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"I'm Not Your Wife Yet!"
Billy, coming back from the biggest town in the country, where he had gone to pick up another man or two for the round-up which was at hand, met the Pilgrim face to face as he was crossing the creek to go to the corrals. It was nearing sundown and it was Sunday, and those two details, when used in connection with the Pilgrim, seemed unpleasantly significant. Besides, Billy was freshly antagonistic because of something he had heard while he was away; instead of returning the Pilgrim's brazenly cheerful "Hello," he scowled and rode on without so much as giving a downward tilt to his chin. For Charming Billy Boyle was never inclined to diplomacy, or to hiding his feelings in any way unless driven to it by absolute necessity.
When he went into the house he saw that Flora had her hair done in a new way that was extremely pretty, and that she had on a soft, white silk shirt-waist with lots of lace zigzagged across--a waist hitherto kept sacred to dances and other glorious occasions--and a soft, pink bow pinned in her hair; all these things he mentally connected with the visit of the Pilgrim. When he turned to see a malicious light in the round, blue eyes of Mama Joy and a spiteful satisfaction in her very dimples, it suddenly occurred to him that he would certainly have something to say to Miss Flora. It was no comfort to know that all winter the Pilgrim had not been near, because all winter he had been away somewhere--rumor had it that he spent his winters in Iowa. Like the birds, he always returned with the spring.
Billy never suspected that Mama Joy read his face and left them purposely together after supper, though he was surprised when she arose from the table and said:
"Flora, you make Billy help you with the dishes. I've got a headache and I'm going to lie down."
At any rate, it gave him the opportunity he wanted.
"Are yuh going to let the Pilgrim hang around here this summer?" he demanded in his straight-from-the-shoulder fashion while he was drying the first cup.
"You mean Mr. Walland? I didn't know he ever 'hung around'." Flora was not meek, and Billy realized that, as he put it mentally, he had his work cut out for him to pull through without a quarrel.
"I mean the Pilgrim. And I call it hanging around when a fellow keeps running to see a girl that's got a loop on her already. I don't want to lay down the law to yuh, Girlie, but that blamed Siwash has got to keep away from here. He ain't fit for yuh to speak to--and I'd a told yuh before, only I didn't have any right--"
"Are you sure you have a right now?" The tone of Flora was sweet and calm and patient. "I'll tell you one thing, Charming Billy Boyle, Mr. Walland has never spoken one word against you. He--he likes you, and I don't think it's nice for you--"
"Likes me! Like hell he does!" snorted Billy, not bothering to choose nice words. "He'd plug me in the back like an Injun if he thought he could get off with it. I remember him when I hazed him away from line-camp, the morning after you stayed there, he promised faithful to kill me. Uh course, he won't, because he's afraid, but--I don't reckon yuh can call it liking--"
"Why did you 'haze him away,' as you call it, Billy? And kill his dog? It was a nice dog; I love dogs, and I don't see how any man--"
Billy flushed hotly. "I hazed him away because he insulted you," he said bluntly, not quite believing in her ignorance.
Flora, her hands buried deep in the soapsuds, looked at him round-eyed. "I never heard of that before," she said slowly. "When, Billy? And what did he--say?"
Billy stared at her. "I don't know what he said! I wouldn't think you'd need to ask. When I came in the cabin--I lied about getting lost from the trail--I turned around and came back, because I was afraid he might come before I could get back, and--when I came in, there was something. I could tell, all right. Yuh sat there behind the table looking like yuh was--well, kinda cornered. And he was--Flora, he did say something, or do something! He didn't act right to yuh. I could tell. Didn't he? Yuh needn't be afraid to tell me, Girlie. I give him a thrashing for it. What was it? I want to know." He did not realize how pugnacious was his pose, but he was leaning toward her with his face quite close, and his eyes were blue points of intensity. His hands, doubled and pressing hard on the table, showed white at the knuckles.
Flora rattled the dishes in the pan and laughed unsteadily. "Go to work, Billy Boy, and don't act stagey," she commanded lightly. "I'll tell you the exact truth--and that isn't anything to get excited over. Fred Walland came about three minutes before you did, and of course I didn't know he belonged there. I was afraid. He pushed open the door, and he was swearing a little at the ice there, where we threw out the dish water. I knew it wasn't you, and I got back in the corner. He came in and looked awfully stunned at seeing me and said, 'I beg your pardon, fair one'." She blushed and did not look up. "He said, 'I didn't know there was a lady present,' and put down the sack of stuff and looked at me for a minute or two without saying a word. He was just going to speak, I think, when you burst in. And that's all there was to it, Billy Boy. I was frightened because I didn't know who he was, and he did stare--but, so did you, Billy Boy, when I opened the door and walked in. You stared every bit as hard and long as Fred Walland did."
"But I'll bet I didn't have the same look in my face. Yuh wasn't scared of me," Billy asserted shrewdly.
"I was too! I was horribly scared--at first. So if you fought Fred Walland and killed his dog" (the reproach of her tone, then!) "because you imagined a lot that wasn't true, you ought to go straight and apologize."
"I don't think I will! Good Lord! Flora, do yuh think I don't know the stuff he's made of? He's a low-down, cowardly cur--the kind uh man that is always bragging about--" (Billy stuck there. With her big, innocent eyes looking up at him, he could not say "bragging about the women he's ruined," so he changed weakly) "about all he's done. He's a murderer that ought by rights t' be in the pen right now--"
"I think that will do, Billy!" she interrupted indignantly. "You know he couldn't help killing that man."
"I kinda believed that, too, till I run onto Jim Johnson up in Tower. You don't know Jim, but he's a straight man and wouldn't lie. Yuh remember, Flora, the Pilgrim told me the Swede pulled a knife on him. I stooped down and looked, and I didn't see no knife--nor gun, either. And I wasn't so blamed excited I'd be apt to pass up anything like that; I've seen men shot before, and pass out with their boots on, in more excitable ways than a little, plain, old killing. So I didn't see anything in the shape of a weapon. But when I come back, here lays a Colt forty-five right in plain sight, and the Pilgrim saying, 'He pulled a gun on me,' right on top uh telling me it was a knife. I thought at the time there was something queer about that, and about him not having a gun on him when I know he always packed one--like every other fool Pilgrim that comes West with the idea he's got to fight his way along from breakfast to supper, and sleep with his six-gun under his pillow!"
"And I know you don't like him, and you'd think he had some ulterior motive if he rolled his cigarette backward once! I don't see anything but just your dislike trying to twist things--"
"Well, hold on a minute! I got to talking with Jim, and we're pretty good friends. So he told me on the quiet that Gus Svenstrom gave him his gun to keep, that night. Gus was drinking, and said he didn't want to be packing it around for fear he might get foolish with it. Jim had it--Jim was tending bar that time in that little log saloon, in Hardup--when the Swede was killed. So it wasn't the Swedes gun on the ground--and if he borrowed one, which he wouldn't be apt to do, why didn't the fellow he got it from claim it?"
"And if all this is true, why didn't your friend come and testify at the hearing?" demanded Flora, her eyes glowing. "It sounds to me exactly like a piece of spiteful old-woman gossip, and I don't believe a word of it!"
"Jim ain't a gossip. He kept his mouth shut because he didn't want to make trouble, and he was under the impression the Swede had borrowed a gun somewhere. Being half drunk, he could easy forget what he'd done with his own, and the Pilgrim put up such a straight story--"
"Fred told the truth. I know he did. I don't believe he had a gun that night, because--because I had asked him as a favor to please not carry one to dances and places. There, now! He'd do what I asked him to. I know he would. And I think you're just mean, to talk like this about him; and, mind you, if he wants to come here he can. I don't care if he comes every day!" She was so near to tears that her voice broke and kept her from saying more that was foolish.
"And I tell yuh, if he comes around here any more I'll chase him off the ranch with a club!" Billy's voice was not as loud as usual, but it was harsh and angry. "He ain't going to come here hanging around you--not while I can help it, and I guess I can, all right!" He threw down the dish towel, swept a cup off the table with his elbow when he turned, and otherwise betrayed human, unromantic rage. "Damn him, I wisht I'd chased him off long ago. Fred, eh? Hell! I'll Fred him! Yuh think I'm going to stand for him running after my girl? I'll kick him off the place. He ain't fit to speak to yuh, or look at yuh; his friendship's an insult to any decent woman. I'll mighty quick put a stop to--"
"Will Boyle, you don't dare! I'm not your wife yet, remember! I'm free to choose my own friends without asking leave of any one, and if I want Fred Walland to come here, he'll come, and it will take more than you to stop him. I--I'll write him a note, and ask him to dinner next Sunday. I--I'll marry him if I want to, Will Boyle, and you can't stop me! He--he wants me to, badly enough, and if you--"
Billy was gone, and the kitchen was rattling with the slam of the door behind him, before she had time to make any more declarations that would bring repentance afterward. She stood a minute, listening to see whether he would come back, and when he did not, she ran to the door, opened it hastily and looked. She saw Billy just in the act of swishing his quirt down on the flanks of Barney so that the horse almost cleared the creek in one bound. Flora caught her breath and gave a queer little sob. She watched him, wide-eyed and white, till he was quite out of sight and then went in and shut the door upon the quiet, early spring twilight.
As for Billy, he was gone to find the Pilgrim. Just what he would do when he did find him was not quite plain, because he was promising himself so many deeds of violence that no man could possibly perform them all upon one victim. At the creek, he was going to "shoot him like a coyote." A quarter of a mile farther, he would "beat his damn' head off," and, as if those were not deaths sufficient, he was after that determined to "take him by the heels and snap his measly head off like yuh would a grass snake!"
Threatened as he was, the Pilgrim nevertheless escaped, because Billy did not happen to come across him before his rage had cooled to reason. He rode on to Hardup, spent the night there swallowing more whisky than he had drunk before in six months, and after that playing poker with a recklessness that found a bitter satisfaction in losing and thus proving how vilely the world was using him, and went home rather unsteadily at sunrise and slept heavily in the bunk-house all that day. For Billy Boyle was distressingly human in his rages as in his happier moods, and was not given to gentle, picturesque melancholy and to wailing at the silent stars.
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