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"I have been to see my wife,
She's the joy of my life,
She's a young thing, and cannot leave her mother!"

"Thought Bill had got too proud t' sing that song uh hisn," the cook
yelled facetiously to the riders who were nearest. "I was lookin' for
him to bust out in grand-opry, or something else that's a heap more
stylish than his old come-all-ye."

Charming Billy turned and rested a hand briefly upon the cantle while
he told the cook laughingly to go to the hot place, and then settled
himself to the pace that matched the leaping blood of him. That pace
soon discouraged the others and left them jogging leisurely a mile
or two in the rear, and it also brought him the sooner to his
destination.

"Wonder if she's mad yet," he asked himself, when he dismounted. No
one seemed to be about, but he reflected that it was just about noon
and they would probably be at dinner - and, besides, the weather was
not the sort to invite one outdoors unless driven by necessity.

The smell of roast meat, coffee and some sort of pie assailed his
nostrils pleasantly when he came to the house, and he went in eagerly
by the door which would bring him directly to the dining room. As he
had guessed, they were seated at the table. "Why, come in, William,"
Dill greeted, a welcoming note in his voice. "We weren't looking for
you, but you are in good time. We've only just begun."

"How do you do, Mr. Boyle?" Miss Bridger added demurely.

"Hello, Bill! How're yuh coming?" cried another, and it was to him
that the eyes of Billy Boyle turned bewilderedly. That the Pilgrim
should be seated calmly at the Double-Crank table never once occurred
to him. In his thoughts of Miss Bridger he had mentally eliminated the
Pilgrim; for had she not been particular to show the Pilgrim that his
presence was extremely undesirable, that night at the dance?

"Hello, folks!" he answered them all quietly, because there was
nothing else that he could do until he had time to think. Miss Bridger
had risen and was smiling at him in friendly fashion, exactly as
if she had never run away from him and stayed away all the evening
because she was angry.

"I'll fix you a place," she announced briskly. "Of course you're
hungry. And if you want to wash off the dust of travel, there's plenty
of warm water out here in the kitchen. I'll get you some."

She may not have meant that for an invitation, but Billy followed her
into the kitchen and calmly shut the door behind him. She dipped warm
water out of the reservoir for him and hung a fresh towel on the
nail above the washstand in the corner, and seemed about to leave him
again.

"Yuh mad yet?" asked Billy, because he wanted to keep her there.

"Mad? Why?" She opened her eyes at him. "Not as much as you look," she
retorted then. "You look as cross as if - "

"What's the Pilgrim doing here?" Billy demanded suddenly and
untactfully.

"Who? Mr. Walland?" She went into the pantry and came back with a
plate for him. "Why, nothing; he's just visiting. It's Sunday, you
know."

"Oh - is it?" Billy bent over the basin, hiding his face from her. "I
didn't know; I'd kinda lost count uh the days." Whereupon he made
a great splashing in his corner and let her go without more
words, feeling more than ever that he needed time to think. "Just
visiting - 'cause it's _Sunday_, eh? The dickens it is!" Meditating
deeply, he was very deliberate in combing his hair and settling his
blue tie and shaking the dust out of his white silk neckerchief
and retying it in a loose knot; so deliberate that Mama Joy was
constrained to call out to him: "Your dinner is getting cold, Mr.
Boyle," before he went in and took his seat where Miss Bridger had
placed him - and he doubted much her innocence in the matter - elbow to
elbow with the Pilgrim.

"How's shipping coming on, Billy?" inquired the Pilgrim easily,
passing to him the platter of roast beef. "Most through, ain't yuh?"

"The outfit's on the way in," answered Billy, accepting noncommittally
the meat and the overture for peace. "They'll be here in less than an
hour."

If the Pilgrim wanted peace, he was thinking rapidly, what grounds had
he for ignoring the truce? He himself had been the aggressor and he
also had been the victor. According to the honor of fighting men, he
should be generous. And when all was said and done - and the thought
galled Billy more than he could understand - the offense of the Pilgrim
had been extremely intangible; it had consisted almost wholly of looks
and a tone or two, and he realized quite plainly that his own dislike
of the Pilgrim had probably colored his judgment. Anyway, he had
thrashed the Pilgrim and driven him away from camp and killed his dog.
Wasn't that enough? And if the Pilgrim chose to forget the unpleasant
circumstances of their parting and be friends, what could he do but
forget also? Especially since the girl did not appear to be holding
any grudge for what had passed between them in the line-camp. Billy,
buttering a biscuit with much care, wished he knew just what _had_
happened that night before he opened the door, and wondered if he
dared ask her.

Under all his thoughts and through all he hated the Pilgrim, his bold
blue eyes, his full, smiling lips and smooth cheeks, as he had never
hated him before; and he hated himself because, being unable to
account even to himself for his feelings toward the Pilgrim, he was
obliged to hide his hate and be friends - or else act the fool. And
above all the mental turmoil he was somehow talking and listening and
laughing now and then, as if there were two of him and each one was
occupied with his own affairs. "I wisht to thunder there was _three_
uh me," he thought fleetingly during a pause. "I'd set the third one
uh me to figuring out just where the girl stands in this game, and
what she's thinking about right now. There's a kinda twinkling in her
eyes, now and then when she looks over here, that sure don't line up
with her innocent talk. I wisht I could mind-read her -

"Yes, we didn't get through none too soon. Looks a lot like we're
going to get our first slice uh winter. We've been playing big luck
that we didn't get it before now; and that last bunch uh beef was
sure rollicky and hard to handle - we'd uh had a picnic with all the
trimmings if a blizzard had caught us with them on our hands. As it
is, we're all dead on our feet. I expect to sleep about four days
without stopping for meals, if you ask _me_."

One cannot wonder that Charming Billy heard thankfully the clatter of
his outfit arriving, or that he left half his piece of pie uneaten
and hurried off, on the plea that he must show them what to do - which
would have caused a snicker among the men if they had overheard him.
He did not mind Dill following him out, nor did he greatly mind the
Pilgrim remaining in the house with Miss Bridger. The relief of being
even temporarily free from the perplexities of the situation mastered
all else and sent him whistling down the path to the stables.




CHAPTER XIV.

_A Winter at the Double-Crank_.


There are times when, although the months as they pass seem full,
nothing that has occurred serves to mark a step forward or back in the
destiny of man. After a year, those months of petty detail might be
wiped out entirely without changing the general trend of events - and
such a time was the winter that saw "Dill and Bill," as one
alliterative mind called them, in possession of the Double-Crank. The
affairs of the ranch moved smoothly along toward a more systematic
running than had been employed under Brown's ownership. Dill settled
more and more into the new life, so that he was so longer looked upon
as a foreign element; he could discuss practical ranch business and be
sure of his ground - and it was then that Billy realized more fully how
shrewd a brain lay behind those mild, melancholy blue eyes, and how
much a part of the man was that integrity which could not stoop to
small meanness or deceit. It would have been satisfying merely to know
that such a man lived, and if Billy had needed any one to point
the way to square living he must certainly have been better for the
companionship of Dill.

As to Miss Bridger, he stood upon much the same footing with her as he
had in the fall, except that he called her Flora, in the familiarity
which comes of daily association; to his secret discomfort she had
fulfilled her own prophecy and called him Billy Boy. Though he liked
the familiarity, he emphatically did not like the mental attitude
which permitted her to fall so easily into the habit of calling him
that. Also, he was in two minds about the way she would come to the
door of the living room and say: "Come, Billy Boy, and dry the dishes
for me - that's a good kid!"

Billy had no objections to drying the dishes; of a truth, although
that had been a duty which he shirked systematically in line-camps
until everything in the cabin was in that state which compels action,
he would have been willing to stand beside Flora Bridger at the sink
and wipe dishes (and watch her bare, white arms, with the dimply
elbows) from dark until dawn. What he did object to was the
half-patronizing, wholly matter-of-fact tone of her, which seemed to
preclude any possibility of sentiment so far as she was concerned.
She always looked at him so frankly, with never a tinge of red in her
cheeks to betray that consciousness of sex which goes ever - say what
you like - with the love of a man and a maid.

He did not want her to call him "Billy Boy" in just that tone; it made
him feel small and ineffective and young - he who was eight or nine
years older than she! It put him down, so that he could not bring
himself to making actual love to her - and once or twice when he had
tried it, she took it as a great joke.

Still, it was good to have her there and to be friends. The absence of
the Pilgrim, who had gone East quite suddenly soon after the round-up
was over, and the generosity of the other fellows, who saw quite
plainly how it was - with Billy, at least - and forbore making any
advances on their own account, made the winter pass easily and left
Charming Billy in the spring not content, perhaps, but hopeful.

It was in the warm days of late April - the days which bring the birds
and the tender, young grass, when the air is soft and all outdoors
beckons one to come out and revel. On such a day Billy, stirred to an
indefinable elation because the world as he saw it then was altogether
good, crooned his pet song while he waited at the porch with Flora's
horse and his own. They were going to ride together because it was
Sunday and because, if the weather held to its past and present mood
of sweet serenity, he might feel impelled to start the wagons out
before the week was done; so that this might be their last Sunday ride
for nobody knew how long.

"Let's ride up the creek," she suggested when she was in the saddle.
"We haven't been up that way this spring. There's a trail, isn't
there?"

"Sure, there's a trail - but I don't know what shape it's in. I haven't
been over it myself for a month or so. We'll try it, but yuh won't
find much to see; it's all level creek-bottom for miles and kinda
monotonous to look at."

"Well, we'll go, anyway," she decided, and they turned their horses'
heads toward the west.

They had gone perhaps five or six miles and were thinking of turning
back, when Billy found cause to revise his statement that there was
nothing to see. There had been nothing when he rode this way before,
but now, when they turned to follow a bend in the creek and in the
trail, they came upon a camp which looked more permanent than was
usual in that country. A few men were lounging around in the sun, and
there were scrapers of the wheeled variety, and wagons, and plows, and
divers other implements of toil that were strange to the place. Also
there was a long, reddish-yellow ridge branching out from the creek;
Billy knew it for a ditch - but a ditch larger than he had seen for
many a day. He did not say anything, even when Flora exclaimed over
the surprise of finding a camp there, but headed straight for the
camp.

When they came within speaking distance, a man showed in the opening
of one of the tents, looked at them a moment, and came forward.

"Why, that's Fred Walland!" cried Flora, and then caught herself
suddenly. "I didn't know he was back," she added, in a tone much less
eager.

Billy gave her a quick look that might have told her much had she seen
it. He did not much like the color which had flared into her cheeks
at sight of the Pilgrim, and he liked still less the tone in which
she spoke his name. It was not much, and he had the sense to push the
little devil of jealousy out of sight behind him, but it had come and
changed something in the heart of Billy.

"Why, hello!" greeted the Pilgrim, and Billy remembered keenly that
the Pilgrim had spoken in just that way when he had opened the door of
the line-camp upon them, that night. "I was going to ride over to the
ranch, after a while. How are yuh, anyhow?" He came and held up his
hand to Flora, and she put her own into it. Billy, with eyebrows
pinched close, thought that they sure took their own time about
letting go again, and that the smile which she gave the Pilgrim was
quite superfluous to the occasion.

"Yuh seem to be some busy over here," he remarked carelessly, turning
his eyes to the new ditch.

"Well, yes. Brown's having a ditch put in here. We only started a few
days ago; them da - them no-account Swedes he got to do the rough work
are so slow, we're liable to be at it all summer. How's everybody at
the ranch? How's your mother, Miss Bridger? Has she got any mince pies
baked?"

"I don't know - you might ride over with us and see," she invited,
smiling at him again. "We were just going to turn back - weren't we,
Billy Boy?"

"Sure!" he testified, and for the first time found some comfort
in being called Billy Boy; because, if looks went for anything, it
certainly made the Pilgrim very uncomfortable. The spirits of Billy
rose a little.

"If you'll wait till I saddle up, I'll go along. I guess the Svenskies
won't run off with the camp before I get back," said the Pilgrim,
and so they stayed, and afterward rode back together quite amiably
considering certain explosive elements in the party.

Perhaps Billy's mildness was due in a great measure to his
preoccupation, which made him deaf at times to what the others were
saying. He knew that they were quite impersonal in their talk, and so
he drifted into certain other channels of thought.

Was Brown going to start another cow-outfit, or was he merely going to
try his hand at farming? Billy knew that - unless he had sold it - Brown
owned a few hundred acres along the creek there; and as he rode over
it now he observed the soil more closely than was his habit, and saw
that, from a passing survey, it seemed fertile and free from either
adobe or alkali. It must be that Brown was going to try ranching.
Still, he had held out all his best stock, and Billy had not heard
that he had sold it since. Now that he thought of it, he had not heard
much about Brown since Dill bought the Double-Crank. Brown had been
away, and, though he had known in a general way that the Pilgrim
was still in his employ, he did not know in what capacity. In the
absorption of his own affairs he had not given the matter any thought,
though he had wondered at first what crazy impulse caused Brown to
sell the Double-Crank. Even now he did not know, and when he thought
of it the thing irritated him like a puzzle before it is solved.

So greatly did the matter trouble him that immediately upon reaching
the ranch he left Flora and the Pilgrim and hunted up Dill. He found
him hunched like a half-open jackknife in a cane rocker, with his legs
crossed and one long, lean foot dangling loosely before him; he was
reading "The Essays of Elia," and the melancholy of his face gave
Billy the erroneous impression that the book was extremely sad, and
caused him to dislike it without ever looking inside the dingy blue
covers.

"Say, Dilly, old Brown's putting in a ditch big enough to carry the
whole Missouri River. Did yuh know it?"

Dill carefully creased down the corner of the page where he was
reading, untangled his legs and pulled himself up a bit in the chair.
"Why, no, I don't think I have heard of it," he admitted. "If I have
it must have slipped my mind - which isn't likely." Dill was rather
proud of his capacity for keeping a mental grasp on things.

"Well, he's got a bunch uh men camped up the creek and the Pilgrim to
close-herd 'em - and I'm busy wondering what he's going to do with that
ditch. Brown don't do things just to amuse himself; yuh can gamble he
aims to make that ditch pack dollars into his jeans - and if yuh can
tell me _how_, I'll be a whole lot obliged." Dill shook his head, and
Billy went on. "Did yuh happen to find out, when yuh was bargaining
for the Double-Crank, how much land Brown's got held out?"

"No-o - I can't say I did. From certain remarks he made, I was under
the impression that he owns quite a tract. I asked about getting all
the land he had, and he said he preferred not to put a price on it,
but that it would add considerably to the sum total. He said I would
not need it, anyhow, as there is plenty of open range for the stock.
He was holding it, he told me, for speculation and had never made any
use of it in running his stock, except as they grazed upon it."

"Uh-huh. That don't sound to me like any forty-acre field; does it to
you?"

"As I said," responded Dill, "I arrived at the conclusion that he owns
a good deal of land."

"And I'll bet yuh the old skunk is going to start up a cow-outfit
right under our noses - though why the dickens the Double-Crank wasn't
good enough for him gets me."

"If he does," Dill observed calmly, "the man has a perfect right to
do so, William. We must guard against that greed which would crowd
out every one but ourselves - like pigs around a trough of sour milk! I
will own, however - "

"Say, Dilly! On the dead, are yuh religious?"

"No, William, I am not, in the sense you mean. I hope, however, that I
am honest. If Mr. Brown intends to raise cattle again I shall be glad
to see him succeed."

Charming Billy sat down suddenly, as though his legs would no longer
support him, and looked queerly at Dill. "Hell!" he said meditatively,
and sought with his fingers for his smoking material.

Dill showed symptoms of going back to "The Essays of Elia," so that
Billy was stirred to speech.

"Now, looky here, Dilly. You're all right, as far as yuh go - but this
range is carrying just about all the stock it needs right at present.
I don't reckon yuh realize that all the good bottoms and big coulées
are getting filled up with nesters; one here and one there, and every
year a few more. It ain't much, uh course, but every man that comes
is cutting down the range just that much. And I know one thing: when
Brown had this outfit himself he was mighty jealous uh the range, and
he didn't take none to the idea of anybody else shoving stock onto it
more than naturally drifted on in the course uh the season. If he's
going to start another cow-outfit, I'll bet yuh he's going to gobble
land - and that's what _we_ better do, and do it sudden."

"Since I have never had much personal experience in the 'gobbling'
line, I'm afraid you'll have to explain," said Dill dryly.

"I mean leasing. We got to beat Brown to it. We got to start in and
lease up all the land we can get our claws on. I ain't none desirable
uh trying to make yuh a millionaire, Dilly, whilst we've only got
one lone section uh land and about twelve thousand head uh stock, and
somebody else aiming to throw a big lot uh cattle onto our range. I
kinda shy at any contract the size uh that one. I've got to start the
wagons out, if this weather holds good, and I want to go with 'em - for
a while, anyhow - and see how things stack up on the range. And what
_you've_ got to do is to go and lease every foot uh land you can. Eh?
State land. All the land around here almost is State land - all that's
surveyed and that ain't held by private owners. And State land can be
leased for a term uh years.

"The way they do it, yuh start in and go over the map all samee flea;
yuh lease a section here and there and skip one and take the next,
and so on, and then if yuh need to yuh throw a fence around the whole
blame chunk - and there yuh are. No, it _ain't_ cheating, because if
anybody don't like it real bad, they can raise the long howl and make
yuh revise your fencing; but in this neck uh the woods folks don't
howl over a little thing like that, because you could lift up your
own voice over something they've done, and there'd be a fine, pretty
chorus! So that's what yuh can do if yuh want to - but anyway, yuh want
to get right after that leasing. It'll cost yuh something, but we're
just plumb obliged to protect ourselves. See?"

At that point he heard Flora laugh, and got up hastily, remembering
the presence of the Pilgrim on the ranch.

"I see, and I will think it over and take what precautionary measures
are necessary and possible."

Billy, not quite sure that he had sufficiently impressed Dill with
the importance of the matter, turned at the door and looked in again,
meaning to add an emphatic word or two; but when he saw that Dill was
staring round-eyed at nothing at all, and that Lamb was lying
sprawled wide open on the floor, his face relaxed from its anxious
determination.

"I got his think-works going - he'll do the rest," he told himself
satisfiedly, and pushed the subject from him. Just now he wanted to
make sure the Pilgrim wasn't getting more smiles than were coming to
him - and if you had left the decision of that with Billy, the Pilgrim
would have had none at all.

"I wisht he'd _do_ something I could lay my finger on - damn him," he
reflected. "I can't kick him out on the strength uh my own private
opinion. I'd just simply lay myself wide open to all kinds uh
remarks. I _ain't_ jealous; he ain't got any particular stand-in with
Flora - but if I started action on him, that's what the general verdict
would be. Oh, thunder!"

Nothing of his thoughts showed in his manner when he went out to where
they were. He found them just putting up a target made of a sheet of
tablet paper marked with a lead pencil into rings and an uncertain
centre, and he went straight into the game with a smile. He loaded
the gun for Flora, showed her exactly how to "draw a fine bead," and
otherwise deported himself in a way not calculated to be pleasing to
the Pilgrim. He called her Flora boldly whenever occasion offered, and
he exulted inwardly at the proprietary way in which she said "Billy
Boy" and ordered him around. Of course, _he_ knew quite well that
there was nothing but frank-eyed friendship back of it all; but the
Pilgrim plainly did not know and was a good deal inclined to sulk over
his interpretation.

So Billy, when came the time for sleeping, grinned in the dark of his
room and dwelt with much satisfaction upon the manner of the Pilgrim's
departure. He prophesied optimistically that he guessed that would
hold the Pilgrim for a while, and that he himself could go on round-up
and not worry any over what was happening at the ranch.

For the Pilgrim had come into the kitchen, ostensibly for a drink of
water, and had found Miss Flora fussily adjusting the Klondyke nugget
pin in the tie of Charming Billy, as is the way of women when they
know they may bully a man with impunity - and she was saying: "Now,
Billy Boy, if you don't learn to stick that pin in straight and not
have the point standing out a foot, I'll - " That is where the Pilgrim
came in and interrupted. And he choked over the dipper of water even
as Billy choked over his glee, and left the ranch within fifteen
minutes and rode, as Billy observed to the girl, "with a haughty
spine."

"Oh, joy!" chuckled Billy when he lived those minutes over again, and
punched the pillow facetiously. "Oh, joy, oh Johnathan! I guess maybe
he didn't get a jolt, huh? And the way - the very _tone_ when I called
her Flora - sounded like the day was set for the wedding and we'd gone
and ordered the furniture!"

The mood of him was still triumphant three days after when he turned
in his saddle and waved his hand to Flora, who waved wistfully back at
him. "It ain't any cinch right now - but I'll have her yet," he cheered
himself when the twinge of parting was keenest.




CHAPTER XV.

_The Shadow Falls Lightly._


Over the green uplands, into the coulées and the brushy creek-bottoms


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Online LibraryB.M. BowerThe Long Shadow → online text (page 7 of 13)