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The End of the Double-Crank.
Dill himself rode on that last round-up. Considering that it was all new to him, he made a remarkably good record for himself among the men, who were more than once heard to remark that "Dill-pickle's sure making a hand!" Wherever Billy went--and in those weeks Billy rode and worked with a feverish intensity that was merely a fight against bitter thinking--Dill's stirrup clacked close alongside. He was silent, for the most part, but sometimes he talked reminiscently of Michigan and his earlier life there. Seldom did he refer to the unhappy end of the Double-Crank, or to the reason why they were riding from dawn to dusk, sweeping together all the cattle within the wide circle of riders and later cutting out every Double-Crank animal and holding them under careful herd.
Even when they went with the first twelve hundred and turned them over to Brown and watched his careful counting, Dill made no comment upon the reason for it beyond one sentence. He read the receipt over slowly before laying it methodically in the proper compartment of his long red-leather book, and drew his features into his puckered imitation of a smile. "Mr. Brown has counted just twenty-one dollars more into my pocket than I expected," he remarked. "He tallied one more than you did, William. I ought to hold that out of your wages, young man."
Rare as were Dill's efforts at joking, even this failed to bring more than a slight smile to the face of Charming Billy Boyle. He was trying to look upon it all as a mere incident, a business matter, pure and simple, but he could not. While he rode the wide open reaches, there rode with him the keen realization that it was the end. For him the old life on the range was dead--for had not Dill made him see it so? And did not every raw-red fencepost proclaim anew its death? For every hill and every coulée he buried something of his past and wept secretly beside the grave. For every whiff of breakfast that mingled with the smell of clean air in the morning came a pang of homesickness for what would soon be only a memory.
He was at heart a dreamer--was Charming Billy Boyle; perhaps an idealist--possibly a sentimentalist. He had never tried to find a name for the side of his life that struck deepest. He knew that the ripple of a meadow-lark swinging on a weed against the sunrise, with diamond-sparkles all on the grass around, gripped him and hurt him vaguely with its very sweetness. He knew that he loved to sit alone and look away to a far skyline and day-dream. He had always known that, for it had been as much a part of his life as sleeping.
So now it was as if a real, tangible shadow lay on the range. He could see it always lengthening before him, and always he must ride within its shade. After a while it would grow quite black, and the range and the cattle and the riding over hills and into coulées untamed would all be blotted out; dead and buried deep in the past, and with the careless, plodding feet of the plowman trampling unthinkingly upon the grave. It was a tragedy to Charming Billy Boyle; it was as if the range-land were a woman he loved well, and as if civilization were the despoiler, against whom he had no means of defense.
All this--and besides, Flora. He had not spoken to her for two months. He had not seen her even, save for a passing glimpse now and then at a distance. He had not named her to any man, or asked how she did--and yet there had not been an hour when he had not longed for her. She had told him she would marry the Pilgrim (she had not said that, but Billy in his rage had so understood her) and that he could not stop her. He wouldn't try to stop her. But he would one day settle with the Pilgrim--settle to the full. And he wanted her--wanted her!
They had taken the third herd in to Brown, and were back on the range; Billy meaning to make a last sweep around the outer edges and gather in what was left--the stragglers that had been missed before. There would not be many, he knew from experience; probably not more than a hundred or two all told, even with Billy anxious to make the count as large as possible.
He was thinking about it uneasily and staring out across the wide coulée to the red tumble of clouds, that had strange purples and grays and dainty violet shades here and there. Down at the creek Dill was trying to get a trout or two more before it grew too dark for them to rise to the raw beef he was swishing through the riffle, and an impulse to have the worst over at once and be done drove Billy down to interrupt.
"Yuh won't get any more there," he said, by way of making speech.
"I just then had a bite, William," reproved Dill, and swung the bait in a wide circle for another awkward cast. He was a persistent soul, was Dill, when once he got started in a given direction.
Billy, dodging the red morsel of meat, sat down on a grassy hummock. "Aw, come and set down, Dilly," he urged wearily. "I want to tell yuh something."
"If it's about the cook being out of evaporated cream, William, I have already been informed twice. Ah-h! I almost had one then!"
"Aw, thunder! yuh think I'm worrying over canned cream? What I want to say may not be more important, but when yuh get fishing enough I'll say it anyhow." He watched Dill moodily, and then lifted his eyes to stare at the gorgeous sky--as though there would be no more sunsets when the range-life was gone, and he must needs fill well his memory for the barren years ahead.
When Dill flopped a six-inch trout against his ear, so steeped was he in bitterness that he merely said, "Aw, hell!" wearily and hunched farther along on the hummock.
"I really beg your pardon, William. From the vicious strike he made, I was convinced that he weighed at least half a pound, and exerted more muscular force than was quite necessary. When one hasn't a reel it is impossible to play them properly, and it is the first quick pull that one must depend upon. I'm very sorry--"
"Sure. Don't mention it, Dilly. Say, how many cattle have yuh got receipts for, to date--if it ain't too much trouble?"
"No trouble at all, William. I have an excellent memory for figures. Four thousand, three hundred and fifteen. Ah-h! See how instinct inspires him to flop always toward the water! Did you ever--"
"Well, yes, I've saw a fish flop toward the water once or twicet before now. It sure is a great sight, Dilly!" He did not understand Dill these days, and wondered a good deal at his manifest indifference to business cares. It never occurred to him that Dill, knowing quite well how hard the trouble pressed upon his foreman, was only trying in his awkward way to lighten it by not seeming to think it worth worrying over.
"I hate to mention trifles at such a time, Dilly, but I thought maybe yuh ought to know that we won't be able to scare up more than a couple uh hundred more cattle, best we can do. We're bound to fall a lot short uh what I estimated--and I ain't saying nothing about the fine job uh guessing I done! If we bring the total up to forty-five hundred, we'll do well."
Dill took plenty of time to wind the line around his willow pole. "To use your own expressive phraseology, William," he said, when he had quite finished and had laid the pole down on the bank, "that will leave me in one hell-of-a-hole!"
"That's what I thought," Billy returned apathetically.
"Well, I must take these up to the cook." Dill held up the four fish he had caught. "I'll think the matter over, William, and I thank you for telling me. Of course you will go on and gather what there are."
"Sure," agreed Billy tonelessly, and followed Dill back to camp and went to bed.
At daybreak it was raining, and Billy after the manner of cowboys slept late; for there would be no riding until the weather cleared, and there being no herd to hold, there would be none working save the horse-wrangler, the night-hawk and cook. It was the cook who handed him a folded paper and a sealed envelope when he did finally appear for a cup of coffee. "Dill-pickle left 'em for yuh," he said.
Billy read the note--just a few lines, with a frown of puzzlement.
Dear William: Business compels my absence for a time. I hope you will go on with your plans exactly as if I were with you. I am leaving a power-of-attorney which will enable you to turn over the stock and transact any other business that may demand immediate attention, in case I am detained.
Alexander P. Dill
It was queer, but Billy did not waste much time in wondering. He rounded up the last of the Double-Cranks, drove them to Brown's place and turned them over, with the home ranch, the horses, and camp outfit--"made a clean sweep uh the whole damn', hoodooed works," was the way he afterward put it. He had expected that Dill would be there to attend to the last legal forms, but there was no sign of him or from him. He had been seen to take the eastbound train at Tower, and the rest was left to guessing.
"He must uh known them two-hundred odd wouldn't square the deal," argued Billy loyally to himself. "So uh course he'll come back and fix it up. But what I'm to do about payin' off the boys gets me." For two hours he worried, mentally in the dark. Then he hit upon an expedient that pleased him. He told Brown he would need to keep a few of the saddle-horses for a few days, and he sent the boys--those of them who did not transfer their valuable services to Brown upon the asking--over to the Bridger place to wait there until further orders.
Also, he rode reluctantly to the Double-Crank ranch, wondering, as he had often done in the past few weeks, what would become of Flora and Mama Joy. So far as he knew, they had not heard a word as to whether Bridger was alive or dead, and if they had friends or family to whom they might turn, he had never heard either mention them. If Dill had been there he would have left it to him; but Dill was gone, and there was no knowing when he would be back, and it devolved upon Billy to make some arrangements for the women, or at the least offer his services--and it was, under the circumstances, quite the most unpleasant duty thus far laid upon him.
He knew they had been left there at the ranch when round-up started, because Dill had said something about leaving a gentle horse or two for them to ride. Whether they were still there he did not know, although he could easily have asked Spikes, who had been given charge of the ranch while Dill was away on the range. He supposed the Pilgrim would be hanging around, as usual--not that it made much difference, though, except that he hated the thought of a disagreeable scene before the women.
He rode slowly up to the corral gate, turned his horse inside and fastened the chain just as he had done a thousand times before--only this would be the last time. His tired eyes went from one familiar object to another, listlessly aware of the regret he should feel but too utterly wearied of sorrow to feel much of anything. No one seemed to be about, and the whole place had an atmosphere of desolation that almost stirred him to a heartache--almost.
He went on to the house. There were some signs of life there, and some sound. In the very doorway he met old Bridger himself, but he could not even feel much surprise at seeing him there. He said hello, and when he saw the other's hand stretching out to meet him, he clasped it indifferently. Behind her husband, Mama Joy flashed at him a look he did not try to interpret--of a truth it was rather complex, with a little of several emotions--and he lifted his hat a half-inch from his forehead in deference to her sex. Flora, he thanked God dully, he did not see at all.
He stayed perhaps ten minutes listening impersonally to Bridger, who talked loudly and enthusiastically of his plans. At the time they did not seem to concern him at all, though they involved taking Flora and Mama Joy away to Seattle to spend the winter, and in the spring moving them on to some place in the North--a place that sounded strange in the ears of Billy, and was straightway forgotten.
After that he went to his room and packed what few things he wanted; and they were not many, because in his present mood nothing mattered and nothing seemed to him of much value--not even life. He was more careful of Dill's belongings, and packed everything he could find that was his. They were not scattered, for Dill was a methodical man and kept things in their places instinctively.
He paused over but one object--"The Essays of Elia," which had somehow fallen behind a trunk. Standing there in the middle of Dill's room, he turned the little blue book absently in his hand. There was dust upon the other side, and he wiped it off, manlike, with a sweep of his forearm. He looked at the trunk; he had just locked it with much straining of muscles and he hated to open it again. He looked at the book again. He seemed to see Dill slumped loosely down in the old rocker, a slippered foot dangling before him, reading solemnly from this same little blue book, the day he came to tell him about the ditch, and that he must lease all the land he could--the day when the shadow of passing first touched the range-land. At least, the day when he had first seen it there. He turned a few leaves thoughtfully, heard Flora's voice asking a question in the kitchen, and thrust the book hastily into his pocket. "Dilly'll want it, I expect," he muttered. He glanced quickly, comprehensively around him to make sure that he had missed nothing, turned toward the open front door and went out hurriedly, because he thought he heard a woman's step in the dining room and he did not want to see anybody, not even Flora--least of all, Flora!
"I'll send a rig out from town for the stuff that's ours," he called back to Bridger, who came to the kitchen door and called after him that he better wait and have some supper. "You'll be here till to-morrow or next day; it ain't likely I'll be back; yuh say Dill settled up with the--women, so--there's nothing left to do."
If he had known--but how could he know that Flora was watching him wistfully from the front porch, when he never once looked toward the house after he reached the stable?
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