Chapter Seven: Bud Flips a Coin with Fate
 

"I don't think it matters so much where we light, it's what we do when we get there," said Bud to Smoky, his horse, one day as they stopped where two roads forked at the base of a great, outstanding peak that was but the point of a mountain range. "This trail straddles the butte and takes on up two different valleys. It's all cow-country--so what do yuh say, Smoke? Which trail looks the best to you?"

Smoky flopped one ear forward and the other one back, and switched at a pestering fly. Behind him Sunfish and Stopper waited with the patience they had learned in three weeks of continuous travel over country that was rough in spots, barren in places, with wind and sun and occasional, sudden thunderstorms to punctuate the daily grind of travel.

Bud drew a half dollar from his pocket and regarded it meditatively. "They're going fast--we'll just naturally have to stop pretty soon, or we don't eat," He observed. "Smoke, you're a quitter. What you want to do is go back--but you won't get the chance. Heads, we take the right hand trail. I like it better, anyway--it angles more to the north."

Heads it was, and Bud leaned from the saddle and recovered the coin, Smoky turning his head to regard his rider tolerantly. "Right hand goes--and we camp at the first good water and grass. I can grain the three of you once more before we hit a town, and that goes for me, too. G'wan, Smoke, and don't act so mournful."

Smoky went on, following the trail that wound in and out around the butte, hugging close its sheer sides to avoid a fifty-foot drop into the creek below. It was new country--Bud had never so much as seen a map of it to give him a clue to what was coming. The last turn of the deep-rutted, sandy road where it left the river's bank and led straight between two humpy shoulders of rock to the foot of a platter-shaped valley brought him to a halt again in sheer astonishment.

From behind a low hill still farther to the right, where the road forked again, a bluish haze of smoke indicated that there was a town of some sort, perhaps. Farther up the valley a brownish cloud hung low-a roundup, Bud knew at a glance. He hesitated. The town, if it were a town, could wait; the roundup might not. And a job he must have soon, or go hungry. He turned and rode toward the dust-cloud, came shortly to a small stream and a green grass-plot, and stopped there long enough to throw the pack off Sunfish, unsaddle Smoky and stake them both out to graze. Stopper he saddled, then knelt and washed his face, beat the travel dust off his hat, untied his rope and coiled it carefully, untied his handkerchief and shook it as clean as he could and knotted it closely again. One might have thought he was preparing to meet a girl; but the habit of neatness dated back to his pink-apron days and beyond, the dirt and dust meant discomfort.

When he mounted Stopper and loped away toward the dust-cloud, he rode hopefully, sure of himself, carrying his range credentials in his eyes, in his perfect saddle-poise, in the tan on his face to his eyebrows, and the womanish softness of his gloved hands, which had all the sensitive flexibility of a musician.

His main hope was that the outfit was working short-handed; and when he rode near enough to distinguish the herd and the riders, he grinned his satisfaction.

"Good cow-country, by the look of that bunch of cattle," He observed to himself. "And eight men is a small crew to work a herd that size. I guess I'll tie onto this outfit. Stopper, you'll maybe get a chance to turn a cow this afternoon."

Just how soon the chance would come, Bud had not realized. He had no more than come within shouting distance of the herd when a big, rollicky steer broke from the milling cattle and headed straight out past him, running like a deer. Stopper, famed and named for his prowess with just such cattle, wheeled in his tracks and lengthened his stride to a run.

"Tie 'im down!" someone yelled behind Bud. And "Catch 'im and tie 'im down!" shouted another.

For answer Bud waved his hand, and reached in his pocket for his knife. Stopper was artfully circling the steer, forcing it back toward the herd, and in another hundred yards or so Bud must throw his loop He sliced off a saddle-string and took it between his teeth, jerked his rope loose, flipped open the loop as Stopper raced up alongside, dropped the noose neatly, and took his turns while Stopper planted his forefeet and braced himself for the shock. Bud's right leg was over the cantle, all his weight on the left stirrup when the jerk came and the steer fell with a thump. By good luck-- so Bud afterwards asserted--he was off and had the steer tied before it had recovered its breath to scramble up. He remounted, flipped off the loop and recoiled his rope while he went jogging up to meet a rider coming out to him.

If he expected thanks for what he had done, he must have received a shock. Other riders had left their posts and were edging up to hear what happened, and Bud reined up in astonishment before the most amazing string of unseemly epithets he had ever heard. It began with: "What'd you throw that critter for?"--which of course is putting it mildly--and ended in a choked phrase which one man may not use to another's face and expect anything but trouble afterwards.

Bud unbuckled his gun and hung the belt on his saddle horn, and dismounted. "Get off your horse and take the damnedest licking you ever had in your life, for that!" He invited vengefully. "You told me to tie down that steer, and I tied him down. You've got no call to complain--and there isn't a man on earth I'll take that kinda talk from. Crawl down, you parrot-faced cow-eater--and leave your gun on the saddle."

The man remained where he was and looked Bud over uncertainly. "Who are you, and where'd yuh come from?" he demanded more calmly. "I never saw yuh before."

"Well, I never grew up with your face before me, either!" Bud snapped. "If I had I'd probably be cross-eyed by now. You called me something! Get off that horse or I'll pull you off!"

"Aw, yuh don't want to mind--" began a tall, lean man pacifically; but he of the high nose stopped him with a wave of the hand, his eyes still measuring the face, the form and the fighting spirit of one Bud Birnie, standing with his coat off, quivering with rage.

"I guess I'm in the wrong, young fellow--I did holler 'Tie 'im down.' But if you'd ever been around this outfit any you 'd have known I didn't mean it literal." He stopped and suddenly he laughed. "I've been yellin' 'Tie 'im down' for two years and more, when a critter breaks outa the bunch, and nobody was ever fool enough to tackle it before. "It's just a sayin' we've got, young man. We--"

"What about the name you called me?" Bud was still advancing slowly, not much appeased by the explanation. "I don't give a darn about the steer. You said tie him, and he's tied. But when you call me--"

"My mistake, young feller. When I get riled up I don't pick my words." He eyed Bud sharply. "You're mighty quick to obey orders," He added tentatively.

"I was brought up to do as I'm told, "Bud retorted stiffly. "Any objections to make?"

"Not one in the world. Wish there was more like yuh. You ain't been in these parts long?"His tone made a question of the statement.

"Not right here." Bud had no reason save his temper for not giving more explicit information, but Bart Nelson--as Bud knew him afterwards--continued to study him as if he suspected a blotched past.

"Hunh. That your horse?"

"I've got a bill of sale for him."

"You don't happen to be wanting a job, I s'pose?"

"I wouldn't refuse to take one." And then the twinkle came back to Bud's eyes, because all at once the whole incident struck him as being rather funny. "I'd want a boss that expected to have his orders carried out, though. I lack imagination, and I never did try to read a man's mind. What he says he'd better mean--when he says it to me."

Bart Nelson gave a short laugh, turned and sent his riders back to their work with oaths tingling their ears. Bud judged that cursing was his natural form of speech.

"Go let up that steer, and I'll put you to work," he said to Bud afterwards. "That's a good rope horse you're riding. If you want to use him, and if you can hold up to that little sample of roping yuh gave us, I'll pay yuh sixty a month. And that's partly for doing what you're told," he added with a quick look into Bud's eyes. "You didn't say where you're from----"

"I was born and raised in cow-country, and nobody's looking for me," Bud informed him over his shoulder while he remounted, and let it go at that. From southern Wyoming to Idaho was too far, he reasoned, to make it worth while stating his exact place of residence. If they had never heard of the Tomahawk outfit it would do no good to name it. If they had heard of it, they would wonder why the son of so rich a cowman as Bob Birnie should be hiring out as a common cowpuncher so far from home. He had studied the matter on his way north, and had decided to let people form their own conclusions. If he could not make good without the name of Bob Birnie behind him, the sooner he found it out the better.

He untied the steer, drove it back into the herd and rode over to where the high-nosed man was helping hold the "Cut."

"Can you read brands? We're cuttin' out AJ and AJBar stuff; left ear-crop on the AJ, and undercut on the AJBar."

Bud nodded and eased into the herd, spied an AJ two-year-old and urged it toward the outer edge, smiling to himself when he saw how Stopper kept his nose close to the animal's rump. Once in the milling fringe of the herd, Stopper nipped it into the open, rushed it to the cut herd, wheeled and went back of his own accord. From the corner of his eye, as he went, Bud saw that Bart Nelson and one or two others were watching him. They continued to eye him covertly while he worked the herd with two other men. He was glad that he had not travelled far that day, and that he had ridden Smoky and left Stopper fresh and eager for his favorite pastime, which was making cattle do what they particularly did not want to do. In that he was adept, and it pleased Bud mightily to see how much attention Stopper was attracting.

Not once did it occur to him that it might be himself who occupied the thoughts of his boss. Buddy--afterwards Bud--had lived his whole life among friends, his only enemies the Indians who preyed upon the cowmen. White men he had never learned to distrust, and to be distrusted had never been his portion. He had always been Bud Birnie, son and heir of Bob Birnie, as clean-handed a cattle king as ever recorded a brand. Even at the University his position had been accepted without question. That the man he mentally called Parrotface was puzzled and even worried about him was the last thing he would think of.

But it was true. Bart Nelson watched Bud, that afternoon. A man might ride up to Bart and assert that he was an old hand with cattle, and Bart would say nothing, but set him to work, as he had Bud. Then he would know just how old a "Hand" the fellow was. Fifteen minutes convinced him that Bud had "growed up in the saddle", as he would have put it. But that only mystified him the more. Bart knew the range, and he knew every man in the country, from Burroback Valley, which was this great valley's name, to the Black Rim, beyond the mountain range, and beyond the Black Rim to the Sawtooth country. He knew their ways and he knew their past records.

He knew that this young fellow came from farther ranges, and he would have been at a loss to explain just how he knew it. He would have said that Bud did not have the "earmarks" of an Idaho rider. Furthermore, the small Tomahawk brand on the left flank of the horse Bud rode was totally unknown to Bart. Yet the horse did not bear the marks of long riding. Bud himself looked as if he had just ridden out from some nearby ranch--and he had refused to say where he was from.

Bart swore under his breath and beckoned to him a droopy- mustached, droopy-shouldered rider who was circling the herd in a droopy, spiritless manner and chewing tobacco with much industry.

"Dirk, you know brands from the Panhandle to Cypress Hills. What d' yuh make of that horse? Where does he come from?" Bart stopped abruptly and rode forward then to receive and drive farther back a galloping AJBar cow which Bud and Stopper had just hazed out of the herd. Dirk squinted at Stopper's brand which showed cleanly in the glossy, new hair of early summer. He spat carefully with the wind and swung over to meet his boss when the cow was safely in the cut herd.

"New one on me, Bart. They's a hatchet brand over close to Jackson's Hole, somewhere. Where'd the kid say he was from?"

"He wouldn't say, but he's a sure-enough cowhand."

"That there horse ain't been rode down on no long journey," Dirk volunteered after further scrutiny. And he added with the unconscious impertinence of an old and trusted employee, "Yuh goin' to put him on?"

"Already done it--sixty a month," Bart confided. "That'll bring out what's in him; he's liable to turn out good for the outfit. Showed he'll do what he's told first, and think it over afterwards. I like that there trait in a man."

Dirk pulled his droopy mustache away from his lips as if he wanted to make sure that his smile would show; though it was not a pretty smile, on account of his tobacco-stained teeth.

"'S your fun'ral, Bart. I'd say he's from Jackson's Hole, on a rough guess--but I wouldn't presume to guess what he's here fur. Mebby he come across from Black Rim. I can find out, if you say so."

Bud was weaving in and out through the herd, scanning the animals closely. While the two talked he singled out a yearling heifer, let Stopper nose it out beyond the bunch and drove it close to the boss.

"Better look that one over," He called out. "One way, it looks like AJ, and another way I couldn't name it. And the ear looks as if about half of it had been frozen off. Didn't want to run it into the cut until you passed on it."

Bart looked first at Bud, and he looked hard. Then he rode over and inspected the yearling, Dirk close at his heels.

"Throw 'er back with the bunch," He ordered.

"That finishes the cut, then," Bud announced, rubbing his hand along Stopper's sweaty neck. "I kept passing this critter up, and I guess the other boys did the same. But it's the last one, and I thought I'd run her out for you to look over."

Bart grunted. "Dirk, you take a look and see if they've got 'em all. And you, Kid, can help haze the cut up the Flat--the boys'll show you what to do."

Bud, remembering Smoky and Sunfish and his camp, hesitated. "I've got a camp down here by the creek," He said. "If it's all the same to you, I'll report for work in the morning, if you'll tell me where to head for. And I'll have to arrange somehow to pasture my horses; I've got a couple more at camp."

Bart studied him for a minute, and Bud thought he was going to change his mind about the job, or the sixty dollars a month. But Bart merely told him to ride on up the Flat next morning, and take the first trail that turned to the left. "The Muleshoe ranch is up there agin that pine mountain," he explained. "Bring along your outfit. I guess we can take care of a couple of horses, all right."

That suited Bud very well, and he rode away thinking how lucky he was to have taken the right fork in the road, that day. He had ridden straight into a job, and while he was not very enthusiastic over the boss, the other boys seemed all right, and the wages were a third more than he had expected to get just at first. It was the first time, he reminded himself, that he had been really tempted to locate, and he certainly had struck it lucky.

He did not know that when he left the roundup his going had been carefully noted, and that he was no sooner out of sight than Dirk Tracy was riding cautiously on his trail. While he fed his horses the last bit of grain he had, and cooked his supper over what promised to be his last camp-fire, he did not dream that the man with the droopy mustache was lying amongst the bushes on the other bank of the creek, watching every move he made.

He meant to be up before daylight so that he could strike the ranch of the Muleshoe outfit in time for breakfast, wherefore he went to bed before the afterglow had left the mountain- tops around him. And being young and carefree and healthfully weary, he was asleep and snoring gently within five minutes of his last wriggle into his blankets. But Dirk Tracy watched him for fully two hours before he decided that the kid was not artfully pretending, but was really asleep and likely to remain so for the night

Dirk was an extremely cautious man, but he was also tired, and the cold food he had eaten in place of a hot supper had not been satisfying to his stomach. He crawled carefully out of the brush, stole up the creek to where he had left his horse, and rode away.

He was not altogether sure that he had done his full duty to the Muleshoe, but it was against human nature for a man nearing forty to lie uncovered in the brush, and let a numerous family of mosquitoes feed upon him while he listened to a young man snoring comfortably in a good camp bed a hundred feet away.

Dirk, because his conscience was not quite clear, slept in the stable that night and told his boss a lie next morning.