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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 23. Billy Louise Gets A Surprise
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 23. Billy Louise Gets A Surprise Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2641

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 23. Billy Louise Gets A Surprise

CHAPTER XXIII. BILLY LOUISE GETS A SURPRISE

Frightened, worried, sick at heart because her crowding doubts and suspicions had suddenly developed into black certainty just when she had thought them dead forever, Billy Louise rode up the narrow, rocky gorge. She had come to have a vague comprehension of the temptation Ward must have felt. She had come to accept pityingly the possibility that the canker of old influences had eaten more deeply than appeared on the surface. She had set herself stanchly beside him as his friend, who would help him win back his self-respect. She felt sure that he must suffer terribly with that keen, analytical mind of his, when he stopped to think at all. He had no warped ethics wherewith to ease his conscience. She knew his ideas of right and wrong were as uncompromising as her own, and if he stole cattle, he did it with his eyes wide open to the wrong he was doing. And yet--

"That's bad enough, but to try and fasten evidence on someone else!" Billy Louise gritted her teeth over the treachery of it. She believed he had done that very thing. How could she help it? She had seen the corral and had seen Ward ride away from it in the dusk of evening; or she believed she had seen him, which was the same thing. She knew that Ward's prosperity was out of proportion with his visible resources. And she knew what lay behind him. Was his version of the past after all the correct one? Might not the paragraph she had burned been nothing more than the truth?

Billy Louise fought for him; fought with her stern, youthful judgment which was so uncompromising. It takes years of close contact with life to give one a sure understanding of human weakness and human endeavor.

At the ford, when Blue would have crossed and taken the trail home, Billy Louise reined him impulsively the other way. Until that instant she had not intended to seek Ward, but once her fingers had twitched the reins against Blue's neck, she did not hesitate; she did not even argue with herself. She just glanced up at the sun, saw that it was not yet noon--so much may happen in two or three hours!--and sent Blue up the hill at a lope.

She did not know what she would do or what she would say when she saw Ward. She knew that she was full of bitterness and disappointment and chagrin. She had accused innocent persons of a crime. Ward had placed her in that position and compelled her to recant and apologize. She had offended Marthy beyond forgiveness--and Charlie Fox. Her face burned with shame when she remembered the things she had said to them. Ward was the cause of that humiliation; and Ward was going to know exactly what she thought of him; beyond that she did not go.

The two mares fed dispiritedly at the lowest corner of the field, their hair rough with exposure to the winter winds and the storms, their ribs showing. With all the hay he had put up, Ward might at least keep his horses in better shape, Billy Louise censured, as she passed them by. A few head of cows and calves wandered aimlessly among the thinnest fringe of willows along the creek; they showed more ribs than did the mares. Billy Louise pulled her lips tight. They did not look as though they had been fed a forkful of hay all winter; your true range man or woman gets to know these things instinctively.

Farther along, Billy Louise heard a welcoming nicker and turned her head. Here came Rattler, thin-flanked and rough-coated, trotting down a shallow gulley to meet Blue. The two horses chummed together whenever Ward was at the Wolverine. Billy Louise pulled up and waited till Rattler reached her. He and Blue rubbed noses, and Blue laid back his ears and shook his head with teeth bared, in playful pretense of anger. Rattler kicked up his heels in disdain at the threat and trotted alongside them.

Billy Louise rode with puckered eyebrows. Ward might neglect his stock, but he would never neglect Rattler like this. And he must be at home, since here was his horse. Or else...

She struck Blue suddenly with her rein-ends and went clattering up the trail where the snow lay in shaded, crusty patches rimmed with dirt. The trail was untracked save by the loose stock. Where was Ward? What had happened to him? She looked again at Rattler. There was no sign of recent saddle-marks along his side, no telltale imprint of the cinch under his belly. Where was Ward?

Blind, unreasoning terror filled Billy Louise. She struck Blue again and plunged into the icy creek-crossing near the stable. She stopped there just long enough to see how empty and desolate it was, and how the horses and cattle had huddled against its sheltering wall out of the biting winds; and how the door was shut and fastened so that they could not get in. She opened it and looked in, and shut it again. Then she turned and ran, white-faced, to the cabin. Where was Ward? What had happened to Ward? Thief or honest man, treacherous or true--what had happened to him?

Billy Louise saw the doorstep banked over with old, crusted snow. Her heart gave a jump and stopped still. She felt her knees shake under her. Her face seemed to pinch together, the flesh clinging close to the bones. Her whole being seemed to contract with the deadly fear that gripped her. It was like that chill morning when she had crept out of her cot and gone over to mommie's bed and had lifted mommie's hand that was hanging down....

She came to herself; she was running up the creek, away from the cabin. Running and stumbling over rocks, and getting tripped with her riding-skirt. She stopped, as soon as she realized what she was doing; she stopped and stood with her hands pressed hard against each side of her face, forcing herself to calmness again--or at least to sanity. She had to go back. She told herself so, many times. "You've got to go back!" she repeated, as if to a second person. "You can't be such a fool; you've got to go back. And you've got to go inside. You've got to do it."

So Billy Louise went back to the cabin, slowly, with shaking legs and a heart that fluttered and stopped, fluttered and jumped and stopped, and made her stagger as she walked. She reached the doorstep and stood there with her palms pressing hard against her cheeks again. "You've got to do it. You've got to!" she whispered to herself commandingly.

She never doubted that Ward was inside. She thought she would find him dead--dead and horrible, perhaps. No other solution seemed to fit the circumstances. He was in there, dead. He had been dead for some time, because there were no saddle-marks on Rattler, and because the snow was crusted over the doorstep with never a mark to break its smooth roundness. She had to go in. She was the person who must find him and do what she could. She must do it, because he was Ward--her Ward.

It took courage to open that door, but Billy Louise had courage enough to open it, and to step inside and close the door after her. She did not look at anything in the cabin while she did it, though. She kept her eyelids down so that she only saw the floor directly in front of the door. She had a sense of relief that it looked perfectly natural, though dusty.

"Throw up your hands!" came hoarsely from the bunk. Billy Louise gasped and pulled her gun, and dropped crouching to the floor. Also she looked up. She had not recognized that voice, and while she had never except in imagination faced an emergency like this, she had played robbers and rescues too often not to have formed a mental habit to fit the situation. What she did she had done many, many times in her "pretend" world, sitting somewhere dreaming.

From her crouching position she looked into Ward's fever-wild eyes. He was sitting up in the bunk, and he was pointing his big forty-five at her relentlessly. "Get up from there!" he ordered sternly. "Don't try any game like that on me, Buck Olney! Get up and go over and sit in that chair. I've got a few things to say to you."

Billy Louise somehow grasped the truth, up to a certain point. Ward was sick; so sick he didn't know her. She thought she would better humor him. She got up and went and sat in the chair as he directed.

Ward, keeping the gun pointing her way, sneered at her in a way that made the soul of Billy Louise crimple. She faced him big-eyed, too amazed at the change in him to feel any fear that he would harm her. He had whiskers two inches long. She wouldn't have known him except for his hair--and that was terribly tousled; and his eyes, though they were wild and angry. His voice was hoarse, and while he glared at her, he coughed with a hard, croupy resonance.

"So you came back, did yuh?" he asked grimly at last. "Well, you didn't get a chance to plug me in the back. How long did you lay up there on the bluff this time, waiting to catch me when I wasn't looking? I've been wishing I'd loft that rope so it would have hung you, you damned ------!" (Billy Louise listened round-eyed to certain man-sized epithets strange to her ears.)

"I suppose you and Foxy and that halfbreed have been fixing up some more evidence, huh? You figure that I can't catch 'em this time and work the brands over, so they'll stand Y6es, and I'll get railroaded to the pen. Well, you've overplayed your hand, old-timer. I let you fellows down easy, last time. I don't reckon Foxy objected much to those few I turned back to him, and I don't reckon you did any kicking when you found I'd cut the rope so it wouldn't hold your rotten carcass. You can't let well enough alone, though. You thought you'd raise me, did you? You thought you'd come back and try another whack at me behind my back. You knew damned well I wasn't the kind of man that would jump the country. You knew you'd find me right here, attending to my business like I've always done.

"But you've overplayed your hand. This time I'm going to get you--and Foxy and the breed along with you. It was a damned, rotten trick, running Y6es over Seabeck's brand. If I hadn't caught you in the act, you'd have planted them cattle where all hell couldn't have saved me when they were found. If I hadn't caught you at it and run MK monograms over the whole cheese, I'd have been up against it for fair. So now you're going to get what's coming to yuh. I won't take any chances on your not trying it again. I'm going to protect myself right.

"You throw that gun on the bed." (Billy Louise did so, her eyes still upon Ward's flushed face.) "Now, get down that tablet from the shelf. Here's a pencil." He drew one from under his pillow and tossed it toward her. "Now you write the truth about all this rustling. It's a bigger thing than shows right in this neighborhood. I know that. And I know too that Foxy has been pulling down some on the side. He never paid for all the stock that's running around vented and rebranded MK. I've got that sized up. Pretty smooth trick, too; a heap better than working brands. He ought to have been satisfied with that--but a crook never is satisfied. I knew he wasn't the tenderfoot he tried to make out, and when I saw some of his stock and that gate fixed to ring a bell when it was opened, I knew he was a crook. But he made a big mistake when he threw in with you, you--

"I want you to write down the truth about that Hardup deal; who was in with you. I know, all right, but I want it down on paper. And I want to know how long Foxy's been in with you, and who's working the game on the outside. Get busy; write it all down. I'll give you all the time you need; don't leave out anything. Dates and all, I want the whole graft. Don't try to get away. I've got this gun loaded to the guards, and you know I'm aching for an excuse--" He stopped and coughed again, hoarsely, rackingly. Then he lay quiet, except for his rasping breath and watched.

Billy Louise, with the tablet on her trembling knees, pretended to write. From under her lashes she watched Ward curiously. She saw his attention waver, saw his eyes wander aimlessly about the room. She sat very still and waited, making scrawly marks that had no meaning at all. She saw Ward's fingers loosen on the revolver, saw his head turn wearily on the pillow. He was staring out through the window at the brilliant blue of the sky with the dazzling white clouds drifting like bits of cotton to the northward. He had forgotten her.

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