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The Ranch at the Wolverine By B. M. Bower Characters: 20825

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Blue led the way straight to the low, dirt-roofed stable of logs and stopped with his nose against the closed door. Billy Louise herself was deceived by the whirl of snow and would have missed the stable entirely if the leadership had been hers. She patted Blue gratefully on the shoulder when she unsaddled him. She groped with her fingers for the wooden peg in the wall where the saddle should hang, failed to find it, and so laid the saddle down against the logs and covered it with the blanket.

"Just turn your horse in loose," she directed the man shortly. "Blue won't fight, and I think the rest of the horses are in the other part. And come on to the house."

It pleased her a little to see that he obeyed her without protest; but she was not so pleased at his silence, and she led the way rather indignantly toward the winking eye which was the cabin's window.

At the sound of their feet on the wide doorstep, her mother pulled open the door and stood fair in the light, looking out with the anxious look which had lived so long in her face that it had lines of its own chiseled deep in her forehead and at the sides of her mouth.

"Is that you, Billy Louise? Oh, ain't Peter Howling Dog with you? What makes you so terrible late, Billy Louise? Come right in, stranger. I don't know your name, but I don't need to know it. A storm like this is all the interduction a fellow needs, I guess." She smiled, at that. She had a nice smile, with a little resemblance to Billy Louise, except that the worried, inquiring look never left her eyes; as if she had once waited long for bad news, and had met everyone with anxious, eager questioning, and her eyes had never changed afterwards. Billy Louise glanced at her with her calm, measuring look, making the contrast very sharp between the two.

"What about Peter?" she asked. "Isn't he here?"

"No, and he ain't been since an hour or so after you left. He saddled up and rode off down the river-to the reservation, I reckon."

"Then the chores aren't done, I suppose." Billy Louise went over and took a lantern down from its nail, turning up the wick so that she could light it with the candle. "Go up to the fire and thaw out," she invited the man. "We'll have supper in a few minutes."

Instead he reached out and took the lantern from her as soon as she had lighted it. "You go to the fire yourself," he said. "I'll do what's necessary outside."

"Why-y-" Billy Louise, her fingers still clinging to the lantern, looked up at him. He was staring down at her with that intent look she had objected to on the trail, but she saw his mouth, and the little smile that hid just back of his lips. She smiled back without knowing it. "I'll have to go along, anyway. There are cows to milk and you couldn't very well find the cow-stable alone."

"Think not?"

Billy Louise had been perfectly furious at that tone, out on the trail. Now that she could see his lips and their little twitching to keep back the smile, she did not mind the tone at all. She had turned away to get the milk pails, and now she gave him a sidelong look, of the kind that had been utterly wasted upon Marthy. The man met it and immediately turned his attention to the lantern wick, which needed nice adjustment before its blaze quite pleased him; he was not a Marthy to receive such a look unmoved.

Together they went out again into the storm they had left so eagerly. Billy Louise showed him where was the pitchfork and the hay, and then did the milking while he piled full the mangers. After that they went together and turned the shivering work horses into the stable from the corral where they huddled, rumps to the storm; and the man lifted great forkfuls of hay and carried it into their stalls, while Billy Louise held the lantern high over her head like a western Liberty. They did not talk much, except when there was need for speech; but they were beginning to feel a little glow of companionship by the time they were ready to fight their way against the blizzard to the house, Billy Louise going before with the lantern, while the man followed close behind, carrying the two pails of milk that was already freezing in little crystals to the tin.

"Did you get everything done? You must be half froze-and starved into the bargin." Mrs. MacDonald, as is the way of some women who know the weight of isolation, had a habit of talking with a nervous haste at times, and of relapsing into long, brooding silences afterwards. She talked now, while she pulled a pan of hot, brown biscuits from the oven, poured the tea, and turned crisp, browned potatoes out of a frying-pan into a deep, white bowl. She wondered, over and over, why Peter Howling Dog had left and why he did not return. She said that was the way, when you depended on Indians for anything. She did wish there was a white man to be had. She asked after Marthy and Jase and gave Billy Louise no opportunity to tell her anything.

Billy Louise glanced often at the man, who did not look in the least as she had fancied, except that he really did have a high nose and terribly keen eyes with something behind the keenness that baffled her. And his mouth was pleasant, especially when that smile hid just behind his lips; also, she liked his hair, which was thick and brown, with hints of red in it here and there, and a strong inclination to curl where it was longest. She had known he was tall when he stepped into the light of the door; now she saw that he was slim to the point of leanness, with square shoulders and a nervous quickness when he moved. His fingers were never idle; when he was not eating, he rolled bits of biscuit into tiny, soggy balls beside his plate, or played a soft tattoo with his fork.

"I didn't quite catch your name, mister," her mother said finally. "But take another biscuit, anyway."

"Warren is my name," returned the man, with that hidden smile because she had never before given him any opportunity to tell it. "Ward Warren. I've got a claim over on Mill Creek."

Billy Louise gave a little gasp and distractedly poured two spoons of sugar in her tea, although she hated it sweetened.

I've got to tell you why, even at the price of digression. Long ago, when Billy Louise was twelve or so, and lived largely in a dream world of her own with Minervy for her "pretend" playmate, she had one day chanced upon a paragraph in a paper that had come from town wrapped around a package of matches. It was all about Ward Warren. The name caught her fancy, and the text of the paragraph seized upon her imagination. Until school filled her mind with other things, she had built adventures without end in which Ward Warren was the central figure. Up the canyon at the caves, she sometimes pretended that Ward Warren had abducted Minervy and that she must lead the rescue. Sometimes, when she rode in the hills, Ward Warren abducted her and led her into strange places where she tried to shiver in honest dread. Often and often, however, Ward Warren was a fugitive who came to her for help; then she would take him to Minervy's cave and hide him, perhaps; or she would mount her horse and lead him, by devious ways, to safety, and upon some hilltop from which she could point out the route he must follow, she would bid him a touching adieu and beseech him, in the impossible language of some old romancer, to go and lead a blameless life. Sitting there at the table opposite him, stirring the sugar heedlessly into her tea, one favorite exhortation returned from her dream-world, clear as if she had just spoken it aloud. "Go, and sin no more; and if perchance you will in some distant far land send me a kind thought, that will be reward enough for what I have done this day. Farewell, Ward Warren-Kismet."

The lips of Billy Louise smiled and stopped just short of laughter, and she looked across at Ward Warren as if she expected him to laugh also at that frightfully virtuous though stilted adieu. She found him looking straight at her in that intent fashion that seemed as if he would see through and all around her and her thoughts. He was not smiling at all. His mouth was pulled into a certain bitter understanding; indeed, he looked exactly as if Billy Louise had dealt him a deliberate affront which he could neither parry nor fling back at her, but must endure with what stoicism he might.

Billy Louise blushed guiltily, took an unpremeditated swallow of tea, and grimaced over the sickish sweetness of it. She got up and emptied the tea into the slop bucket, and loitered over the refilling of the cup so that when she returned to the table she was at least outwardly calm. She felt another quick, keen glance from across the table, but she helped herself composedly to the cream and listened to her mother with flattering attention.

"Jase has got all-gone feelings now, mommie," she remarked irrelevantly during a brief pause and relapsed into silence again. She knew that was good for at least five minutes of straight monologue, with her mother in that talking mood. She finished her supper while Warren listened abstractedly to a complete biography of the Meilkes and learned all about Marthy's energy and Jase's shiftlessness.

"Ward Warren!" Billy Louise was saying to herself. "Did you ever in your life-it's exactly as if Minervy should come to life and walk in. Ward Warren! There couldn't possibly be two Ward Warrens; it's such an odd name. Well!"

Then she went mentally over that paragraph. She wished she did not remember every single word of it, but she did. And she was afraid to look at him after that. And she wanted to, dreadfully. She felt as though he belonged to her. Why, he was her old playmate! And she had saved his life hundreds of times, at immense risks to herself; and he had always been her devoted slave afterwards, and never failed to appear at the precise moment when she was beset by Indians or robbers or something, and in dire need. The blood he had shed in her behalf! At that point Billy Louise startled herself and the others by suddenly laughing out loud at the memory of one time when Ward Warren had killed enough Indians to fill a deep washout so that he might carry her across to the other side!

"Is there anything funny about Jase Meilke dying, Billy Louise?" her mother asked her in a perfectly shocked tone.

"No-I was thinking of something else." She glanced at the man eyeing her

so distrustfully from across the table and gurgled again. It was terribly silly, but she simply could not help seeing Ward Warren calmly filling that washout with dead Indians so that he might carry her across it in his arms. The more she tried to forget that, the funnier it became. She ended by leaving the table and retiring precipitately to her own tiny room in the lean-to where she buried her face as deep as it would go in a puffy pillow of wild duck feathers.

He, poor devil, could not be expected to know just what had amused her so; he did know that it somehow concerned himself, however. He took up his position-mentally-behind the wall of aloofness which stood between himself and an unfriendly world, and when Billy Louise came out later to help with the dishes, he was sitting absorbed in a book.

Billy Louise got out her algebra and a slate and began to ponder the problem of a much-handicapped goat's feeding-ground. Ward Warren read and read and read and never looked up from the pages. Never in her life had she seen a man read as he read; hungrily, as a starved man eats; rapidly, his eyes traveling like a shuttle across the page; down, down-flip a leaf quickly and let the shuttle-glance go on. Billy Louise let her slate, with the goat problem unsolved, lie in her lap while she watched him. When she finally became curious enough to decipher the name of the book-she had three or four in that dull, brown binding-and saw that he was reading The Ring and the Book, she felt stunned. She read Browning just as she drank sage tea; it was supposed to be good for her. Her English teacher had given her that book. She never would have believed that any living human could read it as Ward Warren was reading it now; avidly, absorbedly, lost to his surroundings-to her own presence, if you please! Billy Louise glanced at her mother. That lady, having discovered that her guest's gloves needed mending, was working over them with pieces of Indian-tanned buckskin and beeswaxed thread, the picture of domestic content.

Billy Louise sighed. She shifted her chair. She got up and put a heavy chunk of wood on the fire and glanced over her shoulder at the man to see if he were going to take the hint and offer to help. She came back and stood close to him while she selected, with great deliberation, a book from the shelf beside his head. And Ward Warren, perfectly normal and not over twenty-five or so, pushed his chair out of her way with a purely mechanical movement, and read and read, and actually was too absorbed to feel her nearness. And he really was reading The Ring and the Book; Billy Louise was rude enough to look over his shoulder to make sure of that. She gave up, then, and though she picked a book at random from the shelf, she did not attempt to read it. She went to her room and made it ready for their guest, and after that she went to bed in her mother's room; and she thought and thought and did a lot of wondering about Life and about Ward Warren. She heard him go to bed, after a long while, and she wondered if he had finished the book first.

The next morning the blizzard raged so that he stayed as a matter of course. Peter Howling Dog had not returned, so Warren did the chores and would not let Billy Louise help with anything. He filled the wood-box, piled great chunks of wood by the fireplace, and saw that the water-pails were full to the icy brims. He talked a little, and Billy Louise discovered that he was quick to see a joke, and that he simply could not be caught napping, but had always a retort ready for her. That was true until after dinner, when he picked up a book again. When that happened, he was dead to the world bounded by the coulee walls, and he did not show any symptoms of consciousness until he had reached the last page, just when the light was growing dim and blurring the lines so that he must hold the pages within six inches of his eyes. He closed the book with a long breath, placed it accurately upon the shelf where it had stood since Billy Louise came home from school, and picked up his hat and gloves. It was time to wade out through the snow and feed the stock and bring in more wood.

"I wish we could get him to stay all winter, instead of that Peter Howling Dog," Mrs. MacDonald said anxiously, after he had gone out. "I just know Peter's off drinking. I don't think he's a safe man to have around, Billy Louise. I didn't when you hired him. I haven't felt easy a minute with him on the place. I wish you'd hire Mr. Warren, Billy Louise. He's nice and quiet-"

"And he's got a ranch of his own. He doesn't strike me as a man who wants a job milking two cows and carrying slop to the pigs, mommie."

"Well, I'd feel a lot easier if we had him instead of that breed; only we ain't even got the breed, half the time. This is the third time he's disappeared, in the two months we've had him. I really think you ought to speak to Mr. Warren, Billy Louise."

"Speak to him yourself. You're the one that wants him," Billy Louise answered somewhat sharply. She adored her mother; but if she had to run the ranch, she did wish her mother would not interfere and give advice just at the wrong time.

"Well, you needn't be cross about it; you know yourself that Peter can't be depended on a minute. There he went off yesterday and never fed the pigs their noon slop, and I had to carry it out myself. And my lumbago has bothered me ever since, just like it was going to give me another spell. You can't be here all the time, Billy Louise-leastways you ain't; and Peter-"

"Oh, good gracious, mommie! I told you to hire the man if you want him. Only Ward Warren isn't-"

Ward Warren pushed open the door and looked from one to the other, his eyes two question marks. "Isn't-what?" he asked and shut the door behind him with the air of one who is ready for anything.

"Isn't the kind of man who wants to hire out to do chores," Billy Louise finished and looked at him straight. "Are you? Mommie wants to hire you."

"Oh. Well, I was just about to ask for the job, anyway." He laughed, and the distrust left his eyes. "As a matter of fact, I was going over to Jim Larson's to hang out for the rest of the winter and get away from the lonesomeness of the hills. The old Turk's a pretty good friend of mine. But it looks to me as if you two needed something around that looks like a man a heap more than Jim does. I know Peter Howling Dog to a fare-you-well; you'll be all to the good if he forgets to come back. So if you'll stake me to a meal now and then, and a place to sleep, I'll be glad to see you through the winter-or until you get some white man to take my place." He took up the two water-pails and waited, glancing from one to the other with that repressed smile which Billy Louise was beginning to look for in his face.

Now that matters had approached the point of decision, her mother stood looking at her helplessly, waiting for her to speak. Billy Louise drew herself up primly and ended by contradicting the action. She gave him the sidelong glance which he was least prepared to withstand-though in justice to Billy Louise, she was absolutely unconscious of its general effectiveness-and twisted her lips whimsically.

"We'll stake you to a book, a bannock, and a bed if you want to stay, Mr. Warren," she said quite soberly. "Also to a pitchfork and an axe, if you like, and regular wages."

His eyes went to her and steadied there with the intent expression in them. "Thanks. Cut out the wages, and I'll take the offer just as it stands," he told her and pulled his hat farther down on his head. "She's going to be one stormy night, lay-dees," he added in quite another tone, on his way to the door. "Five o'clock by the town clock, and al-ll's well!" This last in still another tone, as he pushed out against the swooping wind and pulled the door shut with a slam. They heard him whistling a shrill, rollicking air on his way to the creek; at least, it sounded rollicking, the way he whistled it.

"That's The Old Chisholm Trail he's whistling," Billy Louise observed under her breath, smiling reminiscently. "The very song I used to pretend he always sang when he came down the canyon to rescue Minervy and me! But of course-I knew all the time he's a cowboy; it said so-"

The whistling broke and he began to sing at the top of a clear, strong-lunged voice, that old, old trail song beloved of punchers the West over:

"Oh, it's cloudy in the West and a-lookin' like rain,

And my damned old slicker's in the wagon again,

Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a, youpy-a,

Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a!"

"What did you say, Billy Louise? I'm sure it's a comfort to have him here, and you see he was glad and willing-"

But Billy Louise was holding the door open half an inch, listening and slipping back into the child-world wherein Ward Warren came singing down the canyon to rescue her and Minervy. The words came gustily from the creek down the slope:

"No chaps, no slicker, and a-pourin' down rain,

And I swear by the Lord I'll never night-herd again,

Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a, youpy-a,

Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a!

"Feet in the stirrups and seat in the saddle,

I hung and rattled with them long-horn cattle,

Coma ti yi-"

"Do shut the door, Billy Louise! What you want to stand there like that for? And the wind freezing everything inside! I can feel a terrible draught on my feet and ankles, and you know what that leads to."

So Billy Louise closed the door and laid another alder root on the coals in the fireplace, the while her mind was given over to dreamy speculations, and the words of that old trail song ran on in her memory though she could no longer hear him singing. Her mother talked on about Peter and the storm and this man who had ridden straight from the land of daydreams to her door, but the girl was not listening.

"Now ain't you relieved, yourself, that he's going to stay?"

Billy Louise, kneeling on the hearth and staring abstractedly into the fire, came back with a jerk to reality. The little smile that had been in her eyes and on her lips fled back with the dreams that had brought it. She gave her shoulders an impatient twitch and got up.

"Oh-I guess he'll be more agreeable to have around than Peter," she admitted taciturnly; which was as close to her real opinion of the man as a mere mother might hope to come.

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