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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 12565

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Feminine Point of View

When Ford stepped upon the porch with the jug in his hand, he gave every indication of having definitely made up his mind. When he glimpsed Josephine's worried face behind the lace curtain in the window, he dropped the jug lower and held it against his leg in such a way as to indicate that he hoped she could not see it, but otherwise he gave no sign of perturbation. He walked along the porch to the door of his own room, went in, locked the door after him, and put the jug down on a chair. He could hear faint sounds of dishes being placed upon the table in the dining-room, which was next to his own, and he knew that dinner was half an hour late; which was unusual in Mrs. Kate's orderly domain. Mrs. Kate was one of those excellent women whose house is always immaculate, whose meals are ever placed before one when the clock points to a certain hour, and whose table never lacks a salad and a dessert-though how those feats are accomplished upon a cattle ranch must ever remain a mystery. Ford was therefore justified in taking the second look at his watch and in holding it up to his ear, and also in lifting his eyebrows when all was done. Fifteen minutes by the watch it was before he heard the silvery tinkle of the tea bell, which was one of the ties which bound Mrs. Kate to civilization, and which announced that he might enter the dining-room.

He went in as clean and fresh and straight-backed and quiet as ever he had done, and when he saw that the room was empty save for Buddy, perched upon his long-legged chair with his heels hooked over the top round and a napkin tucked expectantly inside the collar of his blue blouse, he took in the situation and sat down without waiting for the women. The very first glance told him that Mrs. Kate had never prepared that meal. It was, putting it bluntly, a scrappy affair hastily gathered from various shelves in the pantry and hurriedly arranged haphazard upon the table.

Buddy gazed upon the sprinkle of dishes with undisguised dissatisfaction. "There ain't any potatoes," he announced gloomily. "My own mamma always cooks potatoes. Josephine's the limit! I been working to-day. I almost dug out a badger, over by the bluff. I got where I could hear him scratching to get away, and then it was all rocks, so I couldn't dig any more. Gee, it was hard digging! And I'm just about starved, if you want to know. And there ain't any potatoes."

"Bread and butter is fine when you're hungry," Ford suggested, and spread a slice for Buddy, somewhat inattentively, because he was also keeping an eye upon the kitchen door, where he had caught a fleeting glimpse of Josephine looking in at him.

"You're putting the butter all in one place," Buddy criticised, with his usual frankness. "I guess you're drunk, all right. If you're too drunk to spread butter, let me do it."

"What makes you think I'm drunk?" Ford questioned, lowering his voice because of the person he suspected was in the kitchen.

"Mamma and Jo was quarreling about it; that's why. And my own mamma cried, and shut the door, and wouldn't let me go in. And Jo pretty near cried too, all right. I guess she did, only not when any one was looking. Her eyes are awful red, anyway." Buddy took great, ravenous bites of the bread and butter and eyed Ford unwinkingly.

"What's disslepointed?" he demanded abruptly, after he had given himself a white mustache with his glass of milk.

"Why do you want to know?"

"That's what my own mamma is, and that's what Jo is. Only my own mamma is it about you, and Jo's it about mamma. Say, did you lick Dick? Jo told my own mamma she wisht you'd killed him. Jo's awful mad to-day. I guess she's mad at Dick, because he ain't very much of a fighter. Did you lick him easy? Did you paste him one in the jaw?"

Josephine entered then with Ford's belated tea. Her eyelids were pink, as Buddy had told him, and she did not look at him while she filled his cup.

"Kate has a sick headache," she explained primly, "and I did the best I could with lunch. I hope it's-"

"It is," Ford interrupted reassuringly. "Everything is fine and dandy."

"You didn't cook any potatoes!" Buddy charged mercilessly. "And Ford's too drunk to put the butter on right. I'm going to tell my dad that next time he goes to Oregon I'm going along. This outfit will sure go to the devil if he stays much longer!"

"Where did you hear that, Bud?" Josephine asked, still carefully avoiding a glance at Ford.

"Well, Dick said it would go to the devil. I guess," he added on his own account, with an eloquent look at the table, "it's on the trail right now."

Ford looked at Josephine, opened his lips to say that it might still be headed off, and decided not to speak. There was a stubborn streak in Ford Campbell. She had said some bitter things, in her anger. Perhaps she had not entirely believed them herself, and perhaps Mrs. Kate had not been accurately quoted by her precocious young son; she may not have said that she was disappointed in Ford. They might not have believed whatever it was Dick told them, and they might still have full confidence in him, Ford Campbell. Still, there was the stubborn streak which would not explain or defend. So he left the table, and went into his own room without any word save a muttered excuse; and that in spite of the fact that Josephine looked full at him, at last, and with a wistfulness that moved him almost to the point of taking her in his arms and kissing away the worry-if he could.

He went up to the table where stood the jug, looked at it, lifted it, and set it down again. Then he lifted it again and pulled the cork out with a jerk, wondering if the sound of it had reached through the thin partition to the ears of Josephine; he was guilty of hoping so. He put back the cork-this time carefully-walked to the outer door, turned the key, opened the door, and closed it again with a slam. Then, with a grim set of the lips, he walked softly into the closet and pulled the door nearly shut.

He knew there was a chance that Josephine, if she were interested in his movements, would go immediately into the sitting-room, where she could see the path, and would know that he had not really left the house. But she did not, evidently.

She sat long enough in the dining-room for Ford to call himself a name or two and to feel exceedingly foolish over the trick, and to decide that it was a very childish one for a grown man to play upon a woman. Then she pushed back her chair, came straight toward his room, opened the door, and looked in; Ford knew, for he saw her through the crack he had left in the closet doorway. She stood there looking at the jug on the table, then went up and lifted it, much as Ford had done, and pulled the cork with a certain angry defiance. Perhaps, he guessed shrewdly, Josephine also felt rather foolish at what she was doing-and he smiled over the thought.

Josephine turned the jug to the light, shut one eye into an adorable squint, and peered in. Then she set the jug down and pushed the cork slowly into place; and her face was puzzled. Ford could have laughed aloud when he saw it, but instead he held his breath for fear she should discover him. She stood very still for a minute or two, staring at nothing at all; moved the jug into the exact place where it had stood before, and went out of the room on her toes.

So did Ford, for that matter, and he was in a cold terror lest she should look out and see him walking down the path where he should logically have walked more than five minutes before. He did not dare to turn and look-until he was outside the gate; then inspiration came to aid him and he went back boldly, stepped upon the porch with no effort at silence, opened his door, and went in as one who has a right there.

He heard the click of dishes which told that she was clearing the table, and he breathed freer. He walked across the room, waited a space, and walked back again, and then went out with his heart in its proper position in his chest; Ford was unused to feeling his heart rise to his palate, and the sensation was more novel than agreeable. When he went again down the path, there was a certain exhilaration in his step. His thoughts arranged themselves in clear-cut sentences, as if he were speaking, instead of those vague, almost wordless impressions which fill the brain ordinarily.

"She's keeping cases on that jug. She must care, or she wouldn't do that. She's worried a whole lot; I could see that, all along. Down at the bunk-house she called me Ford twice-and she said it meant a lot to her, whether I make good or not. I wonder-Lordy me! A man could make good, all right, and do it easy, if she cared! She doesn't know what to think-that jug staying right up to high-water mark, like that!" He laughed then, silently, and dwelt upon the picture she had made while she had stood there before the table.

"Lord! she'd want to kill me if she knew I hid in that closet, but I just had a hunch-that is, if she cared anything about it. I wonder if she did really say she wished I'd killed Dick?

"Anyway, I can fight it now, with her keeping cases on the quiet. I know I can fight it. Lordy me, I've got to fight it! I've got to make good; that's all there is about it. Wonder what she'll think when she sees that jug don't go down any? Wonder-oh, hell! She'd never care anything about me. If she did-" His thoughts went hazy with vague speculation, then clarified suddenly into one hard fact, like a rock thrusting up through the lazy sweep of a windless tide. "If she did care, I couldn't do anything. I'm married!"

His step lost a little of its spring, then, and he went into the bunk-house with much the same expression on his face as when he had left it an hour or so before.

He did not see Dick that day. The other boys watched him covertly, it seemed to him, and showed a disposition to talk among themselves. Jim was whistling cheerfully in the kitchen. He turned his head and laughed when Ford went in.

"I found a dead soldier behind the sack of spuds," Jim announced, and produced an empty bottle, mate to the one Ford had thrown into the gully. "And Dick didn't seem to have any appetite at all, and Mose is still in Sleepytown. I guess that's all the news at this end of the line. Er-hope everything is all right at the house?"

"Far as I could see, it was," Ford replied, with an inner sense of evasion. "I guess we'll just let her go as she looks, Jim. Did you say anything to the boys?"

Jim reddened under his tan, but he laughed disarmingly. "I cannot tell a lie," he confessed honestly, "and it was too good to keep to myself. I'm the most generous fellow you ever saw, when it comes to passing along a good story that won't hurt anybody's digestion. You don't care, do you? The joke ain't on you."

"If you'd asked me about it, I'd have said keep it under your hat. But-"

"And that would have been a sin and a shame," argued Jim, licking a finger he had just scorched on a hot kettle-handle. "The fellows all like a good story-and it don't sound any worse because it's on Dick. And say! I kinda got a clue to where he connected with that whisky. Walt says he come back from the line-camp with his overcoat rolled up and tied behind the saddle-and it wasn't what you could call a hot night, either. He musta had that jug wrapped up in it. I'll bet he sent in by Peterson, the other day, for it. He was over there, I know. He's sure a deliberate kind of a cuss, isn't he? Must have had this thing all figured out a week ago. The boys are all tickled to death at the way he got it in the neck; they know Dick pretty well. But if you'd told me not to say anything, I'd have said he stubbed his toe on his shadow and fell all over himself, and let it go at that."

"Lordy me! Jim, you needn't worry about it; you ought to know you can't keep a thing like this quiet, on a ranch. It doesn't matter much how he got that whisky here, either; I know well enough you didn't haul it out. I'd figured it out about as Walt says.

"Say, it looks as if you'll have to wrastle with the pots and pans till to-morrow. The lower fence I'll ride, this afternoon; did you get clear around the Pinnacle field?"

"I sure did-and she's tight as a drum. Say, Mose is a good cook, but he's a mighty punk housekeeper, if you ask me. I'm thinking of getting to work here with a hoe!"

So life, which had of late loomed big and bitter before the soul of Ford, slipped back into the groove of daily routine.

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