Ford lifted his arms above his head to yawn as does a man who has slept too heavily, found his biceps stiffened and sore, and massaged them gingerly with his finger-tips. His eyes took on the vacancy of memory straining at the leash of forgetfulness. He sighed largely, swung his head slowly from left to right in mute admission of failure to grasp what lay just behind his slumber, and thereby discovered other muscles that protested against sudden movement. He felt his neck with a careful, rubbing gesture. One hand strayed to his left cheekbone, hovered there tentatively, wandered to the bridge of his nose, and from there dropped inertly to the bed.
"Lordy me! I must have been drunk last night," he said aloud, mechanically taking the straight line of logic from effect to cause, as much experience had taught him to do.
"You was—and then some," replied an unemotional voice from somewhere behind him.
"Oh! That you, Sandy?" Ford lay quiet, trying to remember. His finger-tips explored the right side of his face; now and then he winced under their touch, light as it was.
"I must have carried an awful load," he decided, again unerringly taking the backward trail from effect to cause. Later, logic carried him farther. "Who'd I lick, Sandy?"
"Several." The unseen Sandy gave one the impression of a man smoking and speaking between puffs. "Can't say just who—you did start in on. You wound up on—the preacher."
"Preacher?" Ford's tone matched the flicker of interest in his eyes.
Ford meditated a moment. "I don't recollect ever licking a preacher before," he observed curiously.
Life, stale and drab since his eyes opened, gathered to itself the pale glow of awakening interest. Ford rose painfully, inch by inch, until he was sitting upon the side of the bed, got from there to his feet, looked down and saw that he was clothed to his boots, and crossed slowly to where a cheap, flyspecked looking-glass hung awry upon the wall. His self-inspection was grave and minute. His eyes held the philosophic calm of accustomedness.
"Who put this head on me, Sandy?" he inquired apathetically. "The preacher?"
"I d' know. You had it when you come up outa the heap. You licked the preacher afterwards, I think."
Sandy was reading a ragged-backed novel while he smoked; his interest in Ford and Ford's battered countenance was plainly perfunctory.
Outside, the rain fell aslant in the wind and drummed dismally upon the little window beside Sandy. It beat upon the door and trickled underneath in a thin rivulet to a shallow puddle, formed where the floor was sunken. A dank warmth and the smell of wet wood heating to the blazing point pervaded the room and mingled with the coarse aroma of cheap, warmed-over coffee.
"Did anybody get married last night?" The leash of forgetfulness was snapping, strand by strand. Troubled remembrance peered out from behind the philosophic calm in Ford's eyes.
"Unh-hunh." Sandy turned a leaf and at the same time flicked the ashes from his cigarette with a mechanical finger movement. "You did." He looked briefly up from the page. "That's why you licked the preacher," he assisted, and went back to his reading.
A subdued rumble of mid-autumn thunder jarred sullenly overhead. Ford ceased caressing the purple half-moon which inclosed his left eye and began moodily straightening his tie.
"Now what'n hell did I do that for?" he inquired complainingly.
"Search me," mumbled Sandy over his book. He read half a page farther. "Do what for?" he asked, with belated attention.
Ford swore and went over and lifted the coffeepot from the stove, shook it, looked in, and made a grimace of disgust as the steam smote him in the face. "Paugh!" He set down the pot and turned upon Sandy.
"Get your nose out of that book a minute and talk!" he commanded in a tone beseeching for all its surly growl. "You say I got married. I kinda recollect something of the kind. What I want to know is who's the lady? And what did I do it for?" He sat down, leaned his bruised head upon his palms, and spat morosely into the stove-hearth. "Lordy me," he grumbled. "I don't know any lady well enough to marry her—and I sure can't think of any female lady that would marry me—not even by proxy!"
Sandy closed the book upon a forefinger and regarded Ford with that blend of pity, amusement, and tolerance which is so absolutely unbearable to one who has behaved foolishly and knows it. Ford would not have borne the look if he had seen it; but he was caressing a bruise on the point of his jaw and staring dejectedly into the meager blaze which rimmed the lower edge of the stove's front door, and so remained unconscious of his companion's impertinence.
"Who was the lady, Sandy?" he begged dispiritedly, after a silence.
"Search me" Sandy replied again succinctly. "Some stranger that blew in here with a license and the preacher and said you was her fee-ancy." (Sandy read romances, mostly, and permitted his vocabulary to profit thereby.) "You never denied it, even when she said your name was a nomdy gair; and you let her marry you, all right."
"Are you sure of that?" Ford looked up from under lowering eyebrows.
"Unh-hunh—that's what you done, all right." Sandy's voice was dishearteningly positive.
"Lordy me!" gasped Ford under his breath.
There was a silence which slid Sandy's interest back into his book. He turned a leaf and was half-way down the page before he was interrupted by more questions.
"Say! Where's she at now?" Ford spoke with a certain furtive lowering of his voice.
"I d' know." Sandy read a line with greedy interest. "She took the 'leven-twenty," he added then. Another mental lapse. "You seen her to the train yourself."
"The hell I did!" Ford's good eye glared incredulity, but Sandy was again following hungrily the love-tangle of an unpronounceable count in the depths of the Black Forest, and he remained perfectly unconscious of the look and the mental distress which caused it. Ford went back to studying the meager blaze and trying to remember. He might be able to extract the whole truth from Sandy, but that would involve taking his novel away from him—by force, probably; and the loss of the book would be very likely to turn Sandy so sullen that he would refuse to answer, or to tell the truth, at any rate; and Ford's muscles were very, very sore. He did not feel equal to a scuffle with Sandy, just then. He repeated something which sounded like an impromptu litany and had to do with the ultimate disposal of his own soul.
"Hunh?" asked Sandy.
Whereupon Ford, being harassed mentally and in great physical discomfort as well, specifically disposed of Sandy's immortal soul also.
Sandy merely grinned at him. "You don't want to take it to heart like that," he remonstrated cheerfully.
Ford, by way of reply, painstakingly analyzed the chief deficiencies of Sandy's immediate relatives, and was beginning upon his grandparents when Sandy reached barren ground in the shape of three long paragraphs of snow, cold, and sunrise artistically blended with prismatic adjectives. He waded through the first paragraph and well into the second before he mired in a hopeless jumble of unfamiliar polysyllables. Sandy was not the skipping kind; he threw the book upon a bench and gave his attention wholly to his companion in time to save his great-grandfather from utter condemnation.
"What's eating you, Ford?" he began pacifically—for Sandy was a weakling. "You might be a lot worse off. You're married, all right enough, from all I c'n hear—but she's left town. It ain't as if you had to live with her."
Ford looked at him a minute and groaned dismally.
"Oh, I ain't meaning anything against the lady herself," Sandy hastened to assure him. "Far as I know, she's all right—"
"What I want to know," Ford broke in, impatient of condolence when he needed facts, "is, who is she? And what did I go and marry her for?"
"Well, you'll have to ask somebody that knows. I never seen her, myself, except when you was leadin' her down to the depot, and you and her talked it over private like—the way I heard it. I was gitting a hair-cut and shampoo at the time. First I heard, you was married. I should think you'd remember it yourself." Sandy looked at Ford curiously.
"I kinda remember standing up and holding hands with some woman and somebody saying: 'I now pronounce you man and wife,'" Ford confessed miserably, his face in his hands again. "I guess I must have done it, all right."
Sandy was kind enough when not otherwise engaged. He got up and put a basin of water on the stove to warm, that Ford might bathe his hurts, and he made him a very creditable drink with lemon and whisky and not too much water.
"The way I heard it," he explained further, "this lady come to town looking for Frank Ford Cameron, and seen you, and said you was him. So—"
"I ain't," Ford interrupted indignantly. "My name's Ford Campbell and I'll lick any darned son-of-a-gun—"
"Likely she made a mistake," Sandy soothed. "Frank Ford Cameron, she had you down for, and you went ahead and married her willing enough. Seems like there was some hurry-up reason that she explained to you private. She had the license all made out and brought a preacher down from Garbin. Bill Wright said he overheard you tellin' her you'd do anything to oblige a lady—"
"That's the worst of it; I'm always too damned polite when I'm drunk!" grumbled Ford.
Sandy, looking upon his bruised and distorted countenance and recalling, perhaps, the process by which Ford reached that lamentable condition, made a sound like a diplomatically disguised laugh. "Not always," he qualified mildly.
"Anyway," he went on, "you sure married her. That's straight goods. Bill Wright and Rock was the witnesses. And if you don't know why you done it—" Sandy waved his hands to indicate his inability to enlighten Ford. "Right afterwards you went out to the bar and had another drink—all this takin' place in the hotel dining-room, and Mother McGrew down with neuralagy and not bein' present—and one drink leads to another, you know. I come in then, and the bunch was drinkin' luck to you fast as Sam could push the bottles along. Then you went back to the lady—and if you don't know what took place you can search me—and pretty soon Bill said you'd took her and her grip to the depot. Anyway, when you come back, you wasn't troubled with no attack of politeness!
"You went in the air with Bill, first," continued Sandy, testing with his finger the temperature of the water in the basin, "and bawled him out something fierce for standing by and seeing you make a break like that without doing something. You licked him—and then Rock bought in because some of your remarks kinda included him too. I d' know," said Sandy, scratching his unshaven jaw reflectively, "just how the fight did go between you 'n' Rock. You was both using the whole room, I know. Near as I could make out, you—or maybe it was Rock—tromped on Big Jim's bunion. This cold spell's hard on bunions—and Big Jim went after you both with blood in his eye.
"After that"—Sandy spread his arms largely—"it was go-as-you-please. Sam and me was the only ones that kept out, near as I can recollect, and when it thinned up a bit, you had Aleck down and was pounding the liver outa him, and Big Jim was whanging away at you, and Rock was clawin' Jim in the back of the neck, and you was all kickin' like bay steers in brandin' time. I reached in under the pile and dragged you out by one leg and left the rest of 'em fighting. They never seemed to miss you none." He grinned. "Jim commenced to bump Aleck's head up and down on the floor instead of you—and I knew he didn't have nothing against Aleck."
"Bill, he'd quit right in the start." Sandy's grin became a laugh. "Seems like pore old Bill always gits in bad when you commence on your third pint. You wasn't through, though, seems like. You was going to start in at the beginning and en-core the whole performance, and you started out after Bill. Bill, he was lookin' for a hole big enough to crawl into by that time. But you run into the preacher. And you licked him to a fare-you-well and had him crying real tears before I or anybody else could stop you."
"What'd I lick him for?" Ford inquired in a tone of deep discouragement.
Sandy's indeterminate, blue-gray eyes rounded with puzzlement.
"Search me," he repeated automatically. But later he inadvertently shed enlightenment. He laughed, bending double, and slapping his thigh at the irresistible urge of a mental picture.
"Thought I'd die," he gasped. "Me and Sam was watching from the door. You had the preacher by the collar, shakin' him, and once in awhile liftin' him clean off the ground on the toe of your boot; and you kept saying: 'A sober man, and a preacher—and you'd marry that girl to a fellow like me!' And then biff! And he'd let out a squawk. 'A drinkin', fightin', gamblin' son-of-a-gun like me, you swine!' you'd tell him. And when we finally pulled you loose, he picked up his hat and made a run for it."
Ford meditated gloomily. "I'll lick him again, and lick him when I'm sober, by thunder!" he promised grimly. "Who was he, do you know?"
"No, I don't. Little, dried-up geezer with a nose like a kit-fox's and a whine to his voice. He won't come around here no more."
The door opened gustily and a big fellow with a skinned nose and a whimsical pair of eyes looked in, hesitated while he stared hard at Ford, and then entered and shut the door by the simple method of throwing his shoulders back against it.
"Hello, old sport—how you comin'?" he cried cheerfully. "Kinda wet for makin' calls, but when a man's loaded down with a guilty conscience—" He sighed somewhat ostentatiously and pulled forward a chair rejuvenated with baling-wire braces between the legs, and a cowhide seat. "What's that cookin'—coffee, or sheep-dip?" he inquired facetiously of Sandy, though his eyes dwelt solicitously upon Ford's bowed head. He leaned forward and slapped Ford in friendly fashion upon the shoulder.
"Buck up—'the worst is yet to come,'" he shouted, and laughed with an exaggeration of cheerfulness. "You can't ever tell when death or matrimony's goin' to get a man. By hokey, seems like there's no dodgin' either one."
Ford lifted a bloodshot eye to the other. "And I always counted you for a friend, Bill," he reproached heavily. "Sandy says I licked you good and plenty. Well, looks to me like you had it coming, all right."
"Well—I got it, didn't I?" snorted Bill, his hand lifting involuntarily to his nose. "And I ain't bellering, am I?" His mouth took an abused, downward droop. "I ain't holdin' any grudge, am I? Why, Sandy here can tell you that I held one side of you up whilst he was leadin' the other side of you home! And I am sorry I stood there and seen you get married off and never lifted a finger; I'm darned sorry. I shoulda hollered misdeal, all right. I know it now." He pulled remorsefully at his wet mustache, which very much resembled a worn-out sharing brush.
Ford straightened up, dropped a hand upon his thigh, and thereby discovered another sore spot, which he caressed gently with his palm.
"Say, Bill, you were there, and you saw her. On the square now—what's she like? And what made me marry her?"
Bill pulled so hard upon his mustache that his teeth showed; his breath became unpleasantly audible with the stress of emotion. "So help me, I can't tell you what she's like, Ford," he confessed. "I don't remember nothing about her looks, except she looked good to me, and I never seen her before, and her hair wasn't red—I always remember red hair when I see it, drunk or sober. You see," he added as an extenuation, "I was pretty well jagged myself. I musta been. I recollect I was real put out because my name wasn't Frank Ford—By hokey!" He laid an impressive forefinger upon Ford's knee and tapped several times. "I never knew your name was rightly Frank Ford Cameron. I always—"
"It ain't." Ford winced and drew away from the tapping process, as if his knee also was sensitive that morning.
"You told her it was. I mind that perfectly, because I was so su'prised I swore right out loud and was so damned ashamed I couldn't apologize. And say! She musta been a real lady or I wouldn't uh felt that way about it!" Bill glanced triumphantly from one to the other. "Take it from me, you married a lady, Ford. Drunk or sober, I always make it a point to speak proper before the ladies—t'other kind don't count—and when I make a break, you betcher life I remember it. She's a real lady—I'd swear to that on a stack uh bibles ten feet high!" He settled back and unbuttoned his steaming coat with the air of a man who has established beyond question the vital point of an argument.
"Did I tell her so myself, or did I just let it go that way?" Ford, as his brain cleared, stuck close to his groping for the essential facts.
"Well, now—I ain't dead sure as to that. Maybe Rock'll remember. Kinda seems to me now, that she asked you if you was really Frank Ford Cameron, and you said: 'I sure am,' or something like that. The preacher'd know, maybe. He musta been the only sober one in the bunch—except the girl. But you done chased him off, so—"
"Sandy, I wish you'd go hunt Rock up and tell him I want to see him." Ford spoke with more of his natural spirit than he had shown since waking.
"Rock's gone on out to Riley's camp," volunteered Bill. "Left this morning, before the rain started in."
"What was her name—do you know?" Ford went back to the mystery.
"Ida—or was it Jenny? Some darned name—I heard it, when the preacher was marrying you." Bill was floundering hopelessly in mental fog, but he persisted. "And I seen it wrote in the paper I signed my name to. I mind she rolled up the paper afterwards and put it—well, I dunno where, but she took it away with her, and says to you: 'That's safe, now'—or 'You're safe,' or 'I'm safe,'—anyway, some darned thing was safe. And I was goin' to kiss the bride—mebbe I did kiss her—only I'd likely remember it if I had, drunk or sober! And—oh, now I got it!" Bill's voice was full of elation. "You was goin' to kiss the bride—that was it, it was you goin' to kiss her, and she slap—no, by hokey, she didn't slap you, she just—or was it Rock, now?" Doubt filled his eyes distressfully. "Darn my everlastin' hide," he finished lamely, "there was some kissin' somew'ere in the deal, and I mind her cryin' afterwards, but whether it was about that, or—Say, Sandy, what was it Ford was lickin' the preacher for? Wasn't it for kissin' the bride?"
"It was for marrying him to her," Sandy informed him sententiously.
Ford got up and went to the little window and looked out. Presently he came back to the stove and stood staring disgustedly down upon the effusively friendly Bill, leering up at him pacifically.
"If I didn't feel so rotten," he said glumly, "I'd give you another licking right now, Bill—you boozing old devil. I'd like to lick every darned galoot that stood back and let me in for this. You'd ought to have stopped me. You'd oughta pounded the face off me before you let me do such a fool thing. That," he said bitterly, "shows how much a man can bank on his friends!"
"It shows," snorted Bill indignantly, "how much he can bank on himself!"
"On whisky, to let him in for all kinds uh trouble," revised Sandy virtuously. Sandy had a stomach which invariably rebelled at the second glass and therefore, remaining always sober perforce, he took to himself great credit for his morality.
"Married!—and I don't so much as know her name!" gritted Ford, and went over and laid himself down upon the bed, and sulked for the rest of that day of rain and gloom.