The wind, rising again as the sun went down, mourned lonesomely at the northwest corner of the cabin, as if it felt the desolateness of the barren, icy hills and the black hollows between, and of the angry red sky with its purple shadows lowering over the unhappy land—and would make fickle friendship with some human thing. Charming Billy, hearing the 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 untidy cabin. He had been dreaming aimlessly of a place he had seen not so long ago; a place where the stove was black and shining, with a fire crackling cheeringly inside and a teakettle with straight, unmarred spout and dependable handle singing placidly to itself and puffing steam 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 room was warm with the heat of it; and the floor was white and had a strip of rag carpet reaching from the table to a corner of the stove. There was a red cloth with knotted fringe on the table, and a bed in another corner had a red-and-white patchwork spread and puffy white pillows. There had been a woman—but Charming Billy shut his eyes, mentally, to the woman, because he was not accustomed to them and he was not at all sure that he wanted to be accustomed; they did not fit in with the life he lived. He felt dimly that, in a way, they were like the heaven his mother had taught him—altogether perfect and altogether unattainable and not to be thought of with any degree of familiarity. So his memory of the woman was indistinct, as of something which did not properly belong to the picture. He clung instead to the memory of the warm stove, and the strip of carpet, and the table with the red cloth, and to the puffy, white pillows on the bed.
The wind mourned again insistently at the corner. Billy lifted his head and looked once more around the cabin. The reality was depressing—doubly depressing in contrast to the memory of that other room. A stove stood in the southwest corner, but it was not black and shining; it was rust-red and ash-littered, and the ashes had overflowed the hearth and spilled to the unswept floor. A dented lard-pail without a handle did meagre duty as a teakettle, and balanced upon a corner of the stove was a dirty frying pan. The fire had 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 in the corner was a tumble of gray blankets and unpleasant, red-flowered comforts—corner-wads, Charming Billy was used to calling them—and for 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 and attacked petulantly a long rent in his coat. "Darn this bushwhacking all over God's earth after a horse a man can't stay with, nor even hold by the bridle reins," he complained dispiritedly. "I could uh cleaned the blamed shack up so it would look like folks was living here—and I woulda, if I didn't have to set all day and toggle up the places in my clothes"—Billy muttered incoherently over a knot in his thread. "I've been plumb puzzled, all winter, to know whether it's man or cattle I'm supposed to chappyrone. If it's man, this coat has sure got the marks uh the trade, all right." He drew the needle spitefully through the cloth.
The wind gathered breath and swooped down upon the cabin so that Billy felt the jar of it. "I don't see what's got the matter of the weather," he grumbled. "Yuh just get a chinook that starts water running down the coulées, and then the wind switches and she freezes up solid—and that means tailing-up poor cows and calves by the dozen—and for your side-partner yuh get dealt out to yuh a pilgrim that don't know nothing and can't ride a wagon seat, hardly, and that's bound to keep a dawg! And the Old Man stands for that kind uh thing and has forbid accidents happening to it—oh, hell!"
This last was inspired by a wriggling movement under the bunk. A black dog, of the apologetic drooping sort that always has its tail sagging and matted with burrs, crawled out and sidled past Billy with a deprecating wag or two when he caught his unfriendly glance, and shambled over to the door that he might sniff suspiciously the cold air coming in through the crack beneath.
Billy eyed him malevolently. "A dog in a line-camp is a plumb disgrace! 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, do yuh?" he snarled. "It's about time he was coming—me here eating dried apricots and tapioca steady diet (nobody but a pilgrim would fetch tapioca into a line-camp, and if he does it again you'll sure be missing the only friend yuh got) and him gone four days when he'd oughta been back the second. Get out and welcome him, darn yuh!" He gathered the coat under one arm that he might open the door, and hurried the dog outside with a threatening boot toe. The wind whipped his brown cheeks so that he closed the door hastily and retired to the cheerless shelter of the cabin.
"Another blizzard coming, if I know the signs. And if the Pilgrim don't show up to-night with the grub and tobacco—But I reckon the dawg smelt him coming, all right." He fingered uncertainly a very flabby tobacco sack, grew suddenly reckless and made himself an exceedingly thin cigarette with the remaining crumbs of tobacco and what little he could glean from the pockets of the coat he was mending. Surely, the Pilgrim would remember his tobacco! Incapable as he was, he could scarcely forget that, after the extreme emphasis Charming Billy had laid upon the getting, and the penalties attached to its oversight.
Outside, the dog was barking spasmodically; but Billy, being a product of 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 not gnawing surreptitiously at bones or snooping in corners for scraps, or planting themselves deliberately upon your clothes. Even when the noise subsided to throaty growls he failed to recognize the symptoms; he was taking long, rapturous mouthfuls of smoke and gazing dreamily at his coat, for it was his first cigarette since yesterday.
When some one rapped lightly he jumped, although he was not a man who owned unsteady nerves. It was very unusual, that light tapping. When any one wanted to come in he always opened the door without further ceremony. Still, there was no telling what strange freak might impel the Pilgrim—he who insisted on keeping a dog in a line-camp!—so Billy 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 in keeping with the blundering assertiveness of the Pilgrim. When a young woman showed for a moment against the bleak twilight and then stepped inside, Charming Billy caught at the table for support, and the coat he was holding dropped to the floor. He did not say a word: he just stared.
The girl closed the door behind her with something of defiance, that did not in the least impose upon one. "Good evening," she said briskly, though even in his chaotic state of mind Billy felt the tremble in her voice. "It's rather late for making calls, but—" She stopped and caught her breath nervously, as if she found it impossible to go on being brisk and at ease. "I was riding, and my horse slipped and hurt himself so he couldn't walk, and I saw this cabin from up on the hill over there. So I came here, because it was so far home—and I thought—maybe—" She looked with big, appealing brown eyes at Billy, who felt himself a brute without in the least knowing why. "I'm Flora Bridger; 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't you sit down? I—I wish I'd known company was coming." He smiled reassuringly, and then glanced frowningly around the cabin. Even for a line-camp, he told himself disgustedly, it was "pretty sousy." "You must be cold," he added, seeing her glance toward the stove. "I'll have a fire going right away; I've been pretty busy and just let things slide." He threw the un-smoked half of his cigarette into the ashes and felt not a quiver of regret. He knew who she was, now; she was the daughter he had heard about, and who belonged to the place where the stove was black and shining and the table had a red cloth with knotted fringe. It must have been her mother whom he had seen there—but she had looked very young to be mother of a young lady.
Charming Billy brought himself rigidly to consider the duties of a host; 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 her fingers were clasped tightly to hold her from shivering, and he raved inwardly at his shiftlessness the while he hurried to light a fire in the stove.
"Too bad your horse fell," he remarked stupidly, gathering up the handful of shavings he had whittled from a piece of pine board. "I always hate to see a horse get hurt." It was not what he had wanted to 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 the ordinary in her being there, and that he was helpful and sympathetic without being in the least surprised. In all his life on the range he had never had a young woman walk into a line-camp at dusk—a strange young woman who tried pitifully to be at ease and whose eyes gave the lie to her manner—and he groped confusedly for just the right way in which to meet the situation.
"I know your father," he said, fanning a tiny blaze among the shavings with his hat, which had been on his head until he remembered and removed it in deference to her presence. "But I ain't a very good neighbor, I guess; I never seem to have time to be sociable. It's lucky your horse fell close enough so yuh could walk in to camp; I've had that happen to me more than once, and it ain't never pleasant—but it'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 the floor. The girl watched him, politely disapproving. "I don't want to be a trouble," she said, with less of constraint; for Charming Billy, whether he knew it or not, had reassured her immensely. "I know men hate to cook, so when I get warm, and the water is hot, I'll cook supper for you," she offered. "And then I won't mind having you help me to get home."
"I guess it won't be any trouble—but I don't mind cooking. You—you better set still and rest," murmured Charming Billy, quite red. Of course, she would want supper—and there were dried apricots, and a very little tapioca! He felt viciously that he could kill the Pilgrim and be glad. The Pilgrim was already two days late with the supplies he had been sent after because he was not to be trusted with the duties pertaining to a line-camp—and Billy had not the wide charity that could conjure excuses for the delinquent.
"I'll let you wash the dishes," promised Miss Bridger generously. "But I'll cook the supper—really, I want to, you know. I won't say I'm not hungry, because I am. This Western air does give one such an appetite, doesn't it? And then I walked miles, it seems to me; so that ought to be an excuse, oughtn't it? Now, if you'll show me where the coffee is—"
She had risen and was looking at him expectantly, with a half smile that seemed to invite one to comradeship. Charming Billy looked at her helplessly, and turned a shade less brown.
"The—there isn't any," he stammered guiltily. "The Pilgrim—I mean Walland—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 any town. We're often out of things, at home. Last week, only, I upset the vanilla bottle, and then we were completely out of vanilla till just yesterday." She smiled again confidingly, and Billy tried to seem very sympathetic—though of a truth, to be out of vanilla did not at that moment seem to him a serious catastrophe. "And really, I like tea better, you know. I only said coffee because father told me cowboys drink it a great deal. Tea is so much quicker and easier to make."
Billy dug his nails into his palms. "There—Miss Bridger," he blurted desperately, "I've got to tell yuh—there isn't a thing in the shack except some dried apricots—and maybe a spoonful or two of tapioca. The Pilgrim—" He stopped to search his brain for words applicable to the 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 girl laughed so readily as almost to deceive Billy, standing there in his misery. That a woman should come to him for help, and he not even able to give her food, was almost unbearable. It were well for the Pilgrim that Charming Billy Boyle could not at that moment lay hands upon him.
"It will be fun," she laughed again in his face. "If the—the grubstake 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 all the things she can do with dried apricots and tapioca. May I rummage?"
"Sure," assented Billy, dazedly moving aside so that she might reach the corner where three boxes were nailed by their bottoms to the wall, curtained with gayly flowered calico and used for a cupboard. "The Pilgrim," he began for the third time to explain, "went after grub and is taking his time about getting back. He'd oughta been here day before yesterday. We might eat his dawg," he suggested, gathering spirit now that her back was toward him.
Her face appeared at one side of the calico curtain. "I know something better than eating the dog," she announced triumphantly. "Down there in the willows where I crossed the creek—I came down that low, saggy place in the hill—I saw a lot of chickens or something—partridges, maybe you call them—roosting in a tree with their feathers all puffed out. 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 realize how meagre were his possessions. "If you don't happen to have one, we can do all right with what there is here, you know."
Billy flushed a little, and for answer took down his gun and belt from where they hung upon the wall, buckled the belt around his slim middle and 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'll wash the dishes. Here, I'll shut the dawg in the house; he's always plumb 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 was finding that rather easy to do) and closed the door lingeringly behind him. Having never tried to analyze his feelings, he did not wonder why he stepped so softly along the frozen path that led to the stable, or why he felt that glow of elation which comes to a man only when he has found something precious in his sight.
"I wish I hadn't eat the last uh the flour this morning," he regretted anxiously. "I coulda made some bread; there's a little yeast powder left in the can. Darn the Pilgrim!"