Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  


B. M. Bower

  Produced by Mary Starr


  By B. M. Bower





  In hot mid afternoon when the acrid, gray dust cloud kicked up by thelistless plodding of eight thousand cloven hoofs formed the only blot onthe hard blue above the Staked Plains, an ox stumbled and fell awkwardlyunder his yoke, and refused to scramble up when his negro driver shoutedand prodded him with the end of a willow gad.

  "Call your master, Ezra," directed a quiet woman voice gone weary andtoneless with the heat and two restless children. "Don't beat the poorbrute. He can't go any farther and carry the yoke, much less pull thewagon."

  Ezra dropped the gad and stepped upon the wagon tongue where he mightsquint into the dust cloud and decide which gray, plodding horsemanalongside the herd was Robert Birnie. Far across the sluggish river ofgrimy backs, a horse threw up its head with a peculiar sidelong motion,and Ezra's eyes lightened with recognition. That was the colt, Rattler,chafing against the slow pace he must keep. Hands cupped around big,chocolate-colored lips and big, yellow-white teeth, Ezra whoo-ee-ed thesignal that called the nearest riders to the wagon that held the boss'sfamily.

  Bob Birnie and another man turned and came trotting back, and at thecall a scrambling youngster peered over his mother's shoulder in theforward opening of the prairie schooner.

  "O-oh, Dulcie! We gonna git a wile cow agin!"

  Dulcie was asleep and did not answer, and the woman in the slatsun-bonnet pushed back with her elbow the eager, squirming body of hereldest. "Stay in the wagon, Buddy. Mustn't get down amongst the oxen.One might kick you. Lie down and take a nap with sister. When you wakenit will be nice and cool again."

  "Not s'eepy!" objected Buddy for the twentieth time in the past twohours. But he crawled back, and his mother, relieved of his restlesspresence, leaned forward to watch the approach of her husband and thecowboy. This was the second time in the past two days that an ox hadfallen exhausted, and her eyes showed a trace of anxiety. With the feedso poor and the water so scarce, it seemed as though the heavy wagon,loaded with a few household idols too dear to leave behind, a campoutfit and the necessary clothing and bedding for a woman and twochildren, was going to be a real handicap on the drive.

  "Robert, if we had another wagon, I could drive it and make the loadless for these four oxen," she suggested when her husband came up. "Alighter wagon, perhaps with one team of strong horses, or even with ayoke of oxen, I could drive well enough, and relieve these poor brutes."She pushed back her sun-bonnet and with it a mass of red-brown hair thatcurled damply on her forehead, and smiled disarmingly. "Buddy would bethe happiest baby boy alive if I could let him drive now and then!" sheadded humorously.

  "Can't make a wagon and an extra yoke of oxen out of this cactus patch,"Bob Birnie grinned good humoredly. "Not even to tickle Buddy. I'll seewhat I can do when we reach Olathe. But you won't have to take a man'splace and drive, Lassie." He took the cup of water she drew from a kegand proffered-water was precious on the Staked Plains, that season-andhis eyes dwelt on her fondly while he drank. Then, giving her hand asqueeze when he returned the cup, he rode back to scan the herd for ananimal big enough and well-conditioned enough to supplant the worn-outox.

  "Aren't you thirsty, Frank Davis? I think a cup of water will do yougood," she called out to the cowboy, who had dismounted to tighten hisforward cinch in expectation of having to use his rope.

  The cowboy dropped stirrup from saddle horn and came forwardstiff-leggedly, leading his horse. His sun-baked face, grimed with thedust of the herd, was aglow with heat, and his eyes showed gratitude.A cup of water from the hand of the boss's wife was worth a gallon fromthe barrel slip-slopping along in the lurching chuck-wagon.

  "How's the kids makin' out, Mis' Birnie?" Frank inquired politely whenhe had swallowed the last drop and had wiped his mouth with the back ofhis hand. "It's right warm and dusty t'day."

  "They're asleep at last, thank goodness," she answered, glancing backat a huddle of pink calico that showed just over the crest of a pileof crumpled quilts. "Buddy has a hard time of it. He's all man in hisdisposition, and all baby in size. He's been teasing to walk with theniggers and help drive the drag. Is my husband calling?"

  Her husband was, and Frank rode away at a leisurely trot. Haste hadlittle to do with trailing a herd, where eight miles was called a goodday's journey and six an average achievement. The fallen ox was unyokedby the mellow-voiced but exasperated Ezra, and since he would not rise,the three remaining oxen, urged by the gad and Ezra's upbraiding,swung the wagon to one side and moved it a little farther after theslow-moving herd, so that the exhausted animal could rest, and theraw recruit be yoked in where he could do the least harm and would thespeediest learn a new lesson in discomfort. Mrs. Birnie glanced againat the huddle of pink in the nest of quilts behind a beloved chest ofdrawers in the wagon, and sighed with relief because Buddy slept.

  An ambitious man-child already was Buddy, accustomed to certain phrasesthat, since he could toddle, had formed inevitable accompaniment to hisinvestigative footsteps. "L'k-out-dah!" he had for a long time believedto be his name among the black folk of his world. White folk had variedit slightly. He knew that "Run-to-mother-now" meant that something hewould delight in but must not watch was going to take place. Spankingsmore or less official and not often painful signified that big folks didnot understand him and his activities, or were cross about something.Now, mother did not want him to watch the wild cow run and jump at theend of a rope until finally forced to submit to the ox-yoke and helppull the wagon. Buddy loved to watch them, but he understood that motherwas afraid the wild cow might step on him. Why she should want him tosleep when he was not sleepy he had not yet discovered, and so disdainedto give it serious consideration.

  "Not s'eepy," Buddy stated again emphatically as a sort of mentaldismissal of the command, and crawled carefully past Sister and lifted aflap of the canvas cover. A button--the last button--popped off his pinkapron and the sleeves rumpled down over his hands. It felt all loose anduseless, so Buddy stopped long enough to pull the apron off and throwit beside Sister before he crawled under the canvas flap and walked downthe spokes of a rear wheel. He did not mean to get in the way of thewild cow, but he did want action for his restless legs. He thought thatif he went away from the wagon and the herd and played while they werecatching the wild cow, it would be just the same as if he took a nap.Mother hadn't thought of it, or she might have suggested it.

  So Buddy went away from the wagon and down into a shallow dry wash wherethe wild cow would not come, and played. The first thing he saw wasa scorpion-nasty old bug that will bite hard-and he threw rocks at ituntil it scuttled under a ledge out of sight. The next thing he saw thatinterested him at all was a horned toad; a hawn-toe, he called it, afterEzra's manner of speaking. Ezra had caught a hawntoe for him a few daysago, but it had mysteriously disappeared out of the wagon. Buddy didnot connect his mother's lack of enthusiasm with the disappearance. Hersympathy with his loss had seemed to him real, and he wanted another,fully believing that in this also mother would be pleased. So he tookafter this particular HAWN-toe, that crawled into various
hiding placesonly to be spied and routed out with small rocks and a sharp stick.

  The dry wash remained shallow, and after a while Buddy, still in hotpursuit of the horned toad, emerged upon the level where the herd hadpassed. The wagon was nowhere in sight, but this did not disturb Buddy.He was not lost. He knew perfectly that the brown cloud on his narrowedhorizon was the dust over the herd, and that the wagon was just behind,because the wind that day was blowing from the southwest, and alsobecause the oxen did not walk as fast as the herd. In the distance hesaw the "Drag" moving lazily along after the dust-cloud, with barefootedniggers driving the laggard cattle and singing dolefully as they walked.Emphatically Buddy was not lost.

  He wanted that particular horned toad, however, and he kept after ituntil he had it safe in his two hands.

  It happened that when he pounced at last upon the toad he disturbedwith his presence a colony of red ants on moving day. The close ranksof them, coming and going in a straight line, caught and held Buddy'sattention to the exclusion of everything else--save the horned toadhe had been at such pains to acquire. He tucked the toad inside hisunderwaist and ignored its wriggling against his flesh while he squattedin the hot sunshine and watched the ants, his mind one great question.Where were they going, and what were they carrying, and why were theyall in such a hurry?

  Buddy had to know. To himself he called trailherd--but father's cattledid not carry white lumps of stuff on their heads, and furthermore, theyall walked together in the same direction; whereas the ant herd traveledboth ways. Buddy made sure of this, and then started off, following whathe had decided was the real trail of the ants. Most children would havestirred them up with a stick; Buddy let them alone so that he could seewhat they were doing all by themselves.

  The ants led him to a tiny hole with a finely pulverized rim just at theedge of a sprawly cactus. This last Buddy carefully avoided, for evenat four years old he had long ago learned the sting of cactus thorns. Arattlesnake buzzed warning when he backed away and the shock to Buddy'snerves roused within him the fighting spirit. Rattlesnakes he knew also,as the common enemy of men and cattle. Once a steer had been bitten onthe nose and his head had swollen up so he couldn't eat. Buddy did notwant that to happen to HIM.

  He made sure that the horned toad was safe, chose a rock as large as hecould lift and heave from him, and threw it at the buzzing, gray coil.He did not wait to see what happened, but picked up another rock, aterrific buzzing sounding stridently from the coil. He threw anotherand another with all the force of his healthy little muscles. For afour-year-old he aimed well; several of the rocks landed on the coil.

  The snake wriggled feebly from under the rocks and tried to crawl awayand hide, its rattles clicking listlessly. Buddy had another rock inhis hands and in his eyes the blue fire of righteous conquest. Hewent close-close enough to have brought a protesting cry from agrownup-lifted the rock high as he could and brought it down fair onthe battered head of the rattler. The loathsome length of it wincedand thrashed ineffectively, and after a few minutes lay slack, the tailwriggling aimlessly.

  Buddy stood with his feet far apart and his hands on his hips, as he hadseen the cowboy do whom he had unconsciously imitated in the killing.

  "Snakes like Injuns. Dead'ns is good 'ens," He observed sententiously,still playing the part of the cowboy. Then, quite sure that the snakewas dead, he took it by the tail, felt again of the horned toad on hischest and went back to see what the ants were doing.

  When so responsible a person as a grownup stops to watch the orderlyactivities of an army of ants, minutes and hours slip away unnoticed.Buddy was absolutely fascinated, lost to everything else. When someinstinct born in the very blood of him warned Buddy that time waspassing, he stood up and saw that the sun hung just above the edge ofthe world, and that the sky was a glorious jumble of red and purple andsoft rose.

  The first thing Buddy did was to stoop and study attentively the deadsnake, to see if the tail still wiggled. It did not, though he watchedit for a full minute. He looked at the sun--it had not set but glowedbig and yellow as far from the earth as his father was tall. Ezra hadlied to him. Dead snakes did not wiggle their tails until sundown.

  Buddy looked for the dust cloud of the herd, and was surprised to findit smaller than he had ever seen it, and farther away. Indeed, he couldonly guess that the faint smudge on the horizon was the dust he hadfollowed for more days than he could count. He was not afraid, but hewas hungry and he thought his mother would maybe wonder where he was,and he knew that the point-riders had already stopped pushing the herdahead, and that the cattle were feeding now so that they would beddown at dusk. The chuckwagon was camped somewhere close by, and oldStep-and-a-Half, the lame cook, was stirring things in his Dutch ovensover the camp-fire. Buddy could almost smell the beans and the meatstew, he was so hungry. He turned and took one last, long look at theendless stream of ants still crawling along, picked up the dead snake bythe tail, cupped the other hand over the horned toad inside his waist,and started for camp.

  After a while he heard someone shouting, but beyond faint relief that hewas after all near his "Outfit", Buddy paid no attention. The boys werealways shouting to one another, or yelling at their horses or at theherd or at the niggers. It did not occur to him that they mightbe shouting for him, until from another direction he heard Ezra'sunmistakable, booming voice. Ezra sang a thunderous baritone when theniggers lifted up their voices in song around their camp-fire, and hecould be heard for half a mile when he called in real earnest. He wascalling now, and Buddy, stopping to listen, fancied that he heard hisname. A little farther on, he was sure of it.

  "OOO-EE! Whah y'all, Buddy? OOO-EEE!"

  "I'm a-comin'," Buddy shrilled impatiently. "What y' all want?"

  His piping voice did not carry to Ezra, who kept on shouting. Theradiant purple and red and gold above him deepened, darkened. The wholewild expanse of half-barren land became suddenly a place of unearthlybeauty that dulled to the shadows of dusk. Buddy trudged on, keepingto the deep-worn buffalo trails which the herd had followed and scoredafresh with their hoofs. He could not miss his way-not Buddy, son of BobBirnie, owner of the Tomahawk outfit-but his legs were growing prettytired, and he was so hungry that he could have sat down on the groundand cried with the gnawing food-call of his empty little stomach.

  He could hear other voices shouting at intervals now, but Ezra's voicewas the loudest and the closest, and it seemed to Buddy that Ezra neveronce stopped calling. Twice Buddy called back that he was a-comin', butEzra shouted just the same: "OOO-EE! WHAH Y' ALL, BUDDY? OOO-EE!"

  Imperceptibly dusk deepened to darkness. A gust of anger swept Buddy'ssoul because he was tired, because he was hungry and he was yet a longway from the camp, but chiefly because Ezra persisted in calling afterBuddy had several times answered. He heard someone whom he recognizedas Frank Davis, but by this time he was so angry that he would not say aword, though he was tempted to ask Frank to take him up on his horse andlet him ride to camp. He heard others-and once the beat of hoofs camequite close. But there was a wide streak of Scotch stubbornness inBuddy--along with several other Scotch streaks--and he continued hisstumbling progress, dragging the snake by the tail, his other handholding fast the horned toad.

  His heart jumped up and almost choked him when first saw the threetwinkles on the ground which knew were not stars but camp-fires.

  Quite unexpectedly he trudged into the firelight where Step-and-a-Halfwas stirring delectable things in the iron pots and stopping everyminute or so to stare anxiously into the gloom. Buddy stood blinking andsniffing, his eyes fixed upon the Dutch ovens.

  "I'm HUNGRY!" he announced accusingly, gripping the toad that had begunto squirm at the heat and light. "I kilt a snake an' I'm HUNGRY!"

  "Good gorry!" swore Step-and-a-Half, and whipped out his six-shooter andfired three shots into the air.

  Footsteps came scurrying. Buddy's mother swept him into her arms,laughing with a little whimpering sound of tears in the laughter. Buddywriggled pro
testingly in her arms.

  "L'kout! Y' all SKUCSH 'im! I got a HAWN-toe; wight here." He patted hischest gloatingly. "An' I got a snake. I kilt 'im. An' I'm HUNGRY."

  Mother of Buddy though she was, Lassie set him down hurriedly andsurveyed her man-child from a little distance.

  "Buddy! Drop that snake instantly'"

  Buddy obeyed, but he planted a foot close to his kill and pouted hislips. "'S my snake. I kilt 'im," He said firmly. He pulled the hornedtoad from his waist-front and held it tightly in his two hands. "An's myhawn-toe. I ketche'd'm. 'Way ova dere," he added, tilting his tow headtoward the darkness behind him.

  Bob Birnie rode up at a gallop, pulled up his horse in the edge of thefire glow and dismounted hastily.

  Bob Birnie never needed more than one glance to furnish him the detailsof a scene. He saw the very small boy confronting his mother with a deadsnake, a horned toad and a stubborn set to his lips. He saw that themother looked rather helpless before the combination--and his brownmustache hid a smile. He walked up and looked his first-born over.

  "Buddy," He demanded sternly, "where have you been?"

  "Out dere. Kilt a snake. Ants was trailing a herd. I got a HAWN-toe. An'I'm hungry!"

  "You know better than to leave the wagon, young man. Didn't you know wehad to get out and hunt you, and mother was scared the wolves might eatyou? Didn't you hear us calling you? Why didn't you answer?"

  Buddy looked up from under his baby eyebrows at his father, who seemedvery tall and very terrible. But his bare foot touched the dead snakeand he took comfort. "I was comin'," he said. "I WASN'T los'. I bringedmy snake and my hawn-toe. An' dey--WASN'T--any--woluffs!" The last wordcame muffled, buried in his mother's skirts.