He was glad in his heart when came the time to go. Maybe she would get over her foolishness by the time he came in with the round-up. At any rate, the combination at the ranch did not tempt him to neglect his business, and he galloped down the trail without so much as looking back to see if Flora would wave–possibly because he was afraid he might catch the flutter of a handkerchief in fingers other than hers.
It was when the round-up was on its way in that Billy, stopping for an hour in Hardup, met Dill in the post office.
“Why, hello, Dilly!” he cried, really glad to see the tall, lank form come shambling in at the door. “I didn’t expect to see yuh off your own ranch. Anybody dead?” It struck him that Dill looked a shade more melancholy than was usual, even for him.
“Why, no, William. Every one is well–very well indeed. I only rode in after the mail and a few other things. I’m always anxious for my papers and magazines, you know. If you will wait for half an hour–you are going home, I take it?”
“That’s where I’m sure headed, and we can ride out together, easy as not. We’re through for a couple uh weeks or so, and I’m hazing the boys home to bust a few hosses before we strike out again. I guess I’ll just keep the camp running down by the creek. Going to be in town long enough for me to play a game uh pool?”
“I was going right out again, but there’s no particular hurry,” said Dill, looking over his letters. “Were you going to play with some one in particular?”
“No–just the first gazabo I could rope and lead up to the table,” Billy told him, sliding off the counter where he had been perched.
“I wouldn’t mind a game myself,” Dill observed, in his hesitating way.
In the end, however, they gave up the idea and started for home; because two men were already playing at the only table in Hardup, and they were in no mind to wait indefinitely.
Outside the town, Dill turned gravely to the other, “Did you say you were intending to camp down by the creek, William?” he asked slowly.
“Why, yes. Anything against it?” Billy’s eyes opened a bit wider that Dill should question so trivial a thing.
“Oh, no–nothing at all.” Dill cleared his throat raspingly. “Nothing at all–so long as there is any creek to camp beside.”
“I reckon you’ve got something to back that remark. Has the creek went and run off somewhere?” Billy said, after a minute of staring.
“William, I have been feeling extremely ill at ease for the past week, and I have been very anxious for a talk with you. Eight days ago the creek suddenly ran dry–so dry that one could not fill a tin dipper except in the holes. I observed it about noon, when I led my horse down to water. I immediately saddled him and rode up the creek to discover the cause.” He stopped and looked at Billy steadily.
“Well, I reckon yuh found it,” Billy prompted impatiently.
“I did. I followed the creek until I came to the ditch Mr. Brown has been digging. I found that he had it finished and was filling it from the creek in order to test it. I believe,” he added dryly, “he found the result very satisfying–to himself. The ditch carried the whole creek without any trouble, and there was plenty of room at the top for more!”
“Hell!” said Billy, just as Dill knew he would say. “But he can’t take out any more than his water-right calls for,” he added. “Yuh got a water right along with the ranch, didn’t yuh say?”
“I got three–the third, fourth, and fifth. I have looked into the matter very closely in the last week. I find that we can have all the water there is–after Brown gets through. His rights are the first and second, and will cover all the water the creek will carry, if he chooses to use them to the limit. I suspect he was looking for some sort of protest from me, for he had the papers in his pocket and showed them to me. I afterward investigated, as I said, and found the case to be exactly as I have stated.”
Billy stared long at his horse’s ears. “Well, he can’t use the whole creek,” he said at last, “not unless he just turned it loose to be mean, and I don’t believe he can waste water even if he does hold the rights. We can mighty quick put a stop to that. Do yuh know anything about injunctions? If yuh don’t, yuh better investigate ’em a lot–because I don’t know a damn’ thing about the breed, and we’re liable to need ’em bad.”
“I believe I may truthfully say that I understand the uses–and misuses–of injunctions, William. In the East they largely take the place of guns as fighting weapons, and I think I may say without boasting that I can hit the bull’s-eye with them as well as most men. But suppose Mr. Brown _uses_ the water? Suppose there is none left to turn back into the creek channel when he is through? He has a large force of men at work running laterals from the main ditch, which carries the water up and over the high land, and I took the liberty of following his lines of stakes. As you would put it, William, he seems about to irrigate the whole of northern Montana; certainly his stakes cover the whole creek bottom, both above and below the main ditch, and also the bench land above.”
“Hell! Anything else?”
“I believe not–except that he has completed his fencing and has turned in a large number of cattle. I say completed, though strictly speaking he has not. He has completed the great field south of the creek and east of us. But Mr. Walland was saying that Brown intends to fence a tract to the north of us, either this fall or early in the spring. I know to a certainty that he has a good many sections leased there. I tried to obtain some of it last spring and could not.” Into the voice of Dill had crept a note of discouragement.
“Well, don’t yuh worry none, Dilly. I’m here to see yuh pull out on top, and you’ll do it, too. You’re a crackerjack when it comes to the fine points uh business, and I sure savvy the range end uh the game, so between us we ought to make good, don’t yuh think? You just keep your eye on Brown, and if yuh can slap him in the face with an injunction or anything, don’t yuh get a sudden attack uh politeness and let him slide. I’ll look after the cow brutes myself–and if I ain’t good for it, after all these years, I ought to be kicked plumb off the earth. The time has gone by when we could ride over there and haze his bunch clear out uh the country on a high lope, with our six guns backing our argument. I kinda wish,” he added pensively, “we _hadn’t_ got so damn’ decent and law-abiding. We could get action a heap more speedy and thorough with a dozen or fifteen buckaroos that liked to fight and had lots uh shells and good hosses. Why, I could have the old man’s bunch shoveling dirt into that ditch to beat four aces, in about fifteen minutes, if–“
“But, as you say,” Dill cut in anxiously, “we are decent and law-abiding, and such a procedure is quite out of the question.”
“Aw, I ain’t meditating no moonlight attack, Dilly–but the boys would sure love to do it if I told ’em to get busy, and I reckon we could make a better job of it than forty-nine injunctions and all kinds uh law sharps.”
“Careful, William. I used to be a ‘law sharp’ myself,” protested Dill, pulling his face into a smile. “And I must own I feel anxious over this irrigation project of Brown’s. He is going to work upon a large scale–a _very_ large scale–for a private ranch. You have made it plain to me, William, how vitally important a wide, unsettled country is to successful cattle raising; and since then I have thought deeply upon the subject. I feel sure that Mr. Brown is _not_ going to start a cattle ranch.”
“If he ain’t, then what–“
“I am not prepared at present to make a statement, even to you, William. I never enjoyed recanting. But one thing I may say. Mr. Brown has so far kept well within his legal rights, and we have no possible ground for protest. So you see, perhaps we would better turn our entire attention to our own affairs.”
“Sure. I got plenty uh troubles uh my own,” Billy agreed, more emphatically than he intended.
Dill looked at him hesitatingly. “Mrs. Bridger,” he observed slowly, “has received news that her husband is seriously ill. There will not be another boat going north until spring, so that it will be impossible for her to go to him. I am extremely sorry.” Then, as if that statement seemed to him too bald, in view of the fact that they had never discussed Mama Joy, he added, “It is very hard for Flora. The letter held out little hope of recovery.”
Billy, though he turned a deep red and acquired three distinct creases between his eyebrows, did not even make use of his favorite expletive. After a while he said irritably that a man was a damn fool to go off like that and leave a wife–and family–behind him. He ought either to stay at home or take them with him.
He did not mean that he wished her father had taken Flora to Klondyke, though he openly implied that he wished Mama Joy had gone. He knew he was inconsistent, but he also knew–and there was comfort as well as discomfort in the knowledge–that Dill understood him very well.
It seemed to Billy, in the short time that the round-up crew was camped by the creek, that no situation could be more intolerable than the one he must endure. He could not see Flora without having Mama Joy present also–or if he did find Flora alone, Mama Joy was sure to appear very shortly. If he went near the house there was no escaping her. And when he once asked Flora to ride with him he straightway discovered that Mama Joy had developed a passion for riding and went along. Flora had only time to murmur a rapid sentence or two while Mama Joy was hunting her gloves.
“Mama Joy has been taking the _Ladies’ Home Journal_” she said ironically, “and she has been converted to the idea that a girl must never be trusted alone with a man. I’ve acquired a chaperon now! Have you begun to study diplomacy yet, Billy Boy?”
“Does she chapyron yuh this fervent when the Pilgrim’s the man?” countered Billy resentfully.
He did not get an answer, because Mama Joy found her gloves too soon, but he learned his lesson and did not ask Flora to ride with him again. Nevertheless, he tried surreptitiously to let her know the reason and so prevent any misunderstanding.
He knew that Flora was worrying over her father, and he would like to have cheered her all he could; but he had no desire to cheer Mama Joy as well–he would not even give her credit for needing cheer. So he stayed away from them both and gave his time wholly to the horse-breaking and to affairs in general, and ate and slept in camp to make his avoidance of the house complete.
Sometimes, of a night when he could not sleep, he wondered why it is that one never day-dreams unpleasant obstacles and disheartening failures into one’s air castles. Why was it that, just when it had seemed to him that his dream was miraculously come true; when he found himself complete master of the Double-Crank where for years he had been merely one of the men; when the One Girl was also settled indefinitely in the household he called his home; when he knew she liked him, and had faith to believe he could win her to something better than friendship–all these good things should be enmeshed in a tangle of untoward circumstances?
Why must he be compelled to worry over the Double-Crank, that had always seemed to him a synonym for success? Why must his first and only love affair be hampered by an element so disturbing as Mama Joy? Why, when he had hazed the Pilgrim out of his sight–and as he supposed, out of his life–must the man hover always in the immediate background, threating the peace of mind of Billy, who only wanted to be left alone that he and his friends might live unmolested in the air castle of his building?
One night, just before they were to start out again gathering beef for the shipping season, Billy thought he had solved the problem–philosophically, if not satisfactorily. “I guess maybe it’s just one uh the laws uh nature that you’re always bumping into,” he decided. “It’s a lot like draw-poker. Yah can’t get dealt out to yuh the cards yuh want, without getting some along with ’em that yuh don’t want. What gets me is, I don’t see how in thunder I’m going to ditch m’ discard. If I could just turn ’em face down on the table and count ’em out uh the game–old Brown and his fences and his darn ditch, and that dimply blonde person and the Pilgrim–oh, hell! Wouldn’t we rake in the stakes if I could?”
Straightway Billy found another element added to the list of disagreeables–or, to follow his simile, another card was dealt him which he would like to have discarded, but which he must keep in his hand and play with what skill he might. He was not the care-free Charming Billy Boyle who had made prune pie for Flora Bridger in the line-camp. He looked older, and there were chronic creases between his eyebrows, and it was seldom that he asked tunefully
“Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy Boy?”
He had too much on his mind for singing anything.
It was when he had gathered the first train load of big, rollicky steers for market and was watching Jim Bleeker close the stockyard gate on the tail of the herd at Tower, the nearest shipping point, that the disagreeable element came in the person of Dill and the news he bore.
He rode up to where Billy, just inside the wing of the stockyards, was sitting slouched over with one foot out of the stirrup, making a cigarette. Dill did not look so much the tenderfoot, these days. He sat his horse with more assurance, and his face was brown and had that firm, hard look which outdoor living brings.
“I looked for you in yesterday or the day before, William,” he said, when Billy had greeted him with a friendly, “Hello, Dilly!” and one of his illuminating smiles.
“I’m ready to gamble old Brown has been and gone and run the creek dry on yuh again,” bantered Billy, determined at that moment to turn his back on trouble.
“No, William, you would lose. The creek is running almost its normal volume of water. I dislike very much to interfere with your part of the business, William, but under present conditions I feel justified in telling you that you must not ship these cattle just now. I have been watching the market with some uneasiness for a month. Beef has been declining steadily until now it ranges from two-ninety to three-sixty, and you will readily see, William, that we cannot afford to ship at that figure. For various reasons I have not obtruded business matters upon you, but I will now state that it is vitally important that we realize enough from the beef shipments to make our fall payment on the mortgage and pay the interest on the remainder. It would be a great advantage if we could also clear enough for the next year’s running expenses. Have you any idea how much beef there will be to ship this fall?”
“I figured on sixty or seventy cars,” said Billy. Instinctively he had pulled himself straight in the saddle to meet this fresh emergency.
Dill, with a pencil and an old letter from his pocket, was doing some rapid figuring. “With beef so low, I fear I shall be obliged to ask you to hold this herd for two or three weeks. The price is sure to rise later. It is merely a juggling operation among the speculators and is not justified by the condition of the stock, or of the market. In a couple of weeks the price should be normal again.”
“And in a couple uh weeks this bunch would bring the lowest figure they name,” Billy asserted firmly. “Beef shrinks on the hoof like thunder when it’s held up and close-herded on poor range. What yuh better do, Dilly, is let me work this herd and ship just the top-notchers–they’re _all_ prime beef,” he added regretfully, glancing through the fence at the milling herd. “I can cut out ten of twelve cars that’ll bring top price, and throw the rest back on the range till we gather again. Yuh won’t lose as much that way as yuh would by holding up the whole works.”
“Well,” Dill hesitated, “perhaps you are right. I don’t pretend to know anything about this side of the business. To put the case to you plainly, we must clear forty thousand dollars on our beef this fall, for the mortgage alone–putting it in round numbers. We should also have ten thousand dollars for expenses, in order to run clear without adding to our liabilities. I rely upon you to help manage it. If you would postpone any more gathering of beef until–“
“It’s just about a case uh now or never,” Billy cut in. “There’s only about so long to gather beef before they begin to fall off in weight. Then we’ve got to round up the calves and wean ’em, before cold weather sets in. We can’t work much after snow falls. We can pull through the first storm, all right, but when winter sets in we’re done. We’ve got to wean and feed all the calves you’ve got hay for, and I can save some loss by going careful and taking ’em away from the poorest cows and leaving the fat ones to winter their calves. How much hay yuh got put up?”
“A little over five hundred tons on our place,” said Dill. “And I sent a small crew over to the Bridger place; they have nearly a hundred tons there. You said for me to gather every spear I could,” he reminded humorously, “and I obeyed to the best of my ability.”
“Good shot, Dilly. I’ll round up eight or nine hundred calves, then; that’ll help some. Well, shall I cut the top off this bunch uh beef, or throw the whole business back on the range? You’re the doctor.”
Dill rode close to the high fence, stood in his stirrups and looked down upon the mass of broad, sleek backs moving restlessly in and out and around, with no aim but to seek some way of escape. The bawling made speech difficult at any distance, and the dust sent him coughing away.
“I think, William,” he said, when he was again beside Billy, “I shall leave this matter to your own judgment. What I want is to get every cent possible out of the beef we ship; the details I am content to leave with you, for in my ignorance I should probably botch the job. I suppose we can arrange it so that, in case the market rises suddenly, you can rush in a trainload at short notice?”
“Give me two weeks to get action on the range stuff, and I can have a trainload on the way to Chicago so quick it’ll make your head whirl. I’ll make it a point to be ready on short notice. And before we pull out I’ll give yuh a kinda programme uh the next three or four weeks, so yuh can send a man out and he’ll have some show uh finding us. And I won’t bring in another herd till you send word–only yuh want to bear in mind that I can’t set out there on a pinnacle till snow flies, waiting for prices to raise in Chicago. Yuh don’t want to lose sight uh them nine hundred calves we’ve got to gather yet.”
It was all well enough for Billy to promise largely and confidently, but he failed to take into account one small detail over which he had no control. So perfect was his system of gathering beef–and he gathered only the best, so as to catch the top price–that when Dill’s message came, short and hurried but punctiliously worded and perfectly punctuated, that beef had raised to four-thirty and “Please rush shipment as per agreement,” Billy had his trainload of beef in Tower, ready to load just three days after receiving notice. But here interfered the detail over which he had no control. Dill had remembered to order the cars, but shipping was heavy and cars were not to be had.
Two long, heartrending weeks they waited just outside Tower, held there within easy reach–and upon mighty short feed for the herd–by the promises of the railroad management and the daily assurance of the agent that the cars might be along at any time within four hours. (He always said four hours, which was the schedule time for fast freight between Tower and the division point.) Two long weeks, while from the surrounding hills they watched long stock trains winding snakily over the prairie toward Chicago. During those maddening days and nights Billy added a fresh crease to the group between his eyebrows and deepened the old ones, and Dill rode three horses thin galloping back and forth between the ranch and the herd, in helpless anxiety.
At last the cars came and the beef, a good deal thinner than it had been, was loaded and gone, and the two relaxed somewhat from the strain. The market was lower when that beef reached its destination, and they did not bring the “top” price which Billy had promised Dill.
So the shipping season passed and Dill made his payment on the mortgage by borrowing twelve thousand dollars, using a little over two thousand to make up the deficit in shipping returns and holding the remainder for current expenses. Truly, the disagreeable element which would creep in where Billy had least expected scored a point there, and once more the castle he had builded for himself and Dill and one other lay in shadow.
_When the North Wind Blows._
November came in with a blizzard; one of those sudden, sweeping whirls of snow, with bitter cold and a wind that drove the fine snow-flour through shack walls and around window casings, and made one look speculatively at the supply of fuel. It was such a storm as brings an aftermath of sheepherders reported missing with their bands scattered and wandering aimlessly or else frozen, a huddled mass, in some washout; such a storm as sends the range cattle drifting, heads down and bodies hunched together, neither knowing nor caring where their trail may end, so they need not face that bitter drive of wind and snow.
It was the first storm of the season, and they told one another it would be the worst. The Double-Crank wagons were on the way in with a bunch of bawling calves and cows when it came, and they were forced to camp hastily in the shelter of a coulee till it was over, and to walk and lead their horses much of the time on guard that they might not freeze in the saddle. But they pulled through it, and they got to the ranch and the corrals with only a few calves left beside the trail to mark their bitter passing. In the first days of cold and calm that came after, the ranch was resonant day and night with that monotonous, indescribable sound, like nothing else on earth unless it be the beating of surf against a rocky shore–the bawling of nine hundred calves penned in corrals, their uproar but the nucleus for the protesting clamor of nine hundred cows circling outside or standing with noses pressed close against the corral rails.
Not one day and night it lasted, nor two. For four days the uproar showed no sign of ever lessening, and on the fifth the eighteen hundred voices were so hoarse that the calves merely whispered their plaint, gave over in disgust and began nosing the scattered piles of hay. The cows, urged by hunger, strayed from the blackened circle around the corrals and went to burrowing in the snow for the ripened grass whereby they must live throughout the winter. They were driven forth to the open range and left there, and the Double-Crank settled down to comparative quiet and what peace they might attain. Half the crew rolled their beds and rode elsewhere to spend the winter, returning, like the meadowlarks, with the first hint of soft skies and green grass.
Jim Bleeker and a fellow they called Spikes moved over to the Bridger place with as many calves as the hay there would feed, and two men were sent down to the line-camp to winter. Two were kept at the Double-Crank Ranch to feed the calves and make themselves generally useful–the quietest, best boys of the lot they were, because they must eat in the house and Billy was thoughtful of the women.
So the Double-Crank settled itself for the long winter and what it might bring of good or ill.
Billy was troubled over more things than one. He could not help seeing that Flora was worrying a great deal over her father, and that the relations between herself and Mama Joy were, to put it mildly and tritely, strained. With the shadow of what sorrow might be theirs, hidden away from them in the frost-prisoned North, there was no dancing to lighten the weeks as they passed, and the women of the range land are not greatly given to “visiting” in winter. The miles between ranches are too long and too cold and uncertain, so that nothing less alluring than a dance may draw them from home. Billy thought it a shame, and that Flora must be terribly lonesome.
It was a long time before he had more than five minutes at a stretch in which to talk privately with her. Then one morning he came in to breakfast and saw that the chair of Mama Joy was empty; and Flora, when he went into the kitchen afterward, told him with almost a relish in her tone that Mrs. Bridger–she called her that, also with a relish–was in bed with toothache.
“Her face is swollen on one side till she couldn’t raise a dimple to save her life,” she announced, glancing to see that the doors were discreetly closed. “It’s such a relief, when you’ve had to look at them for four years. If _I_ had dimples,” she added, spitefully rattling a handful of knives and forks into the dishpan, “I’d plug the things with beeswax or dough, or anything that I could get my hands on. Heavens! How I hate them!”
“Same here,” said Billy, with guilty fervor. It was treason to one of his few principles to speak disparagingly of a woman, but it was in this case a great relief. He had never before seen Flora in just this explosive state, and he had never heard her say “Heavens!” Somehow, it also seemed to him that he had never seen her so wholly lovable. He went up to her, tilted her head back a little, and put a kiss on the place where dimples were not. “That’s one uh the reasons why I like yuh so much,” he murmured. “Yuh haven’t got dimples or yellow hair or blue eyes–thank the Lord! Some uh these days, girlie, I’m going t’ pick yuh up and run off with yuh.”
Her eyes, as she looked briefly up at him, were a shade less turbulent. “You’d better watch out or _she_ will be running off with _you_!” she said, and drew gently away from him. “There! That’s a horrid thing to say, Billy Boy, but it isn’t half as horrid as–And she watches me and wants to know everything we say to each other, and is–” She stopped abruptly and turned to get hot water.
“I know it’s tough, girlie.” Charming Billy, considering his ignorance of women, showed an instinct for just the sympathy she needed. “I haven’t had a chance to speak to yuh, hardly, for months–anything but common remarks made in public. How long does the toothache last as a general thing?” He took down the dish towel from its nail inside the pantry door and prepared to help her. “She’s good for to-day, ain’t she?”
“Oh, yes–and I suppose it _does_ hurt, and I ought to be sorry. But I’m not. I’m glad of it. I wish her face would stay that way all winter! She’s so fussy about her looks she won’t put her nose out of her room till she’s pretty again. Oh, Billy Boy, I wish I were a man!”
“Well, _I_ don’t!” Billy disagreed. “If yuh was,” he added soberly, “and stayed as pretty as yuh are now, she’d–” But Billy could not bring himself to finish the sentence.
“Do you think it’s because you’re so pretty that she–“
Flora smiled reluctantly. “If I were a man I could swear and _swear!_”
“Swear anyhow,” suggested Billy encouragingly. “I’ll show yuh how.”
“And father away off in Klondyke,” she said irrelevantly, passing over his generous offer, “and–and dead, for all we know! And she doesn’t care–at _all!_ She–“
Sympathy is good, but it has a disagreeable way of bringing all one’s troubles to the front rather overwhelmingly. Flora suddenly dropped a plate back into the pan, leaned her face against the wall by the sink and began to cry in a tempestuous manner rather frightened Charming Billy Boyle, who had never before seen a grown woman cry real tears and sob like that.
He did what he could. He put his arms around her and held her close, and patted her hair and called her girlie, and laid his brown cheek against her wet one and told her to never mind and that it would be all right anyway, and that her father was probably picking away in his mine right then and wishing she was there to fry his bacon for him.
“I wish I was, too,” she murmured, weaned from her weeping and talking into his coat. “If I’d known how–_she_–really was, I wouldn’t ever have stayed. I’d have gone with father.”
“And where would _I_ come in?” he demanded selfishly, and so turned the conversation still farther from her trouble.
The water went stone cold in the dishpan and the fire died in the stove so that the frost spread a film over the thawed centre of the window panes. There is no telling when the dishes would have been washed that day if Mama Joy had not begun to pound energetically upon the floor–with the heel of a shoe, judging from the sound. Even that might not have proved a serious interruption; but Dill put his head in from the dining room and got as far as “That gray horse, William–” before he caught the significance of Flora perched on the knee of “William” and retreated hastily.
So Flora went to see what Mama Joy wanted, and Billy hurried somewhat guiltily out to find what was the matter with the gray horse, and practical affairs once more took control.
After that, Billy considered himself an engaged young man. He went back to his ditty and inquired frequently:
“Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy Boy?”
and was very nearly the old, care-free Charming Billy of the line-camp. It is true that Mama Joy recovered disconcertingly that afternoon, and became once more ubiquitous, but Billy felt that nothing could cheat him of his joy, and remained cheerful under difficulties. He could exchange glances of much secret understanding with Flora, and he could snatch a hasty kiss, now and then, and when the chaperonage was too unremitting she could slip into his hands a hurriedly penciled note, filled with important nothings. Which made a bright spot in his life and kept Flora from thinking altogether of her father and fretting for some news of him.
Still, there were other things to worry him and to keep him from forgetting that the law of nature, which he had before defined to his own satisfaction, still governed the game. Storm followed storm with a monotonous regularity that was, to say the least, depressing, though to be sure there had been other winters like this, and not even Billy could claim that Nature was especially malignant.
But with Brown’s new fence stretching for miles to the south and east of the open range near home, the drifting cattle brought up against it during the blinding blizzards and huddled there, freezing in the open, or else plodded stolidly along beside it until some washout or coulee too deep for crossing barred their way, so that the huddling and freezing was at best merely postponed. Billy, being quite alive to the exigencies of the matter, rode and rode, and with him rode Dill and the other two men when they had the leisure–which was not often, since the storms made much “shoveling” of hay necessary if they would keep the calves from dying by the dozen. They pushed the cattle away from the fences–to speak figuratively and colloquially–and drove them back to the open range until the next storm or cold north wind came and compelled them to repeat the process.
If Billy had had unlimited opportunity for lovemaking, he would not have had the time, for he spent hours in the saddle every day, unless the storm was too bitter for even him to face. There was the line-camp with which to keep in touch; he must ride often to the Bridger place–or he thought he must–to see how they were getting on. It worried him to see how large the “hospital bunch” was growing, and to see how many dark little mounds dotted the hollows, except when a new-fallen blanket of snow made them white–the carcasses of the calves that had “laid ’em down” already.
“Yuh ain’t feeding heavy enough, boys,” he told them once, before he quite realized how hard the weather was for stock.
“Yuh better ride around the hill and take a look at the stacks,” suggested Jim Bleeker. “We’re feeding heavy as we dare, Bill. If we don’t get a let-up early we’re going to be plumb out uh hay. There ain’t been a week all together that the calves could feed away from the sheds. _That’s_ where the trouble lays.”
Billy rode the long half-mile up the coulee to where the hay had mostly been stacked, and came back looking sober. “There’s no use splitting the bunch and taking some to the Double-Crank,” he said. “We need all the hay we’ve got over there. Shove ’em out on the hills and make ’em feed a little every day that’s fit, and bank up them sheds and make ’em warmer. This winter’s going to be one of our old steadies, the way she acts so far. It’s sure a fright, the way this weather eats up the hay.”
It was such incidents as these which weaned him again from his singing and his light-heartedness as the weeks passed coldly toward spring. He did not say very much about it to Dill, because he had a constitutional aversion to piling up agony ahead of him; besides, Dill could see for himself that the loss would be heavy, though just how heavy he hadn’t the experience with which to estimate. As March came in with a blizzard and went, a succession of bleak days, into April, Billy knew more than he cared to admit even to himself. He would lie awake at night when the wind and snow raved over the land, and picture the bare open that he knew, with lean, Double-Crank stock drifting tail to the wind. He could fancy them coming up against this fence and that fence, which had not been there a year or two ago, and huddling there, freezing, cut off from the sheltered coulees that would have saved them.
“Damn these nesters and their fences!” He would grit his teeth at his helplessness, and then try to forget it all and think only of Flora.
_”I’m Not Your Wife Yet!”_
Billy, coming back from the biggest town in the country, where he had gone to pick up another man or two for the round-up which was at hand, met the Pilgrim face to face as he was crossing the creek to go to the corrals. It was nearing sundown and it was Sunday, and those two details, when used in connection with the Pilgrim, seemed unpleasantly significant. Besides, Billy was freshly antagonistic because of something he had heard while he was away; instead of returning the Pilgrim’s brazenly cheerful “Hello,” he scowled and rode on without so much as giving a downward tilt to his chin. For Charming Billy Boyle was never inclined to diplomacy, or to hiding his feelings in any way unless driven to it by absolute necessity.
When he went into the house he saw that Flora had her hair done in a new way that was extremely pretty, and that she had on a soft, white silk shirt-waist with lots of lace zigzagged across–a waist hitherto kept sacred to dances and other glorious occasions–and a soft, pink bow pinned in her hair; all these things he mentally connected with the visit of the Pilgrim. When he turned to see a malicious light in the round, blue eyes of Mama Joy and a spiteful satisfaction in her very dimples, it suddenly occurred to him that he would certainly have something to say to Miss Flora. It was no comfort to know that all winter the Pilgrim had not been near, because all winter he had been away somewhere–rumor had it that he spent his winters in Iowa. Like the birds, he always returned with the spring.
Billy never suspected that Mama Joy read his face and left them purposely together after supper, though he was surprised when she arose from the table and said:
“Flora, you make Billy help you with the dishes. I’ve got a headache and I’m going to lie down.”
At any rate, it gave him the opportunity he wanted.
“Are yuh going to let the Pilgrim hang around here this summer?” he demanded in his straight-from-the-shoulder fashion while he was drying the first cup.
“You mean Mr. Walland? I didn’t know he ever ‘hung around’.” Flora was not meek, and Billy realized that, as he put it mentally, he had his work cut out for him to pull through without a quarrel.
“I mean the Pilgrim. And I call it hanging around when a fellow keeps running to see a girl that’s got a loop on her already. I don’t want to lay down the law to yuh, Girlie, but that blamed Siwash has got to keep away from here. He ain’t fit for yuh to speak to–and I’d a told yuh before, only I didn’t have any right–“
“Are you sure you have a right now?” The tone of Flora was sweet and calm and patient. “I’ll tell you one thing, Charming Billy Boyle, Mr. Walland has never spoken one word against _you_. He–he _likes_ you, and I don’t think it’s nice for you–“
“Likes me! Like hell he does!” snorted Billy, not bothering to choose nice words. “He’d plug me in the back like an Injun if he thought he could get off with it. I remember him when I hazed him away from line-camp, the morning after you stayed there, he promised faithful to kill me. Uh course, he won’t, because he’s afraid, but–I don’t reckon yuh can call it liking–“
“_Why_ did you ‘haze him away,’ as you call it, Billy? And kill his dog? It was a _nice_ dog; I love dogs, and I don’t see how any man–“
Billy flushed hotly. “I hazed him away because he insulted you,” he said bluntly, not quite believing in her ignorance.
Flora, her hands buried deep in the soapsuds, looked at him round-eyed. “I never heard of that before,” she said slowly. “When, Billy? And what did he–say?”
Billy stared at her. “_I_ don’t know what he said! I wouldn’t think you’d need to ask. When I came in the cabin–I lied about getting lost from the trail–I turned around and came back, because I was afraid he might come before I could get back, and–when I came in, there was _something_. I could tell, all right. Yuh sat there behind the table looking like yuh was–well, kinda cornered. And he was–Flora, he _did_ say something, or do something! He didn’t act right to yuh. I could tell. _Didn’t_ he? Yuh needn’t be afraid to tell me, Girlie. I give him a thrashing for it. What was it? I want to know.” He did not realize how pugnacious was his pose, but he was leaning toward her with his face quite close, and his eyes were blue points of intensity. His hands, doubled and pressing hard on the table, showed white at the knuckles.
Flora rattled the dishes in the pan and laughed unsteadily. “Go to work, Billy Boy, and don’t act stagey,” she commanded lightly. “I’ll tell you the exact truth–and that isn’t anything to get excited over. Fred Walland came about three minutes before you did, and of course I didn’t know he belonged there. I was afraid. He pushed open the door, and he was swearing a little at the ice there, where we threw out the dish water. I knew it wasn’t you, and I got back in the corner. He came in and looked awfully stunned at seeing me and said, ‘I beg your pardon, fair one’.” She blushed and did not look up. “He said, ‘I didn’t know there was a lady present,’ and put down the sack of stuff and looked at me for a minute or two without saying a word. He was just going to speak, I think, when you burst in. And that’s all there was to it, Billy Boy. I was frightened because I didn’t know who he was, and he _did_ stare–but, so did you, Billy Boy, when I opened the door and walked in. You stared every bit as hard and long as Fred Walland did.”
“But I’ll bet I didn’t have the same look in my face. Yuh wasn’t scared of _me_,” Billy asserted shrewdly.
“I was too! I was horribly scared–at first. So if you fought Fred Walland and killed his dog” (the reproach of her tone, then!) “because you imagined a lot that wasn’t true, you ought to go straight and apologize.”
“I don’t _think_ I will! Good Lord! Flora, do yuh think I don’t _know_ the stuff he’s made of? He’s a low-down, cowardly cur–the kind uh man that is always bragging about–” (Billy stuck there. With her big, innocent eyes looking up at him, he could not say “bragging about the women he’s ruined,” so he changed weakly) “about all he’s done. He’s a murderer that ought by rights t’ be in the pen right now–“
“I think that will do, Billy!” she interrupted indignantly. “You know he couldn’t help killing that man.”
“I kinda believed that, too, till I run onto Jim Johnson up in Tower. You don’t know Jim, but he’s a straight man and wouldn’t lie. Yuh remember, Flora, the Pilgrim told me the Swede pulled a knife on him. I stooped down and looked, and _I_ didn’t see no knife–nor gun, either. And I wasn’t so blamed excited I’d be apt to pass up anything like that; I’ve seen men shot before, and pass out with their boots on, in more excitable ways than a little, plain, old killing. So I didn’t see anything in the shape of a weapon. But when I come back, here lays a Colt forty-five right in plain sight, and the Pilgrim saying, ‘He pulled a _gun_ on me,’ right on top uh telling me it was a _knife_. I thought at the time there was something queer about that, and about him not having a gun on him when I know he _always_ packed one–like every other fool Pilgrim that comes West with the idea he’s got to fight his way along from breakfast to supper, and sleep with his six-gun under his pillow!”
“And _I_ know you don’t like him, and you’d think he had some ulterior motive if he rolled his cigarette backward once! I don’t see anything but just your dislike trying to twist things–“
“Well, hold on a minute! I got to talking with Jim, and we’re pretty good friends. So he told me on the quiet that Gus Svenstrom gave him his gun to keep, that night. Gus was drinking, and said he didn’t want to be packing it around for fear he might get foolish with it. Jim had it–Jim was tending bar that time in that little log saloon, in Hardup–when the Swede was killed. So it wasn’t _the Swedes_ gun on the ground–and if he borrowed one, which he wouldn’t be apt to do, why didn’t the fellow he got it from claim it?”
“And if all this is true, why didn’t your friend come and testify at the hearing?” demanded Flora, her eyes glowing. “It sounds to me exactly like a piece of spiteful old-woman gossip, and I don’t believe a word of it!”
“Jim ain’t a gossip. He kept his mouth shut because he didn’t want to make trouble, and he was under the impression the Swede had borrowed a gun somewhere. Being half drunk, he could easy forget what he’d done with his own, and the Pilgrim put up such a straight story–“
“Fred told the truth. I know he did. I don’t _believe_ he had a gun that night, because–because I had asked him as a favor to please not carry one to dances and places. There, now! He’d do what I asked him to. I know he would. And I think you’re just mean, to talk like this about him; and, mind you, if he wants to come here he can. I don’t care if he comes _every day_!” She was so near to tears that her voice broke and kept her from saying more that was foolish.
“And I tell yuh, if he comes around here any more I’ll chase him off the ranch with a club!” Billy’s voice was not as loud as usual, but it was harsh and angry. “He ain’t going to come here hanging around you–not while _I_ can help it, and I guess I can, all right!” He threw down the dish towel, swept a cup off the table with his elbow when he turned, and otherwise betrayed human, unromantic rage. “Damn him, I wisht I’d chased him off long ago. Fred, eh? Hell! _I’ll_ Fred him! Yuh think I’m going to stand for him running after my girl? I’ll kick him off the place. He ain’t fit to speak to yuh, or look at yuh; his friendship’s an insult to any decent woman. I’ll mighty quick put a stop to–“
“Will Boyle, you don’t _dare_! I’m not your wife yet, remember! I’m free to choose my own friends without asking leave of any one, and if I want Fred Walland to come here, he’ll _come_, and it will take more than you to stop him. I–I’ll write him a note, and ask him to dinner next Sunday. I–I’ll _marry_ him if I want to, Will Boyle, and you can’t stop me! He–he wants me to, badly enough, and if you–“
Billy was gone, and the kitchen was rattling with the slam of the door behind him, before she had time to make any more declarations that would bring repentance afterward. She stood a minute, listening to see whether he would come back, and when he did not, she ran to the door, opened it hastily and looked. She saw Billy just in the act of swishing his quirt down on the flanks of Barney so that the horse almost cleared the creek in one bound. Flora caught her breath and gave a queer little sob. She watched him, wide-eyed and white, till he was quite out of sight and then went in and shut the door upon the quiet, early spring twilight.
As for Billy, he was gone to find the Pilgrim. Just what he would do when he did find him was not quite plain, because he was promising himself so many deeds of violence that no man could possibly perform them all upon one victim. At the creek, he was going to “shoot him like a coyote.” A quarter of a mile farther, he would “beat his damn’ head off,” and, as if those were not deaths sufficient, he was after that determined to “take him by the heels and snap his measly head off like yuh would a grass snake!”
Threatened as he was, the Pilgrim nevertheless escaped, because Billy did not happen to come across him before his rage had cooled to reason. He rode on to Hardup, spent the night there swallowing more whisky than he had drunk before in six months, and after that playing poker with a recklessness that found a bitter satisfaction in losing and thus proving how vilely the world was using him, and went home rather unsteadily at sunrise and slept heavily in the bunk-house all that day. For Billy Boyle was distressingly human in his rages as in his happier moods, and was not given to gentle, picturesque melancholy and to wailing at the silent stars.
_The Shadow Lies Long_.
What time he was compelled to be in the house, in the few remaining days before round-up, he avoided Flora or was punctiliously polite. Only once did he address her directly by name, and then he called her Miss Bridger with a stiff formality that made Mama Joy dimple with spiteful satisfaction. Flora replied by calling him Mr. Boyle, and would not look at him.
Then it was all in the past, and Billy was out on the range learning afresh how sickeningly awry one’s plans may go. As mile after mile of smiling grass-land was covered by the sweep of the Double-Crank circles, the disaster pressed more painfully upon him. When the wagons had left the range the fall before, Billy had estimated roughly that eight or nine thousand head of Double-Crank stock wandered at will in the open. But with the gathering and the calf-branding he knew that the number had shrunk woefully. Of the calves he had left with their mothers in the fall, scarce one remained; of the cows themselves he could find not half, and the calf-branding was becoming a grim joke among the men.
“Eat hearty,” they would sometimes banter one another. “We got to buckle down and _work_ this afternoon. They’s three calves milling around out there waiting to be branded!”
“Aw, come off! There ain’t but two,” another would bellow.
If it were not quite as bad as that, it was in all conscience bad enough, and when they swung up to the reservation line and found there a fence in the making, and saw the Indian cowboys at work throwing out all but reservation stock, Billy mentally threw up his hands and left the outfit in Jim Bleeker’s charge while he rode home to consult Dill. For Billy Boyle, knowing well his range-lore, could see nothing before the Double-Crank but black failure.
“It begins to look, Dilly,” he began, “as though I’ve stuck yuh on this game. Yuh staked the wrong player; yuh should uh backed the man that stacked the deck on me. There’s hell to pay on the range, Dilly. Last winter sure put a crimp in the range-stuff–_that’s_ what I come to tell yuh. I knew it would cut into the bunch. I could tell by the way things was going close around here–but I didn’t look for it to be as bad as it is. And they’re fencing in the reservation this spring–that cuts off a big chunk uh mighty good grazing and winter shelter along all them creeks. And I see there’s quite a bunch uh grangers come in, since I was along east uh here. They’ve got cattle turned on the range, and there’s half a dozen shacks scattered–“
“Mr. Brown is selling off tracts of land with water-rights–under that big ditch, you understand. He’s working a sort of colonization scheme, as near as I can find out. He is also fencing more land to the north and west–toward Hardup, in fact. I believe they already have most of the posts set. We’ll soon be surrounded, William. And while we’re upon the subject of our calamities, I might state that we shall not be able to do any irrigating this season. Mr. Brown is running his ditch half full and has been for some little time. He kindly leaves enough for our stock to drink, however!”
“Charitable old cuss–that same Brown! I was figuring on the hay to kinda ease through next winter. Do yuh know, Dilly, the range is just going t’ be a death-trap, with all them damn fences for the stock to drift into. Another winter half as bad as the last one was will sure put the finishing touches to the Double-Crank–unless we get busy and _do_ something.” Billy, his face worn and his eyes holding that tired look which comes of nights sleepless and of looking long upon trouble, turned and began to pull absently at a splintered place in the gatepost. He had stopped Dill at the corral to have a talk with him, because to him the house was as desolate as if a dear one lay dead inside. Flora was at home–trust his eyes to see her face appear briefly at the window when he rode up!–but he could not yet quite endure to face her and her cold greeting.
Dill, looking to Billy longer and lanker and mere melancholy than ever, caressed his chin meditatively and regarded Billy in his wistful, half-deprecating way. With the bitter knowledge that his castle, and with it Dill’s fortune, was toppling, Billy could hardly bear to meet that look. And he had planned such great things, and had meant to make Dilly a millionaire!
“What would you advise, William, under the present unfavorable conditions?” asked Dill hesitatingly.
“Oh, I dunno. I’ve laid awake nights tryin’ to pick a winning card. If it was me, and me alone, I’d pull stakes and hunt another range–and I’d go gunning after the first damn’ man that stuck up a post to hang barb-wire on. But after me making such a rotten-poor job uh running the Double-Crank, I don’t feel called on to lay down the law to anybody!”
“If you will permit me to pass judgment, William, I will say that you have shown an ability for managing men and affairs which I consider remarkable; _quite_ remarkable. You, perhaps, do not go deep enough in searching for the cause of our misfortunes. It is not bad management or the hard winter, or Mr. Brown, even–and I blame myself bitterly for failing to read aright the ‘handwriting on the wall,’ to quote scripture, which I seldom do. If you have ever read history, William, you must know–even if you have _not_ read history you should know from observation–how irresistible is the march of progress; how utterly futile it is for individuals to attempt to defy it. I should have known that the shadow of a great change has fallen on the West–the West of the wide, open ranges and the cattle and the cowboy who tends them. I should have seen it, but I did not. I was culpably careless.
“Brown saw it, and that, William, is why he sold the Double-Crank to me. _He_ saw that the range was doomed, and instead of being swallowed with the open range he very wisely changed his business; he became allied with Progress, and he was in the front rank. While we are being ‘broken’ on the wheel of evolutionary change, he will make his millions–“
“Damn him!” gritted Billy savagely, under his breath.
“He is to be admired, William. Such a man is bound in the very nature of things to succeed. It is the range and–and you, William, and those like you, that must go. It is hard–no doubt it is _extremely_ hard, but it is as irresistible as–as death itself. Civilization is compelled to crush the old order of things that it may fertilize the soil out of which grows the new. It is so in plant life, and in the life of humans, also.
“I am explaining at length, William, so that you will quite understand why I do not think it wise to follow your suggestion. As I say, it is not Brown, or the fences, or anything of that sort–taken in a large sense–which is forcing us to the wall. It is the press of natural progress, the pushing farther and farther of civilization. We might move to a more unsettled portion of the country and delay for a time the ultimate crushing. We could not avoid it entirely; we might, at best, merely postpone it.
“My idea is to gather everything and sell for as high a price as possible. Then–perhaps it would be well to follow Mr. Brown’s example, and turn this place into a farm; or sell it, also, and try something else. What do you think, William?”
But Billy, his very soul sickening under the crushing truth of what Dill in his prim grammatical way was saying, did not answer at all. He was picking blindly, mechanically at the splinter, his face shaded by his worn, gray hat; and he was thinking irrelevantly how a condemned man must feel when they come to him in his cell and in formal words read aloud his death-warrant. One sentence was beating monotonously in his brain: “It is the range–and you, William, and those like you–that must go.” It was not a mere loss of dollars or of cattle or even of hopes; it was the rending, the tearing from him of a life he loved; it was the taking of the range–land–the wide, beautiful, weather-worn land–big and grand in its freedom of all that was narrow and sordid, and it was cutting and scarring it, harnessing it to the petty uses of a class he despised with all the frank egotism of a man who loves his own outlook; giving it over to the “nester” and the “rube” and burying the sweet-smelling grasses with plows. It was–he could not, even in the eloquence of his utter despair, find words for all it meant to him.
“I should, of course, leave the details to you, so far as getting the most out of the stock is concerned. I have been thinking of this for some little time, and your report of range conditions merely confirms my own judgment. If you think we would better sell at once–“
“I’d let ’em go till fall,” said Billy lifelessly, snapping the splinter back into place and reaching absently for his tobacco and papers. “They’re bound to pick up a lot–and what’s left is mostly big, husky steers that’ll make prime beef. With decent prices yuh ought to pull clear uh what yuh owe Brown, and have a little left. I didn’t make anything like a count; they was so thin I handled ’em as light as I could and get the calves branded–what few there was. But I feel tolerable safe in saying you can round up six–well, between six and seven thousand head. At a fair price yuh ought to pull clear.”
“Well, after dinner–“
“I can’t stay for dinner, Dilly. I–there’s–I’ve got to ride over here a piece–I’ll catch up a fresh hoss and start right off. I–” He went rather hurriedly after his rope, as hurriedly caught the horse that was handiest and rode away at a lope. But he did not go so very far. He just galloped over the open range to a place where, look where he might, he could not see a fence or sign of habitation (and it wrung the heart of him that he must ride into a coulee to find such a place), got down from his horse and lay a long, long while in the grass with his hat pulled over his face.
* * * * *
For the first time in years the Fourth of July saw Billy in camp and in his old clothes. He had not hurried the round-up–on the contrary he had been guilty of dragging it out unnecessarily by all sorts of delays and leisurely methods–simply because he hated to return to the ranch and be near Flora. The Pilgrim he meant to settle with, but he felt that he could wait; he hadn’t much enthusiasm even for a fight, these days.
But, after all, he could not consistently keep the wagons forever on the range, so he camped them just outside the pasture fence; which was far enough from the house to give him some chance of not being tormented every day by the sight of her, and yet was close enough for all practical purposes. And here it was that Dill came with fresh news.
“Beef is falling again, William,” he announced when he had Billy quite to himself. “Judging from present indications, it will go quite as low as last fall–even lower, perhaps. If it does, I fail to see how we can ship with any but disastrous financial results.”
“Well, what yuh going to do, then?” Billy spoke more irritably than would have been possible a year ago. “Yuh can’t winter again and come out with anything but another big loss. Yuh haven’t even got hay to feed what few calves there is. And, as I told yuh, the way the fences are strung from hell to breakfast, the stock’s bound to die off like poisoned flies every storm that comes.”
“I have kept that in mind, William. I saw that I should be quite unable to make a payment this fall, so I went to Mr. Brown to make what arrangements I could. To be brief, William, Brown has offered to buy back this place and the stock, on much the same terms he offered me. I believe he wants to put this section of land under irrigation from his ditch and exploit it with the rest; the cattle he can turn into his immense fields until they can be shipped at a profit. However, that is not our affair and need not concern us.
“He will take the stock as they run, at twenty-one dollars a head. If, as you estimate, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of six thousand, that will dear me of all indebtedness and leave a few thousands with which to start again–at something more abreast of the times, I hope. I am rather inclined to take the offer. What do you think of it, William?”
“I guess yuh can’t do any better. Twenty-one dollars a head as they run–and everything else thrown in, uh course?”
“That is the way I bought it, yes,” said Dill.
“Well, we ought to scare up six thousand, if we count close. I know old Brown fine; he’ll hold yuh right down t’ what yuh turn over, and he’ll tally so close he’ll want to dock yuh if a critter’s shy one horn–damn him. That’s why I was wishing you’d bought that way, instead uh lumping the price and taking chances. Only, uh course, I knew just about what was on the range.”
“Then I will accept the offer. I have been merely considering it until I saw you. And perhaps it will be as well to go about it immediately.”
“It’s plenty early,” objected Billy. “I was going to break some more hosses for the saddle-bunch–but I reckon I’ll leave ’em now for Brown to bust. And for _God_-sake, Dilly, once yuh get wound up here, go on back where yuh come from. If the range is going–and they’s no use saying it ain’t–this ain’t going to be no place for any white man.” Which was merely Billy’s prejudice speaking.
_The End of the Double-Crank._
Dill himself rode on that last round-up. Considering that it was all new to him, he made a remarkably good record for himself among the men, who were more than once heard to remark that “Dill-pickle’s sure making a hand!” Wherever Billy went–and in those weeks Billy rode and worked with a feverish intensity that was merely a fight against bitter thinking–Dill’s stirrup clacked close alongside. He was silent, for the most part, but sometimes he talked reminiscently of Michigan and his earlier life there. Seldom did he refer to the unhappy end of the Double-Crank, or to the reason why they were riding from dawn to dusk, sweeping together all the cattle within the wide circle of riders and later cutting out every Double-Crank animal and holding them under careful herd.
Even when they went with the first twelve hundred and turned them over to Brown and watched his careful counting, Dill made no comment upon the reason for it beyond one sentence. He read the receipt over slowly before laying it methodically in the proper compartment of his long red-leather book, and drew his features into his puckered imitation of a smile. “Mr. Brown has counted just twenty-one dollars more into my pocket than I expected,” he remarked. “He tallied one more than you did, William. I ought to hold that out of your wages, young man.”
Rare as were Dill’s efforts at joking, even this failed to bring more than a slight smile to the face of Charming Billy Boyle. He was trying to look upon it all as a mere incident, a business matter, pure and simple, but he could not. While he rode the wide open reaches, there rode with him the keen realization that it was the end. For him the old life on the range was dead–for had not Dill made him see it so? And did not every raw-red fencepost proclaim anew its death? For every hill and every coulee he buried something of his past and wept secretly beside the grave. For every whiff of breakfast that mingled with the smell of clean air in the morning came a pang of homesickness for what would soon be only a memory.
He was at heart a dreamer–was Charming Billy Boyle; perhaps an idealist–possibly a sentimentalist. He had never tried to find a name for the side of his life that struck deepest. He knew that the ripple of a meadow-lark swinging on a weed against the sunrise, with diamond-sparkles all on the grass around, gripped him and hurt him vaguely with its very sweetness. He knew that he loved to sit alone and look away to a far skyline and day-dream. He had always known that, for it had been as much a part of his life as sleeping.
So now it was as if a real, tangible shadow lay on the range. He could see it always lengthening before him, and always he must ride within its shade. After a while it would grow quite black, and the range and the cattle and the riding over hills and into coulees untamed would all be blotted out; dead and buried deep in the past, and with the careless, plodding feet of the plowman trampling unthinkingly upon the grave. It was a tragedy to Charming Billy Boyle; it was as if the range-land were a woman he loved well, and as if civilization were the despoiler, against whom he had no means of defense.
All this–and besides, Flora. He had not spoken to her for two months. He had not seen her even, save for a passing glimpse now and then at a distance. He had not named her to any man, or asked how she did–and yet there had not been an hour when he had not longed for her. She had told him she would marry the Pilgrim (she had _not_ said that, but Billy in his rage had so understood her) and that he could not stop her. He wouldn’t _try_ to stop her. But he would one day settle with the Pilgrim–settle to the full. And he wanted her–_wanted_ her!
They had taken the third herd in to Brown, and were back on the range; Billy meaning to make a last sweep around the outer edges and gather in what was left–the stragglers that had been missed before. There would not be many, he knew from experience; probably not more than a hundred or two all told, even with Billy anxious to make the count as large as possible.
He was thinking about it uneasily and staring out across the wide coulee to the red tumble of clouds, that had strange purples and grays and dainty violet shades here and there. Down at the creek Dill was trying to get a trout or two more before it grew too dark for them to rise to the raw beef he was swishing through the riffle, and an impulse to have the worst over at once and be done drove Billy down to interrupt.
“Yuh won’t get any more there,” he said, by way of making speech.
“I just then had a bite, William,” reproved Dill, and swung the bait in a wide circle for another awkward cast. He was a persistent soul, was Dill, when once he got started in a given direction.
Billy, dodging the red morsel of meat, sat down on a grassy hummock. “Aw, come and set down, Dilly,” he urged wearily. “I want to tell yuh something.”
“If it’s about the cook being out of evaporated cream, William, I have already been informed twice. Ah-h! I almost had one then!”
“Aw, thunder! yuh think I’m worrying over canned cream? What I want to say may not be more important, but when yuh get fishing enough I’ll say it anyhow.” He watched Dill moodily, and then lifted his eyes to stare at the gorgeous sky–as though there would be no more sunsets when the range-life was gone, and he must needs fill well his memory for the barren years ahead.
When Dill flopped a six-inch trout against his ear, so steeped was he in bitterness that he merely said, “Aw, hell!” wearily and hunched farther along on the hummock.
“I really beg your pardon, William. From the vicious strike he made, I was convinced that he weighed at least half a pound, and exerted more muscular force than was quite necessary. When one hasn’t a reel it is impossible to play them properly, and it is the first quick pull that one must depend upon. I’m very sorry–“
“Sure. Don’t mention it, Dilly. Say, how many cattle have yuh got receipts for, to date–if it ain’t too much trouble?”
“No trouble at all, William. I have an excellent memory for figures. Four thousand, three hundred and fifteen. Ah-h! See how instinct inspires him to flop always toward the water! Did you ever–“
“Well, yes, I’ve saw a fish flop toward the water once or twicet before now. It sure is a great sight, Dilly!” He did not understand Dill these days, and wondered a good deal at his manifest indifference to business cares. It never occurred to him that Dill, knowing quite well how hard the trouble pressed upon his foreman, was only trying in his awkward way to lighten it by not seeming to think it worth worrying over.
“I hate to mention trifles at such a time, Dilly, but I thought maybe yuh ought to know that we won’t be able to scare up more than a couple uh hundred more cattle, best we can do. We’re bound to fall a lot short uh what I estimated–and I ain’t saying nothing about the fine job uh guessing I done! If we bring the total up to forty-five hundred, we’ll do well.”
Dill took plenty of time to wind the line around his willow pole. “To use your own expressive phraseology, William,” he said, when he had quite finished and had laid the pole down on the bank, “that will leave me in one hell-of-a-hole!”
“That’s what I thought,” Billy returned apathetically.
“Well, I must take these up to the cook.” Dill held up the four fish he had caught. “I’ll think the matter over, William, and I thank you for telling me. Of course you will go on and gather what there are.”
“Sure,” agreed Billy tonelessly, and followed Dill back to camp and went to bed.
At daybreak it was raining, and Billy after the manner of cowboys slept late; for there would be no riding until the weather cleared, and there being no herd to hold, there would be none working save the horse-wrangler, the night-hawk and cook. It was the cook who handed him a folded paper and a sealed envelope when he did finally appear for a cup of coffee. “Dill-pickle left ’em for yuh,” he said.
Billy read the note–just a few lines, with a frown of puzzlement.
Dear William: Business compels my absence for a time. I hope you will go on with your plans exactly as if I were with you. I am leaving a power-of-attorney which will enable you to turn over the stock and transact any other business that may demand immediate attention, in case I am detained.
Alexander P. Dill
It was queer, but Billy did not waste much time in wondering. He rounded up the last of the Double-Cranks, drove them to Brown’s place and turned them over, with the home ranch, the horses, and camp outfit–“made a clean sweep uh the whole damn’, hoodooed works,” was the way he afterward put it. He had expected that Dill would be there to attend to the last legal forms, but there was no sign of him or from him. He had been seen to take the eastbound train at Tower, and the rest was left to guessing.
“He must uh known them two-hundred odd wouldn’t square the deal,” argued Billy loyally to himself. “So uh course he’ll come back and fix it up. But what I’m to do about payin’ off the boys gets me.” For two hours he worried, mentally in the dark. Then he hit upon an expedient that pleased him. He told Brown he would need to keep a few of the saddle-horses for a few days, and he sent the boys–those of them who did not transfer their valuable services to Brown upon the asking–over to the Bridger place to wait there until further orders.
Also, he rode reluctantly to the Double-Crank ranch, wondering, as he had often done in the past few weeks, what would become of Flora and Mama Joy. So far as he knew, they had not heard a word as to whether Bridger was alive or dead, and if they had friends or family to whom they might turn, he had never heard either mention them. If Dill had been there he would have left it to him; but Dill was gone, and there was no knowing when he would be back, and it devolved upon Billy to make some arrangements for the women, or at the least offer his services–and it was, under the circumstances, quite the most unpleasant duty thus far laid upon him.
He knew they had been left there at the ranch when round-up started, because Dill had said something about leaving a gentle horse or two for them to ride. Whether they were still there he did not know, although he could easily have asked Spikes, who had been given charge of the ranch while Dill was away on the range. He supposed the Pilgrim would be hanging around, as usual–not that it made much difference, though, except that he hated the thought of a disagreeable scene before the women.
He rode slowly up to the corral gate, turned his horse inside and fastened the chain just as he had done a thousand times before–only this would be the last time. His tired eyes went from one familiar object to another, listlessly aware of the regret he should feel but too utterly wearied of sorrow to feel much of anything. No one seemed to be about, and the whole place had an atmosphere of desolation that almost stirred him to a heartache–almost.
He went on to the house. There were some signs of life there, and some sound. In the very doorway he met old Bridger himself, but he could not even feel much surprise at seeing him there. He said hello, and when he saw the other’s hand stretching out to meet him, he clasped it indifferently. Behind her husband, Mama Joy flashed at him a look he did not try to interpret–of a truth it was rather complex, with a little of several emotions–and he lifted his hat a half-inch from his forehead in deference to her sex. Flora, he thanked God dully, he did not see at all.
He stayed perhaps ten minutes listening impersonally to Bridger, who talked loudly and enthusiastically of his plans. At the time they did not seem to concern him at all, though they involved taking Flora and Mama Joy away to Seattle to spend the winter, and in the spring moving them on to some place in the North–a place that sounded strange in the ears of Billy, and was straightway forgotten.
After that he went to his room and packed what few things he wanted; and they were not many, because in his present mood nothing mattered and nothing seemed to him of much value–not even life. He was more careful of Dill’s belongings, and packed everything he could find that was his. They were not scattered, for Dill was a methodical man and kept things in their places instinctively.
He paused over but one object–“The Essays of Elia,” which had somehow fallen behind a trunk. Standing there in the middle of Dill’s room, he turned the little blue book absently in his hand. There was dust upon the other side, and he wiped it off, manlike, with a sweep of his forearm. He looked at the trunk; he had just locked it with much straining of muscles and he hated to open it again. He looked at the book again. He seemed to see Dill slumped loosely down in the old rocker, a slippered foot dangling before him, reading solemnly from this same little blue book, the day he came to tell him about the ditch, and that he must lease all the land he could–the day when the shadow of passing first touched the range-land. At least, the day when he had first seen it there. He turned a few leaves thoughtfully, heard Flora’s voice asking a question in the kitchen, and thrust the book hastily into his pocket. “Dilly’ll want it, I expect,” he muttered. He glanced quickly, comprehensively around him to make sure that he had missed nothing, turned toward the open front door and went out hurriedly, because he thought he heard a woman’s step in the dining room and he did not want to see anybody, not even Flora–least of all, Flora!
“I’ll send a rig out from town for the stuff that’s ours,” he called back to Bridger, who came to the kitchen door and called after him that he better wait and have some supper. “You’ll be here till to-morrow or next day; it ain’t likely I’ll be back; yuh say Dill settled up with the–women, so–there’s nothing left to do.”
If he had known–but how could he know that Flora was watching him wistfully from the front porch, when he never once looked toward the house after he reached the stable?
_Settled In Full_.
On a lonely part of the trail to town–queerly, it was when he was rounding the low, barren hill where he and Dill had first met–he took out his brand-book and went over the situation. It was Barney he rode, and Barney could be trusted to pace along decorously with the reins twisted twice around the saddle-horn, so Billy gave no thought to his horse but put his whole mind on the figures. He was not much used to these things; beyond keeping tally of the stock at branding and shipping time and putting down what details of his business he dared not trust to memory, a pencil was strange to his fingers. But the legal phrases in the paper left by Dill and signed by the cook and night-hawk as witnesses gave him a heavy sense of responsibility that everything should be settled exactly right. So now he went over the figures slowly, adding them from the top down and from the bottom up, to make sure he had the totals correct. He wished they were wrong; they might then be not quite so depressing.
“Lemme see, now. I turned over 4,523 head uh stock, all told (hell of a fine job uh guessing I done! Me saying there’d be over six thousand!) That made $94,983. And accordin’ to old Brown–and I guess he had it framed up correct–Dilly owes him $2,217 yet, instead uh coming out with enough to start some other business. It’s sure queer, the way figures always come out little when yuh want ’em big, and big when yuh want ’em little! Them debts now–they could stand a lot uh shavin’ down. Twelve thousand dollars and interest, to the bank–I can’t do a darn thing about them twelve thousand. If Dilly hadn’t gone and made a cast-iron agreement I coulda held old Brown up for a few thousand more, on account uh the increase in saddle-stock. I’d worked that bunch up till it sure was a dandy lot uh hosses–but what yuh going to do?”
He stared dispiritedly out across the brown prairie. “I’d oughta put Dilly next to that, only I never thought about it at the time, and I was so dead sure the range-stuff–And there’s the men, got to have their money right away quick, so’s they can hurry up and blow it in! If Dilly ain’t back to-night, or I don’t hear from him, I reckon I’ll have to draw m’ little old wad out uh the bank and pay the sons-uh-guns. I sure ain’t going to need it to buy dishes and rocking chairs and pictures–and I was going t’ git her a piano–oh, hell!”
He still rode slowly, after that, but he did not bother over the figures that stood for Dilly’s debts. He sat humped over the saddle-horn like an old man and stared at the trail and at the forefeet of Barney coming down _pluck, pluck_ with leisurely regularity in the dust. Just so was Charming Billy Boyle trampling down the dreams that had been so sweet in the dreaming, and leveling ruthlessly the very foundations of the fair castle he had builded in the air for Dill and himself–and one other, with the fairest, highest, most secret chambers for that Other. And as he rode, the face of him was worn and the blue eyes of him sombre and dull; and his mouth, that had lost utterly the humorous, care-free quirk at the corners, was bitter, and straight, and hard.
He had started out with such naive assurance to succeed, and–he had failed so utterly, so hopelessly, with not even a spectacular crash to make the failing picturesque. He had done the best that was in him, and even now that it was over he could not quite understand how everything, _everything_ could go like that; how the Double-Crank and Flora–how the range, even, had slipped from him. And now Dill was gone, too, and he did not even know where, or if he would ever come back.
He would pay the men; he had, with a surprising thrift, saved nearly a thousand dollars in the bank at Tower. That, to be sure, was when he had Flora to save for; since then he had not had time or opportunity to spend it foolishly. It would take nearly every dollar; the way he had figured it, he would have just twenty-three dollars left for himself–and he would have the little bunch of horses he had in his prosperity acquired for the pure love of owning a good horse. He would sell the horses, except Barney and one to pack his bed, and he would drift–drift just as do the range-cattle when a blizzard strikes them in the open. Billy felt like a stray. His range was gone–gone utterly. He would roll his bed and drift; and perhaps, somewhere, he could find a stretch of earth as God had left it, unscarred by fence and plow, undefiled by cabbages and sugar-beets (Brown’s new settlers were going strong on sugar-beets).
“Well, it’s all over but the shouting,” he summed up grimly when Hardup came in sight. “I’ll pay off the men and turn ’em loose–all but Jim. Somebody’s got to stay with the Bridger place till Dilly shows up, seeing that’s all he’s got left after the clean-up. The rest uh the debts can wait. Brown’s mortgage ain’t due yet” (Billy had his own way of looking at financial matters) “and the old Siwash ain’t got any kick comin’ if he never gets another cent out uh Dilly. The bank ain’t got the cards to call Dilly now, for his note ain’t due till near Christmas. So I reckon all I got to do after I pay the boys is take m’ little old twenty-three plunks, and my hosses–if I can’t sell ’em right off–and pull out for God-knows-where-and-I-don’t-care- a-damn!”
* * * * *
Charming Billy Boyle had done all that he had planned to do, except that he had not yet pulled out for the place he had named picturesquely for himself. Much as at the beginning, he was leaning heavily upon the bar in the Hardup Saloon, and his hat was pushed back on his head; but he was not hilarious to the point of singing about “the young thing,” and he was not, to any appreciable extent, enjoying himself. He was merely adding what he considered the proper finishing touch to his calamities. He was spinning silver dollars, one by one, across the bar to the man with the near-white apron, and he was endeavoring to get the worth of them down his throat. To be sure, he was being assisted, now and then, by several acquaintances; but considering the fact that a man’s stomach has certain well-defined limitations, he was doing very well, indeed.
When he had spun the twenty-third dollar to the bartender, Billy meant to quit drinking for the present; after that, he was not quite clear as to his intentions, farther than “forking his hoss and pulling out” when there was no more to be done. He felt uneasily that between his present occupation and the pulling-out process lay a duty unperformed, but until the door swung open just as he was crying, “Come on, fellows,” he had not been able to name it.
The Pilgrim it was who entered jauntily; the Pilgrim, who had not chanced to meet Billy once during the summer, and so was not aware that the truce between them was ended for good and all. He knew that Billy had not at any time been what one might call cordial, but that last stare of displeasure when they met in the creek at the Double-Crank, he had set down to a peevish mood. Under the circumstances, it was natural that he should walk up to the bar with the rest. Under the circumstances, it was also natural that Billy should object to this unexpected and unwelcome guest, and that the vague, unperformed duty should suddenly flash into his mind clear, and well-defined, and urgent.
“Back up, Pilgrim,” was his quiet way of making known his purpose. “Yuh can’t drink on _my_ money, old-timer, nor use a room that I’m honoring with my presence. Just right now, I’m _here_. It’s up to you to back out–_away_ out–clean outside and across the street.”
The Pilgrim did not move.
Billy had been drinking, but his brain was not of the stuff that fuddles easily, and he was not, as the Pilgrim believed, drunk. His eyes when he stared hard at the Pilgrim were sober eyes, sane eyes–and something besides.
“I said it,” he reminded softly, when men had quit shuffling their feet and the room was very still.
“I don’t reckon yuh know what yuh said,” the Pilgrim retorted, laughing uneasily and shifting his gaze a bit. “What they been doping yuh with, Bill? There ain’t any quarrel between you and me no more.” His tone was abominably, condescendingly tolerant, and his look was the look which a mastiff turns wearily upon a hysterical toy-terrier yapping foolishly at his knees. For the Pilgrim had changed much in the past year and more during which men had respected him because he was not considered quite safe to trifle with. According to the reputation they gave him, he had killed a man who had tried to kill him, and he could therefore afford to be pacific upon occasion.
Billy stared at him while he drew a long breath; a breath which seemed to press back a tangible weight of hatred and utter contempt for the Pilgrim; a breath while it seemed that he must kill him there and stamp out the very semblance of humanity from his mocking face.
“Yuh don’t know of any quarrel between you and me? Yuh say yuh don’t?” Billy’s voice trembled a little, because of the murder-lust that gripped him. “Well, pretty soon, I’ll start in and tell yuh all about it–maybe. Right now, I’m going t’ give a new one–one that yuh can easy name and do what yuh damn’ please about.” Whereupon he did as he had done once before when the offender had been a sheepherder. He stepped quickly to one side of the Pilgrim, emptied a glass down inside his collar, struck him sharply across his grinning mouth, and stepped back–back until there were eight or ten feet between them.
“That’s the only way _my_ whisky can go down _your_ neck!” he said.
Men gasped and moved hastily out of range, never doubting what would happen next. Billy himself knew–or thought he knew–and his hand was on his gun, ready to pull it and shoot; hungry–waiting for an excuse to fire.
The Pilgrim had given a bellow that was no word at all, and whirled to come at Billy; met his eyes, wavered and hesitated, his gun in his hand and half-raised to fire.
Billy, bent on giving the Pilgrim a fair chance, waited another second; waited and saw fear creep into the bold eyes of the Pilgrim; waited and saw the inward cringing of the man. It was like striking a dog and waiting for the spring at your throat promised by his snarling defiance, and then seeing the fire go from his eyes as he grovels, cringingly confessing you his master, himself a cur.
What had been hate in the eyes of Billy changed slowly to incredulous contempt. “Ain’t that enough?” he cried disgustedly. “My God, ain’t yuh _man_ enough–Have I got to take yuh by the ear and slit your gullet like they stick pigs–or else let yuh _go_? What _are_ yuh, anyhow? Shall I give my gun to the bar-keep and go out where it’s dark? Will yuh be scared to tackle me then?” He laughed and watched the yellow terror creep over the face of the Pilgrim at the taunt. “What’s wrong with your gun? Ain’t it working good to-night? Ain’t it loaded?
“Heavens and earth! What else have I got to do before you’ll come alive? You’ve been living on your rep as a bad man to monkey with, and pushing out your wishbone over it for quite a spell, now–why don’t yuh get busy and collect another bunch uh admiration from these fellows? _I_ ain’t no lightning-shot man! Papa Death don’t roost on the end uh my six-gun–or I never suspicioned before that he did; but from the save-me-quick look on yuh, I believe yuh’d faint plumb away if I let yuh take a look at the end uh my gun, with the butt-end toward yuh!
“Honest t’ God, Pilgrim, I won’t try to get in ahead uh yuh! I couldn’t if I tried, because mine’s at m’ belt yet and I ain’t so swift. Come on! Please–_purty_ please!” Billy looked around the room and laughed. He pointed his finger mockingly “Ain’t he a peach of a Bad Man, boys? Ain’t yuh proud uh his acquaintance? I reckon I’ll have to turn my back before he’ll cut loose. Yuh know, he’s just aching t’ kill me–only he don’t want me to know it when he does! He’s afraid he might hurt m’ feelings!”
He swung back to the Pilgrim, went close, and looked at him impertinently, his head on one side. He reached out deliberately with his hand, and the Pilgrim ducked and cringed away. “Aw, look here!” he whined. “_I_ ain’t done nothing to yuh, Bill!”
Billy’s hand dropped slowly and hung at his side. “Yuh–damned–coward!” he gritted. “Yuh know yuh wouldn’t get any more than an even break with me, and that ain’t enough for yuh. You’re afraid to take a chance. You’re afraid–God!” he cried suddenly, swept out of his mockery by the rage within. “And I can’t kill yuh! Yuh won’t show nerve enough to give me a chance! Yuh won’t even _fight_, will yuh?”
He leaned and struck the Pilgrim savagely. “Get out uh my sight, then! Get out uh town! Get clean out uh the country! Get out among the coyotes–they’re nearer your breed than men!” For every sentence there was a stinging blow–a blow with the flat of his hand, driving the Pilgrim back, step by step, to the door. The Pilgrim, shielding his head with an uplifted arm, turned then and bolted out into the night.
[Illustration: FOR EVERY SENTENCE A STINGING BLOW WITH THE FLAT OF HIS HAND.]
Behind him were men who stood ashamed for their manhood, not caring to look straight at one another with so sickening an example before them of the craven coward a man may be. In the doorway, Billy stood framed against the yellow lamplight, a hand pressing hard against the casings while he leaned and hurled curses in a voice half-sobbing with rage.
It was so that Dill found him when he came looking. When he reached out and laid a big-knuckled hand gently on his arm, Billy shivered and stared at him in a queer, dazed fashion for a minute.
“Why–hello, Dilly!” he said then, and his voice was hoarse and broken. “Where the dickens did _you_ come from?”
Without a word Dill, still holding him by the arm, led him unresisting away.
_Oh, Where Have You Been, Charming Billy?_
Presently they were in the little room which Dill had kept for himself by the simple method of buying the shack that held it, and Billy was drinking something which Dill poured out for him and which steadied him wonderfully.
“If you are not feeling quite yourself, William, perhaps we would do better to postpone our conversation until morning,” Dill was saying while he rocked awkwardly, his hands folded loosely together, his elbows on the rocker–arms and his round, melancholy eyes regarding Billy solemnly. “I wanted to ask how you came out–with the Double-Crank.”
“Go ahead; I’m all right,” said Billy. “I aim to hit the trail by sun-up, so we’ll have our little say now.” He made him a cigarette and looked wistfully at Dill, while he felt for a match. “Go ahead. What do yuh want to know the worst?”
“Well, I did not see Brown, and it occurred to me that after I left you must have gathered more stock than you anticipated. I discovered from the men that you have paid them off. I rode out there to-day, you know. I arrived about two hours after you had left.”
“You’re still in the hole on the cow-business,” Billy stated flatly, as if there were no use in trying to soften the telling. “Yuh owe Brown two thousand odd dollars. I turned in a few over two hundred head–I’ve got it all down here, and yuh can see the exact figure yourself. Yuh didn’t show up, and I didn’t want to hold the men and let their time run on and nothing doing to make it pay, so I give ’em their money and let ’em off–all but Jim Bleeker. I didn’t pay him, because I wanted him to look after things at the Bridger place till yuh got back, and I knew if I give him any money he’d burn the earth getting to where he could spend it. He’s a fine fellow when he’s broke–Jim is.”
“But I owed the men for several months’ work. Where did you raise the amount, William?” Dill cleared his throat raspingly.
“Me? Oh, I had some uh my wages saved up. I used that.” It never occurred to Billy that he had done anything out of the ordinary.
“_H-m-m!_” Dill cleared his throat again and rocked, his eyes on Billy’s moody face. “I observe, William, that–er–they are not shipping any skates to–er–hell, yet!”
“Huh?” Billy had not been listening.
“I was saying, William, that I appreciate your fidelity to my interests, and–“
“Oh, that’s all right,” Billy cut in carelessly.
“–And I should like to have you with me on a new venture I have in mind. You probably have not heard of it here, but it is an assured fact that the railroad company are about to build a cut-off that will shut out Tower completely and put Hardup on the main line. In fact, they have actually started work at the other end, and though they are always very secretive about a thing like that, I happen to have a friend on the inside, so that my information is absolutely authentic. I have raised fifty thousand dollars among my good friends in Michigan, and I intend to start a first-class general store here. I have already bargained for ten acres of land over there on the creek, where I feel sure the main part of the town will be situated. If you will come in with me we will form a partnership, equal shares. It is borrowed capital,” he added hastily, “so that I am not giving you anything, William. You will take the same risk I take, and–“
“Sorry, Dilly, but I couldn’t come through. Fine counter-jumper I’d make! Thank yuh all the same, Dilly.”
“But there is the Bridger place. I shall keep that and go into thoroughbred stock–good, middle-weight horses, I think, that will find a ready sale among the settlers who are going to flock in here. You could take charge there and–“
“No, Dilly, I couldn’t. I–I’m thinking uh drifting down into New Mexico. I–I want to see that country, bad.”
Dill crossed his long legs the other way, let his hands drop loosely, and stared wistfully at Billy. “I really wish I could induce you to stay, William,” he murmured.
“Well, yuh can’t. I hope yuh come through better than yuh did with the Double-Crank–but I guess it’ll be some considerable time before the towns and the gentle farmer (damn him!) are crowded to the wall by your damn’ Progress.” It was the first direct protest against changing conditions which Billy had so far put into words, and he looked sorry for having said so much. “Oh, here’s your little blue book,” he added, feeling it in his pocket. “I found it behind the trunk when everything else was packed.”
“You saw–er–you saw Bridger, then? He is going to take his wife and Flora up North with him in the spring. It seems he has done well.”
“I know–he told me.”
Dill turned the leaves of the book slowly, and consciously refrained from looking at Billy. “They were about to leave when I was there. It is a shame. I am very sorry for Flora–she does not want to go. If–” He cleared his throat again and guiltily pretended to be reading a bit, here and there, and to be speaking casually. “If I were a marrying man, I am not sure but I should make love to Flora–h-m-m!–this ‘Bachelor’s Complaint’ here–have you read it, William? It is very–here, for instance–‘Nothing is to me more distasteful than the entire complacency and satisfaction which beam in the countenances of a new-married couple’–and so on. I feel tempted sometimes when I look at Flora–only she looks upon me as a–er–piece of furniture–the kind that sticks out in the way and you have to feel your way around it in the dark–awkward, but necessary. Poor girl, she cried in the most heartbroken way when I told her we would not be likely to see her again, and–I wonder what is the trouble between her and Walland? They used to be quite friendly, in a way, but she has not spoken to him, to my certain knowledge, since last spring. Whenever he came to the ranch she would go to her room and refuse to come out until he had left. H-m-m! Did she ever tell you, William?”
“No,” snapped William huskily, smoking with his head bent and turned away.
“I know positively that she cut him dead, as they say, at the last Fourth-of-July dance. He asked her to dance, and she refused almost rudely and immediately got up and danced with that boy of Gunderson’s–the one with the hair-lip. She could not have been taken with the hair-lipped fellow–at least, I should scarcely think so. Should you, William?”
This time William did not answer at all. Dill, watching his bent head tenderly, puckered his face into his peculiar smile.
“H-m-m! They stopped at the hotel to-night–Bridgers, I mean. Drove in after dark from the ranch. They mean to catch the noon train from Tower to-morrow, Bridger told me. It will be an immense benefit, William, when those big through-trains get to running through Hardup. There is some talk among the powers-that-be of making this a division point. It will develop the country wonderfully. I really feel tempted to cut down my investment in a store for the present, and buy more land. What do you think, William?”
“Oh, I dunno,” said Billy in a let-me-alone kind of tone.
“Well, it’s very late. Everybody who lays any claim to respectability should be in his bed,” Dill remarked placidly. “You say you start at sunrise? H-m-m! You will have to call me so that I can go over to the hotel and get the money to refund what you used of your own. I left my cash in the hotel safe. But they will be stirring early–they will have to get the Bridgers off, you know.”
It was Dill who lay and smiled quizzically into the dark and listened to the wide-awake breathing of the man beside him–breathing which betrayed deep emotion held rigidly in check so far as outward movement went. He fell asleep knowing well that the other was lying there wide-eyed and would probably stay so until day. He had had a hard day and had done many things, but what he had done last pleased him best.
Now this is a bald, unpolished record of the morning: Billy saw the dawn come, and rose in the perfect silence he had learned from years of sleeping in a tent with tired men, and of having to get up at all hours and take his turn at night-guarding; for tired, sleeping cowboys do not like to be disturbed unnecessarily, and so they one and all learn speedily the Golden Rule and how to apply it. That is why Dill, always a light sleeper, did not hear Billy go out.
Billy did not quite know what he was going to do, but habit bade him first feed and water his horse. After that–well, he did not know. Dill might not have things straight, or he might just be trying to jolly him up a little, or he might be a meddlesome old granny-gossip. What had looked dear and straight, say at three o’clock in the morning, was at day-dawn hazy with doubt. So he led Barney down to the creek behind the hotel, where in that primitive little place they watered their horses.
The sun was rising redly, and the hurrying ripples were all tipped with gold, and the sky above a bewildering, tumbled fabric of barbaric coloring. Would the sun rise like that in New Mexico? Billy wondered, and watched the coming of his last day here, where he had lived, had loved, had dreamed dreams and builded castles–and had seen the dreams change to bitterness, and the castles go toppling to ruins. He would like to stay with Dill, for he had grown fond of the lank, whimsical man who was like no one Billy had ever known. He would have stayed even in the face of the change that had come to the range-land–but he could not bear to see the familiar line of low hills which marked the Double-Crank and, farther down, the line-camp, and know that Flora was gone quite away from him into the North.
He caught himself back from brooding, and gave a pull at the halter by way of hinting to Barney that he need not drink the creek entirely dry–when suddenly he quivered and stood so still that he scarcely breathed.
“Oh, where have you been, Billy boy, Billy boy? Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?”
Some one at the top of the creek-bank was singing it; some one with an exceedingly small, shaky little voice that was trying to be daring and mocking and indifferent, and that was none of these things–but only wistful and a bit pathetic.
Charming Billy, his face quite pale, turned his head cautiously as though he feared too abrupt a glance would drive her away, and looked at her standing there with her gray felt hat tilted against the sun, flipping her gloves nervously against her skirt. She was obviously trying to seem perfectly at ease, but her eyes were giving the lie to her manner.
Billy tried to smile, but instead his lips quivered and his eyes blinked.
“I have been to see my wife–“
he began to sing gamely, and stuck there, because something came up in his throat and squeezed his voice to a whisper. By main strength he pulled Barney away from the gold-tipped ripples, and came stumbling over the loose rocks.
She watched him warily, half-turned, ready to run away. “We–I–aren’t you going to be nice and say good-by to me?”
He came on, staring at her and saying nothing.
“Well, if you still want to sulk–I wouldn’t be as nasty as that, and–and hold a grudge the way you do–and I was going to be nice and forgiving; but if you don’t care, and don’t want–“
By this time he was close–quite close. “Yuh know I care! And yuh know I want–_you_. Oh, girlie, girlie!”
* * * * *
The colors had all left the sky, save blue and silver-gray, and the sun was a commonplace, dazzling ball of yellow. Charming Billy Boyle, his hat set back upon his head at a most eloquent angle, led Barney from the creek up to the stable. His eyes were alight and his brow was unwrinkled. His lips had quite lost their bitter lines, and once more had the humorous, care-free quirk at the corners.
He slammed the stable-door behind him and went off down the street, singing exultantly:
“–I have been to see my-wife,
She’s the joy of my life–“
He jerked open the door of the shack, gave a whoop to raise the dead, and took Dill ungently by the shoulder.
“Come alive, yuh seven-foot Dill-pickle! What yuh want to lay here snoring for at this time uh day? Don’t yuh know it’s morning?”
Dill sat up and blinked, much like an owl in the sunshine. He puckered his face into a smile. “Aren’t you rather uproarious–for so early in the day, William? I was under the impression that one usually grew hilarious–“
“Oh, there’s other things besides whisky to make a man feel good,” grinned Billy, his cheeks showing a tinge of red. “I’m in a hurry, Dilly. I’ve got to hit the trail immediate–and if it ain’t too much trouble to let me have that money yuh spoke about–“
Dill got out of bed, eying him shrewdly. “Have you been gambling, William?”
Billy ran the green shade up from the window so energetically that it slipped from his fingers and buzzed noisily at file top. He craned his neck, trying to see the hotel. “Maybe yuh’d call it that–an old bachelor like you! Yuh see, Dilly, I’ve got business over in Tower. I’ve got to be there before noon, and I need–aw, thunder! How’s a man going to get married when he’s only got six dollars in his jeans?”
“I should say that would be scarcely feasible, William.” Dill was smiling down at the lacing of his shoes. “We can soon remedy that, however. I’m–I’m very glad, William.”
The cheeks of Charming Billy Boyle grew quite red. “And, by the way, Dilly,” he said hurriedly, as if he shied at the subject of his love and his marriage, “I’ve changed my mind about going to New Mexico. I–we’ll settle down on the Bridger place, if yuh still want me to. She says she’d rather stay here in this country.”
Dill settled himself into his clothes, went over, and laid a hand awkwardly upon Billy’s arm, “I am very glad, William,” he said simply.