WOOL-HEAD GOES COURTING
PRETTY SHELLS found that after all she was quite a timid woman. The strange man who had come out of the woods on Trembling Leaves pond to drink of its clear cold water startled her. Intuition gave her warning. The man, though he was a long way from her, revealed his furtive and questionable habit of thought when he so quickly quenched his thirst and returned into the dark shadows out of sight. She had not anticipated having any other humans on that far-back mountain chain slope. The gossip of the cattle range was that the Singing Birds were unoccupied by any human being.
She did not fear wolves or cinnamon bears. For cougars she had a woman’s contempt. She had lived in cabins far back in the Rockies and out on desert rims. She was also familiar with people, having for a time after graduating from the famous Indian school at Carlisle answered the calls coming to Central in the village of Wishaka. When she married she was glad to go into far-back forests again to have her own thoughts. And after the hard toil of the cattle ranch she again sought refuge from surrounding humans in order to have a real perspective on the arts of living as she had known them.
The presence of one stranger in all this timber belt disturbed her. When she had given the subject thought, keeping watch with her knife once more in a fold of her shirt and her revolver, a .32-20 caliber, hanging heavily from her waist, she decided she would now return to the Bell Brand ranch in order to inquire whether any one was living in the country she had claimed for her own. She needed supplies, more dried fruit and corn-meal, roots and other staples.
Accordingly she started early on the following morning. As her horses were light, she arrived before night at the Bell Brand, finding a welcome which brought a deep red to her round creamy cheeks and a gay smile to her lips. Wool-Head’s welcome could have been heard a mile. The cowboys cheered her. Pasty Face Begane emerged from the kitchen and, with his hands ragged with shreds of dough, he demanded that she inform him how the Hades she had ever stood so long the ingratitude and unappeased hunger of such a gang of bottomless pits as these scoundrels anyhow.
“You say they eat all you cook and cry for more?” she asked him.
“Yeh—hot bread, pies, bushels of ’taters, and whole cows to a whack!”
“Could they pay you a higher compliment-praise you more sincerely than by eating so much?” she demanded. “Oh—they used to leave things of mine uneaten, you know! It nearly broke my heart—”
“What!” the cowboys and Wool-Head shouted, “you say we didn’t eat—”
They stopped short. Pasty Face beamed with delight and pride. The boys grinned. She won the heart of her successor while she teased them all in her playful way.
When she swung down from her saddle all hands sprang for the honor of taking off the harness and driving the three animals down to feed in the alfalfa. And later, sitting at the table where she had so often served, with Pasty Face bringing in for her his choicest pieces and his prettiest cakes, she warmed all their hearts and filled great vacancies in their famished souls talking to each, neglecting not one of them. And after supper they all sat around the big fireplace in the big house where she told them what she had been doing.
“I have been over the old trap-lines,” she said. “Fur is plenty. I have fished, smoking more than enough. I have hung up plenty of jerky and you would be surprized to see how well I have furnished my cabin for the winter. I have shaped snowshoe bows, and have stretched webbing strings many times. That, you know, is the secret of plaiting a rawhide rope so it will not stretch when it is wet. Soak the string, stretch it with a heavy weight till it is dry and then soak and stretch again. When the strings have been stretched many times, eight or ten, even if they are soaked by damp snow they will not more than spring a little under one’s weight on the webbing.”
“Well, dog-gone!” Wool-Head exploded. “I never knowed how you kept those ropes from stretching!”
When she had talked a long while, feeding their curiosity about her whimsical adventure, one of them asked—
“But don’t you get scairt up, some?”
“Yes, I’ve been frightened,” she admitted. “At first I feared the silence and the loneliness. I loved it, though. The squirrel came to talk to me on my door sill. A porcupine lives in the trees and rocks just over on the lower ridge from my cabin. I do not harm him, but caught another at a distance to whom I apologized for taking his quills and skin. Owls are often around in the night. Magpies and jays come frequently to pass the time of day and make their jokes. They have been afraid of me, which is a disgrace. No beautiful bird should fear any human, you know. I hung shreds of meat on bones in trees around my cabin. These they regard with suspicion. While the flock eats, one or other of the birds is always on the lookout. I had not thought of that before. They know danger. They do not like humans. And yesterday a man, tall, slim and a stranger came to the lake where he drank of the clear water. I did not know him. He said nothing to me. Perhaps he does not even know my cabin lies screened in the brake across the pond. So—well, I came out for supplies.”
“Why—Sho! There ain’t a man in all this country would harm you, Pretty Shells!” Wool-Head growled heartily.
“But some one shot my husband, Running Voice,” she said. “Could greater harm been done me?”
“Well, shucks!” the rancher exclaimed. “Prob’ly he mout of been ’zasperated finding you all was married!”
She laughed through her tears. She was stricken by the compliment, yet pleased by its humorous and tragic sincerity. In the quiet that ensued she presently turned to Wool-Head.
“It’s none of my business,” she began, politely, “but I am wondering about Delos Conklin. Has he gone away? You’ve said nothing about him, and he is not here. I ask—well, because I miss him.”
“Conklin? I asked him to go riding to find where Lop-Ear hangs out with his band—that’s all!” Wool Head exclaimed.
“Oh—after the wolves?” she cried, relieved. “I’m glad of that. He knows the lives of many animals. He told me some things he had learned, not only as he saw them but as he read them in books. Did you know that Lop-Ear includes the Singing Bird Mountains in his range? Just the other day he came to my own Trembling Leaves pond, driving a deer ahead of him. The game plunged into the lake to swim across. Some of the wolves followed in the water, but others circled around along the beach, taking long leaps in the hard wet sand at the water’s edge. They struck the buck at the landing, killing and eating him. Oh, they’re a savage band!”
“Conklin’s tracking them. He took after them the next morning after they came through here last week,” the rancher said.
“He’ll hang to ’em, too!” Park Cable suggested.
“He never lets go,” another chimed in.
“Then if—but he couldn’t catch up with them!” she said. “They travel too fast.”
“And nobody knows where they’ll hit next!” Plack shook his shaggy head. “They’ve an awful big hunting country, from the Needle Tops clear ’cross beyond the Sparkling Dawns!”
“And up to the timber line of the Singing Birds, too!” Pretty Shells mused. “They’re sure bad killers. No other wolves like them around.”
“They’re all murderin’ brutes!” Park Cable shook his head, which was of good shape though his face was hard as granite in its expression.
“I’ve seen tracks of other wolves in my country.” The breed widow shook her head thoughtfully. “Some hunt along the lake shore, finding fish. They work through the briers and brush, too, eating berries and pawing up roots. Perhaps in winter, when the snow is deep, they all hunt meat. But in summer a good many of them do not kill, at least not so much.”
“A wolf’s a wolf!” Wool-Head shook his head, dissenting.
Pretty Shells did not argue the matter. The hour was late. The cowboys had been working hard, beginning the round-up of scatterings and doing some belated branding. The tinkle on a quarter-hour warned them that it was nine fifteen o’clock by the ornate timepiece.
“I’m resignin’ the cook’s bed, right here!” Pasty Face Begane declared, but the visitor shook her head, rising to join the two kitchen help women in the log cabin Wool-Head had built for women hands.
“Good night, boys!” she waved to them.
When the three women had left, the crew sat for a time in breathing silence, thinking of many things not one would have admitted or told for worlds. Hard men, a man-killer or two, wanderers of the cow country pastures and swagger—still they could not wholly stifle the voices out of their more or less distant pasts which the pleasant voice of the visitor had summoned like echoes reverberating in their thoughts. With an effort, vigorous and even accompanied by angry oaths crowding at their teeth, they one by one went seeking their own bunks. Wool-Head filled his pipe again, stretched out his feet toward the fireplace, and leaned back to such visions and imaginings as burly giant of the sage and alkali entertains as he contemplates his own ascent out of meager and nearly hopeless beginnings.
“He’p yourself!” Wool-Head told Pretty Shells when she explained her needs, “but I’m goin’ to drive to town tomorrow mornin’. Them ribbons you was asking about, an’ silk threads, I happens to be out of, just now.”
Both laughed. All day long she had the ranch pretty much to herself. The store-house was full of the grub she needed. But she was glad to take the long buck-board ride into Tribulation beyond the Sparkling Dawns. The water can rattled and plunked as the wheels clattered over the gravel washes and the horseshoes clinked as the animals romped along.
“Been lookin’ for an excuse to go fetch the mail,” Wool-Head told his companion who sat beneath his big elbow on his left. “Mout not’ve fetched it till we drove our shipper beeves out. Y’know, ’f a man don’t watch out, he gits so’s he don’t know how t’ act when he does hit town. I got thataway onct myself, back yonder a while. I was so blamed busy on the ranch, tending cattle, whalin’ jack-rabbits out’n the alfalfy and just putterin’ around that I didn’t get out from trailing beef out to ship one fall to the next. I said then I’d never go that long again. Why, you know, when I come to go buy a drink I felt so blamed modest I walked clear from the plaza out to the livery stable an’ back ’fore I could git myself bullied up to go in an’ call f’r a whisky. Now, y’ know, a man hadn’t ought to stay out’n the alkali an’ sage as long as that, so he feels all het up just buying a drink, had he?”
“He certainly ought not to!” she admitted gravely. “I didn’t suppose you were afraid of anything!”
“Well, I am, ’’the sighed. “Mebbe you know Mis’ Forbes?”
“You mean—the Tribulation dress-maker?”
“Exactly.” He wet his lips, cracked his whip and hitched himself a little. “First time I see her her head was over a saddle—the piebald mare Hank Spall rides around so much. She was bare headed, you know, an’ seein’s her hair’s red I couldn’t of missed seein’ it, no more’n I could a fire on the prairie round my ranch. An’ then she stepped out, no bigger’n lots of little gals. I bet she wouldn’t dress a hundred an’ ten-twelve pounds. If I was a brave man I’d ast that woman to marry me. Why, she could sit on one hand of mine, you know’t? She could. I cain’t never git her out my mind. She sticks into it, honest she does, Pretty Shells! How the Hades does a woman git herse’f into some thick skull like mine, worryin’ an’ botherin’ the life out of me, interferin’ with my projects the way she does? I’ll be ridin’ along, an’ by gosh, first thing I know I ain’t tendin’ to business a-tall, but seein’ that blamed little red head wallopin’ all through my head, as though I hadn’t enough in it and on it ’thout no pesky woman interferin’ with my rightful idees. How do they do it? Is it d’liberate, d’you expect? What d’ye say, Pretty Shells? You’re a woman. You ought to know, having be’n married.”
“Why—some women do it on purpose,” she answered. “Some don’t. If a woman is mean, she goes out of her way to steal the attention of men. But again—sometimes—well, she doesn’t intend to make trouble for any man in his heart. She—she probably wishes she could make everybody happy. I shouldn’t be surprized if Mrs. Forbes would be immensely pleased if she knew you—you dreamed about her.”
“I saw her watching you last spring, when we all went to town. I’m sure, if you told her you were always thinking about her she wouldn’t mind. Instead, she would be surprized. She would just look up at you and catch hold of her hands.”
“Yes—yes— Then what?”
“If you didn’t say anything more I’m sure she’d cry all night on her pillow.”
“What! What you driving at?”
“Of course if you said all that, and then didn’t ask her to marry you, she’d be disappointed. I’m sure her heart would break, Wool-Head!”
“Her heart’d break—” the big fellow swallowed violently—“if I didn’t ast her to marry me. My gawd— Why? You don’t mean she wants me to.”
“I’m not sure—but I shouldn’t be surprized a bit!”
“Then she’d laugh an’ make fun of me!” he exploded.
“I don’t think so,” Pretty Shells dissented. “I’m sure she wouldn’t. You know, I boarded with her when they had the inquest after my husband was killed. Oh, she was kind, Wool-Head! She has an awful temper—I don’t mean any harm. She’s lots of spunk, I ought to say. But she wouldn’t hurt any one. Especially she wouldn’t hurt you. Anyhow, you might take a chance.”
“Why—dog-gone—” he grumbled and rumbled in his throat as he whirled his whip of many coils, snapping it, asking at last, “Say, now, mebbe you’d kind of sound her out—”
“No, that wouldn’t be right,” the widow refused. “I’d sooner go tell ‘Pigface’ Clobes you had sent me to buy him a drink of liquor than to tell Amelia Forbes you’re afraid to tell her her picture is always branded in your heart, and that you love her!”
“That’s good sense,” the rancher nodded. “You always did have good sense. I’ll bet Running Voice is lonely where he is now, for what could the Happy Hunting Grounds be for him without you?”
“Oh!” she choked. “You’ve been good to me, Wool-Head. You’ve all been—I can’t tell you what it has meant! You and Conklin and—”
“Nobody’d be’n safe from the others, if he hadn’t,” Wool Head chuckled.
Beyond the Wagon Pass through the Sparkling Dawns the two came to where they could see the Shake-Down trail leading across another valley to the little checker-board town of Tribulation. No one could explain the organization of the county seat at such a place, except that it may have been somebody’s hope that its mineral sulphur and soda springs would entice health seekers to such an arid center. But there it was, organized and with stores for traders, a court-house for lawyers and outlaws, entertainment for the visitors and some temptations, some troubles and a surprizing record of killings, justified and otherwise.
When the two arrived Pretty Shells took her hand bag and shook the dust from her clothes as they stopped at the livery corral and stable. Wool-Head reached a beseeching hand to restrain her while he gave orders about the graining and feeding of his beasts.
“Hold on, now!” he begged her, “just a minute! I want to ask you something.”
And in a low, intense voice, as they headed toward the plaza center of town, he pleaded for reassurance that what he had in mind would be all right, and the red-top lady who would weigh something more than a third as much as he did surely wouldn’t be offended and hurt him?
“Wool-Head,” the widow laughed, “every woman in the world worth having, worth loving, knows the greatest compliment a man can pay her is always to have her in his mind. And if he asks her to marry him, if she doesn’t appreciate the compliment why should he do anything but pity her?”
“Phew!” he sighed, wiped his brow beneath the rim of his exorbitant hat, “if it was only you I was figuring about—which I’d be’n considerin’ if I had any say in the project—I wouldn’t feel so dad-blamed worried. But Amelia Forbes—I don’t know—”
“Run along!” Pretty Shells laughed. “Get it over with. She’ll surely be home. Probably she’ll be alone. If you find any one there, just shoo them out, sayin’ you’ve something important to say to her, personal, confidential and in a hurry. I know it’ll be all right.”
Wool-Head Dan Plack strode on through the business section of false-front stores, board or stone walks and tie rails along the roadway. Mrs. Forbes’s house was a hundred yards beyond the plaza and the breed widow stood watching the huge man stride on remarkably light feet, with his courage mustered in the direction of his fate. In front of the two-story frame building Wool Head paused to pull himself together. He drew his belt up a notch. He drew his hat more firmly down upon his head, as if he was facing a storm. Then leaning to the gale of his emotions, he headed for the front door over the top of which appeared in neat gold letters on a black ground:
MODES & BOARD
Down the light breeze came the sound of clattering as the rancher’s fist whacked the boards of the front wall, not realizing the noise he was making in his perturbation of mustered energies. The door opened. The watcher had a glimpse of beautiful dark copper hair and a figure small and as graceful as a girl’s standing against the door-jamb. Then he stooped to enter, lifting his hat with both his hands.
Pretty Shells smiled whimsically. Her eyes blinked, too, for she conceived not only the joy that was in that house, but also the pathos of it. The long ride had been something of a strain. She was curious about the outcome of the romance, having a woman’s interest in the affair. She dreamed a minute as she collected her own thoughts to do her shopping for knickknacks before night should fall.
Then she heard the distant tinkling of shattering glass. She glanced quickly and saw something bursting through the front of the house of the widow Mrs. Amelia Forbes. Fragments of several window panes flashed as they turned in the late afternoon sunshine. A crumpled-up figure of a man straightened out in mid-air and came down scrambling on all fours to roll over in the dust—a man of medium size in a dark gray suit.
Leaning out of the window whose framing had all been burst outward the several spectators along the street, which had been quiet with the coming of the day’s end, saw the head of a huge man extended on a barrel of a leather-coated body as he surveyed the ejected fellow who was rising to his feet to burst into a run. Every onlooker recognized the inarticulate roar of anger with which big Wool-Head Dan Plack bade the previous visitor begone.
And then all the spectators saw a shining coppery red head ascending the sloping back of the gigantic rancher. His roar broke into a choking gurgle of excited bewilderment as two hands on the ends of slim white arms took good holds in his shaggy hair and a shrill, feminine and indignant voice took the place of the husky masculine roar.
“Good gracious!” Pretty Shells gasped to herself. “The old fool’s gone and shooed the other fellow out!”
She stood leaning against an awning post staring helplessly at the scene up the street. Amelia Forbes, red-haired widow, was perched on the shoulders of the big fellow in the window, digging in her knees and her clear voice carrying with distinction through the thin air of the county seat.
And then the rancher backed into the room out of sight, but not until Pretty Shells, at any rate, saw one of his big hands reaching up and backward as it might have gone to seize a wildcat perched upon his back. With difficulty, Pretty Shells saved herself from shrieking hysterics.