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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Uphill Climb By B. M. Bower Characters: 16520

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

To Find and Free a Wife

Ford spent the rest of that day and all of the night that followed, in thinking what would be the best and the easiest method of gaining the point he wished to reach. All along he had been uncomfortably aware of his matrimonial entanglement and had meant, as soon as he conveniently could, to try and discover who was his wife, and how best to free himself and her. He had half expected that she herself would do something to clear the mystery. She had precipitated the marriage, he constantly reminded himself, and it was reasonable to expect that she would do something; though what, Ford could only conjecture.

When he faced Josephine across the breakfast table the next morning, and caught the shy glance she gave him when Mrs. Kate was not looking, a plan he had half formed crystallized into a determination. He would not tell her anything about it until he knew just what he was up against, and how long it was going to take him to free himself. And since he could not do anything about it while he rode and planned and gave orders at the Double Cross, he swallowed his breakfast rather hurriedly and went out to find Jim Felton.

"Say, Jim," he began, when he ran that individual to earth in the stable, where, with a pair of sheep shears, he was roaching the mane of a shaggy old cow pony to please Buddy, who wanted to make him look like a circus horse, even if there was no hope of his ever acting like one. "I'm going to hand you the lines and let you drive, for a few days. I've got to scout around on business of my own, and I don't know just how long it's going to take me. I'm going right away-to-day."

"Yeah?" Jim poised the shears in air and regarded him quizzically over the pony's neck. "Going to pass me foreman's privilege-to hire and fire?" he grinned. "Because I may as well tell you that if you do, Dick won't be far behind you on the trail."

"Oh, darn Dick. I'll fire him myself, maybe, before I leave. Yes," he added, thinking swiftly of Josephine as the object of Dick's desires, "that's what I'll do. Maybe it'll save a lot of trouble while I'm gone. He's a tricky son-of-a-gun."

"You're dead right; he is," Jim agreed. And then, dryly: "Grandmother just died?"

"Oh, shut up. This ain't an excuse-it's business. I've just got to go, and that's all there is to it. I'll fix things with the missus, and tell her you're in charge. Anyway, I won't be gone any longer than I can help."

"I believe that, too," said Jim softly, and busied himself with the shears.

Ford looked at him sharply, in doubt as to just how much or how little Jim meant by that. He finally shrugged his shoulders and went away to tell Mrs. Kate, and found that a matter which required more diplomacy than he ever suspected he possessed. But he did tell her, and he hoped that she believed the reason he gave for going, and also had some faith in his assurance that he would be back, probably, in a couple of days-or as soon afterwards as might be.

"There's nothing but chores to do now around the ranch, and Jack will ride fence," he explained unnecessarily, to cover his discomfort at her coldness. "Jim can look after things just as well as I can. There won't be any need to start feeding the calves, unless it storms; and if it does, Jim and Jack will go ahead, all right. I'm going to let Dick and Curly go. We don't need more than two men besides Walt, from now on."

"I wish Chester was here," said Mrs. Kate ambiguously.

Ford did not ask her why she wished that. He told her good-by as hastily as if he had to run to catch a train, and left her. He hoped he would be lucky enough to see Josephine-and then he hoped quite as sincerely that he would not see her, after all. It would be easier to go without her clear eyes asking him why.

What he meant to do first was to find Rock, and see if he had been sober enough that night in Sunset to remember what happened at the marriage ceremony, and could give him some clue as to the woman's identity and whereabouts. If he failed there, he intended to hunt up the preacher. That, also, presented certain difficulties, but Ford was in the mood to overcome obstacles. Once he discovered who the woman was, it seemed to him that there should be no great amount of trouble in getting free. As he understood it, he was not the man she had intended to marry; and not being the man she wanted, she certainly could not be over-anxious to cling to him.

While he galloped down the trail to town, he went over the whole thing again in his mind, to see if there might be some simpler plan than the one he had formed in the night.

"No, sir-it's Rock I've got to see first," he concluded. "But Lord only knows where I'll find him; Rock never does camp twice in the same place. Never knew him to stay more than a month with one outfit. But I'll find him, all right!"

And by one of those odd twists of circumstances which sets men to wondering if there is such a thing as telepathy and a specifically guiding hand and the like, it was Rock and none other whom he met fairly in the trail before he had gone another mile.

"Well, I'll be gol darned!" Ford whispered incredulously to himself, and pulled up short in the trail to wait for him.

Rock came loping up with elbows flapping loosely, as was his ungainly habit. His grin was wide and golden as of yore, his hat at the same angle over his right eyebrow.

"Gawd bless you, brother! May peace ride behind your cantle!" he declaimed unctuously, for Rock was a character, in his way, and in his speech was not in the least like other men. "Whither wendest thou?"

"My wending is all over for the present," said Ford, wheeling his horse short around, that he might ride alongside the other. "I started out to hunt you up, you old devil. How are you, anyway?"

"It is well with me, and well with my soul-what little I've got-but it ain't so well with my winter grub-stake. I'm just as tickled to see you as you ever dare be to meet up with me, and that's no lie. I heard you've got a stand-in with the Double Cross, and seeing they ain't on to my little peculiarities, I thought I'd ride out and see if I couldn't work you for a soft snap. Got any ducks out there you want led to water?"

"Maybe-I dunno. I just canned two men this morning, before I left." Ford was debating with himself how best to approach the subject to him most important.

"Good ee-nough! I can take the place of those two men; eat their share of grub, do their share of snoring, and shirk their share of work, and drink their share of booze-oh, lovely! But, in the words of the dead, immortal Shakespeare, 'What's eating you?' You look to me as if you hadn't enjoyed the delights of a good, stiff jag since-" He waved a hand vaguely. "Ain't a scar on you, so help me!" He regarded Ford with frank curiosity.

"Oh, yes there is. I've got the hide peeled off two knuckles, and one of my thumbs is just getting so it will move without being greased," Ford assured him, and then went straight at what was on his mind.

"Say, Rock, I was told that you had a hand in my getting married, back in Sunset that night."

Rock made his horse back until it nearly fell over a rock; his face showed exaggerated symptoms of terror.

"I couldn't help it," he wailed. "Spare muh-for muh poor mother's sake, oh spare muh life!" Whereat Ford laughed, just as Rock meant that he should do. "You licked Bill twice for that, they tell me," Rock went on, quitting his foolery and coming up close again. "And you licked the preacher that night, and-so the tale runneth-like to have put the whole town on the jinks. Is there anything in particular you'd like to do to me?"

"I just want you to tell me who I married-if you can." Ford reddened as the other stared, but he did not stop. "I was so darned full that night I let the whole business ooze out of my memory, and I haven't been able to-"

Rock was leaning over the saddle horn, howling and watery-eyed. Ford looked at him with a dawning suspicion.

"It did strike me, once or twice," he said grimly, "that the whole thing was a put-up job. If you fellows rigged up a josh like that, and let it go as far as this, may the Lord have mercy on your souls, for I won't!"

But Ro

ck could only wave him off weakly; so Ford waited until he had recovered. Even then, it took some talking to convince Rock that the affair was truly serious and not to be treated any longer as a joke.

"Why, damn it, man, I'm in love with a girl and I want to marry her if I can get rid of this other darned, mysterious, Tom-fool of a woman," Ford gritted at last, in sheer desperation. "Or if it's just a josh, by this and by that I mean to find it out."

Rock sobered then. "It ain't any josh," he said, with convincing earnestness. "You got married, all right enough. And if it's as you say, Ford, I sure am sorry for it. I don't know the girl's name. I'd know her quick enough if I should see her, but I can't tell you who she was."

Ford swore, of course. And Rock listened sympathetically until he was done.

"That's the stuff; get it out of your system, Ford, and then you'll feel better. Then we can put our heads together and see if there isn't some way to beat this combination."

"Could you spot the preacher, do you reckon?" asked Ford more calmly.

"I could-if he didn't see us coming," Rock admitted guardedly. "Name of Sanderson, I believe. I've seen him around Garbin. He could tell-he must have some record of it; but would he?"

"Don't you know, even, why she came and glommed onto me like that?" Ford's face was as anxious as his tone.

"Only what you told me, confidentially, in a corner afterwards," said Rock regretfully. "Maybe you told it straight, and maybe you didn't; there's no banking on a man's imagination when he's soused. But the way you told it to me was this:

"You said the girl told you that she was working for some queer old party-an old lady with lots of dough; and she made her will and give her money all to some institution-hospital or some darned thing, I forget just what, or else you didn't say. Only, if this girl would marry her son within a certain time, he could have the wad. Seems the son was something of a high-roller, and the old lady knew he'd blow it in, if it was turned over to him without any ballast, like; and the girl was supposed to be the ballast, to hold him steady. So the old lady, or else it was the girl, writes to this fellow, and he agrees to hook up with the lady and take the money and behave himself. Near as I could make it out, the time was just about up before the girl took matters into her own hand, and come out on a hunt for this Frank Cameron. How she happened to sink her rope on you instead, and take her turns before she found out her mistake, you'll have to ask her-if you ever see her again.

"But this much you told me-and I think you got it straight. The girl was willing to marry you-or Frank Cameron-so he could get what belonged to him. She wasn't going to do any more, though, and you told me"-Rock's manner became very impressive here-"that you promised her, as a man and a gentleman, that you wouldn't ever bother her, and that she was to travel her own trail, and she didn't want the money. She just wanted to dodge that fool will, seems like. Strikes me I'd a let the fellow go plumb to Guinea, if I was in her place, but women get queer notions of duty, and the like of that, sometimes. Looks to me like a fool thing for a woman to do, anyway."

Though they talked a good while about it, that was all the real information which Ford could gain. He would have to find the minister and persuade him to show the record of the marriage, and after that he would have to find the girl.

Before they reached that definite conclusion, the storm which had been brewing for several days swooped down upon them, and drove Ford to the alternative of riding in the teeth of it to town, which was not only unpleasant but dangerous, if it grew any worse, or retracing his steps to the Double Cross and waiting there until it was over. So that is what he did, with Rock to bear him willing company.

They met Dick and Curly on the way, and though Ford stopped them and suggested that they turn back also, neither would do so. Curly intimated plainly that the joys of town were calling to him from afar, and that facing a storm was merely calculated to make his destination more alluring by contrast. "Turn back with two months' wages burning up my inside pocket? Oh, no!" he laughed, and rode on. Dick did not say why, but he rode on also. Ford turned in the saddle and looked after them, as they disappeared in a swirl of fine snow.

"That's what I ought to do," he said, "but I'm not going to do it, all the same."

"Which only goes to prove," bantered Rock, "that the Double Cross pulls harder than all the preacher could tell you. I wonder if there isn't a girl at the Double Cross, now!"

"There is," Ford confessed, with a grin of embarrassment. "And you shut up."

"I just had a hunch there was," Rock permitted himself to say meekly, before he dropped the subject.

It was ten minutes before Ford spoke again.

"I'll take you up to the house and introduce you to her, Rock, if you'll behave yourself," he offered then, with a shyness in his manner that nearly set Rock off in one of his convulsions of mirth. "But the missus isn't wise-so watch out. And if you don't behave yourself," he added darkly, "I'll knock your block off."

"Sure. But my block is going to remain right where it's at," Rock assured him, which was a tacit promise of as perfect behavior as he could attain.

They looked like snow men when they unsaddled, with the powdery snow beaten into the very fabric of their clothing, and Ford suggested that they go first to the bunk-house to thaw out. "I'd sure hate to pack all this snow into Mrs. Kate's parlor," he added whimsically. "She's the kind of housekeeper that grabs the broom the minute you're gone, to sweep your tracks off the carpet. Awful nice little woman, but-"

"But not The One," chuckled Rock, treading close upon Ford's heels. "And I'll bet fifteen cents," he offered rashly, looking up, "that the person hitting the high places for the bunk-house is The One."

"How do you know?" Ford demanded, while his eyes gladdened at sight of Josephine, with a Navajo blanket flung over her head, running down the path through the blizzard to the bunk-house kitchen.

"'Cause she shied when she saw you coming. Came pretty near breaking back on you, too," Rock explained shrewdly.

They reached the kitchen together, and Ford threw open the door, and held it for her to pass.

"I came after some of Mose's mince-meat," she explained hastily. "It's a terrible storm, isn't it? I'm glad it didn't strike yesterday. I thought you were going to be gone for several days."

Ford, with embarrassed haste to match her own, presented Rock in the same breath with wishing that Rock was elsewhere; for Mose was not in the kitchen, and he had not had more than a few words with her for twenty-four hours. He was perilously close to forgetting his legal halter when he looked at her.

She was, he thought, about as sweet a picture of a woman as a man need ever look upon, as she stood there with the red Navajo blanket falling back from her dark hair, and with her wide, honest eyes fixed upon Rock. She was blushing, as if she, too, wished Rock elsewhere. She turned impulsively, set down the basin she had been holding in her arm, and pulled the blanket up so that it framed her face bewitchingly.

"Mose can bring up the mince-meat when he comes-since he isn't here," she said hurriedly. "We weren't looking for you back, but dinner will be ready in half an hour or so, I think." She pulled open the door and went out into the storm.

Rock stared at the door, still quivering with the slam she had given it. Then he looked at Ford, and afterward sat down weakly upon a stool, and began dazedly pulling the icicles from his mustache.

"Well-I'll-be-cremated!" he said in a whisper.

"And what's eating you, Rock?" Ford quizzed gayly. He had seen something in the eyes of Josephine, when he met her, that had set his blood jumping again. "Did Miss Melby-"

"Miss Melby my granny!" grunted Rock, in deep disgust. "That there is your wife!"

Ford backed up against the wall and stared at him blankly. Afterward he took a deep breath and went out as though the place was on fire.

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