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An Ambitious Man-child Was Buddy








From: Cow-country

In hot mid afternoon when the acrid, gray dust cloud kicked up by the
listless plodding of eight thousand cloven hoofs formed the only blot on
the hard blue above the Staked Plains, an ox stumbled and fell awkwardly
under his yoke, and refused to scramble up when his negro driver shouted
and prodded him with the end of a willow gad.

"Call your master, Ezra," directed a quiet woman voice gone weary and
toneless with the heat and two restless children. "Don't beat the poor
brute. He can't go any farther and carry the yoke, much less pull the
wagon."

Ezra dropped the gad and stepped upon the wagon tongue where he might
squint into the dust cloud and decide which gray, plodding horseman
alongside the herd was Robert Birnie. Far across the sluggish river of
grimy backs, a horse threw up its head with a peculiar sidelong motion,
and Ezra's eyes lightened with recognition. That was the colt, Rattler,
chafing against the slow pace he must keep. Hands cupped around big,
chocolate-colored lips and big, yellow-white teeth, Ezra whoo-ee-ed the
signal that called the nearest riders to the wagon that held the boss's
family.

Bob Birnie and another man turned and came trotting back, and at the
call a scrambling youngster peered over his mother's shoulder in the
forward opening of the prairie schooner.

"O-oh, Dulcie! We gonna git a wile cow agin!"

Dulcie was asleep and did not answer, and the woman in the slat
sun-bonnet pushed back with her elbow the eager, squirming body of her
eldest. "Stay in the wagon, Buddy. Mustn't get down amongst the oxen.
One might kick you. Lie down and take a nap with sister. When you waken
it will be nice and cool again."

"Not s'eepy!" objected Buddy for the twentieth time in the past two
hours. But he crawled back, and his mother, relieved of his restless
presence, leaned forward to watch the approach of her husband and the
cowboy. This was the second time in the past two days that an ox had
fallen exhausted, and her eyes showed a trace of anxiety. With the feed
so poor and the water so scarce, it seemed as though the heavy wagon,
loaded with a few household idols too dear to leave behind, a camp
outfit and the necessary clothing and bedding for a woman and two
children, was going to be a real handicap on the drive.

"Robert, if we had another wagon, I could drive it and make the load
less for these four oxen," she suggested when her husband came up. "A
lighter wagon, perhaps with one team of strong horses, or even with a
yoke of oxen, I could drive well enough, and relieve these poor brutes."
She pushed back her sun-bonnet and with it a mass of red-brown hair that
curled damply on her forehead, and smiled disarmingly. "Buddy would be
the happiest baby boy alive if I could let him drive now and then!" she
added humorously.

"Can't make a wagon and an extra yoke of oxen out of this cactus patch,"
Bob Birnie grinned good humoredly. "Not even to tickle Buddy. I'll see
what I can do when we reach Olathe. But you won't have to take a man's
place and drive, Lassie." He took the cup of water she drew from a keg
and proffered-water was precious on the Staked Plains, that season-and
his eyes dwelt on her fondly while he drank. Then, giving her hand a
squeeze when he returned the cup, he rode back to scan the herd for an
animal big enough and well-conditioned enough to supplant the worn-out
ox.

"Aren't you thirsty, Frank Davis? I think a cup of water will do you
good," she called out to the cowboy, who had dismounted to tighten his
forward cinch in expectation of having to use his rope.

The cowboy dropped stirrup from saddle horn and came forward
stiff-leggedly, leading his horse. His sun-baked face, grimed with the
dust of the herd, was aglow with heat, and his eyes showed gratitude.
A cup of water from the hand of the boss's wife was worth a gallon from
the barrel slip-slopping along in the lurching chuck-wagon.

"How's the kids makin' out, Mis' Birnie?" Frank inquired politely when
he had swallowed the last drop and had wiped his mouth with the back of
his hand. "It's right warm and dusty t'day."

"They're asleep at last, thank goodness," she answered, glancing back
at a huddle of pink calico that showed just over the crest of a pile
of crumpled quilts. "Buddy has a hard time of it. He's all man in his
disposition, and all baby in size. He's been teasing to walk with the
niggers and help drive the drag. Is my husband calling?"

Her husband was, and Frank rode away at a leisurely trot. Haste had
little to do with trailing a herd, where eight miles was called a good
day's journey and six an average achievement. The fallen ox was unyoked
by the mellow-voiced but exasperated Ezra, and since he would not rise,
the three remaining oxen, urged by the gad and Ezra's upbraiding,
swung the wagon to one side and moved it a little farther after the
slow-moving herd, so that the exhausted animal could rest, and the
raw recruit be yoked in where he could do the least harm and would the
speediest learn a new lesson in discomfort. Mrs. Birnie glanced again
at the huddle of pink in the nest of quilts behind a beloved chest of
drawers in the wagon, and sighed with relief because Buddy slept.

An ambitious man-child already was Buddy, accustomed to certain phrases
that, since he could toddle, had formed inevitable accompaniment to his
investigative footsteps. "L'k-out-dah!" he had for a long time believed
to be his name among the black folk of his world. White folk had varied
it slightly. He knew that "Run-to-mother-now" meant that something he
would delight in but must not watch was going to take place. Spankings
more or less official and not often painful signified that big folks did
not understand him and his activities, or were cross about something.
Now, mother did not want him to watch the wild cow run and jump at the
end of a rope until finally forced to submit to the ox-yoke and help
pull the wagon. Buddy loved to watch them, but he understood that mother
was afraid the wild cow might step on him. Why she should want him to
sleep when he was not sleepy he had not yet discovered, and so disdained
to give it serious consideration.

"Not s'eepy," Buddy stated again emphatically as a sort of mental
dismissal of the command, and crawled carefully past Sister and lifted a
flap of the canvas cover. A button--the last button--popped off his pink
apron and the sleeves rumpled down over his hands. It felt all loose and
useless, so Buddy stopped long enough to pull the apron off and throw
it beside Sister before he crawled under the canvas flap and walked down
the spokes of a rear wheel. He did not mean to get in the way of the
wild cow, but he did want action for his restless legs. He thought that
if he went away from the wagon and the herd and played while they were
catching the wild cow, it would be just the same as if he took a nap.
Mother hadn't thought of it, or she might have suggested it.

So Buddy went away from the wagon and down into a shallow dry wash where
the wild cow would not come, and played. The first thing he saw was
a scorpion-nasty old bug that will bite hard-and he threw rocks at it
until it scuttled under a ledge out of sight. The next thing he saw that
interested him at all was a horned toad; a hawn-toe, he called it, after
Ezra's manner of speaking. Ezra had caught a hawntoe for him a few days
ago, but it had mysteriously disappeared out of the wagon. Buddy did
not connect his mother's lack of enthusiasm with the disappearance. Her
sympathy with his loss had seemed to him real, and he wanted another,
fully believing that in this also mother would be pleased. So he took
after this particular HAWN-toe, that crawled into various hiding places
only to be spied and routed out with small rocks and a sharp stick.

The dry wash remained shallow, and after a while Buddy, still in hot
pursuit of the horned toad, emerged upon the level where the herd had
passed. The wagon was nowhere in sight, but this did not disturb Buddy.
He was not lost. He knew perfectly that the brown cloud on his narrowed
horizon was the dust over the herd, and that the wagon was just behind,
because the wind that day was blowing from the southwest, and also
because the oxen did not walk as fast as the herd. In the distance he
saw the "Drag" moving lazily along after the dust-cloud, with barefooted
niggers driving the laggard cattle and singing dolefully as they walked.
Emphatically Buddy was not lost.

He wanted that particular horned toad, however, and he kept after it
until he had it safe in his two hands.

It happened that when he pounced at last upon the toad he disturbed
with his presence a colony of red ants on moving day. The close ranks
of them, coming and going in a straight line, caught and held Buddy's
attention to the exclusion of everything else--save the horned toad
he had been at such pains to acquire. He tucked the toad inside his
underwaist and ignored its wriggling against his flesh while he squatted
in the hot sunshine and watched the ants, his mind one great question.
Where were they going, and what were they carrying, and why were they
all in such a hurry?

Buddy had to know. To himself he called trailherd--but father's cattle
did not carry white lumps of stuff on their heads, and furthermore, they
all walked together in the same direction; whereas the ant herd traveled
both ways. Buddy made sure of this, and then started off, following what
he had decided was the real trail of the ants. Most children would have
stirred them up with a stick; Buddy let them alone so that he could see
what they were doing all by themselves.

The ants led him to a tiny hole with a finely pulverized rim just at the
edge of a sprawly cactus. This last Buddy carefully avoided, for even
at four years old he had long ago learned the sting of cactus thorns. A
rattlesnake buzzed warning when he backed away and the shock to Buddy's
nerves roused within him the fighting spirit. Rattlesnakes he knew also,
as the common enemy of men and cattle. Once a steer had been bitten on
the nose and his head had swollen up so he couldn't eat. Buddy did not
want that to happen to HIM.

He made sure that the horned toad was safe, chose a rock as large as he
could lift and heave from him, and threw it at the buzzing, gray coil.
He did not wait to see what happened, but picked up another rock, a
terrific buzzing sounding stridently from the coil. He threw another
and another with all the force of his healthy little muscles. For a
four-year-old he aimed well; several of the rocks landed on the coil.

The snake wriggled feebly from under the rocks and tried to crawl away
and hide, its rattles clicking listlessly. Buddy had another rock in
his hands and in his eyes the blue fire of righteous conquest. He
went close-close enough to have brought a protesting cry from a
grownup-lifted the rock high as he could and brought it down fair on
the battered head of the rattler. The loathsome length of it winced
and thrashed ineffectively, and after a few minutes lay slack, the tail
wriggling aimlessly.

Buddy stood with his feet far apart and his hands on his hips, as he had
seen the cowboy do whom he had unconsciously imitated in the killing.

"Snakes like Injuns. Dead'ns is good 'ens," He observed sententiously,
still playing the part of the cowboy. Then, quite sure that the snake
was dead, he took it by the tail, felt again of the horned toad on his
chest and went back to see what the ants were doing.

When so responsible a person as a grownup stops to watch the orderly
activities of an army of ants, minutes and hours slip away unnoticed.
Buddy was absolutely fascinated, lost to everything else. When some
instinct born in the very blood of him warned Buddy that time was
passing, he stood up and saw that the sun hung just above the edge of
the world, and that the sky was a glorious jumble of red and purple and
soft rose.

The first thing Buddy did was to stoop and study attentively the dead
snake, to see if the tail still wiggled. It did not, though he watched
it for a full minute. He looked at the sun--it had not set but glowed
big and yellow as far from the earth as his father was tall. Ezra had
lied to him. Dead snakes did not wiggle their tails until sundown.

Buddy looked for the dust cloud of the herd, and was surprised to find
it smaller than he had ever seen it, and farther away. Indeed, he could
only guess that the faint smudge on the horizon was the dust he had
followed for more days than he could count. He was not afraid, but he
was hungry and he thought his mother would maybe wonder where he was,
and he knew that the point-riders had already stopped pushing the herd
ahead, and that the cattle were feeding now so that they would bed
down at dusk. The chuckwagon was camped somewhere close by, and old
Step-and-a-Half, the lame cook, was stirring things in his Dutch ovens
over the camp-fire. Buddy could almost smell the beans and the meat
stew, he was so hungry. He turned and took one last, long look at the
endless stream of ants still crawling along, picked up the dead snake by
the tail, cupped the other hand over the horned toad inside his waist,
and started for camp.

After a while he heard someone shouting, but beyond faint relief that he
was after all near his "Outfit", Buddy paid no attention. The boys were
always shouting to one another, or yelling at their horses or at the
herd or at the niggers. It did not occur to him that they might
be shouting for him, until from another direction he heard Ezra's
unmistakable, booming voice. Ezra sang a thunderous baritone when the
niggers lifted up their voices in song around their camp-fire, and he
could be heard for half a mile when he called in real earnest. He was
calling now, and Buddy, stopping to listen, fancied that he heard his
name. A little farther on, he was sure of it.

"OOO-EE! Whah y'all, Buddy? OOO-EEE!"

"I'm a-comin'," Buddy shrilled impatiently. "What y' all want?"

His piping voice did not carry to Ezra, who kept on shouting. The
radiant purple and red and gold above him deepened, darkened. The whole
wild expanse of half-barren land became suddenly a place of unearthly
beauty that dulled to the shadows of dusk. Buddy trudged on, keeping
to the deep-worn buffalo trails which the herd had followed and scored
afresh with their hoofs. He could not miss his way-not Buddy, son of Bob
Birnie, owner of the Tomahawk outfit-but his legs were growing pretty
tired, and he was so hungry that he could have sat down on the ground
and cried with the gnawing food-call of his empty little stomach.

He could hear other voices shouting at intervals now, but Ezra's voice
was the loudest and the closest, and it seemed to Buddy that Ezra never
once stopped calling. Twice Buddy called back that he was a-comin', but
Ezra shouted just the same: "OOO-EE! WHAH Y' ALL, BUDDY? OOO-EE!"

Imperceptibly dusk deepened to darkness. A gust of anger swept Buddy's
soul because he was tired, because he was hungry and he was yet a long
way from the camp, but chiefly because Ezra persisted in calling after
Buddy had several times answered. He heard someone whom he recognized
as Frank Davis, but by this time he was so angry that he would not say a
word, though he was tempted to ask Frank to take him up on his horse and
let him ride to camp. He heard others-and once the beat of hoofs came
quite close. But there was a wide streak of Scotch stubbornness in
Buddy--along with several other Scotch streaks--and he continued his
stumbling progress, dragging the snake by the tail, his other hand
holding fast the horned toad.

His heart jumped up and almost choked him when first saw the three
twinkles on the ground which knew were not stars but camp-fires.

Quite unexpectedly he trudged into the firelight where Step-and-a-Half
was stirring delectable things in the iron pots and stopping every
minute or so to stare anxiously into the gloom. Buddy stood blinking and
sniffing, his eyes fixed upon the Dutch ovens.

"I'm HUNGRY!" he announced accusingly, gripping the toad that had begun
to squirm at the heat and light. "I kilt a snake an' I'm HUNGRY!"

"Good gorry!" swore Step-and-a-Half, and whipped out his six-shooter and
fired three shots into the air.

Footsteps came scurrying. Buddy's mother swept him into her arms,
laughing with a little whimpering sound of tears in the laughter. Buddy
wriggled protestingly in her arms.

"L'kout! Y' all SKUCSH 'im! I got a HAWN-toe; wight here." He patted his
chest gloatingly. "An' I got a snake. I kilt 'im. An' I'm HUNGRY."

Mother of Buddy though she was, Lassie set him down hurriedly and
surveyed her man-child from a little distance.

"Buddy! Drop that snake instantly'"

Buddy obeyed, but he planted a foot close to his kill and pouted his
lips. "'S my snake. I kilt 'im," He said firmly. He pulled the horned
toad from his waist-front and held it tightly in his two hands. "An's my
hawn-toe. I ketche'd'm. 'Way ova dere," he added, tilting his tow head
toward the darkness behind him.

Bob Birnie rode up at a gallop, pulled up his horse in the edge of the
fire glow and dismounted hastily.

Bob Birnie never needed more than one glance to furnish him the details
of a scene. He saw the very small boy confronting his mother with a dead
snake, a horned toad and a stubborn set to his lips. He saw that the
mother looked rather helpless before the combination--and his brown
mustache hid a smile. He walked up and looked his first-born over.

"Buddy," He demanded sternly, "where have you been?"

"Out dere. Kilt a snake. Ants was trailing a herd. I got a HAWN-toe. An'
I'm hungry!"

"You know better than to leave the wagon, young man. Didn't you know we
had to get out and hunt you, and mother was scared the wolves might eat
you? Didn't you hear us calling you? Why didn't you answer?"

Buddy looked up from under his baby eyebrows at his father, who seemed
very tall and very terrible. But his bare foot touched the dead snake
and he took comfort. "I was comin'," he said. "I WASN'T los'. I bringed
my snake and my hawn-toe. An' dey--WASN'T--any--woluffs!" The last word
came muffled, buried in his mother's skirts.





Next: The Trail Herd

Previous: The Cure Complete



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