Bud Takes To The Hills
: Cabin Fever
In a little village which he had glimpsed from the top of a hill Bud went into the cluttered little general store and bought a few blocks of slim, evil smelling matches and a couple of pounds of sliced bacon, a loaf of stale bread, and two small cans of baked beans. He stuffed them all into the pocket of his overcoat, and went out and hunted up a long-distance telephone sign. It had not taken him more than an hour to walk to the town, for he had only to follow a country road that branched off th
t way for a couple of miles down a valley. There was a post office and the general store and a couple of saloons and a blacksmith shop that was thinking of turning into a garage but had gone no further than to hang out a sign that gasoline was for sale there. It was all very sordid and very lifeless and altogether discouraging in the drizzle of late afternoon. Bud did not see half a dozen human beings on his way to the telephone office, which he found was in the post office.
He called up San Francisco, and got the chief of police's office on the wire, and told them where they would find the men who had robbed that jewelry store of all its diamonds and some other unset jewels. Also he mentioned the car that was stolen, and that was now stalled and waiting for some kind soul to come and give it a tow.
He speedily had all the attention of the chief, and having thought out in advance his answers to certain pertinent questions, he did not stutter when they were asked. Yes, he had been hired to drive the ear south, and he had overheard enough to make him suspicious on the way. He knew that they had stolen the car. He was not absolutely sure that they were the diamond thieves but it would be easy enough to find out, because officers sent after them would naturally be mistaken for first aid from some garage, and the cops could nab the men and look into that grip they were so careful not to let out of their sight.
"Are you sure they won't get the car repaired and go on?" It was perfectly natural that the chief should fear that very thing.
"No chance!" Bud chuckled into the 'phone. "Not a chance in the world, chief. They'll be right there where I left 'em, unless some car comes along and gives 'em a tow. And if that happens you'll be able to trace 'em." He started to hang up, and added another bit of advice. "Say, chief, you better tell whoever gets the car, to empty the gas tank and clean out the carburetor and vacuum feed—and she'll go, all right! Adios."
He hung up and paid the charge hurriedly, and went out and down a crooked little lane that led between bushes to a creek and heavy timber. It did not seem to him advisable to linger; the San Francisco chief of police might set some officer in that village on his trail, just as a matter of precaution. Bud told himself that he would do it were he in the chief's place. When he reached the woods along the creek he ran, keeping as much as possible on thick leaf mold that left the least impression. He headed to the east, as nearly as he could judge, and when he came to a rocky canyon he struck into it.
He presently found himself in a network of small gorges that twisted away into the hills without any system whatever, as far as he could see. He took one that seemed to lead straightest toward where the sun would rise next morning, and climbed laboriously deeper and deeper into the hills. After awhile he had to descend from the ridge where he found himself standing bleakly revealed against a lowering, slaty sky that dripped rain incessantly. As far as he could see were hills and more hills, bald and barren except in certain canyons whose deeper shadows told of timber. Away off to the southwest a bright light showed briefly—the headlight of a Santa Fe train, he guessed it must be. To the east, which he faced, the land was broken with bare hills that fell just short of being mountains. He went down the first canyon that opened in that direction, ploughing doggedly ahead into the unknown.
That night Bud camped in the lee of a bank that was fairly well screened with rocks and bushes, and dined off broiled bacon and bread and a can of beans with tomato sauce, and called it a meal. At first he was not much inclined to take the risk of having a fire big enough to keep him warm. Later in the night he was perfectly willing to take the risk, but could not find enough dry wood. His rainproofed overcoat became quite soggy and damp on the inside, in spite of his efforts to shield himself from the rain. It was not exactly a comfortable night, but he worried through it somehow.
At daylight he opened another can of beans and made himself two thick bean sandwiches, and walked on while he ate them slowly. They tasted mighty good, Bud thought—but he wished fleetingly that he was back in the little green cottage on North Sixth Street, getting his own breakfast. He felt as though he could drink about four cups of coffee; and as to hotcakes—! But breakfast in the little green cottage recalled Marie, and Marie was a bitter memory. All the more bitter because he did not know where burrowed the root of his hot resentment. In a strong man's love for his home and his mate was it rooted, and drew therefrom the wormwood of love thwarted and spurned.
After awhile the high air currents flung aside the clouds like curtains before a doorway. The sunlight flashed out dazzlingly and showed Bud that the world, even this tumbled world, was good to look upon. His instincts were all for the great outdoors, and from such the sun brings quick response. Bud lifted his head, looked out over the hills to where a bare plain stretched in the far distance, and went on more briskly.
He did not meet any one at all; but that was chiefly because he did not want to meet any one. He went with his ears and his eyes alert, and was not above hiding behind a clump of stunted bushes when two horsemen rode down a canyon trail just below him. Also he searched for roads and then avoided them. It would be a fat morsel for Marie and her mother to roll under their tongues, he told himself savagely, if he were arrested and appeared in the papers as one of that bunch of crooks!
Late that afternoon, by traveling steadily in one direction, he topped a low ridge and saw an arm of the desert thrust out to meet him. A scooped gully with gravelly sides and rocky bottom led down that way, and because his feet were sore from so much sidehill travel, Bud went down. He was pretty well fagged too, and ready to risk meeting men, if thereby he might gain a square meal. Though he was not starving, or anywhere near it, he craved warm food and hot coffee.
So when he presently came upon two sway-backed burros that showed the sweaty imprint of packsaddles freshly removed, and a couple of horses also sweat roughened, he straightway assumed that some one was making camp not far away. One of the horses was hobbled, and they were all eating hungrily the grass that grew along the gully's sides. Camp was not only close, but had not yet reached suppertime, Bud guessed from the well-known range signs.
Two or three minutes proved him right. He came upon a man just driving the last tent peg. He straightened up and stared at Bud unblinkingly for a few seconds.
"Howdy, howdy," he greeted him then with tentative friendliness, and went on with his work. "You lost?" he added carefully. A man walking down out of the barren hills, and carrying absolutely nothing in the way of camp outfit, was enough to whet the curiosity of any one who knew that country. At the same time curiosity that became too apparent might be extremely unwelcome. So many things may drive a man into the hills—but few of them would bear discussion with strangers.
"Yes. I am, and I ain't." Bud came up and stood with his hands in his coat pockets, and watched the old fellow start his fire.
"Yeah—how about some supper? If you am, and you ain't as hungry as you look—"
"I'll tell the world I am, and then some. I ain't had a square meal since yesterday morning, and I grabbed that at a quick-lunch joint. I'm open to supper engagements, brother."
"All right. There's a side of bacon in that kyack over there. Get it out and slice some off, and we'll have supper before you know it. We will," he added pessimistically, "if this dang brush will burn."
Bud found the bacon and cut according to his appetite. His host got out a blackened coffeepot and half filled it with water from a dented bucket, and balanced it on one side of the struggling fire. He remarked that they had had some rain, to which Bud agreed. He added gravely that he believed it was going to clear up, though—unless the wind swung back into the storm quarter. Bud again professed cheerfully to be in perfect accord. After which conversational sparring they fell back upon the little commonplaces of the moment.
Bud went into a brush patch and managed to glean an armful of nearly dry wood, which he broke up with the axe and fed to the fire, coaxing it into freer blazing. The stranger watched him unobtrusively, critically, pottering about while Bud fried the bacon.
"I guess you've handled a frying pan before, all right," he remarked at last, when the bacon was fried without burning.
Bud grinned. "I saw one in a store window once as I was going by," he parried facetiously. "That was quite a while back."
"Yeah. Well, how's your luck with bannock? I've got it all mixed."
"Dump her in here, ole-timer," cried Bud, holding out the frying pan emptied of all but grease. "Wish I had another hot skillet to turn over the top."
"I guess you've been there, all right," the other chuckled. "Well, I don't carry but the one frying pan. I'm equipped light, because I've got to outfit with grub, further along."
"Well, we'll make out all right, just like this." Bud propped the handle of the frying pan high with a forked stick, and stood up. "Say, my name's Bud Moore, and I'm not headed anywhere in particular. I'm just traveling in one general direction, and that's with the Coast at my back. Drifting, that's all. I ain't done anything I'm ashamed of or scared of, but I am kinda bashful about towns. I tangled with a couple of crooks, and they're pulled by now, I expect. I'm dodging newspaper notoriety. Don't want to be named with 'em at all." He, spread his hands with an air of finality. "That's my tale of woe," he supplemented, "boiled down to essentials. I just thought I'd tell you."
"Yeah. Well, my name's Cash Markham, and I despise to have folks get funny over it. I'm a miner and prospector, and I'm outfitting for a trip for another party, looking up an old location that showed good prospects ten years ago. Man died, and his wife's trying to get the claim relocated. Get you a plate outa that furtherest kyack, and a cup. Bannock looks about done, so we'll eat."
That night Bud shared Cash Markham's blankets, and in the morning he cooked the breakfast while Cash Markham rounded up the burros and horses. In that freemasonry of the wilderness they dispensed with credentials, save those each man carried in his face and in his manner. And if you stop to think of it, such credentials are not easily forged, for nature writes them down, and nature is a truth-loving old dame who will never lead you far astray if only she is left alone to do her work in peace.
It transpired, in the course of the forenoon's travel, that Cash Markham would like to have a partner, if he could find a man that suited. One guessed that he was fastidious in the matter of choosing his companions, in spite of the easy way in which he had accepted Bud. By noon they had agreed that Bud should go along and help relocate the widow's claim. Cash Markham hinted that they might do a little prospecting on their own account. It was a country he had long wanted to get into, he said, and while he intended to do what Mrs. Thompson had hired him to do, still there was no law against their prospecting on their own account. And that, he explained, was one reason why he wanted a good man along. If the Thompson claim was there, Bud could do the work under the supervision of Cash, and Cash could prospect.
"And anyway, it's bad policy for a man to go off alone in this part of the country," he added with a speculative look across the sandy waste they were skirting at a pace to suit the heavily packed burros. "Case of sickness or accident—or suppose the stock strays off—it's bad to be alone."
"Suits me fine to go with you," Bud declared. "I'm next thing to broke, but I've got a lot of muscle I can cash in on the deal. And I know the open. And I can rock a gold-pan and not spill out all the colors, if there is any—and whatever else I know is liable to come in handy, and what I don't know I can learn."
"That's fair enough. Fair enough," Markham agreed. "I'll allow you wages on the Thompson job' till you've earned enough to balance up with the outfit. After that it'll be fifty-fifty. How'll that be, Bud?"
"Fair enough—fair enough," Bud retorted with faint mimicry. "If I was all up in the air a few days ago, I seem to have lit on my feet, and that's good enough for me right now. We'll let 'er ride that way."
And the twinkle, as he talked, was back in his eyes, and the smiley quirk was at the corner of his lips.