Bull hunter, p.1
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It was the big central taproot which baffled them. They had hewedeasily through the great side roots, large as branches, covered withsoft brown bark; they had dug down and cut through the forest oftender small roots below; but when they had passed the main body ofthe stump and worked under it, they found that their hole around thetrunk was not large enough in diameter to enable them to reach to thetaproot and cut through it. They could only reach it feebly with thehatchet, fraying it, but there was no chance for a free swing to severthe tough wood. Instead of widening the hole at once, they keptlaboring at the root, working the stump back and forth, as though theyhoped to crystallize that stubborn taproot and snap it like a wire.Still it held and defied them. They laid hold of it together andtugged with a grunt; something tore beneath that effort, but the stumpheld, and upward progress ceased.
They stopped, too tired for profanity, and gazed down the mountainsideafter the manner of baffled men, who look far off from the thing thattroubles them. They could tell by the trees that it was a highaltitude. There were no cottonwoods, though the cottonwoods willfollow a stream for more than a mile above sea level. Far below them apale mist obscured the beautiful silver spruce which had reached theirupward limit. Around the cabin marched a scattering of the balsam fir.They were nine thousand feet above the sea, at least. Still higher upthe sallow forest of lodgepole pines began; and above these, beyondthe timberline, rose the bald summit itself.
They were big men, framed for such a country, defying the roughnesswith a roughness of their own--these stalwart sons of old BillCampbell. Both Harry and Joe Campbell were fully six feet tall, withmighty bones and sinews and work-toughened muscles to justify theirstature. Behind them stood their home, a shack better suited for thehousing of cattle than of men. But such leather-skinned men as thesewere more tender to their horses than to themselves. They slept andate in the shack, but they lived in the wind and the sun.
Although they had looked down the stern slopes to the lower Rockies,they did not see the girl who followed the loosely winding trail. Shewas partly sheltered by the firs and came out just above them. Theybegan moiling at the stump again, sweating, cursing, and the girlhalted her horse near by. The profanity did not distress her. She wasso accustomed to it that the words had lost all edge and point forher; but her freckled face stirred to a smile of pleasure at the sightof their strength, as they alternately smote at the taproot and thenstrove in creaking, grunting unison to work it loose.
They remained so long oblivious of her presence that at length shecalled, "Why don't you dig a bigger hole, boys?"
She laughed in delight as they jerked up their heads in astonishment.Her laughter was young and sweet to the ear, but there was not a greatdeal outside her laughter that was attractive about her.
However, Joe and Harry gaped and grinned and blushed at her in thetime-old fashion, for she lived in a country where to be a woman issufficient, beauty is an unnecessary luxury, soon taxed out ofexistence by the life. She possessed the main essentials of socialpower; she could dance unflaggingly from dark to dawn at the nearestschoolhouse dance, chattering every minute; and she could maintain arugged silence from dawn to dark again, as she rode her pony home.
Harry Campbell took off his hat, not in politeness, but to scratch hishead. "Say, Jessie, where'd you drop from? Didn't see you comingno ways."
"Maybe I come down like rain," said Jessie.
All three laughed heartily at this jest.
Jessie swung sidewise in her saddle with the lithe grace of a boy,dropped her elbow on the high pommel, and gave advice. "You got apretty bad taproot under yonder. Better chop out a bigger hole, boys.But, say, what you clearing this here land for? Ain't no good fornothing, is it?" She looked around her. Here and there the clearingaround the shanty ate raggedly into the forest, but still the plowedland was chopped up with a jutting of boulders.
"Sure it ain't no good for nothing," said Joe. "It's just the oldman's idea."
He jerked a grimy thumb over his shoulder to indicate the controllingand absent power of the old man, somewhere in the woods.
"Sure makes him glum when we ain't working. If they ain't nothingworthwhile to do he always sets us to grubbing up roots; and if weain't diggin' up roots, we got to get out old 'Maggie' mare and try toplow. Plow in rocks like them! Nobody but Bull can do it."
"I didn't know Bull could do nothing," said the girl with interest.
"Aw, he's a fool, right enough," said Harry, "but he just has a sortof head for knowing where the rocks are under the ground, and somehowhe seems to make old Maggie hoss know where they lie, too. Outside ofthat he sure ain't no good. Everybody knows that."
"Kind of too bad he ain't got no brains," said the girl. "All hisstrength is in his back, and none is in his head, my dad says. If hehad some part of sense he'd be a powerful good hand."
"Sure would be," agreed Harry. "But he ain't no good now. Give him anax maybe, and he hits one or two wallopin' licks with it and thenstands and rests on the handle and starts to dreaming like a fool.Same way with everything. But, say, Joe, maybe he could start thisstump out of the hole."
"But I seen you both try to get the stump up," said the girl inwonder.
"Get Bull mad and he can lift a pile," Joe assured her. "Go find him,Harry."
Harry obediently shouted, "Bull! Oh, Bull!"
There was no answer.
"Most like he's reading," observed Joe. "He don't never hear nothingthen. Go look for him, Harry."
Big Harry strode to the door of the hut.
"How come he understands books?" said the girl. "I couldn't never makenothing out of 'em."
"Me neither," agreed Joe in sympathy. "But maybe Bull don'tunderstand. He just likes to read because he can sit still and do it.Never was a lazier gent than Bull."
Harry turned at the door of the shack. "Yep, reading," he announcedwith disgust. He cupped his hands over his mouth and bellowed throughthe doorway, "Hey!"
There was a startled grunt within, a deep, heavy voice and a thickarticulation. Presently a huge man came into the doorway and leanedthere, his figure filling it. There was nothing freakish about hisbuild. He was simply over-normal in bulk, from the big head to theheavy feet. He was no more than a youth in age, but the great size andthe bewildered puckering of his forehead made him seem older. The bookwas still in his hand.
"Hey," returned Harry, "we didn't call you out here to read to us.Leave the book behind!"
Bull looked down at the book in his hand, seemed to waken from atrance, then, with a muffled sound of apology, dropped the bookbehind him.
He slumped out from the house. His gait was like his body, his stridelarge and loose. The lack of nervous energy which kept his mind from ahigh tension was shown again in the heavy fall of his feet and theforward slump of his head. His hands dangled aimlessly at his sides,as though in need of occupation. A ragged thatch of blond hair coveredhis head and it was sunburned to straw color at the edges.
His costume was equally rough. He wore no belt, but one strap, fromhis right hip, crossed behind his back, over the bulging muscles ofhis shoulder to the front of his left hip. The trousers, which thissimple brace supported, were patched overalls, frayed to loose threadshalfway down the calf where they were met by the tops of immensecowhide boots. As for the shirt, the sleeves were inches too short,and the unbuttoned cuffs flapped around the burly forearms. If it hadbeen fastened together at the throat he would have choked. He seemed,in a word, to be bulging out of his clothes. One expected a mightyrending if he made a strong effort.
"She ain't going to bite you," said Harry Campbell. "Come on over hereto the stump." He whispered to the girl, "Laugh at him!"
She obeyed his command. It brought a flush to the face of Bull Hunterand made his head bow. He shuffled to the stump and stood aimlesslybeside it.
"Get down into the hole, you fool!" ordered Joe.
He and Harry took a certain pride in ordering their cousin around. Itwas like performing with a lion in the presence of a lady; it wasmanipulating an elephant by power of the unaided voice. Slowly BullHunter dropped his great feet into the hole and then raised his head alittle and looked wistfully to the brothers for further orders.
But only half his mind was with them. The other half was with thestory in the book. There Quentin Durward had been nodding at his guardin the castle, and the evil-faced little king had just sprung out andwrenched the weapon from the hands of the sleepy boy. Bull Huntercould see the story clearly, very clearly. The scar on the face of LeBalafr? glistened for him; he had veritably tasted the little roundloaves of French bread that the adventurer had eaten with thepseudo-merchant.
But to step out of that world of words into this keen sunlight--ah,there was the difference! The minds which one found in the pages of abook were understandable. But the minds of living men--how terriblethey were! One could never tell what passed behind the bright eyes ofother human beings. They mocked one. When they seemed sad they mightbe about to laugh. The minds of the two brothers eluded him, mockedhim, slipped from beneath the slow grasp of his comprehension. Theywhipped him with their scorn. They dodged him with their wits. Theybewildered him with their mockery.
But they were nothing compared with the laughter of the girl. It wentthrough him like the flash and point of Le Balafr?'s long sword. Hewas helpless before that sound of mirth. He wanted to hold up hishands and cower away from her and from her dancing eyes. So he stood,ponderous, tortured, and the three pairs of clear eyes watched him andenjoyed his torture. Better, far better, that dark castle in ancientFrance, and the wicked Oliver and the yet more wicked Louis.
"Lay hold on that stump," shouted Harry.
He heard the directions through a haze. It was twice repeated beforehe bowed and set his great hands upon the ragged projections, wherethe side roots had been cut away. He settled his grip and waited. Hewas glad because this bowed position gave him a chance to look down tothe ground and avoid their cruel eyes. How bright those eyes were,thought Bull, and how clearly they saw all things! He never doubtedthe justice behind their judgments of him; all that Bull asked fromthe world was a merciful silence--to let him grub in his books now andthen, or else to tell him how to go about some simple work, such asdigging with a pick. Here one's muscles worked, and there was noproblem to disturb wits which were still gathering wool in the pagesof some old tale.
But they were shrilling new directions at him; perhaps they had beencalling to him several times.
"You blamed idiot, are you goin' to stand there all day? We didn'tgive you that stump to rest on. Pull it up!"
He started with a sense of guilt and tugged up. His fingers slippedoff their separate grips, and the stump, though it groaned against thetaproot under the strain, did not come out.
"It don't seem to budge, somehow," said Bull in his big, soft,plaintive voice. Then he waited for the laughter. There was alwayslaughter, no matter what he did or said, but he never grew callousedagainst it. It was the one pain which ever pierced the mist of hisbrain and cut him to the quick. And he was right. There was laughteragain. He stood suffering mutely under it.
The girl's face became grave. She murmured to Harry, "Ever trypraisin' to big stupid?"
"Him? Are you joshin' me, Jessie? What's he ever done to be praisedabout?"
"You watch!" said the girl. Growing excited with her idea, she called,"Say, Bull!"
He lifted his head, but not his eyes. Those eyes studied the impatientfeet of the girl's mustang; he waited for another stroke of wit thatwould bring forth a fresh shower of laughter at his expense.
"Bull, you're mighty big and strong. About the biggest and strongestman I ever seen!"
Was this a new and subtle form of mockery? He waited dully.
"I seen Harry and Joe both try to pull up that root, and they couldn'tso much as budge it. But I bet you could do it all alone, Bull! Youjust try! I bet you could!"
It amazed him. He lifted his eyes at length; his face suffused with aflush; his big, cloudy eyes were glistening with moisture.
"D'you mean that?" he asked huskily.
For this terrible, clear-eyed creature, this mocking mind, this alert,cruel wit was actually speaking words of confidence. A great, dim joywelled up in the heart of Bull Hunter. He shook the forelock outof his eyes.
"You just try, will you, Bull?"
He bowed. Again his thick fingers sought for a grip, found places,worked down through the soft dirt and the pulpy bark to solid wood,and then he began to lift. It was a gradual process. His knees gave,sagging under the strain from the arms. Then the back began to growrigid, and the legs in turn grew stiff, as every muscle fell intoplay. The shoulders pushed forward and down. The forearms, revealed bythe short sleeves, showed a bewildering tangle of corded muscle, and,at the wrists, the tendons sprang out as distinct and white as the newstrings of a violin.
The three spectators were undergoing a change. The suppressed grins ofthe two brothers faded. They glanced at the girl to see if she werenot laughing at the results of her words to big Bull, but the girl wasstaring. She had set that mighty power to work, and she was amazed bythe thing she saw. And they, looking back at Bull, were amazed inturn. They had seen him lift great logs, wrench boulders from theearth. But always it had been a proverb within the Campbell familythat Bull would make only one attempt and, failing in the firsteffort, would try no more. They had never seen the mysteriousresources of his strength called upon.
Now they watched first the settling and then the expansion of the bodyof their big cousin. His shoulders began to tremble; they heard deep,harsh panting like the breathing of a horse as it tugs a ponderousload up a hill, and still he had not reached the limit of his power.He seemed to grow into the soil, and his feet ground deeper into thesoft dirt, and ever there was something in him remaining to be tapped.It seemed to the brothers to be merely vast, unexplored recesses ofmuscle, but even then it was a prodigious thing to watch the strain onthe stump increase moment by moment. That something of the spirit wasbeing called upon to aid in the work was quite beyond theircomprehension.
There was something like a groan from Bull--a queer, animal sound thatmade all three spectators shiver where they stood. For it showed thatthe limit of that apparently inexhaustible strength had been reachedand that now the anguish of last effort was going into the work. Theysaw the head bowed lower; the shoulders were now bunching and swellingup on either side.
Then came a faint rending sound, like cloth slowly torn. It wasanswered by something strangely like a snarl from the laborer.Something jerked through his body as though a whip had been flickedacross his back. With a great rending and a loud snap the big stumpcame up. A little shower of dirt spouted up with the parting of thetaproot. The trunk was flung high, but not out of the hands of BullHunter. He whirled it around his head, laughing. There was a ring andclearness in that laughter that they had never heard before. He dashedthe stump on the ground.
"It's out!" exclaimed Bull. "Look there!"
He strode upon them. As he straightened up he became huger than ever.They shrank from him--from the veins which still bulged on hisforehead and from the sweat and pallo
"Lady, I got to thank you. You--taught me how!"
But she shrank from his outstretched hand--as though she had laboredto a larger end than she dreamed and was terrified by the thingshe had made.
"You--you got a red stain on your hands. Oh!"
He came to a stop sharply. The sharp edges, where the roots had beencut away had worked through the skin and his hands were literallycaked with mud and stained red. Bull looked down at his hands vaguely.
It came to Harry that Bull was taking up a trifle too much of Jessie'sattention. The next thing they knew she would be inviting him to cometo the next dance down her way, and they would have the big hulk of aman shaming himself and his uncle's family.
"Go on back to the house," he ordered sharply. "We don't have no moreneed of you."
Bull obeyed, stumbling along and still looking down at his woundedhands.
Bull Hunter by Max Brand / Western have rating 4.9 out of 5 / Based on39 votes