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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 11. Was It The Dog?
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 11. Was It The Dog? Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3275

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 11. Was It The Dog?

CHAPTER XI. WAS IT THE DOG?

"That old dame down there thinks a lot of you, William." Ward had closed the gate and was preparing to remount.

"Well, is there any reason why she shouldn't?" The tone of Billy Louise was not far from petulant.

"Not a reason. What's molla, Bill?"

"Nothing that I know of." Billy Louise lifted her eyes to the rock cabbages on the cliff above them and tried to speak convincingly.

"Yes, there is. Something's gone wrong. Can't you tell a pal, Wilhemina?"

There was no resisting that tone. Billy Louise looked at him, and though she still frowned, her eyes lightened a little.

"No, I can't tell a pal--or anybody else. I don't know. Something's different, down there. I don't know what it is, and I don't like it." She thought a minute and then smiled with that little twist of the lips Ward liked so much. "Maybe it's the dog," she guessed. "I never see his ugly mug that I don't feel like taking a shot at him. I like dogs, too, as a general thing. He's got a wicked heart! I know he has. He'd like nothing better than to take a chunk out of me."

"I'll go back and kill him; shall I, Bill Loo?"

"No. Some day maybe I'll get a chance at him myself. I've warned Marthy, so--"

"Are you dead sure it's the dog?" Ward looked at her with that keenness of glance which was hard to meet if one wanted to keep a secret from him.

"Why?" Billy Louise's tone did not invite further questioning.

"Oh, nothing! I just wondered."

"You don't like Charlie; anybody can see that."

"Yes? Foxy's a real nice young man."

"But you don't like him. You never do like anybody--"

"No?" Ward's smile dared her to persist in the accusation. "In that case I've no business to be fooling around here when there's work to be done. That Cove down there has roused a heap of brand-new wants in me, Wilhemina. Gotta have an orchard up on Mill Creek, lady-fair. Gotta have a flower garden and things that climb all over the house and smell nice. Gotta have four times as much meadow as I've got now, and a house full of books and pictures and things, and more cattle and horses, and a yellow canary in a yellow cage singing his head off out on the porch. Gotta work like one son-of-a-gun, Wilhemina, to get all those things and get 'em quick, so I can stand some show of--getting what I really do want."

"Well, am I keeping you?" Billy Louise was certainly in a villainous mood.

"You are," Ward affirmed quite calmly. "Only for you, I'd be hustling like the mischief right this minute along the get-rich trail. Say, Bill, I don't believe it's the dog!" He looked at her with the smile hiding just behind his lips and his eyes. And behind the smile, if one's insight were keen enough to see it, was a troubled anxiety. He shifted the pail of currants to the other arm and spoke again:

"What is it, Wilhemina? Something's bothering you. Can't you tell a fellow what it is?"

"No, I can't." Billy Louise spoke crossly. "I've got a headache. I've been riding ever since this morning, and I should think that's reason enough. I wish to goodness you'd let me alone. Go on back to work, if you're so crazy about working; I'm sure I don't want to hinder you in any of your get-rich-quick schemes!" She shut her teeth together with a click, jerked Blue angrily into the trail when he had merely stepped out of it to avoid a rock, and managed to make him as conscious of her mood as was Ward.

Ward eyed her unobtrusively with his face set straight ahead. He glanced down at the pail of currants, which was heavy, and at the trail, which was long and lonely. He twisted his lips in brief sarcasm--for he had a temper of his own--and rode on with his neck set very stiff and his eyes a trifle harder than they had ever been before when Billy Louise rode alongside. He did not turn off at the ford--and Billy Louise betrayed by a quick glance at him that she had half expected him to desert her there--but crossed it beside her and rode on up the hill.

He had made up his mind that he would not speak to her again until she wiped out, by apology or a change of manner, that last offensive remark of hers. He hoped she realized that he was only going with her to carry the currants, and he hoped she realized also that, if she had been any other person who had spoken to him like that, he would have dumped the currants on the ground and ridden off and left her to her own devices.

He did not once speak to Billy Louise on the way to the Wolverine; but his silence changed gradually from stubbornness to pure abstraction, as they rode leisurely along the dusty trail with the sunset glowing before them. He almost forgot the actual presence of Billy Louise, and he did actually forget her mood. He was planning just how and where he should plant his orchard, and he was mentally building an addition to the cabin and screening a porch wide enough to hang a hammock inside, and he was seeing Billy Louise luxuriously swinging in that hammock while he sat close, and smoked and teased and gloried in his possession of her companionship.

His thoughts shuttled to his little mine, though he seldom dignified it by that title. He speculated upon the amount of gold he might yet hope to wash out of that gravel streak, though he had held himself sternly back from such mental indulgence all the spring. He felt that he was going to need every grain of gold he could glean. He wanted his wife--he glowed at the mere thinking of that name--to have the nicest little home in the country. He decided that it would be pleasanter than the Cove, all things considered; he had a fine view of the rugged hills from his cabin, and he imagined the Cove must be pretty hot during the days, with that high rock wall shutting off the wind and reflecting the sun. His own place was sheltered, but still it was not set down in the bottom of a well. She had liked it. She had said...

They rode over the crest of the bluff and down the steep trail into the Wolverine. However cloudy the atmosphere between the two, the ride had seemed short--so short that Ward felt the jar of surprise when he looked down and saw the cabin below them. He glanced at Billy Louise, guessed from her somber face that the villainous mood still held her, and sighed a little. He was not deeply concerned by her mood. He understood her too well to descend into any slough of despondence because she was cross. Then he remembered the reason she had given--the reason he had not believed at the time. They were down by the gate, then.

"Head still ache, William?" he asked, in the tone which he could make a fair substitute for a caress.

"Yes," said Billy Louise, and did not look at him.

Ward was inwardly skeptical, but he did not tell her so. He swung off his horse, set down the pail of currants, and took Blue by the bridle.

"You go on in. I'll unsaddle," he commanded her quietly. And Billy Louise, after a perceptible hesitation, obeyed him without looking at him or speaking a word.

If Ward resented her manner, which was unreasonably uppish, he could not have chosen a more effective revenge. He talked with Mrs. MacDonald all through supper and paid no attention to Billy Louise. After supper he spied a fairly fresh Boise paper, and underneath that lay the _Butte Miner_. That discovery settled the evening, so far as he was concerned. If he and Billy Louise had been on the best of terms, it is doubtful if she could have dragged his attention from those papers.

Several times Billy Louise looked at him as though she meditated going over and snatching them away from him, but she resisted the temptation and continued to behave as a nice young woman should behave toward a guest. She left him sitting inside by the lamp, which her mother had lighted for his especial convenience, and went out and sat on the doorstep and stared at the dusky line of hills and at the Big Dipper. She was trying to think out the tangle of tiny, threadlike mysteries that had enmeshed her thoughts and tightened her nerves until she could not speak a decent word to anyone.

She felt that the lives of those around her were weaving puzzle-patterns, and that she must guess the puzzles. And she felt as though part of the patterns had been left out, so that there were ragged points thrusting themselves upon her notice--points that did not point to anything.

She sat with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her cupped palms, and scowled at the Big Dipper as if it held the answer away up there beyond her reach. Where did Ward get the money to do all the things he had done, this spring and summer? If he expected her to believe that wolf story--!

What became of the cattle that had disappeared, by twos and threes and sometimes more, in the last few months? Was there a gang of thieves operating in the country, and where did they stay?

Why had Ward hinted that she did not like Charlie Fox, and why didn't he himself like Charlie? Why had she felt that weight of depression creep over her when they were leaving the Cove? Why? Why?

Billy Louise tried to bring her cold, common sense to the front. She had found it a most effective remedy for most moods. Now it assured her impatiently that every question--save one--had been born in her own super-sensitive self. That one definite question was the first one she had tried to answer. It kept asking itself, over and over, until in desperation Billy Louise went to bed and tried to forget it in sleep.

Somewhere about midnight--she had heard the clock strike eleven a long while ago--she scared her mother by sitting up suddenly in bed and exclaiming relievedly: "Oh, I know; it's some new poison! He poisons them!"

"Wake up! For the land's sake, what are you dreaming about?" Her mother shook her agitatedly by the arm. "Billy Louise! Wake up!"

"All right, mommie." Billy Louise lay down and snuggled the light blanket over her shoulders. She had been awake and thinking, thinking till she thought she never could stop, but she did not tell mommie that. She went to sleep and dreamed about poisoned wolves till it is a wonder she did not have a real nightmare. The question was answered, and for the time being the answer satisfied her.

Ward was surely an unusual type of young man. He did not seem to remember, the next morning, that there had been any outbreak of bottled emotions on his part the day before, or any ill-temper on the part of Billy Louise, or anything at all out of the ordinary. Billy Louise had prepared herself to apologize--in some roundabout manner which would effect a reconciliation without hurting her pride too much--and she was rather chagrined to discover that Ward seemed neither to expect or to want any apology.

"Sorry I gotta go, William," he volunteered whimsically soon after breakfast. "But I gotta dig. Say, Wilhemina, if I stay away long enough, will you come after me again?"

"A wise man," said Billy Louise evasively, "may do a foolish thing once, but only a fool does it twice."

"I don't believe it's the dog." Ward shook his head at her in mock meditation. "It wouldn't last overnight, if it was just the dog." He looked at her with the hidden smile. "Are you sure--"

"I'm sure you know how to pester a person!" The lips of Billy Louise twisted humorously. "Lots of things bother me, and you ought to help me out instead of making it worse." She walked beside him down to the corral where Rattler was waiting, saddled and bridled for the homeward journey.

"Well, tell a fellow what they are. Of course, if it's the dog--"

"Ward Warren, you're awful! It isn't the dog. Well, it is, but there are heaps of other things I want to know, that I don't know. And you don't seem to care about any single one of them."

Ward leaned up against the fence and tilted his hat to shade his eyes from the sun. "Name a few of them, William Louisa. Not even a brave young buckaroo can be expected to mind-read a girl. If he could--"

"Well, is it poison you use?" Billy Louise thought it best to change Ward's trend of thought immediately. "Last night it just came to me all at once that you must have found some poison besides strychnine--"

"Eh? Oh, I see!" He managed a rather provoking slur on the last word. "No, William." His eyes twinkled at her. "It isn't poison. What's the other thing you want to know?"

Billy Louise frowned, hesitated, and, accepting the rebuff, went on to the next question:

"What went with Seabeck's cattle, and Marthy and Charlie's, and all the others that have disappeared? You don't seem to care at all that there seems to be rustling going on around here."

Ward gave her a quick look. His tone changed a bit:

"I don't know that there is any. I never yet lived in a cow-country where there wasn't more or less talk of--rustling. You don't want to take gossip like that too seriously. Anything more?"

Billy Louise glanced at him surreptitiously and looked away again. Then she tried to go on as casually as she had begun.

"Well, there's something about the Cove. I don't believe Marthy's happy. I couldn't quite get hold of the thing yesterday that gave me the blues--but it's Marthy. She's grieving, or something. She's different. She's changed more since last winter than she's changed since I can remember. You noticed something--at least you spoke about her coming up the gorge--"

"I said she thinks a lot of you, Wilhemina." Ward's tone and manner were natural again. "I noticed her looking at you when you didn't know it. She thinks a heap of you, I should say, and she's worrying about something. Maybe she'd rather have you in the Cove than Miss Gertrude M. Shannon. Don't you reckon an old lady that has had her own way all her life kind of dreads the advent of a brand-new bride in her domain?"

"Why, of course! Poor old thing! I never thought of that. And here you hit the nail on the head just with a chance thought. That shows what it means to be a brave young buckaroo, with heaps and piles of brains!" She laughed at him, but behind her bantering was a new respect for Ward's astuteness. "Go on. Tell me why you don't like Charlie Fox, or why you refuse to admit how nice and kind he is and--"

"But I don't refuse--"

"Well, I put it stupidly, of course, but you know what I mean. Tell me your candid opinion of him."

"I haven't any." Ward smoked imperturbably for a minute, so that Billy Louise began to think he would not tell her what she wanted to know. Ward could be absolutely, maddeningly dumb on some subjects, as she had reason to know. But he continued, quite frankly for him:

"Has it ever struck you, William Jane, that after all Foxy is not sacrificing such a hell of a lot?" He bit his lip because of the word he had let slip, but since Billy Louise took no notice, he went on: "He's got a pretty good thing, down there, if you stop to think. The old lady won't live always, and she's managed to build up a pretty fine ranch. It stands Foxy in hand to be good to her, don't you think? He'll have a pretty fine stake out of it. Far as I know, he's all right. I merely fail to see where he's got a right to wear any halo on his manly brow. He's got a good hand in the game, and he's playing it--a heap better than lots of men would. Dot's all, Wilhemina." He turned to her as if he would dismiss the subject. "Don't run off with the notion that I'm out after the heart's blood of our young hee-ro. I like him all right--far as he goes. I like him a heap better," he owned frankly, "since I glommed him devouring that letter from Miss Gertrude M. Shannon.

"Don't you want to ride a ways with me?" His eyes made love while he waited for her to speak. "Don't?" (When she shook her head.) "You're a pretty mean young person sometimes, aren't you? Wha's molla? Did I give you more mood than I wiped off the slate?"

"I don't know. You say a sentence or two, and it's like slashing a knife into a curtain. You show all kinds of things that were nicely covered before." Billy Louise spoke gloomily. "I'll see Marthy as a poor old lady waiting to be saddled with a boss, from now on. And Charlie Fox just simply working for his own interests and--"

"Now, William!"

"Oh, I can see it myself, now."

"Well, what if he is? We're all of us working for our own interests, aren't we?" He saw the gloom still deep in her eyes and flung out both hands impatiently. "All right, all right! I'll plead the cause of our young hee-ro, then. What would old Marthy do without him? He's made her more comfortable than she ever was in her life, probably. I noticed a big difference in the cabin, yesterday. And he's doing the work, and taking the responsibility, and making the ranch more valuable--even put a wire on the gate, that rings a bell at the house, so she'll know when company's coming, and can get the kitchen swept. He's done a lot--"

"For himself!" In her disillusionment Billy Louise went too far the other way. "And the cabin is more comfortable for that girl when he brings her there to run over Marthy!"

"Well, what of it? You don't expect him to put in his time for nothing, do you? In the last analysis we're all self-centered brutes, Wilhemina. We're thinking once for the other fellow and twice for ourselves, always. I'm working and scheming day and night to get a stake--so I can have what means happiness to me. Marthy's letting Foxy have full swing in the Cove, because that gives her an easier life than she's ever had. If she didn't want him there, she'd mighty quick shoo him up the gorge, or I don't know the old lady. We're all selfish."

"I think it's a horrid world!" rebelled the youthful ideals of Billy Louise. "I wish you wouldn't say you're just thinking of yourself--"

"I'm human," he pointed out. "I want my happiness. So do you, for that matter. We all want to get all we can out of life."

"And at the other fellow's expense!"

"Oh, not necessarily. Some of us want the other fellow to be just as happy as we are." His look pointed the meaning for him.

"I don't care; I think it's mean of Charlie Fox to bring--"

"Maybe not. The chances are the young lady will take to housework like a bear-cub to a syrup keg, and old Marthy will potter around with her flowers and be perfectly happy with the two of them. Cheer up, Bill Loo! Lemme have a smile, anyway, before I go. And I wish," he added quizzically, "you'd spare me some of that sympathy you've got going to waste. I'm a poor lonesome devil working away to get a stake, and you know why. I don't have nobody to give me a kind word, and I don't have no fun nor nothing, nohow. Come on and ride a mile or two!"

"I have to help mommie," said Billy Louise, which was not true.

"Well, if you won't, darn it, don't!" Ward reached down, caught her hand, and squeezed it, taking a chance on being seen. "Gotta go, Wilhemina-mine. Adios. I won't stay away so long next time." He turned away to his horse, stuck his foot in the stirrup; and went up into the saddle without any apparent effort. Then he swung Rattler close to where she stood beside the gate.

"Sure you want to be just pals, Wilhemina-mine?" he asked, bending close to her.

"Of course I'm sure," said Billy Louise quickly--a shade too quickly.

Ward looked at her intently and shrugged his shoulders. "All right," he said, in the tone which made plain his opinion of her decision. "You're the doctor."

Billy Louise watched him up the hill and out of sight over the top. When he was gone, she caught Blue and saddled him; then, with her gun buckled around her hips and her rope coiled beside the saddle-fork, she rode dismally up the canyon.

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