Ford loved her for that. "Dick told me-and I was-I wanted to-well, help. I thought I might-sometimes when the climb is too steep, a hand will keep one from-slipping."

"What made you want to help? You don't even like me." His tone was flat and unemotional, but she did not seem able to meet his eyes. So she looked down at the jug.

"Dick said-but the jug is full practically. I don't understand how-"

"It isn't as full as it ought to be; it lacks one swallow." He eyed it queerly. "I wish I knew how much it would lack by dark," he said.

She threw out an impulsive hand. "Oh, but you must make up your mind! You mustn't temporize like that, or wonder-or-"

"This," he interrupted rather flippantly, "is something little girls can't understand. They'd better not try. This isn't a woman's problem, to be solved by argument. It's a man's fight!"

"But if you would just make up your mind, you could win."

"Could I?" His tone was amusedly skeptical, but his eyes were still somber.

"Even a woman," she said impatiently, "knows that is not the way to win a fight-to send for the enemy and give him all your weapons, and a plan of the fortifications, and the password; when you know there's no mercy to be hoped for!"

He smiled at her simile, and at her earnestness also, perhaps; but that black gloom remained, looking out of his eyes.

"What made you send for it? A whole gallon!"

"I didn't send for it. That jug belongs to Mose," he told her simply. "Dick told me Mose had it; rather, Dick went into the kitchen and got it, and turned it over to me." In spite of the words, he did not give one the impression that he was defending himself; he was merely offering an explanation because she seemed to demand one.

"Dick got it and turned it over to you!" Her forehead wrinkled again into vertical lines. She studied him frowningly. "Will you give it to me?" she asked directly.

Ford folded his arms and scowled down at the jug. "No," he refused at last, "I won't. If booze is going to be the boss of me I want to know it. And I can't know it too quick."

"But-you're only human, Ford!"

"Sure. But I'm kinda hoping I'm a man, too." His eyes lightened a little while they rested upon her.

"But you've got the poison of it-it's like a traitor in your fort, ready to open the door. You can't do it! I-oh, you'll never understand why, but I can't let you risk it. You've got to let me help; give it to me, Ford!"

"No, You go on to the house, and don't bother about me. You can't help-nobody can. It's up to me."

She struck her hands together in a nervous rage. "You want to keep it because you want to drink it! If you didn't want it, you'd hate to be near it. You'd want some one to take it away. You just want to get drunk, and be a beast. You-you-oh-you don't know what you're doing, or how much it means! You don't know!" Her hands went up suddenly and covered her face.

Ford walked the length of the room away from her, turned and came back until he faced her where she stood leaning against the door, with her face still hidden behind her palms. He reached out his arms to her, hesitated, and drew them back.

"I wish you'd go," he said. "There are some things harder to fight than whisky. You only make it worse."

"I'll go when you give me that." She flung a hand out toward the jug.

"You'll go anyway!" He took her by the arm, quietly pulled her away from the door, opened it, and then closed it while, for just a breath or two, he held her tightly clasped in his arms. Very gently, after that, he pushed her out upon the doorstep and shut the door behind her. The lock clicked a hint which she could not fail to hear and understand. He waited until he heard her walk away, sat down with the air of a man who is very, very weary, rested his elbows upon his knees, and with his hands clasped loosely together, he glowered at the jug on the floor. Then the soul of Ford Campbell went deep down into the pit where all the devils dwell.

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