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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 18. Fortune Kicks Again
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 18. Fortune Kicks Again Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1272

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 18. Fortune Kicks Again

CHAPTER XVIII. FORTUNE KICKS AGAIN

It was past noon when Ward rode down the steep slope to the creek bank just above his cabin. He was sunk deep in that mental depression which so often follows close upon the heels of a great outburst of passion. Mechanically he twitched the reins and sent Rattler down the last shelf of bank--and he did not look up to see just where he was. Rattler was a well-trained horse, since he was Ward's. He obeyed the rein signal and stepped off a two-foot bank into a nest of loose-piled rocks that slid treacherously under his feet. Sure-footed though he was, he stumbled and fell; and it was sheer instinct that took Ward's feet from the stirrups in time.

Ward sprawled among the rocks, dazed. The shock of the fall took him out of his fit of abstraction, and he pulled away from Rattler as the horse scrambled up and stood shaking before him. He tried to scramble up also....

Ward sat and stared stupidly at his left leg where, midway between his knee and his foot, it turned out at an unnatural angle. He thought resentfully that he had had enough trouble for once, without having a broken leg on top of it all.

"Now this is one hell of a fix!" he stated dispassionately, when pain had in a measure cooled his first anger. He looked around him like a man who is taking stock of his resources. He was not far from the cabin. He could get there by crawling. But what then?

Ward looked at Rattler, standing docilely within reach of his hand. He considered getting on--if he could, and riding--well, the nearest place was fifteen miles. And that was a good, long way from a doctor. He glanced again at the cabin and tried to study the situation impersonally. If it were some other fellow, now, what would Ward advise him to do under the circumstances?

He reached down and felt his leg gingerly. So far as he could tell, it was a straight, simple break--snapped short off against a rock, he judged. He shook his head over the thought of riding fifteen miles with those broken bones grinding their edges together. And still, what else could he do?

He reached out, took the reins, and led Rattler a step nearer, so that he could grasp the stirrup. With his voice he held the horse quiet while he pulled himself upright upon his good leg. Then, with pain-hurried, jerky movements, he pulled off the saddle, glanced around him, and flung it behind a buck-brush. He slipped off the bridle, flung that after the saddle, and gave Rattler a slap on the rump. The horse moved away, and Ward stared after him with set lips. "Anyway, you can look after yourself," he said and balanced upon his right leg while he swung around and faced the cabin. It was not far--to a man with two sound legs. A hundred yards, perhaps.

Ward crawled there on his hands and one knee, dragging the broken leg after him. It was not a nice experience, but it served one good purpose: It wiped from his mind all thought of that black past wherein Buck had figured so shamefully. He had enough to think of with his present plight, without worrying over the past.

In half an hour or so Ward rested his arms upon his own doorstep and dropped his perspiring face upon them. He lay there a long while, in a dead faint.

After awhile he moved, lifted his head, and looked about him dully at first and then with a certain stoical acceptance of his plight. He looked into the immediate future and tried to forecast its demands upon his strength and to prepare for them. He crawled farther up on the step, reached the latch, and opened the door. He crawled in, pulled himself up by the foot of his bunk, and sat down weakly with his head in his hands. Like a hurt animal, he had obeyed his instinct and had crawled home. What next?

If Ward had been a weaker man, he would have answered that question speedily with his gun. He did think of it contemptuously as an easy way out. If he had never met Billy Louise, he might possibly have chosen that way. But Ward had changed much in the past two years, and at the worst he had never been a coward. His hurt was sending waves of nausea over him, so that he could not concentrate his mind upon anything. Then he thought of the bottle of whisky he kept in his bunk for emergencies. Ward was not a man who drank for pleasure, but he had the Western man's faith in a good jolt of whisky when he felt a cold coming on or a pain in his stomach--or anything like that. He always kept a bottle on hand. A quart lasted him a long time.

He felt along the footboard of the bunk till his fingers touched the bottle, drew it out from its hiding-place--he hid it because stray callers would have made short work of it--and, placing the uncorked bottle to his trembling lips, swallowed twice.

He was steadier now, and the sickness left him like fog before a stiff breeze. His eyes went slowly around the cabin, measuring his resources, and his needs and limitations. He pulled his one chair toward him--the chair which Buck Olney had occupied so unwillingly--and placed his left knee upon it. It hurt terribly, but the whisky had steadied him so that he could bear the pain. He managed to reach the cupboard where he kept his dishes, and took down a bottle of liniment and a box of carbolized vaseline which he happened to have. He was near the two big, zinc water pails which he had filled that morning just to show Buck Olney how cool he was over his capture, and he bethought him that water was going to be precious in the next few weeks.

He lifted down one pail and swung it forward as far as he could, and set it on the floor ahead of him. Then he swung the other pail beside it. Painfully he hitched his chair alongside, lifted the pails and set them forward again. He did that twice and got them beside his bunk. He went back and inspected the tea-kettle, found it half full, and carried that also beside the bunk. Then he took another drink of whisky and rested awhile.

Bandages! Well, there was a new flour-sack hanging on a nail. He stood up, leaned and got it, and while he was standing, he reached for the cigar-box where he kept his bachelor sewing outfit; two spools of very coarse thread, some large-eyed needles to carry it, an assortment of buttons, and a pair of scissors. He cut the flour-sack into strips and sewed the strips together; his stitches were neater than you might think.

When the bandage was long enough, he rolled it as he had seen doctors do, and fished some pins out of the cigar-box and laid them where he could get his fingers on them quickly. He stood up again, reached across to a box of canned milk, and pried off the lid. "I'm liable to need you, too," he muttered to the rows of cans, and pulled the box close. He took Buck Olney's knife and whittled some very creditable splints from the thin boards, and rummaged in his "warbag" under the bunk for handkerchiefs with which to wrap the splints.

When he had done all that he could do to prepare for the long siege of pain and helplessness ahead of him, he moved along the bunk until he was sitting near the head of it with his broken leg extended before him, and took a last look to make sure that everything was ready. He felt his gun at his hip, removed belt and all, and threw it back upon the bed. Then he turned his head and stared, frowning, at the black butt where it protruded from the holster suggestively ready to his hand. He reached out and took the gun, turned it over, and hesitated. No telling what insane impulse fever might bring upon him--and still--no telling what Buck Olney might do when he discovered that he was not in any immediate danger of hanging.

If Buck came back to have it out with him, he would certainly need that gun. He knew Buck, a broken leg wouldn't save him. On the other hand, if the fever of his hurt hit him hard enough-- "Oh, fiddlesticks!" he told himself at last. "If I get crazy enough for that, the gun won't cut much ice one way or the other. There are other ways of bumping off--" So he tucked the gun under the mattress at the head of his bed where he could put his hand upon it if the need came.

Then he removed his boots by the simple method of slitting the legs with Buck's knife, bared his broken leg in the same manner, swallowed again from the bottle, braced himself mentally and physically, gritted his teeth, and went doggedly to work.

A man never knows just how much he can endure or what he can do until he is making his last stand in the fight for self-preservation. Ward had no mind to lie there and die of blood-poisoning, for instance, and broken bones do not set themselves. So, sweating and swearing with the agony of it, he set his leg and bound the splints in place, and thanked the Lord it was a straight, clean break and that the flesh was not torn.

Then he dropped back upon the bed and didn't care whether he lived or not.

Followed days of fever, through which Ward lived crazily and lost count of the hours as they passed. Days when he needed good nursing, and did not get so much as a drink of water, except through pain and effort. Hours when he cursed Buck Olney and thought he had him bound to the chair in the cabin. Hours when he watched for him, gun in hand, through the window beside the bunk.

It was while he was staring glassy-eyed through the window that his attention wandered to the big, white bowl of stewed prunes. They looked good, with their shiny, succulent plumpness standing up like little wrinkled islands in the small sea of brown juice. Ward reached out with his left hand--he was gripping the gun in his right, ready for Buck when he showed up--and picked a prune out of the dish. It was his first morsel of food since the morning when he had tried to eat his breakfast while Buck Olney stared at him with the furtive malevolence of a trapped animal. That was three days ago. The prune tasted even better than it looked. Ward picked out another and another.

He forgot his feverish hallucination that Buck Olney was waiting outside there until he caught Ward off his guard. He lay back on his pillow, his fingers relaxed upon the gun. He closed his eyes and lay quiet. Perhaps he slept a little.

When he opened his eyes he was in the dark. The window was a transparent black square sprinkled with stars. Ward watched them awhile. He thought of Billy Louise; he would like to know how her mother was getting along and how much longer they expected to stay in Boise. He thought of the times she had kissed him--twice, and of her own accord. She would not have done it, either time, if he had asked her; he knew her well enough for that. She must be left free to obey the impulses of that big, brave heart of hers. A girl with a smaller soul and one less fine would have blushed and simpered and acted the fool generally at the mere thought of kissing a man of her own accord. Billy Louise had been tender as Christ Himself, and as sweet and pure. Was there another girl like her in the world? Ward looked at the stars and smiled. There was never such another, he told himself. And she "liked him to pieces"; she had said so. Ward laughed a little in spite of his throbbing leg. "Some other girl would have said, 'Ward, I lo-ove you,'" he grinned. "Wilhemina is different."

He lay there looking up at the stars and thinking, thinking. Once his lips moved. He was saying "Wilhemina-mine" softly to himself. His eyes, shining in the starlight, were very tender. After a long while he fell asleep, still thinking of her. A late moon came up and touched his face and showed it thin and sunken-eyed, yet with the little smile hidden behind his lips, for he was dreaming of Billy Louise.

Some time after daylight Ward woke and wanted a cigarette, which was a sign that he was feeling a little more like himself. He was feverish still, and the beating pain in his leg was maddening. But his brain was clear of fever-fog. He smoked a little of the cigarette he made from the supply on the shelf behind the bunk, and after that he looked about him for something to eat.

He had made a final trip to Hardup two weeks before, and had brought back supplies for the winter. And because his pay streak of gravel-bank had yielded a fair harvest, he had not stinted himself on the things he liked to eat. He lay looking over the piled boxes against the farther wall, and wondered if he could reach the box of crackers and drag it up beside the bunk. He was weak, and to move his leg was agony. Well, there was the dish of prunes on the window-sill.

Ward ate a dozen or so--but he wanted the crackers. He leaned as far as he could from the bed, and the box was still two feet from his outstretched fingers. He lay and considered how he might bring the box within reach.

At the head of the bunk stood the case of peaches and beneath that the case of canned tomatoes, the two forming a stand for his lantern. He eyed them thoughtfully, chewing a corner of his underlip. He did not want peaches or tomatoes just then; he wanted those soda-crackers.

He took Buck Olney's knife--he was finding it a most useful souvenir of the encounter!--and pried off a board from the peach box. Two nails stuck out through each end of the board. He leaned again from the bed, reached out with the board, and caught the nails in a crack on the upper edge of the cracker-box. He dragged the box toward him until it caught against a ridge in the rough board floor, when the nails bent outward and slipped away from the crack. Ward lay back, exhausted with the effort he had made and tormented with the pain in his leg.

After awhile he took the piece of hoard and managed to slide it under the box, lifting a corner of it over the ridge. That was hard work, harder than you would believe unless you tried it yourself after lying three days fasting, with a broken leg and a fever. He had to rest again before he took the other end of the board, that had the good nails, and pulled the box up beside the bunk.

In a few minutes he made another effort and pried part of the cover off the cracker-box with the knife. Then he pulled out half a dozen crackers and ate them, drank half a dipper of water, and felt better.

In an hour or so he believed he could stand it to fix up his leg a little. There was one splint that was poorly wrapped, or something. It felt as though it were digging slivers into his leg, and he couldn't stand it any longer.

He pulled himself up until he was sitting with his back against the wall at the head of his bunk and smoked a cigarette before he went any farther. Then he unwrapped the bandage carefully, removed the splint that hurt the worst, and gently massaged the crease in the bruised, swollen flesh where the narrow board had pressed so cruelly.

The crease itched horribly, and it was too sore to scratch. Ward cussed it and then got the carbolized vaseline and rubbed that on, wincing at the pain of his lightest touch. He did not hurry; he had all the time there was, and it was a relief to get the bandage off his leg for awhile. You may be sure he was very careful not to move those broken bones a hair's breadth!

He rubbed on the vaseline, fearing the liniment would blister and increase his discomfort, and replaced splint and bandage. He was terribly tired afterwards and lay in a half stupor for a long while. He realized keenly that he had a tough pull ahead of him, unless someone chanced to ride that way and so discovered his plight; which was so unlikely that he did not build any hopes upon it.

He had held himself aloof from the men of the country. He knew the Seabeck riders by sight; he had talked a little with Floyd Carson two or three times, and had met Seabeck himself. He knew Charlie Fox in a purely casual way, as has been related; and Peter Howling Dog the same.

None of these men were likely to ride out of their way to see him. And now that his mind worked rationally, he had no fear of Buck Olney's vengeful return. Buck Olney, he guessed shrewdly, was extremely busy just now, putting as many miles as possible between himself and that part of Idaho. Unless Billy Louise should come or send for him, he would in all probability lie alone there until he was able to walk. Ward did not try to comfort himself with any delusions of hope.

As the days passed, he settled himself grimly to the business of getting through the ordeal as comfortably as possible. He had food within his reach, and a scant supply of water. He worked out the question of diet and of using his resources to the best advantage. He had nothing else to do, and his alert mind seized upon the situation and brought it down to a fine system.

For instance, he did not open a can of fruit until the prunes were gone. Then he emptied a can of tomatoes into the bowl as a safeguard against ptomaine poisoning from the tin, and set the empty can on the floor. During the warm part of each day he slid open the window by his bunk and lay with the fresh air fanning his face and lifting the hair from his aching temples.

He tried to eat regularly and to make the fruit juice save his water supply. Sometimes he chewed jerked venison from the bag over his head, but not very often; the salt in the meat made him drink too much. On the whole, his diet was healthful and in a measure satisfying. He did not suffer from the want of any real necessity, at any rate. He smoked a good many cigarettes, but he was wise enough to leave the bottle of whisky alone after that first terrible time when it helped him through a severe ordeal.

He had his few books within reach. He read a good deal, to keep from thinking too much, and he tried to meet the days with philosophic calm. He might easily be a great deal worse off than he was, he frequently reminded himself. For instance, if he had been able to build another room on to his cabin, his bunk and his food supply would have been so widely separated as to cause him much hardship. There were, he admitted to himself, certain advantages in living in one small room. He could lie in bed and reach nearly everything he really needed.

But he was lonesome. So lonesome that there were times when life looked absolutely worthless; when the blue devils made him their plaything, and he saw Billy Louise looking scornfully upon him and loving some other man better; when he saw his name blackened by the suspicion that he was a rustler--preying upon his neighbors' cattle; when he saw Buck Olney laughing in derision of his mercy and fixing fresh evidence against him to confound him utterly.

He had all those moods, and they left their own lines upon his face. But he had one thing to hearten him, and that was the steady progress of his broken leg toward recovery. A long, tedious process it was, of necessity; but as nearly as he could judge, the bone was knitting together and would be straight and strong again, if he did not try to hurry it too much. He tried to keep count of the weeks as they passed. When the days slid behind him until he feared he could not remember, he cut a little notch on the window-sill each morning with Buck's knife, with every seventh day a longer and deeper notch than the others to mark the weeks. The first three days had been so hazy that he thought them only two and marked them so; but that put him only one day out of his reckoning.

He lay there and saw snow slither past his window, driven by a whooping wind. It worried him to know that his calves were unsheltered and unfed while his long stack of hay stood untouched--unless the cattle broke down his fence and reached it. He hoped they would; but he was a thorough workman, and in his heart he knew that fence would stand.

He saw cold rains and sleet. Then there were days when he shivered under his blankets and would have given much for a cup of hot coffee; days when the water froze in the pails beside the bed--what little water was left--and he chipped off pieces of ice and sucked them to quench his thirst. Days when the tomatoes and peaches were frozen in the cans, so that he chewed jerked venison and ate crackers rather than chill his stomach with the icy stuff.

Day by day the little notches and the longer ones reached farther and farther along the window-sill, until Ward began to foresee the time when he must start a new row. Day by day his cheek-bones grew more clearly defined, his eyes bigger and more wistful. Day by day his knuckles stood up sharper when he closed his hands, and day by day Nature worked upon his hurt, knitting the bones together.

But, though he was lean to the point of being skinny, his eyes were clear, and what little flesh he had was healthy flesh. Though he was lonesome and hungry for action and for sight of Billy Louise, his mind had not grown morbid. He learned more of the Bobbie Burns verses, and he could repeat _The Rhyme of the Three Sealers in his sleep, and most of _The Lady of the Lake_. He used to lie and sing at the top of his voice, sometimes: _The Chisholm Trail_--unexpurgated--and _Sam Bass and that doleful ditty about the _Lone Prairie_, and quaint old Scottish songs he had heard his mother sing, long and long ago. His leg would heal of itself if he let it alone long enough, he reminded himself often. His mind he must watch carefully, if he would keep it healthy. He knew that, and each day had its own little battle-ground. Sometimes he won, and sometimes the fight went against him--as is the way with the world.

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