Ranch at the Wolverine (Chapter 7, page 1 of 8)


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Chapter 7

The fate of the four heifer calves became permanently wrapped in the blank fog of mystery. Billy Louise watched for them when she rode out in the hills, and spent a good deal of time heretofore given over to dreaming in trying to solve the riddle of their disappearance. Charlie Fox insisted upon keeping to the theory that they had merely strayed. Marthy grumbled sometimes over the loss, and Ward--well, Ward did not put in an appearance again that fall or winter and so did not hear of the incident.

November brought a long, tiresome storm of snow and sleet and chill winds, which even the beasts would not face, except when they were forced. After that there were days of chilly sunlight, nights of black frost, and more wind and rain and snow. Each little ranch oasis withdrew into itself and settled down to pass the winter in physical comfort and mental isolation. Even Billy Louise seldom rode abroad unless she was compelled to, which was not often. The stage which passed through the Wolverine basin twice a week left scanty mail in the starch-box which Billy Louise had herself nailed to a post nearest the trail. Now and then a chance traveler pulled thankfully out of the trail, stopped for a warm dinner or a bed, and afterwards went his way. But from October until the hills were green, there was never a sight of Ward, and Billy Louise changed her mood and her opinion of him three or four times a week.

Ward, as a matter of fact, had a very good reason for his absence. He was working for a rancher over on the other side of the mountains, and when he got leave of absence, it was merely that he might ride to his claim and sleep there a night in compliance with the law, and see that nothing was disturbed. He was earning forty dollars a month, which he could not afford to jeopardize by any prolonged absence; and he was to take part of his pay in cows. Also, he had made arrangements to keep his few head of stock with the rancher's for a nominal sum, which barely saved Ward from the humiliation of feeling that the man was giving him something for nothing. Junkins, the rancher, was a good fellow, and he had a fair sense of values. He knew that he could pay Ward these wages and let him winter his stock there--I believe Ward had seven or eight head at that time--and still make a fair profit on his labor. For Ward stuck to his work, and he worked fast, with the drive of his nervous energy and the impatience he always felt toward any obstacle. Junkins considered privately that Ward was giving him the work of two men, while he had the appetite of one. So that it was to his interest to induce Ward to stay until spring opened and gave him plenty to do on his own claim; and such was Ward's anxiety to acquire some property and a certain financial security, that he put behind him the temptation to ride down to the Wolverine until he was once more his own master. He had sold his time to Junkins. He would not pilfer the hours it would take to ride twenty miles and back again, even to see Billy Louise; which proves that he was no moral weakling, whatever else he might be.

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