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The Long Shadow

B. M. Bower

  Produced by Suzanne Shell, Alicia Williams, David King, and theOnline Distributed Proofreading Team








  I Charming Billy Has a Visitor

  II Prune Pie and Coon-can

  III Charming Billy Has a Fight

  IV Canned

  V The Man From Michigan

  VI "That's My Dill Pickle!"

  VII "Till Hell's a Skating-rink"

  VIII Just a Day-dream

  IX The "Double-Crank"

  X The Day We Celebrate

  XI "When I Lift My Eyebrows This Way"

  XII Dilly Hires a Cook

  XIII Billy Meets the Pilgrim

  XIV A Winter at the Double-Crank

  XV The Shadow Falls Lightly

  XVI Self-Defense

  XVII The Shadow Darkens

  XVIII When the North Wind Blows

  XIX "I'm Not Your Wife Yet!"

  XX The Shadow Lies Long

  XXI The End of the Double-Crank

  XXII Settled In Full

  XXIII "Oh, Where Have You Been, Charming Billy?"


  "I'll leave you this, you'll feel safer if you have a gun"

  "Hands off that long person! That there's _my_ dill pickle"

  "We--we're 'up against it,' as fellows say"

  For every sentence a stinging blow with the flat of his hand



  _Charming Billy Has a Visitor._

  The wind, rising again as the sun went down, mourned lonesomely at thenorthwest corner of the cabin, as if it felt the desolateness of thebarren, icy hills and the black hollows between, and of the angry redsky with its purple shadows lowering over the unhappy land--and wouldmake fickle friendship with some human thing. Charming Billy, hearingthe crooning wail of it, knew well the portent and sighed. Perhaps he,too, felt something of the desolateness without and perhaps he, too,longed for some human companionship.

  He sent a glance of half-conscious disapproval around the untidycabin. He had been dreaming aimlessly of a place he had seen not solong ago; a place where the stove was black and shining, with a firecrackling cheeringly inside and a teakettle with straight, unmarredspout and dependable handle singing placidly to itself and puffingsteam with an air of lazy comfort, as if it were smoking a cigarette.The stove had stood in the southwest corner of the room, and the roomwas warm with the heat of it; and the floor was white and had a stripof rag carpet reaching from the table to a corner of the stove. Therewas a red cloth with knotted fringe on the table, and a bed in anothercorner had a red-and-white patchwork spread and puffy white pillows.There had been a woman--but Charming Billy shut his eyes, mentally, tothe woman, because he was not accustomed to them and he was not atall sure that he wanted to be accustomed; they did not fit in with thelife he lived. He felt dimly that, in a way, they were like theheaven his mother had taught him--altogether perfect and altogetherunattainable and not to be thought of with any degree of familiarity.So his memory of the woman was indistinct, as of something which didnot properly belong to the picture. He clung instead to the memory ofthe warm stove, and the strip of carpet, and the table with the redcloth, and to the puffy, white pillows on the bed.

  The wind mourned again insistently at the corner. Billy liftedhis head and looked once more around the cabin. The reality wasdepressing--doubly depressing in contrast to the memory of that otherroom. A stove stood in the southwest corner, but it was not blackand shining; it was rust-red and ash-littered, and the ashes hadoverflowed the hearth and spilled to the unswept floor. A dentedlard-pail without a handle did meagre duty as a teakettle, andbalanced upon a corner of the stove was a dirty frying pan. The firehad gone dead and the room was chill with the rising of the wind.The table was filled with empty cans and tin plates and cracked,oven-stained bowls and iron-handled knives and forks, and the bunk inthe corner was a tumble of gray blankets and unpleasant, red-floweredcomforts--corner-wads, Charming Billy was used to calling them--andfor pillows there were two square, calico-covered cushions,depressingly ugly in pattern and not over-clean.

  Billy sighed again, threaded a needle with coarse, black thread andattacked petulantly a long rent in his coat. "Darn this bushwhackingall over God's earth after a horse a man can't stay with, nor evenhold by the bridle reins," he complained dispiritedly. "I could uhcleaned the blamed shack up so it would look like folks was livinghere--and I woulda, if I didn't have to set all day and toggle up theplaces in my clothes"--Billy muttered incoherently over a knot in histhread. "I've been plumb puzzled, all winter, to know whether it's manor cattle I'm supposed to chappyrone. If it's man, this coat has suregot the marks uh the trade, all right." He drew the needle spitefullythrough the cloth.

  The wind gathered breath and swooped down upon the cabin so thatBilly felt the jar of it. "I don't see what's got the matter of theweather," he grumbled. "Yuh just get a chinook that starts waterrunning down the coulees, and then the wind switches and she freezesup solid--and that means tailing-up poor cows and calves by thedozen--and for your side-partner yuh get dealt out to yuh a pilgrimthat don't know nothing and can't ride a wagon seat, hardly, andthat's bound to keep a _dawg_! And the Old Man stands for that kind uhthing and has forbid accidents happening to it--oh, hell!"

  This last was inspired by a wriggling movement under the bunk. A blackdog, of the apologetic drooping sort that always has its tail saggingand matted with burrs, crawled out and sidled past Billy with adeprecating wag or two when he caught his unfriendly glance, andshambled over to the door that he might sniff suspiciously the coldair coming in through the crack beneath.

  Billy eyed him malevolently. "A dog in a line-camp is a plumbdisgrace! I don't see why the Old Man stands for it--or the Pilgrim,either; it's a toss-up which is the worst. Yuh smell him coming, doyuh?" he snarled. "It's about _time_ he was coming--me here eatingdried apricots and tapioca steady diet (nobody but a pilgrim wouldfetch tapioca into a line-camp, and if he does it again you'll surebe missing the only friend yuh got) and him gone four days when he'doughta been back the second. Get out and welcome him, darn yuh!"He gathered the coat under one arm that he might open the door, andhurried the dog outside with a threatening boot toe. The wind whippedhis brown cheeks so that he closed the door hastily and retired to thecheerless shelter of the cabin.

  "Another blizzard coming, if I know the signs. And if the Pilgrimdon't show up to-night with the grub and tobacco--But I reckon thedawg smelt him coming, all right." He fingered uncertainly a veryflabby tobacco sack, grew suddenly reckless and made himself anexceedingly thin cigarette with the remaining crumbs of tobaccoand what little he could glean from the pockets of the coat he wasmending. Surely, the Pilgrim would remember his tobacco! Incapableas he was, he could scarcely forget that, after the extreme emphasisCharming Billy had laid upon the getting, and the penalties attachedto its oversight.

  Outside, the dog was barking spasmodically; but Billy, being a productof the cattle industry pure and simple, knew not the way of dogs.He took it for granted that the Pilgrim was arriving with the grub,though he was too disgusted with his delay to go out and make sure.Dogs always barked at everything impartially--when they were notgnawing surreptitiously at bones or snooping in corners for scraps,or planting themselves deliberately upon your clothes. Even when thenoise subsided to throaty growls he failed to recognize the symptoms;he was taking long, rapturous mouthfuls of smoke and gazing dreamilyat his coat, for it was his first ciga
rette since yesterday.

  When some one rapped lightly he jumped, although he was not a man whoowned unsteady nerves. It was very unusual, that light tapping. Whenany one wanted to come in he always opened the door without furtherceremony. Still, there was no telling what strange freak might impelthe Pilgrim--he who insisted on keeping a dog in a line-camp!--soBilly recovered himself and called out impatiently: "Aw, come on in!Don't be a plumb fool," and never moved from his place.

  The door opened queerly; slowly, and with a timidity not at all inkeeping with the blundering assertiveness of the Pilgrim. When a youngwoman showed for a moment against the bleak twilight and then steppedinside, Charming Billy caught at the table for support, and the coathe was holding dropped to the floor. He did not say a word: he juststared.

  The girl closed the door behind her with something of defiance,that did not in the least impose upon one. "Good evening," she saidbriskly, though even in his chaotic state of mind Billy felt thetremble in her voice. "It's rather late for making calls, but--" Shestopped and caught her breath nervously, as if she found it impossibleto go on being brisk and at ease. "I was riding, and my horse slippedand hurt himself so he couldn't walk, and I saw this cabin from up onthe hill over there. So I came here, because it was so far home--and Ithought--maybe--" She looked with big, appealing brown eyes at Billy,who felt himself a brute without in the least knowing why. "I'm FloraBridger; you know, my father has taken up a ranch over on Shell Creek,and--"

  "I'm very glad to meet you," said Charming Billy stammeringly. "Won'tyou sit down? I--I wish I'd known company was coming." He smiledreassuringly, and then glanced frowningly around the cabin. Even fora line-camp, he told himself disgustedly, it was "pretty sousy." "Youmust be cold," he added, seeing her glance toward the stove. "I'llhave a fire going right away; I've been pretty busy and just letthings slide." He threw the un-smoked half of his cigarette into theashes and felt not a quiver of regret. He knew who she was, now; shewas the daughter he had heard about, and who belonged to the placewhere the stove was black and shining and the table had a red clothwith knotted fringe. It must have been her mother whom he had seenthere--but she had looked very young to be mother of a young lady.

  Charming Billy brought himself rigidly to consider the duties of ahost; swept his arm across a bench to clear it of sundry man garments,and asked her again to sit down. When she did so, he saw that herfingers were clasped tightly to hold her from shivering, and he ravedinwardly at his shiftlessness the while he hurried to light a fire inthe stove.

  "Too bad your horse fell," he remarked stupidly, gathering up thehandful of shavings he had whittled from a piece of pine board. "Ialways hate to see a horse get hurt." It was not what he had wantedto say, but he could not seem to put just the right thing into words.What he wanted was to make her feel that there was nothing out of theordinary in her being there, and that he was helpful and sympatheticwithout being in the least surprised. In all his life on the range hehad never had a young woman walk into a line-camp at dusk--a strangeyoung woman who tried pitifully to be at ease and whose eyes gave thelie to her manner--and he groped confusedly for just the right way inwhich to meet the situation.

  "I know your father," he said, fanning a tiny blaze among the shavingswith his hat, which had been on his head until he remembered andremoved it in deference to her presence. "But I ain't a very goodneighbor, I guess; I never seem to have time to be sociable. It'slucky your horse fell close enough so yuh could walk in to camp; I'vehad that happen to me more than once, and it ain't never pleasant--butit's worse when there ain't any camp to walk to. I've had that happen,too."

  The fire was snapping by then, and manlike he swept the ashes to thefloor. The girl watched him, politely disapproving. "I don't want tobe a trouble," she said, with less of constraint; for Charming Billy,whether he knew it or not, had reassured her immensely. "I know menhate to cook, so when I get warm, and the water is hot, I'll cooksupper for you," she offered. "And then I won't mind having you helpme to get home."

  "I guess it won't be any trouble--but I don't mind cooking. You--youbetter set still and rest," murmured Charming Billy, quite red. Ofcourse, she would want supper--and there were dried apricots, and avery little tapioca! He felt viciously that he could kill the Pilgrimand be glad. The Pilgrim was already two days late with the supplieshe had been sent after because he was not to be trusted with theduties pertaining to a line-camp--and Billy had not the wide charitythat could conjure excuses for the delinquent.

  "I'll let you wash the dishes," promised Miss Bridger generously. "ButI'll cook the supper--really, I want to, you know. I won't say I'mnot hungry, because I am. This Western air does give one _such_ anappetite, doesn't it? And then I walked miles, it seems to me; so thatought to be an excuse, oughtn't it? Now, if you'll show me where thecoffee is--"

  She had risen and was looking at him expectantly, with a half smilethat seemed to invite one to comradeship. Charming Billy looked at herhelplessly, and turned a shade less brown.

  "The--there isn't any," he stammered guiltily. "The Pilgrim--I meanWalland--Fred Walland--"

  "It doesn't matter in the least," Miss Bridger assured him hastily."One can't keep everything in the house all the time, so far from anytown. We're often out of things, at home. Last week, only, I upset thevanilla bottle, and then we were completely out of vanilla till justyesterday." She smiled again confidingly, and Billy tried to seem verysympathetic--though of a truth, to be out of vanilla did not at thatmoment seem to him a serious catastrophe. "And really, I like teabetter, you know. I only said coffee because father told me cowboysdrink it a great deal. Tea is so much quicker and easier to make."

  Billy dug his nails into his palms. "There--Miss Bridger," he blurteddesperately, "I've got to tell yuh--there isn't a thing in the shackexcept some dried apricots--and maybe a spoonful or two of tapioca.The Pilgrim--" He stopped to search his brain for words applicable tothe Pilgrim and still mild enough for the ears of a lady.

  "Well, never mind. We can rough it--it will be lots of fun!" the girllaughed so readily as almost to deceive Billy, standing there in hismisery. That a woman should come to him for help, and he not even ableto give her food, was almost unbearable. It were well for the Pilgrimthat Charming Billy Boyle could not at that moment lay hands upon him.

  "It will be fun," she laughed again in his face. "If the--thegrubstake is down to a whisper (that's the way you say it, isn't it?)there will be all the more credit coming to the cook when you see allthe things she can do with dried apricots and tapioca. May I rummage?"

  "Sure," assented Billy, dazedly moving aside so that she might reachthe corner where three boxes were nailed by their bottoms to the wall,curtained with gayly flowered calico and used for a cupboard. "ThePilgrim," he began for the third time to explain, "went after gruband is taking his time about getting back. He'd oughta been here daybefore yesterday. We might eat his dawg," he suggested, gatheringspirit now that her back was toward him.

  Her face appeared at one side of the calico curtain. "I know somethingbetter than eating the dog," she announced triumphantly. "Down therein the willows where I crossed the creek--I came down that low, saggyplace in the hill--I saw a lot of chickens or something--partridges,maybe you call them--roosting in a tree with their feathers all puffedout. It's nearly dark, but they're worth trying for, don't you think?That is, if you have a gun," she added, as if she had begun to realizehow meagre were his possessions. "If you don't happen to have one, wecan do all right with what there is here, you know."

  Billy flushed a little, and for answer took down his gun and belt fromwhere they hung upon the wall, buckled the belt around his slim middleand picked up his hat. "If they're there yet, I'll get some, sure,"he promised. "You just keep the fire going till I come back, and I'llwash the dishes. Here, I'll shut the dawg in the house; he's alwaysplumb crazy with ambition to do just what yuh don't want him to do,and I don't want him following." He smiled upon her again (he wasfinding that rather easy to do) and closed the door lingeringly b
ehindhim. Having never tried to analyze his feelings, he did not wonder whyhe stepped so softly along the frozen path that led to the stable, orwhy he felt that glow of elation which comes to a man only when he hasfound something precious in his sight.

  "I wish I hadn't eat the last uh the flour this morning," he regrettedanxiously. "I coulda made some bread; there's a little yeast powderleft in the can. Darn the Pilgrim!"