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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Long Shadow - Chapter 20. The Shadow Lies Long
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The Long Shadow - Chapter 20. The Shadow Lies Long Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :July 2011 Read :3391

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The Long Shadow - Chapter 20. The Shadow Lies Long

CHAPTER XX. 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.

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