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The Ranch at the Wolverine By B. M. Bower Characters: 27867

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Jase did not move or give his customary, querulous grunt when Marthy nudged him at daylight, one morning in mid-April. Marthy gave another poke with her elbow and lay still, numbed by a sudden dread. She moved cautiously out of the bed and half across the cramped room before she turned her head toward him. Then she stood still and looked and looked, her hard face growing each moment more pinched and stony and gray.

Jase had died while the coyotes were yapping their dawn-song up on the rim of the Cove. He lay rigid under the coarse, gray blanket, the flesh of his face drawn close to the bones, his skimpy, gray beard tilted upward.

Marthy's jaw set into a harsher outline than ever. She dressed with slow, heavy movements and went out and fed the stock. In stolid calm she did the milking and turned out the cows into the pasture. She gathered an apron full of chips and started a fire, just as she had done every morning for twenty-nine years, and she put the coffee-pot on the greasy stove and boiled the brew of yesterday-which was also her habit.

She sat for some time with her head leaning upon her grimy hand and stared unseeingly out upon a peach-tree in full bloom, and at a pair of busy robins who had chosen a convenient crotch for their nest. Finally she rose stiffly, as if she had grown older within the last hour, and went outside to the place where she had been mending the irrigating ditch the day before; she knocked the wet sand off the shovel she had left sticking in the soft bank and went out of the yard and up the slope toward the rock wall.

On a tiny, level place above the main ditch and just under the wall, Marthy began to dig, setting her broad, flat foot uncompromisingly upon the shoulder of the shovel and sending it deep into the yellow soil. She worked slowly and methodically and steadily, just as she did everything else. When she had dug down as deep as she could and still manage to climb out, and had the hole wide enough and long enough, she got awkwardly to the grassy surface and sat for a long while upon a rock, staring dumbly at the gaunt, brown hills across the river.

She returned to the cabin at last, and with the manner of one who dreads doing what must be done, she went in where Jase lay stiff and cold under the blankets.

Early that afternoon, Marthy went staggering up the slope, wheeling Jase's body before her on the creaky, home-made wheelbarrow. In the same harsh, primitive manner in which they both had lived, Marthy buried her dead. And though in life she had given him few words save in command or upbraiding, with never a hint of love to sweeten the days for either, yet she went whimpering away from that grave. She broke off three branches of precious peach blossoms and carried them up the slope. She stuck them upright in the lumpy soil over Jase's head and stood there a long while with tear-streaked face, staring down at the grave and at the nodding pink blossoms.

Billy Louise rode singing down the rocky trail through the deep, narrow gorge, to where the hawthorn and choke-cherries hid the opening to the cove. Just on the edge of the thickest fringe, she pulled up and broke off tender branches of cherry bloom, then went on, still singing softly to herself because the air was sweet with spring odors, the sunshine lay a fresh yellow upon the land, and because the joy of life was in her blood and, like the birds, she had no other means of expression at hand. Blue's feet sank to the fetlocks in the rich, black soil of the little meadow that lay smooth to the tumbling sweep of the river behind its own little willow fringe. His ears perked forward, his eyes rolling watchfully for strange sights and sounds, he stepped softly forward, ready to wheel at the slightest alarm and gallop back up the gorge to more familiar ground. It was long since Billy Louise had turned his head down the rocky trail, and Blue liked little the gloom of the gorge and the sudden change to soft, black soil that stopped just short of being boggy in the wet places. Where the trail led into a marshy crossing of the big, irrigating ditch that brought the stream from far up the gorge to water meadow and orchard, Blue halted and cast a look of disapproval back at his rider. Billy Louise stopped singing and laughed at him.

"I guess you can go where a cow can go, you silly thing. Mud's a heap easier than lava rock, if you only knew it, Blue. Get along with you."

Blue lowered his head, snuffed suspiciously at the water-filled tracks, and would have turned back. Mud he despised instinctively, since he had nearly mired on the creek bank when he was a sucking colt.

"Blue! Get across that ditch, or I'll beat you to death!" The voice of Billy Louise was soft with a caressing note at the end, so that the threat did not sound very savage, after all. She sniffed at the branch of cherry blossoms and reined the horse back to face the ditch. And Blue, who had a will of his own, snorted and wheeled, this time in frank rebellion against her command.

"Oh, will you? Well, you'll cross that ditch, you know, sooner or later-so you might just as well-" Blue reared and whirled again, plunging two rods back toward the cherry thicket.

Billy Louise set her teeth against her lower lip, slid her rawhide quirt from slim wrist to firm hand-grip, and proceeded to match Blue's obstinacy with her own; and since the obstinacy of Billy Louise was stronger and finer and backed by a surer understanding of the thing she was fighting against, Blue presently lifted himself, leaped the ditch in one clean jump, and snorted when he sank nearly to his knees in the soft, black soil beyond.

From there to the pink drift of peach bloom against the dull brown of the bluff, Blue galloped angrily, leaving deep, black prints in the soft green of the meadow. So they came headlong upon Marthy, just as she was knocking the yellow clay of the grave from her irrigating shovel against the pole fence of her pig-pen.

"Why, Marthy!" Once before in her life Billy Louise had seen Marthy's chin quivering like that, and big, slow tears sliding down the network of lines on Marthy's leathery cheeks. With a painful slump her spirits went heavy with her sympathy. "Marthy!"

She knew without a word of explanation just what had happened. From Marthy's bent shoulders she knew, and from her tear-stained face, and from the yellow soil clinging still to the shovel in her hand. The wide eyes of Billy Louise sent seeking glances up the slope where the soil was yellow; went to the long, raw ridge under the wall, with the peach blossoms standing pitifully awry upon the western end. Her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Marthy! When was it?"

"In the night, sometime, I guess." Marthy's voice had a harsh huskiness. "He was-gone-when I woke up. Well-he's better off than I be. I dunno what woulda become of him if I'd went first." There, at last, was a note of tenderness, stifled though it was and fleeting. "Git down, Billy Louise, and come in. I been kinda lookin' for yuh to come, ever sence the weather opened up. How's your maw?"

Spoken sympathy was absolutely impossible in the face of that stoical acceptance of life's harsh law. Marthy turned toward the gate, taking the shovel and the wheelbarrow in with her. Billy Louise glanced furtively at the raw, yellow ridge under the rock wall and rode on to the stable. She pulled off the saddle and bridle and turned Blue into the corral before she went slowly-and somewhat reluctantly-to the cabin, squat, old, and unkempt like its mistress, but buried deep in the renewed sweetness of bloom-time.

"The fruit's comin' on early this year," said Marthy from the doorway, her hands on her hips. "They's goin' to be lots of it, too, if we don't git a killin' frost." So she closed the conversational door upon her sorrow and pointed the way to trivial, every-day things.

"What are you going to do now, Marthy?" Billy Louise was perfectly capable of opening a conversational door, even when it had been closed decisively in her face. "You can't get on here alone, you know. Did you send for that nephew? If you haven't, you must hire somebody till-"

"He's comin'. That letter you sent over last month was from him. I dunno when he'll git here; he's liable to come most any time. I ain't going to hire nobody. I kin git along alone. I might as well of been alone-" Even harsh Marthy hesitated and did not finish the sentence that would have put a slight upon her dead.

"I'll stay to-night, anyway," said Billy Louise. "Just a week ago I hired John Pringle and that little breed wife of his for the summer. I couldn't afford it," she added, with a small sigh, "but Ward had to go back to his claim, and mommie needs someone in the house. She hasn't been a bit well, all winter. And I've turned all the stock out for the summer and have to do a lot of riding on them; it's that or let them scatter all over the country and then have to hire a rep for every round-up. I can't afford that, I haven't got cattle enough to pay; and I like to ride, anyway. I've got them pretty well located along the creek, up at the head of the canyons. The grass is coming on fine, so they don't stray much. Are you going to turn your cattle out, Marthy? I see you haven't yet."

"No, I ain't yit. I dunno. I was going to sell 'em down to jest what the pasture'll keep. I'm gittin' too old to look after 'em. But I dunno- When Charlie gits here, mebby-"

"Oh, is that the nephew? I didn't know his name." Billy Louise was talking aimlessly to keep her thoughts away from the pitifulness of the sordid little tragedy in this beauty-spot and to drive that blank, apathetic look from Marthy's hard eyes.

"Charlie Fox, his name is. I hope he turns out a good worker. I've never had a chance to git ahead any; but if Charlie'll jest take holt, I'll mebby git some comfort outa life yit."

"He ought, to, I'm sure. And everyone thinks you've done awfully well, Marthy. What can I do now? Wash the dishes and straighten things up, I guess."

"You needn't do nothin' you ain't a mind to do, Billy Louise. I don't want you to think you got to slop around washin' my dirty dishes. I'm goin' on down into the medder and work on a ditch I'm puttin' in. You jest do what you're a mind to." She picked up the shovel and went off down the jungly path, herself the ugliest object in the Cove, where she had created so much beauty.

Again the sympathetic soul of Billy Louise had betrayed her into performing an extremely disagreeable task. Shudderingly she looked into the unpleasant bedroom, and comprehending all of the sordidness of the tragedy, spent half an hour with her teeth set hard together while she dragged out dingy blankets and hung them over the fence under a voluptuous plum-tree. The next hour was so disagreeably employed that she wondered afterward how even her sympathy could have driven her to the things she did. She carried more water, after she had scrubbed that bedroom, and opened the window with the aid of the hammer, and set the tea-kettle on to heat the dish-water. Then, because her mind was full of poor, dead Jase, she took the branches of wild cherry and hawthorn blossoms she had gathered coming down the gorge and went up the slope to lay them on his grave.

She sat down on the rock where Marthy had rested after digging the grave, and with her chin in her two cupped palms, stared out across the river at the heaped bluffs and down at the pink-and-white patch of fruit-trees. She was trying, as the young will always try, to solve the riddle of life; and she was baffled and unhappy because she could not find any answer at all that pleased both her ideals and her reason. And then she heard a man's voice lifted up in riotous song, and she turned her head toward the opening of the gorge and listened, her eyes brightening while she waited.

"Foot in the stirrup and hand on the horn,

Best damn cowboy ever was born,

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

Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a!"

Billy Louise, with her chin still in her palms, smiled and hummed the tune under her breath; that shows how quickly we throw off the burdens of our neighbors. "Wonder what he's doing down here?" she asked herself, and smiled again.

"I'll sell my outfit soon as I can,

I won't punch cattle for no damn' man,

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

Coma ti yi youpy, youpy-a!

"I'm goin' back to town to draw my money,

I'm going back to town to see my honey,

Coma ti yi-"

Ward came into sight through the little meadow, riding slowly, with both hands clasped over the horn of the saddle, his hat tilted back on his head, and his whole attitude one of absolute content with life. He saw Billy Louise almost as soon as she glimpsed him-and she had been watching that bit of road quite closely. He flipped the reins to one side and turned from the trail to ride straight up the slope to where she was.

Billy Louise, with a self-reproachful glance at the grave, ran down the slope to meet him-an unexpected welcome which made Ward's heart leap in his chest.

"Oh, Ward, for heaven's sake don't be singing that come-all-ye at the top of your voice, like that. Don't you-"

"Now I was given to understand that you liked that same come-all-ye. Have you been educating your musical taste in the last week, Miss William Louisa?" Ward stopped his horse before her, and with his hands still clasped over the saddle-horn, looked down at her with that hidden smile-and something else.

"No, I haven't. I don't have to educate myself to the point where I know the Chisholm Trail isn't a proper kind of funeral hymn, Ward Warren." Billy Louise glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice instinctively, as we all do when death has come close and stopped. "Jase died last night; that's his grave up there. Isn't it perfectly pitiful? Poor old Marthy was here all solitar

y alone with him. And-Ward! She dug that grave her own self, and took him up and buried him-and, Ward! She-she wheeled him up in the-wheelbarrow! She had to, of course. She couldn't carry him. But isn't it awful?" Her hands were up, patting and smoothing the neck of his horse, and her face was bent to hide the tears that stood in her eyes, and the quiver of her mouth.

Ward drew in his lip, bit it, and let it go. He was a man, and he had seen much of tragedy and trouble; also, he did not know Marthy or Jase. His chief emotion was one of resentment against anything that brought tears to Billy Louise; she had not hidden them from him; they were the first and most important element in that day's happenings, so far as he was concerned. He leaned and flipped the end of his reins lightly down on her bare head.

"William Louisa, if you cry about it, I'll-do something shocking, most likely. Yes, it's awful; a whole lot of life is awful. But it's done, and Mrs. Martha appears to be a woman with a whole lot of grit, so the chances are she'll carry her load like a man. She'll be horribly lonesome, down here! They lived alone, didn't they?"

"Yes, and they didn't seem to love each other much." Billy Louise was not one to gloss over hard facts, even in the face of that grave. "Marthy was always kicking about him, and he about her. But all the same they belonged together; they had lived together more years than we are old. And she's going to miss him awfully."

Several minutes they stood there, talking, while Billy Louise patted the horse absently, and Ward looked down at her and did not miss one little light or shadow in her face. He had been alone a whole week, thinking of her, remember, and his eyes were hungry to the point of starvation.

"You saw mommie, of course; you came from home?"

"No, I did not. I got as far as the creek and saw Blue's tracks coming down; so I just sort of trailed along, seeing it was mommie's daughter I felt most like talking to."

"Mommie's daughter" laughed a little and instinctively made a change in the subject. She did not see anything strange in the fact that Ward had observed and recognized Blue's tracks coming into the gorge. She would have observed and recognized instantly the tracks made by his horse, anywhere. Those things come natural to one who has lived much in the open; and there is a certain individuality in the hoof-prints of a horse, as any plainsman can testify.

"I've got to go in and wash the dishes," she said, stepping back from him. "Of course nothing was done in the cabin, and I've been doing a little house-cleaning. I guess the dish-water is hot by this time-if it hasn't all boiled away."

Ward, as a matter of course, tied his horse to the fence and went into the cabin with her. He also asked her to stake him to a dish-towel, which she did after a good deal of rummaging. He stood with his hat on the back of his head, a cigarette between his lips, and wiped the dishes with much apparent enjoyment. He objected strongly to Billy Louise's assertion that she meant to scrub the floor, but when he found her quite obdurate, he changed his method without in the least degree yielding his point, though for diplomatic reasons he appeared to yield.

He carried water from the creek and filled the tea-kettle, the big iron pot, and both pails. Then, when Billy Louise had turned her back upon him, while she looked in a dark corner for the mop, he suddenly seized her under the arms and lifted her upon the table; and before she had finished her astonished gaspings, he caught up a pail of water and sloshed it upon the floor under her. Then he grinned in his triumph.

"William Louisa, if you get your feet wet, your mommie will take a club to you," he reminded her sternly. Whereupon he took the broom and proceeded to give that floor a real man's scrubbing, refusing to quarrel with Billy Louise, who scolded like a cross old woman from the table-except when she simply had to stop and laugh heartily at his violent method of cleaning.

Ward sloshed and swept and scrubbed. He dug into the corners with a grim thoroughness that won reluctant approbation from the young woman on the table with her feet tucked under her, and he made her forget poor old Jase up on the hillside. He scrubbed viciously behind the door until the water was little better than a thin, black mud.

"You want to come up to my claim some time," he said, looking over his shoulder while he rested a minute. "I'll show you how a man keeps house, William Louisa. Once a week I pile my two stools on the table, put the cat up on the bunk-and she looks just about as comfortable and happy as mommie's daughter looks right now-and get busy with the broom and good creek water." He resettled his hat on the back of his head and went to work again. "Mill Creek goes dry down below, on the days when little Wardie cleans his cabin," he assured her gravely, and damming up a muddy pool with the broom, he yanked open the door and swept out the water with a perfectly unnecessary flourish, just because he happened to be in a very exuberant mood.

Billy Louise gave a squeal of consternation and then sat absolutely still, staring round-eyed through the doorway. Ward stepped back-even his composure was slightly jarred-and twisted his lips amusedly.

"Hello," he said, after a few blank seconds. "You missed some of it, didn't you?" His tone was mildly commiserating. "Will you come in?"

"N-o-o, thank you, I don't believe I will." The speaker looked in, however, saw Billy Louise perched upon the table, and took off his hat. He was well plastered with dirty water that ran down and left streaks of mud behind. "I must have gotten off the road," he said. "I'm looking for Mr. Jason Meilke's ranch."

Billy Louise tucked her feet farther under her skirts and continued to stare dumbly. Ward, glancing at her from the corner of his eyes, stepped considerately between her and the stranger so that his broad shoulders quite hid her from the man's curious stare.

"You've struck the right place," he said calmly. "This is it." He picked up another pail of water and sloshed it upon the wet floor to rinse off the mud.

"Is-ah-Mrs. Meilke in?" One could not accuse the young man of craning, but he certainly did try to get another glimpse of the person on the table and failed because of Ward.

"She's down in the meadow," Billy Louise murmured.

"She's down in the meadow," Ward repeated to the bespattered young man. "You just go down past the stable and follow on down-" he waved a hand vaguely before he took up the broom again. "You'll find her, all right," he added encouragingly.

"Oh, Ward! That must be Marthy's nephew. What will he think?"

"Does it matter such a h- a deuce of a lot what he thinks?" Ward went on with his interrupted scrubbing.

"His name is Charlie Fox, and he's been to college and he worked in a bank," Billy Louise went on nervously. "He's going to live here with Marthy and run the ranch. What must he have thought! To have you sweep all that dirty water on him-"

"Oh, not all!" Ward corrected cheerfully. "Quite a lot missed him."

Billy Louise giggled. "What does he look like, Ward? You stood squarely in the way, so I-"

"He looked," said Ward dispassionately, "like a pretty mad young man with nose, eyes, and a mouth, and a mole in front of his left ear."

"He was real polite," said Billy Louise reprovingly, "and his voice is nice."

"Yes? I mind-read a heap of cussing. The politeness was all on top." Ward chuckled and swept more water outside. "I expect you saved me a licking that time, Miss William the Conqueror."

"Can you think of any more names to call me, besides my own, I wonder?" Billy Louise leaned and inspected the floor like a chicken preparing to hop off its roost.

"Heaps more." The glow in Ward's eyes was dangerous to their calm friendship. "Want to hear them?"

"No, I don't. I want to get off this table before that college youth comes back to be shocked silly again. I want to see if he's really-got a mole in front of his ear!"

"You know what inquisitiveness did to old lady Lot, don't you? However-" He lifted her in his arms and set her down outside the door. "There, Wilhemina; trot along and see the nice young man."

Billy Louise sat down on the wheelbarrow, remembered its latest service, and got up hastily. "I won't go a step," she asserted positively.

Ward had not wanted her to go. He gave her a smile and finished off his scrubbing with the mop, which he handled with quite surprising skill for a young man who seemed more at home in the saddle than anywhere else.

"I'm awfully glad he came, anyway." Billy Louise pulled down a budded lilac branch and sniffed at it. "I won't have to stay all night, now. I was going to."

"In that case, the young man is welcome as a gold mine. Here they come-he and Mrs. Martha. You'll have to introduce me, Bill-the-Conk; I have never met the lady." Ward hastily returned the mop to its corner, rolled down his sleeves, and picked up his gloves. Then he stepped outside and waited beside Billy Louise, looking not in the least like a man who has just wiped a lot of dishes and scrubbed a floor.

The nephew, striding along behind Marthy and showing head and shoulders above her, seemed not to resent any little mischance, such as muddy water flirted upon him from a broom. He grinned reminiscently as he came up, shook hands with the two of them, and did not let his glance dwell too long or too often upon Billy Louise, nor too briefly upon Ward.

"You've got a splendid place here, Aunt Martha," he told the old woman appreciatively. "I'd no idea there was such a little beauty-spot down here. This is even more picturesque than that homey-looking ranch we passed a few miles back, down in that little valley. I was hoping that was your ranch when I first saw it; and when I found it wasn't, I came near stopping, anyway. I'm glad I resisted the temptation, now. This is worth coming a long way to see."

"I ain't never had a chance to do all I wanted to with it," said Marthy, with the first hint of apology Billy Louise had ever heard from her. "I only had one pair of hands to work with-"

"We'll fix that part. Don't you worry a minute. You're going to sit in a rocking-chair and give orders, from now on. And if I can't make good here, I ought to be booted all the way up that spooky gorge. Isn't that right?" He turned to Warren with a certain air of appraisement behind the unmistakable cordiality of his voice.

"A man ought to make good here, all right," Ward agreed neutrally. "It's a fine place."

"It ain't as fine as I'd like to see it," began Marthy depreciatingly.

"As you will see it, let's say-if that doesn't sound too conceited from a tenderfoot," supplemented the nephew, and laid his hand upon her shoulder with a gentle little pat. "Folks, I don't want to seem too exuberantly sure of myself, but-" he waved a carefully-kept hand eloquently at the luxuriance around him, "-I'm all fussed up over this place, honest. I thought I was coming to a shack in the middle of the sage-brush; I was primed to buckle down and make good even in the desert. And bumping into this sort of thing without warning has gone to my alleged brain a bit. What I don't know about ranching would fill a library; but there's this much, anyway. There won't be any more ditch-digging for a certain game little lady in this Cove." He gave the shoulder another pat, and he smiled down at her in a way that made Billy Louise blink. And Marthy, who had probably never before been called a game little lady, came near breaking down and crying before them all.

When Ward went to the stable after Blue, half an hour later, Charlie Fox went with him. His manner when they were alone was different; not so exuberantly cheerful-more frank and practical.

"Honest, it floored me completely to see what that poor old woman has been up against down here," he told Warren, stuffing tobacco into a silver-rimmed, briar pipe while Ward saddled Blue. "I don't know a hell of a lot about this ranch game; but if that old lady can put it across, I guess I can wobble along somehow. Too bad the old man cashed in just now; but Aunt Martha as good as told me he wasn't much force, so maybe I can play a lone hand here as easy as I could have done with him. Live near here?"

"Fifteen miles or so." Ward was not in his most expansive mood, chiefly for the reason that this man was a stranger, and of strangers he was inclined to fight shy.

"Oh, well-it might have been fifty. I know how you fellows measure distances out here. I'm likely to need a little coaching, now and then, if I live up to what I just now told the old lady."

"From all I know of her, you won't need to go out of the Cove for advice."

"Well, that's right, judging from the looks of things. A woman that can go up against a proposition like she did to-day and handle it alone, is no mental weakling; to say nothing of the way this ranch looks. All right, Warren; I'll make out alone, I reckon."

Afterwards, when Ward thought it over, he remembered gratefully that Charlie Fox had refrained from attempting any discussion of Billy Louise or from asking any questions even remotely personal. He knew enough about men to appreciate the tactful silences of the stranger, and when Billy Louise, on the way home, predicted that the nephew was going to be a success, Ward did not feel like qualifying the verdict.

"He's going to be a godsend to the old lady," he said. "He seems to have his sights raised to making things come easier for her from now on."

"Well, she certainly deserves it. For a college young man-the ordinary, smart young man who comes out here to astonish the natives-he's almost human. I was so afraid that Marthy'd get him out here and then discover he was a perfect nuisance. So many men are."

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