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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 8. Help For The Cow Business
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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 8. Help For The Cow Business Post by :prospertogether Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2350

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The Ranch At The Wolverine - Chapter 8. Help For The Cow Business

CHAPTER VIII. HELP FOR THE COW BUSINESS

He had no goldpan of his own, since this was not a mining country, and his ambition had run in a different channel. He, therefore, took the tin washbasin down to the creek and dumped the sand into it. Then, squatting on his boot-heels at the edge of the stream, he filled the basin with water and rocked it gently with a rotary motion that proved him no novice at the work. His eyes were sharper and more intent in their gaze than Billy Louise had ever seen them, and, though his movements were unhurried, they were full of eagerness held in leash.

Several times he refilled the basin, and the amount of sand grew less and less, until there remained only a few spoonfuls of coarse gravel and a sediment that clung to the bottom of the basin and moved sluggishly around and around. He picked out the tiny pebbles one by one and threw them in the creek. He peered sharply at a small bit and held it in his fingers, while he bent his face close to the pan, his eyes two gimlets boring into the contents.

He got up stiffly, backed, and sat down upon the low bank with his feet far apart and his shoulders bent, while he stared at the little bit of mineral in his fingers.

"Coarse gold, and not such a hell of a lot," he pronounced to himself with careful impartiality. "But it's pay dirt, and if there's enough of it, it'll help a lot at this end of the cow business." He sat there a long time, thinking and planning and holding himself sternly to cold reality, rejecting every possibility that had the slightest symptom of being an air-castle. He did not intend to let this thing turn his head or betray him into any foolishness whatsoever. He was going to look at the thing cold-bloodedly and put his imagination in cold storage for the present.

His first impulse--to ride straight to the Wolverine and show Billy Louise these three tiny nuggets--he rejected as a bit of foolishness. He was perfectly willing to trust Billy Louise with any secret he possessed, but he knew that he would be feeding her imagination with dangerous fuel. She would begin dreaming and building castles and prospecting for herself, very likely; and that trail led oftenest to black disappointment. If he made good, he would tell her--when he told her something else. And if the whole thing were just a fluke, a stray deposit of a little gold that did not amount to anything, then it would be best for her to know nothing about it. Ward felt in himself, at that moment, the keen foretaste of bitter disappointment which would follow such a certainty. He did not want Billy Louise exposed to that pain.

He would tell her about the wolves, of course. It was pretty hard not to tell her everything that concerned himself, but the streak of native reticence in his nature had been strengthened by the vicissitudes of the life he had lived. While Billy Louise had found the sole weak point which made that reticence scarcely a barrier to full confidence, still he knew that he would keep this from her if he made up his mind to it.

He would not tell anybody. He raised his head and looked at the hills where his cattle would feed, and pictured it cluttered with gold-hunters, greedy, undesirable interlopers doomed to disappointment in the long run. Ward had seen the gold fever sweep through a community and spoil life for the weak ones who took to chasing the will-o'-the-wisp of sudden wealth. Tramps of the pick-and-pan brigade--they should not come swarming into these hills on any wild-goose chase, if he could help it. And he could and should. This was not, properly speaking, a gold country. He knew it. The rock formations did not point to any great deposit of the mineral, and if he had found one, it was a fluke, an accident. He resolved that his first consideration should be the keeping of his secret for the mental well-being of his fellows.

Ward did not put it quite so altruistically. His thoughts formed into sentences.

"This is cattle country. If men want to hunt gold, they can do their hunting somewhere else. They can't go digging up the whole blamed country just on the chance of finding another pocket like this one. I'm in the cattle business myself. If I find any gold, it'll go into cattle and stay there; and there won't be any long-haired freaks pestering around here if I can help it, and I reckon maybe I can, all right.

"I'd sure like to talk it over with Billy, but what she don't know won't worry her; and I don't know yet what I've gone up against. Maybe old Dame Fortune's just played another joke on me--played me for a fool again. I'll take a chance, but I won't give that little girl down below there anything to spoil her sleep."

Ward's memory was like glue, and while it held things he would give much to forget, still it served him well. He had ridden past a tiny, partly caved-in dugout, months ago, where some wandering prospector had camped while he braved the barrenness of the bills and streams hereabout. Ward had dismounted and glanced into the cavelike hut. Now, after he had eaten a few mouthfuls of dinner, he rode straight over to that dugout and got the goldpan he remembered to have seen there. It was not in the best condition, of course. It was battered and bent, but it would do for the present.

By the time he reached the wolf den, the sun was nearing the western rim of hills, but Ward had time to examine the locality more carefully than he had done at first and to wash a couple of pans of gravel. The test elated him perceptibly; for while there did not seem to be the makings of a millionaire in that gravel bank, he judged roughly that he could make a plumber's wages if he worked hard enough--and that looked pretty good to a fellow who had worked all his life for forty dollars a month. "Two-bits a pan, just about," he put it to himself. "And I'll have to pack the dirt down here to the creek; but I'll dig a nice little bunch of cattle out of that gravel bank before snow flies, or I miss my guess a mile."

As nearly as he could figure, he had chanced upon a split channel. For ages, he judged, the water had run upon that ledge, leaving the streak of gravel and what little gold it had carried down from the mountains. Then some freshet had worn over the edge of the break in the rock until the ledge and its deposit was left high and dry on the side of the gulch, while the creek flowed through the gully it had formed below. It might not be the correct explanation, but it satisfied Ward and encouraged him to believe that the streak of pay gravel lay along the ledge within easy reach.

He tried to trace the ledge up and down the gulch and to estimate the probable extent of that pay streak. Then he gave it up in self-defense. "I've got to watch my dodgers," he admonished himself, "or I'll go plumb loco and imagine I'm a millionaire. I'll pan what I can get at and let it go at that. And I've got to count what gold shows up in the sack--and no more. Good Lord! I can't afford to make a fool of myself at this stage of the game! I've got to sit right down on my imagination and stick to hard-boiled facts."

He went home in a very good humor with himself and the world, for all that. So far as he could see, the thing that had been bothering him was settled most satisfactorily. He had wanted to spend the summer on his claim, making improvements and watching over his cattle. There was fence to build and some hay to cut; and he would like to build another room on to the cabin. Ward had certain fastidious instincts, and he rebelled inwardly at eating, sleeping, and cooking all in one small room. But he had not been able to solve the problem of earning a living while he did all this--to say nothing of buying supplies. And he really needed a team and tools, if he meant to put up any hay.

Now, with that pay gravel within reach, and the gold running twenty-five cents to the pan, and the occasional tiny nuggets jumping up the yield now and then, he could go ahead and do the things he wanted to do. And he could dream about having a certain gray-eyed girl for his wife, without calling himself names afterward.

So he set to work the next morning in dead earnest with pick, shovel, and pan, to make the most of his little find. He shoveled the dirt and gravel into a gunny sack, threw the sack as far as he could over the ledge at the end, where it was not hidden and cluttered with the cherry-trees and service berries below, and when it stopped rolling, he carried it the rest of the way. Then he panned it in the little creek, watching like a hawk for nuggets and the finer gold. It was back-breaking work, and he felt that he earned every cent he got. But the cents were there, in good gold, and he was perfectly willing to work for what he received in this world.

After a couple of weeks he stopped long enough to make a hurried trip to Hardup, a little town forty miles farther up in the hills. In the little bank there he exchanged his gold harvest for coin of the realm, and he was well satisfied with the result. It was not a fortune, nor was he likely to find one in the hills. But he bought a team, wagon, and harness with the money, and he had enough left over for a two-months' grubstake and plenty of Durham and papers and a few magazines. That left him just enough silver to pay Rattler's bill at the livery stable. Nothing startling, but still not bad--that wolf-den find.

He had a lot of trouble getting his wagon to his claim, but by judicious driving and the liberal use of a log-chain for a rough lock, he managed to land the whole outfit in the little flat before the cabin without any mishap. After that he settled down to work the thing systematically.

One day he would pan the sandy gravel, and the next day he would rest his back digging post-holes or something comparatively easy. He worked from daybreak until it was too dark to see, and he never left his claim except when he went to wash gold up in the gulch. The world moved on, and he neither knew nor cared how it moved; for the time being his world had narrowed amazingly. If Billy Louise had not been down there in that other world, he would scarcely have given it a thought, so absorbed was he in the delightful task of putting a good, solid foundation under his favorite air-castle. That fascinated him, held him to his work in spite of his hunger to see her and talk with her and watch the changing lights in her eyes and the fleeting expressions of her face.

Some day he hoped he would have her with him always. He put it stronger than that: Some day he would have her with him, there in that little valley he had chosen; riding with him over those hills that smiled and seemed to stand there waiting for their invasions, with the echoes ready to fling back his exultant voice when he called to her or sang for her or laughed at her; ready to imitate enviously her voice when she laughed back at him. He wanted that day to come soon, and so with days and hours and minutes he became a miser and would not spend them in the luxury of a visit to her. It seemed to him that his longing for her measured itself by the enormous appetite he had for work, that summer.

Week followed week as he followed that thin, fluctuating streak of pay gravel along the ledge. Sometimes it was rich enough to set the pulse pounding in his temples; sometimes it was so poor that he was disgusted to the point of abandoning the work. But every day he worked, it yielded him something--though there was a week when he averaged about fifty cents a day and lived with a scowl on his face--and he kept at it.

He went out in June and bought a mower and rake and then spent precious days getting them into his valley. There was no road, you see, and he was compelled to haul them in a wagon, through country where nature never meant four wheels to pass. He hired a man for a month--one of those migratory individuals who works for a week or a month in one place and then wanders on till his money is spent--and he drove that man as relentlessly as he drove himself. Together they accomplished much, while the goldpan lay hidden under a buck brush and Ward's waking moments were filled with an uneasy sense of wasted time. Still, it was for the good of his ranch and his cattle and his air-castle that he toiled in the gulch, and it was necessary that he should put up what hay he could. There would be calves to feed next winter, he hoped; and when the hardest storms came, his horse would need a little. The rest of the stock would have to rustle; and that was why he had chosen this nook among the hills, where the wind would sweep the high slopes bare of snow, and the gulches would give shelter with their heavy thickets of quaking aspens and willow and alder.

He was thankful when the creek bottom was shaved clean of grass, and the stack beside his corral was of a satisfying length and height. The summer had been kind to the grass-growth, and his hay crop was larger than he had expected. A few days had remained of the month, and Ward had used them to extend his fence so as to give more pasturage to his calves in mild weather. After that he paid the man, directed him to the nearest point on the stage road, and breathed thanks that he was alone again, and could go back to his plan of digging a nice little hunch of cattle out of that bank before snow flew.

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