Chapter Fourteen: Even Mushrooms Help
 

Bud wanted to have a little confidential talk with Marian. He hoped that she would be willing to tell him a great deal more than could be written on one side of a cigarette paper, and he was curious to hear what it was. On the other hand, he wanted somehow to let her know that he was anxious to help her in any way possible. She needed help, of that he was sure.

Lew returned on Tuesday, with a vile temper and rheumatism in his left shoulder so that he could not work, but stayed around the house and too evidently made his wife miserable by his presence. On Wednesday morning Marian had her hair dressed so low over her ears that she resembled a lady of old Colonial days--but she did not quite conceal from Bud's keen eyes the ugly bruise on her temple. She was pale and her lips were compressed as if she were afraid to relax lest she burst out in tears or in a violent denunciation of some kind. Bud dared not look at her, nor at Lew, who sat glowering at Bud's right hand. He tried to eat, tried to swallow his coffee, and finally gave up the attempt and left the table.

In getting up he touched Lew's shoulder with his elbow, and Lew let out a bellow of pain and an oath, and leaned away from him, his right hand up to ward off another hurt.

"Pardon me. I forgot your rheumatism," Bud apologized perfunctorily, his face going red at the epithet. Marian, coming toward him with a plate of biscuits, looked him full in the eyes and turned her glance to her husband's back while her lips curled in the bitterest, the most scornful smile Bud had ever seen on a woman's face. She did not speak--speech was impossible before that tableful of men--but Bud went out feeling as though she had told him that her contempt for Lew was beyond words, and that his rheumatism brought no pity whatever.

Wednesday passed, Thursday came, and still there was no chance to speak a word in private. The kitchen drudge was hedged about by open ears and curious eyes, and save at meal- time she was invisible to the men unless they glimpsed her for a moment in the kitchen door.

Thursday brought a thunder storm with plenty of rain, and in the drizzle that held over until Friday noon Bud went out to an old calf shed which he had discovered in the edge of the pasture, and gathered his neckerchief full of mushrooms. Bud hated mushrooms, but he carried them to the machine shed and waited until he was sure that Honey was in the sitting room playing the piano--and hitting what Bud called a blue note now and then--and that Lew was in the bunk-house with the other men, and Dave and old Pop were in Pop's shack. Then, and then only, Bud took long steps to the kitchen door, carrying his mushrooms as tenderly as though they were eggs for hatching.

Marian was up to her dimpled elbows in bread dough when he went in. Honey was still groping her way lumpily through the Blue Danube Waltz, and Bud stood so that he could look out through the white-curtained window over the kitchen table and make sure that no one approached the house unseen.

"Here are some mushrooms," he said guardedly, lest his voice should carry to Honey. "They're just an excuse. Far as I'm concerned you can feed them to the hogs. I like things clean and natural and wholesome, myself. I came to find out what's the matter, Mrs. Morris. Is there anything I can do? I took the hint you gave me in the note, Sunday, and I discovered right away you knew what you were talking about. That was a holdup down in the Sinks. It couldn't have been anything else. But they wouldn't have got anything. I didn't have more than a dollar in my pocket."

Marian turned her head, and listened to the piano, and glanced up at him.

"I also like things clean and natural and wholesome," she said quietly. "That's why I tried to put you on your guard. You don't seem to fit in, somehow, with--the surroundings. I happen to know that the races held here every Sunday are just thinly veiled attempts to cheat the unwary out of every cent they have. I should advise you, Mr. Birnie, to be very careful how you bet on any horses."

"I shall," Bud smiled. "Pop gave me some good advice, too, about running horses. He says, "It's every fellow for himself, and mercy toward none. I'm playing by their rule, and Pop expects to make a few dollars, too. He said he'd stand by me."

"Oh! He did?" Marian's voice puzzled Bud. She kneaded the bread vigorously for a minute. "Don't depend too much on Pop. He's--variable. And don't go around with a dollar in your pocket--unless you don't mind losing that dollar. There are men in this country who would willingly dispense with the formality of racing a horse in order to get your money."

"Yes--I've discovered one informal method already. I wish I knew how I could help you."

"Help me--in what way?" Marian glanced out of the window again as if that were a habit she had formed.

"I don't know. I wish I did. I thought perhaps you had some trouble that--My mother had the same look in her eyes when we came back to the ranch after some Indian trouble, and found the house burned and everything destroyed but the ground itself. She didn't say anything much. She just began helping father plan how we'd manage until we could get material and build another cabin, and make our supplies hold out. She didn't complain. But her eyes had the same look I've seen in yours, Mrs. Morris. So I feel as if I ought to help you, just as I'd help mother." Bud's face had been red and embarrassed when he began, but his earnestness served to erase his selfconsciousness.

"You're different--just like mother," he went on when Marian did not answer. "You don't belong here drudging in this kitchen. I never saw a woman doing a man's work before. They ought to have a man cooking for all these hulking men."

"Oh, the kitchen!" Marian exclaimed impatiently. "I don't mind the cooking. That's the least--"

"It isn't right, just the same. I--I don't suppose that's it altogether. I'm not trying to find out what the trouble is-- but I wish you'd remember that I'm ready to do anything in the world that I can. You won't misunderstand that, I'm sure."

"No-o," said Marian slowly. "But you see, there's nothing that you can do--except, perhaps, make things worse for me." Then , to lighten that statement, she smiled at him. "Just now you can help me very much if you will go in and play something besides the Blue Danube Waltz. I've had to listen to that ever since Honora sent away for the music with the winter's grocery order, last October. Tell Honora you got her some mushrooms. And don't trust anyone. If you must bet on the horses, do so with your eyes open. They're cheats--and worse, some of them."

Bud's glance followed hers through the window that overlooked the corrals and the outbuildings. Lew was coming up to the house with a slicker over his head to keep off the drizzle.

"Well, remember I'd do anything for you that I'd do for my mother or my sister Dulcie. And I wish you'd call on me just as they would, if you get in a pinch and need me. If I know you'll do that I'll feel a lot better satisfied."

"If I need you be sure that I shall let you know. And I'll say that "It's a comfort to have met one white man," Marian assured him hurriedly, her anxious eyes on her approaching husband.

She need not have worried over his coming, so far as Bud was concerned. For Bud was in the sitting-room and had picked Honey off the piano stool, had given her a playful shake and was playing the Blue Danube as its composer intended that it should be played, when Lew entered the kitchen and kicked the door shut behind him.

Bud spent the forenoon conscientiously trying to teach Honey that the rests are quite as important to the tempo of a waltz measure as are the notes. Honey's talent for music did not measure up to her talent for coquetry; she received about five dollars' worth of instruction and no blandishments whatever, and although she no doubt profited thereby, at last she balked and put her lazy white hands over her ears and refused to listen to Bud's inexorable "One, two, three, one, two, three-and one, two, three." Whereupon Bud laughed and returned to the bunk-house.

He arrived in the middle of a heated argument over Jeff Hall's tactics in racing Skeeter, and immediately was called upon for his private, personal opinion of Sunday's race. Bud's private, personal opinion being exceedingly private and personal, he threw out a skirmish line of banter.

Smoky could run circles around that Skeeter horse, he boasted, and Jeff's manner of riding was absolutely unimportant, non-essential and immaterial. He was mighty glad that holdup man had fallen down, last Sunday, before he got his hands on any money, because that money was going to talk long and loud to Jeff Hall next Sunday. Now that Bud had started running his horse for money, working for wages looked foolish and unprofitable. He was now working merely for healthful exercise and to pass the time away between Sundays. His real mission in life, he had discovered, was to teach Jeff's bunch that gambling is a sin.

The talk was carried enthusiastically to the dinner table, where Bud ignored the scowling proximity of Lew and repeated his boasts in a revised form as an indirect means of letting Marian know that he meant to play the Burroback game in the Burroback way--or as nearly as he could--and keep his honesty more or less intact. He did not think she would approve, but he wanted her to know.

Once, when Buddy was fifteen, four thoroughbred cows and four calves disappeared mysteriously from the home ranch just before the calves had reached branding age. Buddy rode the hills and the valleys every spare minute for two weeks in search of them, and finally, away over the ridge where an undesirable neighbor was getting a start in cattle, Buddy found the calves in a fenced field with eight calves belonging--perhaps--to the undesirable neighbor.

Buddy did not ride down to the ranch and accuse the neighbor of stealing the calves. Instead, he painstakingly sought a weak place in the fence, made a very accidental looking hole and drove out the twelve calves, took them over the ridge to Tomahawk and left them in a high, mountain meadow pretty well surrounded by matted thickets. There, because there was good grass and running water, the calves seemed quite as happy as in the field.

Then Buddy hurried home and brought a branding iron and a fresh horse, and by working very hard and fast, he somehow managed to plant a deep tomahawk brand on each one of the twelve calves. He returned home very late and very proud of himself, and met his father face to face as he was putting away the iron. Explanations and a broken harness strap mingled painfully in Buddy's memory for a long time afterwards, but the full effect of the beating was lost because Buddy happened to hear Bob Birnie confide to mother that the lad had served the old cattle-thief right, and that any man who could start with one thoroughbred cow and in four years have sufficient increase from that cow to produce eight calves a season, ought to lose them all.

Buddy had not needed his father's opinion to strengthen his own conviction that he had performed a worthy deed and one of which no man need feel ashamed. Indeed, Buddy considered the painful incident of the buggy strap a parental effort at official discipline, and held no particular grudge against his father after the welts had disappeared from his person.

Wherefore Bud, the man, held unswervingly to the ethical standard of Buddy the boy. If Burroback Valley was scheming to fleece a stranger at their races and rob him by force if he happened to win, then Bud felt justified in getting every dollar possible out of the lot of them. At any rate, he told himself, he would do his darndest. It was plain enough that Pop was trying to make an opportunity to talk confidentially, but with a dozen men on the place it was easy enough to avoid being alone without arousing the old man's suspicions. Marian had told him to trust no one; and Bud, with his usual thoroughness, applied the warning literally.

Sunday morning he caught up Smoky and rode him to the corral. Smoky had recovered from his lameness, and while Bud groomed him for the afternoon's running the men of Little Lost gathered round him and offered advice and encouragement, and even volunteered to lend him money if he needed it. But Bud told them to put up their own bets, and never to worry about him. Their advice and their encouragement, however, he accepted as cheerfully as they were given.

"Think yuh can beat Skeeter, young feller?" Pop shambled up to inquire anxiously, his beard brushing Bud's shoulder while he leaned close. "Remember what I told ye. You stick by me an' I'll stick by you. You shook on it, don't forgit that, young feller."

Bud had forgotten, but he made haste to redeem his promise." Last Sunday, Pop, I had to play it alone. To-day-well, if you want to make an honest dollar, you know what to do, don't you?"

"Sho! I'm bettin' on yore horse t'day, an' mind ye, I want to see my money doubled! But that there lameness in his left hind ankle--I don't see but what that kinda changes my opinion a little mite. You shore he won't quit on ye in the race, now? Don't lie to ole Pop, young feller!"

"Say! He 's the gamest little horse in the state, Pop. He never has quit, and he never will." Bud stood up and laid a friendly hand on the old fellow's shoulder. "Pop, I'm running him to-day to win. That's the truth. I'm going to put all I've got on him. Is that good enough?"

"Shucks almighty! That's good enough fer me,--plenty good fer me," Pop cackled, and trotted off to find someone who had little enough faith in Smoky to wager a two-to-one against him.

It seemed to Bud that the crowd was larger than that of a week ago, and there was no doubt whatever that the betting was more feverish, and that Jeff meant that day to retrieve his losses. Bud passed up a very good chance to win on other races, and centred all his betting on Smoky. He had been throughout the week boastful and full of confidence, and now he swaggered and lifted his voice in arrogant challenge to all and sundry. His three hundred dollars was on the race, and incidentally, he never left Smoky from the time he led him up from pasture until the time came when he and Jeff Hall rode side by side down to the quarter post.

They came up in a small whirlwind of speed and dust, and Smoky was under the wire to his ears when Skeeter's nose showed beyond it. Little Lost was jubilant. Jeff Hall and his backers were not.

Bud's three hundred dollars had in less than a minute increased to a little over nine hundred, though all his bets had been moderate. By the time he had collected, his pockets were full and his cocksureness had increased to such an unbearable crowing that Jeff Hall's eyes were venomous as a snake's. Jeff had been running to win, that day, and he had taken odds on Skeeter that had seemed to him perfectly safe.

"I'll run yuh horse for horse!" he bellowed and spat out an epithet that sent Bud at him white-lipped.

"Damn yuh, ride down to the quarter post and I'll show you some running!" Bud yelled back. "And after you've swallowed dust all the way up the track, you go with me to where the women can't see and I'll lick the living tar outa you!"

Jeff swore and wheeled Skeeter toward the starting post, beckoning Bud to follow. And Bud, hastily tucking in a flapping bulge of striped shirt, went after him. At that moment he was not Bud, but Buddy in one of his fighting moods, with his plans forgotten while he avenged an insult.

Men lined up at the wire to judge for themselves the finish, and Dave Truman rode alone to start them. No one doubted but that the start would be fair--Jeff and Bud would see to that!

For the first time in months the rein-ends stung Smoky's flanks when he was in his third jump. Just once Bud struck, and was ashamed of the blow as it fell. Smoky did not need that urge, but he flattened his ears and came down the track a full length ahead of Skeeter, and held the pace to the wire and beyond, where he stopped in a swirl of sand and went prancing back, ready for another race if they asked it of him.

"Guess Dave'll have to bring out Boise and take the swellin' outa that singin' kid's pocket," a hardfaced man shouted as Jeff slid off Skeeter and went over to where his cronies stood bunched and conferring earnestly together

"Not to-day, he needn't. I've had all the excitement I want; and I'd like to have time to count my money before I lose it," Bud retorted. "Next Sunday, if it's a clear day and the sign is right, I might run against Boise if it's worth my while. Say, Jeff, seeing you're playing hard luck, I won't lick you for what you called me. And just to show my heart's right, I'll lend you Skeeter to ride home. Or if you want to buy him back, you can have him for sixty dollars or such a matter. He 's a nice little horse,--if you aren't in a hurry!"