It was slow journeying, after that. Ford carried the saddle on his own back rather than burden the horse with it, and hungry as he was, he stopped often and long, and massaged the sprained shoulder faithfully while Rambler rested it, with all his weight on his other legs and his nose rooting gently at Ford’s bowed head.
A stray rider assured him that he was on the right trail, but it was past noon when he thankfully reached the Double Cross, threw his saddle down beside the stable door, and gave Rambler a chance at the hay in the corral.
The Foreman of the Double Cross
“Hell-o, Ford, where the blazes did you drop down from?” a welcoming voice yelled, when he was closing the gate of the corral behind him and thinking that it was like Ches Mason to have a fine, strong corral and gate, and then slur the details by using a piece of baling wire to fasten it. The last ounce of disgust with life slid from his mind when he heard the greeting, and he turned and gripped hard the gloved hand thrust toward him. Ches Mason it was—the same old Ches, with the same humorous wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, the same kindliness, the same hearty faith in the world as he knew it and in his fellowmen as he found them—the unquestioning faith that takes it for granted that the other fellow is as square as himself. Ford held his hand while he permitted himself a swift, reckoning glance which took in these familiar landmarks of the other’s personality.
“Don’t seem to have hurt you much—matrimony,” he observed whimsically, as he dropped the hand. “You look just like you always did—with your hat on.” In the West, not to say in every other locality, there is a time-honored joke about matrimony, for certain strenuous reasons, producing premature baldness.
Ches grinned and removed his hat. Eight years had heightened his forehead perceptibly and thinned the hair on his temples. “You see what it’s done to me,” he pointed out lugubriously. “You ain’t married yourself, I suppose? You look like you’d met up with some kinda misfortune.” Mason was regarding Ford’s scarred face with some solicitude.
“Just got tangled up a little with my fellow-citizens, in Sunset,” Ford explained drily. “I tried to see how much of the real stuff I could get outside of, and then how many I could lick.” He shrugged his shoulders a little. “I did quite a lot of both,” he added, as an afterthought.
Mason was rubbing his jaw reflectively and staring hard at Ford. “The wife’s strong on the temperance dope,” he said hesitatingly. “I reckon you’ll want to bunk down with the boys till you grow some hide on your face—there’s lady company up at the house, and—”
“The bunk-house for mine, then,” Ford cut in hastily. “No lady can get within gunshot of me; not if I see her coming in time!” Though he smiled when he said it, there was meaning behind the mirth.