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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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.
Next: The Muleshoe
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