Down through the Bad Lands the Little Missouri comes in long windings, white, from a distance, as a frozen river between the ash-gray hills. At its margin there are willows; on the small forelands, which flood in June when the mountain waters are released, cottonwoods grow, leaning toward the southwest like captives straining in their bonds, yearning in their way for the sun and winds of kinder latitudes.
Rain comes to that land but seldom in the summer days; in winter the wind sweeps the snow into rocky canons; buttes, with tops leveled by the drift of the old, earth-making days, break the weary repetition of hill beyond hill.
But to people who dwell in a land a long time and go about the business of getting a living out of what it has to offer, its wonders are no longer notable, its hardships no longer peculiar. So it was with the people who lived in the Bad Lands at the time that we come among them on the vehicle of this tale. To them it was only an ordinary country of toil and disappointment, or of opportunity and profit, according to their station and success.
To Jeremiah Lambert it seemed the land of hopelessness, the last boundary of utter defeat as he labored over the uneven road at the end of a blistering summer day, trundling his bicycle at his side. There was a suit-case strapped to the handlebar of the bicycle, and in that receptacle were the wares which this guileless peddler had come into that land to sell. He had set out from Omaha full of enthusiasm and youthful vigor, incited to the utmost degree of vending fervor by the representations of the general agent for the little instrument which had been the stepping-stone to greater things for many an ambitious young man.
According to the agent, Lambert reflected, as he pushed his punctured, lop-wheeled, disordered, and dejected bicycle along; there had been none of the ambitious business climbers at hand to add his testimony to the general agent's word.
Anyway, he had taken the agency, and the agent had taken his essential twenty-two dollars and turned over to him one hundred of those notable ladders to future greatness and affluence. Lambert had them there in his imitation-leather suit-case—from which the rain had taken the last deceptive gloss—minus seven which he had sold in the course of fifteen days.
In those fifteen days Lambert had traveled five hundred miles, by the power of his own sturdy legs, by the grace of his bicycle, which had held up until this day without protest over the long, sandy, rocky, dismal roads, and he had lived on less than a gopher, day taken by day.
Housekeepers were not pining for the combination potato-parer, apple-corer, can-opener, tack-puller, known as the "All-in-One" in any reasonable proportion.
It did not go. Indisputably it was a good thing, and well built, and finished like two dollars' worth of cutlery. The selling price, retail, was one dollar, and it looked to an unsophisticated young graduate of an agricultural college to be a better opening toward independence and the foundation of a farm than a job in the hay fields. A man must make his start somewhere, and the farther away from competition the better his chance.
This country to which the general agent had sent him was becoming more and more sparsely settled. The chances were stretching out against him with every mile. The farther into that country he should go the smaller would become the need for that marvelous labor-saving invention.
Lambert had passed the last house before noon, when his sixty-five-pound bicycle had suffered a punctured tire, and there had bargained with a Scotch woman at the greasy kitchen door with the smell of curing sheepskins in it for his dinner. It took a good while to convince the woman that the All-in-One was worth it, but she yielded out of pity for his hungry state. From that house he estimated that he had made fifteen miles before the tire gave out; since then he had added ten or twelve more to the score. Nothing that looked like a house was in sight, and it was coming on dusk.
He labored on, bent in spirit, sore of foot. From the rise of a hill, when it had fallen so dark that he was in doubt of the road, he heard a voice singing. And this was the manner of the song:
Oh, I bet my money on a bob-tailed hoss,
An' a hoo-dah, an' a hoo-dah;
I bet my money on a bob-tailed hoss,
An' a hoo-dah bet on the bay.
The singer was a man, his voice an aggravated tenor with a shake to it like an accordion, and he sang that stanza over and over as Lambert leaned on his bicycle and listened.
Lambert went down the hill. Presently the shape of trees began to form out of the valley. Behind that barrier the man was doing his singing, his voice now rising clear, now falling to distance as if he passed to and from, in and out of a door, or behind some object which broke the flow of sound. A whiff of coffee, presently, and the noise of the man breaking dry sticks, as with his foot, jarring his voice to a deeper tremolo. Now the light, with the legs of the man in it, showing a cow-camp, the chuck wagon in the foreground, the hope of hospitality big in its magnified proportions.
Beyond the fire where the singing cook worked, men were unsaddling their horses and turning them into the corral. Lambert trundled his bicycle into the firelight, hailing the cook with a cheerful word.
The cook had a tin plate in his hands, which he was wiping on a flour sack. At sight of this singular combination of man and wheels he leaned forward in astonishment, his song bitten off between two words, the tin plate before his chest, the drying operations suspended. Amazement was on him, if not fright. Lambert put his hand into his hip-pocket and drew forth a shining All-in-One, which he always had ready there to produce as he approached a door.
He stood there with it in his hand, the firelight over him, smiling in his most ingratiating fashion. That had been one of the strong texts of the general agent. Always meet them with a smile, he said, and leave them with a smile, no matter whether they deserved it or not. It proved a man's unfaltering confidence in himself and the article which he presented to the world.
Lambert was beginning to doubt even this paragraph of his general instructions. He had been smiling until he believed his eye-teeth were wearing thin from exposure, but it seemed the one thing that had a grain in it among all the buncombe and bluff. And he stood there smiling at the camp cook, who seemed to be afraid of him, the tin plate held before his gizzard like a shield.
There was nothing about Lambert's appearance to scare anybody, and least of all a bow-legged man beside a fire in the open air of the Bad Lands, where things are not just as they are in any other part of this world at all. His manner was rather boyish and diffident, and wholly apologetic, and the All-in-One glistened in his hand like a razor, or a revolver, or anything terrible and destructive that a startled camp cook might make it out to be.
A rather long-legged young man, in canvas puttees, a buoyant and irrepressible light in his face which the fatigues and disappointments of the long road had not dimmed; a light-haired man, with his hat pushed back from his forehead, and a speckled shirt on him, and trousers rather tight—that was what the camp cook saw, standing exactly as he had turned and posed at Lambert's first word.
Lambert drew a step nearer, and began negotiations for supper on the basis of an even exchange.
"Oh, agent, are you?" said the cook, letting out a breath of relief.
"I don't know how to tell 'em apart. Well, put it away, son, put it away, whatever it is. No hungry man don't have to dig up his money to eat in this camp."
This was the kindest reception that Lambert had received since taking to the road to found his fortunes on the All-in-One. He was quick with his expression of appreciation, which the cook ignored while he went about the business of lighting two lanterns which he hung on the wagon end.
Men came stringing into the light from the noise of unsaddling at the corral with loud and jocund greetings to the cook, and respectful, even distant and reserved, "evenin's" for the stranger. All of them but the cook wore cartridge-belts and revolvers, which they unstrapped and hung about the wagon as they arrived. All of them, that is, but one black-haired, tall young man. He kept his weapon on, and sat down to eat with it close under his hand.
Nine or ten of them sat in at the meal, with a considerable clashing of cutlery on tin plates and cups. It was evident to Lambert that his presence exercised a restraint over their customary exchange of banter. In spite of the liberality of the cook, and the solicitation on part of his numerous hosts to "eat hearty," Lambert could not help the feeling that he was away off on the edge, and that his arrival had put a rein on the spirits of these men.
Mainly they were young men like himself, two or three of them only betrayed by gray in beards and hair; brown, sinewy, lean-jawed men, no dissipation showing in their eyes.
Lambert felt himself drawn to them by a sense of kinship. He never had been in a cow-camp before in his life, but there was something in the air of it, in the dignified ignoring of the evident hardships of such a life that told him he was among his kind.
The cook was a different type of man from the others, and seemed to have been pitched into the game like the last pawn of a desperate player. He was a short man, thick in the body, heavy in the shoulders, so bow-legged that he weaved from side to side like a sailor as he went swinging about his work. It seemed, indeed, that he must have taken to a horse very early in life, while his legs were yet plastic, for they had set to the curve of the animal's barrel like the bark on a tree.
His black hair was cut short, all except a forelock like a horse, leaving his big ears naked and unframed. These turned away from his head as if they had been frosted and wilted, and if ears ever stood as an index to generosity in this world the camp cook's at once pronounced him the most liberal man to be met between the mountains and the sea. His features were small, his mustache and eyebrows large, his nose sharp and thin, his eyes blue, and as bright and merry as a June day.
He wore a blue wool shirt, new and clean, with a bright scarlet necktie as big as a hand of tobacco; and a green velvet vest, a galloping horse on his heavy gold watch-chain, and great, loose, baggy corduroy trousers, like a pirate of the Spanish Main. These were folded into expensive, high-heeled, quilted-topped boots, and, in spite of his trade, there was not a spot of grease or flour on him anywhere to be seen.
Lambert noted the humorous glances which passed from eye to eye, and the sly winks that went round the circle of cross-legged men with tin plates between their knees as they looked now and then at his bicycle leaning close by against a tree. But the exactions of hospitality appeared to keep down both curiosity and comment during the meal. Nobody asked him where he came from, what his business was, or whither he was bound, until the last plate was pitched into the box, the last cup drained of its black, scalding coffee.
It was one of the elders who took it up then, after he had his pipe going and Lambert had rolled a cigarette from the proffered pouch.
"What kind of a horse is that you're ridin', son?" he inquired.
"Have a look at it," Lambert invited, knowing that the machine was new to most, if not all, of them. He led the way to the bicycle, they unlimbering from their squatting beside the wagon and following.
He took the case containing his unprofitable wares from the handlebars and turned the bicycle over to them, offering no explanations on its peculiarities or parts, speaking only when they asked him, in horse parlance, with humor that broadened as they put off their reserve. On invitation to show its gait he mounted it, after explaining that it had stepped on a nail and traveled lamely. He circled the fire and came back to them, offering it to anybody who might want to try his skill.
Hard as they were to shake out of the saddle, not a man of them, old or young, could mount the rubber-shod steed of the city streets. All of them gave it up after a tumultuous hour of hilarity but the bow-legged cook, whom they called Taterleg. He said he never had laid much claim to being a horseman, but if he couldn't ride a long-horned Texas steer that went on wheels he'd resign his job.
He took it out into the open, away from the immediate danger of a collision with a tree, and squared himself to break it in. He got it going at last, cheered by loud whoops of admiration and encouragement, and rode it straight into the fire. He scattered sticks and coals and bore a wabbling course ahead, his friends after him, shouting and waving hats. Somewhere in the dark beyond the lanterns he ran into a tree.
But he came back pushing the machine, his nose skinned, sweating and triumphant, offering to pay for any damage he had done. Lambert assured him there was no damage. They sat down to smoke again, all of them feeling better, the barrier against the stranger quite down, everything comfortable and serene.
Lambert told them, in reply to kindly, polite questioning from the elder of the bunch, a man designated by the name Siwash, how he was lately graduated from the Kansas Agricultural College at Manhattan, and how he had taken the road with a grip full of hardware to get enough ballast in his jeans to keep the winter wind from blowing him away.
"Yes, I thought that was a college hat you had on," said Siwash.
Lambert acknowledged its weakness.
"And that shirt looked to me from the first snort I got at it like a college shirt. I used to be where they was at one time."
Lambert explained that an aggie wasn't the same as a regular college fellow, such as they turn loose from the big factories in the East, where they thicken their tongues to the broad a and call it an education; nothing like that, at all. He went into the details of the great farms manned by the students, the bone-making, as well as the brain-making work of such an institution as the one whose shadows he had lately left.
"I ain't a-findin' any fault with them farmer colleges," Siwash said. "I worked for a man in Montanny that sent his boy off to one of 'em, and that feller come back and got to be state vet'nary. I ain't got nothing ag'in' a college hat, as far as that goes, neither, but I know 'em when I see 'em—I can spot 'em every time. Will you let us see them Do-it-Alls?"
Lambert produced one of the little implements, explained its points, and it passed from hand to hand, with comments which would have been worth gold to the general agent.
"It's a toothpick and a tater-peeler put together," said Siwash, when it came back to his hand. The young fellow with the black, sleek hair, who kept his gun on, reached for it, bent over it in the light, examining it with interest.
"You can trim your toenails with it and half-sole your boots," he said. "You can shave with it and saw wood, pull teeth and brand mavericks; you can open a bottle or a bank with it, and you can open the hired gal's eyes with it in the mornin'. It's good for the old and the young, for the crippled and the in-sane; it'll heat your house and hoe your garden, and put the children to bed at night. And it's made and sold and distributed by Mr.—Mr.—by the Duke——"
Here he bent over it a little closer, turning it in the light to see what was stamped in the metal beneath the words "The Duke," that being the name denoting excellence which the manufacturer had given the tool.
"By the Duke of—the Duke of—is them three links of saursage, Siwash?"
Siwash looked at the triangle under the name.
"No, that's Indian writin'; it means a mountain," he said.
"Sure, of course, I might 'a' knowed," the young man said with deep self-scorn. "That's a butte, that's old Chimney Butte, as plain as smoke. Made and sold and distributed in the Bad Lands by the Duke of Chimney Butte. Duke," said he solemnly, rising and offering his hand, "I'm proud to know you."
There was no laughter at this; it was not time to laugh yet. They sat looking at the young man, primed and ready for the big laugh, indeed, but holding it in for its moment. As gravely as the cowboy had risen, as solemnly as he held his countenance in mock seriousness, Lambert rose and shook hands with him.
"The pleasure is mostly mine," said he, not a flush of embarrassment or resentment in his face, not a quiver of the eyelid as he looked the other in the face, as if this were some high and mighty occasion, in truth.
"And you're all right, Duke, you're sure all right," the cowboy said, a note of admiration in his voice.
"I'd bet you money he's all right," Siwash said, and the others echoed it in nods and grins.
The cowboy sat down and rolled a cigarette, passed his tobacco across to Lambert, and they smoked. And no matter if his college hat had been only half as big as it was, or his shirt ring-streaked and spotted, they would have known the stranger for one of their kind, and accepted him as such.