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Guile Against The Wily








From: Cow-country

Bud liked to have his life run along accustomed lines with a more or
less perfect balance of work and play, friendships and enmities. He
had grown up with the belief that any mystery is merely a synonym for
menace. He had learned to be wary of known enemies such as Indians
and outlaws, and to trust implicitly his friends. To feel now, without
apparent cause, that his friends might be enemies in disguise, was a new
experience that harried him.

He had come to Little Lost on Tuesday, straight from the Muleshoe
where his presence was no longer desired for some reason not yet
satisfactorily explained to him. You know what happened on Tuesday. That
night the land crouched under a terrific electric storm, with crackling
swords of white death dazzling from inky black clouds, and ear-splitting
thunder close on the heels of it. Bud had known such storms all his
life, yet on this night he was uneasy, vaguely disturbed. He caught
himself wondering if Lew Morris's wife was frightened, and the
realization that he was worrying about her fear worried him more than
ever and held him awake long after the fury of the storm had passed.

Next day, when he came in at noon, there was Hen, from the Muleshoe,
waiting for dinner before he rode back with the mail. Hen's jaw dropped
when he saw Bud riding on a Little Lost hay-wagon, and his eyes bulged
with what Bud believed was consternation. All through the meal Bud had
caught Hen eyeing him miserably, and looking stealthily from him to the
others. No one paid any attention, and for that Bud was rather thankful;
he did not want the Little Lost fellows to think that perhaps he had
done something which he knew would hang him if it were discovered,
which, he decided, was the mildest interpretation a keen observer would
be apt to make of Hen's behavior.

When he went out, Hen was at his heels, trying to say something in his
futile, tongue-tied gobble. Bud stopped and looked at him tolerantly.
"Hen, It's no use--you might as well be talking Chinese, for all I
know. If it's important, write it down or I'll never know what's on your
mind."

He pulled a note-book and a pencil from his vest-pocket and gave them
to Hen, who looked at him dumbly, worked his Adam's apple violently and
retreated to his horse, fumbled the mail which was tied in the bottom of
a flour sack for safe keeping, sought a sheltered place where he could
sit down, remained there a few minutes, and then returned to his horse
He beckoned to Bud, who was watching him curiously; and when Bud went
over to him said something unintelligible and handed back the note-book,
motioning for caution when Bud would have opened the book at once.

So Bud thanked him gravely, but with a twinkle in his eyes, and waited
until Hen had gone and he was alone before he read the message. It was
mysterious enough, certainly. Hen had written in a fine, cramped, uneven
hand:

"You bee carful. bern this up and dent let on like you no anything but
i warn you be shure bern this up."

Bud tore out the page and burned it as requested, and since he was not
enlightened by the warning he obeyed Hen's instructions and did not "let
on." But he could not help wondering, and was unconsciously prepared to
observe little things which ordinarily would have passed unnoticed.

At the dance on Friday night, for instance, there was a good deal of
drinking and mighty little hilarity. Bud had been accustomed to loud
talk and much horseplay outside among the men on such occasions, and
even a fight or two would be accepted as a matter of course. But though
several quart bottles were passed around during the night and thrown
away empty into the bushes, the men went in and danced and came out
again immediately to converse confidentially in small groups, or to
smoke without much speech. The men of Burroback Valley were not running
true to form.

The women were much like all the women of cow-country: mothers with
small children who early became cross and sleepy and were hushed under
shawls on the most convenient bed, a piece of cake in their hands;
mothers whose faces were lined too soon with work and ill-health, and
with untidy hair that became untidier as the dance progressed. There
were daughters--shy and giggling to hide their shyness--Bud knew their
type very well and made friends with them easily, and immediately became
the centre of a clamoring audience after he had sung a song or two.

There was Honey, with her inscrutable half smile and her veiled eyes,
condescending to graciousness and quite plainly assuming a proprietary
air toward Bud, whom she put through whatever musical paces pleased her
fancy. Bud, I may say, was extremely tractable. When Honey said sing,
Bud sang; when she said play, Bud sat down to the piano and played
until she asked him to do something else. It was all very pleasant for
Honey--and Bud ultimately won his point--Honey decided to extend her
graciousness a little.

Why hadn't Bud danced with Marian? He must go right away and ask her
to dance. Just because Lew was gone, Marian need not be slighted--and
besides, there were other fellows who might want a little of Honey's
time.

So Bud went away and found Marian in the pantry, cutting cakes while the
coffee boiled, and asked her to dance. Marian was too tired, and' she
had not the time to spare; wherefore Bud helped himself to a knife
and proceeded to cut cakes with geometrical precision, and ate all
the crumbs. With his hands busy, he found the courage to talk to her a
little. He made Marian laugh out loud and it was the first time he had
ever heard her do that.

Marian disclosed a sense of humor, and even teased Bud a little about
Honey. But her teasing lacked that edge of bitterness which Bud had half
expected in retaliation for Honey's little air of superiority.

"Your precision in cutting cakes is very much like your accurate
fingering of the piano," she observed irrelevantly, surveying his
work with her lips pursed. "A pair of calipers would prove every piece
exactly, the same width; and even when you play a Meditation? I'm
sure the metronome would waggle in perfect unison with your tempo. I
wonder--" She glanced up at him speculatively. "--I wonder if you think
with such mathematical precision. Do you always find that two and two
make four?"

"You mean, have I any imagination whatever?" Bud looked away from her
eyes--toward the uncurtained, high little window. A face appeared there,
as if a tall man had glanced in as he was passing by and halted for a
second to look. Bud's eyes met full the eyes of the man outside, who
tilted his head backward in a significant movement and passed on. Marian
turned her head and caught the signal, looked at Bud quickly, a little
flush creeping into her cheeks.

"I hope you have a little imagination," she said, lowering her voice
instinctively. "It doesn't require much to see that Jerry is right. The
conventions are strictly observed at Little Lost--in the kitchen, at
least," she added, under her breath, with a flash of resentment. "Run
along--and the next time Honey asks you to play the piano, will you
please play Lotusblume? And when you have thrown open the prison windows
with that, will you play Schubert's Ave Maria--the way you play it--to
send a breath of cool night air in?"

She put out the tips of her fingers and pressed them lightly against
Bud's shoulder, turning toward the door. Bud started, stepped into the
kitchen, wheeled about and stood regarding her with a stubborn look in
his eyes.

"I might kick the door down, too," he said. "I don't like prisons
nohow."

"No-just a window, thank you," she laughed.

Bud thought the laugh did not go very deep. "Jerry wants to talk to
you. He's the whitest of the lot, if you can call that--" she stopped
abruptly, put out a hand to the door, gave him a moment to look into her
deep, troubled eyes, and closed the door gently but inexorably in his
face.

Jerry was standing at the corner of the house smoking negligently. He
waited until Bud had come close alongside him, then led the way slowly
down the path to the corrals.

"I thought I heard the horses fighting," he remarked. "There was a noise
down this way."

"Is that why you called me outside?" asked Bud, who scorned subterfuge.

"Yeah. I saw you wasn't dancing or singing or playing the piano--and
I knew Honey'd likely be looking you up to do one or the other, in a
minute. She sure likes you, Bud. She don't, everybody that comes along."

Bud did not want to discuss Honey, wherefore he made no reply, and they
walked along in silence, the cool, heavy darkness grateful after the oil
lamps and the heat of crowded rooms. As they neared the corrals a stable
door creaked open and shut, yet there was no wind. Jerry halted, one
hand going to Bud's arm. They stood for a minute, and heard the swish of
the bushes behind the corral, as if a horse were passing through. Jerry
turned back, leading Bud by the arm. They were fifty feet away and the
bushes were still again before Jerry spoke guardedly.

"I guess I made a mistake. There wasn't nothing," he said, and dropped
Bud's arm.

Bud stopped. "There was a man riding off in the brush," he said bluntly,
"and all the folks that came to the dance rode in through the front
gate. I reckon I'll just take a look where I left my saddle, anyway."

"That might have been some loose stock," Jerry argued, but Bud went
back, wondering a little at Jerry's manner.

The saddle was all right, and so was everything else, so far as Bud
could determine in the dark, but he was not satisfied. He thought he
understood Jerry's reason for bringing him down to the corrals, but he
could not understand Jerry's attitude toward an incident which any man
would have called suspicious.

Bud quietly counted noses when he returned to the house and found that
supper was being served, but he could not recall any man who was missing
now. Every guest and every man on the ranch was present except old Pop,
who had a little shack to himself and went to bed at dark every night.

Bud was mystified, and he hated mysteries. Moreover, he was working for
Dave Truman, and whatever might concern Little Lost concerned him also.
But the men had begun to talk openly of their various "running horses",
and to exchange jibes and boasts and to bet a little on Sunday's races.
Bud wanted to miss nothing of that, and Jerry's indifference to the
incident at the stable served to reassure him for the time being. He
edged close to the group where the talk was loudest, and listened.

A man they called Jeff was trying to jeer his neighbors into betting
against a horse called Skeeter, and was finding them too cautious for
his liking. He laughed and, happening to catch Bud's eyes upon him,
strode forward with an empty tin cup in his hand and slapped Bud
friendliwise on the shoulder.

"Why, I bet this singin' kid, that don't know wha I got ner what you
fellers has got, ain't scared to take, a chance. Are yuh, kid? What d'
yuh think of this pikin' bunch here that has seen Skeeter come in second
and third more times 'n what he beat, and yet is afraid to take a chance
on rosin' two bits? Whatd' yuh think of 'em? Ain't they an onery bunch?"

"I suppose they hate to lose," Bud grinned.

"That's it--money 's more to 'em than the sport of kings, which is
runnin' horses. This bunch, kid belly-ached till Dave took his horse
Boise outa the game, and now, by gosh, they're backin' up from my
Skeeter, that has been beat more times than he won.'

"When you pulled him, Jeff!" a mocking voice drawled. "And that was when
you wasn't bettin' yourself."

Jeff turned injuredly to Bud. "Now don't that sound like a piker?" he
complained. "It ain't reason to claim I'd pull my own horse. Ain't that
the out doinest way to come back at a man that likes a good race?"

Bud swelled his chest and laid his hand on Jeff's shoulder. "Just
to show you I'm not a piker," he cried recklessly, "I'll bet you
twenty-five dollars I can beat your Skeeter with my Smoky horse that I
rode in here. Is it a go?"

Jeff's jaw dropped a little, with surprise. "What fer horse is this here
Smoky horse of yourn?" he wanted to know.

Bud winked at the group, which cackled gleeful!, "I love the sport of
kings," he said. "I love it so well I don't have to see your Skeeter
horse till Sunday. From the way these boys sidestep him, I guess he's a
sure-enough running horse. My Smoky's a good little horse, too, but he
never scared a bunch till they had cramps in the pockets. Still,"
he added with a grin, "I'll try anything once. I bet you twenty-five
dollars my Smoky can beat your Skeeter."

"Say, kid, honest I hate to take it away from yuh. Honest, I do. The way
you can knock the livin' tar outa that pyanny is a caution to cats. I
c'd listen all night. But when it comes to runnin' horses--"

"Are you afraid of your money?" Bud asked him arrogantly. "You called
this a bunch of pikers--"

"Well, by golly, it'll be your own fault, kid. If I take your money away
from yuh, don't go and blame it onto me. Mebbe these fellers has got
some cause to sidestep--"

"All right, the bet's on. And I won't blame you if I lose. Smoky's
a good little horse. Don't think for a minute I'm giving you my hard
earned coin. You'll have to throw up some dust to get it, old-timer. I
forgot to say I'd like to make it a quarter dash."

"A quarter dash it is," Jeff agreed derisively as Bud turned to answer
the summons of the music which was beginning again.

The racing enthusiasts lingered outside, and Bud smiled to himself while
he whirled Honey twice around in an old-fashioned waltz. He had them
talking about him, and wondering about his horse. When they saw Smoky
they would perhaps call him a chancey kid. He meant to ask Pop about
Skeeter, though Pop seemed confident that Smoky would win against
anything in the valley.

But on the other hand, he had seen in his short acquaintance with Little
Lost that Pop was considered childish--that comprehensive accusation
which belittles the wisdom of age. The boys made it a point to humor him
without taking him seriously. Honey pampered him and called him Poppy,
while in Marian's chill courtesy, in her averted glances, Bud had read
her dislike of Pop. He had seen her hand shrink away from contact with
his hand when she set his coffee beside his plate.

But Bud had heard others speak respectfully of Boise, and regret that
he was too fast to run. Pop might be childish on some subjects, but
Bud rather banked on his judgment of horses--and Pop was penurious and
anxious to win money.

"What are you thinking about?" Honey demanded when the music stopped.
"Something awful important, I guess, to make you want to keep right on
dancing!"

"I was thinking of horse-racing," Bud confessed, glad that he could tell
her the truth.

"Ah, you! Don't let them make a fool of you. Some of the fellows would
bet the shirt off their backs on a horse-race! You look out for them,
Bud."

"They wouldn't bet any more than I would," Bud boldly declared. "I've
bet already against a horse I've never seen. How 's that?"

"That's crazy. You'll lose, and serve you right." She went off to dance
with someone else, and Bud turned smiling to find a passable partner
amongst the older women--for he was inclined to caution where strange
girls were concerned. Much trouble could come to a stranger who danced
with a girl who happened to have a jealous sweetheart, and Bud did
not court trouble of that kind. He much preferred to fight over other
things. Besides, he had no wish to antagonize Honey.

But his dance with some faded, heavy-footed woman was not to be. Jerry
once more signalled him and drew him outside for a little private
conference. Jerry was ill at ease and inclined to be reproachful and
even condemnatory.

He wanted first to know why Bud had been such a many kinds of a fool as
to make that bet with Jeff Hall. All the fellows were talking about it.
"They was asking me what kind of a horse you've got--and I wouldn't put
it past Jeff and his bunch to pull some kind of a dirty trick on you,"
he complained. "Bud, on the square, I like you a whole lot. You seem
kinda innocent, in some ways, and in other ways you don't. I wish you'd
tell me just one thing, so I can sleep comfortable. Have you got some
scheme of your own? Or what the devil ails you?"

"Well, I've just got a notion," Bud admitted. "I'm going to have some
fun watching those fellows perform, whether I win or lose. I've spent as
much as twenty-five dollars on a circus, before now, and felt that I got
the worth of my money, too. I'm going to enjoy myself real well, next
Sunday."

Jerry glanced behind him and lowered his voice, speaking close to Bud's
ear. "Well, there's something I'd like to say that it ain't safe to say,
Bud. I'd hate like hell to see you get in trouble. Go as far as you like
having fun--but--oh, hell! What's the use?" He turned abruptly and went
inside, leaving Bud staring after him rather blankly.

Jerry did not strike Bud as being the kind of a man who goes
around interfering with every other man's business. He was a quiet,
good-natured young fellow with quizzical eyes of that mixed color which
we call hazel simply because there is more brown than gray or green. He
did not talk much, but he observed much. Bud was strongly inclined
to heed Jerry's warning, but it was too vague to have any practical
value--"about like Hen's note," Bud concluded. "Well-meaning but hazy.
Like a red danger flag on a railroad crossing where the track is torn
up and moved. I saw one, once and my horse threw a fit at it and almost
piled me. I figured that the red flag created the danger, where I was
concerned. Still, I'd like to oblige Jerry and sidestep something or
other, but..."

His thoughts grew less distinct, merged into wordless rememberings and
conjectures, clarified again into terse sentences which never reached
the medium of speech.

"Well, I'll just make sure they don't try out Smoke when I'm not
looking," he decided, and slipped away in the dark.

By a roundabout way which avoided the trail he managed to reach the
pasture fence without being seen. No horses grazed in sight, and he
climbed through and went picking his way across the lumpy meadow in the
starlight. At the farther side he found the horses standing out on a
sandy ridge where the mosquitoes were not quite so pestiferous. The
Little Lost horses snorted and took to their heels, his three following
for a short distance.

Bud stopped and whistled a peculiar call invented long ago when he was
just Buddy, and watched over the Tomahawk REMUDA. Every horse with the
Tomahawk brand knew that summons--though not every horse would obey
it. But these three had come when they were sucking colts, if Buddy
whistled; and in their breaking and training, in the long trip north,
they had not questioned its authority. They turned and trotted back to
him now and nosed Bud's hands which he held out to them.

He petted them all and talked to them in an affectionate murmur which
they answered by sundry lipnibbles and subdued snorts. Smoky he singled
out finally, rubbing his back and sides with the flat of his hand from
shoulder to flank, and so to the rump and down the thigh to the hock
to the scanty fetlock which told, to those who knew, that here was an
aristocrat among horses.

Smoky stood quiet, and Bud's hand lingered there, smoothing the slender
ankle. Bud's fingers felt the fine-haired tail, then gave a little
twitch. He was busy for a minute, kneeling in the sand with one knee,
his head bent. Then he stood up, went forward to Smoky's head, and stood
rubbing the horse's nose thoughtfully.

"I hate to do it, old boy--but I'm working to make's a home--we've got
to work together. And I'm not asking any more of you than I'd be willing
to do myself, if I were a horse and you were a man."

He gave the three horses a hasty pat apiece and started back across
the meadow to the fence. They followed him like pet dogs--and when Bud
glanced back over his shoulder he saw in the dim light that Smoky walked
with a slight limp.





Next: Sport O' Kings

Previous: Bud Meets The Woman



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