Chapter Eleven: Guile Against the Wily
 

Bud liked to have his life run along accustomed lines with a more or less perfect balance of work and play, friendships and enmities. He had grown up with the belief that any mystery is merely a synonym for menace. He had learned to be wary of known enemies such as Indians and outlaws, and to trust implicitly his friends. To feel now, without apparent cause, that his friends might be enemies in disguise, was a new experience that harried him.

He had come to Little Lost on Tuesday, straight from the Muleshoe where his presence was no longer desired for some reason not yet satisfactorily explained to him. You know what happened on Tuesday. That night the land crouched under a terrific electric storm, with crackling swords of white death dazzling from inky black clouds, and ear-splitting thunder close on the heels of it. Bud had known such storms all his life, yet on this night he was uneasy, vaguely disturbed. He caught himself wondering if Lew Morris's wife was frightened, and the realization that he was worrying about her fear worried him more than ever and held him awake long after the fury of the storm had passed.

Next day, when he came in at noon, there was Hen, from the Muleshoe, waiting for dinner before he rode back with the mail. Hen's jaw dropped when he saw Bud riding on a Little Lost hay-wagon, and his eyes bulged with what Bud believed was consternation. All through the meal Bud had caught Hen eyeing him miserably, and looking stealthily from him to the others. No one paid any attention, and for that Bud was rather thankful; he did not want the Little Lost fellows to think that perhaps he had done something which he knew would hang him if it were discovered, which, he decided, was the mildest interpretation a keen observer would be apt to make of Hen's behavior.

When he went out, Hen was at his heels, trying to say something in his futile, tongue-tied gobble. Bud stopped and looked at him tolerantly. "Hen, "It's no use--you might as well be talking Chinese, for all I know. If it's important, write it down or I'll never know what's on your mind."

He pulled a note-book and a pencil from his vest-pocket and gave them to Hen, who looked at him dumbly, worked his Adam's apple violently and retreated to his horse, fumbled the mail which was tied in the bottom of a flour sack for safe keeping, sought a sheltered place where he could sit down, remained there a few minutes, and then returned to his horse He beckoned to Bud, who was watching him curiously; and when Bud went over to him said something unintelligible and handed back the note-book, motioning for caution when Bud would have opened the book at once.

So Bud thanked him gravely, but with a twinkle in his eyes, and waited until Hen had gone and he was alone before he read the message. It was mysterious enough, certainly. Hen had written in a fine, cramped, uneven hand:

"You bee carful. bern this up and dent let on like you no anything but i warn you be shure bern this up."

Bud tore out the page and burned it as requested, and since he was not enlightened by the warning he obeyed Hen's instructions and did not "let on." But he could not help wondering, and was unconsciously prepared to observe little things which ordinarily would have passed unnoticed.

At the dance on Friday night, for instance, there was a good deal of drinking and mighty little hilarity. Bud had been accustomed to loud talk and much horseplay outside among the men on such occasions, and even a fight or two would be accepted as a matter of course. But though several quart bottles were passed around during the night and thrown away empty into the bushes, the men went in and danced and came out again immediately to converse confidentially in small groups, or to smoke without much speech. The men of Burroback Valley were not running true to form.

The women were much like all the women of cow-country: mothers with small children who early became cross and sleepy and were hushed under shawls on the most convenient bed, a piece of cake in their hands; mothers whose faces were lined too soon with work and ill-health, and with untidy hair that became untidier as the dance progressed. There were daughters--shy and giggling to hide their shyness--Bud knew their type very well and made friends with them easily, and immediately became the centre of a clamoring audience after he had sung a song or two.

There was Honey, with her inscrutable half smile and her veiled eyes, condescending to graciousness and quite plainly assuming a proprietary air toward Bud, whom she put through whatever musical paces pleased her fancy. Bud, I may say, was extremely tractable. When Honey said sing, Bud sang; when she said play, Bud sat down to the piano and played until she asked him to do something else. It was all very pleasant for Honey--and Bud ultimately won his point--Honey decided to extend her graciousness a little.

Why hadn't Bud danced with Marian? He must go right away and ask her to dance. Just because Lew was gone, Marian need not be slighted--and besides, there were other fellows who might want a little of Honey's time.

So Bud went away and found Marian in the pantry, cutting cakes while the coffee boiled, and asked her to dance. Marian was too tired, and' she had not the time to spare; wherefore Bud helped himself to a knife and proceeded to cut cakes with geometrical precision, and ate all the crumbs. With his hands busy, he found the courage to talk to her a little. He made Marian laugh out loud and it was the first time he had ever heard her do that.

Marian disclosed a sense of humor, and even teased Bud a little about Honey. But her teasing lacked that edge of bitterness which Bud had half expected in retaliation for Honey's little air of superiority.

"Your precision in cutting cakes is very much like your accurate fingering of the piano," she observed irrelevantly, surveying his work with her lips pursed. "A pair of calipers would prove every piece exactly, the same width; and even when you play a Meditation? I'm sure the metronome would waggle in perfect unison with your tempo. I wonder--" She glanced up at him speculatively. "--I wonder if you think with such mathematical precision. Do you always find that two and two make four?"

"You mean, have I any imagination whatever?" Bud looked away from her eyes--toward the uncurtained, high little window. A face appeared there, as if a tall man had glanced in as he was passing by and halted for a second to look. Bud's eyes met full the eyes of the man outside, who tilted his head backward in a significant movement and passed on. Marian turned her head and caught the signal, looked at Bud quickly, a little flush creeping into her cheeks.

"I hope you have a little imagination," she said, lowering her voice instinctively. "It doesn't require much to see that Jerry is right. The conventions are strictly observed at Little Lost--in the kitchen, at least," she added, under her breath, with a flash of resentment. "Run along--and the next time Honey asks you to play the piano, will you please play Lotusblume? And when you have thrown open the prison windows with that, will you play Schubert's Ave Maria--the way you play it--to send a breath of cool night air in?"

She put out the tips of her fingers and pressed them lightly against Bud's shoulder, turning toward the door. Bud started, stepped into the kitchen, wheeled about and stood regarding her with a stubborn look in his eyes.

"I might kick the door down, too," he said. "I don't like prisons nohow."

"No-just a window, thank you," she laughed.

Bud thought the laugh did not go very deep. "Jerry wants to talk to you. He's the whitest of the lot, if you can call that--" she stopped abruptly, put out a hand to the door, gave him a moment to look into her deep, troubled eyes, and closed the door gently but inexorably in his face.

Jerry was standing at the corner of the house smoking negligently. He waited until Bud had come close alongside him, then led the way slowly down the path to the corrals.

"I thought I heard the horses fighting," he remarked. "There was a noise down this way."

"Is that why you called me outside?" asked Bud, who scorned subterfuge.

"Yeah. I saw you wasn't dancing or singing or playing the piano--and I knew Honey'd likely be looking you up to do one or the other, in a minute. She sure likes you, Bud. She don't, everybody that comes along."

Bud did not want to discuss Honey, wherefore he made no reply, and they walked along in silence, the cool, heavy darkness grateful after the oil lamps and the heat of crowded rooms. As they neared the corrals a stable door creaked open and shut, yet there was no wind. Jerry halted, one hand going to Bud's arm. They stood for a minute, and heard the swish of the bushes behind the corral, as if a horse were passing through. Jerry turned back, leading Bud by the arm. They were fifty feet away and the bushes were still again before Jerry spoke guardedly.

"I guess I made a mistake. There wasn't nothing," he said, and dropped Bud's arm."

Bud stopped. "There was a man riding off in the brush," he said bluntly, "and all the folks that came to the dance rode in through the front gate. I reckon I'll just take a look where I left my saddle, anyway."

"That might have been some loose stock," Jerry argued, but Bud went back, wondering a little at Jerry's manner.

The saddle was all right, and so was everything else, so far as Bud could determine in the dark, but he was not satisfied. He thought he understood Jerry's reason for bringing him down to the corrals, but he could not understand Jerry's attitude toward an incident which any man would have called suspicious.

Bud quietly counted noses when he returned to the house and found that supper was being served, but he could not recall any man who was missing now. Every guest and every man on the ranch was present except old Pop, who had a little shack to himself and went to bed at dark every night.

Bud was mystified, and he hated mysteries. Moreover, he was working for Dave Truman, and whatever might concern Little Lost concerned him also. But the men had begun to talk openly of their various "running horses", and to exchange jibes and boasts and to bet a little on Sunday's races. Bud wanted to miss nothing of that, and Jerry's indifference to the incident at the stable served to reassure him for the time being. He edged close to the group where the talk was loudest, and listened.

A man they called Jeff was trying to jeer his neighbors into betting against a horse called Skeeter, and was finding them too cautious for his liking. He laughed and, happening to catch Bud's eyes upon him, strode forward with an empty tin cup in his hand and slapped Bud friendliwise on the shoulder.

"Why, I bet this singin' kid, that don't know wha I got ner what you fellers has got, ain't scared to take, a chance. Are yuh, kid? What d' yuh think of this pikin' bunch here that has seen Skeeter come in second and third more times 'n what he beat, and yet is afraid to take a chance on rosin' two bits? Whatd' yuh think of 'em? Ain't they an onery bunch?"

"I suppose they hate to lose," Bud grinned.

"That's it--money 's more to 'em than the sport of kings, which is runnin' horses. This bunch, kid belly-ached till Dave took his horse Boise outa the game, and now, by gosh, they're backin' up from my Skeeter, that has been beat more times than he won.'

"When you pulled him, Jeff!" a mocking voice drawled. "And that was when you wasn't bettin' yourself."

Jeff turned injuredly to Bud. "Now don't that sound like a piker?" he complained. "It ain't reason to claim I'd pull my own horse. Ain't that the out doinest way to come back at a man that likes a good race?

Bud swelled his chest and laid his hand on Jeff's shoulder. "Just to show you I'm not a piker," he cried recklessly, "I'll bet you twenty-five dollars I can beat your Skeeter with my Smoky horse that I rode in here. Is it a go?"

Jeff's jaw dropped a little, with surprise. "What fer horse is this here Smoky horse of yourn?" he wanted to know.

Bud winked at the group, which cackled gleeful!, "I love the sport of kings," he said. "I love it so well I don't have to see your Skeeter horse till Sunday. From the way these boys sidestep him, I guess he's a sure-enough running horse. My Smoky's a good little horse, too, but he never scared a bunch till they had cramps in the pockets. Still," he added with a grin, "I'll try anything once. I bet you twenty-five dollars my Smoky can beat your Skeeter."

"Say, kid, honest I hate to take it away from yuh. Honest, I do. The way you can knock the livin' tar outa that pyanny is a caution to cats. I c'd listen all night. But when it comes to runnin' horses--"

"Are you afraid of your money?" Bud asked him arrogantly. "You called this a bunch of pikers--"

"Well, by golly, it'll be your own fault, kid. If I take your money away from yuh, don't go and blame it onto me. Mebbe these fellers has got some cause to sidestep--"

"All right, the bet's on. And I won't blame you if I lose. Smoky's a good little horse. Don't think for a minute I'm giving you my hard earned coin. You'll have to throw up some dust to get it, old-timer. I forgot to say I'd like to make it a quarter dash."

"A quarter dash it is," Jeff agreed derisively as Bud turned to answer the summons of the music which was beginning again.

The racing enthusiasts lingered outside, and Bud smiled to himself while he whirled Honey twice around in an old- fashioned waltz. He had them talking about him, and wondering about his horse. When they saw Smoky they would perhaps call him a chancey kid. He meant to ask Pop about Skeeter, though Pop seemed confident that Smoky would win against anything in the valley.

But on the other hand, he had seen in his short acquaintance with Little Lost that Pop was considered childish--that comprehensive accusation which belittles the wisdom of age. The boys made it a point to humor him without taking him seriously. Honey pampered him and called him Poppy, while in Marian's chill courtesy, in her averted glances, Bud had read her dislike of Pop. He had seen her hand shrink away from contact with his hand when she set his coffee beside his plate.

But Bud had heard others speak respectfully of Boise, and regret that he was too fast to run. Pop might be childish on some subjects, but Bud rather banked on his judgment of horses--and Pop was penurious and anxious to win money.

"What are you thinking about?" Honey demanded when the music stopped. "Something awful important, I guess, to make you want to keep right on dancing!"

"I was thinking of horse-racing," Bud confessed, glad that he could tell her the truth.

"Ah, you! Don't let them make a fool of you. Some of the fellows would bet the shirt off their backs on a horse-race! You look out for them, Bud."

"They wouldn't bet any more than I would," Bud boldly declared. "I've bet already against a horse I've never seen. How 's that?"

"That's crazy. You'll lose, and serve you right." She went off to dance with someone else, and Bud turned smiling to find a passable partner amongst the older women--for he was inclined to caution where strange girls were concerned. Much trouble could come to a stranger who danced with a girl who happened to have a jealous sweetheart, and Bud did not court trouble of that kind. He much preferred to fight over other things. Besides, he had no wish to antagonize Honey.

But his dance with some faded, heavy-footed woman was not to be. Jerry once more signalled him and drew him outside for a little private conference. Jerry was ill at ease and inclined to be reproachful and even condemnatory.

He wanted first to know why Bud had been such a many kinds of a fool as to make that bet with Jeff Hall. All the fellows were talking about it. "They was asking me what kind of a horse you've got--and I wouldn't put it past Jeff and his bunch to pull some kind of a dirty trick on you," he complained. "Bud, on the square, I like you a whole lot. You seem kinda innocent, in some ways, and in other ways you don't. I wish you'd tell me just one thing, so I can sleep comfortable. Have you got some scheme of your own? Or what the devil ails you?"

"Well, I've just got a notion," Bud admitted. "I'm going to have some fun watching those fellows perform, whether I win or lose. I've spent as much as twenty-five dollars on a circus, before now, and felt that I got the worth of my money, too. I'm going to enjoy myself real well, next Sunday."

Jerry glanced behind him and lowered his voice, speaking close to Bud's ear. "Well, there's something I'd like to say that it ain't safe to say, Bud. I'd hate like hell to see you get in trouble. Go as far as you like having fun--but--oh, hell! What's the use?" He turned abruptly and went inside, leaving Bud staring after him rather blankly.

Jerry did not strike Bud as being the kind of a man who goes around interfering with every other man's business. He was a quiet, good-natured young fellow with quizzical eyes of that mixed color which we call hazel simply because there is more brown than gray or green. He did not talk much, but he observed much. Bud was strongly inclined to heed Jerry's warning, but it was too vague to have any practical value--" about like Hen's note," Bud concluded. "Well-meaning but hazy. Like a red danger flag on a railroad crossing where the track is torn up and moved. I saw one, once and my horse threw a fit at it and almost piled me. I figured that the red flag created the danger, where I was concerned. Still, I'd like to oblige Jerry and sidestep something or other, but . . ."

His thoughts grew less distinct, merged into wordless rememberings and conjectures, clarified again into terse sentences which never reached the medium of speech.

"Well, I'll just make sure they don't try out Smoke when I'm not looking," he decided, and slipped away in the dark.

By a roundabout way which avoided the trail he managed to reach the pasture fence without being seen. No horses grazed in sight, and he climbed through and went picking his way across the lumpy meadow in the starlight. At the farther side he found the horses standing out on a sandy ridge where the mosquitoes were not quite so pestiferous. The Little Lost horses ;snorted and took to their heels, his three following for a short distance.

Bud stopped and whistled a peculiar call invented long ago when he was just Buddy, and watched over the Tomahawk remuda. Every horse with the Tomahawk brand knew that summons--though not every horse would obey it. But these three had come when they were sucking colts, if Buddy whistled; and in their breaking and training, in the long trip north, they had not questioned its authority. They turned and trotted back to him now and nosed Bud's hands which he held out to them.

He petted them all and talked to them in an affectionate murmur which they answered by sundry lipnibbles and subdued snorts. Smoky he singled out finally, rubbing his back and sides with the flat of his hand from shoulder to flank, and so to the rump and down the thigh to the hock to the scanty fetlock which told, to those who knew, that here was an aristocrat among horses.

Smoky stood quiet, and Bud's hand lingered there, smoothing the slender ankle. Bud's fingers felt the fine-haired tail, then gave a little twitch. He was busy for a minute, kneeling in the sand with one knee, his head bent. Then he stood up, went forward to Smoky's head, and stood rubbing the horse's nose thoughtfully.

"I hate to do it, old boy--but I'm working to make's a home-- we've got to work together. And I'm not asking any more of you than I'd be willing to do myself, if I were a horse and you were a man."

He gave the three horses a hasty pat apiece and started back across the meadow to the fence. They followed him like pet dogs--and when Bud glanced back over his shoulder he saw in the dim light that Smoky walked with a slight limp.