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

satisfaction.



"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

saddle."



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

yuh before."



"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

tentatively.



"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

you're from----"



"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

records.



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

to do."



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.





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