In hot mid afternoon when the acrid, gray dust cloud kicked up by the listless plodding of eight thousand cloven hoofs formed the only blot on the hard blue above the Staked Plains, an ox stumbled and fell awkwardly under his yoke, and refused to scramble up when his negro driver shouted and prodded him with the end of a willow gad.
"Call your master, Ezra," directed a quiet woman voice gone weary and toneless with the heat and two restless children. "Don't beat the poor brute. He can't go any farther and carry the yoke, much less pull the wagon."
Ezra dropped the gad and stepped upon the wagon tongue where he might squint into the dust cloud and decide which gray, plodding horseman alongside the herd was Robert Birnie. Far across the sluggish river of grimy 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 the signal that called the nearest riders to the wagon that held the boss's family.
Bob Birnie and another man turned and came trotting back, and at the call a scrambling youngster peered over his mother's shoulder in the forward 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 slat sun-bonnet pushed back with her elbow the eager, squirming body of her eldest. "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 waken it will be nice and cool again."
"Not s'eepy!" objected Buddy for the twentieth time in the past two hours. But he crawled back, and his mother, relieved of his restless presence, leaned forward to watch the approach of her husband and the cowboy. This was the second time in the past two days that an ox had fallen exhausted, and her eyes showed a trace of anxiety. With the feed so 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 camp outfit and the necessary clothing and bedding for a woman and two children, was going to be a real handicap on the drive.
"Robert, if we had another wagon, I could drive it and make the load less for these four oxen," she suggested when her husband came up. "A lighter wagon, perhaps with one team of strong horses, or even with a yoke 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 that curled damply on her forehead, and smiled disarmingly. "Buddy would be the happiest baby boy alive if I could let him drive now and then!" she added 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 see what I can do when we reach Olathe. But you won't have to take a man's place and drive, Lassie." He took the cup of water she drew from a keg and proffered- water was precious on the Staked Plains, that season-and his eyes dwelt on her fondly while he drank. Then, giving her hand a squeeze when he returned the cup, he rode back to scan the herd for an animal big enough and well-conditioned enough to supplant the worn-out ox.
"Aren't you thirsty, Frank Davis? I think a cup of water will do you good," she called out to the cowboy, who had dismounted to tighten his forward cinch in expectation of having to use his rope.
The cowboy dropped stirrup from saddle horn and came forward stiff-leggedly, leading his horse. His sun-baked face, grimed with the dust 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 from the barrel slip- slopping along in the lurching chuck-wagon.
"How's the kids makin' out, Mis' Birnie?" Frank inquired politely when he had swallowed the last drop and had wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's right warm and dusty t'day."
"They're asleep at last, thank goodness," she answered, glancing back at a huddle of pink calico that showed just over the crest of a pile of crumpled quilts. "Buddy has a hard time of it. He's all man in his disposition, and all baby in size. He's been teasing to walk with the niggers and help drive the drag. Is my husband calling?"
Her husband was, and Frank rode away at a leisurely trot. Haste had little to do with trailing a herd, where eight miles was called a good day's journey and six an average achievement. The fallen ox was unyoked by 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 the slow-moving herd, so that the exhausted animal could rest, and the raw recruit be yoked in where he could do the least harm and would the speediest learn a new lesson in discomfort. Mrs. Birnie glanced again at the huddle of pink in the nest of quilts behind a beloved chest of drawers in the wagon, and sighed with relief because Buddy slept.
An ambitious man-child already was Buddy, accustomed to certain phrases that, since he could toddle, had formed inevitable accompaniment to his investigative footsteps. "L'k-out-dah!" he had for a long time believed to be his name among the black folk of his world. White folk had varied it slightly. He knew that "Run-to-mother-now" meant that something he would delight in but must not watch was going to take place. Spankings more or less official and not often painful signified that big folks did not 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 the end of a rope until finally forced to submit to the ox-yoke and help pull the wagon. Buddy loved to watch them, but he understood that mother was afraid the wild cow might step on him. Why she should want him to sleep when he was not sleepy he had not yet discovered, and so disdained to give it serious consideration.
"Not s'eepy," Buddy stated again emphatically as a sort of mental dismissal of the command, and crawled carefully past Sister and lifted a flap of the canvas cover. A button—the last button—popped off his pink apron and the sleeves rumpled down over his hands. It felt all loose and useless, so Buddy stopped long enough to pull the apron off and throw it beside Sister before he crawled under the canvas flap and walked down the spokes of a rear wheel. He did not mean to get in the way of the wild cow, but he did want action for his restless legs. He thought that if he went away from the wagon and the herd and played while they were catching 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 where the wild cow would not come, and played. The first thing he saw was a scorpion-nasty old bug that will bite hard-and he threw rocks at it until it scuttled under a ledge out of sight. The next thing he saw that interested him at all was a horned toad; a hawn-toe, he called it, after Ezra's manner of speaking. Ezra had caught a hawntoe for him a few days ago, but it had mysteriously disappeared out of the wagon. Buddy did not connect his mother's lack of enthusiasm with the disappearance. Her sympathy with his loss had seemed to him real, and he wanted another, fully believing that in this also mother would be pleased. So he took after this particular HAWN-toe, that crawled into various hiding places only 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 hot pursuit of the horned toad, emerged upon the level where the herd had passed. 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 narrowed horizon was the dust over the herd, and that the wagon was just behind, because the wind that day was blowing from the southwest, and also because the oxen did not walk as fast as the herd. In the distance he saw the "Drag" moving lazily along after the dust-cloud, with barefooted niggers 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 it until he had it safe in his two hands.
It happened that when he pounced at last upon the toad he disturbed with his presence a colony of red ants on moving day. The close ranks of them, coming and going in a straight line, caught and held Buddy's attention to the exclusion of everything else—save the horned toad he had been at such pains to acquire. He tucked the toad inside his underwaist and ignored its wriggling against his flesh while he squatted in the hot sunshine and watched the ants, his mind one great question. Where were they going, and what were they carrying, and why were they all in such a hurry?
Buddy had to know. To himself he called trailherd—but father's cattle did not carry white lumps of stuff on their heads, and furthermore, they all walked together in the same direction; whereas the ant herd traveled both ways. Buddy made sure of this, and then started off, following what he had decided was the real trail of the ants. Most children would have stirred them up with a stick; Buddy let them alone so that he could see what they were doing all by themselves.
The ants led him to a tiny hole with a finely pulverized rim just at the edge of a sprawly cactus. This last Buddy carefully avoided, for even at four years old he had long ago learned the sting of cactus thorns. A rattlesnake buzzed warning when he backed away and the shock to Buddy's nerves roused within him the fighting spirit. Rattlesnakes he knew also, as the common enemy of men and cattle. Once a steer had been bitten on the nose and his head had swollen up so he couldn't eat. Buddy did not want that to happen to HIM.
He made sure that the horned toad was safe, chose a rock as large as he could 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, a terrific buzzing sounding stridently from the coil. He threw another and another with all the force of his healthy little muscles. For a four-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 away and hide, its rattles clicking listlessly. Buddy had another rock in his hands and in his eyes the blue fire of righteous conquest. He went close-close enough to have brought a protesting cry from a grownup-lifted the rock high as he could and brought it down fair on the battered head of the rattler. The loathsome length of it winced and thrashed ineffectively, and after a few minutes lay slack, the tail wriggling aimlessly.
Buddy stood with his feet far apart and his hands on his hips, as he had seen 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 snake was dead, he took it by the tail, felt again of the horned toad on his chest and went back to see what the ants were doing.
When so responsible a person as a grownup stops to watch the orderly activities of an army of ants, minutes and hours slip away unnoticed. Buddy was absolutely fascinated, lost to everything else. When some instinct born in the very blood of him warned Buddy that time was passing, he stood up and saw that the sun hung just above the edge of the world, and that the sky was a glorious jumble of red and purple and soft rose.
The first thing Buddy did was to stoop and study attentively the dead snake, to see if the tail still wiggled. It did not, though he watched it for a full minute. He looked at the sun— it had not set but glowed big and yellow as far from the earth as his father was tall. Ezra had lied to him. Dead snakes did not wiggle their tails until sundown.
Buddy looked for the dust cloud of the herd, and was surprised to find it smaller than he had ever seen it, and farther away. Indeed, he could only guess that the faint smudge on the horizon was the dust he had followed for more days than he could count. He was not afraid, but he was hungry and he thought his mother would maybe wonder where he was, and he knew that the point-riders had already stopped pushing the herd ahead, and that the cattle were feeding now so that they would bed down at dusk. The chuckwagon was camped somewhere close by, and old Step-and-a-Half, the lame cook, was stirring things in his Dutch ovens over the camp- fire. Buddy could almost smell the beans and the meat stew, he was so hungry. He turned and took one last, long look at the endless stream of ants still crawling along, picked up the dead snake by the 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 he was after all near his "Outfit", Buddy paid no attention. The boys were always shouting to one another, or yelling at their horses or at the herd or at the niggers. It did not occur to him that they might be shouting for him, until from another direction he heard Ezra's unmistakable, booming voice. Ezra sang a thunderous baritone when the niggers lifted up their voices in song around their camp- fire, and he could be heard for half a mile when he called in real earnest. He was calling now, and Buddy, stopping to listen, fancied that he heard his name. 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. The radiant purple and red and gold above him deepened, darkened. The whole wild expanse of half-barren land became suddenly a place of unearthly beauty that dulled to the shadows of dusk. Buddy trudged on, keeping to the deep-worn buffalo trails which the herd had followed and scored afresh with their hoofs. He could not miss his way-not Buddy, son of Bob Birnie, owner of the Tomahawk outfit-but his legs were growing pretty tired, and he was so hungry that he could have sat down on the ground and cried with the gnawing food-call of his empty little stomach.
He could hear other voices shouting at intervals now, but Ezra's voice was the loudest and the closest, and it seemed to Buddy that Ezra never once stopped calling. Twice Buddy called back that he was a-comin', but Ezra shouted just the same: "OOO-EE! WHAH Y' ALL, BUDDY? OOO-EE!"
Imperceptibly dusk deepened to darkness. A gust of anger swept Buddy's soul because he was tired, because he was hungry and he was yet a long way from the camp, but chiefly because Ezra persisted in calling after Buddy had several times answered. He heard someone whom he recognized as Frank Davis, but by this time he was so angry that he would not say a word, though he was tempted to ask Frank to take him up on his horse and let him ride to camp. He heard others-and once the beat of hoofs came quite close. But there was a wide streak of Scotch stubbornness in Buddy—along with several other Scotch streaks—and he continued his stumbling progress, dragging the snake by the tail, his other hand holding fast the horned toad.
His heart jumped up and almost choked him when first saw the three twinkles on the ground which knew were not stars but camp-fires.
Quite unexpectedly he trudged into the firelight where Step- and-a-Half was stirring delectable things in the iron pots and stopping every minute or so to stare anxiously into the gloom. Buddy stood blinking and sniffing, his eyes fixed upon the Dutch ovens.
"I'm HUNGRY!" he announced accusingly, gripping the toad that had begun to 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 and fired 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. Buddy wriggled protestingly in her arms.
"L'kout! Y' all SKUCSH 'im! I got a HAWN-toe; wight here." He patted his chest gloatingly. "An' I got a snake. I kilt 'im. An' I'm HUNGRY."
Mother of Buddy though she was, Lassie set him down hurriedly and surveyed 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 his lips. "'S my snake. I kilt 'im," He said firmly. He pulled the horned toad from his waist-front and held it tightly in his two hands. "An's my hawn-toe. I ketche'd'm. 'Way ova dere," he added, tilting his tow head toward the darkness behind him.
Bob Birnie rode up at a gallop, pulled up his horse in the edge of the fire glow and dismounted hastily.
Bob Birnie never needed more than one glance to furnish him the details of a scene. He saw the very small boy confronting his mother with a dead snake, a horned toad and a stubborn set to his lips. He saw that the mother looked rather helpless before the combination—and his brown mustache 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 we had to get out and hunt you, and mother was scared the wolves might eat you? Didn't you hear us calling you? Why didn't you answer?"
Buddy looked up from under his baby eyebrows at his father, who seemed very tall and very terrible. But his bare foot touched the dead snake and he took comfort. "I was comin'," he said. "I WASN'T los'. I bringed my snake and my hawn-toe. An' dey—WASN'T—any—woluffs!" The last word came muffled, buried in his mother's skirts.