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The foreman came in, blinking at the sudden change from bright light to half twilight, and Charming Billy took the opportunity to kick a sardine can of stove-blacking under the stove where it would not be seen. Some predecessor with domestic instincts had left behind him half a package of "Rising Sun," and Billy had found it and was intending to blacken the stove just as soon as he finished the dishes. That he had left it as a crowning embellishment, rather than making it the foundation of his house-cleaning, only proved his inexperience in that line. Billy had "bached" a great deal, but he had never blacked a stove in his life.
The foreman passed gloved fingers over his eyes, held them there a moment, took them away and gazed in amazement; since he had been foreman of the Double-Crank--and the years were many--Charming Billy Boyle had been one of its "top-hands," and he had never before caught him in the throes of "digging out."
"Fundamental furies!" swore he, in the unorthodox way he had. "Looks like the Pilgrim was right--there's a lady took charge here."
Charming Billy turned red with embarrassment, and then quite pale with rage. "The Pilgrim lied!" he denied sweepingly.
The foreman picked his way over the wet floor, in deference to its comparative cleanliness stepping long so that he might leave as few disfiguring tracks as possible, and unbuttoned his fur coat before the heat of the stove.
"Well, maybe he did," he assented generously, gleaning a box from the pile on the bunk and sitting down, "but it sure looks like corroborative evidence, in here. How about it, Bill?"
"How about what?" countered Billy, his teeth close together.
"The girl, and the dawg, and the fight--but more especially the girl. The Pilgrim--"
"Damn the Pilgrim! I wisht I'd a-killed the lying ---- The girl's a lady, and he ain't fit to speak her name. She come here last night because her hoss fell and got crippled, and there wasn't a hoss I'd trust at night with her, it was storming so hard, and slippery--and at daylight I put her on the gentlest one we had, and took her home. That's all there is to it. There's nothing to gabble about, and if the Pilgrim goes around shooting off his face--" Billy clicked his teeth ominously.
"Well, that ain't just the way he told it," commented the foreman, stooping to expectorate into the hearth and stopping to regard surprisedly its unwonted emptiness. "He said--"
"I don't give a damn what he said," snapped Billy. "He lied, the low-down cur."
"Uh-huh--he said something about you shooting that dawg of his. I saw the carcass out there in the snow." The foreman spoke with careful neutrality.
"I did. I wisht now I'd laid the two of 'em out together. The dawg tried to feed offa my leg. I shot the blame thing." Charming Billy sat down upon the edge of the table--sliding the dishpan out of his way--and folded his arms, and pushed his hat farther back from his forehead. His whole attitude spoke impenitent scorn.
"I also licked the Pilgrim and hazed him away from camp and told him particular not to come back," he informed the other defiantly. He did not add, "What are you going to do about it?" but his tone carried unmistakably that sentiment.
"And the Pilgrim happens to be a stepbrother uh the widow the Old Man is at present running after, and aiming to marry. I was sent over here to put the can onto you, Billy. I hate like thunder to do it, but--" The foreman waved a hand to signify his utter helplessness.
The face of Billy stiffened perceptibly; otherwise he moved not a muscle.
"The Old Man says for you to stay till he can put another man down here in your place, though. He'll send Jim Bleeker soon as he comes back from town--which ain't apt to be for two or three days unless they're short on booze."
Billy caught his breath, hesitated, and reached for his smoking material. It was not till he had licked his cigarette into shape and was feeling in his pocket for a match that he spoke. "I've drawed wages from the Double-Crank for quite a spell, and I always aimed to act white with the outfit. It's more than they're doing by me, but--I'll stay till Jim comes." He smoked moodily, and stared at his boots. "Yuh ain't going back tonight, are yuh?"
The foreman said he must, and came back to the subject. "Yuh don't want to think I'm firing yuh, Billy. If it was my say-so, I'd tell the Pilgrim to go to hell. But he went straight to headquarters with his tale uh woe, and the Old Man is kinda uncertain these days, on account uh not being right sure uh the widow. He feels just about obliged to keep the Pilgrim smoothed down; he ain't worth his grub, if you ask me."
"Oh, I ain't thinking nothing at all about it," Billy lied proudly. "If the Old Man feels like canning me, that there's his funeral. I reckon maybe he likes the Pilgrim's breed better for a change. And I wouldn't be none surprised if I could get a job with some other outfit, all right. I ain't aiming to starve--nor yet ride grub-line."
"When you analyze the thing right down to fundamentals," observed the foreman, whom men called "Jawbreaker" for obvious reasons, "it's a cussed shame. You're one of the oldest men with the outfit, and the Pilgrim is the youngest--and the most inadequate. The Old Man oughta waited till he heard both sides uh the case, and I told him so. But he couldn't forget how the widow might feel if he canned her stepbrother--and what's a man, more or less, in a case uh that kind?"
"Now look here, Jawbreaker," Billy protested cheerfully, "don't yuh go oozing comfort and sympathy on my account. I don't know but what I'm tickled to death. As yuh say, I've worked for this outfit a blame long while--and it's maybe kinda hard on other outfits; they oughta have a chance to use me for a spell. There's no reason why the Double-Crank should be a hog and keep a good man forever."
The foreman studied keenly the face of Charming Billy, saw there an immobility that somehow belied his cheerful view of the case, and abruptly changed the subject.
"You've got things swept and garnished, all right," he remarked, looking at the nearly clean floor with the tiny pools of dirty water still standing in the worn places. "When did the fit take yuh? Did it come on with fever-n'-chills, like most other breaking-outs? Or, did the girl--"
"Aw, the darned dawg mussed up the floor, dying in here," Billy apologized weakly. "I was plumb obliged to clean up after him." He glanced somewhat shamefacedly at the floor. After all, it did not look quite like the one where Miss Bridger lived; in his heart Billy believed that was because he had no strip of carpet to spread before the table. He permitted his glance to take in the bunk, nakedly showing the hay it held for a softening influence and piled high with many things--the things that would not go beneath.
"Your soogans are gathering frost to beat the band, Bill," the foreman informed him, following his glance to the bunk. "Your inexperience is something appalling, for a man that has fried his own bacon and swabbed out his own frying-pan as many times as you have. Better go bring 'em in. It was thinking about snowing again when I come."
Billy grinned a little and went after his bedding, brought it and threw it with a fine disregard for order upon the accumulation of boxes and benches in the bunk. "I'll go feed the hosses, and then I'll cook yuh some supper," he told the foreman still humped comfortably before the stove with his fur coat thrown open to the heat and his spurred boots hoisted upon the hearth. "Better make up your mind to stay till morning; it's getting mighty chilly, outside."
The foreman, at the critical stage of cigarette lighting, grunted unintelligibly. Billy was just laying hand to the door-knob when the foreman looked toward him in the manner of one about to speak. Billy stood and waited inquiringly.
"Say, Bill," drawled Jawbreaker, "yuh never told me her name, yet."
The brows of Charming Billy pinched involuntarily together. "I thought the Pilgrim had wised yuh up to all the details," he said coldly.
"The Pilgrim didn't know; he says yuh never introduced him. And seeing it's serious enough to start yuh on the godly trail uh cleanliness, I'm naturally taking a friendly interest in her, and--"
"Aw--go to hell!" snapped Charming Billy, and went out and slammed the door behind him so that the cabin shook.
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