Cow-Country by B.M. Bower
Chapter Five: Buddy Runs True to Type
One never could predict with any certainty how long Indians would dance before they actually took the trail of murder and pillage. So much depended upon the Medicine, so much on signs and portents. It was even possible that they might, for some mysterious reason unknown to their white neighbors, decide at the last moment to bide their time. The Tomahawk outfit worked from dawn until dark, and combed the foothills of the Snowies hurriedly, riding into the most frequented, grassy basins and wide canyons where the grass was lush and sweet and the mountain streams rushed noisily over rocks. As fast as the cattle were gathered they were pushed hastily toward the Platte, And though the men rode warily with rifles as handy as their ropes, they rode in peace.
Buddy, proud of his job, counting himself as good a man as any of them, became a small riding demon after rebellious saddle horses, herding them away from thick undergrowth that might, for all he knew, hold Indians waiting a chance to scalp him, driving the remuda close to the cabins when night fell, because no man could be spared for night herding, sleeping lightly as a cat beside a mouse hole. He did not say much, perhaps because everyone was too busy to talk, himself included.
Men rode in at night dog-weary, pulled their saddles and hurried stiffly to the cabin where Step-and-a-Half was showing his true worth as a cook who could keep the coffee- pot boiling and yet be ready to pack up and go at the first rifle-shot. They would bolt down enormous quantities of bannock and boiled beef, swallow their coffee hot enough to scald a hog, and stretch themselves out immediately to sleep.
Buddy would be up and on his horse in the clear starlight before dawn, with a cup of coffee swallowed to hearten him for the chilly ride after the remuda. Even with the warmth of the coffee his teeth would chatter just at first, and he would ride with his thin shoulders lifted and a hand in a pocket. He could not sing or whistle to keep himself company. He must ride in silence until he had counted every dark, moving shape and knew that the herd was complete, then ease them quietly to camp.
On the fourth morning he rode anxiously up the valley, fearing that the horses had been stolen in the night, yet hoping they had merely strayed up the creek to find fresh pastures. A light breeze that carried the keen edge of frost made his nose tingle. His horse trotted steadily forward, as keen on the trail as Buddy himself; keener, for he would be sure to give warning of danger. So they rounded a bend in the creek and came upon the scattered fringe of the remuda cropping steadily at the meadow grass there.
Bud circled them, glancing now and then at the ridge beyond the valley. It seemed somehow unnatural--lower, with the stars showing along its wooded crest in a row, as if there were no peaks. Then quite suddenly he knew that the ridge was the same, and that the stars he saw were little, breakfast camp-fires. His heart gave a jump when he realized how many little fires there were, and knew that the dance was over. The Indians had left the reservation and had crossed the ridge yesterday, and had camped there to wait for the dawn.
While he gathered his horses together he guessed how old Colorou had planned to catch the Tomahawk riders when they left camp and scattered, two by two, on "Circle." He had held his band well out of sight and sound of the Big Creek cabin, and if the horses had not strayed up the creek in the night he would have caught the white men off their guard.
Buddy looked often over his shoulder while he drove the horses down the creek. It seemed stranger than luck, that he had been compelled to ride so far on this particular morning; as if mother's steadfast faith in prayer and the guardianship of angels was justified by actual facts. Still, Buddy was too hard-headed to assume easily that angels had driven the horses up the creek so that he would have to ride up there and discover the Indian fires. If angels could do that, why hadn't they stopped Colorou from going on the warpath? It would have been simpler, in Buddy's opinion.
He did not mention the angel problem to his father, however. Bob Birnie was eating breakfast with his men when Buddy rode up to the cabin and told the news. The boys did not say anything much, but they may have taken bigger bites by way of filling their stomachs in less time than usual.
"I'll go see for myself," said Bob Birnie. "You boys saddle up and be ready to start. If it's Indians, we'll head for Laramie and drive everything before us as we go. But the lad may be wrong." He took the reins from Buddy, mounted, and rode away, his booted feet hanging far below Buddy's short stirrups.
Speedily he was back, and the scowl on his face told plainly enough that Buddy had not been mistaken.
"They're coming off the ridge already," he announced grimly. "I heard their horses among the rocks up there. They think to come down on us at sunrise. There'll be too many for us to hold off, I'm thinking. Get ye a fresh horse, Buddy, and drive the horses down the creek fast as ye can."
Buddy uncoiled his rope and ran with his mouth full to do as he was told. He did not think he was scared, exactly, but he made three throws to get the horse he wanted, blaming the poor light for his ill luck; and then found himself in possession of a tall, uneasy brown that Dick Grimes had broken and sometimes rode. Buddy would have turned him loose and caught another, but the horses had sensed the suppressed excitement of the men and were circling and snorting in the half light of dawn; so Buddy led out the brown, pulled the saddle from the sweaty horse that had twice made the trip up the creek, and heaved it hastily on the brown's back. Dick Grimes called to him, to know if he wanted any help, and Buddy yelled, "No!"
"Here they come--damn 'em--turn the bunch loose and ride!" called Bob Birnie as a shrill, yelling war-whoop, like the yapping of many coyotes, sounded from the cottonwoods that bordered the creek. "Yuh all right, Buddy?"
"Yeah--I'm a-comin'," shrilled Buddy, hastily looping the latigo. Just then the sharp staccato of rifle-shots mingled with the whooping of the Indians. Buddy was reaching for the saddle horn when the brown horse ducked and jerked loose. Before Buddy realized what was happening the brown horse, the herd and all the riders were pounding away down the valley, the men firing back at the cottonwoods.
In the dust and clamor of their departure Buddy stood perfectly still for a minute, trying to grasp the full significance of his calamity. Step-and-a-Half had packed hastily and departed ahead of them all. His father and the cowboys were watching the cottonwood grove many rods to Buddy's right and well in the background, and they would not glance his way. Even if they did they would not see him, and if they saw him it would be madness to ride back--though there was not a man among them who would not have wheeled in his tracks and returned for Buddy in the very face of Colorou and his band.
From the cottonwoods came the pound of galloping hoofs. "Angels nothing!" Cried Buddy in deep disgust and scuttled for the cabin.
The cabin, he knew as he ran, was just then the worst place in the world for a boy who wanted very much to go on living. Through its gaping doorway he saw a few odds and ends of food lying on the table, but he dared not stop long enough to get them. The Indians were thundering down to the corral, and as he rounded the cabin's corner he glanced back and saw the foremost riders whipping their horses on the trail of the fleeing white men. But some, he knew, would stop. Even the prospect of fresh scalps could not hold the greedy ones from prowling around a white man's dwelling place. There might be tobacco or whiskey left behind, or something with color or a shine to it. Buddy knew well the ways of Indians.
He made for the creek, thinking at first to hide somewhere in the brush along the bank. Then, fearing the brightening light of day and the wide space he must cross to reach the first fringe of brush, he stopped at a dugout cellar that had been built into the creek bank above high-water mark. There was a pole-and-dirt roof, and because the dirt sifted down between the poles whenever the wind blew--which was always--the place had been crudely sealed inside with split poles overlapping one another. The ceiling was more or less flat; the roof had a slight slope. In the middle of the tiny attic thus formed Buddy managed to worm his body through a hole in the gable next to the creek.
He wriggled back to the end next the cabin and lay there very flat and very quiet, peeping out through a half-inch crack, too wise in the ways of silence to hold his breath until he must heave a sigh to relieve his lungs. It was hard to breathe naturally and easily after that swift dash, but somehow he did it. An Indian had swerved and ridden behind the cabin, and was leaning and peering in all directions to see if anyone had remained. Perhaps he suspected an ambush; Buddy was absolutely certain that the fellow was looking for him, personally, and that he had seen, Buddy run toward the creek.
It was not a pleasant thought, and the fact that he knew that buck Indian by name, and had once traded him a jackknife for a beautifully tanned wolf skin for his mother, did not make it pleasanter. Hides-the-face would not let past friendliness stand in the way of a killing.
Presently Hides-the-face dismounted and tied his horse to a corner log of the cabin, and went inside with the others to see what he could find that could be eaten or carried off. Buddy saw fresh smoke issue from the stone chimney, and guessed that Step-and-a-Half had left something that could be cooked. It became evident, in the course of an hour or so, that his presence was absolutely unsuspected, and Buddy began to watch them more composedly, silently promising especial forms of punishment to this one and that one whom he knew. Most of them had been to the ranch many times, and he could have called to a dozen of them by name. They had sat in his father's cabin or stood immobile just within the door, and had listened while his mother played and sang for them. She had fed them cakes--Buddy remembered the good things which mother had given these despicable ones who were looting and gobbling and destroying like a drove of hogs turned loose in a garden, and the thought of her wasted kindness turned him sick with rage. Mother had believed in their friendliness. Buddy wished that mother could see them setting fire to the low, log stable and the corral, and swarming in and out of the cabin.
Painted for war they were, with red stripes across their foreheads, ribs outlined in red which, when they loosened their blankets as the sun warmed them, gave them a fantastic likeness to the skeletons Buddy wished they were; red stripes on their arms, the number showing their rank in the tribe; open-seated, buckskin breeches to their knees where they met the tightly wrapped leggings; moccasins laced snugly at the ankle--they were picturesque enough to any eyes but Buddy's. He saw the ghoulish greed in their eyes, heard it in their voices when they shouted to one another; and he hated them even more than he feared them.
Much that they said he understood. They were cursing the Tomahawk outfit, chiefly because the men had not waited there to be surprised and killed. They cursed his father in particular, and were half sorry that they had not ridden on in pursuit with the others. They hoped no white man would ride alive to Laramie. It made cheerful listening to Buddy, flat on his stomach in the roof of the dugout!
After a while, when the cabin had been gutted of everything it contained save the crude table and benches, a few Indians brought burning brands from the stable and set it afire. They were very busy inside and out, making sure that the flames took hold properly. Then, when the dry logs began to blaze and flames licked the edges of the roof, they stood back and watched it.
Buddy saw Hides-the-face glance speculatively toward the dugout, and slipped his hand back where he could reach his six-shooter. He felt pretty certain that they meant to demolish the dugout next, and he knew exactly what he meant to do. He had heard men at the posts talk of "selling their lives dearly ", and that is what he intended to do.
He was not going to be in too much of a hurry; he would wait until they actually began on the dugout--and when they were on the bank within a few feet of him, and he saw that there was no getting away from death, he meant to shoot five Indians, and himself last of all.
Tentatively he felt of his temple where he meant to place the muzzle of the gun when there was just one bullet left. It was so nice and smooth--he wondered if God would really help him out, if he said Our Father with a pure heart and with faith, as his mother said one must pray. He was slightly doubtful of both conditions, when he came to think of it seriously. This spring he had felt grown-up enough to swear a little at the horses, sometimes--and he was not sure that shooting the Indian that time would not be counted a crime by God, who loved all His creatures. Mother always stuck to it that Injuns were God's creatures--which brought Buddy squarely against the incredible assumption that God must love them. He did not in the least mean to be irreverent, but when he watched those painted bucks his opinion of God changed slightly. He decided that he himself was neither pure nor full of faith, and that he would not pray just yet. He would let God go ahead and do as He pleased about it; except that Buddy would never let those Indians get him alive, no matter what God expected.
Hides-the-face walked over toward the dugout. Buddy crooked his left arm and laid the gun barrel across it to get a "dead rest" and leave nothing to chance. Hides-the-face stared at the dugout, moved to one side--and the muzzle of the gun followed, keeping its aim directly at the left edge of his breastbone as outlined with the red paint. Hides-the-face craned, stepped into the path down the bank and passed out of range. Buddy gritted his teeth malevolently and waited, his ears strained to catch and interpret the meaning of every soft sound made by Hides-the-face's moccasins.
Hides-the-face cautiously pushed open the door of the cellar and looked in, standing for interminable minutes, as is the leisurely way of Indians when there is no great need of haste. Ruddy cautiously lowered his face and peered down like a mouse from the thatch, but he could not handily bring his gun to bear upon Hides-the-face, who presently turned back and went up the path, his shoulder-muscles moving snakishly under his brown skin as he climbed the bank.
Hides-the-face returned to the others and announced that there was a place where they could camp. Buddy could not hear all that he said, and Hides-the-face had his back turned so that not all of his signs were intelligible; but he gathered that these particular Indians had chosen or had been ordered to wait here for three suns, and that the cellar appealed to Hides-the-face as a shelter in case it stormed.
Buddy did not know whether to rejoice at the news or to mourn. They would not destroy the dugout, so he need not shoot himself, which was of course a relief. Still, three suns meant three days and nights, and the prospect of lying there on his stomach, afraid to move for that length of time, almost amounted to the same thing in the end. He did not believe that he could hold out that long, though of course he would try pretty hard.
All that day Buddy lay watching through the crack, determined to take any chance that came his way. None came. The Indians loitered in the shade, and some slept. But always two or three remained awake; and although they sat apparently ready to doze off at any minute, Buddy knew them too well to hope for such good luck. Two Indians rode in toward evening dragging a calf that had been overlooked in the roundup; and having improvidently burned the cabin, the meat was cooked over the embers which still smouldered in places where knots in the logs made slow fuel.
Buddy watched them hungrily, wondering how long it took to starve.
When it was growing dark he tried to keep in mind the exact positions of the Indians, and to discover whether a guard would be placed over the camp, or whether they felt safe enough to sleep without a sentinel. Hides-the-face he had long ago decided was in charge of the party, and Hides-the- face was seemingly concerned only with gorging himself on the half-roasted meat. Buddy hoped he would choke himself, but Hides-the-face was very good at gulping half-chewed hunks and finished without disaster.
Then he grunted something to someone in the dark, and there was movement in the group. Buddy ground his growing "second" teeth together, clenched his fist and said "Damn it!" three times in a silent crescendo of rage because he could neither see nor hear what took place; and immediately he repented his profanity, remembering that God could hear him. In Buddy's opinion, you never could be sure about God; He bestowed mysterious mercies and strange punishments, and His ways were past finding out. Buddy tipped his palms together and repeated all the prayers his mother had taught him and then, with a flash of memory, finished with "Oh, God, please!" just as mother had done long ago on the dry drive. After that he meditated uncomfortably for a few minutes and added in a faint whisper, "Oh, shucks! You don't want to pay any attention to a fellow cussing a little when he's mad. I could easy make that up if you helped me out some way."
Buddy believed afterwards that God yielded to persuasion and decided to give him a chance. For not more than five minutes passed when a far-off murmur grew to an indefinable roar, and the wind whooped down off the Snowies so fiercely that even the dugout quivered a little and rattled dirt down on Buddy through the poles just over his head.
At first this seemed an unlucky circumstance, for the Indians came down into the dugout for shelter, and now Buddy was afraid to breathe in the quiet intervals between the gusts. Just below him he could hear the occasional mutters of laconic sentences and grunted answers as the bucks settled themselves for the night, and he had a short, panicky spell of fearing that the poles would give way beneath him and drop him in upon them.
After a while--it seemed hours to Buddy--the wind settled down to a steady gale. The Indians, so far as he could determine, were all asleep in the cellar. And Buddy, setting his teeth hard together, began to slide slowly backward toward the opening through which he had crawled into the roof. When he had crawled in he had not noticed the springiness of the poles, but now his imagination tormented him with the sensation of sagging and swaying. When his feet pushed through the opening he had to grit his teeth to hold himself steady. It seemed as if someone were reaching up in the dark to catch him by the legs and pull him out. Nothing happened, however, and after a little he inched backward until he hung with his elbows hooked desperately inside the opening, his head and shoulders within and protesting with every nerve against leaving the shelter.
Buddy said afterwards that he guessed he'd have hung there until daylight, only he was afraid it was about time to change guard, and somebody might catch him. But he said he was scared to let go and drop, because it must have been pretty crowded in the cellar, and he knew the door was open, and some buck might be roosting outside handy to be stepped on. But he knew he had to do something, because if he ever went to sleep up in that place he'd snore, maybe; and anyway, he said, he'd rather run himself to death than starve to death. So he dropped.
It was two days after that when Buddy shuffled into a mining camp on the ridge just north of Douglas Pass. He was still on his feet, but they dragged like an old man's. He had walked twenty-five miles in two nights, going carefully, in fear of Indians. The first five miles he had waded along the shore of the creek, he said, in case they might pick up his tracks at the dugout and try to follow him. He had hidden himself like a rabbit in the brush through the day, and he had not dared shoot any meat, wherefore he had not eaten anything.
"I ain't as hungry as I was at first," He grinned tremulously. "But I guess I better--eat. I don' want--to lose the--habit--" Then he went slack and a man swearing to hide his pity picked him up in his arms and carried him into the tent.