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The wagons of the Double-Crank had stopped to tarry over the Fourth at Fighting Wolf Spring, which bubbles from under a great rock in a narrow "draw" that runs itself out to a cherry-masked point halfway up the side of Fighting Wolf Butte. Billy, with wisdom born of much experience in the ways of a round-up crew when the Fourth of July draws near, started his riders at day-dawn to rake all Fighting Wolf on its southern side. "Better catch up your ridge-runners," he had cautioned, "because I'll set yuh plumb afoot if yuh don't." The boys, knowing well his meaning and that the circle that day would be a big one over rough country, saddled their best horses and settled themselves to a hard day's work.
Till near noon they rode, and branded after dinner to the tune of much scurrying and bawling and a great deal of dust and rank smoke, urged by the ever-present fear that they would not finish in time. But their leader was fully as anxious as they and had timed the work so that by four o'clock the herd was turned loose, the fires drenched with water and the branding irons put away.
At sundown the long slope from Fighting Wolf Spring was dotted for a space with men, fresh-shaven, clean-shirted and otherwise rehabilitated, galloping eagerly toward Hardup fifteen miles away. That they had been practically in the saddle since dawn was a trifle not to be considered; they would dance until another dawn to make up for it.
Hardup, decked meagrely in the colors that spell patriotism, was unwontedly alive and full of Fourth of July noises. But even with the distraction of a holiday and a dance just about to start and the surrounding country emptied of humans into the town, the clatter of the Double-Crank outfit--fifteen wiry young fellows hungry for play--brought men to the doors and into the streets.
Charming Billy, because his eagerness was spiced with expectancy, did not stop even for a drink, but made for the hotel. At the hotel he learned that his "crowd" was over at the hall, and there he hurried so soon as he had removed the dust and straightened his tie and brushed his hair and sworn at his upstanding scalp-lock, in the corner of the hotel office dedicated to public cleanliness.
It was a pity that such single-hearted effort must go unrewarded, but the fact remains that he reached the hall just as the couples were promenading for the first waltz. He was permitted the doubtful pleasure of a welcoming nod from Flora as she went by with the Pilgrim. Dill was on the floor with Mama Joy, and at a glance he saw how it was; the Pilgrim had "butted in" and come along with them. He supposed Flora really could not help it, but it was pretty hard lines, all the same. For even in the range-land are certain rules of etiquette which must be observed when men and women foregather in the pursuit of pleasure. Billy remembered ruefully how a girl must dance first, last, and oftenest with her partner of the evening, and must eat supper with him besides, whether she likes or not; to tweak this rule means to insult the man beyond forgiveness.
"Well, it wouldn't hurt me none if Flora did cut him off short," Billy concluded, his eyes following them resentfully whenever they whirled down to his end of the room. "The way I've got it framed up, I'd spoke for her first--if Dilly told her what I said."
Still, what he thought privately did not seem to have much effect upon realities. Flora he afterward saw intermittently while they danced a quadrille together, and she made it plain that she had not considered Billy as her partner; how could she, when he was trailing around over the country with the round-up, and nobody knew whether he would come or not? No, Mr. Walland did not come to the ranch so very often. She added na´vely that he was awfully busy. He had ridden in with them--and why not? Was there any reason--
Billy, though he could think of reasons in plenty, turned just then to balance on the corner and swing, and to do many other senseless things at the behest of the man on the platform, so that when they stood together again for a brief space, both were breathless and she was anxiously feeling her hair and taking out side combs and putting them back again, and Billy felt diffident about interrupting her and said no more about who was her partner.
An hour or so later he was looking about for her, meaning to dance with her again, when a man pushed him aside hurriedly and went across the floor and spoke angrily to another. Billy, moving aside so that he could see, discovered Flora standing up with the Pilgrim for the dance in another "set" that was forming. The man who had jostled him was speaking to them angrily, but Billy could not catch the words.
"He's drunk," called the Pilgrim to the floor manager. "Put him out!"
Several men left their places and rushed over to them. Because Flora was there and likely to be involved, Billy reached them first.
"This was my dance!" the fellow was expostulating. "She promised it to me."
"Aw, he's drunk," repeated the Pilgrim, turning to Billy. "It's Gus Svenstrom. He's got it in for me because I fired him last week. Throw him out! Miss Bridger isn't going to dance with a drunken stiff like him."
"Oh, I'll go--I ain't so drunk I've got to be carried!" retorted the other, and pushed his way angrily through the crowd.
Flora had kept her place. Though the color had gone from her cheeks, she seemed to have no intention of quitting the quadrille, so there was nothing for Billy to do but get off the floor and leave her to her partner. He went out after the Swede, and, seeing him headed for the saloon across from the hotel, followed aimlessly. He was not quite comfortable in the hall, anyway, for he had caught Mama Joy eying him strangely, and he thought she was wondering why he had not asked her to dance.
Charming Billy was not by nature a diplomat; it never once occurred to him that he would better treat Mama Joy as if that half minute in the kitchen had never been. He had said good evening to her when he first met her that evening, and he considered his duty done. He did not want to dance with her, and that was, in his opinion, an excellent reason for not doing so. He did not like to have her watching him with those big, round, blue eyes of hers, so he stayed in the saloon for a while and only left it to go to supper when some one said that the dance crowd was over there. There might be some chance that would permit him to eat with Flora.
There are moments in a town when, even with many people coming and going, one may look and see none. When Billy closed the door of the saloon behind him and started across to the hotel, not a man did he see, though there was sound in plenty from the saloons and the hotel and the hall. He was nearly half across the street when two men came into sight and met suddenly just outside a window of the hotel. Billy, in the gloom of starlight and no moon, could not tell who they were; he heard a sharp sentence or two, saw them close together, heard a blow. Then they broke apart and there was the flash of a shot. One man fell and the other whirled about as if he would run, but Billy was then almost upon them and the man turned back and stood looking down at the fallen figure.
"Damn him, he pulled a knife on me!" he cried defensively. Billy saw that it was the Pilgrim.
"Who is he?" he asked, and knelt beside the form. The man was lying just where the lamp-light streamed out from the window, but his face was in shadow. "Oh, it's that Swede," he added, and rose. "I'll get somebody; I believe he's dead." He left the Pilgrim standing there and hurried to the door of the hotel office.
In any other locality a shot would have brought on the run every man who heard it; but in a "cow-town," especially on a dance night, shots are as common as shouts. In Hardup that night there had been periodical outbursts which no one, not even the women, minded in the least.
So it was not until Billy opened the door, put his head in, and cried: "Come alive! A fellow's been shot, right out here," that there was a stampede for the door.
The Pilgrim still stood beside the other, waiting. Three or four stooped over the man on the ground. Billy was one of them.
"He pulled a gun on me," explained the Pilgrim. "I was trying to take it away from him, and it went off."
Billy stood up, and, as he did so, his foot struck against a revolver lying beside the Swede. He looked at the Pilgrim queerly, but he did not say anything. They were lifting the Swede to carry him into the office; they knew that he was dead, even before they got him into the light.
"Somebody better get word to the coroner," said the Pilgrim, fighting for self-control. "It was self-defense. My God, boys, I couldn't help it! He pulled a gun on me. Yuh saw it on the ground there, right where he dropped it."
Billy turned clear around and looked again at the Pilgrim, and the Pilgrim met his eyes defiantly before he turned away.
"I understood yuh to say it was a knife," he remarked slowly.
The Pilgrim swung back again. "I didn't--or, if I did, I was rattled. It was a gun--that gun on the ground. He met me there and started a row and said he'd fix me. He pulled his gun, and I made a grab for it and it went off. That's all there is to it." He stared hard at Billy.
There was much talk among the men, and several told how they had heard the Swede "cussing" Walland in the saloon that evening. Some remembered threats--the threats which a man will foolishly make when he is pouring whisky down his throat by the glassful. No one seemed to blame Walland in the least, and Billy felt that the Pilgrim was in a fair way to become something of a hero. It is not every man who has the nerve to grab a gun with which he is threatened.
They made a cursory search of the Pilgrim and found that he was not armed, and he was given to understand that he would be expected to stay around town until the coroner came and "sat" on the case. But he was treated to drinks right and left, and when Billy went to find Flora the Pilgrim was leaning heavily upon the bar with a glass in his hand and his hat far back on his head, declaiming to the crowd that he was perfectly harmless so long as he was left alone. But he wasn't safe to monkey with, and any man who came at him hunting trouble would sure get all he wanted and then some. He said he didn't kill people if he could help it--but a man was plumb obliged to, sometimes.
"I'm sure surprised to think I got off with m' life, last winter, when I hazed him away from line-camp; I guess I must uh had a close call, all right!" Billy snorted contemptuously and shut the door upon the wordy revelation of the Pilgrim's deep inner nature which had been until that night carefully hidden from an admiring world.
The dance stopped abruptly with the killing; people were already going home. Billy, with the excuse that he would be wanted at the inquest, hunted up Jim Bleeker, gave him charge of the round-up for a few days, and told him what route to take. For himself, he meant to ride home with Flora or know the reason why.
"Come along, Dilly, and let's get out uh town," he urged, when he had found him. "It's a kinda small burg, and at the rate the Pilgrim is swelling up over what he done, there won't be room for nobody but him in another hour. He's making me plumb nervous and afraid to be around him, he's so fatal."
"We'll go at once, William. Walland is drinking a great deal more than he should, but I don't think he means to be boastful over so unfortunate an affair. Do you think you are taking an altogether unprejudiced view of the matter? Our judgment," he added deprecatingly, "is so apt to be warped by our likes and dislikes."
"Well, if that was the case here," Billy told him shortly, "I've got dislike enough for him to wind my judgment up like a clock spring. I'll go see if Flora and her mother are ready." In that way he avoided discussing the Pilgrim, for Dill was not so dull that he failed to take the hint.
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