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The Antidote








From: Cabin Fever

Three days it stormed with never a break, stormed so that the men dreaded the carrying of water from the spring that became ice-rimmed but never froze over; that clogged with sodden masses of snow half melted and sent faint wisps of steam up into the chill air. Cutting wood was an ordeal, every armload an achievement. Cash did not even attempt to visit his trap line, but sat before the fire smoking or staring into the flames, or pottered about the little domestic duties that could not half fill the days.

With melted snow water, a bar of yellow soap, and one leg of an old pair of drawers, he scrubbed on his knees the floor on his side of the dead line, and tried not to notice Lovin Child. He failed only because Lovin Child refused to be ignored, but insisted upon occupying the immediate foreground and in helping—much as he had helped Marie pack her suit case one fateful afternoon not so long before.

When Lovin Child was not permitted to dabble in the pan of soapy water, he revenged himself by bringing Cash's mitten and throwing that in, and crying "Ee? Ee?" with a shameless delight because it sailed round and round until Cash turned and saw it, and threw it out.

"No, no, no!" Lovin Child admonished himself gravely, and got it and threw it back again.

Cash did not say anything. Indeed, he hid a grin under his thick, curling beard which he had grown since the first frost as a protection against cold. He picked up the mitten and laid it to dry on the slab mantel, and when he returned, Lovin Child was sitting in the pan, rocking back and forth and crooning "'Ock-a-by! 'Ock-a-by!" with the impish twinkle in his eyes.

Cash was just picking him out of the pan when Bud came in with a load of wood. Bud hastily dropped the wood, and without a word Cash handed Lovin Child across the dead line, much as he would have handed over a wet puppy. Without a word Bud took him, but the quirky smile hid at the corners of his mouth, and under Cash's beard still lurked the grin.

"No, no, no!" Lovin Child kept repeating smugly, all the while Bud was stripping off his wet clothes and chucking him into the undershirt he wore for a nightgown, and trying a man's size pair of socks on his legs.

"I should say no-no-no! You doggone little rascal, I'd rather herd a flea on a hot plate! I've a plumb good notion to hog-tie yuh for awhile. Can't trust yuh a minute nowhere. Now look what you got to wear while your clothes dry!"

"Ee? Ee?" invited Lovin Child, gleefully holding up a muffled little foot lost in the depths of Bud's sock.

"Oh, I see, all right! I'll tell the world I see you're a doggone nuisance! Now see if you can keep outa mischief till I get the wood carried in." Bud set him down on the bunk, gave him a mail-order catalogue to look at, and went out again into the storm. When he came back, Lovin Child was sitting on the hearth with the socks off, and was picking bits of charcoal from the ashes and crunching them like candy in his small, white teeth. Cash was hurrying to finish his scrubbing before the charcoal gave out, and was keeping an eye on the crunching to see that Lovin Child did not get a hot ember.

"H'yah! You young imp!" Bud shouted, stubbing his toe as he hurried forward. "Watcha think you are—a fire-eater, for gosh sake?"

Cash bent his head low—it may have been to hide a chuckle. Bud was having his hands full with the kid, and he was trying to be stern against the handicap of a growing worship of Lovin Child and all his little ways. Now Lovin Child was all over ashes, and the clean undershirt was clean no longer, after having much charcoal rubbed into its texture. Bud was not overstocked with clothes; much traveling had formed the habit of buying as he needed for immediate use. With Lovin Child held firmly under one arm, where he would be sure of him, he emptied his "war-bag" on the bunk and hunted out another shirt

Lovin Child got a bath, that time, because of the ashes he had managed to gather on his feet and his hands and his head. Bud was patient, and Lovin Child was delightedly unrepentant—until he was buttoned into another shirt of Bud's, and the socks were tied on him.

"Now, doggone yuh, I'm goin' to stake you out, or hobble yuh, or some darn thing, till I get that wood in!" he thundered, with his eyes laughing. "You want to freeze? Hey? Now you're goin' to stay right on this bunk till I get through, because I'm goin' to tie yuh on. You may holler—but you little son of a gun, you'll stay safe!"

So Bud tied him, with a necktie around his body for a belt, and a strap fastened to that and to a stout nail in the wall over the bunk. And Lovin Child, when he discovered that it was not a new game but instead a check upon his activities, threw himself on his back and held his breath until he was purple, and then screeched with rage.

I don't suppose Bud ever carried in wood so fast in his life. He might as well have taken his time, for Lovin Child was in one of his fits of temper, the kind that his grandmother invariably called his father's cussedness coming out in him. He howled for an hour and had both men nearly frantic before he suddenly stopped and began to play with the things he had scorned before to touch; the things that had made him bow his back and scream when they were offered to him hopefully.

Bud, his sleeves rolled up, his hair rumpled and the perspiration standing thick on his forehead, stood over him with his hands on his hips, the picture of perturbed helplessness.

"You doggone little devil!" he breathed, his mind torn between amusement and exasperation. "If you was my own kid, I'd spank yuh! But," he added with a little chuckle, "if you was my own kid, I'd tell the world you come by that temper honestly. Darned if I wouldn't."

Cash, sitting dejected on the side of his own bunk, lifted his head, and after that his hawklike brows, and stared from the face of Bud to the face of Lovin Child. For the first time he was struck with the resemblance between the two. The twinkle in the eyes, the quirk of the lips, the shape of the forehead and, emphasizing them all, the expression of having a secret joke, struck him with a kind of shock. If it were possible... But, even in the delirium of fever, Bud had never hinted that he had a child, or a wife even. He had firmly planted in Cash's mind the impression that his life had never held any close ties whatsoever. So, lacking the clue, Cash only wondered and did not suspect.

What most troubled Cash was the fact that he had unwittingly caused all the trouble for Lovin Child. He should not have tried to scrub the floor with the kid running loose all over the place. As a slight token of his responsibility in the matter, he watched his chance when Bud was busy at the old cookstove, and tossed a rabbit fur across to Lovin Child to play with; a risky thing to do, since he did not know what were Lovin Child's little peculiarities in the way of receiving strange gifts. But he was lucky. Lovin Child was enraptured with the soft fur and rubbed it over his baby cheeks and cooed to it and kissed it, and said "Ee? Ee?" to Cash, which was reward enough.

There was a strained moment when Bud came over and discovered what it was he was having so much fun with. Having had three days of experience by which to judge, he jumped to the conclusion that Lovin Child had been in mischief again.

"Now what yuh up to, you little scallywag?" he demanded. "How did you get hold of that? Consarn your little hide, Boy..."

"Let the kid have it," Cash muttered gruffly. "I gave it to him." He got up abruptly and went outside, and came in with wood for the cookstove, and became exceedingly busy, never once looking toward the other end of the room, where Bud was sprawled upon his back on the bunk, with Lovin Child astride his middle, having a high old time with a wonderful new game of "bronk riding."

Now and then Bud would stop bucking long enough to slap Lovin Child in the face with the soft side of the rabbit fur, and Lovin Child would squint his eyes and wrinkle his nose and laugh until he seemed likely to choke. Then Bud would cry, "Ride 'im, Boy! Ride 'im an' scratch 'im. Go get 'im, cowboy—he's your meat!" and would bounce Lovin Child till he squealed with glee.

Cash tried to ignore all that. Tried to keep his back to it. But he was human, and Bud was changed so completely in the last three days that Cash could scarcely credit his eyes and his ears. The old surly scowl was gone from Bud's face, his eyes held again the twinkle. Cash listened to the whoops, the baby laughter, the old, rodeo catch-phrases, and grinned while he fried his bacon.

Presently Bud gave a whoop, forgetting the feud in his play. "Lookit, Cash! He's ridin' straight up and whippin' as he rides! He's so-o-me bronk-fighter, buh-lieve me!"

Cash turned and looked, grinned and turned away again—but only to strip the rind off a fresh-fried slice of bacon the full width of the piece. He came down the room on his own side the dead line, and tossed the rind across to the bunk.

"Quirt him with that, Boy," he grunted, "and then you can eat it if you want."





Next: Lovin Child Wriggles In

Previous: And Bud Never Guessed



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