“While you were away,” Dill began at last in the tone that braces one instinctively for the worst, “I met accidentally a man of whom I had heard, but whom I had not seen. In the course of our casual conversation he discovered that I was about to launch myself and my capital into the cattle-business, whereupon he himself made me an offer which I felt should not be lightly brushed aside.”
“They all did!” Billy could not help flinging out half-resentfully, when he remembered that but for his timely interference Dill would have been gulled more than once.
“I admit that in my ignorance some offers advantageous only to those who made them appealed to me strongly. But I believe you will agree with me that this is different. In this case I am offered a full section of land, with water-rights, buildings, corrals, horses, wagons and all improvements necessary to the running of a good outfit, and ten thousand head of mixed cattle, just as they are now running loose on the range, for three hundred thousand dollars. I need only pay half this amount down, a five-year mortgage at eight per cent. on the property covering the remainder, to be paid in five yearly installments, falling due after shipping time. Now that you did not buy as much young stock as we at first intended, I can readily make the first payment on this place and have left between ten and twelve thousand dollars to carry us along until we begin to get some returns from the investment I am anxious to have you look over the proposition, and tell me what you think of it. If you are in favor of buying, we can have immediate possession; ten days after the deal is closed, I think the man said.”
Billy tilted his hat-brim a bit to keep the sun from his eyes, and considered gravely the proposition. It was a great relief to discover that his fears were groundless and that it was only another scheme of Dilly’s; another snare which he, perhaps, would be compelled, in Dill’s interest, to move aside. He put the reins down between his knees and gripped them tightly while he made a cigarette. It was not until he was pinching the end shut that he spoke.
“If it’s as you say”–and he meant no offense–“it looks like a good thing, all right. But yuh can’t most always tell. I’d have to see it–say, yuh might tell me where this bonanza is, and what’s the name uh the brand. If it’s anywheres around here I ought to know the place, all right.”
Alexander P. Dill must, after all, have had some sense of humor; his eyes lost their melancholy enough almost to twinkle. “Well, the owner’s name is Brown,” he said slowly. “I believe they call the brand the Double-Crank. It is located–“
“Located–hell!–do yuh think _I_ don’t know?” The cigarette, ready to light as it was, slipped from Billy’s fingers and dropped unheeded over the wheel to the brown trail below. He took the reins carefully from between his knees, straightened one that had become twisted and turned out upon the prairie to avoid a rough spot where a mud-puddle had dried in hard ridges. Beyond, he swung back again, leaned and flicked an early horse-fly from the ribs of the off-horse, touched the other one up a bit with his whip and settled back at ease, tilting his hat at quite another angle.
“Oh, where have yuh been, Billy boy, Billy boy? Oh, where have yuh been, charming Billy?”
He hummed, in a care-free way that would have been perfectly maddening to any one with nerves.
“I suppose I am to infer from your silence that you do not take kindly to the proposition,” observed Mr. Dill, in a colorless tone which betrayed the fact that he did have nerves.
“I can take a josh, all right,” Billy stopped singing long enough to say. “For a steady-minded cuss, yuh do have surprising streaks, Dilly, and that’s a fact. Yuh sprung it on me mighty smooth, for not having much practice–I’ll say that for yuh.”
Mr. Dill looked hurt. “I hope you do not seriously think that I would joke upon a matter of business,” he protested.
“Well, I know old Brown pretty tolerable well–and I ain’t accusing him uh ribbing up a big josh on yuh. He ain’t that brand.”
“I must confess I fail to get your point of view,” said Mr. Dill, with just a hint of irascibility in his voice. “There is no joke unless you are forcing one upon me now. Mr. Brown made me a bona-fide offer, and I have made a small deposit to hold it until you came and I could consult you. We have three days left in which to decide for or against it. It is all perfectly straight, I assure you.”
Billy took time to consider this possibility. “Well, in that case, and all jokes aside, I’d a heap rather have the running uh the Double-Crank than be President and have all the newspapers hollering how ‘President Billy Boyle got up at eight this morning and had ham-and-eggs for his breakfast, and then walked around the block with the Queen uh England hanging onto his left arm,’ or anything like that But what I can’t seem to get percolated through me is why, in God’s name, the Double-Crank wants to sell.”
“That,” Mr. Dill remarked, his business instincts uppermost, “it seems to me, need not concern us–seeing that they _will_ sell, and at a price we can handle.”
“I reckon you’re right. Would yuh mind saying over the details uh the offer again?”
“Mr. Brown”–Dill cleared his throat–“offered to sell me a full section of land, extending from the line-fence of the home ranch, east–“
“Uh-huh–now what the devil’s his idea in that?” Billy cut in earnestly. “The Double-Crank owns about three or four miles uh bottom land, up the creek west uh the home ranch. Wonder why he wants to hold that out?”
“I’m sure I do not know,” answered Dill. “He did not mention that to me, but confined himself, naturally, to what he was willing to sell.”
“Oh it don’t matter. And all the range stuff, yuh said–ten thousand head, and–“
“I believe he is reserving some thoroughbred stock which he has bought in the last year or two. The stock on the range–the regular range grade-stock–all goes, as well as the saddle-horses.”
“Must be the widow said yes and wants him to settle down and be a gentle farmer,” decided Billy after a moment.
“We will meet him in Hardup to-night or to-morrow,” Dill observed, as if he were anxious to decide the matter finally. “Do you think we would better buy?” It was one of his little courteous ways to say “we” in discussing a business transaction, just as though Billy were one of the firm.
“Buy? You bet your life we’ll buy! I wisht the papers was all signed up and in your inside pocket right now, Dilly. I’m going to get heart failure the worst kind if there’s any hitch. Lord, what luck!”
“Then, we will consider the matter as definitely settled,” said Dill, with a sigh of satisfaction. “Brown cannot rescind now–there is my deposit to bind the bargain. I will say I should have been sorely disappointed if you had not shown that you favored the idea. It seems to me to be just what we want.”
“Oh–that part. But it seems to _me_ that old Brown is sure locoed to give us a chance at the outfit. He’s gone plumb silly. His friends oughta appoint a guardian over him–only I hope they won’t get action till this deal is cinched tight.” With that, Billy relapsed into crooning his ditty. But there were odd breaks when he stopped short in the middle of a line and forgot to finish, and there was more than one cigarette wasted by being permitted to go cold and then being chewed abstractedly until it nearly fell to pieces.
Beside him, Alexander P. Dill, folded loosely together in the seat, caressed his knees and stared unseeingly at the trail ahead of them and said never a word for more than an hour.
_The Day We Celebrate._
The days that followed were to Billy much like a delicious dream. Sometimes he stopped short and wondered uneasily if he would wake up pretty soon to find that he was still an exile from the Double-Crank, wandering with Dill over the country in search of a location. Sometimes he laughed aloud unexpectedly, and said, “Hell!” in a chuckling undertone when came fresh realization of the miracle. But mostly he was an exceedingly busy young man, with hands and brain too full of the stress of business to do much wondering.
They were in possession of the Double-Crank, now–he in full charge, walking the path which his own feet, when he was merely a “forty-dollar puncher,” had helped wear deep to the stable and corrals; giving orders where he had been wont to receive them; riding horses which he had long completed, but which had heretofore been kept sacred to the use of Jawbreaker and old Brown himself; eating and sleeping in the house with Dill instead of making one of the crowd in the bunk-house; ordering the coming and going of the round-up crew and tasting to the full the joys–and the sorrows–of being “head push” where he had for long been content to serve. Truly, the world had changed amazingly for one Charming Billy Boyle.
Most of the men he had kept on, for he liked them well and they had faith to believe that success would not spoil him. The Pilgrim he had promised himself the pleasure of firing bodily off the ranch within an hour of his first taking control–but the Pilgrim had not waited. He had left the ranch with the Old Man and where he had gone did not concern Billy at the time. For there was the shipment of young stock from the South to meet and drive up to the home range, and there was the calf round-up to start on time, and after all the red tape of buying the outfit and turning over the stock had been properly wound up, time was precious in the extreme through May and June and well into July.
But habit is strong upon a man even after the conditions which bred the habit have utterly changed. One privilege had been always kept inviolate at the Double-Crank, until it had come to be looked upon as an inalienable right. The Glorious Fourth had been celebrated, come rain, come shine. Usually the celebration was so generous that it did not stop at midnight; anywhere within a week was considered permissible, a gradual tapering off–not to say sobering up–being the custom with the more hilarious souls.
When Dill with much solemnity tore off June from the calendar in the dining room–the calendar with Custer’s Last Charge rioting redly above the dates–Billy, home for a day from the roundup, realized suddenly that time was on the high lope; at least, that is how he put it to Dill.
“Say, Dilly, we sure got to jar loose from getting rich long enough to take in that picnic over to Bluebell Grove. Didn’t know there was a picnic or a Bluebell Grove? Well now, there is. Over on Horned-Toad Creek–nice, pretty name to go with the grove, ain’t it?–they’ve got a patch uh shade big over as my hat. Right back up on the hill is the schoolhouse where they do their dancing, and they’ve got a table or two and a swing for the kids to fall outa–and they call it Bluebell Grove because yuh never saw a bluebell within ten mile uh the place. That’s where the general round-up for the Fourth is pulled off this year–so Jim Bleeker was telling me this morning. We sure got to be present, Dilly.”
“I’m afraid I’m not the sort of man to shine in society, William,” dissented the other modestly. “You can go, and–“
“Don’t yuh never _dance_?” Billy eyed him speculatively. A man under fifty–and Dill might be anywhere between thirty and forty–who had two sound legs and yet did not dance!
“Oh, I used to, after a fashion. But my feet are so far off that I find communication with them necessarily slow, and they have a habit of embarking in wild ventures of their own. I do not believe they are really popular with the feminine element, William. And so I’d rather–“
“Aw, you’ll have to go and try it a whirl, anyhow. We ain’t any of us experts. Yuh see, the boys have been accustomed to having the wheels of industry stop revolving on the Fourth, and turning kinda wobbly for four or five days after. I don’t feel like trying to break ’em in to keep on working–do you?”
“To use your own term,” said Dill, suddenly reckless of his diction, “you’re sure the doctor.”
“Well, then, the proper dope for this case is, all hands show up at the picnic.” He picked up his hat from the floor, slapped it twice against his leg to remove the dust, pinched the crown into four dents, set it upon his head at a jaunty angle and went out, singing softly:
“She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.”
Dill, looking after him, puckered his face into what passed with him for a smile. “I wonder now,” he meditated aloud, “if William is not thinking of some particular young lady who–er–who ‘cannot leave her mother’.” If he had only known it, William was; he was also wondering whether she would be at the picnic. And if she were at the picnic, would she remember him? He had only seen her that one night–and to him it seemed a very long while ago. He thought, however, that he might be able to recall himself to her mind–supposing she had forgotten. It was a long time ago, he kept reminding himself, and the light was poor and he hadn’t shaved for a week–he had always afterward realized that with much mental discomfort–and he really did look a lot different when he had on his “war-togs,” by which he meant his best clothes. He wouldn’t blame her at all if she passed him up for a stranger, just at first. A great deal more he thought on the same subject, and quite as foolishly.
Because of much thinking on the subject, when he and Dill rode down the trail which much recent passing had made unusually dusty, with the hot sunlight of the Fourth making the air quiver palpably around them; with the cloudless blue arching hotly over their heads and with the four by six cotton flag flying an involuntary signal of distress–on account of its being hastily raised bottom-side-up and left that way–and beckoning them from the little clump of shade below, the heart of Charming Billy Boyle beat unsteadily under the left pocket of his soft, cream-colored silk shirt, and the cheeks of him glowed red under the coppery tan. Dill was not the sort of man who loves fast riding and they ambled along quite decorously–“like we was headed for prayer-meeting with a singing-book under each elbow,” thought Billy, secretly resentful of the pace.
“I reckon there’ll be quite a crowd,” he remarked wistfully. “I see a good many horses staked out already.”
Dill nodded absently, and Billy took to singing his pet ditty; one must do something when one is covering the last mile of a journey toward a place full of all sorts of delightful possibilities–and covering that mile at a shambling trot which is truly maddening.
“She can make a punkin pie quick’s a cat can wink her eye, She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother!”
“But, of course,” observed Mr. Dill quite unexpectedly, “you know, William, time will remedy that drawback.”
Billy started, looked suspiciously at the other, grew rather red and shut up like a clam. He did more; he put the spurs to his horse and speedily hid himself in a dust-cloud, so that Dill, dutifully keeping pace with him, made a rather spectacular arrival whether he would or no.
Charming Billy, his hat carefully dimpled, his blue tie fastidiously knotted and pierced with the Klondyke nugget-pin which was his only ornament, wandered hastily through the assembled groups and slapped viciously at mosquitoes. Twice he shied at a flutter of woman-garments, retreated to a respectable distance and reconnoitred with a fine air of indifference, to find that the flutter accompanied the movements of some girl for whom he cared not at all.
In his nostrils was the indefinable, unmistakable picnic odor–the odor of crushed grasses and damp leaf-mould stirred by the passing of many feet, the mingling of cheap perfumes and starched muslin and iced lemonade and sandwiches; in his ears the jumble of laughter and of holiday speech, the squealing of children in a mob around the swing, the protesting squeak of the ropes as they swung high, the snorting of horses tied just outside the enchanted ground. And through the tree-tops he could glimpse the range-land lying asleep in the hot sunlight, unchanged, uncaring, with the wild range-cattle feeding leisurely upon the slopes and lifting heads occasionally to snuff suspiciously the unwonted sounds and smells that drifted up to them on vagrant breezes.
He introduced Dill to four or five men whom he thought might be congenial, left him talking solemnly with a man who at some half-forgotten period had come from Michigan, and wandered aimlessly on through the grove. Fellows there were in plenty whom he knew, but he passed them with a brief word or two. Truth to tell, for the most part they were otherwise occupied and had no time for him.
He loitered over to the swing, saw that the enthusiasts who were making so much noise were all youngsters under fifteen or so and that they hailed his coming with a joy tinged with self-interest. He rose to the bait of one dark-eyed miss who had her hair done in two braids crossed and tied close to her head with red-white-and-blue ribbon, and who smiled alluringly and somewhat toothlessly and remarked that she liked to go ‘way, ‘_way_ up till it most turned over, and that it didn’t scare her a bit. He swung her almost into hysterics and straightway found himself exceedingly popular with other braided-and-tied young misses. Charming Billy never could tell afterward how long or how many he swung ‘way, ‘_way_ up; he knew that he pushed and pushed until his arms ached and the hair on his forehead became unpleasantly damp under his hat.
“That’ll just about have to do yuh, kids,” he rebelled suddenly and left them, anxiously patting his hair and generally resettling himself as he went. Once more in a dispirited fashion he threaded the crowd, which had grown somewhat larger, side-stepped a group which called after him, and went on down to the creek.
“I’m about the limit, I guess,” he told himself irritably. “Why the dickens didn’t I have the sense and nerve to ride over and ask her straight out if she was coming? I coulda drove her over, maybe–if she’d come with me. I coulda took the bay team and top-buggy, and done the thing right. I coulda–hell, there’s a _heap_ uh things I coulda done that would uh been a lot more wise than what I did do! Maybe she ain’t coming at all, and–“
On the heels of that he saw a spring-wagon, come rattling down the trail across the creek. There were two seats full, and two parasols were bobbing seductively, and one of them was blue. “I’ll bet a dollar that’s them now,” murmured Billy, and once more felt anxiously of his hair where it had gone limp under his hat. “Darned kids–they’d uh kept me there till I looked like I’d been wrassling calves half a day,” went with the patting. He turned and went briskly through an empty and untrampled part of the grove to the place where the wagon would be most likely to stop. “I’m sure going to make good to-day or–” And a little farther–“What if it ain’t _them_?”
Speedily he discovered that it was “them,” and at the same time he discovered something else which pleased him not at all. Dressed with much care, so that even Billy must reluctantly own him good-looking enough, and riding so close to the blue parasol that his horse barely escaped grazing a wheel, was the Pilgrim. He glared at Billy in unfriendly fashion and would have shut him off completely from approach to the wagon; but a shining milk can, left carelessly by a bush, caught the eye of his horse, and after that the Pilgrim was very busy riding erratically in circles and trying to keep in touch with his saddle.
Billy, grown surprisingly bold, went straight to where the blue parasol was being closed with dainty deliberation. “A little more, and you’d have been late for dinner,” he announced, smiling up at her, and held out his eager arms. Diplomacy, perhaps, should have urged him to assist the other lady first–but Billy Boyle was quite too direct to be diplomatic and besides, the other lady was on the opposite side from him.
Miss Bridger may have been surprised, and she may or may not have been pleased; Billy could only guess at her emotions–granting she felt any. But she smiled down at him and permitted the arms to receive her, and she also permitted–though with some hesitation–Billy to lead her straight away from the wagon and its occupants and from the gyrating Pilgrim to the deep delights of the grove.
“Mr. Walland is a good rider, don’t you think?” murmured Miss Bridger, gazing over her shoulder.
“He’s a bird,” said Billy evenly, and was polite enough not to mention what kind of bird. He was wondering what on earth had brought those two together and why, after that night, Miss Bridger should be friendly with the Pilgrim; but of these things he said nothing, though he did find a good deal to say upon pleasanter subjects.
So far as any one knew, Charming Billy Boyle, while he had done many things, had never before walked boldly into a picnic crowd carrying a blue parasol as if it were a rifle and keeping step as best he might over the humps and hollows of the grove with a young woman. Many there were who turned and looked again–and these were the men who knew him best. As for Billy, his whole attitude was one of determination; he was not particularly lover-like–had he wanted to be, he would not have known how. He was resolved to make the most of his opportunities, because they were likely to be few and because he had an instinct that he should know the girl better–he had even dreamed foolishly, once or twice, of some day marrying her. But to clinch all, he had no notion of letting the Pilgrim offend her by his presence.
So he somehow got her wedged between two fat women at one of the tables, and stood behind and passed things impartially and ate ham sandwiches and other indigestibles during the intervals. He had the satisfaction of seeing the Pilgrim come within ten feet of them, hover there scowling for a minute or two and then retreat. “He ain’t forgot the licking I gave him,” thought Billy vaingloriously, and hid a smile in the delectable softness of a wedge of cake with some kind of creamy filling.
“_I_ made that cake,” announced Miss Bridger over her shoulder when she saw what he was eating. “Do you like it as well as–chicken stew?”
Whereupon Billy murmured incoherently and wished the two fat women ten miles away. He had not dared–he would never have dared–refer to that night, or mention chicken stew or prune pies or even dried apricots in her presence; but with her own hand she had brushed aside the veil of constraint that had hung between them.
“I wish I’d thought to bring a prune pie,” he told her daringly, in his eagerness half strangling over a crumb of cake.
“Nobody wants prune pie at a picnic,” declared one of the fat women sententiously. “You might as well bring fried bacon and done with it.”
“Picnics,” added the other and fatter woman, “iss for getting somet’ings t’ eat yuh don’d haff every day at home.” To point the moral she reached for a plate of fluted and iced molasses cakes.
“I _love_ prune pies,” asserted Miss Bridger, and laughed at the snorts which came from either side.
Billy felt himself four inches taller just then. “Give me stewed prairie-chicken,” he stooped to murmur in her ear–or, to be exact, in the blue bow on her hat.
“Ach, you folks didn’d ought to come to a picnic!” grunted the fatter woman in disgust.
The two who had the secret between them laughed confidentially, and Miss Bridger even turned her head away around so that their eyes could meet and emphasize the joke.
Billy looked down at the big, blue bow and at the soft, blue ruffly stuff on her shoulders–stuff that was just thin enough so that one caught elusive suggestions of the soft, pinky flesh beneath–and wondered vaguely why he had never noticed the beating in his throat before–and what would happen if he reached around and tilted back her chin and–“Thunder! I guess I’ve sure got ’em, all right!” he brought himself up angrily, and refrained from carrying the subject farther.
It was rumored that the dancing would shortly begin in the schoolhouse up the hill, and Billy realized suddenly with some compunction that he had forgotten all about Dill. “I want to introduce my new boss to yuh, Miss Bridger,” he said when they had left the table and she was smoothing down the ruffly blue stuff in an adorably feminine way. “He isn’t much just to look at, but he’s the whitest man I ever knew. You wait here a minute and I’ll go find him”–which was a foolish thing for him to do, as he afterward found out.
For when he had hunted the whole length of the grove, he found Dill standing like a blasted pine tree in the middle of a circle of men–men who were married, and so were not wholly taken up with the feminine element–and he was discoursing to them earnestly and grammatically upon the capitalistic tendencies of modern politics. Billy stood and listened long enough to see that there was no hope of weaning his interest immediately, and then went back to where he had left Miss Bridger. She was not there. He looked through the nearest groups, approached one of the fat women, who was industriously sorting the remains of the feast and depositing the largest and most attractive pieces of cake in her own basket, and made bold to inquire if she knew where Miss Bridger had gone.
“Gone home after some prune pie, I guess maybe,” she retorted quellingly, and Billy asked no farther.
Later he caught sight of a blue flutter in the swing; investigated and saw that it was Miss Bridger, and that the Pilgrim, smiling and with his hat set jauntily back on his head, was pushing the swing. They did not catch sight of Billy for he did not linger there. He turned short around, walked purposefully out to the edge of the grove where his horse was feeding at the end of his rope, picked up the rope and led the horse over to where his saddle lay on its side, the neatly folded saddle-blanket laid across it. “Darn it, stand still!” he growled unjustly, when the horse merely took the liberty of switching a fly off his rump. Billy picked up the blanket, shook the wrinkles out mechanically, held it before him ready to lay across the waiting back of Barney; shook it again, hesitated and threw it violently back upon the saddle.
“Go on off–I don’t want nothing of yuh,” he admonished the horse, which turned and looked at him inquiringly. “I ain’t through yet–I got another chip to put up.” He made him a cigarette, lighted it and strolled nonchalantly back to the grove.
_”When I Lift My Eyebrows This Way.”_
“Oh, where have you been, Billy boy, Billy boy? Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?”
Somewhere behind him a daring young voice was singing. Billy turned with a real start, and when he saw her coming gayly down a little, brush-hidden path and knew that she was alone, the heart of him turned a complete somersault–from the feel of it.
“My long friend, Dilly, was busy, and so I–I went to look after my horse,” he explained, his mind somewhat in a jumble. How came she to be there, and why did she sing those lines? How did she know that was _his_ song, or–did she really care at all? And where was the Pilgrim?
“Mr. Walland and I tried the swing, but I don’t like it; it made me horribly dizzy,” she said, coming up to him. “Then I went to find Mama Joy–“
“Who?” Billy had by that time recovered his wits enough to know just exactly what she said.
“Mama Joy–my stepmother. I call her that. You see, father wants me to call her mama–he really wanted it mother, but I couldn’t–and she’s so young to have me for a daughter, so she wants me to call her Joy; that’s her name. So I call her both and please them both, I hope. Did you ever study diplomacy, Mr. Boyle?”
“I never did, but I’m going to start right in,” Billy told her, and half meant it.
“A thorough understanding of the subject is indispensable–when you have a stepmother–a _young_ stepmother. You’ve met her, haven’t you?”
“No,” said Billy. He did not want to talk about her stepmother, but he hated to tell her so. “Er–yes, I believe I did see her once, come to think of it,” he added honestly when memory prompted him.
Miss Bridger laughed, stopped, and laughed again. “How Mama Joy would _hate_ you if she knew that!” she exclaimed relishfully.
“Oh, you wait! If ever I tell her that you–that _anybody_ ever met her and then forgot! Why, she knows the color of your hair and eyes, and she knows the pattern of that horsehair hat-band and the size of your boots–she _admires_ a man whose feet haven’t two or three inches for every foot of his height–she says you wear fives, and you don’t lack much of being six feet tall, and–“
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” protested Billy, very red and uncomfortable. “What have I done to yuh that you throw it into me like that? My hands are up–and they’ll stay up if you’ll only quit it.”
Miss Bridger looked at him sidelong and laughed to herself. “That’s to pay you for forgetting that you ever met Mama Joy,” she asserted. “I shouldn’t be surprised if next week you’ll have forgotten that you ever met _me_. And if you do, after that chicken stew–“
“You’re a josher,” said Billy helplessly, not being prepared to say just all he thought about the possibility of his forgetting her. He wished that he understood women better, so that he might the better cope with the vagaries of this one; and so great was his ignorance that he never dreamed that every man since Adam had wished the same thing quite as futilely.
“I’m not going to josh now,” she promised, with a quick change of manner. “You haven’t–I _know_ you haven’t, but I’ll give you a chance to dissemble–you haven’t a partner for the dance, have you?”
“No. Have you?” Billy did have the courage to say that, though he dared not say more.
“Well, I–I could be persuaded,” she hinted shamelessly.
“Persuade nothing! Yuh belong to me, and if anybody tries to throw his loop over your head, why–” Billy looked dangerous; he meant the Pilgrim.
“Thank you.” She seemed relieved, and it was plain she did not read into his words any meaning beyond the dance, though Billy was secretly hoping that she would. “Do you know, I think you’re perfectly lovely. You’re so–so _comfortable_. When I’ve known you a little longer I expect I’ll be calling you Charming Billy, or else Billy Boy. If you’ll stick close to me all through this dance and come every time I lift my eyebrows this way”–she came near getting kissed, right then, but she never knew it–“and say it’s _your_ dance and that I promised it to you before, I’ll be–_awfully_ grateful and obliged.”
“I wisht,” said Billy pensively, “I had the nerve to take all this for sudden admiration; but I savvy, all right. Some poor devil’s going to get it handed to him to-night.”
For the first time Miss Bridger blushed consciously. “I–well, you’ll be good and obliging and do just what I want, won’t you?”
“Sure!” said Billy, not trusting himself to say more. Indeed, he had to set his teeth hard on that word to keep more from tumbling out. Miss Bridger seemed all at once anxious over something.
“You waltz and two-step and polka and schottische, don’t you?” Her eyes, as she looked up at him, reminded Billy achingly of that time in the line-camp when she asked him for a horse to ride home. They had the same wistful, pleading look. Billy gritted his teeth.
“Sure,” he answered again.
Miss Bridger sighed contentedly. “I know it’s horribly mean and selfish of me, but you’re so good–and I’ll make it up to you some time. Really I will! At some other dance you needn’t dance with me once, or look at me, even–That will even things up, won’t it?”
“Sure,” said Billy for the third time.
They paced slowly, coming into view of the picnic crowd, hearing the incoherent murmur of many voices. Miss Bridger looked at him uncertainly, laughed a little and spoke impulsively. “You needn’t do it, Mr. Boyle, unless you like. It’s only a joke, anyway; I mean, my throwing myself at you like that. Just a foolish joke; I’m often foolish, you know. Of course, I know you wouldn’t misunderstand or anything like that, but it _is_ mean of me to drag you into it by the hair of the head, almost, just to play a joke on some one–on Mama Joy. You’re too good-natured. You’re a direct temptation to people who haven’t any conscience. Really and truly, you needn’t do it at all.”
“Yuh haven’t heard me raising any howl, have yuh?” inquired Billy, eying her slantwise. “I’m playing big luck, if yuh ask me.”
“Well–if you _really_ don’t mind, and haven’t any one else–“
“I haven’t,” Billy assured her unsmilingly. “And I really don’t mind. I think I–kinda like the prospect.” He was trying to match her mood and he was not at all sure that he was a success. “There’s one thing. If yuh get tired uh having me under your feet all the time, why–Dilly’s a stranger and an awful fine fellow; I’d like to have you–well, be kinda nice to him. I want him to have a good time, you see, and you’ll like him. You can’t help it. And it will square up anything yuh may feel yuh might owe me–“
“I’ll be just lovely to Dilly,” Miss Bridger promised him with emphasis. “It will be a fair bargain, then, and I won’t feel so–so small about asking you what I did. You can help me play a little joke, and I’ll dance with Duly. So,” she finished in a tone of satisfaction, “we’ll be even. I feel a great deal better now, because I can pay you back.”
Billy, on that night, was more keenly observant than usual and there was much that he saw. He saw at once that Miss Bridger lifted her eyebrows in the way she had demonstrated as _this way_, whenever the Pilgrim approached her. He saw that the Pilgrim was looking extremely bloodthirsty and went out frequently–Billy guessed shrewdly that his steps led to where the drink was not water–and the sight cheered him considerably. Yet it hurt him a little to observe that, when the Pilgrim was absent or showed no sign of meaning to intrude upon her, Miss Bridger did not lift her eyebrows consciously. Still, she was at all times pleasant and friendly and he tried to be content.
“Mr. Boyle, you’ve been awfully good,” she rewarded him when it was over. “And I think Mr. Dill is fine! Do you know, he waltzes beautifully. I’m sure it was easy to keep _my_ side of the bargain.”
Billy noticed the slight, inquiring emphasis upon the word _my_, and he smiled down reassuringly into her face. “Uh course mine was pretty hard,” he teased, “but I hope I made good, all right.”
“You,” she said, looking steadily up at him, “are just exactly what I said you were. You are comfortable.”
Billy did a good deal of thinking while he saddled Barney in the gray of the morning, with Dill at a little distance, looking taller than ever in the half light. When he gave the saddle its final, little tentative shake and pulled the stirrup around so that he could stick in his toe, he gave also a snort of dissatisfaction.
“Hell!” he said to himself. “I don’t know as I care about being too _blame_ comfortable. There’s a limit to that kinda thing–with _her!_”
“What’s that?” called Dill, who had heard his voice.
“Aw, nothing,” lied Billy, swinging up. “I was just cussing my hoss.”
_Dilly Hires a Cook._
It is rather distressful when one cannot recount all sorts of exciting things as nicely fitted together as if they had been carefully planned and rehearsed beforehand. It would have been extremely gratifying and romantic if Charming Billy Boyle had dropped everything in the line of work and had ridden indefatigably the trail which led to Bridger’s; it would have been exciting if he had sought out the Pilgrim and precipitated trouble and flying lead. But Billy, though he might have enjoyed it, did none of those things. He rode straight to the ranch with Dill–rather silent, to be sure, but bearing none of the marks of a lovelorn young man–drank three cups of strong coffee with four heaping teaspoonfuls of sugar to each cup, pulled off his boots, lay down upon the most convenient bed and slept until noon. When the smell of dinner assailed his nostrils he sat up yawning and a good deal tousled, drew on his boots and made him a cigarette. After that he ate his dinner with relish, saddled and rode away to where the round-up was camped, his manner utterly practical and lacking the faintest tinge of romance. As to his thoughts–he kept them jealously to himself.
He did not even glimpse Miss Bridger for three months or more. He was full of the affairs of the Double-Crank; riding in great haste to the ranch or to town, hurrying back to the round-up and working much as he used to work, except that now he gave commands instead of receiving them. For they were short-handed that summer and, as he explained to Dill, he couldn’t afford to ride around and look as important as he felt.
“Yuh wait, Dilly, till we get things running the way I want ’em,” he encouraged on one of his brief calls at the ranch. “I was kinda surprised to find things wasn’t going as smooth as I used to think; when yuh haven’t got the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, yuh don’t realize what a lot of things need to be done. There’s them corrals, for instance: I helped mend and fix and toggle ’em, but it never struck me how rotten they are till I looked ’em over this spring. There’s about a million things to do before snow flies, or we won’t be able to start out fresh in the spring with everything running smooth. And if I was you, Dilly, I’d go on a still hunt for another cook here at the ranch. This coffee’s something fierce. I had my doubts about Sandy when we hired him. He always did look to me like he was built for herding sheep more than he was for cooking.” This was in August.
“I have been thinking seriously of getting some one else in his place,” Dill answered, in his quiet way. “There isn’t very much to do here; if some one came who would take an interest and cook just what we wanted–I will own I have no taste for that peculiar mixture which Sandy calls ‘Mulligan,’ and I have frequently told him so. Yet he insists upon serving it twice a day. He says it uses up the scraps; but since it is never eaten, I cannot see wherein lies the economy.”
“Well, I’d can him and hunt up a fresh one,” Billy repeated emphatically, looking with disapproval into his cup.
“I will say that I have already taken steps toward getting one on whom I believe I can depend,” said Dill, and turned the subject.
That was the only warning Billy had of what was to come. Indeed, there was nothing in the conversation to prepare him even in the slightest degree for what happened when he galloped up to the corral late one afternoon in October. It was the season of frosty mornings and of languorous, smoke-veiled afternoons, when summer has grown weary of resistance and winter is growing bolder in his advances, and the two have met in a passion-warmed embrace. Billy had ridden far with his riders and the trailing wagons, in the zest of his young responsibility sweeping the range to its farthest boundary of river or mountain. They were not through yet, but they had swung back within riding distance of the home ranch and Billy had come in for nearly a month’s accumulation of mail and to see how Dill was getting on.
He was tired and dusty and hungry enough to eat the fringes off his chaps. He came to the ground without any spring to his muscles and walked stiffly to the stable door, leading his horse by the bridle reins. He meant to turn him loose in the stable, which was likely to be empty, and shut the door upon him until he himself had eaten something. The door was open and he went in unthinkingly, seeing nothing in the gloom. It was his horse which snorted and settled back on the reins and otherwise professed his reluctance to enter the place.
Charming Billy, as was consistent with his hunger and his weariness and the general mood of him, “cussed” rather fluently and jerked the horse forward a step or two before he saw some one poised hesitatingly upon the manger in the nearest stall.
“I guess he’s afraid of _me_,” ventured a voice that he felt to his toes. “I was hunting eggs. They lay them always in the awkwardest places to get at.” She scrambled down and came toward him, bareheaded, with the sleeves of her blue-and-white striped dress rolled to her elbows–Flora Bridger, if you please.
Billy stood still and stared, trying to make the reality of her presence seem reasonable; and he failed utterly. His most coherent thought at that moment was a shamed remembrance of the way he had sworn at his horse.
Miss Bridger stood aside from the wild-eyed animal and smiled upon his master. “In the language of the range, ‘come alive,’ Mr. Boyle,” she told him. “Say how-de-do and be nice about it, or I’ll see that your coffee is muddy and your bread burned and your steak absolutely impregnable; because I’m here to _stay_, mind you. Mama Joy and I have possession of your kitchen, and so you’d better–“
“I’m just trying to let it soak into my brains,” said Billy. “You’re just about the last person on earth I’d expect to see here, hunting eggs like you had a right–“
“I _have_ a right,” she asserted. “Your Dilly–he’s a perfect love, and I told him so–said I was to make myself perfectly at home. So I have a perfect right to be here, and a perfect right to hunt eggs; and if I could make that sentence more ‘perfect,’ I would do it.” She tilted her head to one side and challenged a laugh with her eyes.
Charming Billy relaxed a bit, yanked the horse into a stall and tied him fast. “Yuh might tell me how it happened that you’re here,” he hinted, looking at her over the saddle. He had apparently forgotten that he had intended leaving the horse saddled until he had rested and eaten–and truly it would be a shame to hurry from so unexpected a tete-a-tete.
Miss Bridger pulled a spear of blue-joint hay from a crack in the wall and began breaking it into tiny pieces. “It sounds funny, but Mr. Dill bought father out to get a cook. The way it was, father has been simply crazy to try his luck up in Klondyke; it’s just like him to get the fever after everybody else has had it and recovered. When the whole country was wild to go he turned up his nose at the idea. And now, mind you, after one or two whom he knew came back with some gold, he must go and dig up a few million tons of it for himself! Your Dilly is rather bright, do you know? He met father and heard all about his complaint–how he’d go to the Klondyke in a minute if he could only get the ranch and Mama Joy and me off his hands–so what does Dilly do but buy the old ranch and hire Mama Joy and me to come here and keep house! Father, I am ashamed to say, was _abjectly_ grateful to get rid of his incumbrances, and he–he hit the trail immediately.” She stopped and searched absently with her fingers for another spear of hay.
“Do you know, Mr. Boyle, I think men are the most irresponsible creatures! A _woman_ wouldn’t turn her family over to a neighbor and go off like that for three or four years, just chasing a sunbeam. I–I’m horribly disappointed in father. A man has no right to a family when he puts everything else first in his mind. He’ll be gone three or four years, and will spend all he has, and we–can shift for ourselves. He only left us a hundred dollars, to use in an emergency! He was afraid he might need the rest to buy out a claim or get machinery or something. So if we don’t like it here we’ll have to stay, anyway. We–we’re ‘up against it,’ as you fellows say.”
[Illustration: “WE–WE’RE ‘UP AGAINST IT,’ AS YOU FELLOWS SAY.”]
Charming Billy, fumbling the latigo absently, felt a sudden belligerence toward her father. “He ought to have his head punched good and plenty!” he blurted sympathetically.
To his amazement Miss Bridger drew herself up and started for the door. “I’m very sorry you don’t like the idea of us being here, Mr. Boyle,” she replied coldly, “but we happen to _be_ here, and I’m afraid you’ll just have to make the best of it!”
Billy was at that moment pulling off the saddle. By the time he had carried it from the stall, hung it upon its accustomed spike and hurried to the door, Miss Bridger was nowhere to be seen. He said “Hell!” under his breath, and took long steps to the house, but she did not appear to be there. It was “Mama Joy,” yellow-haired, extremely blue-eyed, and full-figured, who made his coffee and gave him delicious things to eat–things which he failed properly to appreciate, because he ate with his ears perked to catch the faintest sound of another woman’s steps and with his eyes turning constantly from door to window. He did not even know half the time what Mama Joy was saying, or see her dimples when she smiled; and Mama Joy was rather proud of her dimples and was not accustomed to having them overlooked.
He was too proud to ask, at supper time, where Miss Bridger was. She did not choose to give him sight of her, and so he talked and talked to Dill, and even to Mama Joy, hoping that Miss Bridger could hear him and know that he wasn’t worrying a darned bit. He did not consider that he had said anything so terrible. What had she gone on like that about her father for, if she couldn’t stand for any one siding in with her? Maybe he had put his sympathy a little too strong, but that is the way men handle each other. She ought to know he wasn’t sorry she was there. Why, of _course_ she knew that! The girl wasn’t a fool, and she must know a fellow would be plumb tickled to have her around every day. Well, anyway, he wasn’t going to begin by letting her lead him around by the nose, and he wasn’t going to crumple down on his knees and tell her to please walk all over him.
“Well, anyway,” he summed up at bedtime with a somewhat doubtful satisfaction, “I guess she’s kinda got over the notion that I’m so blame _comfortable_–like I was an old grandpa-setting-in-the-corner. She’s _got_ to get over it, by thunder! I ain’t got to that point yet; hell, no! I should say I hadn’t!”
It is a fact that when he rode away just after sunrise next morning (he would have given much if duty and his pride had permitted him to linger a while) no one could have accused him of being in any degree a comfortable young man. For his last sight of Miss Bridger had been the flutter of her when she disappeared through the stable door.
_Billy Meets the Pilgrim._
The weeks that followed did not pass as quickly as before for Billy Boyle, nor did raking the range with his riders bring quite as keen a satisfaction with life. Always, when he rode apart in the soft haze and watched the sky-line shimmer and dance toward him and then retreat like a teasing maid, his thoughts wandered from the range and the cattle and the men who rode at his bidding and rested with one slim young woman who puzzled and tantalized him and caused him more mental discomfort than he had ever known in his life before that night when she entered so unexpectedly the line-camp and his life. He scarcely knew just how he did feel toward her; sometimes he hungered for her with every physical and mental fibre and was tempted to leave everything and go to her. Times there were when he resented deeply her treatment of him and repeated to himself the resolution not to lie down and let her walk all over him just because he liked her.
When the round-up was over and the last of the beef on the way to Chicago, and the fat Irish cook gathered up the reins of his four-horse team, mounted with a grunt to the high seat of the mess wagon and pointed his leaders thankfully into the trail which led to the Double-Crank, though the sky was a hard gray and the wind blew chill with the bite of winter and though tiny snowflakes drifted aimlessly to earth with a quite deceitful innocence, as if they knew nothing of more to come and were only idling through the air, the blood of Charming Billy rioted warmly through his veins and his voice had a lilt which it had long lacked and he sang again the pitifully foolish thing with which he was wont to voice his joy in living.
“I have been to see my wife,
She’s the joy of my life,
She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother!”
“Thought Bill had got too proud t’ sing that song uh hisn,” the cook yelled facetiously to the riders who were nearest. “I was lookin’ for him to bust out in grand-opry, or something else that’s a heap more stylish than his old come-all-ye.”
Charming Billy turned and rested a hand briefly upon the cantle while he told the cook laughingly to go to the hot place, and then settled himself to the pace that matched the leaping blood of him. That pace soon discouraged the others and left them jogging leisurely a mile or two in the rear, and it also brought him the sooner to his destination.
“Wonder if she’s mad yet,” he asked himself, when he dismounted. No one seemed to be about, but he reflected that it was just about noon and they would probably be at dinner–and, besides, the weather was not the sort to invite one outdoors unless driven by necessity.
The smell of roast meat, coffee and some sort of pie assailed his nostrils pleasantly when he came to the house, and he went in eagerly by the door which would bring him directly to the dining room. As he had guessed, they were seated at the table. “Why, come in, William,” Dill greeted, a welcoming note in his voice. “We weren’t looking for you, but you are in good time. We’ve only just begun.”
“How do you do, Mr. Boyle?” Miss Bridger added demurely.
“Hello, Bill! How’re yuh coming?” cried another, and it was to him that the eyes of Billy Boyle turned bewilderedly. That the Pilgrim should be seated calmly at the Double-Crank table never once occurred to him. In his thoughts of Miss Bridger he had mentally eliminated the Pilgrim; for had she not been particular to show the Pilgrim that his presence was extremely undesirable, that night at the dance?
“Hello, folks!” he answered them all quietly, because there was nothing else that he could do until he had time to think. Miss Bridger had risen and was smiling at him in friendly fashion, exactly as if she had never run away from him and stayed away all the evening because she was angry.
“I’ll fix you a place,” she announced briskly. “Of course you’re hungry. And if you want to wash off the dust of travel, there’s plenty of warm water out here in the kitchen. I’ll get you some.”
She may not have meant that for an invitation, but Billy followed her into the kitchen and calmly shut the door behind him. She dipped warm water out of the reservoir for him and hung a fresh towel on the nail above the washstand in the corner, and seemed about to leave him again.
“Yuh mad yet?” asked Billy, because he wanted to keep her there.
“Mad? Why?” She opened her eyes at him. “Not as much as you look,” she retorted then. “You look as cross as if–“
“What’s the Pilgrim doing here?” Billy demanded suddenly and untactfully.
“Who? Mr. Walland?” She went into the pantry and came back with a plate for him. “Why, nothing; he’s just visiting. It’s Sunday, you know.”
“Oh–is it?” Billy bent over the basin, hiding his face from her. “I didn’t know; I’d kinda lost count uh the days.” Whereupon he made a great splashing in his corner and let her go without more words, feeling more than ever that he needed time to think. “Just visiting–’cause it’s _Sunday_, eh? The dickens it is!” Meditating deeply, he was very deliberate in combing his hair and settling his blue tie and shaking the dust out of his white silk neckerchief and retying it in a loose knot; so deliberate that Mama Joy was constrained to call out to him: “Your dinner is getting cold, Mr. Boyle,” before he went in and took his seat where Miss Bridger had placed him–and he doubted much her innocence in the matter–elbow to elbow with the Pilgrim.
“How’s shipping coming on, Billy?” inquired the Pilgrim easily, passing to him the platter of roast beef. “Most through, ain’t yuh?”
“The outfit’s on the way in,” answered Billy, accepting noncommittally the meat and the overture for peace. “They’ll be here in less than an hour.”
If the Pilgrim wanted peace, he was thinking rapidly, what grounds had he for ignoring the truce? He himself had been the aggressor and he also had been the victor. According to the honor of fighting men, he should be generous. And when all was said and done–and the thought galled Billy more than he could understand–the offense of the Pilgrim had been extremely intangible; it had consisted almost wholly of looks and a tone or two, and he realized quite plainly that his own dislike of the Pilgrim had probably colored his judgment. Anyway, he had thrashed the Pilgrim and driven him away from camp and killed his dog. Wasn’t that enough? And if the Pilgrim chose to forget the unpleasant circumstances of their parting and be friends, what could he do but forget also? Especially since the girl did not appear to be holding any grudge for what had passed between them in the line-camp. Billy, buttering a biscuit with much care, wished he knew just what _had_ happened that night before he opened the door, and wondered if he dared ask her.
Under all his thoughts and through all he hated the Pilgrim, his bold blue eyes, his full, smiling lips and smooth cheeks, as he had never hated him before; and he hated himself because, being unable to account even to himself for his feelings toward the Pilgrim, he was obliged to hide his hate and be friends–or else act the fool. And above all the mental turmoil he was somehow talking and listening and laughing now and then, as if there were two of him and each one was occupied with his own affairs. “I wisht to thunder there was _three_ uh me,” he thought fleetingly during a pause. “I’d set the third one uh me to figuring out just where the girl stands in this game, and what she’s thinking about right now. There’s a kinda twinkling in her eyes, now and then when she looks over here, that sure don’t line up with her innocent talk. I wisht I could mind-read her–
“Yes, we didn’t get through none too soon. Looks a lot like we’re going to get our first slice uh winter. We’ve been playing big luck that we didn’t get it before now; and that last bunch uh beef was sure rollicky and hard to handle–we’d uh had a picnic with all the trimmings if a blizzard had caught us with them on our hands. As it is, we’re all dead on our feet. I expect to sleep about four days without stopping for meals, if you ask _me_.”
One cannot wonder that Charming Billy heard thankfully the clatter of his outfit arriving, or that he left half his piece of pie uneaten and hurried off, on the plea that he must show them what to do–which would have caused a snicker among the men if they had overheard him. He did not mind Dill following him out, nor did he greatly mind the Pilgrim remaining in the house with Miss Bridger. The relief of being even temporarily free from the perplexities of the situation mastered all else and sent him whistling down the path to the stables.
_A Winter at the Double-Crank_.
There are times when, although the months as they pass seem full, nothing that has occurred serves to mark a step forward or back in the destiny of man. After a year, those months of petty detail might be wiped out entirely without changing the general trend of events–and such a time was the winter that saw “Dill and Bill,” as one alliterative mind called them, in possession of the Double-Crank. The affairs of the ranch moved smoothly along toward a more systematic running than had been employed under Brown’s ownership. Dill settled more and more into the new life, so that he was so longer looked upon as a foreign element; he could discuss practical ranch business and be sure of his ground–and it was then that Billy realized more fully how shrewd a brain lay behind those mild, melancholy blue eyes, and how much a part of the man was that integrity which could not stoop to small meanness or deceit. It would have been satisfying merely to know that such a man lived, and if Billy had needed any one to point the way to square living he must certainly have been better for the companionship of Dill.
As to Miss Bridger, he stood upon much the same footing with her as he had in the fall, except that he called her Flora, in the familiarity which comes of daily association; to his secret discomfort she had fulfilled her own prophecy and called him Billy Boy. Though he liked the familiarity, he emphatically did not like the mental attitude which permitted her to fall so easily into the habit of calling him that. Also, he was in two minds about the way she would come to the door of the living room and say: “Come, Billy Boy, and dry the dishes for me–that’s a good kid!”
Billy had no objections to drying the dishes; of a truth, although that had been a duty which he shirked systematically in line-camps until everything in the cabin was in that state which compels action, he would have been willing to stand beside Flora Bridger at the sink and wipe dishes (and watch her bare, white arms, with the dimply elbows) from dark until dawn. What he did object to was the half-patronizing, wholly matter-of-fact tone of her, which seemed to preclude any possibility of sentiment so far as she was concerned. She always looked at him so frankly, with never a tinge of red in her cheeks to betray that consciousness of sex which goes ever–say what you like–with the love of a man and a maid.
He did not want her to call him “Billy Boy” in just that tone; it made him feel small and ineffective and young–he who was eight or nine years older than she! It put him down, so that he could not bring himself to making actual love to her–and once or twice when he had tried it, she took it as a great joke.
Still, it was good to have her there and to be friends. The absence of the Pilgrim, who had gone East quite suddenly soon after the round-up was over, and the generosity of the other fellows, who saw quite plainly how it was–with Billy, at least–and forbore making any advances on their own account, made the winter pass easily and left Charming Billy in the spring not content, perhaps, but hopeful.
It was in the warm days of late April–the days which bring the birds and the tender, young grass, when the air is soft and all outdoors beckons one to come out and revel. On such a day Billy, stirred to an indefinable elation because the world as he saw it then was altogether good, crooned his pet song while he waited at the porch with Flora’s horse and his own. They were going to ride together because it was Sunday and because, if the weather held to its past and present mood of sweet serenity, he might feel impelled to start the wagons out before the week was done; so that this might be their last Sunday ride for nobody knew how long.
“Let’s ride up the creek,” she suggested when she was in the saddle. “We haven’t been up that way this spring. There’s a trail, isn’t there?”
“Sure, there’s a trail–but I don’t know what shape it’s in. I haven’t been over it myself for a month or so. We’ll try it, but yuh won’t find much to see; it’s all level creek-bottom for miles and kinda monotonous to look at.”
“Well, we’ll go, anyway,” she decided, and they turned their horses’ heads toward the west.
They had gone perhaps five or six miles and were thinking of turning back, when Billy found cause to revise his statement that there was nothing to see. There had been nothing when he rode this way before, but now, when they turned to follow a bend in the creek and in the trail, they came upon a camp which looked more permanent than was usual in that country. A few men were lounging around in the sun, and there were scrapers of the wheeled variety, and wagons, and plows, and divers other implements of toil that were strange to the place. Also there was a long, reddish-yellow ridge branching out from the creek; Billy knew it for a ditch–but a ditch larger than he had seen for many a day. He did not say anything, even when Flora exclaimed over the surprise of finding a camp there, but headed straight for the camp.
When they came within speaking distance, a man showed in the opening of one of the tents, looked at them a moment, and came forward.
“Why, that’s Fred Walland!” cried Flora, and then caught herself suddenly. “I didn’t know he was back,” she added, in a tone much less eager.
Billy gave her a quick look that might have told her much had she seen it. He did not much like the color which had flared into her cheeks at sight of the Pilgrim, and he liked still less the tone in which she spoke his name. It was not much, and he had the sense to push the little devil of jealousy out of sight behind him, but it had come and changed something in the heart of Billy.
“Why, hello!” greeted the Pilgrim, and Billy remembered keenly that the Pilgrim had spoken in just that way when he had opened the door of the line-camp upon them, that night. “I was going to ride over to the ranch, after a while. How are yuh, anyhow?” He came and held up his hand to Flora, and she put her own into it. Billy, with eyebrows pinched close, thought that they sure took their own time about letting go again, and that the smile which she gave the Pilgrim was quite superfluous to the occasion.
“Yuh seem to be some busy over here,” he remarked carelessly, turning his eyes to the new ditch.
“Well, yes. Brown’s having a ditch put in here. We only started a few days ago; them da–them no-account Swedes he got to do the rough work are so slow, we’re liable to be at it all summer. How’s everybody at the ranch? How’s your mother, Miss Bridger? Has she got any mince pies baked?”
“I don’t know–you might ride over with us and see,” she invited, smiling at him again. “We were just going to turn back–weren’t we, Billy Boy?”
“Sure!” he testified, and for the first time found some comfort in being called Billy Boy; because, if looks went for anything, it certainly made the Pilgrim very uncomfortable. The spirits of Billy rose a little.
“If you’ll wait till I saddle up, I’ll go along. I guess the Svenskies won’t run off with the camp before I get back,” said the Pilgrim, and so they stayed, and afterward rode back together quite amiably considering certain explosive elements in the party.
Perhaps Billy’s mildness was due in a great measure to his preoccupation, which made him deaf at times to what the others were saying. He knew that they were quite impersonal in their talk, and so he drifted into certain other channels of thought.
Was Brown going to start another cow-outfit, or was he merely going to try his hand at farming? Billy knew that–unless he had sold it–Brown owned a few hundred acres along the creek there; and as he rode over it now he observed the soil more closely than was his habit, and saw that, from a passing survey, it seemed fertile and free from either adobe or alkali. It must be that Brown was going to try ranching. Still, he had held out all his best stock, and Billy had not heard that he had sold it since. Now that he thought of it, he had not heard much about Brown since Dill bought the Double-Crank. Brown had been away, and, though he had known in a general way that the Pilgrim was still in his employ, he did not know in what capacity. In the absorption of his own affairs he had not given the matter any thought, though he had wondered at first what crazy impulse caused Brown to sell the Double-Crank. Even now he did not know, and when he thought of it the thing irritated him like a puzzle before it is solved.
So greatly did the matter trouble him that immediately upon reaching the ranch he left Flora and the Pilgrim and hunted up Dill. He found him hunched like a half-open jackknife in a cane rocker, with his legs crossed and one long, lean foot dangling loosely before him; he was reading “The Essays of Elia,” and the melancholy of his face gave Billy the erroneous impression that the book was extremely sad, and caused him to dislike it without ever looking inside the dingy blue covers.
“Say, Dilly, old Brown’s putting in a ditch big enough to carry the whole Missouri River. Did yuh know it?”
Dill carefully creased down the corner of the page where he was reading, untangled his legs and pulled himself up a bit in the chair. “Why, no, I don’t think I have heard of it,” he admitted. “If I have it must have slipped my mind–which isn’t likely.” Dill was rather proud of his capacity for keeping a mental grasp on things.
“Well, he’s got a bunch uh men camped up the creek and the Pilgrim to close-herd ’em–and I’m busy wondering what he’s going to do with that ditch. Brown don’t do things just to amuse himself; yuh can gamble he aims to make that ditch pack dollars into his jeans–and if yuh can tell me _how_, I’ll be a whole lot obliged.” Dill shook his head, and Billy went on. “Did yuh happen to find out, when yuh was bargaining for the Double-Crank, how much land Brown’s got held out?”
“No-o–I can’t say I did. From certain remarks he made, I was under the impression that he owns quite a tract. I asked about getting all the land he had, and he said he preferred not to put a price on it, but that it would add considerably to the sum total. He said I would not need it, anyhow, as there is plenty of open range for the stock. He was holding it, he told me, for speculation and had never made any use of it in running his stock, except as they grazed upon it.”
“Uh-huh. That don’t sound to me like any forty-acre field; does it to you?”
“As I said,” responded Dill, “I arrived at the conclusion that he owns a good deal of land.”
“And I’ll bet yuh the old skunk is going to start up a cow-outfit right under our noses–though why the dickens the Double-Crank wasn’t good enough for him gets me.”
“If he does,” Dill observed calmly, “the man has a perfect right to do so, William. We must guard against that greed which would crowd out every one but ourselves–like pigs around a trough of sour milk! I will own, however–“
“Say, Dilly! On the dead, are yuh religious?”
“No, William, I am not, in the sense you mean. I hope, however, that I am honest. If Mr. Brown intends to raise cattle again I shall be glad to see him succeed.”
Charming Billy sat down suddenly, as though his legs would no longer support him, and looked queerly at Dill. “Hell!” he said meditatively, and sought with his fingers for his smoking material.
Dill showed symptoms of going back to “The Essays of Elia,” so that Billy was stirred to speech.
“Now, looky here, Dilly. You’re all right, as far as yuh go–but this range is carrying just about all the stock it needs right at present. I don’t reckon yuh realize that all the good bottoms and big coulees are getting filled up with nesters; one here and one there, and every year a few more. It ain’t much, uh course, but every man that comes is cutting down the range just that much. And I know one thing: when Brown had this outfit himself he was mighty jealous uh the range, and he didn’t take none to the idea of anybody else shoving stock onto it more than naturally drifted on in the course uh the season. If he’s going to start another cow-outfit, I’ll bet yuh he’s going to gobble land–and that’s what _we_ better do, and do it sudden.”
“Since I have never had much personal experience in the ‘gobbling’ line, I’m afraid you’ll have to explain,” said Dill dryly.
“I mean leasing. We got to beat Brown to it. We got to start in and lease up all the land we can get our claws on. I ain’t none desirable uh trying to make yuh a millionaire, Dilly, whilst we’ve only got one lone section uh land and about twelve thousand head uh stock, and somebody else aiming to throw a big lot uh cattle onto our range. I kinda shy at any contract the size uh that one. I’ve got to start the wagons out, if this weather holds good, and I want to go with ’em–for a while, anyhow–and see how things stack up on the range. And what _you’ve_ got to do is to go and lease every foot uh land you can. Eh? State land. All the land around here almost is State land–all that’s surveyed and that ain’t held by private owners. And State land can be leased for a term uh years.
“The way they do it, yuh start in and go over the map all samee flea; yuh lease a section here and there and skip one and take the next, and so on, and then if yuh need to yuh throw a fence around the whole blame chunk–and there yuh are. No, it _ain’t_ cheating, because if anybody don’t like it real bad, they can raise the long howl and make yuh revise your fencing; but in this neck uh the woods folks don’t howl over a little thing like that, because you could lift up your own voice over something they’ve done, and there’d be a fine, pretty chorus! So that’s what yuh can do if yuh want to–but anyway, yuh want to get right after that leasing. It’ll cost yuh something, but we’re just plumb obliged to protect ourselves. See?”
At that point he heard Flora laugh, and got up hastily, remembering the presence of the Pilgrim on the ranch.
“I see, and I will think it over and take what precautionary measures are necessary and possible.”
Billy, not quite sure that he had sufficiently impressed Dill with the importance of the matter, turned at the door and looked in again, meaning to add an emphatic word or two; but when he saw that Dill was staring round-eyed at nothing at all, and that Lamb was lying sprawled wide open on the floor, his face relaxed from its anxious determination.
“I got his think-works going–he’ll do the rest,” he told himself satisfiedly, and pushed the subject from him. Just now he wanted to make sure the Pilgrim wasn’t getting more smiles than were coming to him–and if you had left the decision of that with Billy, the Pilgrim would have had none at all.
“I wisht he’d _do_ something I could lay my finger on–damn him,” he reflected. “I can’t kick him out on the strength uh my own private opinion. I’d just simply lay myself wide open to all kinds uh remarks. I _ain’t_ jealous; he ain’t got any particular stand-in with Flora–but if I started action on him, that’s what the general verdict would be. Oh, thunder!”
Nothing of his thoughts showed in his manner when he went out to where they were. He found them just putting up a target made of a sheet of tablet paper marked with a lead pencil into rings and an uncertain centre, and he went straight into the game with a smile. He loaded the gun for Flora, showed her exactly how to “draw a fine bead,” and otherwise deported himself in a way not calculated to be pleasing to the Pilgrim. He called her Flora boldly whenever occasion offered, and he exulted inwardly at the proprietary way in which she said “Billy Boy” and ordered him around. Of course, _he_ knew quite well that there was nothing but frank-eyed friendship back of it all; but the Pilgrim plainly did not know and was a good deal inclined to sulk over his interpretation.
So Billy, when came the time for sleeping, grinned in the dark of his room and dwelt with much satisfaction upon the manner of the Pilgrim’s departure. He prophesied optimistically that he guessed that would hold the Pilgrim for a while, and that he himself could go on round-up and not worry any over what was happening at the ranch.
For the Pilgrim had come into the kitchen, ostensibly for a drink of water, and had found Miss Flora fussily adjusting the Klondyke nugget pin in the tie of Charming Billy, as is the way of women when they know they may bully a man with impunity–and she was saying: “Now, Billy Boy, if you don’t learn to stick that pin in straight and not have the point standing out a foot, I’ll–” That is where the Pilgrim came in and interrupted. And he choked over the dipper of water even as Billy choked over his glee, and left the ranch within fifteen minutes and rode, as Billy observed to the girl, “with a haughty spine.”
“Oh, joy!” chuckled Billy when he lived those minutes over again, and punched the pillow facetiously. “Oh, joy, oh Johnathan! I guess maybe he didn’t get a jolt, huh? And the way–the very _tone_ when I called her Flora–sounded like the day was set for the wedding and we’d gone and ordered the furniture!”
The mood of him was still triumphant three days after when he turned in his saddle and waved his hand to Flora, who waved wistfully back at him. “It ain’t any cinch right now–but I’ll have her yet,” he cheered himself when the twinge of parting was keenest.
_The Shadow Falls Lightly._
Over the green uplands, into the coulees and the brushy creek-bottoms swept the sun-browned riders of the Double-Crank; jangling and rattling over untrailed prairie sod, the bed and mess wagons followed after with hasty camping at the places Billy appointed for brief sleeping and briefer eating, a hastier repacking and then the hurry over the prairies to the next stop. Here, a wide coulee lay yawning languorously in the sunshine with a gossipy trout stream for company; with meadowlarks rippling melodiously from bush and weed or hunting worms and bugs for their nestful of gaping mouths; with gophers trailing snakily through the tall grasses; and out in the barren centre where the yellow earth was pimpled with little mounds, plump-bodied prairie dogs sitting pertly upon their stubby tails the while they chittered shrewishly at the world; and over all a lazy, smiling sky with clouds always drifting and trailing shadows across the prairie-dog towns and the coulee and the creek, and a soft wind stirring the grasses.
Then the prairie dogs would stand a-tiptoe to listen. The meadowlarks would stop their singing–even the trailing shadows would seem to waver uncertainly–and only the creek would go gurgling on, uncaring. Around a bend would rattle the wagons of the Double-Crank, with a lone rider trotting before to point the way; down to the very bank of the uncaring creek they would go. There would be hurrying to and fro with much clamor of wood-chopping, tent-raising and all the little man-made noises of camp life and cooking. There would be the added clamor of the cavvy, and later, of tired riders galloping heavily into the coulee, and of many voices upraised in full-toned talk with now and then a burst of laughter.
All these things, and the prairie folk huddled trembling in their homes, a mute agony of fear racking their small bodies. Only the creek and the lazy, wide-mouthed coulee and the trailing clouds and the soft wind seemed not to mind.
Came another sunrise and with it the clamor, the voices, the rattle of riding gear, the trampling. Then a final burst and rattle, a dying of sounds in the distance, a silence as the round-up swept on over the range-land, miles away to the next camping place. Then the little prairie folk–the gopher, the plump-bodied prairie dogs, the mice and the rabbits, would listen long before they crept timidly out to sniff suspiciously the still-tainted air and inspect curiously and with instinctive aversion the strange marks left on the earth to show that it was all something more than a horrible nightmare.
So, under cloud and sun, when the wind blew soft and when it raved over the shrinking land, when the cold rain drove men into their yellow slickers and set horses to humping backs and turning tail to the drive of it and one heard the cook muttering profanity because the wood was wet and the water ran down the stovepipe and hungry men must wait because the stove would not “draw,” the Double-Crank raked the range. Horses grew lean and ill-fitting saddles worked their wicked will upon backs that shrank to their touch of a morning. Wild range cattle were herded, a scared bunch of restlessness, during long, hot forenoons, or longer, hotter afternoons, while calves that had known no misfortune beyond a wet back or a searching wind learned, panic-stricken, the agony of capture and rough handling and tight-drawn ropes and, last and worst, the terrible, searing iron.
There were not so many of them–these reluctant, wild-eyed pupils in the school of life. Charming Billy, sitting his horse and keeping tally of the victims in his shabby little book, began to know the sinking of spirit that comes to a man when he finds that things have, after all, gone less smoothly than he had imagined. There were withered carcasses scattered through the coulee bottoms and upon side hills that had some time made slippery climbing for a poor, weak cow. The loss was not crippling, but it was greater than he had expected. He remembered certain biting storms which had hidden deep the grasses, and certain short-lived chinooks that had served only to soften the surface of the snow so that the cold, coming after, might freeze it the harder.
It had not been a hard winter, as winters go, but the loss of cows had been above the average and the crop of calves below, and Billy for the first time faced squarely the fact that, in the cattle business as well as in others, there are downs to match the ups. In his castle building, and so far in his realization of his dreams, he had not taken much account of the downs.
Thus it was that, when they swung back from the reservation and camped for a day upon lower Burnt Willow, he felt a great yearning for the ranch and for sight of the girl who lived there. For excuses he had the mail and the natural wish to consult with Dill, so that, when he saddled Barney and told Jim Bleeker to keep things moving till to-morrow or the day after, he had the comfortable inner assurance that there were no side-glances or smiles and no lowered lids when he rode away. For Charming Billy, while he would have faced the ridicule of a nation if that were the price he must pay to win his deep desire, was yet well pleased to go on his way unwatched and unneeded.
Since the Double-Crank ranch lay with Burnt Willow Creek loitering through the willows within easy gunshot of the corrals, Billy’s trail followed the creek except in its most irresponsible windings, when he would simplify his journey by taking straight as might be across the prairie. It was after he had done this for the second time and had come down to the creek through a narrow, yellow-clay coulee that he came out quite suddenly upon a thing he had not before seen.
Across the creek, which at that point was so narrow that a horse could all but clear it in a running jump, lay the hills, a far-reaching ocean of fertile green. Good grazing it was, as Billy well knew. In another day the Double-Crank riders would be sweeping over it, gathering the cattle; at least, that had been his intent. He looked across and his eyes settled immediately upon a long, dotted line drawn straight away to the south; at the far end a tiny huddle of figures moved indeterminately, the details of their business blunted by the distance. But Charming Billy, though he liked them little, knew well when he looked upon a fence in the building. The dotted line he read for post holes and the distant figures for the diggers.
While his horse drank he eyed the line distrustfully until he remembered his parting advice to Dill. “Dilly’s sure getting a move on him,” he decided, estimating roughly the size of the tract which that fence, when completed, would inclose. To be sure, it was pure guesswork, for he was merely looking at one corner. Up the creek he could not see, save a quarter mile or so to the next bend; even that distance he could not see the dotted line–for he was looking upon a level clothed with rank weeds and grass and small brush–but he knew it must be there. When he turned his horse from the water and went his way, his mind was no longer given up to idle dreaming of love words and a girl. This fencing business concerned him intimately, and his brain was as alert as his eyes. For he had not meant that Dilly should fence any land just yet.
Farther up the creek he crossed, meaning to take another short cut and so avoid a long detour; also, he wanted to see just where and how far the fence went. Yes, the post holes were there, only here they held posts leaning loosely this way and that like drunken men. A half mile farther the wire was already strung, but not a man did he see whom he might question–and when he glanced and saw that the sun was almost straight over his head and that Barney’s shadow scurried along nearly beneath his stirrup, he knew that they would be stopping for dinner. He climbed a hill and came plump upon a fence, wire-strung, wire-stayed, aggressively barring his way.
“Dilly’s about the most thorough-minded man I ever met up with,” he mused, half annoyed, stopping a moment to survey critically the barrier. “Yuh never find a job uh hisn left with any loose ends a-dangling. He’s got a fence here like he was guarding a railroad right-uh-way. I guess I’ll go round, this trip.”
At the ranch Charming Billy took the path that led to the kitchen, because when he glanced that way from the stable he caught a flicker of pink–a shade of pink which he liked very much, because Flora had a dress of that color and it matched her cheeks, it seemed to him. She had evidently not seen him, and he thought he would surprise her. To that end, he suddenly stopped midway and removed his spurs lest their clanking betray him. So he went on, with his eyes alight and the blood of him jumping queerly.
Just outside the door he stopped, saw the pink flutter in the pantry and went across the kitchen on his toes; sure, he was going to surprise her a lot! Maybe, he thought daringly, he’d kiss her–if his nerve stayed with him long enough. He rather thought it would. She was stooping a little over the flour barrel, and her back was toward him.
More daring than he would have believed of himself, he reached out his arms and caught her to him, and–It was not Flora at all. It was Mama Joy.
“Oh, I–I beg your pardon–I–” stammered Billy helplessly.
“Billy! You’re a bad boy; how you frightened me!” she gasped, and showed an unmistakable inclination to snuggle.
Charming Billy, looking far more frightened than she, pulled himself loose and backed away. Mama Joy looked at him, and there was that in her eyes which sent a qualm of something very like disgust over Billy, so that in his toes he felt the quiver.
“It was an accident, Mrs. Bridger,” he said laconically, and went out hastily, leaving her standing there staring after him.
Outside, he twitched his shoulders as if he would still free himself of something distasteful. “Hell! What do I want with _her_?” he muttered indignantly, and did not stop to think where he was going until he brought up at the stable. He had the reins of Barney in his hand, and had put his foot in the stirrup before he quite came to himself. “Hell!” he exploded again, and led Barney back into the stall.
Charming Billy sat down on a box and began to build a smoke; his fingers shook a great deal, so that he sifted out twice as much tobacco as he needed. He felt utterly bewildered and ashamed and sorry, and he could not think very clearly. He lighted the cigarette, smoked it steadily, pinched out the stub and rolled another before he came back to anything like calm.
Even when he could bring himself to face what had happened and what it meant, he winced mentally away from the subject. He could still feel the clinging pressure of her round, bare arms against his neck, and he once more gave his shoulders a twitch. Three cigarettes he smoked, staring at a warped board in the stall partition opposite him.
When the third was burned down to a very short stub he pinched out the fire, dropped the stab to the dirt floor and deliberately set his foot upon it, grinding it into the damp soil. It was as if he also set his foot upon something else, so grimly intent was the look on his face.
“Hell!” he said for the third time, and drew a long breath. “Well, this has got to stop right here!” He got up, took off his hat and inspected it gravely, redimpled the crown, set it upon his head a trifle farther back than usual, stuck his hands aggressively into his pockets and went back to the house. This time he did not go to the kitchen but around to the front porch, and he whistled shrilly the air of his own pet ditty that his arrival might be heralded before him.
Later, when he was sitting at the table eating a hastily prepared dinner with Mama Joy hovering near and seeming, to the raw nerves of Billy, surrounded by an atmosphere of reproach and coy invitation, he kept his eyes turned from her and ate rapidly that he might the sooner quit her presence. Flora was out riding somewhere, she told him when he asked. Dill came in and saved Billy from fleeing the place before his hunger slept, and Billy felt justified in breathing easily and in looking elsewhere than at his plate.
“I see you’ve been getting busy with the barbwire,” he remarked, when he rose from the table and led the way out to the porch.
“Why, no. I haven’t done any fencing at all, William,” Dill disclaimed.
“Yuh haven’t? Who’s been fencing up all Montana south uh the creek, then?” Billy turned, a cigarette paper fluttering in his fingers, and eyed Dill intently.
“I believe Mr. Brown is having some fencing done. Mr. Walland stopped here to-day and said they were going to turn in a few head of cattle as soon as the field was finished.”
“The dickens they are!” Billy turned away and sought a patch of shade where he might sit on the edge of the porch and dig his heels into the soft dirt. He dug industriously while he turned the matter over in his mind, then looked up a bit anxiously at Dill.
“Say, Dilly, yuh fixed up that leasing business, didn’t yuh?” he inquired. “How much did yuh get hold of?”
Dill, towering to the very eaves of the porch, gazed down solemnly upon the other. “I’m afraid you will think it bad news, William. I did not lease an acre. I went, and I tried, but I discovered that others had been there before me. As you would say, they beat me _to_ it. Mr. Brown leased all the land obtainable, as long ago as last fall.”
Billy did not even say a word. He merely snapped a match short off between his thumb and forefinger and ground the pieces into the dirt with his heel. Into the sunlight that had shone placidly upon the castle he had builded in the air for Dill and for himself–yes, and for one other–crept a shadow that for the moment dimmed the whole.
“Say, Dilly, it’s hell when things happen yuh haven’t been looking for and can’t help,” he said at last, smiling a little. “I’d plumb got my sights raised to having a big chunk uh Montana land under a Double-Crank lease, but I reckon they can come down a notch. We’ll come out on top–don’t yuh worry none about _that_.”
“I’m not worrying at all, William. I did not expect to have everything come just as we wanted it; that, so far, has not been my experience in business–or in love.” The last two words, if one might judge from the direction of his glance, were meant as pure sympathy.
Billy colored a little under the brown. “The calf-crop is running kinda short,” he announced hurriedly. “A lot uh cows died off last winter, and I noticed a good many uh that young stock we shipped in laid ’em down. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to take any more jolts this season–but maybe I’ve got more nerves than sense on this land business. I sure do hate to see old Brown cutting in the way he’s doing–but if he just runs what cattle he can keep under fence, it won’t hurt us none.”
“He’s fencing a large tract, William–a very large tract. It takes in–“
“Oh, let up, Dilly! I don’t want to know how big it is–not right now. I’m willing to take my dose uh bad medicine when it’s time for it–but I ain’t none greedy about swallowing the whole bottle at once! I feel as if I’d got enough down me to do for a while.”
“You are wiser than most people,” Dill observed dryly.
“Oh, sure. Say, if I don’t see Flora–I’m going to hike back to camp pretty quick–you tell her I’m going to try and pull in close enough to take in that dance at Hardup, the Fourth. I heard there was going to be one. We can’t get through by then, and I may not show up at the ranch, but I’ll sure be at the dance. I–I’m in a hurry, and I’ve got to go right now.” Which he did, and his going savored strongly of flight.
Dill, looking after him queerly, turned and saw Mama Joy standing in the doorway. With eyes that betrayed her secret she, too, was looking after Billy.
“There is something more I wanted to say to William,” explained Dill quite unnecessarily, and went striding down the path after him. When he reached the stable, however, he did not have anything in particular to say–or if he had, he refrained from disturbing Billy, who was stretched out upon a pile of hay in one of the stalls.
“My hoss ain’t through eating, yet,” said Billy, lifting his head like a turtle. “I’m going, pretty soon. I sure do love a pile uh fresh hay.”
Their eyes met understandingly, and Dill shook his head.
“Too bad–too bad!” he said gravely.
The wagons of the Double-Crank had stopped to tarry over the Fourth at Fighting Wolf Spring, which bubbles from under a great rock in a narrow “draw” that runs itself out to a cherry-masked point halfway up the side of Fighting Wolf Butte. Billy, with wisdom born of much experience in the ways of a round-up crew when the Fourth of July draws near, started his riders at day-dawn to rake all Fighting Wolf on its southern side. “Better catch up your ridge-runners,” he had cautioned, “because I’ll set yuh plumb afoot if yuh don’t.” The boys, knowing well his meaning and that the circle that day would be a big one over rough country, saddled their best horses and settled themselves to a hard day’s work.
Till near noon they rode, and branded after dinner to the tune of much scurrying and bawling and a great deal of dust and rank smoke, urged by the ever-present fear that they would not finish in time. But their leader was fully as anxious as they and had timed the work so that by four o’clock the herd was turned loose, the fires drenched with water and the branding irons put away.
At sundown the long slope from Fighting Wolf Spring was dotted for a space with men, fresh-shaven, clean-shirted and otherwise rehabilitated, galloping eagerly toward Hardup fifteen miles away. That they had been practically in the saddle since dawn was a trifle not to be considered; they would dance until another dawn to make up for it.
Hardup, decked meagrely in the colors that spell patriotism, was unwontedly alive and full of Fourth of July noises. But even with the distraction of a holiday and a dance just about to start and the surrounding country emptied of humans into the town, the clatter of the Double-Crank outfit–fifteen wiry young fellows hungry for play–brought men to the doors and into the streets.
Charming Billy, because his eagerness was spiced with expectancy, did not stop even for a drink, but made for the hotel. At the hotel he learned that his “crowd” was over at the hall, and there he hurried so soon as he had removed the dust and straightened his tie and brushed his hair and sworn at his upstanding scalp-lock, in the corner of the hotel office dedicated to public cleanliness.
It was a pity that such single-hearted effort must go unrewarded, but the fact remains that he reached the hall just as the couples were promenading for the first waltz. He was permitted the doubtful pleasure of a welcoming nod from Flora as she went by with the Pilgrim. Dill was on the floor with Mama Joy, and at a glance he saw how it was; the Pilgrim had “butted in” and come along with them. He supposed Flora really could not help it, but it was pretty hard lines, all the same. For even in the range-land are certain rules of etiquette which must be observed when men and women foregather in the pursuit of pleasure. Billy remembered ruefully how a girl must dance first, last, and oftenest with her partner of the evening, and must eat supper with him besides, whether she likes or not; to tweak this rule means to insult the man beyond forgiveness.
“Well, it wouldn’t hurt me none if Flora _did_ cut him off short,” Billy concluded, his eyes following them resentfully whenever they whirled down to his end of the room. “The way I’ve got it framed up, I’d spoke for her first–if Dilly told her what I said.”
Still, what he thought privately did not seem to have much effect upon realities. Flora he afterward saw intermittently while they danced a quadrille together, and she made it plain that she had not considered Billy as her partner; how could she, when he was trailing around over the country with the round-up, and nobody knew whether he would come or not? No, Mr. Walland did not come to the ranch so very often. She added naively that he was awfully busy. He had ridden in with them–and why not? Was there any reason–
Billy, though he could think of reasons in plenty, turned just then to balance on the corner and swing, and to do many other senseless things at the behest of the man on the platform, so that when they stood together again for a brief space, both were breathless and she was anxiously feeling her hair and taking out side combs and putting them back again, and Billy felt diffident about interrupting her and said no more about who was her partner.
An hour or so later he was looking about for her, meaning to dance with her again, when a man pushed him aside hurriedly and went across the floor and spoke angrily to another. Billy, moving aside so that he could see, discovered Flora standing up with the Pilgrim for the dance in another “set” that was forming. The man who had jostled him was speaking to them angrily, but Billy could not catch the words.
“He’s drunk,” called the Pilgrim to the floor manager. “Put him out!”
Several men left their places and rushed over to them. Because Flora was there and likely to be involved, Billy reached them first.
“This was _my_ dance!” the fellow was expostulating. “She promised it to me.”
“Aw, he’s drunk,” repeated the Pilgrim, turning to Billy. “It’s Gus Svenstrom. He’s got it in for me because I fired him last week. Throw him out! Miss Bridger isn’t going to dance with a drunken stiff like him.”
“Oh, I’ll go–I ain’t so drunk I’ve got to be carried!” retorted the other, and pushed his way angrily through the crowd.
Flora had kept her place. Though the color had gone from her cheeks, she seemed to have no intention of quitting the quadrille, so there was nothing for Billy to do but get off the floor and leave her to her partner. He went out after the Swede, and, seeing him headed for the saloon across from the hotel, followed aimlessly. He was not quite comfortable in the hall, anyway, for he had caught Mama Joy eying him strangely, and he thought she was wondering why he had not asked her to dance.
Charming Billy was not by nature a diplomat; it never once occurred to him that he would better treat Mama Joy as if that half minute in the kitchen had never been. He had said good evening to her when he first met her that evening, and he considered his duty done. He did not want to dance with her, and that was, in his opinion, an excellent reason for not doing so. He did not like to have her watching him with those big, round, blue eyes of hers, so he stayed in the saloon for a while and only left it to go to supper when some one said that the dance crowd was over there. There might be some chance that would permit him to eat with Flora.
There are moments in a town when, even with many people coming and going, one may look and see none. When Billy closed the door of the saloon behind him and started across to the hotel, not a man did he see, though there was sound in plenty from the saloons and the hotel and the hall. He was nearly half across the street when two men came into sight and met suddenly just outside a window of the hotel. Billy, in the gloom of starlight and no moon, could not tell who they were; he heard a sharp sentence or two, saw them close together, heard a blow. Then they broke apart and there was the flash of a shot. One man fell and the other whirled about as if he would run, but Billy was then almost upon them and the man turned back and stood looking down at the fallen figure.
“Damn him, he pulled a knife on me!” he cried defensively. Billy saw that it was the Pilgrim.
“Who is he?” he asked, and knelt beside the form. The man was lying just where the lamp-light streamed out from the window, but his face was in shadow. “Oh, it’s that Swede,” he added, and rose. “I’ll get somebody; I believe he’s dead.” He left the Pilgrim standing there and hurried to the door of the hotel office.
In any other locality a shot would have brought on the run every man who heard it; but in a “cow-town,” especially on a dance night, shots are as common as shouts. In Hardup that night there had been periodical outbursts which no one, not even the women, minded in the least.
So it was not until Billy opened the door, put his head in, and cried: “Come alive! A fellow’s been shot, right out here,” that there was a stampede for the door.
The Pilgrim still stood beside the other, waiting. Three or four stooped over the man on the ground. Billy was one of them.
“He pulled a gun on me,” explained the Pilgrim. “I was trying to take it away from him, and it went off.”
Billy stood up, and, as he did so, his foot struck against a revolver lying beside the Swede. He looked at the Pilgrim queerly, but he did not say anything. They were lifting the Swede to carry him into the office; they knew that he was dead, even before they got him into the light.
“Somebody better get word to the coroner,” said the Pilgrim, fighting for self-control. “It was self-defense. My God, boys, I couldn’t help it! He pulled a gun on me. Yuh saw it on the ground there, right where he dropped it.”
Billy turned clear around and looked again at the Pilgrim, and the Pilgrim met his eyes defiantly before he turned away.
“I understood yuh to say it was a knife,” he remarked slowly.
The Pilgrim swung back again. “I didn’t–or, if I did, I was rattled. It was a gun–that gun on the ground. He met me there and started a row and said he’d fix me. He pulled his gun, and I made a grab for it and it went off. That’s all there is to it.” He stared hard at Billy.
There was much talk among the men, and several told how they had heard the Swede “cussing” Walland in the saloon that evening. Some remembered threats–the threats which a man will foolishly make when he is pouring whisky down his throat by the glassful. No one seemed to blame Walland in the least, and Billy felt that the Pilgrim was in a fair way to become something of a hero. It is not every man who has the nerve to grab a gun with which he is threatened.
They made a cursory search of the Pilgrim and found that he was not armed, and he was given to understand that he would be expected to stay around town until the coroner came and “sat” on the case. But he was treated to drinks right and left, and when Billy went to find Flora the Pilgrim was leaning heavily upon the bar with a glass in his hand and his hat far back on his head, declaiming to the crowd that he was perfectly harmless so long as he was left alone. But he wasn’t safe to monkey with, and any man who came at him hunting trouble would sure get all he wanted and then some. He said he didn’t kill people if he could help it–but a man was plumb obliged to, sometimes.
“I’m sure surprised to think I got off with m’ life, last winter, when I hazed him away from line-camp; I guess I must uh had a close call, all right!” Billy snorted contemptuously and shut the door upon the wordy revelation of the Pilgrim’s deep inner nature which had been until that night carefully hidden from an admiring world.
The dance stopped abruptly with the killing; people were already going home. Billy, with the excuse that he would be wanted at the inquest, hunted up Jim Bleeker, gave him charge of the round-up for a few days, and told him what route to take. For himself, he meant to ride home with Flora or know the reason why.
“Come along, Dilly, and let’s get out uh town,” he urged, when he had found him. “It’s a kinda small burg, and at the rate the Pilgrim is swelling up over what he done, there won’t be room for nobody but him in another hour. He’s making me plumb nervous and afraid to be around him, he’s so fatal.”
“We’ll go at once, William. Walland is drinking a great deal more than he should, but I don’t think he means to be boastful over so unfortunate an affair. Do you think you are taking an altogether unprejudiced view of the matter? Our judgment,” he added deprecatingly, “is so apt to be warped by our likes and dislikes.”
“Well, if that was the case here,” Billy told him shortly, “I’ve got dislike enough for him to wind my judgment up like a clock spring. I’ll go see if Flora and her mother are ready.” In that way he avoided discussing the Pilgrim, for Dill was not so dull that he failed to take the hint.
_The Shadow Darkens_.
The inquest resulted to the satisfaction of those who wished well to the Pilgrim, for it cleared him of all responsibility for the killing. Gus Svenstrom had been drunk; he had been heard to make threats; he had been the aggressor in the trouble at the dance; and the Pilgrim, in the search men had made immediately after the shooting, had been found unarmed. The case was very plainly one of self-defense.
Billy, when questioned, repeated the Pilgrim’s first words to him–that the Swede had pulled a knife; and told the jury, on further questioning, that he had not seen any gun on the ground until after he had gone for help.
Walland explained satisfactorily to the jury. He may have said knife instead of gun. He had heard some one say that the Swede carried a knife, and he had been expecting him to draw one. He was rattled at first and hardly knew what he did say. He did not remember saying it was a knife, but it was possible that he had done so. As to Billy’s not seeing any gun at first–they did not question the Pilgrim about that, because Billy in his haste and excitement could so easily overlook an object on the ground. They gave a verdict of self-defense without any discussion, and the Pilgrim continued to be something of a hero among his fellows.
Billy, as soon as the thing was over, mounted in not quite the best humor and rode away to join his wagons. He had not ridden to the Double-Crank to hear Flora talk incessantly of Mr. Walland, and repeat many times the assertion that she did not see how, under the circumstances, he could avoid killing the man. Nor had he gone to watch Mama Joy dimple and frown by turns and give him sidelong glances which made him turn his head quickly away. He hated to admit to himself how well he understood her. He did not want to be rude, but he had no desire to flirt with her, and it made him rage inwardly to realize how young and pretty she really was, and how, if it were not for Flora, he might so easily be tempted to meet her at least halfway. She could not be more than four or five years older than Flora, and in her large, blonde way she was quite as alluring. Billy wished profanely that she had gone to Klondyke with her husband, or that Bridger had known enough about women to stay at home with a wife as young as she.