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The Long Shadow, Page 2

B. M. Bower


  _Prune Pie and Coon-can._

  Of a truth, Charming Billy Boyle, living his life in the wide landthat is too big and too far removed from the man-made world for anybut the strong of heart, knew little indeed of women--her kind ofwomen. When he returned with two chickens and found that the floor hadbeen swept so thoroughly as to look strange to him, and that all hisscattered belongings were laid in a neat pile upon the foot of thebunk which was unfamiliar under straightened blankets and pitifullyplumped pillows, he was filled with astonishment. Miss Bridger smileda little and went on washing the dishes.

  "It's beginning to storm, isn't it?" she remarked. "But we'll eatchicken stew before we--before I start home. If you have a horse thatI can borrow till morning, father will bring it back."

  Billy scattered a handful of feathers on the floor and gained a littletime by stooping to pick them up one by one. "I've been wonderingabout that," he said reluctantly. "It's just my luck not to have agentle hoss in camp. I've got two, but they ain't safe for women. ThePilgrim's got one hoss that might uh done if it was here, which itain't."

  She looked disturbed, though she tried to hide it. "I can ride prettywell," she ventured.

  Without glancing at her, Charming Billy shook his head. "You're allright here"--he stopped to pick up more feathers--"and it wouldn't besafe for yuh to try it. One hoss is mean about mounting; yuh couldn'tget within a rod of him. The other one is a holy terror to pitch whenanything strange gets near him. I wouldn't let yuh try it." CharmingBilly was sorry--that showed in his voice--but he was also firm.

  Miss Bridger thoughtfully wiped a tin spoon. Billy gave her a furtivelook and dropped his head at the way the brightness had gone out ofher face. "They'll be worried, at home," she said quietly.

  "A little worry beats a funeral," Billy retorted sententiously,instinctively mastering the situation because she was a woman and hemust take care of her. "I reckon I could--" He stopped abruptly andplucked savagely at a stubborn wing feather.

  "Of course! You could ride over and bring back a horse!" She caughteagerly at his half-spoken offer. "It's a lot of bother for you, butI--I'll be very much obliged." Her face was bright again.

  "You'd be alone here--"

  "I'm not the least bit afraid to stay alone. I wouldn't mind that atall."

  Billy hesitated, met a look in her eyes that he did not like to seethere, and yielded. Obviously, from her viewpoint that was the onlything to do. A cowpuncher who has ridden the range since he wassixteen should not shirk a night ride in a blizzard, or fear losingthe trail. It was not storming so hard a man might not ride tenmiles--that is, a man like Charming Billy Boyle.

  After that he was in great haste to be gone, and would scarcely waituntil Miss Bridger, proudly occupying the position of cook, told himthat the chicken stew was ready. Indeed, he would have gone withouteating it if she had not protested in a way that made Billy foolishlyglad to submit; as it was, he saddled his horse while he waited, andreached for his sheepskin-lined, "sour-dough" coat before the lastmouthful was fairly swallowed. At the last minute he unbuckled his gunbelt and held it out to her.

  "I'll leave you this," he remarked, with an awkward attempt to appearcareless. "You'll feel safer if you have a gun, and--and if you'rescared at anything, shoot it." He finished with another smile thatlighted wonderfully his face and his eyes.

  She shook her head. "I've often stayed alone. There's nothing in theworld to be afraid of--and anyway, I'll have the dog. Thank you, allthe same."

  Charming Billy looked at her, opened his mouth and closed it withoutspeaking. He laid the gun down on the table and turned to go. "Ifanything scares yuh," he repeated stubbornly, "shoot it. Yuh don'twant to count too much on that dawg."

  He discovered then that Flora Bridger was an exceedingly willful youngwoman. She picked up the gun, overtook him, and fairly forced it intohis hands. "Don't be silly; I don't want it. I'm not such a coward asall that. You must have a very poor opinion of women. I--I'm deadlyafraid of a gun!"

  Billy was not particularly impressed by the last statement, but hefelt himself at the end of his resources and buckled the belt aroundhim without more argument. After all, he told himself, it was notlikely that she would have cause for alarm in the few hours thathe would be gone, and those hours he meant to trim down as much aspossible.

  Out of the coulee where the high wall broke the force of the storm, hefaced the snow and wind and pushed on doggedly. It was bitter riding,that night, but he had seen worse and the discomfort of it troubledhim little; it was not the first time he had bent head to snow anddriving wind and had kept on so for hours. What harassed him most werethe icy hills where the chinook had melted the snow, and the northwind, sweeping over, had frozen it all solid again. He could not rideas fast as he had counted upon riding, and he realized that it wouldbe long hours before he could get back to the cabin with a horse fromBridger's.

  Billy could not tell when first came the impulse to turn back. Itmight have been while he was working his way cautiously up a slipperycoulee side, or it might have come suddenly just when he stopped; forstop he did (just when he should logically have ridden faster becausethe way was smoother) and turned his horse's head downhill.

  "If she'd kept the gun--" he muttered, apologizing to himself forthe impulse, and flayed his horse with his _romal_ because he did notquite understand himself and so was ill at ease. Afterward, when hewas loping steadily down the coulee bottom with his fresh-made trackspointing the way before him, he broke out irrelevantly and viciously:"A real, old range rider yuh can bank on, one way or the other--butdamn a pilgrim!"

  The wind and the snow troubled him not so much now that his face wasnot turned to meet them, but it seemed to him that the way was rougherand that the icy spots were more dangerous to the bones of himself andhis horse than when he had come that way before. He did not know whyhe need rage at the pace he must at times keep, and it did strike himas being a foolish thing to do--this turning back when he was almosthalfway to his destination; but for every time he thought that, heurged his horse more.

  The light from the cabin window, twinkling through the storm, cheeredhim a little, which was quite as unreasonable as his uneasiness. Itdid not, however, cause him to linger at turning his horse into thestable and shutting the door upon him. When he passed the cabin windowhe glanced anxiously in and saw dimly through the half-frostedglass that Miss Bridger was sitting against the wall by the table,tight-lipped and watchful. He hurried to the door and pushed it open.

  "Why, hello," greeted the Pilgrim uncertainly, The Pilgrim wasstanding in the centre of the room, and he did not look particularlypleased. Charming Billy, every nerve on edge, took in the situation ata glance, kicked the Pilgrim's dog and shook the snow from his hat.

  "I lost the trail," he lied briefly and went over to the stove. He didnot look at Miss Bridger directly, but he heard the deep breath whichshe took.

  "Well, so did I," the Pilgrim began eagerly, with just the leastslurring of his syllables. "I'd have been here before dark, only oneof the horses slipped and lamed himself. It was much as ever I gothome at all. He come in on three legs, and toward the last them threelike to went back on him."

  "Which hoss?" asked Billy, though he felt pessimistically that he knewwithout being told. The Pilgrim's answer confirmed his pessimism. Ofcourse, it was the only gentle horse they had.

  "Say, Billy, I forgot your tobacco," drawled the Pilgrim, after a veryshort silence which Billy used for much rapid thinking.

  Ordinarily, Billy would have considered the over sight as something ofa catastrophe, but he passed it up as an unpleasant detail and turnedto the girl. "It's storming something fierce," he told her in anexceedingly matter-of-fact way, "but I think it'll let up by daylightso we can tackle it. Right now it's out of the question; so we'll haveanother supper--a regular blowout this time, with coffee and biscuitsand all those luxuries. How are yuh on making biscuits?"

  So he got her out of the corner, where she had look
ed too much at bayto please him, and in making the biscuits she lost the watchful lookfrom her eyes. But she was not the Flora Bridger who had laughed attheir makeshifts and helped cook the chicken, and Charming Billy,raving inwardly at the change, in his heart damned fervently thePilgrim.

  In the hours that followed, Billy showed the stuff he was made of. Heinsisted upon cooking the things that would take the longest time toprepare; boasted volubly of the prune pies he could make, and thenset about demonstrating his skill and did not hurry the prunes in thestewing. He fished out a package of dried lima beans and cooked someof them, changing the water three times and always adding cold water.For all that, supper was eventually ready and eaten and the disheswashed--with Miss Bridger wiping them and with the Pilgrim eying themboth in a way that set on edge the teeth of Charming Billy.

  When there was absolutely nothing more to keep them busy, Billy gotthe cards and asked Miss Bridger if she could play coon-can--which wasthe only game he knew that was rigidly "two-handed." She did notknow the game and he insisted upon teaching her, though the Pilgrimglowered and hinted strongly at seven-up or something else which theycould all play.

  "I don't care for seven-up," Miss Bridger quelled, speaking to himfor the first time since Billy returned. "I want to learn this gamethat--er--Billy knows." There was a slight hesitation on the name,which was the only one she knew to call him by.

  The Pilgrim grunted and retired to the stove, rattled the lidsill-naturedly and smoked a vile cigar which he had brought from town.After that he sat and glowered at the two.

  Billy did the best he could to make the time pass quickly. He hadmanaged to seat Miss Bridger so that her back was toward the stove andthe Pilgrim, and he did it so unobtrusively that neither guessed hisreason. He taught her coon-can, two-handed whist and Chinese solitairebefore a gray lightening outside proclaimed that the night was over.Miss Bridger, heavy-eyed and languid, turned her face to the window;Billy swept the cards together and stacked them with an air offinality.

  "I guess we can hit the trail now without losing ourselves," heremarked briskly. "Pilgrim, come on out and help me saddle up; we'llsee if that old skate of yours is able to travel."

  The Pilgrim got up sullenly and went out, and Billy followed himsilently. His own horse had stood with the saddle on all night, andthe Pilgrim snorted when he saw it. But Billy only waited till thePilgrim had put his saddle on the gentlest mount they had, then tookthe reins from him and led both horses to the door.

  "All right," he called to the girl; helped her into the saddle andstarted off, with not a word of farewell from Miss Bridger to thePilgrim.

  The storm had passed and the air was still and biting cold. Theeastern sky was stained red and purple with the rising sun, andbeneath the feet of their horses the snow creaked frostily. So theyrode down the coulee and then up a long slope to the top, struck thetrail and headed straight north with a low line of hills for theirgoal. And in the hour and a half of riding, neither spoke a dozenwords.

  At the door of her own home Billy left her, and gathered up the reinsof the Pilgrim's horse. "Well, good-by. Oh, that's all right--itwasn't any trouble at all," he said huskily when she tried to thankhim, and galloped away.