Produced by Suzanne Shell, Alicia Williams, David King, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
THE LONG SHADOW
BY B.M. BOWER
WHO HAVE WATCHED THE SHADOW FALL UPON THE RANGE.
I Charming Billy Has a Visitor
II Prune Pie and Coon-can
III Charming Billy Has a Fight
V The Man From Michigan
VI “That’s My Dill Pickle!”
VII “Till Hell’s a Skating-rink”
VIII Just a Day-dream
IX The “Double-Crank”
X The Day We Celebrate
XI “When I Lift My Eyebrows This Way”
XII Dilly Hires a Cook
XIII Billy Meets the Pilgrim
XIV A Winter at the Double-Crank
XV The Shadow Falls Lightly
XVII The Shadow Darkens
XVIII When the North Wind Blows
XIX “I’m Not Your Wife Yet!”
XX The Shadow Lies Long
XXI The End of the Double-Crank
XXII Settled In Full
XXIII “Oh, Where Have You Been, Charming Billy?”
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
“I’ll leave you this, you’ll feel safer if you have a gun”
“Hands off that long person! That there’s _my_ dill pickle”
“We–we’re ‘up against it,’ as fellows say”
For every sentence a stinging blow with the flat of his hand
[Illustration: “I’LL LEAVE YOU THIS, YOU’LL FEEL SAFER IF YOU HAVE A GUN.” _Frontispiece_.]
_Charming Billy Has a Visitor._
The wind, rising again as the sun went down, mourned lonesomely at the northwest corner of the cabin, as if it felt the desolateness of the barren, icy hills and the black hollows between, and of the angry red sky with its purple shadows lowering over the unhappy land–and would make fickle friendship with some human thing. Charming Billy, hearing the crooning wail of it, knew well the portent and sighed. Perhaps he, too, felt something of the desolateness without and perhaps he, too, longed for some human companionship.
He sent a glance of half-conscious disapproval around the untidy cabin. He had been dreaming aimlessly of a place he had seen not so long ago; a place where the stove was black and shining, with a fire crackling cheeringly inside and a teakettle with straight, unmarred spout and dependable handle singing placidly to itself and puffing steam with an air of lazy comfort, as if it were smoking a cigarette. The stove had stood in the southwest corner of the room, and the room was warm with the heat of it; and the floor was white and had a strip of rag carpet reaching from the table to a corner of the stove. There was a red cloth with knotted fringe on the table, and a bed in another corner had a red-and-white patchwork spread and puffy white pillows. There had been a woman–but Charming Billy shut his eyes, mentally, to the woman, because he was not accustomed to them and he was not at all sure that he wanted to be accustomed; they did not fit in with the life he lived. He felt dimly that, in a way, they were like the heaven his mother had taught him–altogether perfect and altogether unattainable and not to be thought of with any degree of familiarity. So his memory of the woman was indistinct, as of something which did not properly belong to the picture. He clung instead to the memory of the warm stove, and the strip of carpet, and the table with the red cloth, and to the puffy, white pillows on the bed.
The wind mourned again insistently at the corner. Billy lifted his head and looked once more around the cabin. The reality was depressing–doubly depressing in contrast to the memory of that other room. A stove stood in the southwest corner, but it was not black and shining; it was rust-red and ash-littered, and the ashes had overflowed the hearth and spilled to the unswept floor. A dented lard-pail without a handle did meagre duty as a teakettle, and balanced upon a corner of the stove was a dirty frying pan. The fire had gone dead and the room was chill with the rising of the wind. The table was filled with empty cans and tin plates and cracked, oven-stained bowls and iron-handled knives and forks, and the bunk in the corner was a tumble of gray blankets and unpleasant, red-flowered comforts–corner-wads, Charming Billy was used to calling them–and for pillows there were two square, calico-covered cushions, depressingly ugly in pattern and not over-clean.
Billy sighed again, threaded a needle with coarse, black thread and attacked petulantly a long rent in his coat. “Darn this bushwhacking all over God’s earth after a horse a man can’t stay with, nor even hold by the bridle reins,” he complained dispiritedly. “I could uh cleaned the blamed shack up so it would look like folks was living here–and I woulda, if I didn’t have to set all day and toggle up the places in my clothes”–Billy muttered incoherently over a knot in his thread. “I’ve been plumb puzzled, all winter, to know whether it’s man or cattle I’m supposed to chappyrone. If it’s man, this coat has sure got the marks uh the trade, all right.” He drew the needle spitefully through the cloth.
The wind gathered breath and swooped down upon the cabin so that Billy felt the jar of it. “I don’t see what’s got the matter of the weather,” he grumbled. “Yuh just get a chinook that starts water running down the coulees, and then the wind switches and she freezes up solid–and that means tailing-up poor cows and calves by the dozen–and for your side-partner yuh get dealt out to yuh a pilgrim that don’t know nothing and can’t ride a wagon seat, hardly, and that’s bound to keep a _dawg_! And the Old Man stands for that kind uh thing and has forbid accidents happening to it–oh, hell!”
This last was inspired by a wriggling movement under the bunk. A black dog, of the apologetic drooping sort that always has its tail sagging and matted with burrs, crawled out and sidled past Billy with a deprecating wag or two when he caught his unfriendly glance, and shambled over to the door that he might sniff suspiciously the cold air coming in through the crack beneath.
Billy eyed him malevolently. “A dog in a line-camp is a plumb disgrace! I don’t see why the Old Man stands for it–or the Pilgrim, either; it’s a toss-up which is the worst. Yuh smell him coming, do yuh?” he snarled. “It’s about _time_ he was coming–me here eating dried apricots and tapioca steady diet (nobody but a pilgrim would fetch tapioca into a line-camp, and if he does it again you’ll sure be missing the only friend yuh got) and him gone four days when he’d oughta been back the second. Get out and welcome him, darn yuh!” He gathered the coat under one arm that he might open the door, and hurried the dog outside with a threatening boot toe. The wind whipped his brown cheeks so that he closed the door hastily and retired to the cheerless shelter of the cabin.
“Another blizzard coming, if I know the signs. And if the Pilgrim don’t show up to-night with the grub and tobacco–But I reckon the dawg smelt him coming, all right.” He fingered uncertainly a very flabby tobacco sack, grew suddenly reckless and made himself an exceedingly thin cigarette with the remaining crumbs of tobacco and what little he could glean from the pockets of the coat he was mending. Surely, the Pilgrim would remember his tobacco! Incapable as he was, he could scarcely forget that, after the extreme emphasis Charming Billy had laid upon the getting, and the penalties attached to its oversight.
Outside, the dog was barking spasmodically; but Billy, being a product of the cattle industry pure and simple, knew not the way of dogs. He took it for granted that the Pilgrim was arriving with the grub, though he was too disgusted with his delay to go out and make sure. Dogs always barked at everything impartially–when they were not gnawing surreptitiously at bones or snooping in corners for scraps, or planting themselves deliberately upon your clothes. Even when the noise subsided to throaty growls he failed to recognize the symptoms; he was taking long, rapturous mouthfuls of smoke and gazing dreamily at his coat, for it was his first cigarette since yesterday.
When some one rapped lightly he jumped, although he was not a man who owned unsteady nerves. It was very unusual, that light tapping. When any one wanted to come in he always opened the door without further ceremony. Still, there was no telling what strange freak might impel the Pilgrim–he who insisted on keeping a dog in a line-camp!–so Billy recovered himself and called out impatiently: “Aw, come on in! Don’t be a plumb fool,” and never moved from his place.
The door opened queerly; slowly, and with a timidity not at all in keeping with the blundering assertiveness of the Pilgrim. When a young woman showed for a moment against the bleak twilight and then stepped inside, Charming Billy caught at the table for support, and the coat he was holding dropped to the floor. He did not say a word: he just stared.
The girl closed the door behind her with something of defiance, that did not in the least impose upon one. “Good evening,” she said briskly, though even in his chaotic state of mind Billy felt the tremble in her voice. “It’s rather late for making calls, but–” She stopped and caught her breath nervously, as if she found it impossible to go on being brisk and at ease. “I was riding, and my horse slipped and hurt himself so he couldn’t walk, and I saw this cabin from up on the hill over there. So I came here, because it was so far home–and I thought–maybe–” She looked with big, appealing brown eyes at Billy, who felt himself a brute without in the least knowing why. “I’m Flora Bridger; you know, my father has taken up a ranch over on Shell Creek, and–“
“I’m very glad to meet you,” said Charming Billy stammeringly. “Won’t you sit down? I–I wish I’d known company was coming.” He smiled reassuringly, and then glanced frowningly around the cabin. Even for a line-camp, he told himself disgustedly, it was “pretty sousy.” “You must be cold,” he added, seeing her glance toward the stove. “I’ll have a fire going right away; I’ve been pretty busy and just let things slide.” He threw the un-smoked half of his cigarette into the ashes and felt not a quiver of regret. He knew who she was, now; she was the daughter he had heard about, and who belonged to the place where the stove was black and shining and the table had a red cloth with knotted fringe. It must have been her mother whom he had seen there–but she had looked very young to be mother of a young lady.
Charming Billy brought himself rigidly to consider the duties of a host; swept his arm across a bench to clear it of sundry man garments, and asked her again to sit down. When she did so, he saw that her fingers were clasped tightly to hold her from shivering, and he raved inwardly at his shiftlessness the while he hurried to light a fire in the stove.
“Too bad your horse fell,” he remarked stupidly, gathering up the handful of shavings he had whittled from a piece of pine board. “I always hate to see a horse get hurt.” It was not what he had wanted to say, but he could not seem to put just the right thing into words. What he wanted was to make her feel that there was nothing out of the ordinary in her being there, and that he was helpful and sympathetic without being in the least surprised. In all his life on the range he had never had a young woman walk into a line-camp at dusk–a strange young woman who tried pitifully to be at ease and whose eyes gave the lie to her manner–and he groped confusedly for just the right way in which to meet the situation.
“I know your father,” he said, fanning a tiny blaze among the shavings with his hat, which had been on his head until he remembered and removed it in deference to her presence. “But I ain’t a very good neighbor, I guess; I never seem to have time to be sociable. It’s lucky your horse fell close enough so yuh could walk in to camp; I’ve had that happen to me more than once, and it ain’t never pleasant–but it’s worse when there ain’t any camp to walk to. I’ve had that happen, too.”
The fire was snapping by then, and manlike he swept the ashes to the floor. The girl watched him, politely disapproving. “I don’t want to be a trouble,” she said, with less of constraint; for Charming Billy, whether he knew it or not, had reassured her immensely. “I know men hate to cook, so when I get warm, and the water is hot, I’ll cook supper for you,” she offered. “And then I won’t mind having you help me to get home.”
“I guess it won’t be any trouble–but I don’t mind cooking. You–you better set still and rest,” murmured Charming Billy, quite red. Of course, she would want supper–and there were dried apricots, and a very little tapioca! He felt viciously that he could kill the Pilgrim and be glad. The Pilgrim was already two days late with the supplies he had been sent after because he was not to be trusted with the duties pertaining to a line-camp–and Billy had not the wide charity that could conjure excuses for the delinquent.
“I’ll let you wash the dishes,” promised Miss Bridger generously. “But I’ll cook the supper–really, I want to, you know. I won’t say I’m not hungry, because I am. This Western air does give one _such_ an appetite, doesn’t it? And then I walked miles, it seems to me; so that ought to be an excuse, oughtn’t it? Now, if you’ll show me where the coffee is–“
She had risen and was looking at him expectantly, with a half smile that seemed to invite one to comradeship. Charming Billy looked at her helplessly, and turned a shade less brown.
“The–there isn’t any,” he stammered guiltily. “The Pilgrim–I mean Walland–Fred Walland–“
“It doesn’t matter in the least,” Miss Bridger assured him hastily. “One can’t keep everything in the house all the time, so far from any town. We’re often out of things, at home. Last week, only, I upset the vanilla bottle, and then we were completely out of vanilla till just yesterday.” She smiled again confidingly, and Billy tried to seem very sympathetic–though of a truth, to be out of vanilla did not at that moment seem to him a serious catastrophe. “And really, I like tea better, you know. I only said coffee because father told me cowboys drink it a great deal. Tea is so much quicker and easier to make.”
Billy dug his nails into his palms. “There–Miss Bridger,” he blurted desperately, “I’ve got to tell yuh–there isn’t a thing in the shack except some dried apricots–and maybe a spoonful or two of tapioca. The Pilgrim–” He stopped to search his brain for words applicable to the Pilgrim and still mild enough for the ears of a lady.
“Well, never mind. We can rough it–it will be lots of fun!” the girl laughed so readily as almost to deceive Billy, standing there in his misery. That a woman should come to him for help, and he not even able to give her food, was almost unbearable. It were well for the Pilgrim that Charming Billy Boyle could not at that moment lay hands upon him.
“It will be fun,” she laughed again in his face. “If the–the grubstake is down to a whisper (that’s the way you say it, isn’t it?) there will be all the more credit coming to the cook when you see all the things she can do with dried apricots and tapioca. May I rummage?”
“Sure,” assented Billy, dazedly moving aside so that she might reach the corner where three boxes were nailed by their bottoms to the wall, curtained with gayly flowered calico and used for a cupboard. “The Pilgrim,” he began for the third time to explain, “went after grub and is taking his time about getting back. He’d oughta been here day before yesterday. We might eat his dawg,” he suggested, gathering spirit now that her back was toward him.
Her face appeared at one side of the calico curtain. “I know something better than eating the dog,” she announced triumphantly. “Down there in the willows where I crossed the creek–I came down that low, saggy place in the hill–I saw a lot of chickens or something–partridges, maybe you call them–roosting in a tree with their feathers all puffed out. It’s nearly dark, but they’re worth trying for, don’t you think? That is, if you have a gun,” she added, as if she had begun to realize how meagre were his possessions. “If you don’t happen to have one, we can do all right with what there is here, you know.”
Billy flushed a little, and for answer took down his gun and belt from where they hung upon the wall, buckled the belt around his slim middle and picked up his hat. “If they’re there yet, I’ll get some, sure,” he promised. “You just keep the fire going till I come back, and I’ll wash the dishes. Here, I’ll shut the dawg in the house; he’s always plumb crazy with ambition to do just what yuh don’t want him to do, and I don’t want him following.” He smiled upon her again (he was finding that rather easy to do) and closed the door lingeringly behind him. Having never tried to analyze his feelings, he did not wonder why he stepped so softly along the frozen path that led to the stable, or why he felt that glow of elation which comes to a man only when he has found something precious in his sight.
“I wish I hadn’t eat the last uh the flour this morning,” he regretted anxiously. “I coulda made some bread; there’s a little yeast powder left in the can. Darn the Pilgrim!”
_Prune Pie and Coon-can._
Of a truth, Charming Billy Boyle, living his life in the wide land that is too big and too far removed from the man-made world for any but the strong of heart, knew little indeed of women–her kind of women. When he returned with two chickens and found that the floor had been swept so thoroughly as to look strange to him, and that all his scattered belongings were laid in a neat pile upon the foot of the bunk which was unfamiliar under straightened blankets and pitifully plumped pillows, he was filled with astonishment. Miss Bridger smiled a little and went on washing the dishes.
“It’s beginning to storm, isn’t it?” she remarked. “But we’ll eat chicken stew before we–before I start home. If you have a horse that I can borrow till morning, father will bring it back.”
Billy scattered a handful of feathers on the floor and gained a little time by stooping to pick them up one by one. “I’ve been wondering about that,” he said reluctantly. “It’s just my luck not to have a gentle hoss in camp. I’ve got two, but they ain’t safe for women. The Pilgrim’s got one hoss that might uh done if it was here, which it ain’t.”
She looked disturbed, though she tried to hide it. “I can ride pretty well,” she ventured.
Without glancing at her, Charming Billy shook his head. “You’re all right here”–he stopped to pick up more feathers–“and it wouldn’t be safe for yuh to try it. One hoss is mean about mounting; yuh couldn’t get within a rod of him. The other one is a holy terror to pitch when anything strange gets near him. I wouldn’t let yuh try it.” Charming Billy was sorry–that showed in his voice–but he was also firm.
Miss Bridger thoughtfully wiped a tin spoon. Billy gave her a furtive look and dropped his head at the way the brightness had gone out of her face. “They’ll be worried, at home,” she said quietly.
“A little worry beats a funeral,” Billy retorted sententiously, instinctively mastering the situation because she was a woman and he must take care of her. “I reckon I could–” He stopped abruptly and plucked savagely at a stubborn wing feather.
“Of course! You could ride over and bring back a horse!” She caught eagerly at his half-spoken offer. “It’s a lot of bother for you, but I–I’ll be very much obliged.” Her face was bright again.
“You’d be alone here–“
“I’m not the least bit afraid to stay alone. I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
Billy hesitated, met a look in her eyes that he did not like to see there, and yielded. Obviously, from her viewpoint that was the only thing to do. A cowpuncher who has ridden the range since he was sixteen should not shirk a night ride in a blizzard, or fear losing the trail. It was not storming so hard a man might not ride ten miles–that is, a man like Charming Billy Boyle.
After that he was in great haste to be gone, and would scarcely wait until Miss Bridger, proudly occupying the position of cook, told him that the chicken stew was ready. Indeed, he would have gone without eating it if she had not protested in a way that made Billy foolishly glad to submit; as it was, he saddled his horse while he waited, and reached for his sheepskin-lined, “sour-dough” coat before the last mouthful was fairly swallowed. At the last minute he unbuckled his gun belt and held it out to her.
“I’ll leave you this,” he remarked, with an awkward attempt to appear careless. “You’ll feel safer if you have a gun, and–and if you’re scared at anything, shoot it.” He finished with another smile that lighted wonderfully his face and his eyes.
She shook her head. “I’ve often stayed alone. There’s nothing in the world to be afraid of–and anyway, I’ll have the dog. Thank you, all the same.”
Charming Billy looked at her, opened his mouth and closed it without speaking. He laid the gun down on the table and turned to go. “If anything scares yuh,” he repeated stubbornly, “shoot it. Yuh don’t want to count too much on that dawg.”
He discovered then that Flora Bridger was an exceedingly willful young woman. She picked up the gun, overtook him, and fairly forced it into his hands. “Don’t be silly; I don’t want it. I’m not such a coward as all that. You must have a very poor opinion of women. I–I’m deadly afraid of a gun!”
Billy was not particularly impressed by the last statement, but he felt himself at the end of his resources and buckled the belt around him without more argument. After all, he told himself, it was not likely that she would have cause for alarm in the few hours that he would be gone, and those hours he meant to trim down as much as possible.
Out of the coulee where the high wall broke the force of the storm, he faced the snow and wind and pushed on doggedly. It was bitter riding, that night, but he had seen worse and the discomfort of it troubled him little; it was not the first time he had bent head to snow and driving wind and had kept on so for hours. What harassed him most were the icy hills where the chinook had melted the snow, and the north wind, sweeping over, had frozen it all solid again. He could not ride as fast as he had counted upon riding, and he realized that it would be long hours before he could get back to the cabin with a horse from Bridger’s.
Billy could not tell when first came the impulse to turn back. It might have been while he was working his way cautiously up a slippery coulee side, or it might have come suddenly just when he stopped; for stop he did (just when he should logically have ridden faster because the way was smoother) and turned his horse’s head downhill.
“If she’d kept the gun–” he muttered, apologizing to himself for the impulse, and flayed his horse with his _romal_ because he did not quite understand himself and so was ill at ease. Afterward, when he was loping steadily down the coulee bottom with his fresh-made tracks pointing the way before him, he broke out irrelevantly and viciously: “A real, old range rider yuh can bank on, one way or the other–but damn a pilgrim!”
The wind and the snow troubled him not so much now that his face was not turned to meet them, but it seemed to him that the way was rougher and that the icy spots were more dangerous to the bones of himself and his horse than when he had come that way before. He did not know why he need rage at the pace he must at times keep, and it did strike him as being a foolish thing to do–this turning back when he was almost halfway to his destination; but for every time he thought that, he urged his horse more.
The light from the cabin window, twinkling through the storm, cheered him a little, which was quite as unreasonable as his uneasiness. It did not, however, cause him to linger at turning his horse into the stable and shutting the door upon him. When he passed the cabin window he glanced anxiously in and saw dimly through the half-frosted glass that Miss Bridger was sitting against the wall by the table, tight-lipped and watchful. He hurried to the door and pushed it open.
“Why, hello,” greeted the Pilgrim uncertainly, The Pilgrim was standing in the centre of the room, and he did not look particularly pleased. Charming Billy, every nerve on edge, took in the situation at a glance, kicked the Pilgrim’s dog and shook the snow from his hat.
“I lost the trail,” he lied briefly and went over to the stove. He did not look at Miss Bridger directly, but he heard the deep breath which she took.
“Well, so did I,” the Pilgrim began eagerly, with just the least slurring of his syllables. “I’d have been here before dark, only one of the horses slipped and lamed himself. It was much as ever I got home at all. He come in on three legs, and toward the last them three like to went back on him.”
“Which hoss?” asked Billy, though he felt pessimistically that he knew without being told. The Pilgrim’s answer confirmed his pessimism. Of course, it was the only gentle horse they had.
“Say, Billy, I forgot your tobacco,” drawled the Pilgrim, after a very short silence which Billy used for much rapid thinking.
Ordinarily, Billy would have considered the over sight as something of a catastrophe, but he passed it up as an unpleasant detail and turned to the girl. “It’s storming something fierce,” he told her in an exceedingly matter-of-fact way, “but I think it’ll let up by daylight so we can tackle it. Right now it’s out of the question; so we’ll have another supper–a regular blowout this time, with coffee and biscuits and all those luxuries. How are yuh on making biscuits?”
So he got her out of the corner, where she had looked too much at bay to please him, and in making the biscuits she lost the watchful look from her eyes. But she was not the Flora Bridger who had laughed at their makeshifts and helped cook the chicken, and Charming Billy, raving inwardly at the change, in his heart damned fervently the Pilgrim.
In the hours that followed, Billy showed the stuff he was made of. He insisted upon cooking the things that would take the longest time to prepare; boasted volubly of the prune pies he could make, and then set about demonstrating his skill and did not hurry the prunes in the stewing. He fished out a package of dried lima beans and cooked some of them, changing the water three times and always adding cold water. For all that, supper was eventually ready and eaten and the dishes washed–with Miss Bridger wiping them and with the Pilgrim eying them both in a way that set on edge the teeth of Charming Billy.
When there was absolutely nothing more to keep them busy, Billy got the cards and asked Miss Bridger if she could play coon-can–which was the only game he knew that was rigidly “two-handed.” She did not know the game and he insisted upon teaching her, though the Pilgrim glowered and hinted strongly at seven-up or something else which they could all play.
“I don’t care for seven-up,” Miss Bridger quelled, speaking to him for the first time since Billy returned. “I want to learn this game that–er–Billy knows.” There was a slight hesitation on the name, which was the only one she knew to call him by.
The Pilgrim grunted and retired to the stove, rattled the lids ill-naturedly and smoked a vile cigar which he had brought from town. After that he sat and glowered at the two.
Billy did the best he could to make the time pass quickly. He had managed to seat Miss Bridger so that her back was toward the stove and the Pilgrim, and he did it so unobtrusively that neither guessed his reason. He taught her coon-can, two-handed whist and Chinese solitaire before a gray lightening outside proclaimed that the night was over. Miss Bridger, heavy-eyed and languid, turned her face to the window; Billy swept the cards together and stacked them with an air of finality.
“I guess we can hit the trail now without losing ourselves,” he remarked briskly. “Pilgrim, come on out and help me saddle up; we’ll see if that old skate of yours is able to travel.”
The Pilgrim got up sullenly and went out, and Billy followed him silently. His own horse had stood with the saddle on all night, and the Pilgrim snorted when he saw it. But Billy only waited till the Pilgrim had put his saddle on the gentlest mount they had, then took the reins from him and led both horses to the door.
“All right,” he called to the girl; helped her into the saddle and started off, with not a word of farewell from Miss Bridger to the Pilgrim.
The storm had passed and the air was still and biting cold. The eastern sky was stained red and purple with the rising sun, and beneath the feet of their horses the snow creaked frostily. So they rode down the coulee and then up a long slope to the top, struck the trail and headed straight north with a low line of hills for their goal. And in the hour and a half of riding, neither spoke a dozen words.
At the door of her own home Billy left her, and gathered up the reins of the Pilgrim’s horse. “Well, good-by. Oh, that’s all right–it wasn’t any trouble at all,” he said huskily when she tried to thank him, and galloped away.
_Charming Billy Has a Fight._
If Billy Boyle had any ideals he did not recognize them as such, and he would not have known just how to answer you if you had asked him what was his philosophy of life. He was range-bred–as purely Western as were the cattle he tended–but he was not altogether ignorant of the ways of the world, past or present. He had that smattering of education which country schools and those of “the county seat” may give a boy who loves a horse better than books, and who, sitting hunched behind his geography, dreams of riding afar, of shooting wild things and of sleeping under the stars.
From the time he was sixteen he had lived chiefly in tents and line-camp cabins, his world the land of far horizons, of big sins, and virtues bigger. One creed he owned: to live “square,” fight square, and to be loyal to his friends and his “outfit.” Little things did not count much with him, and for that reason he was the more enraged against the Pilgrim, because he did not quite know what it was all about. So far as he had heard or seen, the Pilgrim had offered no insult to Miss Bridger–“the girl,” as he called her simply in his mind. Still, he had felt all along that the mere presence of the Pilgrim was an offense to her, no less real because it was intangible and not to be put into words; and for that offense the Pilgrim must pay.
But for the presence of the Pilgrim, he told himself ill-temperedly, they might have waited for breakfast; but he had been so anxious to get her away from under the man’s leering gaze that he had not thought of eating. And if the Pilgrim had been a _man_, he might have sent him over to Bridger’s for her father and a horse. But the Pilgrim would have lost himself, or have refused to go, and the latter possibility would have caused a scene unfit for the eyes of a young woman.
So he rode slowly and thought of many things he might have done which would have been better than what he did do; and wondered what the girl thought about it and if she blamed him for not doing something different. And for every mile of the way he cursed the Pilgrim anew.
In that unfriendly mood he opened the door of the cabin, stood a minute just inside, then closed it after him with a slam. The cabin, in contrast with the bright light of sun shining on new-fallen snow, was dark and so utterly cheerless and chill that he shrugged shoulders impatiently at its atmosphere, which was as intangibly offensive as had been the conduct of the Pilgrim.
The Pilgrim was sprawled upon the bunk with his face in his arms, snoring in a peculiarly rasping way that Billy, heavy-eyed as he was, resented most unreasonably. Also, the untidy table showed that the Pilgrim had eaten unstintedly–and Billy was exceedingly hungry. He went over and lifted a snowy boot to the ribs of the sleeper and commanded him bluntly to “Come alive.”
“What-yuh-want?” mumbled the Pilgrim thickly, making one word of the three and lifting his red-rimmed eyes to the other. He raised to an elbow with a lazy doubling of his body and stared dully for a space before he grinned unpleasantly. “Took ‘er home all right, did yuh?” he leered, as if they two were in possession of a huge joke of the kind which may not be told in mixed company.
If Charming Billy Boyle had needed anything more to stir him to the fighting point, that one sentence admirably supplied the lack. “Yuh low-down skunk!” he cried, and struck him full upon the insulting, smiling mouth. “If I was as rotten-minded as you are, I’d go drown myself in the stalest alkali hole I could find. I dunno why I’m dirtying my hands on yuh–yuh ain’t fit to be clubbed to death with a tent pole!” He was, however, using his hands freely and to very good purpose, probably feeling that, since the Pilgrim was much bigger than he, there was need of getting a good start.
But the Pilgrim was not the sort to lie on his bunk and take a thrashing. He came up after the second blow, pushing Billy back with the very weight of his body, and they were fighting all over the little cabin, surging against the walls and the table and knocking the coffee-pot off the stove as they lurched this way and that. Not much was said after the first outburst of Billy’s, save a panting curse now and then between blows, a threat gasped while they wrestled.
It was the dog, sneaking panther-like behind Billy and setting treacherous teeth viciously into his leathern chaps, that brought the crisis. Billy tore loose and snatched his gun from the scabbard at his hip, held the Pilgrim momentarily at bay with one hand while he took a shot at the dog, missed, kicked him back from another rush, and turned again on the Pilgrim.
“Get that dawg outdoors, then,” he panted, “or I’ll kill him sure.” The Pilgrim, for answer, struck a blow that staggered Billy, and tried to grab the gun. Billy, hooking a foot around a table-leg, threw it between them, swept the blood from his eyes and turned his gun once more on the dog that was watching treacherously for another chance.
“That’s the time I got him,” he gritted through the smoke, holding the Pilgrim quiet before him with the gun. “But I’ve got a heap more respect for him than I have for you, yuh damn’, low-down brute. I’d ought to kill yuh like I would a coyote. Yuh throw your traps together and light out uh here, before I forget and shoot yuh up. There ain’t room in this camp for you and me no more.”
The Pilgrim backed, eying Billy malevolently. “I never done nothing,” he defended sullenly. “The boss’ll have something to say about this–and I’ll kill you first chance I get, for shooting my dog.”
“It ain’t what yuh done, it’s what yuh woulda done if you’d had the chance,” answered Billy, for the first time finding words for what was surging bitterly in the heart of him. “And I’m willing to take a whirl with yuh any old time; any dawg that’ll lick the boots of a man like you had ought to be shot for not having more sense. I ain’t saying anything about him biting me–which I’d kill him for, anyhow. Now, git! I want my breakfast, and I can’t eat with any relish whilst you’re spoiling the air in here for me.”
At heart the Pilgrim was a coward as well as a beast, and he packed his few belongings hurriedly and started for the door.
“Come back here, and drag your dawg outside,” commanded Billy, and the Pilgrim obeyed.
“You’ll hear about this later on,” he snarled. “The boss won’t stand for anything like this. I never done a thing, and I’m going to tell him so.”
“Aw, go on and tell him, yuh–!” snapped Billy. “Only yuh don’t want to get absent-minded enough to come back–not whilst I’m here; things unpleasant might happen.” He stood in the doorway and watched while the Pilgrim saddled his horse and rode away. When not even the pluckety-pluck of his horse’s feet came back to offend the ears of him, Charming Billy put away his gun and went in and hoisted the overturned table upon its legs again. A coarse, earthenware plate, which the Pilgrim had used for his breakfast, lay unbroken at the feet of him. Billy picked it up, went to the door and cast it violently forth, watching with grim satisfaction the pieces when they scattered over the frozen ground. “No white man’ll ever have to eat after _him_,” he muttered. To ease his outraged feelings still farther, he picked up the Pilgrim’s knife and fork, and sent them after the plate–and knives and forks were not numerous in that particular camp, either. After that he felt better and picked up the coffee-pot, lighted a fire and cooked himself some breakfast, which he ate hungrily, his wrath cooling a bit with the cheer of warm food and strong coffee.
The routine work of the line-camp was performed in a hurried, perfunctory manner that day. Charming Billy, riding the high-lines to make sure the cattle had not drifted where they should not, was vaguely ill at ease. He told himself it was the want of a smoke that made him uncomfortable, and he planned a hurried trip to Hardup, if the weather held good for another day, when he would lay in a supply of tobacco and papers that would last till roundup. This running out every two or three weeks, and living in hell till you got more, was plumb wearisome and unnecessary.
On the way back, his trail crossed that of a breed wolfer on his way into the Bad Lands. Billy immediately asked for tobacco, and the breed somewhat reluctantly opened his pack and exchanged two small sacks for a two-bit piece. Billy, rolling a cigarette with eager fingers, felt for the moment a deep satisfaction with life. He even felt some compunction about killing the Pilgrim’s dog, when he passed the body stiffening on the snow. “Poor devil! Yuh hadn’t ought to expect much from a dawg–and he was a heap more white-acting than what his owner was,” was his tribute to the dead.
It seemed as though, when he closed the cabin door behind him, he somehow shut out his newborn satisfaction. “A shack with one window is sure unpleasant when the sun is shining outside,” he said fretfully to himself. “This joint looks a heap like a cellar. I wonder what the girl thought of it; I reckon it looked pretty sousy, to her–and them with everything shining. Oh, hell!” He took off his chaps and his spurs, rolled another cigarette and smoked it meditatively. When it had burned down so that it came near scorching his lips, he lighted a fire, carried water from the creek, filled the dishpan and set it on the stove to heat. “Darn a dirty shack!” he muttered, half apologetically, while he was taking the accumulation of ashes out of the hearth.
For the rest of that day he was exceedingly busy, and he did not attempt further explanations to himself. He overhauled the bunk and spread the blankets out on the wild rose bushes to sun while he cleaned the floor. Billy’s way of cleaning the floor was characteristic of the man, and calculated to be effectual in the main without descending to petty details. All superfluous objects that were small enough, he merely pushed as far as possible under the bunk. Boxes and benches he piled on top; then he brought buckets of water and sloshed it upon the worst places, sweeping and spreading it with a broom. When the water grew quite black, he opened the door, swept it outside and sloshed fresh water upon the grimy boards. While he worked, his mind swung slowly back to normal, so that he sang crooningly in an undertone; and the song was what he had sung for months and years, until it was a part of him and had earned him his nickname.
“Oh, where have you been, Billy boy, Billy boy? Oh, where have you been, charming Billy? I’ve been to see my wife,
She’s the joy of my life,
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.”
Certainly it was neither musical nor inspiring, but Billy had somehow adopted the ditty and made it his own, so far as eternally singing it could do so, and his comrades had found it not unpleasant; for the voice of Billy was youthful, and had a melodious smoothness that atoned for much in the way of imbecile words and monotonous tune.
He had washed all the dishes and had repeated the ditty fifteen times, and was for the sixteenth time tunefully inquiring:
Can she make a punkin pie, charming Billy?
when he opened the door to throw out the dishwater, and narrowly escaped landing it full upon the fur-coated form of his foreman.
The foreman came in, blinking at the sudden change from bright light to half twilight, and Charming Billy took the opportunity to kick a sardine can of stove-blacking under the stove where it would not be seen. Some predecessor with domestic instincts had left behind him half a package of “Rising Sun,” and Billy had found it and was intending to blacken the stove just as soon as he finished the dishes. That he had left it as a crowning embellishment, rather than making it the foundation of his house-cleaning, only proved his inexperience in that line. Billy had “bached” a great deal, but he had never blacked a stove in his life.
The foreman passed gloved fingers over his eyes, held them there a moment, took them away and gazed in amazement; since he had been foreman of the Double-Crank–and the years were many–Charming Billy Boyle had been one of its “top-hands,” and he had never before caught him in the throes of “digging out.”
“Fundamental furies!” swore he, in the unorthodox way he had. “Looks like the Pilgrim was right–there’s a lady took charge here.”
Charming Billy turned red with embarrassment, and then quite pale with rage. “The Pilgrim lied!” he denied sweepingly.
The foreman picked his way over the wet floor, in deference to its comparative cleanliness stepping long so that he might leave as few disfiguring tracks as possible, and unbuttoned his fur coat before the heat of the stove.
“Well, maybe he did,” he assented generously, gleaning a box from the pile on the bunk and sitting down, “but it sure looks like corroborative evidence, in here. How about it, Bill?”
“How about what?” countered Billy, his teeth close together.
“The girl, and the dawg, and the fight–but more especially the girl. The Pilgrim–“
“_Damn_ the Pilgrim! I wisht I’d a-killed the lying —- The girl’s a lady, and he ain’t fit to speak her name. She come here last night because her hoss fell and got crippled, and there wasn’t a hoss I’d trust at night with her, it was storming so hard, and slippery–and at daylight I put her on the gentlest one we had, and took her home. That’s all there is to it. There’s nothing to gabble about, and if the Pilgrim goes around shooting off his face–” Billy clicked his teeth ominously.
“Well, that ain’t _just_ the way he told it,” commented the foreman, stooping to expectorate into the hearth and stopping to regard surprisedly its unwonted emptiness. “He said–“
“I don’t give a damn what he said,” snapped Billy. “He lied, the low-down cur.”
“Uh-huh–he said something about you shooting that dawg of his. I saw the carcass out there in the snow.” The foreman spoke with careful neutrality.
“I did. I wisht now I’d laid the two of ’em out together. The dawg tried to feed offa my leg. I shot the blame thing.” Charming Billy sat down upon the edge of the table–sliding the dishpan out of his way–and folded his arms, and pushed his hat farther back from his forehead. His whole attitude spoke impenitent scorn.
“I also licked the Pilgrim and hazed him away from camp and told him particular not to come back,” he informed the other defiantly. He did not add, “What are you going to do about it?” but his tone carried unmistakably that sentiment.
“And the Pilgrim happens to be a stepbrother uh the widow the Old Man is at present running after, and aiming to marry. I was sent over here to put the can onto you, Billy. I hate like thunder to do it, but–” The foreman waved a hand to signify his utter helplessness.
The face of Billy stiffened perceptibly; otherwise he moved not a muscle.
“The Old Man says for you to stay till he can put another man down here in your place, though. He’ll send Jim Bleeker soon as he comes back from town–which ain’t apt to be for two or three days unless they’re short on booze.”
Billy caught his breath, hesitated, and reached for his smoking material. It was not till he had licked his cigarette into shape and was feeling in his pocket for a match that he spoke. “I’ve drawed wages from the Double-Crank for quite a spell, and I always aimed to act white with the outfit. It’s more than they’re doing by me, but–I’ll stay till Jim comes.” He smoked moodily, and stared at his boots. “Yuh ain’t going back tonight, are yuh?”
The foreman said he must, and came back to the subject. “Yuh don’t want to think I’m firing yuh, Billy. If it was my say-so, I’d tell the Pilgrim to go to hell. But he went straight to headquarters with his tale uh woe, and the Old Man is kinda uncertain these days, on account uh not being right sure uh the widow. He feels just about obliged to keep the Pilgrim smoothed down; he ain’t worth his grub, if you ask me.”
“Oh, I ain’t thinking nothing at all about it,” Billy lied proudly. “If the Old Man feels like canning me, that there’s his funeral. I reckon maybe he likes the Pilgrim’s breed better for a change. And I wouldn’t be none surprised if I could get a job with some other outfit, all right. I ain’t aiming to starve–nor yet ride grub-line.”
“When you analyze the thing right down to fundamentals,” observed the foreman, whom men called “Jawbreaker” for obvious reasons, “it’s a cussed shame. You’re one of the oldest men with the outfit, and the Pilgrim is the youngest–and the most inadequate. The Old Man oughta waited till he heard both sides uh the case, and I told him so. But he couldn’t forget how the widow might feel if he canned her stepbrother–and what’s a man, more or less, in a case uh that kind?”
“Now look here, Jawbreaker,” Billy protested cheerfully, “don’t yuh go oozing comfort and sympathy on my account. I don’t know but what I’m tickled to death. As yuh say, I’ve worked for this outfit a blame long while–and it’s maybe kinda hard on other outfits; they oughta have a chance to use me for a spell. There’s no reason why the Double-Crank should be a hog and keep a good man forever.”
The foreman studied keenly the face of Charming Billy, saw there an immobility that somehow belied his cheerful view of the case, and abruptly changed the subject.
“You’ve got things swept and garnished, all right,” he remarked, looking at the nearly clean floor with the tiny pools of dirty water still standing in the worn places. “When did the fit take yuh? Did it come on with fever-n’-chills, like most other breaking-outs? Or, did the girl–“
“Aw, the darned dawg mussed up the floor, dying in here,” Billy apologized weakly. “I was plumb obliged to clean up after him.” He glanced somewhat shamefacedly at the floor. After all, it did not look quite like the one where Miss Bridger lived; in his heart Billy believed that was because he had no strip of carpet to spread before the table. He permitted his glance to take in the bunk, nakedly showing the hay it held for a softening influence and piled high with many things–the things that would not go beneath.
“Your soogans are gathering frost to beat the band, Bill,” the foreman informed him, following his glance to the bunk. “Your inexperience is something appalling, for a man that has fried his own bacon and swabbed out his own frying-pan as many times as you have. Better go bring ’em in. It was thinking about snowing again when I come.”
Billy grinned a little and went after his bedding, brought it and threw it with a fine disregard for order upon the accumulation of boxes and benches in the bunk. “I’ll go feed the hosses, and then I’ll cook yuh some supper,” he told the foreman still humped comfortably before the stove with his fur coat thrown open to the heat and his spurred boots hoisted upon the hearth. “Better make up your mind to stay till morning; it’s getting mighty chilly, outside.”
The foreman, at the critical stage of cigarette lighting, grunted unintelligibly. Billy was just laying hand to the door-knob when the foreman looked toward him in the manner of one about to speak. Billy stood and waited inquiringly.
“Say, Bill,” drawled Jawbreaker, “yuh never told me her name, yet.”
The brows of Charming Billy pinched involuntarily together. “I thought the Pilgrim had wised yuh up to all the details,” he said coldly.
“The Pilgrim didn’t know; he says yuh never introduced him. And seeing it’s serious enough to start yuh on the godly trail uh cleanliness, I’m naturally taking a friendly interest in her, and–“
“Aw–go to hell!” snapped Charming Billy, and went out and slammed the door behind him so that the cabin shook.
_The Man From Michigan._
“How old is she, Billy boy, Billy boy, How old is she, charming Billy?
Twice six, twice seven,
Forty-nine and eleven–
She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.”
“C’m-awn, yuh lazy old skate! Think I want to sleep out to-night, when town’s so clost?” Charming Billy yanked his pack-pony awake and into a shuffling trot over the trail, resettled his hat on his head, sagged his shoulders again and went back to crooning his ditty.
“Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy boy, Can she make a punkin pie, charming Billy? She can make a punkin pie
Quick’s a cat can wink her eye–“
Out ahead, where the trail wound aimlessly around a low sand ridge flecked with scrubby sage half buried in gray snowbanks, a horse whinnied inquiringly; Barney, his own red-roan, perked his ears toward the sound and sent shrill answer. In that land and at that season travelers were never so numerous as to be met with indifference, and Billy felt a slight thrill of expectation. All day–or as much of it as was left after his late sleeping and later breakfast–he had ridden without meeting a soul; now he unconsciously pressed lightly with his spurs to meet the comer.
Around the first bend they went, and the trail was blank before them. “Thought it sounded close,” Billy muttered, “but with the wind where it is and the air like this, sound travels farther. I wonder–“
Past the point before them poked a black head, followed slowly by a shambling horse whose dragging hoofs proclaimed his weariness and utter lack of ambition. The rider, Billy decided after one sharp glance, he had never seen before in his life–and nothing lost by it, either, he finished mentally when he came closer.
If the riders had not willed it so the horses would mutually have agreed to stop when they met; that being the way of range horses after carrying speech-hungry men for a season or two. If men meet out there in the land of far horizons and do not stop for a word or two, it is generally because there is bad feeling between them; and horses learn quickly the ways of their masters.
“Hello,” greeted Billy tentatively, eying the other measuringly because he was a stranger. “Pretty soft going, ain’t it?” He referred to the half-thawed trail.
“Ye-es,” hesitated the other, glancing diffidently down at the trail and then up at the neighboring line of disconsolate, low hills. “Ye-es, it is.” His eyes came back and met Billy’s deprecatingly, almost like those of a woman who feels that her youth and her charm have slipped behind her and who does not quite know whether she may still be worthy your attention. “Are you acquainted with this–this part of the country?”
“Well,” Billy had got out his smoking material, from force of the habit with which a range-rider seizes every opportunity for a smoke, and singled meditatively a leaf. “Well, I kinda know it by sight, all right.” And in his voice lurked a pride of knowledge inexplicable to one who has not known and loved the range-land. “I guess you’d have some trouble finding a square foot of it that I ain’t been over,” he added, mildly boastful.
If one might judge anything from a face as blank as that of a china doll, both the pride and the boastfulness were quite lost upon the stranger. Only his eyes were wistfully melancholy.
“My name is Alexander P. Dill,” he informed Billy quite unnecessarily. “I was going to the Murton place. They told me it was only ten miles from town and it seems as though I must have taken the wrong road, somehow. Could you tell me about where it would be from here?”
Charming Billy’s cupped hands hid his mouth, but his eyes laughed. “Roads ain’t so plenty around here that you’ve any call to take one that don’t belong to yuh,” he reproved, when his cigarette was going well. “If Hardup’s the place yuh started from, and if they headed yah right when they turned yuh loose, you’ve covered about eighteen miles and bent ’em into a beautiful quarter-circle–and how yuh ever went and done it undeliberate gets _me_. You are now seven miles from Hardup and sixteen miles, more or less, from Murton’s.” He stopped to watch the effect of his information.
Alexander P. Dill was a long man–an exceedingly long man, as Billy had already observed–and now he drooped so that he reminded Billy of shutting up a telescope. His mouth drooped, also, like that of a disappointed child, and his eyes took to themselves more melancholy. “I must have taken the wrong road,” he repeated ineffectually.
“Yes,” Billy agreed gravely, “I guess yuh must of; it does kinda look that way.” There was no reason why he should feel anything more than a passing amusement at this wandering length of humanity, but Billy felt an unaccountable stirring of pity and a feeling of indulgent responsibility for the man.
“Could you–direct me to the right road?”
“Well, I reckon I could,” Billy told him doubtfully, “but it would be quite a contract under the circumstances. Anyway, your cayuse is too near played; yuh better cut out your visit this time and come along back to town with me. You’re liable to do a lot more wandering around till yuh find yourself plumb afoot.” He did not know that he came near using the tone one takes toward a lost child.
“Perhaps, seeing I’ve come out of my way, I might as well,” Mr. Dill decided hesitatingly. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, I don’t mind at all,” Charming Billy assured him airily. “Uh course, I own this trail, and the less it’s tracked up right now in its present state the better, but you’re welcome to use it–if you’re particular to trod soft and don’t step in the middle.”
Alexander P. Dill looked at him uncertainly, as if his sense of humor were weak and not to be trusted off-hand; turned his tired horse awkwardly in a way that betrayed an unfamiliarity with “neck-reining,” and began to retrace his steps beside Charming Billy. His stirrups were too short, so that his knees were drawn up uncomfortably, and Billy, glancing sidelong down at them, wondered how the man could ride like that.
“You wasn’t raised right around here, I reckon,” Billy began amiably, when they were well under way.
“No–oh, no. I am from Michigan. I only came out West two weeks ago. I–I’m thinking some of raising wild cattle for the Eastern markets.” Alexander P. Dill still had the wistful look in his eyes, which were unenthusiastically blue–just enough of the blue to make their color definite.
Charming Billy came near laughing, but some impulse kept him quiet-lipped and made his voice merely friendly. “Yes–this is a pretty good place for that business,” he observed quite seriously. “A lot uh people are doing that same thing.”
Mr. Dill warmed pitifully to the friendliness. “I was told that Mr. Murton wanted to sell his far—- ranch and cattle, and I was going to see him about it. I would like to buy a place outright, you see, with the cattle all branded, and–everything.”
Billy suddenly felt the instinct of the champion. “Well, somebody lied to yuh a lot, then,” he replied warmly. “Don’t yuh never go near old Murton. In the first place, he ain’t a cowman–he’s a sheepman, on a small scale so far as sheep go but on a sure-enough big scale when yuh count his feelin’s. He runs about twelve hundred woollies, and is about as unpolite a cuss as I ever met up with. He’d uh roasted yuh brown just for saying cattle at him–and if yuh let out inadvertant that yuh took him for a cowman, the chances is he’d a took a shot at yuh. If yuh ask me, you was playin’ big luck when yuh went and lost the trail.”
“I can’t see what would be their object in misinforming me on the subject,” Mr. Dill complained. “You don’t suppose that they had any grudge against Mr. Murton, do you?”
Charming Billy eyed him aslant and was merciful. “I can’t say, not knowing who they was that told yuh,” he answered. “They’re liable to have a grudge agin’ him, though; just about everybody has, that ever bumped into him.”
It would appear that Mr. Dill needed time to think this over, for he said nothing more for a long while. Charming Billy half turned once or twice to importune his pack-pony in language humorously querulous, but beyond that he kept silence, wondering what freakish impulse drove Alexander P. Dill to Montana “to raise wild cattle for the Eastern markets.” The very simplicity of his purpose and the unsophistication of his outlook were irresistible and came near weaning Charming Billy from considering his own personal grievances.
For a grievance it was to be turned adrift from the Double-Crank–he, who had come to look upon the outfit almost with proprietorship; who for years had said “my outfit” when speaking of it; who had set the searing iron upon sucking calves and had watched them grow to yearlings, then to sleek four-year-olds; who had at last helped prod them up the chutes into the cars at shipping time and had seen them take the long trail to Chicago–the trail from which, for them, there was no return; who had thrown his rope on kicking, striking “bronks”; had worked, with the sweat streaming like tears down his cheeks, to “gentle” them; had, with much patience, taught them the feel of saddle and cinch and had ridden them with much stress until they accepted his mastery and became the dependable, wise old “cow-horses” of the range; who had followed, spring, summer and fall, the wide wandering of the Double-Crank wagons, asking nothing better, secure in the knowledge that he, Charming Billy Boyle, was conceded to be one of the Double-Crank’s “top-hands.” It was bitter to be turned adrift–and for such a cause! Because he had fought a man who was something less than a man. It was bitter to feel that he had been condemned without a hearing. He had not dreamed that the Old Man would be capable of such an action, even with the latest and least-valued comer; he felt the sting of it, the injustice and the ingratitude for all the years he had given the Double-Crank. It seemed to him that he could never feel quite the same toward another outfit, or be content riding horses which bore some other brand.
“I suppose you are quite familiar with raising cattle under these Western conditions,” Alexander P. Dill ventured, after a season of mutual meditation.
“Kinda,” Billy confirmed briefly.
“There seems to be a certain class-prejudice against strangers, out here. I can’t understand it and I can’t seem to get away from it. I believe those men deliberately misinformed me, for the sole reason that I am unfortunately a stranger and unfamiliar with the country. They do not seem to realize that this country must eventually be more fully developed, and that, in the very nature of things, strangers are sure to come and take advantage of the natural resources and aid materially in their development. I don’t consider myself an interloper; I came here with the intention of making this my future home, and of putting every dollar of capital that I possess into this country; I wish I had more. I like the country; it isn’t as if I came here to take something away. I came to add my mite; to help build up, not to tear down. And I can’t understand the attitude of men who would maliciously–“
“It’s kinda got to be part uh the scenery to josh a pilgrim,” Billy took the trouble to explain. “We don’t mean any harm. I reckon you’ll get along all right, once yuh get wised up.”
“Do you expect to be in town for any length of time?” Mr. Dill’s voice was wistful, as well as his eyes. “Somehow, you don’t seem to adopt that semi-hostile attitude, and I–I’m very glad for the opportunity of knowing you.”
Charming Billy made a rapid mental calculation of his present financial resources and of past experience in the rate of depletion.
“Well. I may last a week or so, and I might pull out to-morrow,” he decided candidly. “It all depends on the kinda luck I have.”
Mr. Dill looked at him inquiringly, but he made no remark that would betray curiosity. “I have rented a room in a little house in the quietest part of town. The hotel isn’t very clean and there is too much noise and drinking going on at night. I couldn’t sleep there. I should be glad to have you share my room with me while you stay in town, if you will. It is clean and quiet.”
Charming Billy turned his head and looked at him queerly; at his sloping shoulders, melancholy face and round, wistful eyes, and finally at the awkward, hunched-up knees of him. Billy did not mind night noises and drinking–to be truthful, they were two of the allurements which had brought him townward–and whether a room were clean or not troubled him little; he would not see much of it. His usual procedure while in town would, he suspected, seem very loose to Alexander P. Dill. It consisted chiefly of spending the nights where the noise clamored loudest and of sleeping during the day–sometimes–where was the most convenient spot to lay the length of him. He smiled whimsically at the contrast between them and their habits of living.
“Much obliged,” he said. “I expect to be some busy, but maybe I’ll drop in and bed down with yuh; once I hit town, it’s hard to tell what I may do.”
“I hope you’ll feel perfectly free to come at any time and make yourself at home,” Mr. Dill urged lonesomely.
“Sure. There’s the old burg–I do plumb enjoy seeing the sun making gold on a lot uh town windows, like that over there. It sure looks good, when you’ve been living by your high lonesome and not seeing any window shine but your own little six-by-eight. Huh?”
“I–I must admit I like better to see the sunset turn my own windows to gold,” observed Mr. Dill softly. “I haven’t any, now; I sold the old farm when mother died. I was born and raised there. The woods pasture was west of the house, and every evening when I drove up the cows, and the sun was setting, the kitchen windows–“
Alexander P. Dill stopped very abruptly, and Billy, stealing a glance at his face, turned his own quickly away and gazed studiously at a bald hilltop off to the left. So finely tuned was his sympathy that for one fleeting moment he saw a homely, hilly farm in Michigan, with rail fences and a squat old house with wide porch and hard-beaten path from the kitchen door to the well and on to the stables; and down a long slope that was topped with great old trees, Alexander P. Dill shambling contentedly, driving with a crooked stick three mild-mannered old cows. “The blamed chump–what did he go and pull out for?” he asked himself fretfully. Then aloud: “I’m going to have a heart-to-heart talk with the cook at the hotel, and if he don’t give us a real old round-up beefsteak, flopped over on the bare stovelids, there’ll be things happen I’d hate to name over. He can sure do the business, all right; he used to cook for the Double-Crank. And you,” he turned, elaborately cheerful, to Mr. Dill, “you are my guest.”
“Thank you,” smiled Mr. Dill, recovering himself and never guessing how strange was the last sentence to the lips of Charming Billy Boyle. “I shall be very glad to be the guest of somebody–once more.”
“Yuh poor old devil, yuh sure drifted a long ways off your home range,” mused Billy. Out loud he only emphasized the arrangement with:
“_That’s My Dill Pickle!_”
Charming Billy Boyle was, to put it mildly, enjoying his enforced vacation very much. To tell the plain truth and tell it without the polish of fiction, he was hilariously moistened as to his gullet and he was not thinking of quitting yet; he had only just begun.
He was sitting on an end of the bar in the Hardtip Saloon, his hat as far back on his head as it could possibly be pushed with any hope of its staying there at all. He had a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and he was raking his rowels rhythmically up and down the erstwhile varnished bar in buzzing accompaniment, the while he chanted with much enthusiasm:
“How old is she, Billy boy, Billy boy? How old is she, charming Billy?
Twice six, twice seven,
Forty-nine and eleven–“
The bartender, wiping the bar after an unsteady sheepherder, was careful to leave a generous margin around the person of Charming Billy who was at that moment asserting with much emphasis:
“She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.”
“Twice-six’s-twelve, ‘n’ twice-seven’s-four-r-teen, ‘n’ twelve ‘n’ fourteen’s–er–twelve–‘n’–fourteen–” The unsteady sheepherder was laboring earnestly with the problem. “She ain’t no spring chicken, she ain’t!” He laughed tipsily, and winked up at the singer, but Billy was not observing him and his mathematical struggles. He refreshed himself from the glass, leaving the contents perceptibly lower–it was a large, thick glass with a handle, and it had flecks of foam down the inside–took a pull at the cigarette and inquired plaintively:
“Can she brew, can she bake, Billy boy, Billy boy? Can she brew, can she bake, charming Billy?”
Another long pull at the cigarette, and then the triumphant declaration:
“She can brew n’ she can bake,
She can sew n’ she can make–
She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.”
“She ain’t s’ young!” bawled the sheepherder, who was taking it all very seriously. “Say them numbers over again, onc’t. Twelve-‘n’-fourteen–“
“Aw, go off and lay down!” advised Charming Billy, in a tone of deep disgust. He was about to pursue still farther his inquiry into the housewifely qualifications of the mysterious “young thing,” and he hated interruptions.
“Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy boy? Can she make a punkin pie, charming Billy?”
The door opened timidly and closed again, but he did not see who entered. He was not looking; he was holding the empty, foam-flecked glass behind him imperatively, and he was watching over his shoulder to see that the bartender did not skimp the filling and make it two-thirds foam. The bartender was punctiliously lavish, so that a crest of foam threatened to deluge the hand of Charming Billy and quite occupied him for the moment. When he squared himself again and buzzed his spurs against the bar, his mind was wholly given to the proper execution of the musical gem.
“She can make a punkin pie,
Quick’s a cat can wink her eye–“
Something was going on, over in the dimly lighted corner near the door. Half a dozen men had grouped themselves there with their backs to Billy and they were talking and laughing; but the speech of them was an unintelligible clamor and their laughter a commingling roar. Billy gravely inspected his cigarette, which had gone cold, set down the glass and sought diligently for a match.
“Aw, come on an’ have one on me!” bawled a voice peremptorily. “Yuh can’t raise no wild cattle around _this_ joint, lessen yuh wet up good with whisky. Why, a feller as long as you be needs a good jolt for every foot of yuh–and that’s about fifteen when you’re lengthened out good. Come on–don’t be a damn’ chubber! Yuh got to sample m’ hospitality. Hey, Tom! set out about a quart uh your _mildest_ for Daffy-down-Dilly. He’s dry, clean down to his hand-made socks.”
Charming Billy, having found a match, held it unlighted in his fingers and watched the commotion from his perch on the bar. In the very midst of the clamor towered the melancholy Alexander P. Dill, and he was endeavoring to explain, in his quiet, grammatical fashion. A lull that must have been an accident carried the words clearly across to Charming Billy.
“Thank you, gentlemen. I really don’t care for anything in the way of refreshment. I merely came in to find a friend who has promised to spend the night with me. It is getting along toward bedtime. Have your fun, gentlemen, if you must–but I am really too tired to join you.”
“Make ‘im dance!” yelled the sheepherder, giving over the attempt to find the sum of twelve and fourteen. “By gosh, yuh made _me_ dance when I struck town. Make ‘im dance!”
“You go off and lay down!” commanded Billy again, and to emphasize his words leaned and emptied the contents of his glass neatly inside the collar of the sheepherder. “Cool down, yuh Ba-ba-black-sheep!”
The herder forgot everything after that–everything but the desire to tear limb from limb one Charming Billy Boyle, who sat and raked his spurs up and down the marred front of the bar and grinned maliciously down at him. “Go-awn off, before I take yuh all to pieces,” he urged wearily, already regretting the unjustifiable waste of good beer. “Quit your buzzing; I wanta listen over there.”
“Come on ‘n’ have a drink!” vociferated the hospitable one. “Yuh got to be sociable, or yuh can’t stop in _this_ man’s town.” So insistent was he that he laid violent hold of Mr. Dill and tried to pull him bodily to the bar.
“Gentlemen, this passes a joke!” protested Mr. Dill, looking around him in his blankly melancholy way. “I do not drink liquor. I must insist upon your stopping this horseplay immediately!”
“Oh, it ain’t no _play_,” asserted the insistent one darkly. “I mean it, by thunder.”
It was at this point that Charming Billy decided to have a word. “Here, break away, there!” he yelled, pushing the belligerent sheepherder to one side. “Hands off that long person! That there’s _my_ dill pickle!”
[Illustration: “HANDS OFF THAT LONG PERSON! THAT THERE’S _MY_ DILL PICKLE.”]
Mr. Dill was released, and Billy fancied hazily that it was because he so ordered; as a matter of fact, Mr. Dill, catching sight of him there, had thrown the men and their importunities off as though they had been rough-mannered boys. He literally plowed his way through them and stopped deprecatingly before Billy.
“It is getting late,” he observed, mildly reproachful. “I thought I would show you the way to my room, if you don’t mind.”
Billy stared down at him. “Well, I’m going to be busy for a while yet,” he demurred. “I’ve got to lick this misguided son-of-a-gun that’s blatting around wanting to eat me alive–and I got my eyes on your friend in the rear, there, that’s saying words about you, Dilly. Looks to me like I’m going to be some occupied for quite a spell. You run along to bed and don’t yuh bother none about _me_.”
“The matter is not so urgent but what I can wait until you are ready,” Mr. Dill told him quietly, but with decision. He folded his long arms and ranged himself patiently alongside Billy. And Billy, regarding him uneasily, felt convinced that though he tarried until the sun returned Mr. Dill would stand right there and wait–like a well-broken range-horse when the reins are dropped to the ground. Charming Billy did not know why it made him uncomfortable, but it did and he took immediate measures to relieve the sensation.
He turned fretfully and cuffed the clamorous sheepherder, who seemed to lack the heart for actual hostilities but indulged in much recrimination and was almost in tears. “Aw, shut up!” growled Billy. “A little more uh that war-talk and I’ll start in and learn yuh some manners. I don’t want any more of it. Yuh hear?”
It is a fact that trifles sometimes breed large events. Billy, to make good his threat, jumped off the bar. In doing so he came down upon the toes of Jack Morgan, the hospitable soul who had insisted upon treating Mr. Dill and who had just come up to renew the argument. Jack Morgan was a man of uncertain temper and he also had toes exceedingly tender. He struck out, missed Billy, who was thinking only of the herder, and it looked quite as though the blow was meant for Mr. Dill.
After that, things happened quickly and with some confusion. Others became active, one way or the other, and the clamor was great, so that it was easily heard down the street and nearly emptied the other saloons.
When the worst of it was over and one could tell for a certainty what was taking place, Charming Billy was holding a man’s face tightly against the bar and was occasionally beating it with his fist none too gently. Mr. Dill, an arm’s length away, had Jack Morgan and one other offender clutched by the neck in either hand and he was solemnly and systematically butting their heads together until they howled. The bartender had just succeeded in throwing the sheepherder out through the back door, and he was wiping his hands and feeling very well satisfied with himself.
“I’d oughta fired him long ago, when he first commenced building trouble,” he remarked, to no one in particular. “The darned lamb-licker–he’s broke and has been all evening. I don’t know what made me stand for ‘im long as I did.”
Billy, moved perhaps by weariness rather than mercy, let go his man and straightened up, feeling mechanically for his hat. His eyes met those of the melancholy Mr. Dill.
“If you’re quite through”–bang! went the heads–“perhaps we may as well”–bang!–“leave this unruly crowd”–bang!!–“and go to our room. It is after eleven o’clock.” Mr. Dill looked as though his present occupation was unpleasant but necessary and as though, to please Billy, he could keep it up indefinitely.
Charming Billy stood quite still, staring at the other and at what he was doing; and while he stared and wondered, something came into the heart of him and quite changed his destiny. He did not know what it was, or why it was so; at the time he realized only a deep amazement that Mr. Dill, mild of manner, correct of speech and wistful-eyed, should be standing there banging the heads of two men who were considered rather hard to handle. Certainly Jack Morgan was reputed a “bad actor” when it came to giving blows. And while Alexander P. Dill was a big man–an enormous man, one might say–he had none of the earmarks of a fighting man. It was, perhaps, his very calmness that won Billy for good and all. Before, Charming Billy had felt toward him a certain amused pity; his instinct had been to protect Mr. Dill. He would never feel just that way again; Mr. Dill, it would seem, was perfectly well able to protect himself.
“Shall we go?” Mr. Dill poised the two heads for another bang and held them so. By this time every one in the room was watching, but he had eyes only for Billy.
“Just as you say,” Billy assented submissively.
Mr. Dill shook the two with their faces close together, led them to a couple of chairs and set them emphatically down. “Now, see if you can behave yourselves,” he advised, in the tone a father would have used toward two refractory boys. “You have been acting boorishly and disgracefully all evening. It was you who directed me wrong, to-day. You have not, at any time since I first met you, acted like gentlemen; I should be sorry to think this country held many such brainless louts.” He turned inquiringly toward Charming Billy and nodded his head toward the door. Billy, stooping unsteadily for his hat which he discovered under his feet, followed him meekly out.
“_Till Hell’s a Skating-rink._”
Charming Billy opened his eyes slowly, but with every sense at the normal degree of alertness; which was a way he had, born of light sleeping and night-watching. He had slept heavily, from the feel of his head, and he remembered the unwisdom of drinking four glasses of whisky and then changing irresponsibly to beer. He had not undressed, it would seem, and he was lying across the middle of a bed with his spurred boots hanging over the edge. A red comforter had been thrown across him, and he wondered why. He looked around the room and discovered Mr. Dill seated in a large, cane rocker–which was unquestionably not big enough for his huge person–his feet upon another chair and his hands folded inertly on his drawn-up knees. He was asleep, with his head lying against the chair-back and his face more melancholy than ever and more wistful. His eyes, Billy observed, were deep-sunk and dark-ringed. He sat up suddenly–did Billy, and threw off the cover with some vehemence. “Darn me for a drunken chump!” he exclaimed, and clanked over to the chair.
“Here, Dilly”–to save the life of him he could not refrain from addressing him so–“why in thunder didn’t yuh kick me awake, and make me get off your bed? What did yuh let me do it for–and you setting up all night–oh, this is sure a hell of a note!”
Mr. Dill opened his eyes, stared blankly and came back from his dreaming. “You were so–so impatient when I tried to get you up,” he explained in a tired voice. “And you had a way of laying your hands on your revolver when I insisted. It seems you took me for a shepherd and were very unfriendly; so I thought it best to let you stay as you were, but I’m afraid you were not very comfortable. One can rest so much better between sheets. You would not,” he added plaintively, “even permit me to take your boots off for you.”
Charming Billy sat down upon the edge of the bed, all tousled as he was, and stared abstractedly at Mr. Dill. Perhaps he had never before felt so utterly disgusted with himself, or realized so keenly his shortcomings. Not even the girl had humbled him so completely as had this long, lank, sinfully grammatical man from Michigan.
“You’ve sure got me where I live, Dilly,” he said slowly and haltingly, feeling mechanically for the makings of a smoke. “Charming Billy Boyle ain’t got a word to say for himself. But if yuh ain’t plumb sick and disgusted with the spectacle I’ve made uh myself, yuh can count on me till hell’s a skating-rink. I ain’t always thisaway. I do have spells when I’m some lucid.”
It was not much, but such as it was it stood for his oath of allegiance.
Alexander P. Dill sat up straight, his long, bony fingers–which Billy could still mentally see gripping the necks of those two in the saloon–lying loosely upon the chair-arms. “I hope you will not mention the matter again,” he said. “I realize that this is not Michigan, and that the temptations are–But we will not discuss it. I shall be very grateful for your friendship, and–“
“Grateful!” snorted Billy, spilling tobacco on the strip of faded ingrain carpet before the bed. “Grateful–hell!”
Mr. Dill looked at him a moment and there was a certain keen man-measuring behind the wistfulness. But he said no more about the friendship of Charming Billy Boyle, which was as well.
That is why the two of them later sat apart on the sunny side of the hotel “office”–which was also a saloon–and talked of many things, but chiefly of the cattle industry as Montana knows it and of the hopes and the aims of Alexander P. Dill. Perhaps, also, that is why Billy breathed clean of whisky and had the bulk of his winter wages still unspent in his pocket.
“Looks to me,” he was saying between puffs, “like you’d uh stayed back where yuh knew the lay uh the land, instead uh drifting out here where it’s all plumb strange to yuh.”
“Well, several incidents influenced my actions,” Mr. Dill explained quietly. “I had always lived within twenty miles of my birthplace. I owned a general store in a little place near the old farm, and did well. The farm paid well, also. Then mother died and the place did not seem quite the same. A railroad was built through the town and the land I owned there rose enormously in value. I had a splendid location for a modern store but I could not seem to make up my mind to change. So I sold out everything–store, land, the home farm and all, and received a good figure–a _very_ good figure. I was very fortunate in owning practically the whole townsite–the new townsite, that is. I do not like these so-called booms, however, and so I left to begin somewhere else. I did not care to enter the mercantile business again, and our doctor advised me to live as much as possible in the open air. Mother died of consumption. So I decided to come West and buy a cattle ranch. I believed I should like it. I always liked animals.”
“Uh-huh–so do I.” It was not just what Charming Billy most wanted to say, but that much was perfectly safe, and noncommittal to say.
Mr. Dill was silent a minute, looking speculatively across to the Hardup Saloon which was practically empty and therefore quite peaceful. Billy, because long living on the range made silence easy, smoked and said nothing.
“Mr. Boyle,” began Dill at last, in the hesitating way that he had used when Billy first met him, “you say you know this country, and have worked at cattle-raising for a good many years–“
“Twelve,” supplemented Charming Billy. “Turned my first cow when I was sixteen.”
“So you must be perfectly familiar with the business. I frankly admit that I am not familiar with it. You say you are at present out of employment and so I am thinking seriously of offering you a position myself, as confidential adviser if you like. I really need some one who can accompany me about the country and keep me from such deplorable blunders as was yesterday’s experience. After I have bought a place, I shall need some one who is familiar with the business and will honestly work for my interests and assist me in the details until I have myself gained a practical working-knowledge of it. I think I can make such an arrangement to your advantage as well as my own. From the start the salary would be what is usually paid to a foreman. What do you say?”
For an appreciable space Charming Billy Boyle did not say a word. He was not stupid and he saw in a flash all the possibilities that lay in the offer. To be next the very top–to have his say in the running of a model cow-outfit–and it should be a model outfit if he took charge, for he had ideas of his own about how these things should be done–to be foreman, with the right to “hire and fire” at his own discretion–He turned, flushed and bright-eyed, to Dill.
“God knows why yuh cut _me_ out for the job,” he said in a rather astonished voice. “What you’ve seen uh me, so far, ain’t been what I’d call a gilt-edge recommend. But if you’re fool enough to mean it serious, it’s as I told yuh a while back: Yuh can count on me till they’re cutting figure-eights all over hell.”
“That, according to the scientists who are willing to concede the existence of such a place, will be quite as long as I shall be likely to have need of your loyalty,” observed Mr. Dill, puckering his long face into the first smile Billy had seen him attempt.
He did not intimate the fact that he had inquired very closely into the record and the general range qualifications of Charming Billy Boyle, sounding, for that purpose, every responsible man in Hardup. With the new-born respect for him bred by his peculiarly efficacious way of handling those who annoyed him beyond the limit, he was told the truth and recognized it as such. So he was not really as rash and as given over to his impulses as Billy, in his ignorance of the man, fancied.
The modesty of Billy would probably have been shocked if he had heard the testimony of his fellows concerning him. As it was, he was rather dazed and a good deal inclined to wonder how Alexander P. Dill had ever managed to accumulate enough capital to start anything–let alone a cow-outfit–if he took on trust every man he met. He privately believed that Dill had taken a long chance, and that he should consider himself very lucky because he had accidentally picked a man who would not “steal him blind.”
* * * * *
After that there were many days of riding to and fro, canvassing all northern Montana in search of a location and an outfit that suited them and that could be bought. And in the riding, Mr. Dill became under the earnest tutelage of Charming Billy a shade less ignorant of range ways and of the business of “raising wild cattle for the Eastern markets.”
He even came to speak quite easily of “outfits” in all the nice shades of meaning which are attached to that hard-worked term. He could lay the saddle-blanket smooth and unwrinkled, slap the saddle on and cinch it without fixing it either upon the withers or upon the rump of his long-suffering mount. He could swing his quirt without damaging his own person, and he rode with his stirrups where they should be to accommodate the length of him–all of which speaks eloquently of the honest intentions of Dill’s confidential adviser.
_Just a Day-dream._
Charming Billy rode humped over the saddle-horn, as rides one whose mind feels the weight of unpleasant thoughts. Twice he had glanced uncertainly at his companion, opening his lips for speech; twice he had closed them silently and turned again to the uneven trail.
Mr. Dill also was humped forward in the saddle, but if one might judge from his face it was because he was cold. The wind blew chill from out the north and they were facing it; the trail they followed was frozen hard and the gray clouds above promised snow. The cheek-bones of Dill were purple and the point of his long nose was very red. Tears stood in his eyes, whipped there by the biting wind.
“How far are we now from town?” he asked dispiritedly.
“Only about five miles,” Billy cheered. Then, as if trivial speech had made easier what he had in mind to say, he turned resolutely toward the other. “Yuh expect to meet old man Robinson there, don’t yuh?”
“That was the arrangement, as I understood it”
“And you’re thinking strong of buying him out?”
“His place appeals to me more than any of the others, and–yes, it seems to me that I can’t do better.” Mr. Dill turned the collar of his coat up a bit farther–or fancied he did so–and looked questioningly at Billy.
“Yuh gave me leave to advise yuh where yuh needed it,” Billy said almost challengingly, “and I’m going to call yuh, right here and now. If yuh take my advice yuh won’t go making medicine with old Robinson any more. He’ll do yuh, sure. He’s asking yuh double what the outfit’s worth. They _all_ are. It looks to me like they think you’re just out here to get rid of your pile and the bigger chunk they can pry loose from yuh the better. I was going to put yuh next before this, only yuh didn’t seem to take to any uh the places real serious, so it wasn’t necessary.”
“I realize that one cannot buy land and cattle for nothing,” Dill chuckled. “It seemed to me that, compared with the prices others have asked, Mr. Robinson’s offer was very reasonable.”
“It may be lower than Jacobs and Wilter, but that don’t make it right.”
“Well, there were the Two Sevens”–he meant the Seventy-Seven, but that was a mere detail–“I didn’t get to see the owner, you know. I have written East, however, and should hear from him in a few days.”
“Yuh ain’t likely to do business with _that_ layout, because I don’t believe they’d sell at any price. Old Robinson is the washout yuh want to ride around at present; I ain’t worrying about the rest, right now. He’s a smooth old devil, and he’ll do yuh sure.”
To this Mr. Dill made no reply whatever. He fumbled the fastenings on his coon-skin coat, tried to pull his cap lower and looked altogether unhappy. And Charming Billy, not at ail sure that his advice would be taken or his warning heeded, stuck the spurs into his horse and set a faster pace reflecting gloomily upon the trials of being confidential adviser to one who, in a perfectly mild and good-mannered fashion, goes right along doing pretty much as he pleases.
It made him think, somehow, of Miss Bridger and the way she had forced him to take his gun with him when he had meant to leave it. She was like Dill in that respect: nice and good-natured and smiling–only Dill smiled but seldom–and yet always managing to make you give up your own wishes. He wished vaguely that the wanderings of Dill would bring them back to the Double-Crank country, instead of leading them always farther afield. He did not, however, admit openly to himself that he wanted to see Miss Bridger again; yet he did permit himself to wonder if she ever played coon-can with any one else, or if she had already forgotten the game. Probably she had, and–well, a good many other things that he remembered quite distinctly.
Later, when they had reached town, were warmed and fed and when even Billy was thinking seriously of sleep, Dill came over and sat down beside him solemnly, folded his bony hands upon knees quite as bony, regarded pensively the generously formed foot dangling some distance before him and smiled his puckered smile.
“I have been wondering, William, if you had not some plan of your own concerning this cattle-raising business, which you think is better than mine but which you hesitate to express. If you have, I hope you will feel quite free to–er–lay it before the head of the firm. It may interest you to know that I have, as you would put it, ‘failed to connect’ with Mr. Robinson. So, if you have any ideas–“
“Oh, I’m burning up with ’em,” Charming Billy retorted in a way he meant to be sarcastic, but which Mr. Dill took quite seriously.
“Then I hope you won’t hesitate–“
“Now look here, Dilly,” expostulated he, between puffs. “Recollect, it’s _your_ money that’s going to feed the birds–and it’s your privilege to throw it out to suit yourself. Uh course, I might day-dream about the way I’d start into the cow-business if I was a millionaire–“
“I’m not a millionaire,” Mr. Dill hastened to correct. “A couple of hundred thousand or so, is about all–“
“Well, a fellow don’t have to pin himself down to just so many dollars and cents–not when he’s building himself a pet dream. And if a fellow dreams about starting up an outfit of his own, it don’t prove he’d make it stick in reality.” The tone of Billy, however, did not express any doubt.
Mr. Dill untangled his legs, crossed them the other way and regarded the other dangling foot. “I should like very much,” he hinted mildly, “to have you tell me this–er–day-dream, as you call it.”
So Charming Billy, tilted back in his chair and watching with half-shut eyes the intangible smoke-wreath from his cigarette, found words for his own particular air-castle which he had builded on sunny days when the Double-Crank herds grazed peacefully around him; or on stormy nights when he sat alone in the line-camp and played solitaire with the mourning wind crooning accompaniment; or on long rides alone, when the trail was plain before him and the grassland stretched away and away to a far sky-line, and the white clouds sailed sleepily over his head and about him the meadowlarks sang. And while he found the words, he somehow forgot Dill, long and lean and lank, listening beside him, and spoke more freely than he had meant to do when Dill first opened the subject a few minutes before.
“Recollect, this is just a day-dream,” he began. “But, if I was a millionaire, or if I had two hundred thousand dollars–and to me they don’t sound much different–I’d sure start a cow-outfit right away immediately at once. But I wouldn’t buy out nobody; I’d go right back and start like they did–if they’re real old-timers. I’d go down south into Texas and I’d buy me a bunch uh two-year-olds and bring ’em up here, and turn ’em loose on the best piece of open range I know–and I know a peach. In a year or so I’d go back and do the same again, and I’d keep it up whilst my money held out I’d build me a home ranch back somewheres in a draw in the hills, where there’s lots uh water and lots uh shelter, and I’d get a bunch uh men that savvied cow-brutes, put ’em on horses that wouldn’t trim down their self-respect every time they straddled ’em, and then I’d just ride around and watch myself get rich. And–” He stopped and dreamed silently over his cigarette.
“And then?” urged Mr. Dill, after a moment.
“And then–I’d likely get married, and raise a bunch uh boys to carry on the business when I got old and fat, and too damn’ lazy to ride off a walk.”
Mr. Dill took three minutes to weigh the matter. Then, musingly: “I’m not sure about the boys. I’m not a marrying man, myself–but just giving a snap judgment on the other part of it, I will say it sounds–well, feasible.”
The weeks that followed immediately after bulged big with the things which Billy must do or have done. For to lie on one’s back in the sun with one’s hat pulled low, dreaming lazily and with minute detail the perfect supervision of a model cow-outfit from its very inception up through the buying of stock and the building of corrals and the breaking of horses to the final shipping of great trainloads of sleek beef, is one thing; to start out in reality to do all that, with the hundred little annoyances and hindrances which come not to one’s dreaming in the sun, is something quite different.
But with all the perplexities born of his changed condition and the responsibility it brought him, Billy rejoiced in the work and airily planned the years to come–years in which he would lead Alexander P. Dill straight into the ranks of the Western millionaires; years when the sun of prosperity would stand always straight overhead, himself a Joshua who would, by his uplifted hands, keep it there with never a cloud to dim the glory of its light.
For the first time in his life he rode over Texas prairies and lost thereby some ideals and learned many things, the while he spent more money than he had ever owned–or ever expected to own–as the preliminary to making his pet dream come true; truth to tell, it mattered little to Billy Boyle whether his dream came true for himself or for another, so long as he himself were the chief magician.
So it was with a light heart that he swung down from the train at Tower, after his homing flight, and saw Dill, conspicuous as a flagstaff, waiting for him on the platform, his face puckered into a smile of welcome and his bony fingers extended ready to grip painfully the hand of Charming Billy.
“I’m very glad to see you back, William,” he greeted earnestly. “I hope you are well, and that you met with no misfortune while you were away. I have been very anxious for your return, as I need your advice upon a matter which seems to me of prime importance. I did not wish to make any decisive move until I had consulted with you, and time is pressing. Did you–er–buy as many cattle as you expected to get?” It seemed to Billy that there was an anxious note in his voice. “Your letters were too few and too brief to keep me perfectly informed of your movements.”
“Why, everything was lovely at my end uh the trail, Dilly–only I fell down on them four thousand two-year-olds. Parts uh the country was quarantined for scab, and I went way around them places. And I was too late to see the cattlemen in a bunch when they was at the Association–only you ain’t likely to savvy that part uh the business–and had to chase ’em all over the country. Uh course it was my luck to have ’em stick their prices up on the end of a pole, where I didn’t feel like climbing after ’em. So I only contracted for a couple uh thousand to be laid down in Billings somewhere between the first and the tenth of June, at twenty-one dollars a head. It was the best I could do this year–but next winter I can go down earlier, before the other buyers beat me to it, and do a lot better. Don’t yuh worry, Dilly; it ain’t serious.”
On the contrary, Dill looked relieved, and Billy could not help noticing it. His own face clouded a little. Perhaps Dill had lost his money, or the bulk of it, and they couldn’t do all the things they had meant to do, after all; how else, thought Billy uneasily, could he look like that over what should ordinarily be something of a disappointment? He remembered that Dill, after the workings of the cattle business from the very beginning had been painstakingly explained to him just before Billy started south, had been anxious to get at least four thousand head of young stock on the range that spring. Something must have gone wrong. Maybe a bank had gone busted or something like that. Billy stole a glance up at the other, shambling silently along beside him, and decided that something had certainly happened–and on the heels of that he remembered oddly that he had felt almost exactly like this when Miss Bridger had asked him to show her where was the coffee, and there _wasn’t_ any coffee. There was the same heavy feeling in his chest, and the same–
“I wrote you a letter three or four days ago–on the third, to be exact,” Dill was saying. “I don’t suppose it reached you, however. I was going to have you meet me in Hardup; but then your telegram was forwarded to me there and I came on here at once. I only arrived this morning. I think that after we have something to eat we would better start out immediately, unless you have other plans. I drove over in a rig, and as the horses have rested several hours and are none the worse for the drive, I think we can easily make the return trip this afternoon.”
“You’re the doctor,” assented Billy briefly, more uneasy than before and yet not quite at the point of asking questions. In his acquaintance with Dill he had learned that it was not always wise to question too closely; where Dill wished to give his confidence he gave it freely, but beyond the limit he had fixed for himself was a stone wall, masked by the flowers, so to speak, of his unfailing courtesy. Billy had once or twice inadvertently located that wall.
A great depression seized upon him and made him quite indifferent to the little pleasures of homecoming; of seeing the grass green and velvety and hearing the familiar notes of the meadow-larks and the curlews. The birds had not returned when he went away, and now the air was musical with them. Driving over the prairies seemed fairly certain of being anything but pleasant to-day, with Dill doubled awkwardly in the seat beside him, carrying on an intermittent monologue of trivial stuff to which Billy scarcely listened. He could feel that there was something at the back of it all, and that was enough for him at present. He was not even anxious now to hear just what was the form of the disaster which had overtaken them.