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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 27. Marthy
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 27. Marthy Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1144

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 27. Marthy


Billy Louise led the way down the gorge, through the meadow, and along the orchard to the little gate. The Cove seemed empty and rather forlorn, with the wind creeping up the river and rattling the dry branches of the naked fruit trees. Not much more than twenty-four hours had slid into the past since Billy Louise had galloped away from the place, yet she felt vaguely that life had taken a big stride here since she last saw it. Nothing was changed, though, as far as she could see. A few cattle fed in the meadow next the river, a fattening hog lifted himself from his bed of straw and grunted at them as they passed. A few chickens were hunting fishworms in the thawed places of the garden, and a yellow cat ran creepingly along the top rail of the nearest corral, crouched there with digging claws and pounced down into a flock of snowbirds. A drift of dead apple leaves stirred uneasily beside the footpath through the berry bushes. Billy Louise started nervously and glanced over her shoulder at Seabeck. For some reason she wanted the comfort of his presence. She waited until he came up to her--tall, straight like a soldier, and silent as the Cove itself.

"I'm--scared," said Billy Louise. She did not smile either when she said it. "I--hate empty-feeling places. I'm--afraid of emptiness."

"Yet you are always riding alone in the hills." Seabeck looked down at her with a puzzled expression in his eyes.

"The hills aren't empty," she told him impatiently. "They're just big and quiet. This is--" She flung out a hand and did not try to find a word for what she felt.

"Shall I go first? I thought you would rather--"

"I would." Billy Louise pulled herself together, angry at her sudden impulse to run, as she had run from Ward's quiet cabin. She remembered that unreasoning panic--was it really only yesterday?--and went steadily up the path and across the little ditch which Marthy had dug. Why must sordid trouble and dull misery hang over a beauty-spot like this? she thought resentfully.

She stopped for a minute on the doorstep, hesitating before she opened the door. Behind her, Seabeck drew close as if he would shield her from something; perhaps he, too, felt the deadly quiet and emptiness of the place.

Billy Louise opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. She stopped and stood still, so that her slim figure would have hidden the interior from the eyes of Seabeck had he not been so tall. As it was, she barred his way so that he must stand on the step outside.

By the kitchen table, with her elbows on the soiled oilcloth, sat Marthy. Her uncombed hair hung in wisps about her head; her hard old face was lined and gray, her hard eyes dull with brooding. Billy Louise, staring at her from the doorway, knew that Marthy had been sitting like that for a long, long time.

She went over to her diffidently. Hesitatingly she laid her gauntleted hand on Marthy's stooped shoulder. She did not say anything. Marthy did not move under her touch, except to turn her dull glance upon Seabeck, standing there on the doorstep.

"C'm in," she said stolidly. "What'd yuh come fer?"

"Miss MacDonald will perhaps explain--"

"She ain't got nothin' to explain," said hard old Marthy with grim finality. "I'll do what explainin's to be done. C'm in. Don't stand there like a stump. And shut the door. It's cold as a barn here, anyway."

"Oh, Marthy!" cried Billy Louise, with the sound of tears in her voice.

"Don't oh Marthy me," said the harsh voice flatly. "I don't want no Marthyin' nor no sympathy. Well, old man, you're here to colleck, I s'pose. Take what's in sight; 'tain't none of it yourn, far's I know, but anything you claim you kin have, fer all me. I've lived honest all my days an' worked fer what I got. I've harbored thieves in my old age and trusted them that wa'n't fit to be trusted. I've allus paid my debts, Seabeck. I'm willin' to pay now fer bein' a fool."

"W-where's Charlie?" Billy Louise leaned and whispered the question.

"I d'no, and I don't care. He's pulled out--him an' that breed. I'll have t' pay yuh for seven growed cattle I never seen till yist'day, Seabeck. You can set yer own price on 'em. I ain't sure, but I've got an idee they was shot las' night an' dumped in the river. You c'n set yer price. I've got rheumatiz so bad I couldn't go 'n' put a stop to nothin'--but--"

"Oh, Marthy!" Billy Louise was shivering and crying now. "Marthy! Don't be so--so hard. It was all Charlie--"

"Yes," said Marthy harshly, "it was all Charlie. He was a thief, an' I was sech a simple-minded old fool I never knowed what he was. I let him go ahead, an' I set in the house with a white apurn tied on me an' thought I was havin' an easy time. I set here and let him rob my neighbors that I ain't never harmed er cheated out of a cent, and soon's he thought he was found out, he--left ole Marthy to look after herself. Never so much as fed the hogs or done the milkin' first! Looky here, Seabeck! You'll git paid back, an' I'll take your figgers fer what I owe, but if you git after Charlie, I'll--kill yuh. You let 'im go, I'm the one he hurt most--and I ain't goin'--" She laid her frowsy old head on her arms, like one who is utterly crushed and dumb.

"Oh, Marthy!" Billy Louise knelt and threw her arms around Marthy's shoulders.

"You've got to come and lie down, Marthy," said Billy Louise, after a long, unbroken silence.

"Mr. Seabeck, if you'll start a fire, I'll make some tea for her. Come, Marthy--just to please me. Do it for Billy Louise, Marthy."

The old woman rose stiffly, and with a feebleness that seemed utterly foreign to her usual energy, permitted Billy Louise to lead her from the kitchen. In the sitting-room that Charlie had built and furnished for her, Marthy lay and stared around her with that same dull apathy she had shown from the first. Only once did she manifest any real emotion, and that was when Billy Louise came in with some tea and toast.

"You take all them books outa them shelves an' burn 'em up," she commanded. "An' you take them two pictures off'n that shelf, of him an' her, an' bring 'em t' me."

Billy Louise set the toast and tea down on a chair and brought the pictures. She did not say a word, but she looked a little scared and her eyes were very big, just as they had been when Ward mistook her for Buck Olney and so let her see into another one of the dark places of life. It seemed to Billy Louise that she was being compelled to look into a good many dark places, lately.

Marthy took the two photographs and looked at the first with hatred. "The Jezebel! She won't git to run it over ole Marthy," she muttered with sullen triumph and twisted the cardboard spitefully in her gnarled old fingers. "She can't come here an' take all I've got an' never give me a thankye for it. I'm shet uh her, anyway." She twisted again and yet again, till the picture was a handful of ragged scraps of cardboard. Then she raised herself to an elbow and flung the fragments far from her and lay down again with glum satisfaction.

Her fingers touched the other picture, which had slid to the couch. Mechanically she picked it up and held it so that the light from the window struck it full. This was Charlie's face--Charlie with the falsely frank smile in his eyes, and with his lips curved as they did when he was just going to say, "Now, Aunt Martha!" in tender protest against her too eager industry.

Marthy's chin began to quiver while she looked. Her lips sagged with the pull of her aching heart. For the third time in her life Billy Louise saw big, slow tears gather in Marthy's hard blue eyes and slide down the leathery seams in her cheeks. Billy Louise looked, found her vision blurring with her own tears, and turned and tiptoed from the room.

Seabeck was gone somewhere on his horse. Billy Louise guessed shrewdly that he was down in the meadows, looking over the cattle and trying to estimate the extent of the thievery. She put Blue in the stable and fed him, with that half-mechanical habit of attending to the needs of one's mount which becomes second nature to the range-bred. She would not go on to the Wolverine; that needed no decision; she accepted it at once as a fact. Marthy needed her now more than anyone. More even than Ward, though Billy Louise hated to think of him up there alone and practically helpless. But Marthy must have her to-night. Marthy was facing her bitterest sorrow since Minervy died, and Marthy was old. Ward, Billy Louise reminded herself sternly, was not old, and he was facing happiness--so far as he or anyone knew. She wanted very much to be with Ward, but she could not delude her conscience into believing that he needed her more than did Marthy.

Seabeck returned after awhile, and Billy Louise, who was watching from the doorway, met him at the little gate as he was coming up to the house.

"Well, how bad is it, Mr. Seabeck?" she asked sharply, just because she felt the imperative need of facts--she who had struggled so long in the quicksands of suspicion and doubts and fears and suspense.

"Hmm-mm--how bad is it--in the house?" he countered. "The real crime has been committed there, it seems to me. A few head of cattle, more or less, don't count for much against the broken heart of an old woman."

"Oh!" Billy Louise, her hands clenched upon the gate, stared up wide-eyed into his face. And this was the real Seabeck, whom she had known impersonally all her life! This was the real man of him, whom she had never known; a flawless diamond of a soul behind those bright blue eyes and that pointed, graying beard; poet, philosopher, gentleman to the bone. "Oh! You saw that, too! And they're your cattle that were stolen! You saw it--oh, you're--you're--"

"Hmm-mm--a human being, I hope, Miss MacDonald, as well as a mere cattleman. How is the old lady?"

"Crying," said Billy Louise, with brief directness. "Crying over the picture of that--swine. Think of his running off and leaving her here all alone--and not even doing the chores first!" (Here, you must know, was broken an unwritten law of the ranch.) "And Marthy's got rheumatism, too, so she can hardly walk--"

"I'll attend to the chores, Miss MacDonald." Seabeck's lips quirked under the fingers that pulled at his whiskers. "You say--over his picture?"

"Yes, over his picture!" Billy Louise spoke with a suppressed fury. "With that honest look in his eyes--oh, I could kill him!"

"Hmm-mm--it does seem a pity that one can't. But if she can cry--"

"I see. You believe too that tears are a necessary kind of weakness for a woman, like smoking tobacco is for a man--or swearing. Well, I can just tell you, Mr. Seabeck, that some tears pull the very soul out of a person; they're the red-hot pinchers of the torture-chamber of life, Mr. Seabeck. Every single, slow tear that Marthy sheds right now is taking that much away from her life. Why, she--she idolized that--that devil. She hadn't much that was lovable in poor old Jase; he was just her husband; he wasn't even a real man. And she never had any children to love, except a little girl that died. And she's worked here and scrimped and saved till she got just fairly comfortable, and then Charlie Fox came and patted her on the back and called her a game little lady, and poor old Marthy just poured out all the love and all the trust she had in her, on him! And she's old, and she had starved all her life for a little love--a little affection and a few kind words. I don't suppose Jase kissed her once in twenty years; I couldn't imagine him getting up steam enough to kiss anybody! And Charlie petted her and did little things for her that nobody had ever done in her life. It meant a whole lot to Marthy to have a man take the water bucket away from her and give her a little hug and tell her she mustn't think of carrying water; oh, you're a man, and I don't suppose you can realize; I didn't myself, till lately--" Billy Louise blushed and then twisted her lips, wondering if love had taught her all this.

"And so Marthy just leaned more and more on him and let him take care of her and pet her; and she never once dreamed he was doing anything crooked. I thought she did, I know, Mr. Seabeck. I thought she was in it, too; but I see now that Marthy has been living the woman in her, these last two years; she'd never had a chance before. And now to have him--to know he's just a common thief and to have him go off and leave her--Mr. Seabeck, I'd be willing to bet all I've got that Marthy would have forgiven his stealing cattle, if he had just stayed. She'd have done anything on earth for him; and the bigger the sacrifice she made for him, the more she would have loved him; women are like that. But to have him go off--and--leave her--and not bother his head about what happened to her, just so he got out of it--Mr. Seabeck, that's going to kill Marthy. It's going to kill her by inches."

"I--see," he assented, looking thoughtfully at the flushed face and big, shining eyes of Billy Louise. (I wonder if Seabeck was not thinking how he had known Billy Louise impersonally all her life and yet had never met the real Billy Louise until to-day!)

"And yet," she added bitterly, "she's going to protect him if it takes every cent she's managed to rake together these last thirty years. You heard what she told you. She said she'd kill you if you hurt Charlie. She'd try it, too."

"Hmm-mm, yes! My life has been threatened several times to-day." Seabeck looked at her with eyes a-twinkle, and Billy Louise blushed to the crown of her Stetson hat. "Do you think, Miss MacDonald, she would feel like talking business for a few minutes?"

"Oh, yes; if she's like me, she'll want to get the agony over with." Billy Louise turned with a twitch of the shoulders. She felt chilled, somehow. She had not quite expected that Seabeck would want to talk about his stolen stock at all. She had rather taken it for granted that he would let that subject lie quiet for awhile. Oh, well, he was a cattleman, after all.

Marthy did not attempt to rise when Seabeck followed Billy Louise into the sitting-room. She caught up her apron and wiped her eyes and her nose, however, and she also slid Charlie's picture under the cheap cushion. After that she faced Seabeck with harsh composure and waited for the settlement.

"Hm-mm! I have been looking over the cattle," he began, sitting on the edge of a chair and turning his black hat absently round and round by the brim. "You--mm-mm--you tell me there were seven head of grown stock--"

"That they shot and throwed in the river, with the brands cut out," interpolated Marthy stolidly. "I heard 'em say that's how they would git rid of 'em, an' I heard 'em shootin' down there."

"Hmm-mm, yes! Do you know just what--"

"Five dry cows 'n' two steers--long two-year-oles, I jedged 'em to be." Marthy was certainly prompt enough and explicit enough. And her lips were grim, and her faded blue eyes hard and steady upon the face of Seabeck.

"Hmm-mm--yes! I find also," he went on in his somewhat precise voice that had earned him the nickname of "Deacon" among his punchers, "that there are more young stock vented and rebranded than I--er--sold your nephew. Fourteen head, to be exact. With the cattle you tell me which were--mm-m--disposed of last night, that would make twenty-one head of stock for which--mm-mm--I take it you are willing to pay."

"I ain't got the money now," Marthy stated, too apathetic to be either defiant or placating. "You c'n fix up the papers t' suit yerself. I'll sign anything yuh want."

"Hmm-mm--yes! A note covering the amount, with legal rate of interest, will be--quite satisfactory, Mrs. Meilke. I shall make a lump sum at the going price for mixed stock. If you have a blank note, I--"

"You kin look in that desk over there," permitted Marthy. "If yuh don't find any there, there ain't none nowhere."

Seabeck did not find any blank notes. He found an eloquent confusion of jumbled letters and accounts and papers, and guessed that the owner had done some hasty sorting and straightening of his affairs. He sighed, and his blue eyes hardened for a minute. Then Billy Louise moved from the door and went over to kneel comfortingly beside Marthy, and Seabeck looked at the two and sighed again, though his eyes were no longer stern. He pulled a sheet of paper toward him and wrote steadily in a prim, upright chirography that had never a flourish anywhere, but carefully crossed t's and carefully dotted i's and punctuation marks of beautiful exactness.

"You will please sign here, Mrs. Meilke," he said calmly, coming over to them with the sheet of paper laid smoothly upon a last-year's best-seller and with Charlie's fountain pen in his other hand. "And if Miss MacDonald will also sign, as an endorser, I think I can safely do away with any mortgage or other legal security."

Billy Louise stood up and gave him one look--which Seabeck did not appreciate, because he did not see it.

"I'd ruther give a mortgage," Marthy said uneasily, sitting up suddenly and looking from one to the other. "I don't want Billy Louise to git tangled up in my troubles. She's got plenty of her own. Her maw's just died, Mr. Seabeck. And I'll bet there was a hospital 'n' doctor's bill bigger 'n this cattle note, to be paid. I don't want to pile on--"

"Now, Marthy, you be still. I'm perfectly willing to sign this note with you. If it will satisfy Mr. Seabeck, I'm sure it's the very least we can do--or--expect." Billy Louise, bless her heart, was trying very hard to be grateful to Seabeck in spite of the slump he had suffered in her estimation.

"Well, I'll want your written word that yuh won't prosycute Charlie nor help nobody else prosycute him," stipulated Marthy, with sudden shrewdness. "If me 'n Billy Louise signs this note, we'll pay it; and we want some pertection from you, fer Charlie."

"Hmm-mm--I see!" He turned and went back to the littered desk and wrote carefully again upon another sheet of paper. "I think this will be quite satisfactory," he said, and handed the paper to Marthy.

"Git my specs, Billy Louise--off 'n the shelf over there," she said, and read the paper laboriously, her lips forming the letters of every word which contained more than one syllable. Marthy, remember, was a plainswoman born and bred.

"I guess that'll do," she pronounced at last, pushing the spectacles up on her lined forehead. "You read it, Billy Louise, 'n' see what yuh think."

"I think it's all right, Marthy," said Billy Louise, after she had read the document twice. "It's a bill of sale; and it also wipes the slate clean of any possible--I think Mr. Seabeck is very c-clever."

Whereupon Marthy signed the note, with a spluttering of the abused pen in her stiffened old fingers and a great twisting of her grim mouth as she formed the capitals. Then Billy Louise wrote her name with a fine, schoolgirl ease and a little curl on the end of the last d. Seabeck took the paper from the tips of Billy Louise's supercilious fingers, returned with it to the desk for a blotter, hunted an envelope, folded the note carefully, and laid it away inside.

"I believe that is all, Mrs. Meilke. I hope you will suffer no further uneasiness on account of your--nephew."

"I'm liable t' suffer some gittin' that five hundred dollars paid up," Marthy returned with some acerbity. "I'm much obleeged to yuh, Mr. Seabeck, fer bein' so easy on us. If yuh hadn't drug Billy Louise into it, I'd say yer too good to be human."

"Hmm-mm--not at all," Seabeck stammered deprecatingly and left the room with what haste his natural dignity would permit.

That ended the Seabeck part of the whole sordid affair, except that he remained for another hour, doing chores and making everything snug for the night. Also he filled the kitchen woodbox as high as he could pile the sticks and brought water to last overnight--since Charlie's plan to pipe water into the cabin had remained a beautiful plan and nothing more. Billy Louise thanked Seabeck, when he was ready to go.

"I knew you were square, and you're really big-souled, too. I'll remember it always, Mr. Seabeck."

"Will you?" Seabeck looked down at her, with his hand upon the latch. "Even if you are put in a position where you must pay that note--you will still-- Hm-mm! I see. Before I go, Miss MacDonald, I should like your permission to send a man down here to look after things."

"No, you mustn't." Billy Louise spoke with prompt decision. "Marthy might think you were--you see, it wouldn't do. I'll see about getting a man. If you will take this note up and leave it in the mail-box for me, John Pringle will come up to-morrow. We'll manage all right."

"You're quite right. But, Miss MacDonald, there is something else. I--er--should like to give you a little--wedding gift, since you honored me with the news of your approaching--mm-m--marriage. As an old neighbor, and one of your most sincere admirers, who would feel greatly honored by your friendship, I--should like to have you accept this--" He held something out to Billy Louise and pulled open the door for instant escape. "Good night, Miss MacDonald. I think it will storm." Then he was gone, hurrying down the narrow path with long strides, his tall figure bent to the wind, his coat napping around his lean legs.

Billy Louise closed the door and her half-open mouth and let down her lifted eyelids. Standing with her back against the wall, she turned that something--an envelope--over twice, then tore off the end and pulled out the contents. It was the note she and Marthy had signed no longer than an hour ago, and written large across the face of it were the words: "Paid, Samuel Seabeck."

"The--old--darling!" said Billy Louise under her breath and went straight in to show it to Marthy.

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