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The Ranch at the Wolverine By B. M. Bower Characters: 29523

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Out in the wide spaces, where homes are but scattered oases in the general emptiness, life does not move uniformly, so far as it concerns incidents or acquaintanceships. A man or a ranch may experience complete isolation, and the unbroken monotony which sometimes accompanies it, for a month at a time. Summer work or winter storm may be the barrier temporarily raised, and life resolves itself into a succession of days and nights unbroken by outside influences. They leave their mark upon humans-these periods of isolation. For better, for worse, the man changes slowly with the months; he grows more bovine in his phlegmatic acceptance of his environment, or he becomes restless and fired with a surplus energy of ambition, or he falls to dreaming dreams; whatever angle he takes, he changes, imperceptibly perhaps, but inevitably.

Then the monotony is broken and sometimes with violence. Incident rushes in upon the heels of incident, and life becomes as tumultuous as the many moods of nature when it has a wide, open land for a playground.

That is why, perhaps, so much of western life is painted with broad strokes and raw colors. You are given the crowded action, the unleashing of emotions and temperaments that have smoldered long under the blanket of solitary living. You are shown an effect without being given the cause of that effect. You pronounce the West wild, and you never think of the long winters that bred in silence and brooding solitude those storm-periods which seem so primitively savage; of the days wherein each nature is thrown upon its own resources, with nothing to feed upon but itself and its own personal interests. And so characters change, and one wonders why.

There was Billy Louise, with her hands and her mind full of the problems her father had died still trying to solve. She did not in the least realize that she was attempting anything out of the ordinary when she took a half-developed ranch in the middle of a land almost as wild as it had been when the Indians wandered over it unmolested, a few cattle and horses and a bundle of debts to make her head swim, and set herself the problem of increasing the number of cattle and eliminating the debts, and of wresting prosperity out of a condition of picturesquely haphazard poverty. She went about it with the pathetic confidence of youth and ignorance. She rode up and down the canyons and over the higher, grassier ridges, to watch the cattle on their summer range and keep them from straying. She went with John Pringle after posts and helped him fence certain fertile slopes and hollows for winter grazing. She drove the rickety old mower through the waving grass along the creek bottom and hummed little, contented tunes while she watched the grass sway and fall evenly when the sickle shuttled through. She put on her gymnasium bloomers and drove the hay wagon, and felt only a pleasurable thrill of excitement when John Pringle inadvertently pitched an indignant rattlesnake up to her with a forkful of hay. She killed the snake with her pitchfork and pinched off the rattles, proud of their size and number.

When she sold seven fat, three-year-old steers that fall and paid a note twice renewed, managing besides to buy the winter supply of "grub" and a sewing-machine and a set of silver teaspoons for her mother, oh, but she was proud!

Ward rode down to the ranch that night, and Billy Louise showed him the note with its red stamp, oblong and imposing and slightly blurred on the "paid" side. Ward was almost as proud as she, if looks and tones went for anything, and he helped Billy Louise a good deal by telling her just how much she ought to pay for the yearlings old Johnson, over on Snake River, had for sale. Also he told her how much hay it would take to winter them-though she knew that already-and just what percentage of profit she might expect from a given number in a given period of time.

He spoke of his own work and plans, as well. He was going into cattle, also, as fast as possible, he said. In a few years the sheep would probably come in and crowd them out, but in the meantime there was money in cattle-and the more cattle, the more money. He was going to work for wages till the winter set in. He didn't know when he would see Billy Louise, he said, but he would stop on his way back.

To them that short visit was something more than an incident. It gave Ward new stuff for his dreams and new fuel for the fire of ambition. To Billy Louise it also furnished new dream material. She rode the hills and saw in fancy whole herds of cattle where now wandered scattered animals. She dreamed of the time when Ward and Charlie Fox and she would pool their interests and run a wagon of their own, and gather their stock from wide ranges. She was foolish, in that; but that is what she liked to dream.

Mentioning Charlie Fox calls to mind the fact that he was changing more than any of them. Billy Louise did not see him very often, but when she did it was with a deepening impression of his unflagging tenderness to Marthy-a tenderness that manifested itself in many little, unassuming thoughtfulnesses-and of his good-humor and his energy and several other qualities which one must admire.

"Mommie, that nephew goes at everything just as if it were a game," she said after one visit. "You know what that cabin has always been: dark and dirty and not a comfortable chair to sit down in, or a book or magazine or anything? Well, I'm just going to take you over there some day and let you see the difference. He's cut two more windows and built on an addition with a porch, if you please. And he has a bookcase he made himself, just stuffed with books and magazines. And he made Marthy a rocking-chair, mommie, and-she wears a white apron, and has her hair combed, and sits and rocks! Honest to goodness, you wouldn't think she was the same woman."

"Marthy always seemed to me more like a man than a woman," said her mother. "She didn't have nothing domestic in her whole make-up, far as I could see. Her cooking-"

"Well, mommie, Marthy cooks real well now. Charlie praises up her bread, and she takes lots of pains with it. And she just fusses with her flowers and lets him run the ranch; and, mommie, she just worships Charlie! The way she sits and looks at him when he's talking-you can see she almost says prayers to him. She does let her dishpan stay greasy-I don't suppose you can change a person completely-but everything is lots cleaner than it used to be before Charlie came. He's going to buy more cattle, too, he says. Young stock, mostly. He says there's no sense in anybody being poor, in such a country as this. He says he intends to make Marthy rich; Aunt Martha, he calls her. I'm certainly going to take you over to see her, mommie, the very first nice day when I don't have a million other things to do." Billy Louise sighed and pushed her hair back impatiently. "I wish I were a man and as smart as Charlie Fox," she added, with the plaintive note that now sometimes crept into her voice when she realized of a sudden how great a load she was carrying.

"A man can get out and do things. And a woman-why, even Ward seems to think it's perfectly wonderful, mommie, that we don't just about starve, with me running the ranch! I know he does. Every time I do a thing right or pay off a note or anything, he looks as if-"

"I wouldn't be a mite surprised, Billy Louise," said her mother, with a flash of amused comprehension, "if you kinda misread Ward sometimes. Them eyes of his are pretty keen, and they see a whole lot; but they ain't easy to read, for all that. I guess Ward don't think it's anything surprising that you're getting along so well, Billy Louise. I surmise he knows you're a better manager than a lot of men are."

"I'm not the manager Charlie Fox is, though." Billy Louise was frankly envious.

"He didn't have any more to do with than I've got, and he's accomplished a lot more. And, besides, he started in green at the whole business." She rested her chin in her cupped palms and stared disconsolately at the high-piled hills behind which the sun was setting gloriously. "He's going to pipe water into the house, mommie," she observed, after a silence. "I wish-"

"Well, he's welcome. I don't want no water piped in here, Billy Louise, and tastin' of the pipe. I'd rather carry it and have it sweet and fresh. Don't you go worrying because you can't do everything Charlie Fox does. Likely as not he's pilin' up the debts instead of payin' 'em off as you're doing."

"I don't know; I don't believe he is, though. I think he's just managing right and making every dollar count. He got calves from Seabeck, up the river, cheaper than I did from Johnson, mommie. He rode all over the country and looked up range conditions and prices. He didn't say so, but he made me feel foolish because I just bought the first ones I saw, without waiting to look around first. But-Ward said it was a good buy, and he ought to know; only, the fact remains that Charlie has done better. I guess it isn't experience that counts, altogether. Charlie Fox has got brains!"

"Land alive! I guess he ain't the only one, Billy Louise. You're doing better than your father done, and he wasn't any Jase Meilke kind of a man, but a good, hard worker always. You don't want to get all outa conceit with yourself just because Charlie Fox is gitting along all right. I don't know as it's so wonderful. Marthy was always forehanded, and she made money there and never spent any to speak of. Though I shouldn't carry the idea she's stingy, after the way she-"

If Billy Louise had not been so absorbed with her own discontent, she might have wondered at her mother's sudden silence. But she did not even notice it. She was comparing two young men and measuring them with certain standards of her own, and she was not quite satisfied with the result. She had seen Charlie Fox spring up with a perfectly natural courtesy and hand Marthy a chair when she entered the room where he had been discussing books with Billy Louise. She had seen him stand beside his own chair until Marthy was seated and then had heard him deftly turn the conversation into a channel wherein Marthy had also an interest. Parlor politeness-and something more; something infinitely finer and better than mere obedience to certain conventional rules.

She had seen that and more, and she had a vivid picture of Ward, sitting absorbed in a book which he never afterwards mentioned, and letting her or her mother lift heavy pieces of wood upon the fire within arm's reach of him; sitting with his hat tilted back upon his head and a cigarette gone cold in his fingers, and perhaps not replying at all when he was spoken to. She had never considered him uncouth or rude; he was Ward Warren, and these were certain individual traits which he possessed and which seemed a part of him. She had sensed dimly that some natures are too big and too strong for petty rules of deportment, and that Ward might sit all day in the house with his hat on his head and still be a gentleman of the finer sort. And yet, now that Charlie Fox had come and presented an example of the world's standard, Billy Louise could not, for the life of her, help wishing that Ward was different. And there were other things; things which Billy Louise was ashamed to recognize as influencing her in any way, and yet which did influence her. For instance, Ward lived to himself and for himself, and not always wisely or well. He was arrogant in his opinions-Billy Louise had rather admired what she had called his strength, but it had become arrogance now-and his scorn was swift and keen for blunderings. And there was Charlie, always thinking and planning for Marthy and putting her wishes first; wanting to make sure that he himself had not blundered, and with a conservative estimate of himself that was refreshingly modest. And-

"Ain't that Ward coming, Billy Louise? Seems to me it looks like him-the way he rides."

Billy Louise started guiltily and looked up toward the trail, now piled deep with shadows. It was Ward, all right, and his voice, lifted in a good-humored shout, brought Billy Louise to her feet and sent her down the slope to the stable, where he had stopped as a matter of course.

When he turned and smiled at her through the dusk and said, "'Lo, Bill," in a voice that was like a spoken kiss, a certain young woman hated herself for a weak-souled traitor and mentally called Charlie Fox a popinjay, which was merely shifting injustice to another resting-place.

"Are you plumb tickled to death to see me, William?"

"Oh, no; but I guess I can stand it!"

A smile to go with both sentences, and a strong undercurrent of something unnamed in their tones-who wanted the pasteurized milk and distilled water of a perfectly polite form of greeting? Not Billy Louise, if one might judge from that young woman's face and voice and manner. Not Ward, though he was perfectly unconscious of having been weighed or measured or judged by any standard at all.

And yet, when Charlie Fox rode down to the Wolverine a week or so later, tied his horse under the shed, and came up to the cabin as though he knew of no better place in all the world; when he greeted mommie as though she were something precious in his sight, and talked with her about the things she was most interested in, and actually made her feel as if he were immensely interested also, Billy Louise simply could not help admiring him and liking him for his frank good-nature and his kindness. She had never before met a man just like Charlie Fox, though she had known many who were what Ward once called "parlor-broke." She felt when she was with him that he had a strength to match Ward's strength; only, this strength was tamed and trained and smoothed so that it did not obtrude upon one's notice. It was not every young man who would come out into the wilderness and roughen his hands on an irrigating shovel and live a cramped, lonely life, for the sake of a harsh, illiterate old woman like Marthy Meilke. She did not believe Ward would do that. He would have to feel some tie stronger than the one between Marthy and her nephew before he would change his life and his own plans for anyone.

It was not until Charlie was leaving that he gave Billy Louise a hint that his errand was not yet accomplished. She walked down with him to where his horse was tied and so gave him a chance to speak what was in his mind.

"You know, I hate to mention little worries before your mother," he said. "Those pathetic eyes of hers make me ashamed to bother her with a thing. But I am worried, Miss Louise. I came over to ask you if you've seen anything of four calve

s of ours. I know you ride a good deal, through the hills. They disappeared a week ago, and I can't find any trace of them. I've been looking all through the hills, but I can't locate them."

Billy Louise had not seen them, either, and she begged for particulars. "I don't see how they could get away from your Cove," she said, "unless your bars were down."

"The bars were all right. It was last Friday, I think. I'm not sure. They were in the little meadow above the house, you see. I was away that night, and Aunt Martha is a little hard of hearing. She wouldn't hear anything unless there were considerable noise. I came home the next forenoon-I was over to Seabeck's-and the bars were in place then. Aunt Martha had not been up the gorge, nor had anyone come to the ranch while I was gone. So you see, Miss Louise, here's a very pretty mystery!"

He laughed, but Billy Louise saw by his eyes that he did not laugh very deeply, and that he was really worried. "I must have made a mistake and bought mountain sheep instead of calves," he said and laughed again. "They couldn't have gone through those bars or over them; and I did have a spark of intelligence and looked along the river for tracks, you know. They had not been near the river, which has soft banks along there. They watered from the little creek that comes down the gorge. Miss Louise, do you have flying cattle in Idaho?"

"You think they were driven off, don't you?" Billy Louise asked a question with the words, and made a statement of it with her tone, which was a trick of hers.

Charlie Fox shook his head, but his eyes did not complete the denial. "Miss Louise, I'd work every other theory to death before I'd admit that possibility! I don't know all of my neighbors so very well, but I should hesitate a long, long time-"

"It needn't have been a neighbor. There are lots of strange men passing through the country. Did you look for tracks?"

"I-did not. I didn't want to admit that possibility. I decline to admit it now." The chin of Charlie Fox squared perceptibly, so that Billie Louise caught a faint resemblance to Marthy in his face. "I saw a man accused of a theft once," he said. "The evidence was-or seemed-absolutely unassailable. And afterward he was exonerated completely; it was just a horrible mistake. But he left school under a cloud. His life was ruined by the blunder. I'd have to know absolutely before I'd accuse anyone of stealing those calves, Miss Louise. I'd have to see them in a man's corral, with his brand on them-I believe that's the way it's done, out here-and even then-"

"Where have you looked?" There were reasons why this particular subject was painful to Billy Louise. "And are you sure they didn't get out of that pasture and wander on down the Cove, among all those willows? It's a perfect jungle, away down. Are you sure they aren't with the rest of the cattle? I don't see how they could leave the Cove, unless they were driven out." She caught a twinkle of amusement in his eyes and stopped short. Of course, a mere girl should not take it for granted that a man had failed to do all that might be done. And Billy Louise had a swift conviction that she would never think of talking like this to Ward. She flushed a little; and still, Charlie Fox was a tenderfoot. She was justified in asking those questions, and in her heart she knew it.

"Yes, I thought of that-strange as it may seem." Charlie's voice was unoffended. On the contrary, he seemed glad that she took so keen an interest in his affairs. "It has been a week, you know, since they flew the coop. I did hunt every foot of that Cove, twice over. I drove every hoof of stock up and corraled them, and made sure these four were not in the herd. Then I hunted through every inch of that willow jungle and all along the bluff and the river; Miss Louise, I put in three days at it, from sunrise till it was too dark to see. Then I began riding outside. There isn't a trace of them anywhere. I had just bought them from Seabeck, you know. I drove them home, and because they were tired, and so was I, I just left them in that upper meadow as I came down the gorge. I hadn't branded them yet. I-I know I've made an awful botch of the thing, Miss Louise," he confessed, turning toward her with an honest distress and a self-flaying humility in his eyes that wiped from Billy Louise's mind any incipient tendency toward contempt. "But you see I'm green at this ranch game. And I never dreamed those calves weren't perfectly safe in there. The fence was new and strong; I built it new this fall, you know. And the bars are absolutely bars to any stock larger than a rabbit. Of course," he added, with a deprecating note, "four calves are only four calves. But-it's the sense of failure that gets me hardest, Miss Louise. Aunt Martha trusted me to take care of things. Her confidence in me fairly takes my nerve. And losing four fine, big heifer calves at one whack is no way to get rich; is it, Miss Louise?" He laughed, and again the laugh did not go deep, or reach his eyes.

"I hate to bother you with this, and I don't want you to think I have come whining for sympathy," he said, after a minute of moody silence. "But seeing they were not branded yet-with our brand-I thought perhaps you had run across them and paid no attention, thinking they belonged to Seabeck."

Billy Louise smiled a little to herself. If he had not been quite so "green at the ranch game," he would have mentioned brands at first, as the most important point, instead of tacking on the information casually after ten minutes of other less vital details.

"Were they vented?" she asked, suppressing the smile so that it was merely a twitch of the lips which might mean anything.

"I-yes, I think they were. That's what you call it when the former owner puts his brand in a different place to show that his ownership has ceased, isn't it? Seabeck puts his brand upside down-"

"I know Seabeck's vent," Billy Louise cut in. There was no need of letting such a fine fellow display more ignorance on the subject. "And I should have noticed it if I had seen four calves vented fresh and not rebranded. Why in the world didn't you stick your brand on at the same time?" Billy Louise was losing patience with his greenness.

"I didn't have my branding iron with me," Charlie answered humbly. "I have done that before, when I bought those other cows and calves. I-"

"You'd better pack your iron, next time," she retorted. "If you can't get a little bunch of calves ten miles without losing them-"

"But you must understand, I did! I took them home and turned them into the Cove. I know-I'm an awful chump at this. There are things that I can do," he declared whimsically, "or I should want to kick myself to death. I can ladle out money the year round through a bank wicket and not be shy a cent at the end of the year. And I can strike out man after man-when I'm in good form; why, I've pitched whole games and never walked a man! And I can-but what's the use? I can't drive the cows up from pasture, it seems, without losing all the milk. And I can make a little, gray-eyed girl out here in the sagebrush look upon me with pitying contempt for my asinine ignorance. Hang it, why does a fellow have to learn fresh lessons for everything he undertakes? Why can't there be a universal course that fits one for every trade?"

"There is," said Billy Louise dryly. "You take that in the School of Experience, don't you?"

He laughed ruefully. "Horatio! It certainly does cost something, though. I've certainly paid enough-"

"In worry, maybe. The calves may not be absolutely lost, you know. Why, I lost a big steer last spring and never found him till I was going to sell a few head. Then he turned up, the biggest and fattest one in the bunch. You can't tell; they get themselves in queer places sometimes. I'll come over to-morrow, if I can, and take a look at that pasture and all around. And I'll keep a good lookout for the calves."

Many men would have objected to the unconscious patronage of her tone. That Charlie Fox did not, but accepted the spirit of helpfulness in her words, lifted him out of the small-natured class.

"It's awfully good of you," he said. "You know a lot more about the bovine nature than I do, for all I put in every spare minute studying the subject. I'm taking four different stock journals now, Miss Louise. I'll bet I know a lot more about the different strains of various breeds than you do, Miss Cattle-queen. But I'm beginning to see that we only know what we learn by experience. I've a new book on the subject of heredity of the cattle. I'm going home and see if Seabeck hasn't stumbled upon a strain that can be traced back to your native mountain sheep."

Billy Louise laughed and said good-by, and stood leaning over the gate watching him as he zigzagged up the hill, stopping his horse often to breathe. The wagon road took a round-about course, longer and less steep. At the top, just before he rounded a huge pimple on the face of the bluff, he stopped and looked down, saw her standing there, and waved his hat. His horse stood sidewise upon the trail for easier footing, and the man's head and shoulders were silhouetted sharply against the deep, clear blue of the sky. Billy Louise felt a little, unnamed thrill as she stared up at him. Her lips curved into tenderness. Clean, frank, easy-natured he was, as she had come to know him. It was like coming into a sunny spot to be with him. And then she sighed, with that vague feeling of dissatisfaction with herself. She felt crude and awkward and dull of wit. Her mother, Marthy, Ward-all the persons she knew-were crude and awkward and ignorant beside Charlie Fox. And she had had the temerity, the insufferable effrontery, to criticize him and patronize him over those four calves!

"He can strike out three men in succession," she murmured. "And he pitched whole games and never walked a man." She gave him a final wave of the hand, as he turned to climb on out of sight. "And I don't even know what he was talking about-though I think it was baseball. And I was awfully snippy about those calves he lost."

She began to wonder, then, about those calves. Vented and not rebranded, they would be easy game for any man who first got his own brand on them. She meant to get a description of them when she saw Charlie again-it was like his innocence to forget the most essential details!-and she meant to keep her eyes open. If Charlie were right about the calves not being anywhere in the Cove, then they had been driven out of it, stolen. Billy Louise turned dejectedly away from the fence and went down to a shady nook by the creek, where she had always liked to do her worrying and hard thinking.

She stooped and tried to catch a baby trout in her cupped palms, just as she used to try when she was a child. If those four calves were stolen, then there was a "rustler" in the country. And if there were, then no one's stock was safe. The deduction was terribly simple and as exact as the smallest sum in addition. And Billy Louise could not afford to pay toll to a rustler out of her forty-seven head of cattle.

The next day she rode early to the Cove and learned some things from Marthy which she had not gleaned from Charlie. She learned that two of the calves were a deep red, except for a wide, white strip on the nose of one and white hind feet on the other; that another was spotted on the hindquarters, and that the fourth was white, with large, red blotches. She had known cattle all her life. She would know these, if she saw them anywhere.

She also discovered for herself that they could not have broken out of that pasture, and that the river bank was impassable, because of high, thick bushes and miry mud in the open spaces. She had a fight with Blue over these latter places and demonstrated beyond doubt that they were miry, by getting him in to the knees in spite of his violent objections. They left deep tracks behind them when they got out. The calves had not gone investigating the bank, for there was not a trace anywhere. And the bluff was absolutely unscalable. Billy Louise herself would have felt doubtful of climbing out that way. The gray rim-rock stood straight and high at the top, with never a crevice, so far as she could see. And the gorge was barred, so that it was impossible to go that way without lifting heavy poles out of deep sockets and sliding them to one side.

"I've got an idea about a gate here," Charlie confided suddenly. "There won't be any more mysteries like this. I'm going to fix a swinging gate in place of these bars, Miss Louise. I shall have it swing uphill, like this; and I'll have a weight arranged so that it will always close itself, if one is careless enough to ride on and leave it open. I have it all worked out in my alleged brain. I shall do it right away, too. Aunt Marthy is rather nervous about this gorge, now. Every evening she walks up here herself to make sure the bars are closed."

"You may as well make up your mind to it," said Billy Louise irrelevantly, in a tone of absolute certainty. "Those calves were driven out of the gorge. That means stolen. You needn't accuse anyone in particular; I don't suppose you could. But they were stolen."

Charlie frowned and glanced up speculatively at the bluff's rim.

"Oh, your mountain-sheep theory is no good," Billy Louise giggled. "I doubt if a lizard, even, would try to leave the Cove over the bluff." Which certainly was a sweeping statement, when you consider a lizard's habits. "A mountain sheep couldn't, anyway."

"They're hummers to climb-"

"But calves are not, Mr. Fox! Not like that. You know yourself they were stolen; why not admit it?"

"Would that do any good-bring them back?" he countered, looking up at her.

"N-o, but I do hate to see a person deliberately shut his eyes in front of a fact. We may as well admit to ourselves that there is a rustler in the country. Then we can look out for him."

Charlie's eyes had the troubled look. "I hate to think that. Aunt Martha insists that is what we are up against, but-"

"Well, she knows more about it than you do, believe me. If you'll let down the bars, Mr. Fox, I'll hit the trail. And if I find out anything, I'll let you know at once."

When she rode over the bleak upland she caught herself wishing that she might talk the thing over with Ward. He would know just what ought to be done. But winter was coming, and she would drive her stock down into the fields she had ready. They would be safe there, surely. Still, she wished Ward would come. She wanted to talk it over with a man who understood and who knew more about such things than she did.

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