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The Shadow Darkens.
The inquest resulted to the satisfaction of those who wished well to the Pilgrim, for it cleared him of all responsibility for the killing. Gus Svenstrom had been drunk; he had been heard to make threats; he had been the aggressor in the trouble at the dance; and the Pilgrim, in the search men had made immediately after the shooting, had been found unarmed. The case was very plainly one of self-defense.
Billy, when questioned, repeated the Pilgrim's first words to him--that the Swede had pulled a knife; and told the jury, on further questioning, that he had not seen any gun on the ground until after he had gone for help.
Walland explained satisfactorily to the jury. He may have said knife instead of gun. He had heard some one say that the Swede carried a knife, and he had been expecting him to draw one. He was rattled at first and hardly knew what he did say. He did not remember saying it was a knife, but it was possible that he had done so. As to Billy's not seeing any gun at first--they did not question the Pilgrim about that, because Billy in his haste and excitement could so easily overlook an object on the ground. They gave a verdict of self-defense without any discussion, and the Pilgrim continued to be something of a hero among his fellows.
Billy, as soon as the thing was over, mounted in not quite the best humor and rode away to join his wagons. He had not ridden to the Double-Crank to hear Flora talk incessantly of Mr. Walland, and repeat many times the assertion that she did not see how, under the circumstances, he could avoid killing the man. Nor had he gone to watch Mama Joy dimple and frown by turns and give him sidelong glances which made him turn his head quickly away. He hated to admit to himself how well he understood her. He did not want to be rude, but he had no desire to flirt with her, and it made him rage inwardly to realize how young and pretty she really was, and how, if it were not for Flora, he might so easily be tempted to meet her at least halfway. She could not be more than four or five years older than Flora, and in her large, blonde way she was quite as alluring. Billy wished profanely that she had gone to Klondyke with her husband, or that Bridger had known enough about women to stay at home with a wife as young as she.
He was glad in his heart when came the time to go. Maybe she would get over her foolishness by the time he came in with the round-up. At any rate, the combination at the ranch did not tempt him to neglect his business, and he galloped down the trail without so much as looking back to see if Flora would wave--possibly because he was afraid he might catch the flutter of a handkerchief in fingers other than hers.
It was when the round-up was on its way in that Billy, stopping for an hour in Hardup, met Dill in the post office.
"Why, hello, Dilly!" he cried, really glad to see the tall, lank form come shambling in at the door. "I didn't expect to see yuh off your own ranch. Anybody dead?" It struck him that Dill looked a shade more melancholy than was usual, even for him.
"Why, no, William. Every one is well--very well indeed. I only rode in after the mail and a few other things. I'm always anxious for my papers and magazines, you know. If you will wait for half an hour--you are going home, I take it?"
"That's where I'm sure headed, and we can ride out together, easy as not. We're through for a couple uh weeks or so, and I'm hazing the boys home to bust a few hosses before we strike out again. I guess I'll just keep the camp running down by the creek. Going to be in town long enough for me to play a game uh pool?"
"I was going right out again, but there's no particular hurry," said Dill, looking over his letters. "Were you going to play with some one in particular?"
"No--just the first gazabo I could rope and lead up to the table," Billy told him, sliding off the counter where he had been perched.
"I wouldn't mind a game myself," Dill observed, in his hesitating way.
In the end, however, they gave up the idea and started for home; because two men were already playing at the only table in Hardup, and they were in no mind to wait indefinitely.
Outside the town, Dill turned gravely to the other, "Did you say you were intending to camp down by the creek, William?" he asked slowly.
"Why, yes. Anything against it?" Billy's eyes opened a bit wider that Dill should question so trivial a thing.
"Oh, no--nothing at all." Dill cleared his throat raspingly. "Nothing at all--so long as there is any creek to camp beside."
"I reckon you've got something to back that remark. Has the creek went and run off somewhere?" Billy said, after a minute of staring.
"William, I have been feeling extremely ill at ease for the past week, and I have been very anxious for a talk with you. Eight days ago the creek suddenly ran dry--so dry that one could not fill a tin dipper except in the holes. I observed it about noon, when I led my horse down to water. I immediately saddled him and rode up the creek to discover the cause." He stopped and looked at Billy steadily.
"Well, I reckon yuh found it," Billy prompted impatiently.
"I did. I followed the creek until I came to the ditch Mr. Brown has been digging. I found that he had it finished and was filling it from the creek in order to test it. I believe," he added dryly, "he found the result very satisfying--to himself. The ditch carried the whole creek without any trouble, and there was plenty of room at the top for more!"
"Hell!" said Billy, just as Dill knew he would say. "But he can't take out any more than his water-right calls for," he added. "Yuh got a water right along with the ranch, didn't yuh say?"
"I got three--the third, fourth, and fifth. I have looked into the matter very closely in the last week. I find that we can have all the water there is--after Brown gets through. His rights are the first and second, and will cover all the water the creek will carry, if he chooses to use them to the limit. I suspect he was looking for some sort of protest from me, for he had the papers in his pocket and showed them to me. I afterward investigated, as I said, and found the case to be exactly as I have stated."
Billy stared long at his horse's ears. "Well, he can't use the whole creek," he said at last, "not unless he just turned it loose to be mean, and I don't believe he can waste water even if he does hold the rights. We can mighty quick put a stop to that. Do yuh know anything about injunctions? If yuh don't, yuh better investigate 'em a lot--because I don't know a damn' thing about the breed, and we're liable to need 'em bad."
"I believe I may truthfully say that I understand the uses--and misuses--of injunctions, William. In the East they largely take the place of guns as fighting weapons, and I think I may say without boasting that I can hit the bull's-eye with them as well as most men. But suppose Mr. Brown uses the water? Suppose there is none left to turn back into the creek channel when he is through? He has a large force of men at work running laterals from the main ditch, which carries the water up and over the high land, and I took the liberty of following his lines of stakes. As you would put it, William, he seems about to irrigate the whole of northern Montana; certainly his stakes cover the whole creek bottom, both above and below the main ditch, and also the bench land above."
"Hell! Anything else?"
"I believe not--except that he has completed his fencing and has turned in a large number of cattle. I say completed, though strictly speaking he has not. He has completed the great field south of the creek and east of us. But Mr. Walland was saying that Brown intends to fence a tract to the north of us, either this fall or early in the spring. I know to a certainty that he has a good many sections leased there. I tried to obtain some of it last spring and could not." Into the voice of Dill had crept a note of discouragement.
"Well, don't yuh worry none, Dilly. I'm here to see yuh pull out on top, and you'll do it, too. You're a crackerjack when it comes to the fine points uh business, and I sure savvy the range end uh the game, so between us we ought to make good, don't yuh think? You just keep your eye on Brown, and if yuh can slap him in the face with an injunction or anything, don't yuh get a sudden attack uh politeness and let him slide. I'll look after the cow brutes myself--and if I ain't good for it, after all these years, I ought to be kicked plumb off the earth. The time has gone by when we could ride over there and haze his bunch clear out uh the country on a high lope, with our six guns backing our argument. I kinda wish," he added pensively, "we hadn't got so damn' decent and law-abiding. We could get action a heap more speedy and thorough with a dozen or fifteen buckaroos that liked to fight and had lots uh shells and good hosses. Why, I could have the old man's bunch shoveling dirt into that ditch to beat four aces, in about fifteen minutes, if--"
"But, as you say," Dill cut in anxiously, "we are decent and law-abiding, and such a procedure is quite out of the question."
"Aw, I ain't meditating no moonlight attack, Dilly--but the boys would sure love to do it if I told 'em to get busy, and I reckon we could make a better job of it than forty-nine injunctions and all kinds uh law sharps."
"Careful, William. I used to be a 'law sharp' myself," protested Dill, pulling his face into a smile. "And I must own I feel anxious over this irrigation project of Brown's. He is going to work upon a large scale--a very large scale--for a private ranch. You have made it plain to me, William, how vitally important a wide, unsettled country is to successful cattle raising; and since then I have thought deeply upon the subject. I feel sure that Mr. Brown is not going to start a cattle ranch."
"If he ain't, then what--"
"I am not prepared at present to make a statement, even to you, William. I never enjoyed recanting. But one thing I may say. Mr. Brown has so far kept well within his legal rights, and we have no possible ground for protest. So you see, perhaps we would better turn our entire attention to our own affairs."
"Sure. I got plenty uh troubles uh my own," Billy agreed, more emphatically than he intended.
Dill looked at him hesitatingly. "Mrs. Bridger," he observed slowly, "has received news that her husband is seriously ill. There will not be another boat going north until spring, so that it will be impossible for her to go to him. I am extremely sorry." Then, as if that statement seemed to him too bald, in view of the fact that they had never discussed Mama Joy, he added, "It is very hard for Flora. The letter held out little hope of recovery."
Billy, though he turned a deep red and acquired three distinct creases between his eyebrows, did not even make use of his favorite expletive. After a while he said irritably that a man was a damn fool to go off like that and leave a wife--and family--behind him. He ought either to stay at home or take them with him.
He did not mean that he wished her father had taken Flora to Klondyke, though he openly implied that he wished Mama Joy had gone. He knew he was inconsistent, but he also knew--and there was comfort as well as discomfort in the knowledge--that Dill understood him very well.
It seemed to Billy, in the short time that the round-up crew was camped by the creek, that no situation could be more intolerable than the one he must endure. He could not see Flora without having Mama Joy present also--or if he did find Flora alone, Mama Joy was sure to appear very shortly. If he went near the house there was no escaping her. And when he once asked Flora to ride with him he straightway discovered that Mama Joy had developed a passion for riding and went along. Flora had only time to murmur a rapid sentence or two while Mama Joy was hunting her gloves.
"Mama Joy has been taking the Ladies' Home Journal" she said ironically, "and she has been converted to the idea that a girl must never be trusted alone with a man. I've acquired a chaperon now! Have you begun to study diplomacy yet, Billy Boy?"
"Does she chapyron yuh this fervent when the Pilgrim's the man?" countered Billy resentfully.
He did not get an answer, because Mama Joy found her gloves too soon, but he learned his lesson and did not ask Flora to ride with him again. Nevertheless, he tried surreptitiously to let her know the reason and so prevent any misunderstanding.
He knew that Flora was worrying over her father, and he would like to have cheered her all he could; but he had no desire to cheer Mama Joy as well--he would not even give her credit for needing cheer. So he stayed away from them both and gave his time wholly to the horse-breaking and to affairs in general, and ate and slept in camp to make his avoidance of the house complete.
Sometimes, of a night when he could not sleep, he wondered why it is that one never day-dreams unpleasant obstacles and disheartening failures into one's air castles. Why was it that, just when it had seemed to him that his dream was miraculously come true; when he found himself complete master of the Double-Crank where for years he had been merely one of the men; when the One Girl was also settled indefinitely in the household he called his home; when he knew she liked him, and had faith to believe he could win her to something better than friendship--all these good things should be enmeshed in a tangle of untoward circumstances?
Why must he be compelled to worry over the Double-Crank, that had always seemed to him a synonym for success? Why must his first and only love affair be hampered by an element so disturbing as Mama Joy? Why, when he had hazed the Pilgrim out of his sight--and as he supposed, out of his life--must the man hover always in the immediate background, threating the peace of mind of Billy, who only wanted to be left alone that he and his friends might live unmolested in the air castle of his building?
One night, just before they were to start out again gathering beef for the shipping season, Billy thought he had solved the problem--philosophically, if not satisfactorily. "I guess maybe it's just one uh the laws uh nature that you're always bumping into," he decided. "It's a lot like draw-poker. Yah can't get dealt out to yuh the cards yuh want, without getting some along with 'em that yuh don't want. What gets me is, I don't see how in thunder I'm going to ditch m' discard. If I could just turn 'em face down on the table and count 'em out uh the game--old Brown and his fences and his darn ditch, and that dimply blonde person and the Pilgrim--oh, hell! Wouldn't we rake in the stakes if I could?"
Straightway Billy found another element added to the list of disagreeables--or, to follow his simile, another card was dealt him which he would like to have discarded, but which he must keep in his hand and play with what skill he might. He was not the care-free Charming Billy Boyle who had made prune pie for Flora Bridger in the line-camp. He looked older, and there were chronic creases between his eyebrows, and it was seldom that he asked tunefully
"Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy Boy?"
He had too much on his mind for singing anything.
It was when he had gathered the first train load of big, rollicky steers for market and was watching Jim Bleeker close the stockyard gate on the tail of the herd at Tower, the nearest shipping point, that the disagreeable element came in the person of Dill and the news he bore.
He rode up to where Billy, just inside the wing of the stockyards, was sitting slouched over with one foot out of the stirrup, making a cigarette. Dill did not look so much the tenderfoot, these days. He sat his horse with more assurance, and his face was brown and had that firm, hard look which outdoor living brings.
"I looked for you in yesterday or the day before, William," he said, when Billy had greeted him with a friendly, "Hello, Dilly!" and one of his illuminating smiles.
"I'm ready to gamble old Brown has been and gone and run the creek dry on yuh again," bantered Billy, determined at that moment to turn his back on trouble.
"No, William, you would lose. The creek is running almost its normal volume of water. I dislike very much to interfere with your part of the business, William, but under present conditions I feel justified in telling you that you must not ship these cattle just now. I have been watching the market with some uneasiness for a month. Beef has been declining steadily until now it ranges from two-ninety to three-sixty, and you will readily see, William, that we cannot afford to ship at that figure. For various reasons I have not obtruded business matters upon you, but I will now state that it is vitally important that we realize enough from the beef shipments to make our fall payment on the mortgage and pay the interest on the remainder. It would be a great advantage if we could also clear enough for the next year's running expenses. Have you any idea how much beef there will be to ship this fall?"
"I figured on sixty or seventy cars," said Billy. Instinctively he had pulled himself straight in the saddle to meet this fresh emergency.
Dill, with a pencil and an old letter from his pocket, was doing some rapid figuring. "With beef so low, I fear I shall be obliged to ask you to hold this herd for two or three weeks. The price is sure to rise later. It is merely a juggling operation among the speculators and is not justified by the condition of the stock, or of the market. In a couple of weeks the price should be normal again."
"And in a couple uh weeks this bunch would bring the lowest figure they name," Billy asserted firmly. "Beef shrinks on the hoof like thunder when it's held up and close-herded on poor range. What yuh better do, Dilly, is let me work this herd and ship just the top-notchers--they're all prime beef," he added regretfully, glancing through the fence at the milling herd. "I can cut out ten of twelve cars that'll bring top price, and throw the rest back on the range till we gather again. Yuh won't lose as much that way as yuh would by holding up the whole works."
"Well," Dill hesitated, "perhaps you are right. I don't pretend to know anything about this side of the business. To put the case to you plainly, we must clear forty thousand dollars on our beef this fall, for the mortgage alone--putting it in round numbers. We should also have ten thousand dollars for expenses, in order to run clear without adding to our liabilities. I rely upon you to help manage it. If you would postpone any more gathering of beef until--"
"It's just about a case uh now or never," Billy cut in. "There's only about so long to gather beef before they begin to fall off in weight. Then we've got to round up the calves and wean 'em, before cold weather sets in. We can't work much after snow falls. We can pull through the first storm, all right, but when winter sets in we're done. We've got to wean and feed all the calves you've got hay for, and I can save some loss by going careful and taking 'em away from the poorest cows and leaving the fat ones to winter their calves. How much hay yuh got put up?"
"A little over five hundred tons on our place," said Dill. "And I sent a small crew over to the Bridger place; they have nearly a hundred tons there. You said for me to gather every spear I could," he reminded humorously, "and I obeyed to the best of my ability."
"Good shot, Dilly. I'll round up eight or nine hundred calves, then; that'll help some. Well, shall I cut the top off this bunch uh beef, or throw the whole business back on the range? You're the doctor."
Dill rode close to the high fence, stood in his stirrups and looked down upon the mass of broad, sleek backs moving restlessly in and out and around, with no aim but to seek some way of escape. The bawling made speech difficult at any distance, and the dust sent him coughing away.
"I think, William," he said, when he was again beside Billy, "I shall leave this matter to your own judgment. What I want is to get every cent possible out of the beef we ship; the details I am content to leave with you, for in my ignorance I should probably botch the job. I suppose we can arrange it so that, in case the market rises suddenly, you can rush in a trainload at short notice?"
"Give me two weeks to get action on the range stuff, and I can have a trainload on the way to Chicago so quick it'll make your head whirl. I'll make it a point to be ready on short notice. And before we pull out I'll give yuh a kinda programme uh the next three or four weeks, so yuh can send a man out and he'll have some show uh finding us. And I won't bring in another herd till you send word--only yuh want to bear in mind that I can't set out there on a pinnacle till snow flies, waiting for prices to raise in Chicago. Yuh don't want to lose sight uh them nine hundred calves we've got to gather yet."
It was all well enough for Billy to promise largely and confidently, but he failed to take into account one small detail over which he had no control. So perfect was his system of gathering beef--and he gathered only the best, so as to catch the top price--that when Dill's message came, short and hurried but punctiliously worded and perfectly punctuated, that beef had raised to four-thirty and "Please rush shipment as per agreement," Billy had his trainload of beef in Tower, ready to load just three days after receiving notice. But here interfered the detail over which he had no control. Dill had remembered to order the cars, but shipping was heavy and cars were not to be had.
Two long, heartrending weeks they waited just outside Tower, held there within easy reach--and upon mighty short feed for the herd--by the promises of the railroad management and the daily assurance of the agent that the cars might be along at any time within four hours. (He always said four hours, which was the schedule time for fast freight between Tower and the division point.) Two long weeks, while from the surrounding hills they watched long stock trains winding snakily over the prairie toward Chicago. During those maddening days and nights Billy added a fresh crease to the group between his eyebrows and deepened the old ones, and Dill rode three horses thin galloping back and forth between the ranch and the herd, in helpless anxiety.
At last the cars came and the beef, a good deal thinner than it had been, was loaded and gone, and the two relaxed somewhat from the strain. The market was lower when that beef reached its destination, and they did not bring the "top" price which Billy had promised Dill.
So the shipping season passed and Dill made his payment on the mortgage by borrowing twelve thousand dollars, using a little over two thousand to make up the deficit in shipping returns and holding the remainder for current expenses. Truly, the disagreeable element which would creep in where Billy had least expected scored a point there, and once more the castle he had builded for himself and Dill and one other lay in shadow.
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