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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 12. The Little Devils Of Doubt
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 12. The Little Devils Of Doubt Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3001

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 12. The Little Devils Of Doubt

CHAPTER XII. THE LITTLE DEVILS OF DOUBT

Wolverine canyon, with the sun shining down aslant into its depths, was a picturesque gash in the hills, wild enough in all conscience, but to the normal person not in the least degree gloomy. The jutting crags were sunlit and warm. The cherry thickets whispered in a light breeze and sheltered birds that sang in perfect content. The service berries were ripening and hung heavy-laden branches down over the trail to tempt a rider into loitering. The creek leaped over rocks, slid thin blades of swift current between the higher bowlders, and crept stealthily down into shady pools, where speckled trout lay motionless except for the gently-moving tail and fins that held them stationary in some deeper shadow. Not a gloomy place, surely, when the peace of a sunny morning laid its spell upon the land.

Billy Louise, however, did not respond to the canyon's enticements. She brooded over her own discouragements and the tantalizing little puzzles which somehow would not lend themselves to any convincing solution. She was in that condition of nervous depression where she saw her finest cows dead of bloat in the alfalfa meadows--and how would she pay that machinery note, then? She saw John Pringle calling unexpectedly and insistently for his "time"--and where would she find another man whom she could trust out of her sight? John Pringle was slow, and he was stupid and growled at poor Phoebe till Billy Louise wanted to shake him, but he was "steady," and that one virtue covers many a man's faults and keeps him drawing wages regularly.

Her mother had been more and more inclined to worry as the hot weather came on; lately her anxiety over small things had rather gotten upon the nerves of Billy Louise. She felt ill-used and down-hearted and as if nothing mattered much, anyway. She passed her cave with a mere glance and scowl for the memories of golden days in her lonely childhood that clung around it. She passed Minervy's cave, and her lips quivered with self-pity because that childhood was gone, and she must not waste time or energy upon romantic "pretends," but must measure haystacks and allow so much for "settling," and then add and multiply and divide all over two sheets of tablet paper to find out how much hay she had to winter the stock on. She must hold herself rigidly to facts, and tend fences and watch irrigating ditches, and pay interest on notes three or four years old, and ride the hills and work her way through rocky canyons, keeping watch over the cattle that meant so much. She had meant to talk over things with Ward and ask his advice about certain details that required experienced judgment. But Ward had precipitated her thoughts into strange channels and so had unconsciously thwarted her counsel-seeking intentions. She had wanted to talk things over with Marthy, and Marthy had also unconsciously prevented her doing so and had filled Billy Louise with uneasiness and doubt which in no way concerned herself.

These doubts persisted, and so did the tantalizing little puzzles. They weaned Billy Louise's thoughts from her own ranch worries and nagged at her with the persistence of a swarm of buffalo gnats.

"Well, if he doesn't use poison, for goodness' sake, what does he use?" she asked indignantly aloud, after a period of deep thought. "I don't see why he wants to be so terribly secretive. He might be human enough to tell a person what he means. I'm sure I'd tell him, all right. I don't believe it's wolves at all. I don't see how--and still--I don't believe Ward would really lie to me."

She was in this particularly dissatisfied mood when she rode out of the canyon at its upper end, where the hills folded softly down into grassy valleys where her cattle loved best to graze. Since the grass had started in the spring, she had kept her little herd up here among the lower hills; and by riding along the higher ridges every day or so and turning back a wandering animal now and then, she had held them in a comparatively small area, where they would be easily gathered in the fall. A few head of Seabeck's stock had wandered in amongst hers, and some of Marthy's. And there was a big, roan steer that bore the brand of Johnson, over on Snake River. Billy Louise knew them all, as a housewife knows her flock of chickens, and if she missed seeing certain leaders in the scattered groups, she rode until she found them. Two old cows and one big, red steer that seemed always to have a following wore bells that tinkled pleasant little sounds in the alder thickets along the creek, as she passed by.

She rode up the long ridge which gave her a wide view of the surrounding hills and stopped Blue, while she stared moodily at the familiar, shadow-splotched expanse of high-piled ridges, with deep green valleys and deeper-hued canyons between. She loved them, every one; but to-day they failed to steep her senses in that deep content with life which only the great outdoors can give to one who has learned how satisfying is the draught and how soothing.

Far over to the eastward a black dot moved up a green slope and slid out of sight beyond. That might be Ward, taking a short-cut across the hill to his claim beyond the pine-dotted ridge that looked purple in the distance. Billy Louise sighed with a vague disquiet and turned to look away to the north, where the jumble of high hills grew more rugged, with the valleys narrower and deeper.

Here came two other dots, larger and more clearly defined as horsemen. From mere objects that stood higher than any animal and moved with a purposeful directness, they presently became men who rode with the easy swing of habit which has become a second nature. They must have seen her sitting still upon her horse in the midst of that high, sunny plateau, for they turned and rode up the slope toward her.

Billy Louise waited, too depressed to wonder greatly who they were. Seabeck riders, probably; and so they proved. At least one of them was a Seabeck man--Floyd Carson, who had talked with her at her own gate and had told her of the suspected cattle-stealing. The other man was a stranger whom Floyd introduced as Mr. Birken.

They had been "prowling around," according to Floyd, trying to see what they could see. Floyd was one of these round-faced, round-eyed, young fellows who does not believe much in secrecy and therefore talks freely whenever and wherever he dares. He said that Seabeck had turned them loose to keep cases and see if they couldn't pick up the trail of these rustlers who were trying to get rich off a running iron and a long rope. (If you are of the West, you know what that means; and if you are not, you ought to guess that it means stealing cattle and let it go at that.) It was not until he had talked for ten minutes or so that Billy Louise became more than mildly interested in the conversation.

"Say, Miss MacDonald," Floyd asked, by way of beginning a new paragraph, "how about that fellow over on Mill Creek? He worked for you folks a year or so ago, didn't he? What does he do?"

"He has a ranch," said Billy Louise with careful calm. "He's been working on it this summer, I believe."

"Uh-huh--we were over there this morning. Them Y6 cattle up above his place are his, I reckon?"

"Yes," said Billy Louise. "He's been putting his wages into cattle for a year or so. He worked for Junkins last winter. Why?"

"Oh, nothing, I guess! Only he's the only stranger in the country, and his prosperity ain't accounted for--"

"Oh, but it is!" laughed Billy Louise. "I only wish I had half as clear a ticket. When he isn't working out, he's wolfing; and every dollar he gets hold of he puts into that ranch. We've known him a long time. He doesn't blow his money, you see, like most fellows do."

Floyd found occasion to have a slight argument with his horse, just then. He happened to be one of the "most" fellows, and the occasion of his last "blow-out" was fresh in his mind.

"Well, of course, if you know he's all straight, that settles it. But it sure seems queer--"

"That fellow is straight as a string. Don't you suppose it's some gang over on the river, Floyd? I'd look around over there, I believe, and try to get a line on the unaccountables. There's a lot of new settlers come in, just in the last year or two, and there might be some tough ones scattered through the bunch. Better see if there has been any cattle shipped or driven through that way, don't you think?"

"We can try," Floyd assented without eagerness. "But as near as we can figure, it's too much of a drib-drab proposition for that. A cow and calf here and there, and so on. We got wind of it first when we went out to bring in a gentle cow that the deacon wanted on the ranch. We knew where she was, only she wasn't there when we went after her. We hunted the hills for a week and couldn't find a sign of her or her calf. And she had stuck down in the creek bottom all the spring, so it looked kinda funny." He twisted in the saddle and looked back at the pine-clotted ridge.

"There's a Y6 calf up there that's a dead ringer for the one we've been hunting," he observed. "But it's running with a cow that carries Junkins' old brand, So--" He looked apologetically into the calm eyes of Billy Louise. "Of course, I don't mean to say there's anything wrong up there," he hastily assured her. "But that's the reason I thought I'd ask you about that fellow."

"Oh, it's perfectly right to make sure of everybody," smiled Billy Louise. "I'd do the same thing myself. But you'll find everything's all straight up there. We know all about him, and how and where he got his few head of stock, and everything. But of course you could ask Junkins, if you have any doubt--"

"Oh, we'll take your word for it. I just wanted to know; he's a stranger to our outfit. I've seen him a few times; what's his name? Us boys call him Noisy. It's like pulling a wisdom tooth to get any kinda talk out of him."

"He is awful quiet," assented Billy Louise carelessly. "But he's real steady to work."

"Them quiet fellows generally are," put in Mr. Birken. "You run stock in here too, do you, Miss MacDonald?"

"The big Ds," answered Billy Louise and smiled faintly. "I've been range-herding them back here in these foothills this summer. Do you want to look through the bunch?"

Mr. Birkin blushed. "Oh, no, not at all! I was wondering if you had lost any."

"Nobody would rustle cattle from a lady, I hope? At any rate, I haven't missed any yet. The folks down in the Cove have, though."

"Yes, I heard they had. That breed rode over to see if he could get a line on them. It's hard luck; that Charlie Fox seems a fine, hard-working boy, don't you think?"

"Yes-s," said Billy Louise shyly, "he seems real nice." She looked away and bit her lip self-consciously as she spoke.

The two men swallowed the bait like a hungry fish. They glanced at each other and winked knowingly. Billy Louise saw them from the tail of her downcast eye, and permitted herself a little sigh of relief. They would be the more ready now to accept at its face value her statement concerning Ward, unless they credited her with the feat of being in love with the two men at the same time.

"Well, I'm sorry Charlie Fox has been tapped off, too. He's a mighty fine chap," declared Floyd with transparent heartiness, his round eyes dwelling curiously upon the face of Billy Louise.

"Yes, I must be going," said that young woman self-consciously. "I've quite a circle to ride yet. I hope you locate the rustlers, and if there's anything I can do--if I see or hear anything that seems to be a clew--I'll let you know right away. I've been keeping my eyes open for some trace of them, and--so has Char--Mr. Fox." Then she blushed and told them good-by very hastily and loped off up the ridge.

"Bark up that tree for awhile, you two!" she said, with a twist of her lips, when she was well away from them. "You--you darned idiots! To go prowling around Ward's place, just as if-- Ward'll take a shot at them if he catches them nosing through his stock!" She scowled at a big D cow that thrust her head out of an alder thicket and sent Blue in after her. Frowning, she watched the animal go lumbering down the hill toward the Wolverine. "Just because he's a stranger and doesn't mix with people, and minds his own business and is trying to get a start, they're suspicious--as if a man has no right to-- Well, I think I managed to head them off, anyway."

Her satisfaction lasted while she rode to the next ridge. Then the little devils of doubt came a-swarming and a-whispering. She had said she knew all about Ward; well, she did, to a greater extent than others knew. But--she wondered if she did not know too much, or if she knew enough. There were some things--

She turned, upon the crest of the ridge, and looked away toward the pine-dotted height locally known as the Big Hill, beyond which Ward's claim lay snuggled out of sight in its little valley. "I've a good mind to ride over there right now, and make him tell me," she said to herself. She stopped Blue and sat there undecided, while the wind lifted a lock of hair and flipped it across her cheek. "If he cares--like he says he cares--he'll tell me," she murmured. "I don't believe it's wolves. And of course it isn't--what those fellows seemed to think. But--where did he get the money for all that?" She sighed distressfully. "I hate to ask him; he'd think I didn't trust him, and I do. I do trust him!" There was the little head-devil of doubt, and she fought him fiercely. "I do! I do!" She thrust the declaration of faith like a sword through the doubt-devil that clung and whispered. "Dear Ward! I do trust you!" She blinked back tears and bit her lips to stop their quivering. "But, darn it, I don't see why you didn't tell me!" There it was: a perfectly human, woman-resentment toward a nagging mystery.

She headed Blue down the slope and as straight for the Big Hill as she could go. She would go and make Ward tell her what he had been doing; not that she had any doubt herself that it was perfectly all right, whatever it was, but she felt that she had a right to demand facts, so that she could feel more sure of her ground. And there would be more questions; Billy Louise was bright enough to see thus far into the future. Unless the rustlers were caught, there would be questions asked about this silent stranger who kept his trail apart from his fellows and whose prosperity was out of proportion with his opportunities. Why, even Billy Louise herself had been curious over that prosperity, without being in the slightest degree suspicious. Other people had not her faith in him; and they were not blind. They would wonder--

There was no trail that way, and the ridges were steep and the canyons circuitous. But Blue was a good horse, with plenty of stamina and much experience. He carried his lady safely, and he carried her willingly. Even her impatience could find no fault with the manner in which he climbed steep pitches, slid down slopes as steep, jumped narrow washouts, and picked his way through thickets of quaking aspens or over wide stretches of shale rock and lava beds. He was wet to his ears when finally he shuffled into Ward's trail up the creek bottom; but he breathed evenly, and he carried his head high and perked his ears knowingly forward when the corral and haystack came into view around a sharp bend.. He splashed both front feet into the creek just before the cabin and stopped to drink while Billy Louise stared at the silent place.

By the tracks along the creek trail she knew that Ward had come home, and she urged Blue across the ford and up the bank to the cabin. She slid off and went in boldly to hide her inward embarrassment--and she found nothing but emptiness there.

Billy Louise did not take long to investigate. The coffee-pot was still warm on the stove when she laid her palm against it, and she immediately poured herself a cup of coffee. A plate and a cup on the table indicated that Ward had eaten a hurried meal and had not taken time to clear away the litter. Billy Louise ate what was left, and mechanically she washed the dishes and made everything neat before she went down to look for Rattler. She had thought that Ward was out somewhere about the place and would return very soon, probably. Blue she had left standing in plain sight before the cabin, so that Ward would see him and know she was there--a fact which she regretted.

While she was washing dishes and sweeping, she had been trying to think of some excuse for her presence there. It was going to be awkward, her coming there on his heels, one might say. She remembered for the first time her statement that she had to help mommie and so could not take the time to ride even a mile with him! Being a young person whose chief amusement had always been her "pretends," she began unconsciously building an imaginary conversation between them, like this:

Ward would come out of the stable--or somewhere--see Blue and hurry up to the house. Billy Louise would be standing with her back to him, putting the dishes into neat little piles in the cupboard perhaps; anyway, doing something like that. Ward would stop in the doorway and say--well, there were several possible greetings, but Billy Louise chose his "'Lo, Bill!" as being the most probable. And then he would come up and take her in his arms. (Oh, she was human, and she was a woman, and she was twenty. And Ward had established a precedent, remember, and Billy Louise had not objected to any great extent.) And--and-- (I'm going to tell on Billy Louise. She wiped a knife for at least five minutes without knowing what she was doing, and she stared at a sunny spot on the floor where a sunbeam came in through a crack in the wall, and she smiled absently, and her cheeks were quite a bit redder than usual.)

"I didn't expect to see you here, Wilhemina-mine."

"Oh, I was just riding around, and I came over to see how you dig dollars out of wolf-dens. You said you'd show me."

The trouble with the conversation began right there. Ward would be sure to remind her of the condition he had made, to tell her how he dug dollars out of wolf-dens when she was through with wanting to be just friends. That put it up to Billy Louise to say she would be engaged and marry him; and Billy Louise was not ready to say that or be that. Her woman-soul hung back from that decisive point. She would not shut the door upon her freedom and her girlish dreams and her ideals and all those evanescent bubbles which we try to carry with us into maturity. Billy Louise did not put it that way, of course. She only reiterated again and again: "I like you, but I don't want to marry anybody. I don't want to be engaged."

Well, that would probably settle Ward's telling her about digging dollars out of wolf-dens or anything else. He had a wide streak of stubbornness; no one could see the set of his chin when he was in a certain mood and doubt that. Billy Louise began to wish she had not come. She began to feel quite certain that Ward would be surprised and disgusted when he found her there, and would look at her with that faint curl of the lip and that fainter lift of the nostril above it, which made her go hot all over with the scorn in them. She had seen him look that way once or twice, and in spite of herself she began to picture his face with that expression.

Billy Louise was on the point of riding away a good deal more hastily than she had come, in the hope that Ward would not discover her there. Then her own stubbornness came uppermost, and she told herself that she had a perfect right to ride wherever she pleased, and that if Ward didn't like it, he could do the other thing.

She went to the door and stood looking out for a minute, wondering where he was. She turned back and stared around the room, which somehow held the imprint of his personality in spite of its rough simplicity.

There was a little window behind the bunk, and beside that a shelf filled with books and smoking material and matches. She knew by the very arrangement of that shelf and window that Ward liked to lie there on the bunk and read while the light lasted. Well, he was not there now, at any rate. She went over and looked at the titles of the books, though she had examined them with interest only yesterday. There was Burns; and she knew why it was he could repeat _Tam O'Shanter so readily with never a moment's hesitation. There were two volumes of Scott--_Lady of the Lake and other poems, much thumbed and with a cigarette burn on the front cover, and _Kenilworth_. There were several books of Kipling's, mostly verses, and beside it Morgan's _Ancient Society_, with the corners broken, and a fine-print volume of Shakespeare's plays. Then there was a pile of magazines and beyond them a stack of books whose subjects varied from Balzac to strange, scientific-sounding names. At the other end of the shelf, within easy reach from one lying upon the bunk, was a cigar-box full of smoking tobacco, a half-dozen books of cigarette papers, and several blocks of the small, evil-smelling matches which men of the outdoors carry for their compact form and slow, steady blaze.

At the head of the bed hung a flour-sack half full of some hard, lumpy stuff which Billy Louise had not noticed before. She felt the bag tentatively, could not guess its contents, and finally took it down and untied it. Within were irregular scraps and strips of stuff hard as bone--a puzzle still to one unfamiliar with the frontier. Billy Louise pulled out a little piece, nibbled a corner, and pronounced, "M-mm! Jerky! I'm going to swipe some of that," which she proceeded to do, to the extent of filling her pocket. For to those who have learned to like it, jerked venison is quite as desirable as milk chocolate or any other nibbly tid-bit.

The opposite wall had sacks of flour stacked against it, and boxes of staple canned goods, such as corn and tomatoes and milk and peaches. A box of canned peaches stood at the head of the bed, and upon that a case of tomatoes. Ward used them for a table and set the lantern there when he wanted to read in bed. "He's got a pretty good supply of grub," was the verdict of Billy Louise, sizing up the assortment while she nibbled at the piece of jerky. "I wonder where he is, anyway?" And a moment later: "He oughtn't to hang his best clothes up like that; they'll be all wrinkled when he wants to put them on."

She went over and disposed of the best clothes to her liking, and shook out the dust. She had to own to herself that for a bachelor Ward was very orderly, though he did let his trousers hang down over the flour-sacks in a way to whiten their hems. She hung them in a different place.

But where was Ward? Billy Louise bethought her that Blue deserved something to eat after that hard ride, and led him down to the stable. There was no sign of Rattler, and Billy Louise wondered anew at Ward's absence. It did not seem consistent with his haste to leave the Wolverine and his frequent assertion that he must get to work. From the stable door she could look over practically the whole creek-bottom within his fence, and she could see the broad sweep of the hills on either side. On her way back to the cabin, she tried to track Rattler, but there were several stock-trails leading in different directions, and the soil was too dry to leave any distinguishing marks.

She waited for an hour or two, sitting in the door-way, nibbling jerky and trying to read a magazine. Then she found a stub of pencil, tore out an advertising page which had a wide margin, wrote: "I don't think you're a bit nice. Why don't you stay home when a fellow comes to see you?" This she folded neatly and put in the cigar-box of tobacco over Ward's pillow. It never once occurred to her that Ward, when he found the note, would believe she had placed it there the day before, and would never guess by its text that she had made a second trip to his claim.

She resaddled Blue and rode away more depressed than ever, because her depression was now mixed with a disappointment keener than she would have cared to acknowledge, even to herself.

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