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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Long Shadow - Chapter 14. A Winter At The Double-Crank
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The Long Shadow - Chapter 14. A Winter At The Double-Crank Post by :Chuks52 Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :July 2011 Read :2041

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The Long Shadow - Chapter 14. A Winter At The Double-Crank

CHAPTER XIV. A Winter at the Double-Crank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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