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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 12834

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

A Plan Gone Wrong

It was Mose crashing headlong into the old messbox where he kept rattly basins, empty lard pails, and such, that roused Ford. He got up and went into the kitchen, and when he saw what was, the matter, extricated Mose by the simple method of grabbing his shoulders and pulling hard; then he set the cook upon his feet, and got full in his face the unmistakable fumes of whisky.

"What? You got another jug?" he asked, with some disgust, steadying Mose against the wall.

"Ah-I ain't got any jug uh nothin'," Mose protested, rather thickly. "And I never took them bottles outa the stack; that musta been Dick done that. Get after him about it; he's the one told me where yuh hid 'em-but I never touched 'em, honest I never. If they're gone, you get after Dick. Don't yuh go 'n' lay it on me, now!" He was whimpering with maudlin pathos before he finished. Ford scowled at him thoughtfully.

"Dick told you about the bottles in the haystack, did he?" he asked. "Which stack was it? And how many bottles?"

Mose gave him a bleary stare. "Aw, you know. You hid 'em there yourself! Dick said so. I ain't goin' to say which stack, or how many bottles-or-any other-darn thing about it." He punctuated his phrases by prodding a finger against Ford's chest, and he wagged his head with all the self-consciousness of spurious virtue. "Promised Dick I wouldn't, and I won't. Not a-darn-word about it. Wanted some-for m' mince-meat, but I never took any outa the haystack." Whereupon he began to show a pronounced limpness in his good leg, and a tendency to slide down upon the floor.

Ford piloted him to a chair, eased him into it, and stood over him in frowning meditation. Mose was drunk; absolutely, undeniably drunk. It could not have been the jug, for the jug was full. Till then the oddity of a full jug of whisky in Mose's kitchen after at least twenty-four hours must have elapsed since its arrival, had not occurred to him. He had been too preoccupied with his own fight to think much about Mose.

"Shay, I never took them bottles outa the stack," Mose looked up to protest solemnly. "Dick never told me about 'em, neither. Dick tol' me-" tapping Ford's arm with his finger for every word, "-'at there was aigs down there, for m' mince-meat." He stopped suddenly and goggled up at Ford. "Shay, yuh don't put aigs in-mince-meat," he informed him earnestly. "Not a darn aig! That's what Dick tol' me-aigs for m' mince-meat. Oh, I knowed right off what he meant, all right," he explained proudly. "He didn't wanta come right out 'n' shay what it was-an' I-got-the-aigs!"

"Yes-how many-eggs?" Ford held himself rigidly quiet.

"Two quart-aigs!" Mose laughed at the joke. "I wisht," he added pensively, "the hens'd all lay them kinda aigs. I'd buy up all the shickens in-the whole worl'." He gazed raptly upon the vision the words conjured. "Gee! Quart aigs-'n' all the shickens in the worl' layin' reg'lar!"

"Have you got any left?"

"No-honest. Used 'em all up-for m' mince-meat!"

Ford knew he was lying. His eyes searched the untidy tables and the corners filled with bags and boxes. Mose was a good cook, but his ideas of order were vague, and his system of housekeeping was the simple one of leaving everything where he had last been using it, so that it might be handy when he wanted it again. A dozen bottles might be concealed there, like the faces in a picture-puzzle, and it would take a housecleaning to disclose them all. But Ford, when he knew that no bottle had been left in sight, began turning over the bags and looking behind the boxes.

He must have been "growing warm" when he stood wondering whether it was worth while to look into the flour-bin, for Mose gave an inarticulate snarl and pounced on him from behind. The weight of him sent Ford down on all fours and kept him there for a space, and even after he was up he found himself quite busy. Mose was a husky individual, with no infirmity of the arms and fists, even if he did have a stiff leg, and drunkenness frequently flares and fades in a man like a candle guttering in the wind. Besides, Mose was fighting to save his whisky.

Still, Ford had not sent all of Sunset into its cellars, figuratively speaking, for nothing; and while a man may feel more enthusiasm for fighting when under the influence of the stuff that cheers sometimes and never fails to inebriate, the added incentive does not necessarily mean also added muscular development or more weight behind the punch. Ford, fighting as he had always fought, be he drunk or sober, came speedily to the point where he could inspect a skinned knuckle and afterwards gaze in peace upon his antagonist.

He was occupied with both diversions when the door was pushed open as by a man in great haste. He looked up from the knuckle into the expectant eyes of Jim Felton, and over the shoulder of Jim he saw a gloating certainty writ large upon the face of Dick Thomas. They had been running; he could tell that by their uneven breathing, and it occurred to him that they must have heard the clamor when he pitched Mose head first into the dish cupboard. There had been considerable noise about that time, he remembered; they must also have heard the howl Mose gave at the instant of contact. Ford glanced involuntarily at that side of the room where stood the cupboard, and mentally admitted that it looked like there had been a slight disagreement, or else a severe seismic disturbance; and Montana is not what one calls an earthquake country. His eyes left the generous sprinkle of broken dishes on the floor, with Mose sprawled inertly in their midst, looking not unlike a broken platter himself-or one badly nicked-and rested again upon the grinning face behind the shoulder of Jim Felton.

Ford was ever a man of not many words, even when he had a grievance. He made straight for Dick, and when he had pushed Jim out of the way, he reached him violently. Dick tottered upon the step and went off backward, and Ford landed upon him fairly and with full knowledge and intent.

Dick tottered upon the step and went off backward.

Jim Felton was a wise young man. He stood back and let them fight it out, and when it was over he said never a word until Dick had picked himself up and walked off, holding to his nose a handkerchief that reddened rapidly.

"Say, you are a son-of-a-gun to fight," he observed admiringly then to Ford. "

Don't you know Dick's supposed to be abso-lute-ly unlickable?"

"May be so-but he sure shows all the symptoms of being licked right at present." Ford moved a thumb joint gently to see whether it was really dislocated or merely felt that way.

"He's going up to the house now, to tell the missus," remarked Jim, craning his neck from the doorway.

"If he does that," Ford replied calmly, "I'll half kill him next time. What I gave him just now is only a sample package left on the doorstep to try." He sat down upon a corner of the table and began to make himself a smoke. "Is he going up to the house-honest?" He would not yield to the impulse to look and see for himself.

"We-el, the trail he's taking has no other logical destination," drawled Jim. "He's across the bridge." When Ford showed no disposition to say anything to that, Jim came in and closed the door. "Say, what laid old Mose out so nice?" he asked, with an indolent sort of curiosity. "Booze? Or just bumps?"

"A little of both," said Ford indifferently, between puffs. He was thinking of the tale Dick would tell at the house, and he was thinking of the probable effect upon one listener; the other didn't worry him, though he liked Mrs. Kate very much.

Jim went over and investigated; discovering that Mose was close to snoring, he sat upon a corner of the other table, swung a spurred boot, and regarded Ford interestedly over his own cigarette building. "Say, for a man that's supposed to be soused," he began, after a silence, "you act and talk remarkably lucid. I wish I could carry booze like that," he added regretfully. "But I can't; my tongue and my legs always betray the guilty secret. Have you got any particular system, or is it just a gift?"

"No"-Ford shook his head-"nothing like that. I just don't happen to be drunk." He eyed Jim sharply while he considered within himself. "It looks to me," he began, after a moment, "as if our friend Dick had framed up a nice little plant. One way and another I got wise to the whole thing; but for the life of me, I can't see what made him do it. Lordy me! I never kicked him on any bunion!" He grinned, as memory flashed a brief, mental picture of Sunset and certain incidents which occurred there. But memory never lets well enough alone, and one is lucky to escape without seeing a picture that leaves a sting; Ford's smile ended in a scowl.

"Jealousy, old man," Jim pronounced without hesitation. "Of course, I don't know the details, but-details be darned. If he has tried to hand you a package, take it from me, jealousy's the string he tied it with. I don't mind saying that Dick told me when I first rode up to the corral that you and Mose were both boozing up to beat the band; and right after that we heard a deuce of a racket up here, and it did look-" He waved an apologetic hand at Mose and the fragments of pottery which framed like a "still life" picture on the floor, and let it go at that. "I'm strong for you, Ford," he added, and his smile was frank and friendly. "Double Cross is the name of this outfit, but I'm all in favor of running that brand on the cow-critters and keeping it out of the bunk-house. If you should happen to feel like elucidating-" he hinted delicately.

Ford had always liked Jim Felton; now he warmed to him as a real friend, and certain things he told him. As much about the jug with the brown neck and handle as concerned Dick, and all he knew of the bottles in the haystack, while Jim smoked, and swung the foot which did not rest upon the floor, and listened.

"Sounds like Dick, all right," he passed judgment, when Ford had finished. "He counted on your falling for the jug-and oh, my! It was a beautiful plant. I'd sure hate to have anybody sing 'Yield not to temptation' at me, if a gallon jug of the real stuff fell into my arms and nobody was looking." He eyed Ford queerly. "You've got quite a reputation-" he ventured.

"Well, I earned it," Ford observed laconically.

"Dick banked on it-I'd stake my whole stack of blues on that. And after you'd torn up the ranch, and pitched the fragments into the gulch, he'd hold the last trump, with all high cards to keep the lead. Whee!" He meditated admiringly upon the strategy. "But what I can't seem to understand," he said frankly, "is why the deuce it didn't work! Is your swallower out of kilter? If you don't mind my asking!"

"I never noticed that it was paralyzed," Ford answered grimly. He got up, lifted a lid of the stove, and threw in the cigarette stub mechanically. Then he bethought him of his interrupted search, and prodded a long-handled spoon into the flour bin, struck something smooth and hard, and drew out a befloured, quart bottle half full of whisky. He wiped the bottle carefully, inspected it briefly, and pitched it into the gully, where it smashed odorously upon a rock. Jim, watching him, knew that he was thinking all the while of something else. When Ford spoke, he proved it.

"Are you any good at all in the kitchen, Jim?" he asked, turning to him as if he had decided just how he would meet the situation.

"Well, I hate to brag, but I've known of men eating my grub and going right on living as if nothing had happened," Jim admitted modestly.

"Well, you turn yourself loose in here, will you? The boys will be good and empty when they come-it's dinner time right now. I'll help you carry Mose out of the way before I go."

Jim looked as if he would like to ask what Ford meant to do, but he refrained. There was something besides preoccupation in Ford's face, and it did not make for easy questioning. Jim did yield to his curiosity to the extent of watching through a window, when Ford went out, to see where he was going; and when he saw Ford had the jug, and that he took the path which led across the little bridge and so to the house, he drew back and said "Whee-e-e!" under his breath. Then he remarked to the recumbent Mose, who was not in a condition either to hear or understand: "I'll bet you Dick's got all he wants, right now, without any postscript." After which Jim hunted up a clean apron and proceeded, with his spurs on his heels, his hat on the back of his head, and a smile upon his lips, to sweep out the broken dishes so that he might walk without hearing them crunch unpleasantly under his boots. "I'll take wildcats in mine, please," he remarked once irrelevantly aloud, and smiled again.

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