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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 28431

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Climb

Into its groove of routine slipped life at the Double Cross, but it did not move quite as smoothly as before. It was as if the "hill" which Ford was climbing suffered small landslides here and there, which threatened to block the trail below. Sometimes-still keeping to the simile-it was but a pebble or two kicked loose by Ford's heel; sometimes a bowlder which one must dodge.

Dick, for instance, must have likened Mose to a real landslide when he came at him the next day, with a roar of rage and the rolling-pin. Mose had sobered to the point where he wondered how it had all happened, and wanted to get his hands in the wool of the "nigger" said to lurk in woodpiles. He asked Jim, with various embellishments of speech, what it was all about, and Jim told him and told him truly.

"He was trying to queer you with the outfit, Mose, and that's a fact," he finished; which was the only exaggeration Jim was guilty of, for Dick had probably thought very little of Mose and his ultimate standing with the Double Cross. "And he was trying to queer Ford-but you can search me for the reason why he didn't make good, there."

Mose, like many of us, was a self-centered individual. He wasted a minute, perhaps, thinking of the trick upon Ford; but he spent all of that forenoon and well into the afternoon in deep meditation upon the affair as it concerned himself. And the first time Dick entered the presence of the cook, he got the result of Mose's reasoning.

"Tried to git me in bad, did yuh? Thought you'd git me fired, hey?" he shouted, as a sort of punctuation to the belaboring.

A rolling pin is considered a more or less fearsome weapon in the hands of a woman, I believe; when wielded by an incensed man who stands close to six feet and weighs a solid two hundred pounds, and who has the headache which follows inevitably in the wake of three pints of whisky administered internally in the short space of three hours or so, a rolling-pin should justly be classed with deadly weapons.

Jim said afterward that he never had believed it possible to act out the rough stuff of the silly supplements in the Sunday papers, but after seeing Mose perform with that rolling-pin, he was willing to call every edition of the "funny papers" realistic to a degree. Since it was Jim who helped pull Mose off, naturally he felt qualified to judge. Jim told Ford about the affair with sober face and eyes that laughed.

"And where's Dick?" Ford asked him, without committing himself upon the justice of the chastisement.

"Gone to bed, I believe. He didn't come out with anything worse than bumps, I guess-but what I saw of them are sure peaches; or maybe Italian prunes would hit them off closer; they're a fine purple shade. I ladled Three H all over him."

"I thought Dick was a fighter from Fighterville," grinned Ford, trying hard to remain non-committal and making a poor job of it.

"Well, he is, when he can stand up and box according to rule, or hit a man when he isn't looking. But my, oh! This wasn't a fight, Ford; this was like the pictures you see of an old woman lambasting her son-in-law with an umbrella. Dick never got a chance to begin. Whee-ee! Mose sure can handle a rolling-pin some!"

Ford laughed and went up to the house to his supper, and to the constrained atmosphere which was telling on his nerves more severely than did the gallon jug in his closet, and the moral effort it cost to keep that jug full to the neck.

He went in quietly, threw his hat on the bed, and sat down with an air of discouragement. It was not yet six o'clock, and he knew that Mrs. Kate would not have supper ready; but he wanted a quiet place in which to think, and he was closer to Josephine; though he would never have admitted to himself that her nearness was any comfort to him. He did admit, however, that the jug with the brown neck and handle pulled him to the room many times in spite of himself. He would take it from the corner of the closet and let his fingers close over the cork, but so far he had never yielded beyond that point. Always he had been able to set the jug back unopened.

He was getting circles under his eyes, two new creases had appeared on each side of his whimsical lips, and a permanent line was forming between his eyebrows; but he had not opened the jug, and it had been in his possession thirty-six hours. Thirty-six hours is not long, to be sure, when life runs smoothly with slight incidents to emphasize the figures on the dial, but it may seem long to the poor devil on the rack.

Just now Ford was trying to forget that a gallon of whisky stood in the right-hand corner of his closet, behind a pair of half-worn riding-boots that pinched his instep so that he seldom wore them, and that he had only to take the jug out from behind the boots, pull the cork, and lift the jug to his lips-

He caught himself leaning forward and staring at the closet door until his eyes ached with the strain. He drew back and passed his hand over his forehead; it ached, and he wanted to think about what he ought to do with Dick. He did not like to discharge him without first consulting Mrs. Kate, for he knew that Ches Mason was in the habit of talking things over with her, and since Mason was gone, she had assumed an air of latent authority. But Mrs. Kate had looked at him with such reproachful eyes, that day at dinner, and her voice had sounded so squeezed and unnatural, that he had felt too far removed from her for any discussion whatever to take place between them.

Besides, he knew he could prove absolutely nothing against Dick, if Dick were disposed toward flat denial. He might suspect-but the facts showed Ford the aggressor, and Mose also. What if Mrs. Kate declined to believe that Dick had put that jug of whisky in the kitchen, and had afterward given it to Ford? Ford had no means of knowing just what tale Dick had told her, but he did know that Mrs. Kate eyed him doubtfully, and that her conversation was forced and her manner constrained.

And Josephine was worse. Josephine had not spoken to him all that day. At breakfast she had not been present, and at dinner she had kept her eyes upon her plate and had nothing to say to any one.

He wished Mason was home, so that he could leave. It wouldn't matter then, he tried to believe, what he did. He even dwelt upon the desire of Mason's return to the extent of calculating, with his eyes upon the fancy calendar on the wall opposite, the exact time of his absence. Ten days-there was no hope of release for another month, at least, and Ford sighed unconsciously when he thought of it; for although a month is not long, there was Josephine refusing to look at him, and there was Dick-and there was the jug in the closet.

As to Josephine, there was no help for it; he could not avoid her without making the avoidance plain to all observers, and Ford was proud. As to Dick, he would not send him off without some proof that he had broken an unwritten law of the Double Cross and brought whisky to the ranch; and of that he had no proof. As to his suspicions-well, he considered that Dick had almost paid the penalty for having roused them, and the matter would have to rest where it was; for Ford was just. As to the jug, he could empty it upon the ground and be done with that particular form of torture. But he felt sure that Josephine was secretly "keeping cases" on the jug; and Ford was stubborn.

That night Ford did not respond to the tinkle of the tea bell. His head ached abominably, and he did not want to see Josephine's averted face opposite him at the table. He lay still upon the bed where he had finally thrown himself, and let the bell tinkle until it was tired.

They sent Buddy in to see why he did not come. Buddy looked at him with the round, curious eyes of precocious childhood and went back and reported that Ford wasn't asleep, but was just lying there mad. Ford heard the shrill little voice innocently maligning him, and swore to himself; but, he did not move for all that. He lay thinking and fighting discouragement and thirst, while little table sounds came through the partition and made a clicking accompaniment to his thoughts.

If he were free, he was wondering between spells of temptation, would it do any good? Would Josephine care? There was no answer to that, or if there was he did not know what it was.

After awhile the two women began talking; he judged that Buddy had left them, because it was sheer madness to speak so freely before him. At first he paid no attention to what they were saying, beyond a grudging joy in the sound of Josephine's voice. It had come to that, with Ford! But when he heard his name spoken, and by her, he lifted shamelessly to an elbow and listened, glad that the walls were so thin, and that those who dwell in thin-partitioned houses are prone to forget that the other rooms may not be quite empty. They two spent most of their waking hours alone together, and habit breeds carelessness always.

"Do you suppose he's drunk?" Mrs. Kate asked, and her voice was full of uneasiness. "Chester says he's terrible when he gets started. I was sure he was perfectly safe! I just can't stand it to have him like this. Dick told me he's drinking a little all the time, and there's no telling when he'll break out, and-Oh, I think it's perfectly terrible!"

"Hsh-sh," warned Josephine.

"He went out, quite a while ago. I heard him," said Mrs. Kate, with rash certainty. "He hasn't been like himself since that day he fought Dick. He must be-"

"But how could he?" Josephine's voice interrupted sharply. "That jug he's got is full yet."

Ford could imagine Mrs. Kate shaking her head with the wisdom born of matrimony.

"Don't you suppose he could keep putting in water?" she asked pityingly. Ford almost choked when he heard that!

"I don't believe he would." Josephine's tone was dubious. "It doesn't seem to me that a man would do that; he'd think he was just spoiling what was left. That," she declared with a flash of inspiration, "is what a woman would do. And a man always does something different!" There was a pathetic note in the last sentence, which struck Ford oddly.

"Don't think you know men, my dear, until you've been married to one for eight years or so," said Mrs. Kate patronizingly. "When you've been-"

"Oh, for mercy's sake, do you think they're all alike?" Josephine's voice was tart and impatient. "I know enough about men to know they're all different. You can't judge one by another. And I don't believe that Ford is drinking at all. He's just-"

"Just what?-since you know so well!" Mrs. Kate was growing ironical.

"He's trying not to-and worrying." Her voice lowered until it took love to hear it. Ford did hear, and his breath came fast. He did not catch Mrs. Kate's reply; he was not in love with Mrs. Kate, and he was engaged in letting the words of Josephine sink into his very soul, and in telling himself over and over that she understood. It seemed to him a miracle of intuition, that she should sense the fight he was making; and since he felt that way about it, it was just as well he did not know that Jim Felton sensed it quite as keenly as Josephine-and with a far greater understanding of how bitter a fight it was, and for that reason a deeper sympathy.

"I wish Chester was here!" wailed Mrs. Kate, across the glow of his exultant thoughts. "I'm afraid to say anything to him myself, he's so morose. It's a shame, because he's so splendid when he's-himself."

"He's as much himself now as ever he was," Josephine defended hotly. "When he's drinking he's altogether-"

"You never saw him drunk," Mrs. Kate pointed to the weak spot in Josephine's defense of him. "Dick says-"

"Oh, do you believe everything Dick says? A week ago you were bitter against Dick and all enthusiasm for Ford."

"You were flirting with Dick then, and you'd hardly treat Ford decently. And Ford hadn't gone to drink-"

"Will you hush?" There were tears of anger in Josephine's voice. "He isn't, I tell you!"

"What does he keep that jug in the closet for? And every few hours he comes up to the house and goes into his room-and he never did that before. And have you noticed his eyes? He'll scarcely talk any more, and he just pretends to eat. At dinner to-day he scarcely touched a thing! It's a sure sign, Phenie."

Ford was growing tired of that sort of thing. It dimmed the radiance of Josephine's belief in him, to have Mrs. Kate so sure of his weakness. He got up from the bed as quietly as he could and left the house. He was even more thoughtful, after that, but not quite so gloomy-if one cared enough for his moods to make a fine distinction.

Have you ever observed the fact that many of life's grimmest battles and deepest tragedies scarce ripple the surface of trivial things? We are always rubbing elbows with the big issues and never knowing anything about it. Certainly no one at the Double Cross guessed what was always in the mind of the foreman. Jim thought he was "sore" because of Dick. Dick thought Ford was jealous of him, and trying to think of some scheme to "play even," without coming to open war. Mrs. Kate was positive, in her purely feminine mind-which was a very good mind, understand, but somewhat inadequate when brought to bear upon the big problems of life-that Ford was tippling in secret. Josephine thought-just what she said, probably, upon the chill day when she calmly asked Ford at the breakfast table if he would let her go with him.

Ford had casually remarked, in answer to a diffident question from Mrs. Kate, that he was going to ride out on Long Ridge and see if any stock was drifting back toward the ranch. He hadn't sent any one over that way for several days. Ford, be it said, had announced his intention deliberately, moved by a vague, unreasoning impulse.

"Can I go?" teased Buddy, from sheer force of habit; no one ever mentioned going anywhere, but Buddy shot that question into the conversation.

"No, you can't. You can't, with that cold," his mother vetoed promptly, and Buddy, whimpering over his hot cakes, knew well the futility of argument, when Mrs. Kate used that t

one of finality.

"Will you let me go?" Josephine asked unexpectedly, and looked straight at Ford. But though her glance was direct, it was unreadable, and Ford mentally threw up his hands after one good look at her, and tried not to betray the fact that this was what he had wanted, but had not hoped for.

"Sure, you can go," he said, with deceitful brevity. Josephine had not spoken to him all the day before, except to say good-morning when he came in to his breakfast. Ford made no attempt to understand her, any more. He was carefully giving her the lead, as he would have explained it, and was merely following suit until he got a chance to trump; but he was beginning to have a discouraged feeling that the game was hers, and that he might as well lay down his hand and be done with it. Which, when he brought the simile back to practical affairs, meant that he was thinking seriously of leaving the ranch and the country just as soon as Mason returned.

He was thinking of trying the Argentine Republic for awhile, if he could sell the land which he had rashly bought while he was getting rid of his inheritance.

She did not offer any excuse for the request, as most women would have done. Neither did she thank him, with lips or with eyes, for his ready consent. She seemed distrait-preoccupied, as if she, also, were considering some weighty question.

Ford pushed back his chair, watching her furtively. She rose with Kate, and glanced toward the window.

"I suppose I shall need my heaviest sweater," she remarked practically, and as if the whole affair were too commonplace for discussion. "It does look threatening. How soon will you want to start?" This without looking toward Ford at all.

"Right away, if that suits you." Ford was still watchful, as if he had not quite given up hope of reading her meaning.

She told him she would be ready by the time he had saddled, and she appeared in the stable door while he was cinching the saddle on the horse he meant to ride.

"I hope you haven't given me Dude," she said unemotionally. "He's supposed to be gentle-but he bucked me off that day I sprained my ankle, and all the excuse he had was that a rabbit jumped out from a bush almost under his nose. I've lost faith in him since. Oh-it's Hooligan, is it? I'm glad of that; Hooligan's a dear-and he has the easiest gallop of any horse on the ranch. Have you tried him yet, Ford?"

The heart of Ford lifted in his chest at her tone and her words, along toward the last. He forgot the chill of her voice in the beginning, and he dwelt greedily upon the fact that once more she had called him Ford. But his joy died suddenly when he led his horse out and discovered that Dick and Jim Felton were coming down the path, within easy hearing of her. Ford did not know women very well, but most men are born with a rudimentary understanding of them. He suspected that her intimacy of tone was meant for Dick's benefit; and when they had ridden three or four miles and her share of the conversation during that time had consisted of "yes" twice, "no" three times, and one "indeed," he was sure of it.

So Ford began to wonder why she came at all-unless that, also, was meant to discipline Dick-and his own mood became a silent one. He did not, he told himself indignantly, much relish being used as a club to beat some other man into good behavior.

They rode almost to Long Ridge before Ford discovered that Josephine was stealing glances at his face whenever she thought he was not looking, and that the glances were questioning, and might almost be called timid. He waited until he was sure he was not mistaken, and then turned his head unexpectedly, and smiled into her startled eyes.

"What is it?" he asked, still smiling at her. "I won't bite. Say it, why don't you?"

She bit her lips and looked away.

"I wanted to ask something-ask you to do something," she said, after a minute. And then hurriedly, as if she feared her courage might ebb and leave her stranded, "I wish you'd give me that-jug!"

Sheer surprise held Ford silent, staring at her.

"I don't ask many favors-I wish you'd grant just that one. I wouldn't ask another."

"What do you want of it?"

"Oh-" she stopped, then plunged on recklessly. "It's getting on my nerves so! And if you gave it to me, you wouldn't have to fight the temptation-"

"Why wouldn't I? There's plenty more where that came from," he reminded her.

"But it wouldn't be right where you could get it any time the craving came. Won't you let me take it?" He had never before heard that tone from her; but he fought down the thrill of it and held himself rigidly calm.

"Oh, I don't know-the jug's doing all right, where it is," he evaded; what he wanted most was to get at her real object, and, man-like, to know beyond doubt whether she really cared.

"But you don't-you never touch it," she urged. "I know, because-well, because every day I look into it! I suppose you'll say I have no right, that it's spying, or something. But I don't care for that. And I can see that it's worrying you dreadfully. And if you don't drink any of it, why won't you let me have it?"

"If I don't drink it; what difference does it make who has it?" he countered.

"I'm afraid there'll be a time when you'll yield, just because you are blue and discouraged-or something; whatever mood it is that makes the temptation hardest to resist. I know myself that things are harder to endure some days than they are others." She stopped and looked at him in that enigmatical way she had. "You may not know it-but I've been staying here just to see whether you fail or succeed. I thought I understood a little of why you came, and I-I stayed." She leaned and twisted a wisp of Hooligan's mane nervously, and Ford noticed how the color came and went in the cheek nearest him.

"I-oh, it's awfully hard to say what I want to say, and not have it sound different," she began again, without looking at him. "But if you don't understand what I mean-" Her teeth clicked suggestively.

Ford leaned to her. "Say it anyway and take a chance," he urged, and his voice was like a kiss, whether he knew it or not. He did know that she caught her breath at the words or the tone, and that the color flamed a deeper tint in her cheek and then faded to a faint glow.

"What I mean is that I appreciate the way you have acted all along. I-it wasn't an easy situation to meet, and you have met it like a man-and a gentleman. I was afraid of you at first, and I misunderstood you completely. I'm ashamed to confess it, but it's true. And I want to see you make good in this thing you have attempted; and if there's anything on earth that I can do to help you, I want you to let me do it. You will, won't you?" She looked at him then with clear, honest eyes. "It's my way of wanting to thank you for-for not taking any advantage, or trying to, of-your-position that night."

Ford's own cheeks went hot. "I thought you knew all along that I wasn't a cur, at least," he said harshly. "I never knew before that you had any reason to be afraid of me, that night. If I'd known that-but I thought you just didn't like me, and let it go at that. And what I said I meant. You needn't feel that you have anything to thank me for; I haven't done a thing that deserves thanks-or fear either, for that matter."

"I thought you understood, when I left-"

"I didn't worry much about it, one way or the other," he cut in. "I hunted around for you, of course, and when I saw you'd pulled out for good, I went over the hill and camped. I didn't get the note till next morning; and I don't know," he added, with a brief smile, "as that did much toward making me understand. You just said to wait till some one came after me. Well, I didn't wait." He laughed and leaned toward her again. "Now there seems a chance of our being-pretty good friends," he said, in the caressing tone he had used before, and of which he was utterly unconscious, "we won't quarrel about that night, will we? You got home all right, and so did I. We'll forget all about it. Won't we?" He laid a hand on the horn of her saddle so that they rode close together, and tried futilely to read what was in her face, since she did not speak.

Josephine stared blankly at the brown slope before them. Her lips were set firmly together, and her brows were contracted also, and her gloved fingers gripped the reins tightly. She paid not the slightest attention to Ford's hand upon her saddle horn, nor at the steady gaze of his eyes. Later, when Ford observed the rigidity of her whole pose and sensed that mental withdrawing which needs no speech to push one off from the more intimate ground of companionship, he wondered a little. Without in the least knowing why he felt rebuffed, he took away his hand, and swung his horse slightly away from her; his own back stiffened a little in response to the chilled atmosphere.

"Yes," she said at last, "we'll forget all about it, Mr. Campbell."

"You called me Ford, a while ago," he hinted.

"Did I? One forms the habit of picking up a man's given name, out here in the West, I find. I'm sorry-"

"I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to do it again. All the time," he added boldly.

He caught the gleam of her eyes under her heavy lashes, as she glanced at him sidelong.

"If you go looking at me out of the corner of your eyes," he threatened recklessly, kicking his horse closer, "I'm liable to kiss you!"

And he did, before she could draw away.

"I've been kinda thinking maybe I'm in love with you, Josephine," he murmured, holding her close. "And now I'm dead sure of it. And if you won't love me back why-there'll be something doing, that's all!"

"Yes? And what would you do, please?" Her tone was icy, but he somehow felt that the ice was very, very thin, and that her heart beat warm beneath. She drew herself free, and he let her go.

"I dunno," he confessed whimsically. "But Lordy me! I'd sure do something!"

"Look for comfort in that jug, I suppose you mean?"

"No, I don't mean that." He stopped and considered, his forehead creased as if he were half angry at the imputation. "I'm pretty sure of where I stand, on that subject. I've done a lot of thinking, since I hit the Double Cross-and I've cut out whisky for good.

"I know what you thought, and what Mrs. Kate thinks yet; and I'll admit it was mighty tough scratching for a couple of days after I got hold of that jug. But I found out which was master-and it wasn't the booze!" He looked at her with eyes that shone. "Josie, girl, I took a long chance-but I put it up to myself this way, when the jug seemed to be on top. I told myself it was whisky or you; not that exactly, either. It's hard to say just what I do mean. Not you, maybe-but what you stand for. What I could get out of life, if I was straight and lived clean, and had a little woman like you. It may not be you at all; that's as you-"

He stopped as if some one had laid a hand over his mouth. It was not as she said. It might have been, only for that drunken marriage of his. Never before had he hated whisky as bitterly as he did then, when he remembered what it had done for him that night in Sunset, and what it was doing now. It closed his lips upon what he would have given much to be able to say; for he was a man with all the instincts of chivalry and honor-and he loved the girl. It was, he realized bitterly, just because he did love her so well, that he could not say more. He had said too much already; but her nearness had gone to his head, and he had forgotten that he was not free to say what he felt.

Perhaps Josephine mistook his sudden silence for trepidation, or humility. At any rate she reined impulsively close, and reached out and caught the hand hanging idly at his side.

"Ford, I'm no coquette," she said straightforwardly, with a blush for maiden-modesty's sake. "I believe you; absolutely and utterly I believe you. If you had been different at first-if you had made any overtures whatever toward-toward lovemaking, I should have despised you. I never would have loved you in this world! But you didn't. You kept at such a distance that I-I couldn't help thinking about you and studying you. And lately-when I knew you were fighting the-the habit-I loved you for the way you did fight. I was afraid, too. I used to slip into your room every time you left it, and look-and I just ached to help you! But I knew I couldn't do a thing; and that was the hardest part. All I could do was stand back-clear back out of sight, and hope. And-and love you, too, Ford. I'm proud of you! I'm proud to think that I-I love a man that is a man; that doesn't sit down and whine because a fight is hard, or give up and say it's no use. I do despise a moral weakling, Ford. I don't mind what you have been; it's what you are, that counts with me. And you're a man, every inch of you. I'm not a bit afraid you'll weaken. Only," she added half apologetically, "I did want you to give me the-the jug, because I couldn't bear to see you look so worried." She gave his fingers an adorable little squeeze, and flung his hand away from her, and laughed in a way to set his heart pounding heavily in his chest. "Now you know where I stand, Mr. Man," she cried lightly, "so let's say no more about it. I bet I can beat you across this flat!" She laughed again, wrinkled her nose at him impertinently, and was off in a run.

"Ford, I'm no coquette," she said straightforwardly.

If she had waited, Ford would have told her. If she had given him a chance, he would have told her afterward; but she did not. She was extremely careful not to let their talk become intimate, after that. She laughed, she raced Hooligan almost to the point of abuse, she chattered about everything under the sun that came into her mind, except their own personal affairs or anything that could possibly lead up to the subject.

Ford, for a time, watched for an opening honestly; saw at last the impossibility of telling her-unless indeed he shouted, "Say, I'm a married man!" to her without preface or extenuating explanation-and yielded finally to the reprieve the fates sent him.

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