Cow-Country by B.M. Bower
Chapter Eight: The Muleshoe
The riders of the Muleshoe outfit were eating breakfast when Bud rode past the long, low-roofed log cabin to the corral which stood nearest the clutter of stables and sheds. He stopped there and waited to see if his new boss was anywhere in sight and would come to tell him where to unpack his belongings. A sandy complexioned young man with red eyelids and no lashes presently emerged from the stable and came toward him, his mouth sagging loosely open, his eye; vacuous. He was clad in faded overalls turned up a foot at the bottom and showing frayed, shoddy trousers beneath and rusty, run- down shoes that proved he was not a rider. His hat was peppered with little holes, as if someone had fired a charge of birdshot at him and had all but bagged him.
The youth's eyes became fixed upon the guitar and mandolin cases roped on top of Sunfish's pack, and he pointed and gobbled something which had the sound speech without being intelligible. Bud cocked an ear toward him inquiringly, made nothing of the jumble and rode off to the cabin, leading Sunfish after him. The fellow might or might not be the idiot he looked, and he might or might not keep his hands off the pack. Bud was not going to take any chance.
He heard sounds within the cabin, but no one appeared until he shouted, "Hello!" twice. The door opened then and Bart Nelson put out his head, his jaws working over a mouthful of food that seemed tough.
"Oh, it's you. C'm awn in an' eat," he invited, and Bud dismounted, never guessing that his slightest motion had been carefully observed from the time he had forded the creek at the foot of the slope beyond the cabin.
Bart introduced him to the men by the simple method of waving his hand at the group around the table and saying, "Guess you know the boys. What'd yuh say we could call yuh?"
"Bud--ah--Birnie," Bud answered, swiftly weighing the romantic idea of using some makeshift name until he had made his fortune, and deciding against it. A false name might mean future embarrassment, and he was so far from home that his father would never hear of him anyway. But his hesitation served to convince every man there that Birnie was not his name, and that he probably had good cause for concealing his own. Adding that to Dirk Tracy's guess that he was from Jackson's Hole, the sum spelled outlaw.
The Muleshoe boys were careful not to seem curious about Bud's past. They even refrained from manifesting too much interest in the musical instruments until Bud himself took them out of their cases that evening and began tuning them. Then the half-baked, tongue-tied fellow came over and gobbled at him eagerly.
"Hen wants yuh to play something," a man they called Day interpreted. "Hen's loco on music. If you can sing and play both, Hen'll set and listen till plumb daylight and never move an eyewinker."
Bud looked up, smiled a little because Hen had no eyewinkers to move, and suddenly felt pity because a man could be so altogether unlikeable as Hen. Also because his mother's face stood vividly before him for an instant, leaving him with a queer tightening of the throat and the feeling that he had been rebuked. He nodded to Hen, laid down the mandolin and picked up the guitar, turned up the a string a bit, laid a booted and spurred foot across the other knee, plucked a minor chord sonorously and began abruptly:
"Yo' kin talk about you coons a-havin' trouble-- Well, Ah think Ah have enough-a of mah oh-own--"
Hen's high-pointed Adam's apple slipped up and down in one great gulp of ecstasy. He eased slowly down upon the edge of the bunk beside Bud and gazed at him fascinatedly, his lashless eyes never winking, his jaw dropped so that his mouth hung half open. Day nudged Dirk Tracy, who parted his droopy mustache and smiled his unlovely smile, lowering his left eyelid unnecessarily at Bud. The dimple in Bud's chin wrinkled as he bent his head and plunked the interlude with a swing that set spurred boots tapping the floor rhythmically.
"Bart, he's went and hired a show-actor, looks like." Dirk confided behind his hand to Shorty McGuire. "That's real singin', if yuh ask me!"
"Shut up!" grunted Shorty, and prodded Dirk into silence so that he would miss none of the song.
Since Buddy had left the pink-apron stage of his adventurous life behind him, singing songs to please other people had been as much a part of his life as riding and roping and eating and sleeping. He had always sung or played or danced when he was asked to do so--accepting without question his mother's doctrine that it was unkind and ill-bred to refuse when he really could do those things well, because on the cattle ranges indoor amusements were few, and those who could furnish real entertainment were fewer. Even at the University, coon songs and Irish songs and love songs had been his portion; wherefore his repertoire seemed endless, and if folks insisted upon it he could sing from dark to dawn, providing his voice held out.
Hen sat with his big-jointed hands hanging loosely over his knees and listened, stared at Bud and grinned vacuously when one song was done, gulped his Adam's apple and listened again as raptly to the next one. The others forgot all about having fun watching Hen, and named old favorites and new ones, heard them sung inimitably and called for more. At midnight Bud blew on his blistered fingertips and shook the guitar gently, bottom-side up.
"I guess that's all the music there is in the darned thing to-night," he lamented. "She's made to keep time, and she always strikes, along about midnight."
"Huh-huh!" chortled Hen convulsively, as if he understood the joke. He closed his mouth and sighed deeply, as one who has just wakened from a trance.
After that, Hen followed Bud around like a pet dog, and found time between stable chores to groom those astonished horses, Stopper and Smoky and Sunfish, as if they were stall-kept thoroughbreds. He had them coming up to the pasture gate every day for the few handfuls of grain he purloined for them, and their sleekness was a joy to behold.
"Hen, he's adopted yuh, horses and all, looks like," Dirk observed one day to Bud when they were riding together. And he tempered the statement by adding that Hen was trusty enough, even if he didn't have as much sense as the law allows. "He sure is takin' care of them cayuses of your'n. D'you tell him to?"
Bud came out of a homesick revery and looked at him inquiringly. "No, I didn't tell him anything."
"I believe that, all right," Dirk retorted. "You don't go around tellin' all yuh know. I like that in a feller. A man never got into trouble yet by keepin' his mouth shut; but there's plenty that have talked themselves into the pen. Me, I've got no use for a talker."
Bud sent him a sidelong glance of inquiry, and Dirk caught him at it and grinned.
"Yuh been here a month, and you ain't said a damn word about where you come from or anything further back than throwin' and tyin' that critter. You said cow-country, and that has had to do some folks that might be curious. Well, she's a tearin' big place--cow-country. She runs from Canady to Mexico, and from the corn belt to the Pacific Ocean, mighty near takes in Jackson's Hole, and a lot uh country I know." He parted his mustache and spat carefully into the sand. "I'm willin' to tie to a man, specially a young feller, that can play the game the way you been playin' it, Bud. Most always," he complained vaguely, "they carry their brand too damn main. They either pull their hats down past their eyebrows and give everybody the bad eye, or else they're too damn ready to lie about themselves. You throw in with the boys just fine--but you ain't told a one of 'em where you come from, ner why, ner nothin'."
"I'm here because I'm here," Bud chanted softly, his eyes stubborn even while he smiled at Dirk.
"I know--yuh sung that the first night yuh come, and yuh looked straight at the boss all the while you was singin' it," Dirk interrupted, and laughed slyly. "The boys, they took that all in, too. And Bart, he wasn't asleep, neither. You sure are smooth as they make 'em, Bud. I guess," he leaned closer to predict confidentially, "you've just about passed the probation time, young feller. If I know the signs, the boss is gittin' ready to raise yuh."
He looked at Bud rather sharply. Instantly the training of Buddy rose within Bud. His memory flashed back unerringly to the day when he had watched that Indian gallop toward the river, and had sneered because the Indian evidently expected him to follow into the undergrowth.
Dirk Tracy did not in the least resemble an Indian, nor did his rambling flattery bear any likeness to a fleeing enemy; yet it was plain enough that he was trying in a bungling way to force Bud's confidence, and for that reason Bud stared straight ahead and said nothing.
He did not remember having sung that particular ditty during his first evening at the Muleshoe, nor of staring at the boss while he sung. He might have done both, he reflected; he had sung one song after another for about four hours that night, and unless he sang with his eyes shut he would have to look somewhere. That it should be taken by the whole outfit as a broad hint to ask no questions seemed to him rather farfetched.
Nor did he see why Dirk should compliment him on keeping his mouth shut, or call him smooth. He did not know that he had been on probation, except perhaps as that applied to his ability as a cow-hand. And he could see no valid reason why the boss should contemplate "raising" him. So far, he had been doing no more than the rest of the boys, except when there was roping to be done and he and Stopper were called upon to distinguish themselves by fast rope-work, with never a miss. Sixty dollars a month was as good pay as he had any right to expect.
Dirk, he decided, had given him one good tip which he would follow at once. Dirk had said that no man ever got into trouble by keeping his mouth shut. Bud closed his for a good half hour, and when he opened it again he undid all the good he had accomplished by his silence.
"Where does that trail go, that climbs up over the mountains back of that peak?" he asked. "Seems to be a stock trail. Have you got grazing land beyond the mountains?"
Dirk took time to pry off a fresh chew of tobacco before he replied. "You mean Thunder Pass? That there crosses over into the Black Rim country. Yeah--There's a big wide range country over there, but we don't run any stock on it. Burroback Valley's big enough for the Muleshoe."
Bud rolled a cigarette. "I didn't mean that main trail; that's a wagon road, and Thunder Pass cuts through between Sheepeater peak and this one ahead of us--Gospel, you call it. What I referred to is that blind trail that takes off up the canyon behind the corrals, and crosses into the mountains the other side of Gospel."
Dirk eyed him. "I dunno 's I could say, right offhand, what trail yuh mean," he parried. "Every canyon 's got a trail that runs up a ways, and there's canyons all through the mountains; they all lead up to water, or feed, or something like that, and then quit, most gen'rally; jest peter out, like." And he added with heavy sarcasm, "A feller that's lived on the range oughta know what trails is for, and how they're made. Cowcritters are curious-same as humans."
To this Bud did not reply. He was smoking and staring at the brushy lower slopes of the mountain ridge before them. He had explained quite fully which trail he meant. It was, as he had said, a "blind" trail; that is, the trail lost itself in the creek which watered a string of corrals. Moreover, Bud had very keen eyes, and he had seen how a panel of the corral directly across the shale-rock bed of a small stream was really a set of bars. The round pole corral lent itself easily to hidden gateways, without any deliberate attempt at disguising their presence.
The string of four corrals running from this upper one-- which, he remembered, was not seen from nearer the stables- was perhaps a convenient arrangement in the handling of stock, although it was unusual. The upper corral had been built to fit snugly into a rocky recess in the base of the peak called Gospel. It was larger than some of the others, since it followed the contour of the basin-like recess. Access to it was had from the fourth corral (which from the ranch appeared to be the last) and from the creekbed that filled the narrow mouth of the canyon behind.
Dirk might not have understood him, Bud thought. He certainly should have recognized at once the trail Bud meant, for there was no other canyon back of the corrals, and even that one was not apparent to one looking at the face of the steep slope. Stock had been over that canyon trail within the last month or so, however; and Bud's inference that the Muleshoe must have grazing ground across the mountains was natural; the obvious explanation of its existence.
"How 'd you come to be explorin' around Gospel, anyway?" Dirk quizzed finally. "A person'd think, short-handed as the Muleshoe is this spring, 't you'd git all the ridin' yuh want without prognosticatin' around aimless."
Now Bud was not a suspicious young man, and he had been no more than mildly inquisitive about that trail. But neither was he a fool; he caught the emphasis which Dirk had placed on the word aimless, and his thoughts paused and took another look at Dirk's whole conversation. There was something queer about it, something which made Bud sheer off from his usual unthinking assurance that things were just what they seemed.
Immediately, however, he laughed--at himself as well as at Dirk.
"We've been feeding on sour bread and warmed-over coffee ever since the cook disappeared and Bart put Hen in the kitchen," he said. "If I were you, Dirk, I wouldn't blister my hands shovelling that grub into myself for a while. You're bilious, old-timer. No man on earth would talk the way you've been talking to-day unless his whole digestive apparatus were out of order."
Dirk spat angrily at a dead sage bush. "They shore as hell wouldn't talk the kinda talk you've been talkie' unless they was a born fool or else huntin' trouble," he retorted venomously.
"The doctor said I'd be that way if I lived," Bud grinned, amiably, although his face had flushed at Dirk's tone. "He said it wouldn't hurt me for work."
"Yeah--and what kinda work?" Dirk rode so close that his horse shouldered Bud's leg discomfortingly. "I been edgin' yuh along to see what-f'r brand yuh carried. And I've got ye now, you damned snoopin' kioty. Bart, he hired yuh to work- and not to go prowling around lookin' up trails that ain't there--"
"You're a dim-brand reader, I don't think! Why you--!"
Oh, well--remember that Bud was only Buddy grown bigger, and he had never lacked the spirit to look out for himself. Remember, too, that he must have acquired something of a vocabulary, in the course of twenty-one years of absorbing everything that came within his experience.
Dirk reached for his gun, but Bud was expecting that. Dirk was not quite quick enough, and his hand therefore came forward with a jerk when he saw that he was "covered." Bud leaned, pulled Dirk's six-shooter from its holster and sent it spinning into a clump of bushes. He snatched a wicked-looking knife from Dirk's boot where he had once seen Dirk slip it sheathed when he dressed in the bunk-house, and sent that after the gun.
"Now, you long-eared walrus, you're in a position to play fair. What are you going to do about it?" He reined away, out of Dirk's reach, took his handkerchief and wrapped his own gun tightly to protect it from sand, and threw it after Dirk's gun and the knife. "Am I a snooping coyote?" he demanded watching Dirk.
"You air. More 'n all that, you're a damned spy! And I kin lick yuh an' lass' yuh an' lead yuh to Bart like a sheep!"
They dismounted, left their horses to stand with reins dropped, threw off their coats and fought until they were too tired to land another blow. There were no fatalities. Bud did not come out of the fray unscathed and proudly conscious of his strength and his skill and the unquestionable righteousness of his cause. Instead he had three bruised knuckles and a rapidly swelling ear, and when his anger had cooled a little he felt rather foolish and wondered what had started them off that way. They had ridden away from the ranch in a very good humor, and he had harbored no conscious dislike of Dirk Tracy, who had been one individual of a type of rangemen which he had known all his life and had accepted as a matter of course.
Dirk, on his part, had some trouble in stopping the bleeding of his nose, and by the time he reached the ranch his left eye was closed completely. He was taller and heavier than Bud, and he had not expected such a slugging strength behind Bud's blows.
He was badly shaken, and when Bud recovered the two guns and the knife and returned his weapons to him, Dirk was half tempted to shoot. But he did not--perhaps because Bud had unwrapped his own six-shooter and was looking it over with the muzzle slanting a wicked eye in Dirk's direction.
Late that afternoon, when the boys were loafing around the cabin waiting for their early supper, Bud packed his worldly goods on Sunfish and departed from the Muleshoe--"by special request", he admitted to himself ruefully--with his wages in gold and silver in his pocket and no definite idea of what he would do next.
He wished he knew exactly why Bart had fired him. He did not believe that it was for fighting, as Bart had declared. He thought that perhaps Dirk Tracy had some hold on the Muleshoe not apparent to the outsider, and that he had lied about him to Bart as a sneaking kind of revenge for being whipped. But that explanation did not altogether satisfy him, either.
In his month at the Muleshoe he had gained a very fair general idea of the extent and resources of Burroback Valley, but he had not made any acquaintances and he did not know just where to go for his next job. So for want of something better, he rode down to the little stream which he now knew was called One Creek, and prepared to spend the night there. In the morning he would make a fresh start--and because of the streak of stubbornness he had, he meant to make it in Burroback Valley, under the very nose of the Muleshoe outfit.