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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Long Shadow - Chapter 5. The Man From Michigan
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The Long Shadow - Chapter 5. The Man From Michigan Post by :karen444 Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :July 2011 Read :3038

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The Long Shadow - Chapter 5. The Man From Michigan

CHAPTER V. The Man From Michigan

"How old is she, Billy boy, Billy boy,
How old is she, charming Billy?
Twice six, twice seven,
Forty-nine and eleven--
She's a young thing, and cannot leave her mother."

"C'm-awn, yuh lazy old skate! Think I want to sleep out to-night, when town's so clost?" Charming Billy yanked his pack-pony awake and into a shuffling trot over the trail, resettled his hat on his head, sagged his shoulders again and went back to crooning his ditty.

"Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy boy,
Can she make a punkin pie, charming Billy?
She can make a punkin pie
Quick's a cat can wink her eye--"

Out ahead, where the trail wound aimlessly around a low sand ridge flecked with scrubby sage half buried in gray snowbanks, a horse whinnied inquiringly; Barney, his own red-roan, perked his ears toward the sound and sent shrill answer. In that land and at that season travelers were never so numerous as to be met with indifference, and Billy felt a slight thrill of expectation. All day--or as much of it as was left after his late sleeping and later breakfast--he had ridden without meeting a soul; now he unconsciously pressed lightly with his spurs to meet the comer.

Around the first bend they went, and the trail was blank before them. "Thought it sounded close," Billy muttered, "but with the wind where it is and the air like this, sound travels farther. I wonder--"

Past the point before them poked a black head, followed slowly by a shambling horse whose dragging hoofs proclaimed his weariness and utter lack of ambition. The rider, Billy decided after one sharp glance, he had never seen before in his life--and nothing lost by it, either, he finished mentally when he came closer.

If the riders had not willed it so the horses would mutually have agreed to stop when they met; that being the way of range horses after carrying speech-hungry men for a season or two. If men meet out there in the land of far horizons and do not stop for a word or two, it is generally because there is bad feeling between them; and horses learn quickly the ways of their masters.

"Hello," greeted Billy tentatively, eying the other measuringly because he was a stranger. "Pretty soft going, ain't it?" He referred to the half-thawed trail.

"Ye-es," hesitated the other, glancing diffidently down at the trail and then up at the neighboring line of disconsolate, low hills. "Ye-es, it is." His eyes came back and met Billy's deprecatingly, almost like those of a woman who feels that her youth and her charm have slipped behind her and who does not quite know whether she may still be worthy your attention. "Are you acquainted with this--this part of the country?"

"Well," Billy had got out his smoking material, from force of the habit with which a range-rider seizes every opportunity for a smoke, and singled meditatively a leaf. "Well, I kinda know it by sight, all right." And in his voice lurked a pride of knowledge inexplicable to one who has not known and loved the range-land. "I guess you'd have some trouble finding a square foot of it that I ain't been over," he added, mildly boastful.

If one might judge anything from a face as blank as that of a china doll, both the pride and the boastfulness were quite lost upon the stranger. Only his eyes were wistfully melancholy.

"My name is Alexander P. Dill," he informed Billy quite unnecessarily. "I was going to the Murton place. They told me it was only ten miles from town and it seems as though I must have taken the wrong road, somehow. Could you tell me about where it would be from here?"

Charming Billy's cupped hands hid his mouth, but his eyes laughed. "Roads ain't so plenty around here that you've any call to take one that don't belong to yuh," he reproved, when his cigarette was going well. "If Hardup's the place yuh started from, and if they headed yah right when they turned yuh loose, you've covered about eighteen miles and bent 'em into a beautiful quarter-circle--and how yuh ever went and done it undeliberate gets _me_. You are now seven miles from Hardup and sixteen miles, more or less, from Murton's." He stopped to watch the effect of his information.

Alexander P. Dill was a long man--an exceedingly long man, as Billy had already observed--and now he drooped so that he reminded Billy of shutting up a telescope. His mouth drooped, also, like that of a disappointed child, and his eyes took to themselves more melancholy. "I must have taken the wrong road," he repeated ineffectually.

"Yes," Billy agreed gravely, "I guess yuh must of; it does kinda look that way." There was no reason why he should feel anything more than a passing amusement at this wandering length of humanity, but Billy felt an unaccountable stirring of pity and a feeling of indulgent responsibility for the man.

"Could you--direct me to the right road?"

"Well, I reckon I could," Billy told him doubtfully, "but it would be quite a contract under the circumstances. Anyway, your cayuse is too near played; yuh better cut out your visit this time and come along back to town with me. You're liable to do a lot more wandering around till yuh find yourself plumb afoot." He did not know that he came near using the tone one takes toward a lost child.

"Perhaps, seeing I've come out of my way, I might as well," Mr. Dill decided hesitatingly. "That is, if you don't mind."

"Oh, I don't mind at all," Charming Billy assured him airily. "Uh course, I own this trail, and the less it's tracked up right now in its present state the better, but you're welcome to use it--if you're particular to trod soft and don't step in the middle."

Alexander P. Dill looked at him uncertainly, as if his sense of humor were weak and not to be trusted off-hand; turned his tired horse awkwardly in a way that betrayed an unfamiliarity with "neck-reining," and began to retrace his steps beside Charming Billy. His stirrups were too short, so that his knees were drawn up uncomfortably, and Billy, glancing sidelong down at them, wondered how the man could ride like that.

"You wasn't raised right around here, I reckon," Billy began amiably, when they were well under way.

"No--oh, no. I am from Michigan. I only came out West two weeks ago. I--I'm thinking some of raising wild cattle for the Eastern markets." Alexander P. Dill still had the wistful look in his eyes, which were unenthusiastically blue--just enough of the blue to make their color definite.

Charming Billy came near laughing, but some impulse kept him quiet-lipped and made his voice merely friendly. "Yes--this is a pretty good place for that business," he observed quite seriously. "A lot uh people are doing that same thing."

Mr. Dill warmed pitifully to the friendliness. "I was told that Mr. Murton wanted to sell his far---- ranch and cattle, and I was going to see him about it. I would like to buy a place outright, you see, with the cattle all branded, and--everything."

Billy suddenly felt the instinct of the champion. "Well, somebody lied to yuh a lot, then," he replied warmly. "Don't yuh never go near old Murton. In the first place, he ain't a cowman--he's a sheepman, on a small scale so far as sheep go but on a sure-enough big scale when yuh count his feelin's. He runs about twelve hundred woollies, and is about as unpolite a cuss as I ever met up with. He'd uh roasted yuh brown just for saying cattle at him--and if yuh let out inadvertant that yuh took him for a cowman, the chances is he'd a took a shot at yuh. If yuh ask me, you was playin' big luck when yuh went and lost the trail."

"I can't see what would be their object in misinforming me on the subject," Mr. Dill complained. "You don't suppose that they had any grudge against Mr. Murton, do you?"

Charming Billy eyed him aslant and was merciful. "I can't say, not knowing who they was that told yuh," he answered. "They're liable to have a grudge agin' him, though; just about everybody has, that ever bumped into him."

It would appear that Mr. Dill needed time to think this over, for he said nothing more for a long while. Charming Billy half turned once or twice to importune his pack-pony in language humorously querulous, but beyond that he kept silence, wondering what freakish impulse drove Alexander P. Dill to Montana "to raise wild cattle for the Eastern markets." The very simplicity of his purpose and the unsophistication of his outlook were irresistible and came near weaning Charming Billy from considering his own personal grievances.

For a grievance it was to be turned adrift from the Double-Crank--he, who had come to look upon the outfit almost with proprietorship; who for years had said "my outfit" when speaking of it; who had set the searing iron upon sucking calves and had watched them grow to yearlings, then to sleek four-year-olds; who had at last helped prod them up the chutes into the cars at shipping time and had seen them take the long trail to Chicago--the trail from which, for them, there was no return; who had thrown his rope on kicking, striking "bronks"; had worked, with the sweat streaming like tears down his cheeks, to "gentle" them; had, with much patience, taught them the feel of saddle and cinch and had ridden them with much stress until they accepted his mastery and became the dependable, wise old "cow-horses" of the range; who had followed, spring, summer and fall, the wide wandering of the Double-Crank wagons, asking nothing better, secure in the knowledge that he, Charming Billy Boyle, was conceded to be one of the Double-Crank's "top-hands." It was bitter to be turned adrift--and for such a cause! Because he had fought a man who was something less than a man. It was bitter to feel that he had been condemned without a hearing. He had not dreamed that the Old Man would be capable of such an action, even with the latest and least-valued comer; he felt the sting of it, the injustice and the ingratitude for all the years he had given the Double-Crank. It seemed to him that he could never feel quite the same toward another outfit, or be content riding horses which bore some other brand.

"I suppose you are quite familiar with raising cattle under these Western conditions," Alexander P. Dill ventured, after a season of mutual meditation.

"Kinda," Billy confirmed briefly.

"There seems to be a certain class-prejudice against strangers, out here. I can't understand it and I can't seem to get away from it. I believe those men deliberately misinformed me, for the sole reason that I am unfortunately a stranger and unfamiliar with the country. They do not seem to realize that this country must eventually be more fully developed, and that, in the very nature of things, strangers are sure to come and take advantage of the natural resources and aid materially in their development. I don't consider myself an interloper; I came here with the intention of making this my future home, and of putting every dollar of capital that I possess into this country; I wish I had more. I like the country; it isn't as if I came here to take something away. I came to add my mite; to help build up, not to tear down. And I can't understand the attitude of men who would maliciously--"

"It's kinda got to be part uh the scenery to josh a pilgrim," Billy took the trouble to explain. "We don't mean any harm. I reckon you'll get along all right, once yuh get wised up."

"Do you expect to be in town for any length of time?" Mr. Dill's voice was wistful, as well as his eyes. "Somehow, you don't seem to adopt that semi-hostile attitude, and I--I'm very glad for the opportunity of knowing you."

Charming Billy made a rapid mental calculation of his present financial resources and of past experience in the rate of depletion.

"Well. I may last a week or so, and I might pull out to-morrow," he decided candidly. "It all depends on the kinda luck I have."

Mr. Dill looked at him inquiringly, but he made no remark that would betray curiosity. "I have rented a room in a little house in the quietest part of town. The hotel isn't very clean and there is too much noise and drinking going on at night. I couldn't sleep there. I should be glad to have you share my room with me while you stay in town, if you will. It is clean and quiet."

Charming Billy turned his head and looked at him queerly; at his sloping shoulders, melancholy face and round, wistful eyes, and finally at the awkward, hunched-up knees of him. Billy did not mind night noises and drinking--to be truthful, they were two of the allurements which had brought him townward--and whether a room were clean or not troubled him little; he would not see much of it. His usual procedure while in town would, he suspected, seem very loose to Alexander P. Dill. It consisted chiefly of spending the nights where the noise clamored loudest and of sleeping during the day--sometimes--where was the most convenient spot to lay the length of him. He smiled whimsically at the contrast between them and their habits of living.

"Much obliged," he said. "I expect to be some busy, but maybe I'll drop in and bed down with yuh; once I hit town, it's hard to tell what I may do."

"I hope you'll feel perfectly free to come at any time and make yourself at home," Mr. Dill urged lonesomely.

"Sure. There's the old burg--I do plumb enjoy seeing the sun making gold on a lot uh town windows, like that over there. It sure looks good, when you've been living by your high lonesome and not seeing any window shine but your own little six-by-eight. Huh?"

"I--I must admit I like better to see the sunset turn my own windows to gold," observed Mr. Dill softly. "I haven't any, now; I sold the old farm when mother died. I was born and raised there. The woods pasture was west of the house, and every evening when I drove up the cows, and the sun was setting, the kitchen windows--"

Alexander P. Dill stopped very abruptly, and Billy, stealing a glance at his face, turned his own quickly away and gazed studiously at a bald hilltop off to the left. So finely tuned was his sympathy that for one fleeting moment he saw a homely, hilly farm in Michigan, with rail fences and a squat old house with wide porch and hard-beaten path from the kitchen door to the well and on to the stables; and down a long slope that was topped with great old trees, Alexander P. Dill shambling contentedly, driving with a crooked stick three mild-mannered old cows. "The blamed chump--what did he go and pull out for?" he asked himself fretfully. Then aloud: "I'm going to have a heart-to-heart talk with the cook at the hotel, and if he don't give us a real old round-up beefsteak, flopped over on the bare stovelids, there'll be things happen I'd hate to name over. He can sure do the business, all right; he used to cook for the Double-Crank. And you," he turned, elaborately cheerful, to Mr. Dill, "you are my guest."

"Thank you," smiled Mr. Dill, recovering himself and never guessing how strange was the last sentence to the lips of Charming Billy Boyle. "I shall be very glad to be the guest of somebody--once more."

"Yuh poor old devil, yuh sure drifted a long ways off your home range," mused Billy. Out loud he only emphasized the arrangement with:

"Sure thing!"

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