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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 21. Seven Lean Kine
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 21. Seven Lean Kine Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2615

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 21. Seven Lean Kine

CHAPTER XXI. SEVEN LEAN KINE

"And you looked good, all up above here?" Billy Louise held Blue firmly to a curved-neck, circling stand, while she had a last word with John before she went off on one of her long rides.

"All up in the hills, and round over by Cedar Creek, and all over." John's mittened gesture was even more sweeping than his statement. "I guess mebby them rustlers git 'em."

"Well, I'm going up to the Cove. I may not be back before dark, so don't worry if I'm late. Maybe I'll look along the river. I know one place where I believe cattle can get down to the bottom, if they're crazy enough to try it. You didn't look there, did you?"

"No, I never looked down there. I know they can't git down nohow."

"Well, all right; maybe they can't." Billy Louise slackened the reins, and Blue went off with short, stiff-legged jumps. It had been a long time since he had felt the weight of his lady, and his mood now was exuberant, especially so, since the morning was clear, with a nip of frost to tingle the skin and the glow of the sun to promise falsely the nearness of spring. The hill trail steadied him a little, though he went up the steepest pitch with rabbit-jumps and teetered on his toes the rest of the way.

Billy Louise laughed a little, leaned, and grabbed a handful of slatey mane. "Oh, you Blue-dog!" she said, for that was his full name. "Life is livable, after all, as long as a fellow has got you and can ride. You good-for-nothing old ten-dollar hoss! I--wonder would it be wicked to sing? What do you think, Blue? You'd sing, I know, at the top of your voice, if you could. Say, Blue! Don't you wish, you were a donkey, so you could stick out your neck and go _Yee-ee_-haw! _Yee-ee_--haw? Try it once. I believe you could. It's that or a run, one or the other. You'll bust, if you don't do something. I know you!"

At last on the high level, seeing Blue could not bray his joy to the world, Billy Louise let him go. She needed some outlet, herself, after those horrible, dull weeks weighted with tragedy. She had been raised on horseback, almost; and for two terrible months she had not been in the saddle. And there is nothing like the air of the Idaho hills to stir one's blood and send it singing.

Through the sagebrush and rocks, weaving in and out, slacking speed a little while he went down into deep gullies, thundering up the other side, and racing away over the level again, went Blue. And with him, laughing, tingling with new life, growing pinker-cheeked every minute, went Billy Louise. Her mother's death did not oppress her then. She thought of her as she raced, but she thought of her with a little, tender smile. Her mother was resting peacefully, and there was no more pain or worry for the little, pale, frail woman who had lived her life and gone her way.

"Dear old mommie!" said Billy Louise under her breath. "Your kid is almost as happy as you are, right now. Don't be shocked, there's a dear, or think I'm going to break my neck. Blue and I have just simply got to work off steam. You, Blue!" She leaned another inch forward.

Blue threw up his head, lifted his heels, and ran like a scared jackrabbit over the uneven ground. They were not keeping to the trail at all; trails were too tame for them in that mood. They ran along the rim-rock at the last, where Billy Louise could glance down, now and then, at the river sliding like a bright-blue ribbon with icy edges through the gray, snow-spotted hills.

"Hold on, Blue!" Billy Louise pulled up on the reins. "Quit it, you old devil! A mile ought to be enough for once, I should think. There's cattle down there in that bottom, sure as you live. And we, my dear sir, are going down there and take a look at them." She managed to pull Blue down to stiff-legged jumps and then to a walk. Finally she stopped him, so that she could the better take in her surroundings and the possibilities of getting down.

In the country it is as in the cities. One forms habits of journeying. One becomes perfectly familiar with every hill and every little hollow in certain directions, while some other, closer part remains practically unexplored. Billy Louise had always loved the Wolverine canyon, and its brother, Jones canyon, which branched off from the first. As a child she had explored every foot of both, and had ridden the hills beyond. As a young woman she had kept to the old playground. Her cattle ranged at the head of the canyons.

The river bottoms came as near being unknown territory as she could have found within forty miles of her home. For one thing, the river bottom was narrow, except where was the Cove, and pinched in places till there seemed no way of passing from one to another. Little pockets there were, tucked away under the rocky bluff with its collar of "rim-rock" above. One might climb down afoot, but Billy Louise was true to her range breeding; she never went anywhere afoot if she could possibly get there on a horse. And down there by the river she never had happened to find it necessary to go, either afoot or a-horseback. Still, if cattle could get down there--

"I guess we'll have to ride back a way," she said, after a brief inspection, during which Blue stood so close to the rim that Billy Louise must have had a clear head to feel no tremor of nerves or dizziness.

She turned and rode slowly back along the edge, looking for the place where she believed cattle could get down if they were crazy enough to try.

"Don't look very encouraging, does it, Blue?" Billy Louise stared doubtfully at the place, leaning and peering over the rim. "What d'ye think? Reckon we can make it?"

Blue had caught sight of the moving specks far down next the river and up the stream half a mile or more. He was a cow-horse to the bone. He knew those far-off specks for cattle, and he knew that his lady would like a closer look at them. That's what cattle were made for: to haze out of brush and rocks and gullies and drive somewhere. So far as Blue knew, cattle were a game. You hunted them out of ungodly places, and the game was to make them go somewhere else against their wishes. He prided himself on being able to play that game, no matter what were the odds against him.

Now he tilted his head a little and looked down at the bluff beneath him. The game was beginning. He must get down that bluff and overtake those specks and drive them somewhere. He glanced up and down the bluff to see if a better trail offered. Billy Louise laughed understandingly.

"It's this or nothing, Blue. Looks pretty fierce, all right, doesn't it? Of course, if you're going to make a perfect lady get off and walk--"

Blue snuffed at the ledge with his neck craned. The rim-rock had crumbled and sunk low into the bluff, like a too rich pie-crust when the oven is not quite hot enough. From a ten- or fifteen-foot wall it shrunk here to a three-foot ledge. And below the rocks and bowlders were not actually piled on top of one another; there were clear spaces where a wary, wise, old cow-horse might possibly pick his way.

Blue chose his trail and crumpled at the knees with his hoofs on the very edge of the ledge; went down with a cat-jump and landed with all four feet planted close together. He had no mind to go on sliding in spite of himself, and the bluff was certainly steep enough to excuse a bungle.

"So far so good." Billy Louise glanced ruefully back at the ledge. "We're down; but how the deuce do you reckon we'll get up again?"

Blue was not worrying about that part. He went on, picking his way carefully among the bowlders, with his nose close to earth, setting his hindlegs stiffly and tobogganing down loose, shale slopes. Billy Louise sat easily in the saddle and enjoyed it all. She was making up in big doses for the drab dullness of those hospital weeks. She ought to walk down the bluff, for this was dangerous play; but she craved danger as an antidote to that shut-in life of petty rules and regulations.

It was with a distinct air of triumph that Blue reached the bottom, even though he slid the last forty feet on his haunches and landed belly-deep in a soft snow-bank. It was with triumph to match his perky ears that Billy Louise leaned and slapped him on the neck. "We made it!" she cried, "and I didn't have to walk a step, did I, Blue? You're there with the goods, all right!"

Blue scrambled out of the bank to firm footing on the ripened grass of the bottom, and with a toss of his head set off in a swinging lope, swerving now and then to avoid a badger hole or a half-sunken rock. They had done something new, those two; they had reached a place where neither had ever been before, and Blue acted as if he knew it and gloried in the escapade quite as much as did his lady.

The cattle spied them and went trotting away up the river, and Blue quickened his stride a little and followed after. Billy Louise left the reins loose upon his neck. Blue could handle cattle alone quite as skillfully as with a rider, if he chose.

The cattle dodged into a fringe of bushes close to the river and disappeared, which was queer, since the bluff curved in close to the bank at that point. Blue pricked up his ears and went clattering after, slowed a little at the willow-fringe, stuck his nose straight out before him, and went in confidently. The cattle were just ahead. He could smell them, and his listening ears caught their heavy breathing. It was very rocky there in the willows, and he must pick his way with much care. But when he crashed through on the far side, and Billy Louise straightened from leaning low along his neck to avoid the stinging branches, the cattle gave a snort and went lumbering away, still following the river.

This was another small, grassy bottom. Blue went galloping after them, indignant that they should even attempt to elude him. They were making for the head of that pocket, and Billy Louise twitched the reins suggestively. Blue obeyed the hint, which proved that the human brain is greater in strategy than is brute instinct, and raced in an angle from the fleeing cattle. Billy Louise leaned and called to him sharply for more speed; called for it and got it. They jumped a washout that the cattle went into and out of with great lunges, farther down toward its mouth. They gained a little there, and by a burst of hard running they gained more on the level beyond.

The cattle began to swerve away from them, closer to the river. Blue pulled ahead a little, swerving also, and as Billy Louise tightened the reins, he slowed and circled them craftily until they huddled on the steep bank, uncertain which way to go. Billy Louise pulled Blue down to a walk as she drew near and eyed the cattle sharply. They did not look like any of hers, after all. There were five dry cows and two steers.

One of the steers stood broadside to Billy Louise. The brand stared out from his dingy red side, the most conspicuous thing about him. Billy Louise caught her breath. There was no faintest line that failed to drive its message into her range-trained brain. She stared and stared. Blue looked around at her inquiringly, reproachfully. Billy Louise sent him slowly forward and stirred up the huddled little bunch. She read the brand on each one; read the story they shouted at her, of bungling theft. She could not believe it. Yet she did believe it, and she went hot with anger and disappointment and contempt. She sat and thought for a minute or two, scowling at the cattle, while she decided what to do.

Finally she swung Blue on the down-stream side and shouted the range cattle-cry. The animals turned awkwardly and went upstream, as they had been going before Billy Louise stopped them. Blue followed watchfully after, content with the game he was playing. Where the bluffs drew close again to the river, the cattle climbed to a narrow, shelving trail through the rocks and went on in single file, picking their way carefully along the bluff. Below them it fell sheer to the river; above them it rose steeply, a blackened jumble, save where the snow of the last storm lay drifted.

Billy Louise had never known there was a trail up this gorge. She eyed it critically and saw where bowlders had been moved here and there to make its passage possible. Her lips were set close together and they still bore the imprint of her contempt.

She thought of Ward. Mentally she abased herself before him because of her doubts. How had she dared think him a thief? Her brave buckaroo! And she had dared think he would steal cattle! Her very remorse was a whip to lash her anger against the guilty. She hurried the cattle along the dangerous trail, impatient of their cautious pace.

When finally they clattered down to the level again, it was to plunge into willow thickets whose branches reached out to sweep her from the saddle. Blue went carefully, stopping now and then at a word from his lady, to wait while she put a larger, more stubborn branch out of her way. She could not see just where she was going, but she knew that she was close upon the cattle, and that they seemed familiar with the trail. Now and then she caught sight of a rough-haired rump and switching tail in the thicket before her. Then the whip-like branches would swing close, and she could see nothing but their gray tangle reaching high above her head. She could hear the crackling progress of the cattle close ahead, and the gurgling clamor of the river farther away to her right. But she could not see the bluff for the close-standing willows, and she did not know whether it was near or far to its encircling wall.

Then, just as she was beginning to think the willows would never end, she came quite suddenly out into the open, and Blue lifted himself and jumped a dry ditch. The cattle were before her, shambling along the fenced border of a meadow.

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