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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 22. The Billy Of Her
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 22. The Billy Of Her Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2617

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 22. The Billy Of Her

CHAPTER XXII. THE BILLY OF HER

Since she had closed up on the cattle and had read on their sides the shameful story of theft, Billy Louise had known that she would eventually come out at the lower end of the Cove; and that in spite of the fact that the Cove was not supposed to have any egress save through the gorge. What surprised her was the short distance; she had not realized that the bluff and the upland formed a wide curve, and that she had cut the distance almost in half by riding next the river.

She seemed in no doubt as to what she would do when she arrived. Billy Louise was not much given to indecision at any time. She drove the cattle into the corral farthest from the house, rode on to the stable, and stopped Blue with his nose against the fence there and with his reins dragging. Then, tight-lipped still, she walked determinedly along the path to the gate that led through the berry-jungle to the cabin.

She opened the gate and stepped through, closing it after her. She had not gone twenty feet when there was a rush from the nearest thicket, and Surbus, his hair ruffed out along his neck, growled and made a leap at her with bared fangs.

Billy Louise had forgotten about Surbus. She jumped back, startled, and the dog missed landing. When he sprang again he met a thirty-eight calibre bullet from Billy Louise's gun and dropped back. It had been a snap shot, without any particular aiming; Billy Louise retreated a few steps farther, watching the dog suspiciously. He gathered himself slowly and prepared to spring at her again. This time Billy Louise, being on the watch for such a move, aimed carefully before she fired. Surbus dropped again, limply--a good dog forever more.

Billy Louise heard a shrill whistle and the sound of feet running. She waited, gun in hand, ready for whatever might come.

"Hey! Charlie! Somebody's come; the bell, she don't reeng." Peter Howling Dog, a pistol in his hand, came running down the path from the cabin. He saw Billy Louise and stopped abruptly, his mouth half open.

From a shed near the stable came Charlie, also running. Billy Louise waited beside the gate. He did not see her until he was close, for a tangled gooseberry bush stood between them.

"What was it, Peter? Somebody in the Cove? Or was it you--"

"No, it wasn't Peter; it was me." Billy Louise informed him calmly and ungrammatically. "I shot Surbus, that's all."

"Oh! Why, Miss Louise, you nearly gave me heart failure! How are you? I thought--"

"You thought somebody had gotten into the Cove without your knowing it. Well, someone did. I rode up from below, along the river."

"Oh--er--did you? Pretty rough going, wasn't it? I didn't think it could be done. Come in; Aunt Martha will be--"

"I don't think she'll be overjoyed to see me." Billy Louise stood still beside the gooseberry bush, and she had forgotten to put away her gun. "I drove up those cattle you had down below. You're awfully careless, Charlie! I should think Peter or Marthy would have told you better. When a man steals cattle by working over the brands, it's very bad form to keep them right on his ranch in plain sight. It--isn't done by the best people, you know." Her voice stung with the contempt she managed to put into it. And though she smiled, it was such a smile as one seldom saw upon the face of Billy Louise.

"What's all this? Worked brands! Why, Miss Louise, I--I wouldn't know how to--"

"I know. You did an awful punk job. A person could tell in the dark it was the work of a greenhorn. Why didn't you let Peter do it, or Marthy? You could have done a better job than that, couldn't you, Marthy?"

Poor old Marthy, with her rheumatic knees and a gray hardness in her leathery face, had come down the path and stood squarely before Billy Louise, her hands knuckling her flabby hips, her hair blowing in gray, straggling wisps about her bullet head.

"Better than what? Come in, Billy Louise. I'm right glad to see ye back and lookin' so well, even if yuh do 'pear to be in one of your tantrums. How's yer maw?"

Billy Louise gasped and went white. "Mommie's dead," she said. "She died the ninth." She drew another gasping breath, pulled herself together, and went on before the others could begin the set speeches of sympathy which the announcement seemed to demand.

"Never mind about that, now. I'm talking about those Seabeck cattle you folks stole. I was telling Charlie how horribly careless he is, Marthy. Did you know he let them drift down the river? And a blind man could tell a mile off the brands have been worked!" Billy Louise's tone was positively venomous in its contempt. "Why didn't you make Charlie practise on a cowhide for awhile first?" she asked Marthy cuttingly.

Marthy ignored the sarcasm. Perhaps it did not penetrate her stolid mind at all. "Charlie never worked any brands, Billy Louise," she stated with her glum directness.

"Oh, I beg his pardon, I'm sure! Did you?"

"No, I never done such a thing, neither. I don't know what you're talkin' about."

"Well, who did, then?" Billy Louise faced the old woman pitilessly.

"I d'no." Marthy lifted her hand and made a futile effort to tuck in a few of the longest wisps of hair.

"Well, of all the--" The stern gray eyes of Billy Louise flew wide open at the effrontery of the words. If they expected her to believe that!

"That's it, Miss Louise. That's the point we'd like to settle, ourselves. I know it sounds outrageous, but it's a fact. Peter and I found those cattle up in the hills, with our brand worked over the V. On my word of honor, not one of us knows who did it."

"But you've got them down here--"

"Well--" Charlie threw out a hand helplessly. His eyes met hers with appealing frankness. "We couldn't rub out the brands; what else could we do? I figured that somebody else would see them if we left them out in the hills, and it might be rather hard to convince a man; you see, we can't even convince you! But, so help me, not one of us branded those cattle, Miss Louise. I believe that whoever has been rustling stock around here deliberately tried to fix evidence against us. I'm a stranger in the country, and I don't know the game very well; I'm an easy mark!"

"Yes, you're that, all right enough!" Billy Louise spoke with blunt disfavor, but her contemptuous certainty of his guilt was plainly wavering. "To go and bring stolen cattle right down here--"

"It seemed to me they'd be safer here than anywhere else," Charlie observed naively. "Nobody ever comes down here, unknown to us. I had it sized up that the fellow who worked those brands would never dream we'd bring the stock right into the Cove. Why, Miss Louise, even I would know better than to put our brand on top of Seabeck's and expect it to pass inspection. If I wanted to steal cattle, I wouldn't go at it that way!"

Billy Louise glanced uncertainly at him and then at Marthy, facing her grimly. She did not know what to think, and she showed it.

"How do you mean--the real rustlers?" She began hesitatingly; and hesitation was not by any means a mental habit with Billy Louise.

"I mean just what I said." Charlie's manner was becoming more natural, more confident. "I've been riding through the hills a good deal, and I've seen a few things. And I've an idea the fellow got a little uneasy." He saw her wince a little at the word "fellow," and he went on, with an impulsive burst of confidence. "Miss Louise, have you ever, in your riding around up above Jones Canyon, in all those deep little gulches, have you ever seen anything of a--corral, up there?"

Billy Louise held herself rigidly from starting at this. She bit her lips so that it hurt. "Whereabouts is it?" she asked, without looking at him. And then: "I thought you would go to any length before you would accuse anybody."

"I would. But when, they deliberately try to hand me the blame--and I'm not accusing anybody--anybody in particular, am I? The corral is at the head of a steep little canyon or gulch, back in the hills where all these bigger canyons head. Some time when you're riding up that way, you keep an eye out for it. That," he added grimly, "is where Peter and I ran across these cattle; right near that corral."

The heart of Billy Louise went heavy in her chest. Was it possible? Doubts are harder to kill than cats or snakes. You think they're done for, and here they come again, crowding close so that one can see nothing else.

"Have you any idea at all, who--it is?" She forced the words out of her dry throat. She lifted her head defiantly and looked at him full, trying to read the truth from his eyes and his mouth.

Charlie Fox met her look, and in his eyes she read pity--yes, pity for her. "If I have," he said, with an air of gently deliberate evasion, "I'll wait till I am dead sure before I name the man. I'm not at all sure I'd do it even then, Miss Louise; not unless I was forced to do it in self-defense. That's one reason why I brought the cattle down here. I didn't want to be placed in a position where I should be compelled to fight back."

Billy Louise ran her gloved fingers down the barrel of her gun, and stuck the weapon back in its holster. "I killed Surbus, Marthy," she said dully. "I had to. He came at me."

Marthy turned heavily toward the spot which Billy Louise indicated with her downward glance. She had not seen the dog lying there half hidden by a berry bush. Marthy gave a grunt of dismay and went over to where Surbus lay huddled. Her hard old face worked with emotion.

"You shot him, did yuh?" Marthy's voice was harsh with reproach. "What did he do to yuh, that you had to go t' work and shoot him? He warn't your dog, he was mine! I must say you're gittin' high-an'-mighty, Billy Louise, comin' here shootin' my dog and accusin' Charlie and me to our faces uh bein' thieves. And your maw not cold in 'er grave yit! I must say you're gitting too high-an'-mighty fer old Marthy. And me payin' fer your schoolin' and never gitting so much as a thankye fer it, and scrimpin' and savin' to make a lady out of yuh. And here you come in a tantrum, callin' me a thief right in my face! You knowed all along who worked them brands. If yuh don't, I kin mighty quick tell ye--"

"Now, Aunt Martha, never mind scolding Billy Louise; you know you think as much of her as you do of me, and that's throwing a big bouquet at myself!" Charlie went up and laid his arm caressingly over the old woman's shoulder. "You don't want to let this upset you, Aunt Martha. Surbus was a mean-tempered brute with strangers. You know that. I don't blame Miss Louise in the least. She was frightened when he came at her, and she hadn't presence of mind enough to see he was only bluffing and wouldn't hurt--"

"Bluffing, was he?" Billy Louise roused herself to meet this covert attack upon her courage. "So are you bluffing. And so is Marthy, when she says she paid for my--" She stopped, confronting an accusing memory of mommie's mysterious silence about the school money, and her own passing curiosity which had never been satisfied. "Even if she did, I don't know why she need throw it up to me now. I never asked her for money. Nobody ever did. And that has nothing to do with Surbus, anyway. He's a nasty, mean brute that ought to have been killed long ago. I'm not a bit sorry. I'm glad I did kill him."

"Yes, I know yuh be. You're hard as--"

"I wouldn't talk about hardness, if I were you, Marthy! What are you, right now--and always? Was I to blame for thinking those cattle had been stolen? They're in the Cove, with your brand on. And unless you pay Seabeck for them, you're stealing them if you keep them. It doesn't matter who put the brand on; you're keeping the cattle. What do you call that, I'd like to know? They're down here in the big corral now. If you mean to do what's square, you'll take them up to Seabeck's and explain--"

"Explain who it was ran our brand on?" Charlie's voice was silk over iron. "I'm afraid if I were forced into explanations, I'd have to tell all I know, Miss Louise. Do you advise that--really?"

"I don't advise anything." Baffled and angry and hurt to the very soul of her, Billy Louise opened the gate and went out. "It strikes me you Cove folks are not wanting advice these days, or needing it. If you know anything to tell, for heaven's sake don't hold back on my account! It's nothing to me, one way or the other. I'm no rustler, and no friend of rustlers, if that's what you're hinting at." She left them with a proud lift to her chin and a very straight back, went to Blue, and mounted him mechanically. Billy Louise was "seeing red" just then. She rode back past the gate, the three were still standing there close together, talking. Billy Louise swung round in the saddle so that she faced them.

"You needn't worry, Marthy, about that school-money," she called out angrily. "I'll take your word for it and pay you back every cent, with legal rate of interest. And I'm darned glad I did shoot Surbus!"

"Oh, say, Miss Louise!" Charlie called placatingly. "Please don't go away feeling--"

"You go to the devil!" Billy Louise flung back at him and touched Blue with her heel. "I hope that shocked some of the politeness out of him, anyway," she added grimly to herself. "Oh, I hate everything--Ward and God and all! I hate life--I hate it!"

She pulled Blue down to a walk and rode slowly for a couple of rods, fighting against the reaction that crept inexorably over her anger, chilling it and making it seem weak and unworthy. With a sudden impulse born of her stern instincts of justice, she jerked Blue around and galloped back. Charlie had disappeared, and Peter Howling Dog was walking sullenly toward the corraled cattle. Marthy was going slowly up the path to the cabin, looking old and bent and broken-spirited because of her bowed shoulders and stiff, rheumatic gait, but harsh and unyielding as to her face. Billy Louise stopped by the fence and called to her. Marthy turned, stared at her sourly, and stood where she was.

"Wall, what d'yuh want now?" she asked uncompromisingly.

Billy Louise fought back an answering antagonism. She must be just; she could not blame Marthy for feeling hard toward her. She had insulted them horribly and killed Marthy's dog.

"I want to tell you I'm sorry I was so mean, Marthy," she said bravely. "I haven't any excuse to make for it; only you must see yourself what a shock it would be to a person to find those cattle down here. But I know you're honest, and so is Charlie. And I know you'll do what's right. I'm sorry I told Charlie to go to the devil, and I'm sorry I shot your dog, Marthy."

Apologies did not come easily to Billy Louise. She wheeled then and rode away at a furious gallop, before Marthy could do more than open her grim lips for reply.

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