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ERNEST HAYCOX

ROCK-BOUND HONESTY

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First published in Western Story Magazine, 12 June 1926

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-24
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Western Story Magazine, 12 June 1926, with "Rock-Bound Honesty"



AT first sight, Old Man Cruze looked as spry and cheery as a cricket. His eyes were that kind of snapping black which mirrors the peppery, forthright spirit. He had other features, too, that fitted well with such a picture—a small sharp nose, leathery cheeks, and a stubborn chin well flanked by the drooping ends of a once-white mustache. Moreover, when he moved in the buckboard seat or raised his mittened hand, it was with a sudden, jerky gesture. All things put together, no one could mistake him for anything but a picturesque character, even in a land of picturesque characters. As such he was known, and had been known, for twenty years throughout the length and breadth of the country.

But Old Man Cruze was not his normal self on this wintry day. Always before, on his semi-monthly visits to Dave Budd's Burnt Creek store, he would emerge from the dense thicket of jack pines, lash his horse to a gallop, and bring the ancient buckboard up to the store porch in a perilous, careening semicircle, meanwhile emitting a long, quavering whoop such as the native Indians once had sent forth in blood-curdling accent through the dark underbrush. Invariably it brought Budd out to greet his crony with an answering bellow.

On this day there were no such antics. The horse, ears laid back in astonishment, plodded alongside the porch and stopped. Old Man Cruze tied the reins around the whipstock, fished a gunny sack from the bed of the vehicle, and silently stepped to the porch. He sighed a little as he straightened his small, wiry figure, and his free arm went exploring tentatively around toward his backbone.

"I guess," he said, "it's lumbago. If 'tain't that, then it shore is the rheumaticks. Curse sech infernal pains."

He kicked open the door and entered unceremoniously to find himself confronted by a gross, towering figure of a man who easily might have made two Cruzes and still have had bulk left over. Dave Budd surveyed his friend in profound surprise—or with as much of that emotion as could find a place on his cherubic, inscrutable face. "Am I gettin' hard of hearin'?" he asked, "or mebbe you figgered your wreck of a buckboard too old to come up like she used to?"

"Guess it's a man's privilege to travel any way he pleases, ain't it?" replied Cruze testily.

"Why, shore," said Budd, more amazed. "Now what's eatin' your miserable old self?"

"Nawthin'. Nawthin' whatsoever. When you git through askin' fool questions, mebbe you'll find some time to gimme half a sack of spuds, ten cans of beans, some bacon, and some flour."

The storekeeper went silently behind the battered counter and pulled down the bean cans. Old Man Cruze eyed them speculatively and finally qualified his order. "Come to think, Dave, I reckon I'll only take six of them cans. You put the rest back."

"Won't last you two weeks," said Budd. "Better take the same amount you allus has."

"Who's buying this truck?" shouted Cruze in irascible accents. "You er me?"

"Why, you poisonous reptile!" grumbled Budd. He sliced the bacon and filled the gunny sack half up with potatoes. "Ain't needin' no eatin' tobacco?" he pursued.

"No."

"Dang me, you must shore be off your feed. Mebbe your shack needs patchin'. Won't do to let it git too drafty. Man ketches cold mighty easy these days."

"No."

"Waal," ventured Budd, not without some hesitation, "I shore hope you ain't sick."

"No!" Then Old Man Cruze weakened. "Tell you what, Dave, I don't feel so pert as allus. Reckon I'm beginnin' to feel my age. That's it."

"Old granny's talk. You're jest a-fumin' fer spring to come down among these cold flats. That's all."

But Old Man Cruze shook his head and shouldered his sack of potatoes. He opened the door, stowed the provisions in the buckboard, and dropped into the seat, unwinding the reins from the whipstock.

"Say," said Budd, "ain't you stayin' a while to gossip like allus?"

"No," replied Cruze. "Ain't got time for foolishness. Giddap, Pinto." And off the buckboard creaked.

"I hope," shouted Budd, "you bite yourself and ketch hydrophoby! Cussed curmudgeon!"


OLD MAN Cruze vanished into the jack pines. The twilight of a short afternoon descended around him as the buckboard moved, and the sharp wind scoured along the tunnel-like road with greater velocity. A coyote dodged out of the underbrush and loped a hundred yards or more in front of the buckboard, then sat unconcernedly on his haunches. To all this the man seemed unaware. He had given the wise horse plenty of rein. His head was tipped forward on his chest, and the snapping black eyes were a study in far-off speculation.

Suddenly he reached into his pocket and drew forth a soiled and wrinkled bit of paper which, from numerous finger prints upon it, appeared to have been read many times before. Evidently it still possessed interest. He raised it closer to his eyes and slowly scanned the words, written in a fine, delicate script:


Portland, December 31st.

Dear Pop:

The doc. says there isn't so much awful much wrong with me, but thinks I ought to be operated on, to save trouble from coming up later. It will cost fifty dollars more, Pop, than I've got. Can you spare it? If you can't, we'll tell old sawbones to be satisfied with what he's made off me already, but if you can afford it, it'll be a terrible relief to get things all over with now. My music studies were coming along fine until this bobbed up. And I had to quit my job. Heaven knows just when I'll be able to find another.

Your loving daughter,

Elize.


SO here was the problem that gnawed at Cruze's heart and robbed him of his accustomed cheer. "Dang me," he muttered, "where in creation can I git fifty dollars?"

The longer he studied—and he had racked his mind three days with the problem—the surer became the distressing knowledge that an old desert rat commanded little credit and no earning power in so wide and barren a country. Food and bed—he scraped that much from his piece of land and from an occasional bit of bounty money on the hide of some legally outcast animal. But he had no savings. His generation didn't know about nest eggs. They just lived from hand to mouth. Their training had given them a magnificent assurance of ability to get along somehow. Rugged health, ingenuity, and a rifle had always managed for Old Man Cruze's kind—not a savings bank. Perhaps times in the West had changed, but Cruze had not.

"Jest got to fetch that sum out of the air, I guess," he soliloquized.

His pride was bruised; his parental instinct outraged. It had been three years since Elize had set out from a motherless home for the city, bent on making her own way in music. Never once—until now—had she called for assistance. The sturdy, independent Cruze blood had seen her through. While she studied, she worked in lunch counters, as a maid in hotels, or at any single thing which might carry her on. Now, in distress, she fell back on her father. Cruze groaned and slapped the rump of the horse with the reins.

"Git on, you old rep!"

He had never felt old until now, had never been aware of any aches until now. This was the sort of thing that made people feel old and useless. Elize had called on her old pop, and he could not answer.

"Whoa."

From long habit he stopped the buckboard and got down.


ALL along the darkening way was a litter of dead limbs and fallen trees. The old man set methodically to breaking and gathering this fuel by the arm load, piling it in the back of the buckboard. When the bottom of the vehicle was full, he set out afoot in the road, the horse following after him. Within five minutes they arrived at the edge of the jack pines and commanded the view of a vast prairie upon which a mysterious blue haze had fast settled. Not far out upon the prairie loomed a house and barn toward which the troubled man directed his steps. By the end of a half hour he had stabled his horse and was preparing his own frugal meal over a battered, rusty iron stove.

It was no great meal. From the manner he debated over it, one might have thought him a great chef calculating some Epicurean feast, but that, too, was just one of the many idiosyncrasies that helped to pass the long, lonely stretches of time. At first he sliced three pieces of bacon and laid them in the pan, only to mutter an inaudible phrase to himself and pull one slice out. A brace of hard biscuits, a cup of ink-black coffee, and a few spoons of cold beans complemented the bacon. He perched on a stool in front of the stove and ate.

"Got to be a mite more savin' of grub," he said aloud to himself. "Ain't much an old codger can do any more. Elize, gal, your old pop is shore on hard times. Curse sech days when a man ain't fitten to help his own kind on the johnny spot!"

He set the coffee cup down carefully and, with a swift expression of interest on his face, turned toward the door. A drumming of hoofs became audible, growing clearer at every pace. Even before Cruze got around the corner of the table, half way to the shanty's solitary window, the furious rider was sliding to a stop. Cruze was hailed in a gruff, impatient voice. Within the count of five the door burst open and a tall youth, flashing a pair of hot, restless eyes around the room, catapulted in without so much as a by your leave. Cruze, summoning his long knowledge of Western character, classified the man at once as one of those itinerant cattle hands who made his way from ranch to ranch, never staying long on one job and never leaving behind any great record for sobriety or ability.

"Pardner," said the young man, gulping down his words in haste, "I smelled coffee, an' I'm next to dyin' of hunger."

Cruze waved a hand toward the coffee pot. "Help yourself to what you see. Sech as I got you're welcome to share."

The young man thrust a spoon into the beans and freighted down a cargo, without superfluous motion or unnecessary etiquette. He whisked the coffee pot from the stove and filled the cup, which a moment before had been emptied by Cruze, to the brim. A spare biscuit caught his eye and, in a twinkling, had vanished. All this took place without the formality of taking a seat, or offering conversation. Time seemed to press him hard. Once he raised his head as if trying to catch distant echoes. Cruze, likewise listening, heard nothing, but it appeared to be otherwise with the youth. He swallowed the rest of the coffee in still greater haste.

Cruze rolled a cigarette, tamped it, crimped the ends, and sought for a match, all the while showing a short and knowing smile. "Son," he said, finding his match, "you ain't the first fella I've fed, and you ain't the first that's come acrost these prairies as if old Joe himself was close behind, but I swear you shore are the most impatient of the bunch. Looks as if you felt some one blowin' hot an' cold on your neck. I reckon the road you want leads direct toward Burnt Creek. Yeah?"

The young man was spending one of his precious moments in sizing up his host. "Say, ain't you Old Man Cruze?"

"That be the handle I've had ever since I struck this cussed land of desolation," agreed Cruze, not without a touch of pride.

"Uhuh. Heard of you before. Reckon you got the reputation of bein' square as a Swede's head in these parts. Yeah, so they tell me."

"Aim to treat my fellow man right, so long as he ain't no more ornery than me."

The youth cocked his head sidewise and listened again for whatever the night seemed to bear upon the soft wind. "Say," said he in the manner of one taking a turn of mind, "I'm bein' follered by the sheriff...it bein' none of your business why."

"Ain't asked any questions, have I?" broke in Cruze tartly. "Seen men runnin' this way afore you was born, and it ain't nawthin' new. I expects more men have been chased by the front of my shanty than they is residents in the county. It's a real popular road."

"They got my trail," explained the youth. "Ain't more'n a half hour behind. Curse that bloodhound of a sheriff."

"Then," returned Cruze imperturbably, "you better be goin'. The sheriffs a bad man to play tag with."

"But he'll take your word," returned the youth significantly.

"What's my word got to do with it?"

"Lemme hide in your barn. When the sheriff comes up, you tell him you heard a horse go poundin' across the desert. He'll take your word without question and foller. That'll gimme a chance to cut back and git into the jack pines."

"No," said Cruze, "you're barkin' up the wrong tree. I ain't a liar, and I don't conduct no stable fer them that's been foolish with their words or their actions. At my time of life it's plumb bad policy to change habits."

The youth's face turned color. He made a gesture toward the gun sagging on his hip. "Now, you old curmudgeon, I ain't listenin' to no goody-goody lectures. You're a-goin' to do jest as I tell you, or it'll be disastrous. I ain't in no humor to be fooled with a-tall."

Cruze dropped his cigarette and snorted contemptuously. "You ain't in a position to do much of anything. So keep your head. I been hearin' too many threats to git skeered by that bluff. 'Tain't as if I never saw the business end of a Colt before, sonny."

The youth changed his tactics. "All right, Dad, you win. But here's my offer. I'll give you a hundred dollars fer the use of your barn." To accompany the assertion he plucked a handful of bank notes from a bulging pocket and skimmed a finger over their tops. "What say?"

"No!" roared Cruze, thoroughly outraged. "I ain't no bribe taker, and I ain't shieldin' no thieves."

"Two hundred dollars, Dad. It ain't goin' to hurt your repitation a bit. What nobody knows is nobody's business, see?"

Suddenly Cruze's fingers passed over the letter in his pocket, and the glow of anger died from his face. Two hundred dollars? Why, that would settle the question of Elize's doctor bill. It would prove to his girl that her old pop still was capable of answering her needs as he had been in earlier years. It would quell that uneasiness as to her safety. It would restore a measure of his old spirit, and perhaps with this gnawing difficulty out of the way he could forget those cursed lumbago pains in his back.

A faint trembling of hoofs arrived at the shanty and set the loose glass panes to quivering slightly. The youth stretched out his hands with the money. There was the pallor of anxiety on his face. "Say something, Dad! I'm offerin' you three hundred bucks jest for a minute's protection!"

Old Man Cruze sighed. "Hustle into the barn and leave the rest to me."

"Fine!" The outstretched money dropped into Cruze's palm.

The fugitive youth was out of the room and running toward the barn with his horse in a few fleeting moments. He wasn't any too soon. While the barn door screeched, the sound of those pursuing hoofs swelled rapidly. Cruze stared at the money with a kind of fascination, stuffed it into his pocket, and moved over to the table, turning up the lamp wick. He was engaged in washing his supper dishes when the sheriff and posse hailed him from outside. Walking over, Old Man Cruze opened the door with great deliberation. Four mounted figures loomed against the black night, and the sheriffs genial voice boomed out a question.

"Say, Cruze, you seen or heard of anybody passin' this a way lately?"

Cruze reached for his cigarette papers and seemed to ponder. "Ain't been home more'n a half hour myself," he mused. "But I did hear somebody go lickety-larrup acrost the prairie, about twenty minutes back."

"Yeah, that'd be him," said another member of the posse. "Which way?"

"Sounded like he was bound fer Burnt Creek," said Cruze. "Anyhow, he was goin' in some hurry."

"Yeah, on a mighty tired hoss, too. Oh, we'll ketch him afore long."

"What's the gent gone an' did?" asked Cruze with a mild curiosity.

"Son of a gun took a thousand dollars from the post office at Tule Lake. Mighty slick. I never..."

The sheriff checked his talkative deputy. "Yeah, but this ain't no legislative session. Come on, boys, we'll see if we can't turn him afore he reaches the lower range of the Bar T Bar." The party spurred into the darkness, sending back a final word. "Thanks, Cruze. There's a reward out too of two hundred dollars."

Cruze listened a while as the sound of the posse grew fainter and fainter. By and by he whistled softly. The barn door screeched again, and presently the fugitive youth rode up. "Much obliged, old-timer. That's shore saved my scalp, and you're welcome to the money. Now I'll jest cut back to the jack pines and bunk at the old trapper's cabin fer the night."

Cruze fished in his pockets and sorted out the money by the lamplight. He handed part of it up to the youth. "Here, I only want fifty dollars."

"Say, I offered the whole works," said the youth. "Keep it. Mebbe I'm crooked, but I ain't no cheap skate."

"Take it," insisted Cruze. The youth laughed and reached down. "All right, it ain't goin' to hurt my pockets none. So long, Dad. You're shore a soft-minded old cuss."


HE galloped away. Cruze stood for a moment, peering into the dark, then retreated and closed the door. He seemed a little undecided as to his next move. Usually the evenings were spent over a glowing pipe bowl and a pack of greasy cards, with occasionally a dip into a paper that might be a week or a month old. But though the cards were on the table, he made no move to take them up. Rather, like a man perplexed, he lit his pipe—having thrown away the recently made cigarette—cast the bank notes on the table and fell to studying them from corner to corner and side to side. He folded and unfolded them, picked them up and laid them down, with tobacco smoke all the while wreathing and curling around his face. He sighed tremendously and then, finding a pencil and bit of paper, sat down to labor out the following brief lines:


Lize,

Everything here o.k. with your pop. I send fifty dollars, if it ain't enough, write and I'll try to get more. Been cold here, but can hope there's going to be an early spring.

Your loving Pop.


He folded the money inside the note and put the missive inside his shirt pocket. Tomorrow he'd go back to Budd's store, borrow an envelope, and mail it. He banked the fire in the stove, drew off his boots, extinguished the lamp, and crawled into bed. Another day was done, and another problem had been solved, rough-and-ready fashion.

But the sleep which had always so swiftly and sweetly carried him through the dark hours refused on this night to come. He shut his eyes and saw the clear vision of the stolen money as it lay folded in his hand. Opening his eyes, he saw a picture of his friend, Sheriff Cal Emmons, looking reproachfully out at him. The echo of his own voice plagued him with the lie he had uttered. Heard hoofs go lickety-larrup acrost toward Burnt Creek. With that he fell into a fitful sort of condition that was neither sleep nor wakefulness. For the first time in years Old Man Cruze had a nightmare.

Somewhere around the middle of a black morning he woke to find himself bolt upright in bed, staring desolately through the darkness. The fire had long turned to cold ashes, and the wintry wind seeped through the many loose boards of the place. Yet it was not the coldness that had stirred him. It was a swift conviction that seemed to have burst its fetters from a deep recess of his mind, upsetting the whole routine of his life. He rose and groped for the lamp. A match sputtered and revealed him, a tousle-haired, hollow-eyed old man with a grim expression of distaste on his sharp features. He carried the lamp to a corner where a cracked and badly scratched looking-glass hung, and he stared at his dimly reflected features with a grimace.

"You ornery, miserable skunk, you low-down, doublecrossin' sheep eater. Why, you ain't good enough to associate with a cattle rustler. Your friends oughta ketch you by the I neck an' swing your carcass in the breeze. Whatever possessed you to do sech a terrible, terrible thing?"

The tirade seemed to relieve his mind. At the same moment it evidently crystallized a decision, for he put the lamp on the table and slid into his shoes. According to his watch it was three-thirty—a good two hours until dawn. The fact caused him apparent satisfaction. "Said he'd bunk up at the old trapper's cabin. I reckon I'll jest make it."


HE put on his coat and, pulling out the note which he had written a few hours earlier, tore it to bits. The fifty dollars he carefully restored to the pocket. Then he blew out the light and trudged through the chilly air to the barn. Fifteen minutes later he was riding as rapidly toward the jack pines as an indignant mount would go, a rifle cradled across the saddle.

No, sir, he kept thinking to himself, I got to find another way. This ain't goin' to do at all. Poor 'Lize!

He reached the jack pines and plunged into still blacker shadows, with only now and then a glimpse of an ever-paling moon to guide him. But he was too well versed in the territory to grope aimlessly. Following the main road for the better part of an hour, he turned sharply toward the left.

After some little threshing he met a much smaller trail that the horse seemed to know well. It took them around a hundred sudden curves, over countless mounds of earth, and once across an ice-fringed stream. The farther they advanced, the less impenetrable did the curtain of night become. Old Man Cruze looked skyward and reassured himself. Jest about time.

Urging the horse to more speed, he kept up a steady clucking of tongue. Presently the road led him around a wide detour. Morning broke in the pale, frosty sky, and the horse and rider came face to face with a small clearing in the center of which squatted a small log cabin half fallen in, and minus door and windows. A horse moved slowly in the clearing, hobbled. Cruze brought the rifle muzzle well to the front and slipped quietly to the ground. A dozen cautious steps brought him to the doorsill, and a quick glance revealed the fugitive youth sound asleep on a littered floor with one Army blanket rolled around him. Cruze cleared his throat and spoke conversationally.

"Rise up, cowboy, hands first, an' greet the mornin'." The youth started, opened his eyes, and began a swift unwinding movement to free himself of the blanket.

"Careful now," warned Cruze. "Keep them hands clear up. That's right. Now, back toward me." The old man's free arm jerked the youth's gun from the holster. Together they emerged from the cabin. The youth turned, saw his captor clearly, and began a slow, vehement tirade.

"Why, you cussed snake! Trailin' me after I slipped you fifty bucks! Ain't that a fine how-de-do! Took to camp by a shriveled little pea pod who ain't got sense enough to play straight!"

"Listen, sonny," broke in Cruze mildly, "I'm an old codger, an' I seen lots of men hittin' the back trail, but you shore are the most criminal careless. Blame yourself for bein' ketched. Curse sech times when men don't know how to take keer of themselves no more. In my day it'd been a terrible fool who told another man where he aimed to hole up fer night like you told me. Nor would a fella be reckoned with much brains if he picketed hisself an' horse in sech an exposed place overnight. Whyn't you git back in the thicket there where nobody'd stumble over you?"

"Yeah," sneered the youth. "Ain't you a sweet old toad to lecture me? I reckon you changed your mind about the money, huh? Figgered the reward as bein' useful, huh? Well, I'll kick in. Two hundred bucks is what I'll pay fer the privilege of bein' shet of that cussed talk."

"Saddle an' mount," directed Cruze laconically. He added another indictment. "An' I'd like to've seen anybody snuck up on one of the old-timers while he was sleepin'. We could hear a bobcat sneeze two miles off. Sech times as is nowadays!"


IT was full day when the fugitive took the return trail with Old Man Cruze following closely behind. And it was almost night again when Cruze brought his prisoner up to the sheriffs office at Tule Lake and confronted Sheriff Emmons. "Here," said Cruze sadly, "is the fellah you want. I reckon I lied to you last night. He was hidin' in my barn." And in ten brief words he confessed his own complicity, at the same time bringing forth the fifty dollars he had taken from the fugitive. "I shore wouldn't have done it, only I needed that fifty mighty bad. I reckon I can take my medicine without any sweetenin', though."

The sheriff said nothing at that precise moment. He motioned the fugitive from the saddle and searched him, bringing forth from various pockets the stolen bank notes. "All here," he said, counting them. "But what caused you to change your mind, Cruze, after you fooled us?"

"Why," said Cruze reflectively, "it didn't seem's I could look a man in the face any more and tell him to go jump in the lake. An' it sort of interfered with my sleep."

Emmons grinned. "I reckon that's rock-bound honesty. You couldn't be crooked. Say, there's a reward you get, anyhow."

"No, sir!" said Cruze. "Me take a reward after this boy plays into my hands like he did? Shucks, that'd be worse'n takin' his money."

The sheriff thought for a moment. "Say, Cruze, how'd you like to be my jailer here? It ain't a hard job. Pays sixty a month an' found. Got to have somebody straight like you."

Old Man Cruze's face turned brighter. "Sheriff, you're on. Can I borrow my first month's wages?"

"Reckon so. What'd you want 'em for?"

"None of your cursed business!" shouted Old Man Cruze, feeling the returning surge of his normal spirits.


THE END