Cow-Country by B.M. Bower
Chapter Twenty-One: Trails End
At the last camp, just north of the Platte, Bud's two black sheep balked. Bud himself, worn by sleepless nights and long hours in the saddle, turned furiously when Jerry announced that he guessed he and Ed wouldn't go any farther.
"Well, damn you both for ungrateful hounds!" grated Bud, hurt to the quick. "I hope you don't think I brought you this far to help hold me in the saddle; I made it north alone, without any mishap. I think I could have come back all right. But if you want to quit here, all right. You can high-tail it back to your outlaws--"
"Well, if you go 'n put it that way!" Jerry expostulated, lifting both hands high in the air in a vain attempt to pull the situation toward the humorous. "You're a depity sheriff, and you got the drop." He grinned, saw that Bud's eyes were still hard and his mouth unyielding, and lowered his hands, looking crestfallen as a kicked pup that had tried to be friendly.
"You can see for yourself we ain't fit to go 'n meet your mother and your father like we was--like we'd went straight," Eddie put in explanatorily. "You've been raised good, and-- say, it makes a man want to be good to see how a feller don't have to be no preacher to live right. But it don't seem square to let you take us right home with you, just because you're so darned kind you'd do it and never think a thing about it. We ain't ungrateful--I know I ain't. But--but--"
"The kid's said it, Bud," Jerry came to the rescue. "We come along because it was a ticklish trip you had ahead. And I've knowed as good riders as you are, that could stand a little holding in the saddle when some freak had tried to shoot 'em out of it. But you're close to home now and you don't need us no more, and so we ain't going to horn in on the prodigal calf's milkbucket. Marian, She's likely there--"
"If Sis ain't with your folks we'll hunt her up," Eddie interrupted eagerly. "Sis is your kind--she--she's good enough for yuh, Bud, and I hope she--ll--well if she's got any sense she will--well, if it comes to the narrying point, I--well, darn it, I'd like to see Sis git as good a man as you are!" Eddie, having bluntered that far, went headlong as if he were afraid to stop. "Sis is educated, and she's an awful good singer and a fine girl, only I'm her brother. But I'm going to live honest from now on, Bud, and I hope you won't hold off on account of me. I ain't going to have sis feel like crying when she thinks about me! You--you--said something that hurt like a knife, Bud, when you told me that, up in Crater. And she wasn't to blame for marryn' Lew--and she done that outa goodness, the kind you showed to Jerry and me. And we don't want to go spoilin' everything by letting your folks see what you're bringin' home with yuh! And it might hurt Sis with your folks, if they found out that I'm--"
Bud had been standing by his horse, looking from one to the other, listening, watching their faces, measuring the full depth of their manhood. "Say! you remind me of a story the folks tell on me," he said, his eyes shining, while his voice strove to make light of it all. "Once, when I was a kid in pink-aprons, I got lost from the trail-herd my folks were bringing up from Texas. It was comin' dark, and they had the whole outfit out hunting me, and everybody scared to death. When they were all about crazy, they claim I came walking up to the camp-fire dragging a dead snake by the tail, and carrying a horn toad in my shirt, and claiming they were mine because I 'ketched 'em.' I'm not branding that yarn with any moral--but figure it out for yourself, boys."
The two looked at each other and grinned. "I ain't dead yet," Eddie made sheepish comment. "Mebbe you kinda look on me as being a horn toad, Bud."
"When you bear in mind that my folks raised that kid, You'll realize that it takes a good deal to stampede mother." Bud swung into the saddle to avoid subjecting his emotions to the cramped, inadequate limitations of speech. "Let's go, boys. She's a long trail to take the kinks out of before supper- time."
They stood still, making no move to follow. Bud reined Smoky around so that he faced them, reached laboriously into that mysterious pocket of a cowpuncher's trousers which is always held closed by the belt of his chaps, and which invariably holds in its depths the things he wants in a hurry. They watched him curiously, resolutely refusing to interpret his bit of autobiography, wondering perhaps why he did not go.
"Here she is." Bud had disinterred the deputy sheriff's badge, and began to polish it by the primitive but effectual method of spitting on it and then rubbing vigorously on his sleeve. "You're outside of Crater County, but by thunder you're both guilty of resisting an officer, and county lines don't count!" He had pinned the badge at random on his coat while he was speaking, and now, before the two realized what he was about, he had his six-shooter out and aimed straight at them.
Bud had never lived in fear of the law. Instantly was sorry when he saw the involuntary stiffening of their muscles, the quick wordless suspicion and defiance that sent their eyes in shifty glances to right and left before their hands lifted a little. Trust him, love him they might, there was that latent fear of capture driven deep into their souls; so deep that even he had not erased it.
Bud saw--and so he laughed.
"I've got to show my folks that I've made a gathering," he said. "You can't quit, boys. And I'm going to take you to the end of the trail, now you've started." He eyed them, saw that they were still stubborn, and drew in his breath sharply, manfully meeting the question in their minds.
"We've left more at the Sinks than the gnashing of teeth," he said whimsically. "A couple of bad names, for instance. You're two bully good friends of mine, and--damn it, Marian will want to see both of you fellows, if she's there. If she isn't--we'll maybe have a big circle to ride, finding her. I'll need you, no matter what's ahead." He looked from one to the other, gave a snort and added impatiently, "Aw, fork your horses and don't stand there looking like a couple of damn fools!"
Whereupon Jerry shook his head dissentingly, grinned and gave Eddie so emphatic an impulse toward his horse that the kid went sprawling.
"Guess We're up against it, all right--but I do wish yo 'd lose that badge!" Jerry surrendered, and flipped the bridle reins over the neck of his horse. "Horn toad is right, the way you're scabbling around amongst them rocks," he called light-heartedly to the kid. "Ever see a purtier sunrise? I never!"
I don't know what they thought of the sunset. Gorgeous it was, with many soft colors blended into unnamable tints and translucencies, and the songs of birds in the thickets as they passed. Smoky, Sunfish and Stopper walked briskly, ears perked forward, heads up, eyes eager to catch the familiar landmarks that meant home. Bud's head was up, also, his eyes went here and there, resting with a careless affection on those same landmarks which spelled home. He would have let Smoky's reins have a bit more slack and would have led his little convoy to the corrals at a gallop, had not hope begun to tremble and shrink from meeting certainty face to face. Had you asked him then, I think Bud would have owned himself a coward. Until he had speech with home-folk he would merely be hoping that Marian was there; but until he had speech with them he need not hear that they knew nothing of her. Bud-- like, however, he tried to cover his trepidation with a joke.
"We'll sneak up on. 'em," he said to Ed and Jerry when the roofs of house and stables came into view.
Here's where I grew up, boys. And in a minute or two more you'll see the greatest little mother on earth--and the finest dad," he added, swallowing the last of his Scotch stubbornness.
"And Sis, I hope," Eddie said wistfully. "I sure hope she's here."
Neither Jerry nor Bud answered him at all. Smoky threw up his head suddenly and gave a shrill whinny, and a horse at the corrals answered sonorously.
"Say! That sounds to me like Boise!" Eddie exclaimed, standing up in his stirrups to look.
Bud turned pale, then flushed hotly. "Don't holler!" he muttered, and held Smoky back a little. For just one reason a young man's heart pounds as Bud's heart pounded then. Jerry looked at him, took a deep breath and bit his lip thoughtfully. It may be that Jerry's heartbeats were not quite normal just then, but no one would ever know.
They rode slowly to a point near the corner of the table, and there Bud halted the two with his lifted hand. Bud was trembling a little--but he was smiling, too. Eddie was frankly grinning, Jerry's face was the face of a good poker-player-- it told nothing.
In a group with their backs to them stood three: Marian, Bud's mother and his father. Bob Birnie held Boise by the bridle, and the two women were stroking the brown nose of the horse that moved uneasily, with little impatient head- tossings.
"He doesn't behave like a horse that has made the long trip he has made," Bud's mother observed admiringly. "You must be a wonderful little horsewoman, my dear, as well as a wonderful little woman in every other way. Buddy should never have sent you on such a trip--just to bring home money, like a bank messenger! But I'm glad that he did! And I do wish you would consent to stay--such an afternoon with music I haven't had since Buddy left us. You could stay with me and train for the concert work you intend doing. I'm only an old ranch woman in a slat sunbonnet--but I taught my Buddy--and have you heard him?"
"An old woman in a slat sunbonnet--oh, how can you? Why, you're the most wonderful woman in the whole world." Marian's voice was almost tearful in its protest. "Yes--I have heard--your Buddy."
"'T is the strangest way to go about selling a horse that I ever saw," Bob Birnie put in dryly, smoothing his beard while he looked at them. "We'd be glad to have you stay, lass. But you've asked me to place a price on the horse, and I should like to ask ye a question or two. How fast did ye say he could run?"
Marian laid an arm around the shoulders of the old lady in a slat sunbonnet and patted her arm while she answered.
"Well, he beat everything in the country, so they refused to race against him, until Bud came with his horses," she replied. "It took Sunfish to outrun him. He 's terribly fast, Mr. Birnie. I--really, I think he could beat the world's record--if Bud rode him!"
Just here you should picture Ed and Jerry with their hands over their mouths, and Bud wanting to hide his face with his hat.
Bob Birnie's beard behaved oddly for a minute, while he leaned and stroked Boise's flat forelegs, that told of speed. "Wee-ll," he hesitated, soft-heartedness battling with the horse-buyer's keenness, "since Bud is na ere to ride him, he'll make a good horse for the roundup. I'll give ye "--more battling--"a hundred and fifty dollars for him, if ye care to sell--"
"Here, wait a minute before you sell to that old skinflint!" Bud shouted exuberantly, dismounting with a rush. The rush, I may say, carried him to the little old lady in the slat sunbonnet, and to that other little lady who was staring at him with wide, bright yes. Bud's arms went around his mother. Perhaps by accident he gathered in Marian also--they were standing very close, and his arms were very long--and he was slow to discover his mistake.
"I'll give you two hundred for Boise, and I'll throw in one brother, and one long-legged, good-for-nothing cowpuncher--"
"Meaning yourself, Buddy?" came teasingly from he slat sunbonnet, whose occupant had not been told just everything. "I'll be surprised if she'll have you, with that dirty face and no shave for a week and more. But if she does, you're luckier than you deserve, for riding up on us like this! We've heard all about you, Buddy--though you were wise to send this lassie to gild your faults and make a hero of you!"
Now, you want to know how Marian managed to live through that. I will say that she discovered how tenaciously a young man's arms may cling when he thinks he is embracing merely his mother; but she freed herself and ran to Eddie, fairly pulled him off his horse, and talked very fast and incoherently to him and Jerry, asking question after question without waiting for a reply to any of them. All this, I suppose, in the hope that they would not hear, or, hearing, would not understand what that terrible, wonderful little woman was saying so innocently.
But you cannot faze youth. Eddie had important news for Sis, and he felt that now was the time to tell it before Marian blushed any redder, so he pulled her face up to his, put his lips so close to her ear that his breath tickled, and whispered--without any preface whatever that she could marry Bud any time now, because she was a widow.
"Here! Somebody--Bud--quick! Sis has fainted! Doggone it, I only told her Lew's dead and she can marry you--shucks! I thought she'd be glad!"
Down on the Staked Plains, on an evening much like the evening when Bud came home with his "stake" and his hopes and two black sheep who were becoming white as most of us, a camp-fire began to crackle and wave smoke ribbons this way and that before it burned steadily under the supper pots of a certain hungry, happy group which you know.
"It's somewhere about here that I got lost from camp when I was a kid," Bud observed, tilting back his hat and lifting a knee to snap a dry stick over it. "Mother'd know, I bet. I kinda wish we'd brought her and dad along with us. That's about eighteen years ago they trailed a herd north--and here we are, taking our trail--herd north on the same trail! I kinda wish now I'd picked up a bunch of yearling heifers along with our two-year-olds. We could have brought another hundred head just as well as not. They sure drive nice. Mother would have enjoyed this trip."
"You think so, do you?" Marian gave him a superior little smile along with the coffee-boiler. "If you'd heard her talk about that trip north when there weren't any men around listening, you'd change your mind. Bud Birnie, you are the simplest creature! You think, because a woman doesn't make a fuss over things, she doesn't mind. Your mother told me that it was a perfect nightmare. She taught you music just in the hope that you'd go back to civilization and live there where there are some modern improvements, and she could visit you! And here you are--all rapped up in a bunch of young stock, dirty as pig and your whiskers--ow! Bud! Stop that immediatly, or I'll go put my face in a cactus just for relief!"
"Maybe you're dissatisfied yourself with my bunch of cattle. Maybe you didn't go in raptures over our aim and make more plans in a day than four men could carry out in a year. Maybe you wish your husband was a man that was content to pound piano keys all his life and let his hair grow long instead of his whiskers. If you hate this, why didn't you say so?"
"I was speaking," said Marian as dignifiedly as was possible, "of your mother. She was raised in civilization, and she has simply made the best of pioneering all her married life. I was born and raised in cow-country and I love it. As I said before, you are the simplest creature! Would you really bring a father and mother a honeymoon trail--especially when the bride didn't want them, and they would much rather stay home?"
"Hey!" cried Eddie disgustedly, coming up from a shallow creek with a bucket of water and a few dry sticks. "The coffee's upset and putting the fire out. Gee whiz! Can't you folks quit love-makin' and tend to business long enough to cook a meal?"