The Range Dwellers by B. M. Bower

The Range Dwellers by B. M. Bower

CHAPTER I.

The Reward of Folly.

I’m something like the old maid you read about—the one who always knows all about babies and just how to bring them up to righteous maturity; I’ve got a mighty strong conviction that I know heaps that my dad never thought of about the proper training for a healthy male human. I don’t suppose I’ll ever have a chance to demonstrate my wisdom, but, if I do, there are a few things that won’t happen to my boy.

If I’ve got a comfortable wad of my own, the boy shall have his fun without any nagging, so long as he keeps clean and honest. He shall go to any college he may choose—and right here is where my wisdom will sit up and get busy. If I’m fool enough to let that kid have more money than is healthy for him, and if I go to sleep while he’s wising up to the art of making it fade away without leaving anything behind to tell the tale, and learning a lot of habits that aren’t doing him any good, I won’t come down on him with both feet and tell him all the different brands of fool he’s been, and mourn because the Lord in His mercy laid upon me this burden of an unregenerate son. I shall try and remember that he’s the son of his father, and not expect too much of him. It’s long odds I shall find points of resemblance a-plenty between us—and the more cussedness he develops, the more I shall see myself in him reflected.

I don’t mean to be hard on dad. He was always good to me, in his way. He’s got more things than a son to look after, and as that son is supposed to have a normal allowance of gray matter and is no physical weakling, he probably took it for granted that the son could look after himself—which the mines and railroads and ranches that represent his millions can’t.

But it wasn’t giving me a square deal. He gave me an allowance and paid my debts besides, and let me amble through school at my own gait—which wasn’t exactly slow—and afterward let me go. If I do say it, I had lived a fairly decent sort of life. I belonged to some good clubs—athletic, mostly—and trained regularly, and was called a fair boxer among the amateurs. I could tell to a glass—after a lot of practise—just how much of ‘steen different brands I could take without getting foolish, and I could play poker and win once in awhile. I had a steam-yacht and a motor of my own, and it was generally stripped to racing trim. And I wasn’t tangled up with any women; actress-worship had never appealed to me. My tastes all went to the sporting side of life and left women to the fellows with less nerve and more sentiment.

So I had lived for twenty-five years—just having the best time a fellow with an unlimited resource can have, if he is healthy.

It was then, on my twenty-fifth birthday, that I walked into dad’s private library with a sonly smile, ready for the good wishes and the check that I was in the habit of getting—I’d been unlucky, and Lord knows I needed it!—and what does the dear man do?

Instead of one check, he handed me a sheaf of them, each stamped in divers places by divers banks. I flipped the ends and looked them over a bit, because I saw that was what he expected of me; but the truth is, checks don’t interest me much after they’ve been messed up with red and green stamps. They’re about as enticing as a last year’s popular song.

Dad crossed his legs, matched his finger-tips together, and looked at me over his glasses. Many a man knows that attitude and that look, and so many a man has been as uncomfortable as I began to be, and has felt as keen a sense of impending trouble. I began immediately searching my memory for some especial brand of devilment that I’d been sampling, but there was nothing doing. I had been losing some at poker lately, and I’d been away to the bad out at Ingleside; still, I looked him innocently in the eye and wondered what was coming.

“That last check is worthy of particular attention,” he said dryly. “The others are remarkable only for their size and continuity of numbers; but that last one should be framed and hung upon the wall at the foot of your bed, though you would not see it often. I consider it a diploma of your qualification as Master Jackanapes.” (Dad’s vocabulary, when he is angry, contains some rather strengthy words of the old-fashioned type.)

I looked at the check and began to see light. I had been a bit rollicky that time. It wasn’t drawn for very much, that check; I’ve lost more on one jack-pot, many a time, and thought nothing of it. And, though the events leading up to it were a bit rapid and undignified, perhaps, I couldn’t see anything to get excited over, as I could see dad plainly was.

“For a young man twenty-five years old and with brains enough—supposedly—to keep out of the feeble-minded class, it strikes me you indulge in some damned poor pastimes,” went on dad disagreeably. “Cracking champagne-bottles in front of the Cliff House—on a Sunday at that—may be diverting to the bystanders, but it can hardly be called dignified, and I fail to see how it is going to fit a man for any useful business.”

Business? Lord! dad never had mentioned a useful business to me before. I felt my eyelids fly up; this was springing birthday surprises with a vengeance.

“Driving an automobile on forbidden roads, being arrested and fined—on Sunday, at that—”

“Now, look here, dad,” I cut in, getting a bit hot under the collar myself, “by all the laws of nature, there must have been a time when you were twenty-five years old and cut a little swath of your own. And, seeing you’re as big as your offspring—six-foot-one, and you can’t deny it—and fairly husky for a man of your age, I’ll bet all you dare that said swath was not of the narrow-gage variety. I’ve never heard of your teaching a class in any Sunday-school, and if you never drove your machine beyond the dead-line and cracked champagne-bottles on the wheels in front of the Cliff House, it’s because automobiles weren’t invented and Cliff House wasn’t built. Begging your pardon, dad—I’ll bet you were a pretty rollicky young blade, yourself.”

Now dad is very old-fashioned in some of his notions; one of them is that a parent may hand out a roast that will frizzle the foliage for blocks around, and, guilty or innocent, the son must take it, as he’d take cod-liver oil—it’s-nasty-but-good-for-what-ails-you. He snapped his mouth shut, and, being his son and having that habit myself, I recognized the symptoms and judged that things would presently grow interesting.

I was betting on a full-house. The atmosphere grew tense. I heard a lot of things in the next five minutes that no one but my dad could say without me trying mighty hard to make him swallow them. And I just sat there and looked at him and took it.

I couldn’t agree with him that I’d committed a grievous crime. It wasn’t much of a lark, as larks go: just an incident at the close of a rather full afternoon. Coming around up the beach front Ingleside House a few days before, in the Yellow Peril—my machine—we got to badgering each other about doing things not orthodox. At last Barney MacTague dared me to drive the Yellow Peril past the dead-line—down by the Pavilion—and on up the hill to Sutro Baths. Naturally, I couldn’t take a dare like that, and went him one better; I told him I’d not only drive to the very top of the hill, but I’d stop at the Gift House and crack a bottle of champagne on each wheel of the Yellow Peril, in honor of the occasion; that would make a bottle apiece, for there were four of us along.

It was done, to the delight of the usual Sunday crowd of brides, grooms, tourists, and kids. A mounted policeman interviewed us, to the further delight of the crowd, and invited us to call upon a certain judge whom none of us knew. We did so, and dad was good enough to pay the fine, which, as I said before, was not much. I’ve had less fun for more money, often.

Dad didn’t say anything at the time, so I was not looking for the roast I was getting. It appeared, from his view-point, that I was about as useless, imbecile, and utterly no-account a son as a man ever had, and if there was anything good in me it was not visible except under a strong magnifying-glass.

He said, among other things too painful to mention, that he was getting old—dad is about fifty-six—and that if I didn’t buck up and amount to something soon, he didn’t know what was to become of the business.

Then he delivered the knockout blow that he’d been working up to. He was going to see what there was in me, he said. He would pay my bills, and, as a birthday gift, he would present me with a through ticket to Osage, in Montana—where he owned a ranch called the Bay State—and a stock-saddle, spurs, chaps, and a hundred dollars. After that I must work out my own salvation—or the other thing. If I wanted more money inside a year or two, I would have to work for it just as if I were an orphan without a dad who writes checks on demand. He said that there was always something to do on the Bay State Ranch—which is one of dad’s places. I could do as I pleased, he said, but he’d advise me to buckle down and learn something about cattle. It was plain I never would amount to anything in an office. He laid a yard or two of ticket on the table at my elbow, and on top of that a check for one hundred dollars, payable to one Ellis Carleton.

I took up the check and read every word on it twice—not because I needed to; I was playing for time to think. Then I twisted it up in a taper, held it to the blaze in the fireplace, and lighted a cigarette with it. Dad kept his finger-tips together and watched me without any expression whatsoever in his face. I took three deliberate puffs, picked up the ticket, and glanced along down its dirty green length. Dad never moved a muscle, and I remember the clock got to ticking louder than I’d ever heard it in my life before. I may as well be perfectly honest! That ticket did not appeal to me a little bit. I think he expected to see that go up in smoke, also. But, though I’m pretty much of a fool at times, I believe there are lucid intervals when I recognize certain objects—such as justice. I knew that, in the main, dad was right. I had been leading a rather reckless existence, and I was getting pretty old for such kid foolishness. He had measured out the dose, and I meant to swallow it without whining—but it was exceeding bitter to the palate!

“I see the ticket is dated twenty-four hours ahead,” I said as calmly as I knew how, “which gives me time to have Rankin pack a few duds. I hope the outfit you furnish includes a red silk handkerchief and a Colt’s .44 revolver, and a key to the proper method of slaying acquaintances in the West. I hate to start in with all white chips.”

“You probably mean a Colt’s .45,” said dad, with a more convincing calmness than I could show. “It shall be provided. As to the key, you will no doubt find that on the ground when you arrive.”

“Very well,” I replied, getting up and stretching my arms up as high as I could reach—which was beastly manners, of course, but a safe vent for my feelings, which cried out for something or somebody to punch. “You’ve called the turn, and I’ll go. It may be many moons ere we two meet again—and when we do, the crime of cracking my own champagne—for I paid for it, you know—on my own automobile wheels may not seem the heinous thing it looks now. See you later, dad.”

I walked out with my head high in the air and my spirits rather low, if the truth must be told. Dad was generally kind and wise and generous, but he certainly did break out in unexpected places sometimes. Going to the Bay State Ranch, just at that time, was not a cheerful prospect. San Francisco and Seattle were just starting a series of ballgames that promised to be rather swift, and I’d got a lot up on the result. I hated to go just then. And Montana has the reputation of being rather beastly in early March—I knew that much.

I caught a car down to the Olympic, hunted up Barney MacTague, and played poker with him till two o’clock that night, and never once mentioned the trip I was contemplating. Then I went home, routed up my man, and told him what to pack, and went to bed for a few hours; if there was anything pleasant in my surroundings that I failed to think of as I lay there, it must be very trivial indeed. I even went so far as to regret leaving Ethel Mapleton, whom I cared nothing for.

And above all and beneath all, hanging in the background of my mind and dodging forward insistently in spite of myself, was a deep resentment—a soreness against dad for the way he had served me. Granted I was wild and a useless cumberer of civilization; I was only what my environments had made me. Dad had let me run, and he had never kicked on the price of my folly, or tried to pull me up at the start. He had given his time to his mines and his cattle-ranches and railroads, and had left his only son to go to the devil if he chose and at his own pace. Then, because the son had come near making a thorough job of it, he had done—this. I felt hardly used and at odds with life, during those last few hours in the little old burgh.

All the next day I went the pace as usual with the gang, and at seven, after an early dinner, caught a down-town car and set off alone to the ferry. I had not seen dad since I left him in the library, and I did not particularly wish to see him, either. Possibly I had some unfilial notion of making him ashamed and sorry. It is even possible that I half-expected him to come and apologize, and offer to let things go on in the old way. In that event I was prepared to be chesty. I would look at him coldly and say: “You have seen fit to buy me a ticket to Osage, Montana. So be it; to Osage, Montana, am I bound.” Oh, I had it all fixed!

Dad came into the ferry waiting-room just as the passengers were pouring off the boat, and sat down beside me as if nothing had happened. He did not look sad, or contrite, or ashamed—not, at least, enough to notice. He glanced at his watch, and then handed me a letter.

“There,” he began briskly, “that is to Perry Potter, the Bay State foreman. I have wired him that you are on the way.”

The gate went up at that moment, and he stood up and held out his hand. “Sorry I can’t go over with you,” he said. “I’ve an important meeting to attend. Take care of yourself, Ellie boy.”

I gripped his hand warmly, though I had intended to give him a dead-fish sort of shake. After all, he was my dad, and there were just us two. I picked up my suit-case and started for the gate. I looked back once, and saw dad standing there gazing after me—and he did not look particularly brisk. Perhaps, after all, dad cared more than he let on. It’s a way the Carletons have, I have heard.

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Categories: English Literature

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