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Prune Pie and Coon-can.
Of a truth, Charming Billy Boyle, living his life in the wide land that is too big and too far removed from the man-made world for any but the strong of heart, knew little indeed of women--her kind of women. When he returned with two chickens and found that the floor had been swept so thoroughly as to look strange to him, and that all his scattered belongings were laid in a neat pile upon the foot of the bunk which was unfamiliar under straightened blankets and pitifully plumped pillows, he was filled with astonishment. Miss Bridger smiled a little and went on washing the dishes.
"It's beginning to storm, isn't it?" she remarked. "But we'll eat chicken stew before we--before I start home. If you have a horse that I can borrow till morning, father will bring it back."
Billy scattered a handful of feathers on the floor and gained a little time by stooping to pick them up one by one. "I've been wondering about that," he said reluctantly. "It's just my luck not to have a gentle hoss in camp. I've got two, but they ain't safe for women. The Pilgrim's got one hoss that might uh done if it was here, which it ain't."
She looked disturbed, though she tried to hide it. "I can ride pretty well," she ventured.
Without glancing at her, Charming Billy shook his head. "You're all right here"--he stopped to pick up more feathers--"and it wouldn't be safe for yuh to try it. One hoss is mean about mounting; yuh couldn't get within a rod of him. The other one is a holy terror to pitch when anything strange gets near him. I wouldn't let yuh try it." Charming Billy was sorry--that showed in his voice--but he was also firm.
Miss Bridger thoughtfully wiped a tin spoon. Billy gave her a furtive look and dropped his head at the way the brightness had gone out of her face. "They'll be worried, at home," she said quietly.
"A little worry beats a funeral," Billy retorted sententiously, instinctively mastering the situation because she was a woman and he must take care of her. "I reckon I could--" He stopped abruptly and plucked savagely at a stubborn wing feather.
"Of course! You could ride over and bring back a horse!" She caught eagerly at his half-spoken offer. "It's a lot of bother for you, but I--I'll be very much obliged." Her face was bright again.
"You'd be alone here--"
"I'm not the least bit afraid to stay alone. I wouldn't mind that at all."
Billy hesitated, met a look in her eyes that he did not like to see there, and yielded. Obviously, from her viewpoint that was the only thing to do. A cowpuncher who has ridden the range since he was sixteen should not shirk a night ride in a blizzard, or fear losing the trail. It was not storming so hard a man might not ride ten miles--that is, a man like Charming Billy Boyle.
After that he was in great haste to be gone, and would scarcely wait until Miss Bridger, proudly occupying the position of cook, told him that the chicken stew was ready. Indeed, he would have gone without eating it if she had not protested in a way that made Billy foolishly glad to submit; as it was, he saddled his horse while he waited, and reached for his sheepskin-lined, "sour-dough" coat before the last mouthful was fairly swallowed. At the last minute he unbuckled his gun belt and held it out to her.
"I'll leave you this," he remarked, with an awkward attempt to appear careless. "You'll feel safer if you have a gun, and--and if you're scared at anything, shoot it." He finished with another smile that lighted wonderfully his face and his eyes.
She shook her head. "I've often stayed alone. There's nothing in the world to be afraid of--and anyway, I'll have the dog. Thank you, all the same."
Charming Billy looked at her, opened his mouth and closed it without speaking. He laid the gun down on the table and turned to go. "If anything scares yuh," he repeated stubbornly, "shoot it. Yuh don't want to count too much on that dawg."
He discovered then that Flora Bridger was an exceedingly willful young woman. She picked up the gun, overtook him, and fairly forced it into his hands. "Don't be silly; I don't want it. I'm not such a coward as all that. You must have a very poor opinion of women. I--I'm deadly afraid of a gun!"
Billy was not particularly impressed by the last statement, but he felt himself at the end of his resources and buckled the belt around him without more argument. After all, he told himself, it was not likely that she would have cause for alarm in the few hours that he would be gone, and those hours he meant to trim down as much as possible.
Out of the coulée where the high wall broke the force of the storm, he faced the snow and wind and pushed on doggedly. It was bitter riding, that night, but he had seen worse and the discomfort of it troubled him little; it was not the first time he had bent head to snow and driving wind and had kept on so for hours. What harassed him most were the icy hills where the chinook had melted the snow, and the north wind, sweeping over, had frozen it all solid again. He could not ride as fast as he had counted upon riding, and he realized that it would be long hours before he could get back to the cabin with a horse from Bridger's.
Billy could not tell when first came the impulse to turn back. It might have been while he was working his way cautiously up a slippery coulée side, or it might have come suddenly just when he stopped; for stop he did (just when he should logically have ridden faster because the way was smoother) and turned his horse's head downhill.
"If she'd kept the gun--" he muttered, apologizing to himself for the impulse, and flayed his horse with his romal because he did not quite understand himself and so was ill at ease. Afterward, when he was loping steadily down the coulée bottom with his fresh-made tracks pointing the way before him, he broke out irrelevantly and viciously: "A real, old range rider yuh can bank on, one way or the other--but damn a pilgrim!"
The wind and the snow troubled him not so much now that his face was not turned to meet them, but it seemed to him that the way was rougher and that the icy spots were more dangerous to the bones of himself and his horse than when he had come that way before. He did not know why he need rage at the pace he must at times keep, and it did strike him as being a foolish thing to do--this turning back when he was almost halfway to his destination; but for every time he thought that, he urged his horse more.
The light from the cabin window, twinkling through the storm, cheered him a little, which was quite as unreasonable as his uneasiness. It did not, however, cause him to linger at turning his horse into the stable and shutting the door upon him. When he passed the cabin window he glanced anxiously in and saw dimly through the half-frosted glass that Miss Bridger was sitting against the wall by the table, tight-lipped and watchful. He hurried to the door and pushed it open.
"Why, hello," greeted the Pilgrim uncertainly, The Pilgrim was standing in the centre of the room, and he did not look particularly pleased. Charming Billy, every nerve on edge, took in the situation at a glance, kicked the Pilgrim's dog and shook the snow from his hat.
"I lost the trail," he lied briefly and went over to the stove. He did not look at Miss Bridger directly, but he heard the deep breath which she took.
"Well, so did I," the Pilgrim began eagerly, with just the least slurring of his syllables. "I'd have been here before dark, only one of the horses slipped and lamed himself. It was much as ever I got home at all. He come in on three legs, and toward the last them three like to went back on him."
"Which hoss?" asked Billy, though he felt pessimistically that he knew without being told. The Pilgrim's answer confirmed his pessimism. Of course, it was the only gentle horse they had.
"Say, Billy, I forgot your tobacco," drawled the Pilgrim, after a very short silence which Billy used for much rapid thinking.
Ordinarily, Billy would have considered the over sight as something of a catastrophe, but he passed it up as an unpleasant detail and turned to the girl. "It's storming something fierce," he told her in an exceedingly matter-of-fact way, "but I think it'll let up by daylight so we can tackle it. Right now it's out of the question; so we'll have another supper--a regular blowout this time, with coffee and biscuits and all those luxuries. How are yuh on making biscuits?"
So he got her out of the corner, where she had looked too much at bay to please him, and in making the biscuits she lost the watchful look from her eyes. But she was not the Flora Bridger who had laughed at their makeshifts and helped cook the chicken, and Charming Billy, raving inwardly at the change, in his heart damned fervently the Pilgrim.
In the hours that followed, Billy showed the stuff he was made of. He insisted upon cooking the things that would take the longest time to prepare; boasted volubly of the prune pies he could make, and then set about demonstrating his skill and did not hurry the prunes in the stewing. He fished out a package of dried lima beans and cooked some of them, changing the water three times and always adding cold water. For all that, supper was eventually ready and eaten and the dishes washed--with Miss Bridger wiping them and with the Pilgrim eying them both in a way that set on edge the teeth of Charming Billy.
When there was absolutely nothing more to keep them busy, Billy got the cards and asked Miss Bridger if she could play coon-can--which was the only game he knew that was rigidly "two-handed." She did not know the game and he insisted upon teaching her, though the Pilgrim glowered and hinted strongly at seven-up or something else which they could all play.
"I don't care for seven-up," Miss Bridger quelled, speaking to him for the first time since Billy returned. "I want to learn this game that--er--Billy knows." There was a slight hesitation on the name, which was the only one she knew to call him by.
The Pilgrim grunted and retired to the stove, rattled the lids ill-naturedly and smoked a vile cigar which he had brought from town. After that he sat and glowered at the two.
Billy did the best he could to make the time pass quickly. He had managed to seat Miss Bridger so that her back was toward the stove and the Pilgrim, and he did it so unobtrusively that neither guessed his reason. He taught her coon-can, two-handed whist and Chinese solitaire before a gray lightening outside proclaimed that the night was over. Miss Bridger, heavy-eyed and languid, turned her face to the window; Billy swept the cards together and stacked them with an air of finality.
"I guess we can hit the trail now without losing ourselves," he remarked briskly. "Pilgrim, come on out and help me saddle up; we'll see if that old skate of yours is able to travel."
The Pilgrim got up sullenly and went out, and Billy followed him silently. His own horse had stood with the saddle on all night, and the Pilgrim snorted when he saw it. But Billy only waited till the Pilgrim had put his saddle on the gentlest mount they had, then took the reins from him and led both horses to the door.
"All right," he called to the girl; helped her into the saddle and started off, with not a word of farewell from Miss Bridger to the Pilgrim.
The storm had passed and the air was still and biting cold. The eastern sky was stained red and purple with the rising sun, and beneath the feet of their horses the snow creaked frostily. So they rode down the coulée and then up a long slope to the top, struck the trail and headed straight north with a low line of hills for their goal. And in the hour and a half of riding, neither spoke a dozen words.
At the door of her own home Billy left her, and gathered up the reins of the Pilgrim's horse. "Well, good-by. Oh, that's all right--it wasn't any trouble at all," he said huskily when she tried to thank him, and galloped away.
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