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Bud Meets The Woman








From: Cow-country

A woman was stooping at the woodpile, filling her arms with crooked
sticks of rough-barked sage. From the color of her hair Bud knew that
she was not Honey, and that she was therefore a stranger to him. But he
swung off the path and went over to her as naturally as he would go to
pick up a baby that had fallen.

"I'll carry that in for you," he said, and put out his hand to help her
to her feet.

Before he touched her she was on her feet and looking at him. Bud could
not remember afterwards that she had done anything else; he seemed to
have seen only her eyes, and into them and beyond them to a soul that
somehow made his heart tremble.

What she said, what he answered, was of no moment. He could not have
told afterwards what it was. He stooped and filled his arms with wood,
and walked ahead of her up the pathway to the kitchen door, and stopped
when she flitted past him to show him where the wood-box stood. He was
conscious then of her slenderness and of the lightness of her steps.
He dropped the wood into the box behind the stove on which kettles
were steaming. There was the smell of chicken stewing, and the odor of
fresh-baked pies.

She smiled up at him and offered him a crisp, warn cookie with sugared
top, and he saw her eyes again and felt the same tremor at his heart.
He pulled himself together and smiled back at her, thanked her and went
out, stumbling a little on the doorstep, the cookie untasted in his
fingers.

He walked down to the corral and began fumbling at his pack, his
thoughts hushed before the revelation that had come to him.

"Her hands--her poor, little, red hands!" he said in a whisper as the
memory of them came suddenly. But it was her eyes that he was seeing
with his mind; her eyes, and what lay deep within. They troubled him,
shook him, made him want to use his man-strength against something that
was hurting her. He did not know what it could be; he did not know that
there was anything--but oddly the memory of his mother's white face back
in the long ago, and of her tone when she said, "Oh, God, please!" came
back and fitted themselves to the look in this woman's eyes.

Bud sat down on his canvas-wrapped bed and lifted his hat to rumple his
hair and then smooth it again, as was his habit when worried. He looked
at the cookie, and because he was hungry he ate it with a foolish
feeling that he was being sentimental as the very devil, thinking how
her hands had touched it. He rolled and smoked a cigarette afterwards,
and wondered who she was and whether she was married, and what her first
name was.

A quiet smoke will bring a fellow to his senses sometimes when
nothing else will, and Bud managed, by smoking two cigarettes in rapid
succession, to restore himself to some degree of sanity.

"Funny how she made me think of mother, back when I was a kid coming up
from Texas," he mused. "Mother'd like her." It was the first time he had
ever thought just that about a girl. "She's no relation to Honey," he
added. "I'd bet a horse on that." He recalled how white and soft were
Honey's hands, and he swore a little. "Wouldn't hurt her to get out
there in the kitchen and help with the cooking," he criticised. Then
suddenly he laughed. "Shucks a'mighty, as Pop says! with those two girls
on the ranch I'll gamble Dave Truman has a full crew of men that are
plumb willing to work for their board!"

The stage came, and Bud turned to it relievedly. After that, here came
Dave Truman on a deep-cheated roan. Bud knew him by his resemblance to
the old man, who came shuffling bent-backed from the machine-shed as
Dave passed.

Pop beckoned, and Dave reined his horse that way and stopped at the shed
door. The two talked for a minute and Dave rode on, passing Bud with a
curt nod. Pop came over to where Bud stood leaning against the corral.

"How are you feeling, dad?" Bud grinned absently.

"Purty stiff an' sore, boy--my rheumatics is bad to-day." Pop winked
solemnly. "I spoke to Dave about you wantin' a job, and I guess likely
Dave'll put you on. They's plenty to do--hayin' comin' on and all that."
He lowered his voice mysteriously, though there was no man save Bud
within a hundred feet of him. "Don't ye go 'n talk horses--not yet.
Don't let on like yore interested much. I'll tell yuh when to take 'em
up."

The men came riding in from the hayfield, some in wagons, two astride
harnessed work-horses, and one long-legged fellow in chaps on a mower,
driving a sweaty team that still had life enough to jump sidewise when
they spied Bud's pack by the corral. The stage driver sauntered up and
spoke to the men. Bud went over and began to help unhitch the team from
the mower, and the driver eyed him sharply while he grinned his greeting
across the backs of the horses.

"Pop says you're looking for work," Dave Truman observed, coming up.
"Well, if you ain't scared of it, I'll stake yuh to a hayfork after
dinner. Where yuh from?"

"Just right now, I'm from the Muleshoe. Bud Birnie's my name. I was
telling dad why I quit."

"Tell me," Dave directed briefly. "Pop ain't as reliable as he used to
be. He'd never get it out straight."

"I quit," said Bud, "by special request." He pulled off his gloves
carefully and held up his puffed knuckles. "I got that on Dirk Tracy."

The driver of the mower shot a quick, meaning glance at Dave, and
laughed shortly. Dave grinned a little, but he did not ask what had been
the trouble, as Bud had half expected him to do. Apparently Dave felt
that he had received all the information he needed, for his next remark
had to do with the heat. The day was a "weather breeder", he declared,
and he was glad to have another man to put at the hauling.

An iron triangle beside the kitchen door clamored then, and Bud, looking
quickly, saw the slim little woman with the big, troubled eyes striking
the iron bar vigorously. Dave glanced at his watch and led the way to
the house, the hay crew hurrying after him.

Fourteen men sat down to a long table with a great shuffling of feet and
scraping of benches, and immediately began a voracious attack upon the
heaped platters of chicken and dumplings and the bowls of vegetables.
Bud found a place at the end where he could look into the kitchen,
and his eyes went that way as often as they dared, following the swift
motions of the little woman who poured coffee and filled empty dishes
and said never a word to anyone.

He was on the point of believing her a daughter of the house when a
square-jawed man of thirty, or thereabout, who sat at Bud's right hand,
called her to him as he might have called his dog, by snapping his
fingers.

She came and stood beside Bud while the man spoke to her in an arrogant
undertone.

"Marian, I told yuh I wanted tea for dinner after this. D'you bring me
coffee on purpose, just to be onery? I thought I told yuh to straighten
up and quit that sulkin'. I ain't going to have folks think----"

"Oh, be quiet! Shame on you, before everyone!" she whispered fiercely
while she lifted the cup and saucer.

Bud went hot all over. He did not look up when she returned presently
with a cup of tea, but he felt her presence poignantly, as he had never
before sensed the presence of a woman. When he was able to swallow his
wrath and meet calmly the glances of these strangers he turned his head
casually and looked the man over.

Her husband, he guessed the fellow to be. No other relationship could
account for that tone of proprietorship, and there was no physical
resemblance between the two. A mean devil, Bud called him mentally,
with a narrow forehead, eyes set too far apart and the mouth of a brute.
Someone spoke to the man, calling him Lew, and he answered with rough
good humor, repeating a stale witticism and laughing at it just as
though he had not heard others say it a hundred times.

Bud looked at him again and hated him, but he did not glance again at
the little woman named Marian; for his own peace of mind he did not
dare. He thought that he knew now what it was he had seen in the depth
of her eyes, but there seemed to be nothing that he could do to help.

That evening after supper Honey Krause called to him when he was
starting down to the bunk-house with the other men. What she said
was that she still had his guitar and mandolin, and that they needed
exercise. What she looked was the challenge of a born coquette. In the
kitchen dishes were rattling, but after they were washed there would be
a little leisure, perhaps, for the kitchen drudge. Bud's impulse to make
his sore hands an excuse for refusing evaporated. It might not be wise
to place himself deliberately in the way of getting a hurt--but youth
never did stop to consult a sage before following the lure of a woman's
eyes.

He called back to Honey that those instruments ought to have been put in
the hayfield, where there was more exercise than the men could use. "You
boys ought to come and see me safe through with it," he added to the
loitering group around him. "I'm afraid of women."

They laughed and two or three went with him. Lew went on to the corral
and presently appeared on horseback, riding up to the kitchen and
leaving his horse standing at the corner while he went inside and talked
to the woman he had called Marian.

Bud was carrying his guitar outside, where it was cooler, when he heard
the fellow's arrogant voice. The dishes ceased rattling for a
minute, and there was a sharp exclamation, stifled but unmistakable.
Involuntarily Bud made a movement in that direction, when Honey's voice
stopped him with a subdued laugh.

"That's only Lew and Mary Ann," she explained carelessly. "They have a
spat every time they come within gunshot of each other."

The lean fellow who had driven the mower, and whose name was Jerry
Myers, edged carelessly close to Bud and gave him a nudge with his
elbow, and a glance from under his eyebrows by way of emphasis. He
turned his head slightly, saw that Honey had gone into the house, and
muttered just above a whisper, "Don't see or hear anything. It's all the
help you can give her. And for Lord's sake don't let on to Honey like
you--give a cuss whether it rains or not, so long 's it don't pour too
hard the night of the dance."

Bud looked up at the darkening sky speculatively, and tried not to hear
the voices in the kitchen, one of which was brutally harsh while the
other told of hate and fear suppressed under gentle forbearance. The
harsh voice was almost continuous, the other infrequent, reluctant to
speak at all. Bud wanted to go in and smash his guitar over the fellow's
head, but Jerry's warning held him. There were other ways, however, to
help; if he must not drive off the tormentor, then he would call him
away. He ignored his bruised knuckles and plucked the guitar strings as
if he held a grudge against them, and then began to sing the first song
that came into his mind--one that started in a rollicky fashion.

Men came straggling up from the bunk-house before he had finished the
first chorus, and squatted on their heels to listen, their cigarettes
glowing like red fingertips in the dusk. But the voice in the kitchen
talked on. Bud tried another--one of those old-time favorites, a
"laughing coon" song, though he felt little enough in the mood for it.
In the middle of the first laugh he heard the kitchen door slam, and
Lew's footsteps coming around the corner. He listened until the song
was done, then mounted and rode away, Bud's laugh following him
triumphantly--though Lew could not have guessed its meaning.

Bud sang for two hours expectantly, but Marian did not appear, and Bud
went off to the bunk-house feeling that his attempt to hearten her had
been a failure. Of Honey he did not think at all, except to wonder if
the two women were related in any way, and to feel that if they were
Marian was to be pitied. At that point Jerry overtook him and asked for
a match, which gave him an excuse to hold Bud behind the others.

"Honey like to have caught me, to-night," Jerry observed guardedly.
"I had to think quick. I'll tell you the lay of the land, Bud, seeing
you're a stranger here. Marian's man, Lew, he's a damned bully and
somebody is going to draw a fine bead on him some day when he ain't
looking. But he stands in, so the less yuh take notice the better.
Marian, she's a fine little woman that minds her own business, but she's
getting a cold deck slipped into the game right along. Honey's jealous
of her and afraid somebody'll give her a pleasant look. Lew's jealous,
and he watches her like a cat watches a mouse it's caught and wants to
play with. Between the two of 'em Marian has a real nice time of it. I'm
wising you up so you won't hand her any more misery by trying to take
her part. Us boys have learned to keep our mouths shut."

"Glad you told me," Bud muttered. "Otherwise----"

"Exactly," Jerry agreed understandingly. "Otherwise any of us would."

He stopped and then spoke in a different tone. "If Lew stays off the
ranch long enough, maybe you'll get to hear her sing. Wow-ee, but that
lady has sure got the meadow-larks whipped! But look out for Honey,
old-timer."

Bud laughed unmirthfully. "Looks to me as if you aren't crazy over
Honey," he ventured. "What has she done to you?"

"Her?" Jerry inspected his cigarette, listened to the whisper of
prudence in his ear, and turned away. "Forget it. I never said a word."
He swept the whole subject from him with a comprehensive gesture, and
snorted. "I'm gettin' as bad as Pop," he grinned. "But lemme tell yuh
something. Honey Krause runs more 'n the post-office."





Next: Guile Against The Wily

Previous: Little Lost



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