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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 7. Ward Hunts Wolves
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 7. Ward Hunts Wolves Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3445

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 7. Ward Hunts Wolves


The fate of the four heifer calves became permanently wrapped in the blank fog of mystery. Billy Louise watched for them when she rode out in the hills, and spent a good deal of time heretofore given over to dreaming in trying to solve the riddle of their disappearance. Charlie Fox insisted upon keeping to the theory that they had merely strayed. Marthy grumbled sometimes over the loss, and Ward--well, Ward did not put in an appearance again that fall or winter and so did not hear of the incident.

November brought a long, tiresome storm of snow and sleet and chill winds, which even the beasts would not face, except when they were forced. After that there were days of chilly sunlight, nights of black frost, and more wind and rain and snow. Each little ranch oasis withdrew into itself and settled down to pass the winter in physical comfort and mental isolation. Even Billy Louise seldom rode abroad unless she was compelled to, which was not often. The stage which passed through the Wolverine basin twice a week left scanty mail in the starch-box which Billy Louise had herself nailed to a post nearest the trail. Now and then a chance traveler pulled thankfully out of the trail, stopped for a warm dinner or a bed, and afterwards went his way. But from October until the hills were green, there was never a sight of Ward, and Billy Louise changed her mood and her opinion of him three or four times a week.

Ward, as a matter of fact, had a very good reason for his absence. He was working for a rancher over on the other side of the mountains, and when he got leave of absence, it was merely that he might ride to his claim and sleep there a night in compliance with the law, and see that nothing was disturbed. He was earning forty dollars a month, which he could not afford to jeopardize by any prolonged absence; and he was to take part of his pay in cows. Also, he had made arrangements to keep his few head of stock with the rancher's for a nominal sum, which barely saved Ward from the humiliation of feeling that the man was giving him something for nothing. Junkins, the rancher, was a good fellow, and he had a fair sense of values. He knew that he could pay Ward these wages and let him winter his stock there--I believe Ward had seven or eight head at that time--and still make a fair profit on his labor. For Ward stuck to his work, and he worked fast, with the drive of his nervous energy and the impatience he always felt toward any obstacle. Junkins considered privately that Ward was giving him the work of two men, while he had the appetite of one. So that it was to his interest to induce Ward to stay until spring opened and gave him plenty to do on his own claim; and such was Ward's anxiety to acquire some property and a certain financial security, that he put behind him the temptation to ride down to the Wolverine until he was once more his own master. He had sold his time to Junkins. He would not pilfer the hours it would take to ride twenty miles and back again, even to see Billy Louise; which proves that he was no moral weakling, whatever else he might be.

Then, in April, he left Junkins and drove home a nice little bunch of ten cows and a two-year-old and two yearlings. One of the cows had a week-old calf, and there would be more before long. Ward sang the whole of _Chisholm Trail at the top of his voice, as he drifted the cattle slowly up the long hill to the top of the divide, from where he could look down over lower hills into his own little creek-bottom.

"With my knees in the saddle and my seat in the sky,
I'll quit punching cows in the sweet by-and-by,"

he finished exuberantly and promised himself that he would ride down to the Wolverine the very next day "and see how the folks came through the winter." He wanted to tell William Louisa that he was some cowman himself, these days. He thought he had made a pretty good showing in the last twelve months; for when he first met her, at the Cedar Creek ford, he hadn't owned a hoof except the four which belonged to Rattler, his horse. He thought that maybe, if the play came right and he didn't lose his nerve, he might tell William Louisa something else! It seemed to him that he had earned the right now.

He rode three miles oblivious to his surroundings, while he went carefully over his acquaintance--no, his friendship--with Billy Louise and tried to guess what she would say when he told her what he had wanted to tell her for a year; what he had been hungry to tell her. Sometimes he smiled a little, and sometimes he looked gloomy. He ended by hurrying the cattle down the canyon so that he might ride on to the Wolverine that night. It would be tough on Rattler, but then, what's a range cayuse made for, anyway? Rattler had had a snap, all winter; he could stand a hard deal once, for a change. It would do the old skate good to lift himself over fifty miles once more.

Whether it did Rattler any good or not, it put new heart into Ward to ride down the bluff and see the wink of the cabin window once more. He smiled suddenly to himself, threw back his shoulders, and lifted up his voice in the doggerel that had come to be a sort of bond between the two.

"I'm on my best horse and a-comin' on the run,
Best blamed cowboy that ever pulled a gun,"

he shouted gleefully. A yellow square opened in the cabin's side, and a figure stood outlined against the shining background. Ward laughed happily.

"Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a, youpy-a," he sang uproariously.

Billy Louise turned her head toward the interior of the cabin and then left the light and merged into the darkness without. Ward risked a broken neck and went down the last bit of slope as if he were trying to head a steer. By the time he galloped up to the gate, Billy Louise was leaning over it. He could see her form dimly there.

"'Lo, Bill," he said softly and slid out of the saddle and went up to her. "How you was, already?" Again his voice was like a kiss.

"'Lo, Ward!" (in a tone that returned the kiss). "Don't know whether the stopping's good to-night or not. We've quit taking in tramps. Where the dickens have you been for the last ten years?" And that, on top of a firm conviction in Billy's Louise's mind that she did not care whether Ward ever crossed her trail again, and that when he did, he would have to do a lot of explaining before she would thaw to anything approaching friendliness. Oh, well, we all change our minds sometimes.

"I felt like it was twenty," Ward affirmed. "Do I get any supper, William? I like to have ridden my horse to a standstill getting here to-night; know that? I hope you appreciate the fact."

"It's a wonder you wouldn't have started a little sooner, then," Billy Louise retorted. "Along about Christmas, for instance."

"Wasn't my fault I didn't, William. Think I've got nothing to do but chase around the country calling on young ladies? I've been a wage slave, Bill-Loo. Come on while I put up my horse. Poor devil, I drove cattle from Junkins' place with him, and they weren't what you could call trail-broke, either. And then I came on down here. I've been in the saddle since daylight, young lady; and Rattler's been under it."

"Well, I'm very sure that it is not my fault," Billy Louise disclaimed, as she walked beside him to the stable.

"I'm not so sure of that! I might produce some pretty strong evidence that the last twenty miles is your fault. Say, you didn't know I've gone into the cow business myself, did you, William? I've been working like one son-of-a-gun all fall and winter, and I'm in the cattle-king class--to the extent of twelve head. I knew you were crazy to hear the glad tidings, so I tried to kill off a horse to get here and tell you. You and me'll be running a wagon and full crew in another year, don't you reckon? And send reps over into Wyoming and around, to look after our interests!" He laughed at himself with a perfect understanding of his own insignificance as a cattle-owner, and Billy Louise laughed with him, though not at him, for it seemed to her that Ward had done well, considering his small opportunities.

To be sure, in these days when civilization travels by million-dollar milestones, and the hero of a ten-dollar story scorns any enterprise which requires less than five figures to name its profits, Ward and Billy Louise and Charlie Fox--and all their neighbors--do not amount to much. But it is a fact that real men and women in the real world beyond the horizon work hard and fight real battles for a very small success compared with Big Interests and the modern storyman. And I'm telling you of some real people in a real world out in the sagebrush country, where not even a story hero may consistently become a millionaire in ten chapters. There is no millionaire material in the sagebrush country, you know, unless it is planted there by the Big Interests; and the Big Interests do not plant in barren soil. So if twelve head of cattle look too trifling to mention, I can't help it. Ward worked mighty hard for those few animals, and saved and schemed, and denied himself much pleasure. Therefore, he did as well as any man under the circumstances could do and be honest.

He did not do so very well when it came to telling Billy Louise something. Twice during his visit he had to admit to himself that the play came right to tell her. And both times Ward shied like a horse in the moonlight. For all that he sang about half the way home, the next day, and for the rest of the way he built castles; which proves that his visit had not been disappointing.

He rode out into the pasture where his cattle were grazing and sat looking at them while he smoked a cigarette. And while he smoked, that small herd grew and multiplied before the eyes of his imagination, until he needed a full crew of riders to take care of them. He shipped a trainload of beef to Chicago before he threw away the cigarette stub, and he laughed to himself when he rode back to the log cabin in the grove of quaking aspens.

"I'm getting my money's worth out of that bunch, just in the fun of planning ahead," he realized, while he whittled shavings from the edge of a cracker-box to start his supper fire. "A few cows and calves make the best day-dream material I've struck yet; wish I had more of the same. I'd make old Dame Fortune put a different brand on me, pronto. She could spell it with an F, but it wouldn't be football. If the cards fall right," he mused, when the fire was hot and crackling, and he was slicing bacon with his pocket-knife, "I'll get the best of her yet. And--" His coffee-pail boiled over and interrupted him. He burned his fingers before he slid the pail to a cooler spot, and after that he thought of the joys of having a certain gray-eyed girl for his housekeeper, and for a time he forgot about his newly acquired herd.

And then his day-dreams received a severer jolt, and one more lasting. He began to realize something that he had always known: that there is something more to the cattle business than branding the calves and selling the beef.

When the first calf went to dull the hunger of the wolves that howled o'nights among the rocks and stunted pines on Bannock Butte, Ward swore a good deal and resolved to ride with his rifle tied on the saddle hereafter. Also, he went back immediately, got a little fat, blue bottle of strychnine, and returned and "salted" the small remnant of the carcass. It was no part of his dreams to have the profit chewed off his little herd by wolves.

When the second calf was pulled down in spite of the mother's defense, within half a mile of his cabin, Ward postponed a trip he had meant to make to the Wolverine and went out on the trail of the wolves. In the loose soil of the lower ridge he tracked them easily and rode at a shuffling trot along the cow-trail they had followed, his eyes keen for some further sign of them. He guessed that there would be at least one den farther up in the gulch that opened out ahead, and if he could find it and get the pups--well, the bounty on one litter would even his loss, even if he were not lucky enough to get one of the old ones. He had a shovel tied to the saddle under his left leg, to use in case he found a den.

So, planning a crusade against these enemies to his enterprise, he picked his way slowly up the side of the deep gully that had a little stream wandering through rocks at the bottom. His eyes, that Billy Louise had found so quick and keen, noted every little jutting shelf of rock, every badger hole, every bush. It looked like a good place for dens of wolf or coyote. And with the sun shining down warm on his shoulders, and the meadow larks singing from swaying weeds, and rabbits scuttling away through the rocks now and then, Ward began to forget the ill-luck that had brought him out and to enjoy the hunt for its own sake.

Farther along there were so many places that would bear investigation that he left Rattler on a level spot, and with his rifle and six-shooter, went forward on foot, climbing over ledges of rock, forcing his way through green-budded, wild-rose bushes or sliding down loose, gravelly slopes.

One place--a tiny cave under a huge bowlder--looked promising. There were wolf tracks going in and out, plenty of them. But there were no bones or offal anywhere around, and Ward decided that it was not a family residence, but that the wolves had perhaps invaded the nest of some other animal. He went on hopefully. That side of the gulch was cobwebbed with tracks.

Then, quite accidentally, he glanced across to the far side, his eyes attracted to something which had moved. He could see nothing at first, though from the corner of his eye he had certainly caught a flicker of movement over there. Yellow sand, gray rocks and bushes, and above a curlew circling, with long beak outstretched before, and long, red legs stretched out behind. He almost believed he had but caught the swift passing of a cloud shadow over there and was on the point of climbing farther up his own slope, to where a yawning hole in the hill showed signs of being pawed and trampled. Then an outline slowly defined itself among a jumble of rocks; head, sloping back, two points for ears. It might be a rock, but it began to look more and more like a wolf sitting up on its haunches watching him fixedly.

Even while Ward lifted his rifle and got the ivory bead snugly fitted into the notch of the rear sight with his eye, he would not have bet two-bits that he was aiming at an animal. He pulled the trigger with a steady crooking of his forefinger and the whole gulch clamored with the noise. The object over there leaped high, came down heavily, and rolled ten feet down the hill to another level, where it bounded three or four times convulsively, slid a few feet farther, and lay still behind a bush.

"Got you that time, you old Turk, if you did nearly fool me playing you were part of the scenery." Ward slid recklessly down to the bottom, sought a narrow place, jumped the creek, and climbed exultantly to where the wolf lay twisted on its back, its eyes half open and glazed, its jaws parted in a sardonic grin. Ward grinned also as he looked at it. He gave the carcass a poke with his boot-toe and glanced up the hill toward the rocks.

"Maybe you were playing lookout for the bunch," he said, "and then again, maybe you ain't hooked up with a family; though from the looks, you ain't weaned your pups yet--till just now." Leaving the wolf where she lay, he climbed to the rocks where he had first seen her. They lay high piled, but he could see daylight through every open space and so knew there was no den. The base rested solidly on the yellow earth.

Ward stood and looked at the slope below. To the right and half-way down was a ten-foot ledge, and below that outcropped a steep bank of earth. He could not see what lay immediately below, but while he was still staring, a pointed, gray nose topped by pert, gray ears poked cautiously over the bank, hovered there sniffing, and dropped back out of sight.

"You little son-of-a-gun!" he exclaimed and dug in his heels on the sharp descent. "I've got you right where I want you, now."

The den was tunneled into the earth just over another ledge, which underlay the bank there, and gave a sheer drop of ten or fifteen feet to the slope below, where a thick fringe of blossoming cherry bushes grew close and hid the ledge so completely that the den had been perfectly concealed from across the gulch. It was a case where the shovel was needed. Ward "flagged" the den by throwing his coat down before the opening and went back to where Rattler waited. He was jubilant over his good luck. With an average litter of pups, and the old wolf besides, the bounty would make those two calves the most profitable animals in the bunch, reckoned on the basis of money invested in them.

With the shovel he enlarged the tunnel, and between strokes he heard the whimpering of the pups. The sound sobered his face to a pitying determination. Poor little devils, it was not their fault that they were born to be a menace rather than a help to mankind. He was sorry for their terror, while he dug back to where they huddled against the farthest wall of their nest. He worked fast that he might the sooner end their discomfort, and his forehead was puckered into a frown at the harsh law of life that it must preserve its existence at the expense of some other life. Yet he dug back and back, burrowing into the bank toward the whimpering. It was farther than he had thought, but the soil was a loose sand and gravel, and he made good headway.

Then, laying down his shovel, he reached into a hysterical squirm of soft hair and sharp little teeth that snapped at his gloved hand. One by one he hauled them out, whining, biting, struggling like the little savages they were. One by one he sent them into oblivion with a sharp tap of the shovel. There were eight, just big enough to make little, investigative trips outside the den when all was quiet. Ward was glad he had found them and wiped them out of existence, but it had not been pleasant work.

He wiped the perspiration off his face with his handkerchief, pushed his hat to the back of his head, and sat down on the ledge beside the pile of dirt he had thrown out. He felt the need of a smoke, after all that exertion.

It was while he was smoking and resting that he first became conscious of the pile of dirt as something more than the obstacle between himself and the wolf-pups. He blew a little cloud of smoke from his mouth, leaned and lifted a handful of sand, picked something out of it, and looked at it intently. He said "Humph!" skeptically. Then he turned his head and stared at the ledge above and to the right of him, twisted half around and scanned the steep slope immediately above the earth bank, and then looked at the gulch beneath him. He took his cigarette from his lips, said, "Well, I'll be darned!" and put it back again. With his forefinger he turned over a small, rusty lump the size of a pea, wiped it upon his sleeve, and bent over it eagerly, holding it so that the light struck it revealingly. His face glowed. Save the want of tenderness in his eyes, he looked as though Billy Louise stood before him; the same guarded gladness, the same intent eagerness.

Ward sprawled over that pile of gravel and sand and searched with his fingers, as young girls search a thick bank of clover for the magic four leaves. He found one other small lump that he kept, but beyond that his search was barren of result. Still, that glow remained in his face. Finally he roused himself as though he realized that he was behaving foolishly. He made himself another cigarette and smoked it fast, keeping pace with his shuttling thoughts. And by the time the paper tube was burned down to an inch-long stub, he had won back his manner of imperturbable calm; only his eyes betrayed a hidden excitement.

"Looks like there's money in wolves," he said aloud and laughed a little. "Old Lady Fortune, you want to watch out, or I'm liable to get the best of you yet! Looks like I've got a hand to draw to, now. Youp-_ee-ee_!" His forced imperturbability exploded in the yell, and after that he moved briskly.

"I've got to play safe on this," he warned himself, while he scalped the last of the pups. "No use getting rattled. If she's good as she looks, she's fine. She'll help boost my little bunch of cattle, and that's all I want. I ain't going to go hog-wild over it, like so many do."

He went over and skinned the mother wolf, and with the pelts in a strong-smelling bundle, returned to the sand pile and filled his neckerchief as full as he could tie it. Then he went down into the gulch, jumped the creek with his load--and got a foot wet where his boot leaked along the sole--and climbed hurriedly up to where Rattler waited and dozed in the sunshine, with the reins dropped to the ground.

Rattler objected to those fresh wolf-skins, and Ward lifted a disciplinary boot-toe to his ribs. His mood did not accept patiently any unnecessary delay in getting home, and he succeeded in making Rattler aware of his mood. Rattler laid back his ears and took the trail in long, rabbit-jumps for spite, risking his own and his master's bones unchecked and unchided. The pace pleased Ward, and to the risk he gave no thought. He was reconstructing his air-castles on broader lines and smiling now and then to himself.

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