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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Long Shadow - Chapter 15. The Shadow Falls Lightly
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The Long Shadow - Chapter 15. The Shadow Falls Lightly Post by :heavydut Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :July 2011 Read :2019

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The Long Shadow - Chapter 15. The Shadow Falls Lightly

CHAPTER XV. The Shadow Falls Lightly

Over the green uplands, into the coulees and the brushy creek-bottoms swept the sun-browned riders of the Double-Crank; jangling and rattling over untrailed prairie sod, the bed and mess wagons followed after with hasty camping at the places Billy appointed for brief sleeping and briefer eating, a hastier repacking and then the hurry over the prairies to the next stop. Here, a wide coulee lay yawning languorously in the sunshine with a gossipy trout stream for company; with meadowlarks rippling melodiously from bush and weed or hunting worms and bugs for their nestful of gaping mouths; with gophers trailing snakily through the tall grasses; and out in the barren centre where the yellow earth was pimpled with little mounds, plump-bodied prairie dogs sitting pertly upon their stubby tails the while they chittered shrewishly at the world; and over all a lazy, smiling sky with clouds always drifting and trailing shadows across the prairie-dog towns and the coulee and the creek, and a soft wind stirring the grasses.

Then the prairie dogs would stand a-tiptoe to listen. The meadowlarks would stop their singing--even the trailing shadows would seem to waver uncertainly--and only the creek would go gurgling on, uncaring. Around a bend would rattle the wagons of the Double-Crank, with a lone rider trotting before to point the way; down to the very bank of the uncaring creek they would go. There would be hurrying to and fro with much clamor of wood-chopping, tent-raising and all the little man-made noises of camp life and cooking. There would be the added clamor of the cavvy, and later, of tired riders galloping heavily into the coulee, and of many voices upraised in full-toned talk with now and then a burst of laughter.

All these things, and the prairie folk huddled trembling in their homes, a mute agony of fear racking their small bodies. Only the creek and the lazy, wide-mouthed coulee and the trailing clouds and the soft wind seemed not to mind.

Came another sunrise and with it the clamor, the voices, the rattle of riding gear, the trampling. Then a final burst and rattle, a dying of sounds in the distance, a silence as the round-up swept on over the range-land, miles away to the next camping place. Then the little prairie folk--the gopher, the plump-bodied prairie dogs, the mice and the rabbits, would listen long before they crept timidly out to sniff suspiciously the still-tainted air and inspect curiously and with instinctive aversion the strange marks left on the earth to show that it was all something more than a horrible nightmare.

So, under cloud and sun, when the wind blew soft and when it raved over the shrinking land, when the cold rain drove men into their yellow slickers and set horses to humping backs and turning tail to the drive of it and one heard the cook muttering profanity because the wood was wet and the water ran down the stovepipe and hungry men must wait because the stove would not "draw," the Double-Crank raked the range. Horses grew lean and ill-fitting saddles worked their wicked will upon backs that shrank to their touch of a morning. Wild range cattle were herded, a scared bunch of restlessness, during long, hot forenoons, or longer, hotter afternoons, while calves that had known no misfortune beyond a wet back or a searching wind learned, panic-stricken, the agony of capture and rough handling and tight-drawn ropes and, last and worst, the terrible, searing iron.

There were not so many of them--these reluctant, wild-eyed pupils in the school of life. Charming Billy, sitting his horse and keeping tally of the victims in his shabby little book, began to know the sinking of spirit that comes to a man when he finds that things have, after all, gone less smoothly than he had imagined. There were withered carcasses scattered through the coulee bottoms and upon side hills that had some time made slippery climbing for a poor, weak cow. The loss was not crippling, but it was greater than he had expected. He remembered certain biting storms which had hidden deep the grasses, and certain short-lived chinooks that had served only to soften the surface of the snow so that the cold, coming after, might freeze it the harder.

It had not been a hard winter, as winters go, but the loss of cows had been above the average and the crop of calves below, and Billy for the first time faced squarely the fact that, in the cattle business as well as in others, there are downs to match the ups. In his castle building, and so far in his realization of his dreams, he had not taken much account of the downs.

Thus it was that, when they swung back from the reservation and camped for a day upon lower Burnt Willow, he felt a great yearning for the ranch and for sight of the girl who lived there. For excuses he had the mail and the natural wish to consult with Dill, so that, when he saddled Barney and told Jim Bleeker to keep things moving till to-morrow or the day after, he had the comfortable inner assurance that there were no side-glances or smiles and no lowered lids when he rode away. For Charming Billy, while he would have faced the ridicule of a nation if that were the price he must pay to win his deep desire, was yet well pleased to go on his way unwatched and unneeded.

Since the Double-Crank ranch lay with Burnt Willow Creek loitering through the willows within easy gunshot of the corrals, Billy's trail followed the creek except in its most irresponsible windings, when he would simplify his journey by taking straight as might be across the prairie. It was after he had done this for the second time and had come down to the creek through a narrow, yellow-clay coulee that he came out quite suddenly upon a thing he had not before seen.

Across the creek, which at that point was so narrow that a horse could all but clear it in a running jump, lay the hills, a far-reaching ocean of fertile green. Good grazing it was, as Billy well knew. In another day the Double-Crank riders would be sweeping over it, gathering the cattle; at least, that had been his intent. He looked across and his eyes settled immediately upon a long, dotted line drawn straight away to the south; at the far end a tiny huddle of figures moved indeterminately, the details of their business blunted by the distance. But Charming Billy, though he liked them little, knew well when he looked upon a fence in the building. The dotted line he read for post holes and the distant figures for the diggers.

While his horse drank he eyed the line distrustfully until he remembered his parting advice to Dill. "Dilly's sure getting a move on him," he decided, estimating roughly the size of the tract which that fence, when completed, would inclose. To be sure, it was pure guesswork, for he was merely looking at one corner. Up the creek he could not see, save a quarter mile or so to the next bend; even that distance he could not see the dotted line--for he was looking upon a level clothed with rank weeds and grass and small brush--but he knew it must be there. When he turned his horse from the water and went his way, his mind was no longer given up to idle dreaming of love words and a girl. This fencing business concerned him intimately, and his brain was as alert as his eyes. For he had not meant that Dilly should fence any land just yet.

Farther up the creek he crossed, meaning to take another short cut and so avoid a long detour; also, he wanted to see just where and how far the fence went. Yes, the post holes were there, only here they held posts leaning loosely this way and that like drunken men. A half mile farther the wire was already strung, but not a man did he see whom he might question--and when he glanced and saw that the sun was almost straight over his head and that Barney's shadow scurried along nearly beneath his stirrup, he knew that they would be stopping for dinner. He climbed a hill and came plump upon a fence, wire-strung, wire-stayed, aggressively barring his way.

"Dilly's about the most thorough-minded man I ever met up with," he mused, half annoyed, stopping a moment to survey critically the barrier. "Yuh never find a job uh hisn left with any loose ends a-dangling. He's got a fence here like he was guarding a railroad right-uh-way. I guess I'll go round, this trip."

At the ranch Charming Billy took the path that led to the kitchen, because when he glanced that way from the stable he caught a flicker of pink--a shade of pink which he liked very much, because Flora had a dress of that color and it matched her cheeks, it seemed to him. She had evidently not seen him, and he thought he would surprise her. To that end, he suddenly stopped midway and removed his spurs lest their clanking betray him. So he went on, with his eyes alight and the blood of him jumping queerly.

Just outside the door he stopped, saw the pink flutter in the pantry and went across the kitchen on his toes; sure, he was going to surprise her a lot! Maybe, he thought daringly, he'd kiss her--if his nerve stayed with him long enough. He rather thought it would. She was stooping a little over the flour barrel, and her back was toward him.

More daring than he would have believed of himself, he reached out his arms and caught her to him, and--It was not Flora at all. It was Mama Joy.

"Oh, I--I beg your pardon--I--" stammered Billy helplessly.

"Billy! You're a bad boy; how you frightened me!" she gasped, and showed an unmistakable inclination to snuggle.

Charming Billy, looking far more frightened than she, pulled himself loose and backed away. Mama Joy looked at him, and there was that in her eyes which sent a qualm of something very like disgust over Billy, so that in his toes he felt the quiver.

"It was an accident, Mrs. Bridger," he said laconically, and went out hastily, leaving her standing there staring after him.

Outside, he twitched his shoulders as if he would still free himself of something distasteful. "Hell! What do I want with _her_?" he muttered indignantly, and did not stop to think where he was going until he brought up at the stable. He had the reins of Barney in his hand, and had put his foot in the stirrup before he quite came to himself. "Hell!" he exploded again, and led Barney back into the stall.

Charming Billy sat down on a box and began to build a smoke; his fingers shook a great deal, so that he sifted out twice as much tobacco as he needed. He felt utterly bewildered and ashamed and sorry, and he could not think very clearly. He lighted the cigarette, smoked it steadily, pinched out the stub and rolled another before he came back to anything like calm.

Even when he could bring himself to face what had happened and what it meant, he winced mentally away from the subject. He could still feel the clinging pressure of her round, bare arms against his neck, and he once more gave his shoulders a twitch. Three cigarettes he smoked, staring at a warped board in the stall partition opposite him.

When the third was burned down to a very short stub he pinched out the fire, dropped the stab to the dirt floor and deliberately set his foot upon it, grinding it into the damp soil. It was as if he also set his foot upon something else, so grimly intent was the look on his face.

"Hell!" he said for the third time, and drew a long breath. "Well, this has got to stop right here!" He got up, took off his hat and inspected it gravely, redimpled the crown, set it upon his head a trifle farther back than usual, stuck his hands aggressively into his pockets and went back to the house. This time he did not go to the kitchen but around to the front porch, and he whistled shrilly the air of his own pet ditty that his arrival might be heralded before him.

Later, when he was sitting at the table eating a hastily prepared dinner with Mama Joy hovering near and seeming, to the raw nerves of Billy, surrounded by an atmosphere of reproach and coy invitation, he kept his eyes turned from her and ate rapidly that he might the sooner quit her presence. Flora was out riding somewhere, she told him when he asked. Dill came in and saved Billy from fleeing the place before his hunger slept, and Billy felt justified in breathing easily and in looking elsewhere than at his plate.

"I see you've been getting busy with the barbwire," he remarked, when he rose from the table and led the way out to the porch.

"Why, no. I haven't done any fencing at all, William," Dill disclaimed.

"Yuh haven't? Who's been fencing up all Montana south uh the creek, then?" Billy turned, a cigarette paper fluttering in his fingers, and eyed Dill intently.

"I believe Mr. Brown is having some fencing done. Mr. Walland stopped here to-day and said they were going to turn in a few head of cattle as soon as the field was finished."

"The dickens they are!" Billy turned away and sought a patch of shade where he might sit on the edge of the porch and dig his heels into the soft dirt. He dug industriously while he turned the matter over in his mind, then looked up a bit anxiously at Dill.

"Say, Dilly, yuh fixed up that leasing business, didn't yuh?" he inquired. "How much did yuh get hold of?"

Dill, towering to the very eaves of the porch, gazed down solemnly upon the other. "I'm afraid you will think it bad news, William. I did not lease an acre. I went, and I tried, but I discovered that others had been there before me. As you would say, they beat me _to it. Mr. Brown leased all the land obtainable, as long ago as last fall."

Billy did not even say a word. He merely snapped a match short off between his thumb and forefinger and ground the pieces into the dirt with his heel. Into the sunlight that had shone placidly upon the castle he had builded in the air for Dill and for himself--yes, and for one other--crept a shadow that for the moment dimmed the whole.

"Say, Dilly, it's hell when things happen yuh haven't been looking for and can't help," he said at last, smiling a little. "I'd plumb got my sights raised to having a big chunk uh Montana land under a Double-Crank lease, but I reckon they can come down a notch. We'll come out on top--don't yuh worry none about _that_."

"I'm not worrying at all, William. I did not expect to have everything come just as we wanted it; that, so far, has not been my experience in business--or in love." The last two words, if one might judge from the direction of his glance, were meant as pure sympathy.

Billy colored a little under the brown. "The calf-crop is running kinda short," he announced hurriedly. "A lot uh cows died off last winter, and I noticed a good many uh that young stock we shipped in laid 'em down. I was hoping we wouldn't have to take any more jolts this season--but maybe I've got more nerves than sense on this land business. I sure do hate to see old Brown cutting in the way he's doing--but if he just runs what cattle he can keep under fence, it won't hurt us none."

"He's fencing a large tract, William--a very large tract. It takes in--"

"Oh, let up, Dilly! I don't want to know how big it is--not right now. I'm willing to take my dose uh bad medicine when it's time for it--but I ain't none greedy about swallowing the whole bottle at once! I feel as if I'd got enough down me to do for a while."

"You are wiser than most people," Dill observed dryly.

"Oh, sure. Say, if I don't see Flora--I'm going to hike back to camp pretty quick--you tell her I'm going to try and pull in close enough to take in that dance at Hardup, the Fourth. I heard there was going to be one. We can't get through by then, and I may not show up at the ranch, but I'll sure be at the dance. I--I'm in a hurry, and I've got to go right now." Which he did, and his going savored strongly of flight.

Dill, looking after him queerly, turned and saw Mama Joy standing in the doorway. With eyes that betrayed her secret she, too, was looking after Billy.

"There is something more I wanted to say to William," explained Dill quite unnecessarily, and went striding down the path after him. When he reached the stable, however, he did not have anything in particular to say--or if he had, he refrained from disturbing Billy, who was stretched out upon a pile of hay in one of the stalls.

"My hoss ain't through eating, yet," said Billy, lifting his head like a turtle. "I'm going, pretty soon. I sure do love a pile uh fresh hay."

Their eyes met understandingly, and Dill shook his head.

"Too bad--too bad!" he said gravely.

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