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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 13. The Corral In The Canyon
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 13. The Corral In The Canyon Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1087

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 13. The Corral In The Canyon


Where the creek trail crossed the Big Hill and then swung to the left that it might follow the easy slopes of Cedar Creek, Blue turned off to the right of his own accord, as if he took it for granted that his lady would return the way she had come. His lady had not thought anything about it, but after a brief hesitation she decided that Blue should have his way; after all, it would simplify her explanations of the long ride if she came home by way of the canyon. She could say that she had ridden farther out into the hills than usual, which was true enough.

Billy Louise did not own such a breeder of blues as a lazy liver, her nerves were in fine working order, and her digestion was perfect; and it is a well-known fact that a trouble must be born of reality rather than imagination, if it would ride far behind the cantle. Billy Louise was late, and already the shadows lay like long draperies upon the hills she faced: long, purple cloaks ruffed with golden yellow and patterned with indigo patches, which were the pines, and splotches of dark green, which were the thickets of alder and quaking aspens. She couldn't feel depressed for very long, and before she had climbed over the first rugged ridge that reached out like a crooked finger into the narrow valley, she was humming under her breath and riding with the reins dropped loose upon Blue's neck, so that he went where the way pleased him best. Before she was down that ridge and beginning to climb the next, she was singing softly a song her mother had taught her long ago, when she was seven or so:

"The years creep slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the grass again;
The sun's low down the sky, Lorena--"

Blue gathered himself together and jumped a washout three feet across and goodness knows how deep and jarred that melancholy melody quite out of Billy Louise's mind. When she had settled herself again to the slow climb, she broke out with what she called Ward's Come-all-ye, and with a twinkle of eye and both dimples showing deep, went on with a very slight interruption in her singing.

"'Oh, a ten-dollar hoss and a forty-dollar saddle'--that's you Blue. You don't amount to nothing nohow, doing jackrabbit stunts like that when I'm not looking! 'Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a.'" She watched a cloud shadow sweep like a great bird over a sunny slope and murmured while she watched: "Cloud-boats sailing sunny seas--is that original, or have I cribbed it from some honest-to-goodness poet? Blue, if fate hadn't made a cowpuncher of me, I'd be chewing up lead-pencils trying to find a rhyme for alfalfa, maybe. And where would you be, you old skate? If the Louise of me had been developed at the expense of the Billy of me, and I'd taken to making battenburg doilies with butterflies in the corners, and embroidering corset covers till I put my eyes out, and writing poetry on Sundays when mommie wouldn't let me sew. I wonder if Ward-- Maybe he'd have liked me better if I'd lived up to the Louise and cut out the Billy part. I'd be home, right now, asking mommie whether I should use soda or baking-powder to make my muffins with-- Oh, gracious!" She leaned over and caught a handful of Blue's slatey mane and tousled it, till he laid his ears flat on his head and nipped his nose around to show her that his teeth were bared to the gums. Billy Louise laughed and gave another yank.

"You wish I were an embroidering young lady, do you? Aw, where would you be, if you didn't have me to devil the life out of you? Well, why don't you take a chunk out of me, then? Don't be an old bluffer, Blue. If you want to eat me, why, go to it; only you don't. You're just a-bluffing. You like to be tousled and you know it; else why do you tag me all over the place when I don't want you? Huh? That's to pay you back for jumping that washout when I wasn't looking." A twitch of the mane here brought Blue's head around again with all his teeth showing. "And this is for jarring that lovely, weepy song out of me. You know you hate it; you always do lay back your ears when I sing that, but--oh, all right--when I sing, then. But you've got to stand for it. I've been an indigo bag all day long, and I'm going to sing if I want to. Fate made me a lady cowpunch instead of a poet-ess, and you can't stop me from singing when I feel it in my system."

She began again with the "Ten-dollar hoss and forty-dollar saddle," and sang as much of the old trail song as she had ever heard and could remember, substituting milder expletives now and then and laughing at herself for doing it, because a self-confessed "lady cowpunch" is after all hedged about by certain limitations in the matter of both speech and conduct. She did not sing it all, but she sang enough to last over a mile of rough going, and she did not have to repeat many verses to do it.

Blue, because she still left the reins loose, chose his own trail, which was easier than that which they had taken in the forenoon, but more roundabout. Billy Louise, observing how he avoided rocky patches and went considerably out of his way to keep his feet on soft soil, stopped in the middle of a "Coma ti yi" to ask him solicitously if he were getting tender-footed; and promised him a few days off, in the pasture. Thereafter she encouraged the roundabout progress, even though she knew it would keep them in the hills until dusk; for she was foolishly careful of Blue, however much she might tease him and call him names.

Quite suddenly, just at sundown, her cheerful journeying was interrupted in a most unexpected manner. She was dreaming along a flat-bottomed canyon, looking for an easy way across, when Blue threw up his head, listened with his ears thrust forward, and sniffed with widened nostrils. From his manner, almost anything might lie ahead of them. And because certain of the possibilities would call for quick action if any of them became a certainty, Billy Louise twisted her gun-belt around so that her six-shooter swung within easy reach of her hand. With her fingers she made sure that the gun was loose in its holster and kicked Blue mildly as a hint to go on and see what it was all about.

Blue went forward, stepping easily on the soft sidehill. In rough country, whatever you want to see is nearly always around a sharp bend; you read it so in the stories and books of travels, and when you ride out in the hills, you find it so in reality. Billy Louise rode for three or four minutes before she received any inkling of what lay ahead, though Blue's behavior during that interval had served to reassure her somewhat. He was interested still in what lay just out of sight beyond a shoulder of the hill, but he did not appear to be in the least alarmed. Therefore, Billy Louise knew it couldn't be a bear, at any rate.

They came to the point of the hill's shoulder, and Billy Louise tightened the reins instinctively while she stared at what lay revealed beneath. The head of the gulch was blocked with a corral--small, high, hidden from view on all sides save where she stood, by the jagged walls of rock and heavy aspen thickets beyond.

The corral was but the setting for what Billy Louise stared at so unbelievingly. A horseman had ridden out of the corral just as she came into sight, had turned a sharp corner, and had disappeared by riding up the same slope she occupied, but farther along, and in a shallow depression which hid him completely after that one brief glimpse.

Of course, the gulch was dusky with deep shadows, and she had had only a glimpse. But the horse was a dark bay, and the rider was slim and tall and wore a gray hat. The heart of Billy Louise paused a moment from its steady beating and then sank heavily under a great weight. She was range-born and range-bred. She had sat wide-eyed on her daddy's knees and heard him tell of losses in cattle and horses and of corrals found hidden away in strange places and of unknown riders who disappeared mysteriously into the hills. She had heard of these things; they were a part of the stage setting for wild dramas of the West.

With a white line showing around her close-pressed lips and a horror in her wide-eyed glance, she rode quietly along the side of the bluff toward where she had seen the horseman disappear. He was riding a dark bay, and he wore a gray hat and dark coat, and he was slim and tall. Billy Louise made a sound that was close to a groan and set her teeth hard together afterwards.

She reached the hillside just above the corral. There were cattle down there, moving uneasily about in the shadows. Of the horseman there was of course no sign; just the corral, and a few restless cattle shut inside, and on the hilltops a soft, rose-violet glow, and in the sky beyond a blend of purple and deep crimson to show where the sun had been. Close beside her as she stood looking down a little, gray bird twittered wistfully.

Billy Louise took a deep breath and rode on, angling slightly up the bluff, so that she could cross at the head of the gulch. It was very quiet, very peaceful, and wildly beautiful, this jumble of hills and deep-gashed canyons. But Billy Louise felt as though something precious had died. She should have gone down and investigated and turned those cattle loose; that is, if she dared. Well, she dared; it was not fear that held her to the upper slopes. She did not want to know what brand they bore or whether an iron had seared fresh marks.

"Oh, God!" she said once aloud; and there was a prayer and a protest, a curse and a question all in those two words.

So trouble--trouble that sickened her very soul and choked her into dumbness and squeezed her heart so that the ache of it was agony--came and rode with her through the brooding dusk of the canyons and over the brighter hilltops.

Billy Louise did not remember anything much about that ride, except that she was glad the way was long. Blue carried her steadily on and on and needed no guiding, and though Wolverine canyon was black dark in most places, she liked it so.

John Pringle was standing by the gate waiting for her, which was unusual, if Billy Louise had been normal enough to notice it. He came forward and took Blue by the bridle when she dismounted, which was still more unusual, for Billy Louise always cared for her own horse both from habit and preference.

"Yor mommie, she's sick," he announced stolidly. "She's worry you maybe hurt yoreself. Yo better go, maybe."

Billy Louise did not answer, but ran up the path to the cabin. "Oh, has everything got to happen all at once?" she cried aloud, protesting against the implacableness of misfortune.

"Yor mommie's sick," Phoebe announced in a whisper. "She's crazy 'cause you been so long. She's awful bad, I guess."

Billy Louise said nothing, but went in where her mother lay moaning, her face white and turned to the ceiling. Billy Louise herself had pulled up her reserves of strength and cheerfulness, and the fingers she laid on her mother's forehead were cool and steady.

"Poor old mommie! Is it that nasty lumbago again?" she asked caressingly and did not permit the tiniest shade of anxiety to spoil the reassurance of her presence. "I went farther than usual, and Blue's pretty tender, so I eased him along, and I'm fearfully late. I suppose you've been having all kinds of disasters happening to me." She was passing her fingers soothingly over her mother's forehead while she explained, and she saw that her mother did not moan so much as when she came into the room.

"Of course I worried. I wish you wouldn't take them long rides. Oh, I guess it's lumbago--mostly--but seems like it ain't, either. The pain seems to be mostly in my side." She stirred restlessly and moaned again.

"What's Phoebe been doing for it? You don't seem to have any fever, mommie--and that's a good thing. I'll go fix you one of those dandy spice poultices. Had any supper, mommie?"

"Oh, I couldn't eat. Phoebe made a hop poultice, but it's awful soppy."

"Well, never mind. Your dear daughter is on the job now. She'll have you all comfy in just about two minutes. Head ache, mum? All right. I'll just shake up your pilly and bring you such a dandy spice poultice I expect you'll want to eat it!" Billy Louise's voice was soft and had a broody sweetness when she wished it so, that soothed more than medicine. Her mother's eyes closed wearily while the girl talked; the muscles of her face relaxed a little from their look of pain.

Billy Louise bent and laid her lips lightly on her mother's cheek. "Poor old mommie! I'd have come home a-running if I'd known she was sick and had to have nasty, soppy stuff."

In the kitchen a very different Billy Louise measured spices, and asked a question now and then in a whisper, and breathed with a repressed unevenness which betrayed the strain she was under.

"Tell John to saddle up and go for the doctor, Phoebe, and don't let mommie know, whatever you do. This isn't her lumbago at all. I don't know what it is. I wonder if a hot turpentine cloth wouldn't be better than this? I've a good mind to try it; her eyes are glassy with fever, and her skin is cold as a fish. You tell John to hurry up. He can ride Boxer. Tell him I want him to get a doctor here by to-morrow noon if he has to kill his horse doing it."

"Is she that bad?" Phoebe's black eyes glistened with consternation. "She's groaned all day and shook her head like this all time."

"Oh, stop looking like that! No wonder she's sick, if you've stood over her with that kind of a face on you. You look as if someone were dead in the house!"

"I'm skeered of sick folks. Honest, it gives me shivers."

"Well, keep out then. Make some fresh tea, Phoebe--or no, make some good, strong coffee. I'll need it, if I'm up all night. Make it strong, Phoebe. Hurry, and--" She stopped short and ran into the bedroom, called there by her mother's cry of pain.

That night took its toll of Billy Louise and left a seared place in her memory. It was a night of snapping fire in the cook-stove that hot water might be always ready; of tireless struggle with the pain that came and tortured, retired sullenly from Billy Louise's stubborn fighting with poultices and turpentine cloths and every homely remedy she had ever heard of, and came again just when she thought she had won the fight.

There was no time to give thought to the trouble that had ridden home with her, though its presence was like a black shadow behind her while she worked and went to and fro between bedroom and kitchen, and fought that tearing pain.

She met the dawn hollow-eyed and so tired she could not worry very much about anything. Her mother slept uneasily to prove that the battle had not gone altogether against the girl who had fought the night through. She had her reward in full measure when the doctor came, in the heat of noon, and after terrible minutes of suspense for Billy Louise while he counted pulse and took temperature and studied symptoms, told her that she had done well, and that she and her homely poultices had held back tragedy from that house.

Billy Louise lay down upon the couch out on the back porch and slept heavily for three hours, while Phoebe and the doctor watched over her mother.

She woke with a start. She had been dreaming, and the dream had taken from her cheeks what little color her night vigil had left. She had dreamed that Ward was in danger, that men were hunting him for what he had done at that corral. The corral seemed the center of a fight between Ward and the men. She dreamed that he came to her, and that she must hide him away and save him. But though she took him to Minervy's cave, which was secret enough for her purpose, yet she could not feel that he was safe, even there. There was something--some menace.

Billy Louise went softly into the house, tiptoed to the door of her mother's room, and saw that she lay quiet, with her eyes closed. Beside the window the doctor sat with his spectacles far down toward the end of his nose, reading a pale-green pamphlet that he must have brought in his pocket. Phoebe was down by the creek, washing clothes in the shade of a willow-clump.

She went into her own room, still walking on her toes. In her trunk was a blue plush box of the kind that is given to one at Christmas. It was faded, and the clasp was showing brassy at the edges. Sitting upon her bed with the box in her lap, Billy Louise pawed hastily in the jumble of keepsakes it held: an eagle's claw which she meant sometime to have mounted for a brooch; three or four arrowheads of the shiny, black stuff which the Indians were said to have brought from Yellowstone Park, a knot of green ribbon which she had worn to a St. Patrick's Day dance in Boise; rattlesnake rattles of all sizes; several folded clippings--verses that had caught her fancy and had been put away and forgotten; an amber bead she had found once. She turned the box upside down in her lap and shook it. It must be there--the thing she sought; the thing that had troubled her most in her dream; the thing that was a menace while it existed. It was at the very bottom of the box, caught in a corner. She took it out with fingers that trembled, crumpled it into a little ball so that she could not read what it said, straightened it immediately, and read it reluctantly from the beginning to the end where the last word was clipped short with hasty scissors. A paragraph cut from a newspaper, it was; yellow and frayed from contact with other objects, telling of things--

Billy Louise bit her lips until they hurt, but she could not keep back the tears that came hot and stinging while she read. She slid the little heap of odds and ends to the middle of the bed, crushed the clipping into her palm, and went out stealthily into the immaculate kitchen. As if she were being spied upon, she went cautiously to the stove, lifted a lid, and dropped the clipping in where the wood blazed the brightest. She watched it flare and become nothing--not even a pinch of ashes; the clipping was not very large. When it was gone, she put the lid back and went tiptoeing to the door. Then she ran.

Phoebe was down by the creek, so Billy Louise went to the stable, through that and on beyond, still running. Farther down was a grassy nook--on, beyond the road. She went there and hid behind the willows, where she could cry and no one be the wiser. But she could not cry the ache out of her heart, nor the rebellion against the hurt that life had given her. If she could only have burned memory when she burned that clipping! She could still believe and be happy, if only she could forget the things it said.

Phoebe called her, after a long while had passed. Billy Louise bathed her face in the cold water of the Wolverine, used her handkerchief for a towel, and went back to take up the duties life had laid upon her. The doctor's team was hitched to the light buggy he drove, and the doctor was standing in the doorway with his square medicine-case in his hand, waiting to give her a few final directions before he left.

He was like so many doctors; he seemed to be afraid to tell the whole truth about his patient. He stuck to evasive optimism and then neutralized the reassurances he uttered by emphasizing the necessity of being notified if Mrs. MacDonald showed any symptoms of another attack.

"Don't wait," he told Billy Louise gravely. "Send for me at once if she complains of that pain again, or appears--"

"But what is it?" Billy Louise would not be put off by any vagueness.

The doctor told Billy Louise in terms that carried no meaning whatever to her mind. She gathered merely that it was rather serious if it persisted--whatever it was--and that she must not leave her mommie for many hours at a time, because she might have another attack at any time. The doctor told her, however, in plain English that mommie was well over this attack--whatever it was--and that she need only be kept quiet for a few days and given the medicine--whatever that was--that he had left.

"It does seem as if everything is all muffled up in mystery!" she complained, when he drove away. "I can fight anything I can see, but when I've got to go blindfolded--" She brushed her fingers across her eyes and glanced hurriedly into the little looking-glass that hung beside the door. "Yes, mommie, just a minute," she called cheerfully.

She ran into her own room, grabbed a can of talcum, and did not wait to see whether she applied it evenly to her telltale eyelids, but dabbed at them on the way to her mother's room.

"Doctor says you're all right, mommie; only you mustn't go digging post-holes or shoveling hay for awhile."

"No, I guess not!" Her mother responded unconsciously to the stimulation of Billy Louise's tone. "I couldn't dig holes with a teaspoon, I'm that weak and useless. Did he say what it was, Billy Louise?" The sick are always so curious about their illnesses!

"Oh, your lumbago got to scrapping with your liver. I forget the name he gave it, but it's nothing to worry about." Billy Louise had imagination, remember.

"I guess he'd think it was something to worry about, if he had it," her mother retorted fretfully, but reassured nevertheless by the casual manner of Billy Louise. "I believe I could eat a little mite of toast and drink some tea," she added tentatively.

"And an egg poached soft if you want it, mom. Phoebe just brought in the eggs." Billy Louise went out humming unconcernedly under her breath as if she had not a care beyond the proper toasting of the bread and brewing of the tea.

One need not go to war or voyage to the far corners of the earth to find the stuff heroes are made of.

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