"I did not see you. I knew it must—of course I did not tell any one. When I said I said so from the first, I meant—you can understand perfectly what I meant."
Poor Molly was near stamping her foot. "And what sort of a trick," she rushed on, "was that to play? Do you call it a manly thing to frighten and distress women because you—for no reason at all? I should never have imagined it could be the act of a person who wears a big pistol and rides a big horse. I should be afraid to go riding with such an immature protector."
"Yes; that was awful childish. Your words do cut a little; for maybe there's been times when I have acted pretty near like a man. But I cert'nly forgot to be introduced before I spoke to yu' last night. Because why? You've found me out dead in one thing. Won't you take a guess at this too?"
"I cannot sit guessing why people do not behave themselves—who seem to know better."
"Well, ma'am, I've played square and owned up to yu'. And that's not what you're doin' by me. I ask your pardon if I say what I have a right to say in language not as good as I'd like to talk to yu' with. But at South Fork Crossin' who did any introducin'? Did yu' complain I was a stranger then?"
"I—no!" she flashed out; then, quite sweetly, "The driver told me it wasn't REALLY so dangerous there, you know."
"That's not the point I'm makin'. You are a grown-up woman, a responsible woman. You've come ever so far, and all alone, to a rough country to instruct young children that play games,—tag, and hide-and-seek, and fooleries they'll have to quit when they get old. Don't you think pretendin' yu' don't know a man,—his name's nothin', but him,—a man whom you were glad enough to let assist yu' when somebody was needed,—don't you think that's mighty close to hide-and-seek them children plays? I ain't so sure but what there's a pair of us children in this hyeh room."
Molly Wood was regarding him saucily. "I don't think I like you," said she.
"That's all square enough. You're goin' to love me before we get through. I wish yu'd come a-ridin, ma'am."
"Dear, dear, dear! So I'm going to love you? How will you do it? I know men think that they only need to sit and look strong and make chests at a girl—"
"Goodness gracious! I ain't makin' any chests at yu'!" Laughter overcame him for a moment, and Miss Wood liked his laugh very much. "Please come a-ridin'," he urged. "It's the prettiest kind of a day."
She looked at him frankly, and there was a pause. "I will take back two things that I said to you," she then answered him. "I believe that I do like you. And I know that if I went riding with you, I should not have an immature protector." And then, with a final gesture of acknowledgment, she held out her hand to him. "And I have always wanted," she said, "to thank you for what you did at the river."
He took her hand, and his heart bounded. "You're a gentleman!" he exclaimed.
It was now her turn to be overcome with merriment. "I've always wanted to be a man," she said.
"I am mighty glad you ain't," said he, looking at her.
But Molly had already received enough broadsides for one day. She could allow no more of them, and she took herself capably in hand. "Where did you learn to make such pretty speeches?" she asked. "Well, never mind that. One sees that you have had plenty of practice for one so young."
"I am twenty-seven," blurted the Virginian, and knew instantly that he had spoken like a fool.
"Who would have dreamed it!" said Molly, with well-measured mockery. She knew that she had scored at last, and that this day was hers. "Don't be too sure you are glad I'm not a man," she now told him. There was something like a challenge in her voice.
"I risk it," he remarked.
"For I am almost twenty-three myself," she concluded. And she gave him a look on her own account.
"And you'll not come a-ridin'?" he persisted.
"No," she answered him; "no." And he knew that he could not make her.
"Then I will tell yu' good-by," said he. "But I am comin' again. And next time I'll have along a gentle hawss for yu'."
"Next time! Next time! Well, perhaps I will go with you. Do you live far?"
"I live on Judge Henry's ranch, over yondeh." He pointed across the mountains. "It's on Sunk Creek. A pretty rough trail; but I can come hyeh to see you in a day, I reckon. Well, I hope you'll cert'nly enjoy good health, ma'am."
"Oh, there's one thing!" said Molly Wood, calling after him rather quickly. "I—I'm not at all afraid of horses. You needn't bring such a gentle one. I—was very tired that day, and—and I don't scream as a rule."
He turned and looked at her so that she could not meet his glance. "Bless your heart!" said he. "Will yu' give me one o' those flowers?"
"Oh, certainly! I'm always so glad when people like them."
"They're pretty near the color of your eyes."
"Never mind my eyes."
"Can't help it, ma'am. Not since South Fork."
He put the flower in the leather band of his hat, and rode away on his Monte horse. Miss Wood lingered a moment, then made some steps toward her gate, from which he could still be seen; and then, with something like a toss of the head, she went in and shut her door.
Later in the day the Virginian met Mr. McLean, who looked at his hat and innocently quoted. "'My Looloo picked a daisy.'"
"Don't yu', Lin," said the Southerner.
"Then I won't," said Lin.
Thus, for this occasion, did the Virginian part from his lady—and nothing said one way or another about the handkerchief that had disappeared during the South Fork incident.
As we fall asleep at night, our thoughts will often ramble back and forth between the two worlds.
"What color were his eyes?" wondered Molly on her pillow. "His mustache is not bristly like so many of them. Sam never gave me such a look at Hoosic Junction. No.... You can't come with me.... Get off your horse.... The passengers are all staring...."
And while Molly was thus dreaming that the Virginian had ridden his horse into the railroad car, and sat down beside her, the fire in the great stone chimney of her cabin flickered quietly, its gleams now and again touching the miniature of Grandmother Stark upon the wall.
Camped on the Sunk Creek trail, the Virginian was telling himself in his blankets: "I ain't too old for education. Maybe she will lend me books. And I'll watch her ways and learn...stand still, Monte. I can learn a lot more than the kids on that. There's Monte...you pie-biter, stop.... He has ate up your book, ma'am, but I'll get yu'..."
And then the Virginian was fast asleep.
XII. QUALITY AND EQUALITY
To the circle at Bennington, a letter from Bear Creek was always a welcome summons to gather and hear of doings very strange to Vermont. And when the tale of the changed babies arrived duly by the post, it created a more than usual sensation, and was read to a large number of pleased and scandalized neighbors. "I hate her to be where such things can happen," said Mrs. Wood.
"I wish I could have been there," said her son-in-law, Andrew Bell.
"She does not mention who played the trick," said Mrs. Andrew Bell.
"We shouldn't be any wiser if she did," said Mrs. Wood.
"I'd like to meet the perpetrator," said Andrew.
"Oh, no!" said Mrs. Wood. "They're all horrible."
And she wrote at once, begging her daughter to take good care of herself, and to see as much of Mrs. Balaam as possible. "And of any other ladies that are near you. For you seem to me to be in a community of roughs. I wish you would give it all up. Did you expect me to laugh about the babies?"
Mrs. Flynt, when this story was repeated to her (she had not been invited in to hear the letter), remarked that she had always felt that Molly Wood must be a little vulgar, ever since she began to go about giving music lessons like any ordinary German.
But Mrs. Wood was considerably relieved when the next letter arrived. It contained nothing horrible about barbecues or babies. It mentioned the great beauty of the weather, and how well and strong the fine air was making the writer feel. And it asked that books might be sent, many books of all sorts, novels, poetry, all the good old books and any good new ones that could be spared. Cheap editions, of course.
"Indeed she shall have them!" said Mrs. Wood. "How her mind must be starving in that dreadful place!" The letter was not a long one, and, besides the books, spoke of little else except the fine weather and the chances for outdoor exercise that this gave. "You have no idea," it said, "how delightful it is to ride, especially on a spirited horse, which I can do now quite well."
"How nice that is!" said Mrs. Wood, putting down the letter. "I hope the horse is not too spirited."
"Who does she go riding with?" asked Mrs. Bell.
"She doesn't say, Sarah. Why?"
"Nothing. She has a queer way of not mentioning things, now and then."
"Sarah!" exclaimed Mrs. Wood, reproachfully. "Oh, well, mother, you know just as well as I do that she can be very independent and unconventional."
"Yes; but not in that way. She wouldn't ride with poor Sam Bannett, and after all he is a suitable person."
Nevertheless, in her next letter, Mrs. Wood cautioned her daughter about trusting herself with any one of whom Mrs. Balaam did not thoroughly approve. The good lady could never grasp that Mrs. Balaam lived a long day's journey from Bear Creek, and that Molly saw her about once every three months. "We have sent your books," the mother wrote; "everybody has contributed from their store,—Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning, Longfellow; and a number of novels by Scott, Thackeray, George Eliot, Hawthorne, and lesser writers; some volumes of Emerson; and Jane Austen complete, because you admire her so particularly."
This consignment of literature reached Bear Creek about a week before Christmas time.
By New Year's Day, the Virginian had begun his education.
"Well, I have managed to get through 'em," he said, as he entered Molly's cabin in February. And he laid two volumes upon her table.
"And what do you think of them?" she inquired.
"I think that I've cert'nly earned a good long ride to-day."
"Georgie Taylor has sprained his ankle."
"No, I don't mean that kind of a ride. I've earned a ride with just us two alone. I've read every word of both of 'em, yu' know."
"I'll think about it. Did you like them?"
"No. Not much. If I'd knowed that one was a detective story, I'd have got yu' to try something else on me. Can you guess the murderer, or is the author too smart for yu'? That's all they amount to. Well, he was too smart for me this time, but that didn't distress me any. That other book talks too much."
Molly was scandalized, and she told him it was a great work.
"Oh, yes, yes. A fine book. But it will keep up its talkin'. Don't let you alone."
"Didn't you feel sorry for poor Maggie Tulliver?"
"Hmp. Yes. Sorry for her, and for Tawmmy, too. But the man did right to drownd 'em both."
"It wasn't a man. A woman wrote that."
"A woman did! Well, then, o' course she talks too much."
"I'll not go riding with you!" shrieked Molly.
But she did. And he returned to Sunk Creek, not with a detective story, but this time with a Russian novel.
It was almost April when he brought it back to her—and a heavy sleet storm lost them their ride. So he spent his time indoors with her, not speaking a syllable of love. When he came to take his departure, he asked her for some other book by this same Russian. But she had no more.
"I wish you had," he said. "I've never saw a book could tell the truth like that one does."
"Why, what do you like about it?" she exclaimed. To her it had been distasteful.
"Everything," he answered. "That young come-outer, and his fam'ly that can't understand him—for he is broad gauge, yu' see, and they are narro' gauge." The Virginian looked at Molly a moment almost shyly. "Do you know," he said, and a blush spread over his face, "I pretty near cried when that young come-outer was dyin', and said about himself, 'I was a giant.' Life made him broad gauge, yu' see, and then took his chance away."
Molly liked the Virginian for his blush. It made him very handsome. But she thought that it came from his confession about "pretty near crying." The deeper cause she failed to divine,—that he, like the dying hero in the novel, felt himself to be a giant whom life had made "broad gauge," and denied opportunity. Fecund nature begets and squanders thousands of these rich seeds in the wilderness of life.
He took away with him a volume of Shakespeare. "I've saw good plays of his," he remarked.
Kind Mrs. Taylor in her cabin next door watched him ride off in the sleet, bound for the lonely mountain trail.
"If that girl don't get ready to take him pretty soon," she observed to her husband, "I'll give her a piece of my mind."
Taylor was astonished. "Is he thinking of her?" he inquired.
"Lord, Mr. Taylor, and why shouldn't he?"
Mr. Taylor scratched his head and returned to his newspaper.
It was warm—warm and beautiful upon Bear Creek. Snow shone upon the peaks of the Bow Leg range; lower on their slopes the pines were stirring with a gentle song; and flowers bloomed across the wide plains at their feet.
Molly and her Virginian sat at a certain spring where he had often ridden with her. On this day he was bidding her farewell before undertaking the most important trust which Judge Henry had as yet given him. For this journey she had provided him with Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth. Shakespeare he had returned to her. He had bought Shakespeare for himself. "As soon as I got used to readin' it," he had told her, "I knowed for certain that I liked readin' for enjoyment."
But it was not of books that he had spoken much to-day. He had not spoken at all. He had bade her listen to the meadow-lark, when its song fell upon the silence like beaded drops of music. He had showed her where a covey of young willow-grouse were hiding as their horses passed. And then, without warning, as they sat by the spring, he had spoken potently of his love.
She did not interrupt him. She waited until he was wholly finished.
"I am not the sort of wife you want," she said, with an attempt of airiness.
He answered roughly, "I am the judge of that." And his roughness was a pleasure to her, yet it made her afraid of herself. When he was absent from her, and she could sit in her cabin and look at Grandmother Stark, and read home letters, then in imagination she found it easy to play the part which she had arranged to play regarding him—the part of the guide, and superior, and indulgent companion. But when he was by her side, that part became a difficult one. Her woman's fortress was shaken by a force unknown to her before. Sam Bannett did not have it in him to look as this man could look, when the cold lustre of his eyes grew hot with internal fire. What color they were baffled her still. "Can it possibly change?" she wondered. It seemed to her that sometimes when she had been looking from a rock straight down into clear sea water, this same color had lurked in its depths. "Is it green, or is it gray?" she asked herself, but did not turn just now to see. She kept her face toward the landscape.
"All men are born equal," he now remarked slowly.
"Yes," she quickly answered, with a combative flash. "Well?"
"Maybe that don't include women?" he suggested.
"I think it does."
"Do yu' tell the kids so?"
"Of course I teach them what I believe!"
He pondered. "I used to have to learn about the Declaration of Independence. I hated books and truck when I was a kid."
"But you don't any more."
"No. I cert'nly don't. But I used to get kep' in at recess for bein' so dumb. I was most always at the tail end of the class. My brother, he'd be head sometimes."
"Little George Taylor is my prize scholar," said Molly.
"Knows his tasks, does he?"
"Always. And Henry Dow comes next."
"Poor Bob Carmody. I spend more time on him than on all the rest put together."
"My!" said the Virginian. "Ain't that strange!"
She looked at him, puzzled by his tone. "It's not strange when you know Bob," she said.
"It's very strange," drawled the Virginian. "Knowin' Bob don't help it any."
"I don't think that I understand you," said Molly, sticky.
"Well, it is mighty confusin'. George Taylor, he's your best scholar, and poor Bob, he's your worst, and there's a lot in the middle—and you tell me we're all born equal!"
Molly could only sit giggling in this trap he had so ingeniously laid for her.
"I'll tell you what," pursued the cow-puncher, with slow and growing intensity, "equality is a great big bluff. It's easy called."
"I didn't mean—" began Molly.
"Wait, and let me say what I mean." He had made an imperious gesture with his hand. "I know a man that mostly wins at cyards. I know a man that mostly loses. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I know a man that works hard and he's gettin' rich, and I know another that works hard and is gettin' poor. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I look around and I see folks movin' up or movin' down, winners or losers everywhere. All luck, of course. But since folks can be born that different in their luck, where's your equality? No, seh! call your failure luck, or call it laziness, wander around the words, prospect all yu' mind to, and yu'll come out the same old trail of inequality." He paused a moment and looked at her. "Some holds four aces," he went on, "and some holds nothin', and some poor fello' gets the aces and no show to play 'em; but a man has got to prove himself my equal before I'll believe him."
Molly sat gazing at him, silent.
"I know what yu' meant," he told her now, "by sayin' you're not the wife I'd want. But I am the kind that moves up. I am goin' to be your best scholar." He turned toward her, and that fortress within her began to shake.
"Don't," she murmured. "Don't, please."
"These rides—I don't love you—I can't—but these rides are—"
"What are they?"
"My greatest pleasure. There! And, please, I want them to go on so."
"Go on so! I don't reckon yu' know what you're sayin'. Yu' might as well ask fruit to stay green. If the way we are now can keep bein' enough for you, it can't for me. A pleasure to you, is it? Well, to me it is—I don't know what to call it. I come to yu' and I hate it, and I come again and I hate it, and I ache and grieve all over when I go. No! You will have to think of some other way than just invitin' me to keep green."
"If I am to see you—" began the girl.
"You're not to see me. Not like this. I can stay away easier than what I am doin'."
"Will you do me a favor, a great one?" said she, now.
"Make it as impossible as you please!" he cried. He thought it was to be some action.
"Go on coming. But don't talk to me about—don't talk in that way—if you can help it."
He laughed out, not permitting himself to swear.
"But," she continued, "if you can't help talking that way—sometimes—I promise I will listen. That is the only promise I make."
"That is a bargain," he said.
Then he helped her mount her horse, restraining himself like a Spartan, and they rode home to her cabin.
"You have made it pretty near impossible," he said, as he took his leave. "But you've been square to-day, and I'll show you I can be square when I come back. I'll not do more than ask you if your mind's the same. And now I'll not see you for quite a while. I am going a long way. But I'll be very busy. And bein' busy always keeps me from grievin' too much about you."
Strange is woman! She would rather have heard some other last remark than this.
"Oh, very well!" she said. "I'll not miss you either."
He smiled at her. "I doubt if yu' can help missin' me," he remarked. And he was gone at once, galloping on his Monte horse.
Which of the two won a victory this day?
XIII. THE GAME AND THE NATION—ACT FIRST
There can be no doubt of this: All America is divided into two classes,—the quality and the equality.
The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but hangs.
It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL INEQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little mere artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.
The above reflections occurred to me before reaching Billings, Montana, some three weeks after I had unexpectedly met the Virginian at Omaha, Nebraska. I had not known of that trust given to him by Judge Henry, which was taking him East. I was looking to ride with him before long among the clean hills of Sunk Creek. I supposed he was there. But I came upon him one morning in Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace.
Did you know the palace? It stood in Omaha, near the trains, and it was ten years old (which is middle-aged in Omaha) when I first saw it. It was a shell of wood, painted with golden emblems,—the steamboat, the eagle, the Yosemite,—and a live bear ate gratuities at its entrance. Weather permitting, it opened upon the world as a stage upon the audience. You sat in Omaha's whole sight and dined, while Omaha's dust came and settled upon the refreshments. It is gone the way of the Indian and the buffalo, for the West is growing old. You should have seen the palace and sat there. In front of you passed rainbows of men,—Chinese, Indian chiefs, Africans, General Miles, younger sons, Austrian nobility, wide females in pink. Our continent drained prismatically through Omaha once.
So I was passing that way also, walking for the sake of ventilation from a sleeping-car toward a bath, when the language of Colonel Cyrus Jones came out to me. The actual colonel I had never seen before. He stood at the rear of his palace in gray flowery mustaches and a Confederate uniform, telling the wishes of his guests to the cook through a hole. You always bought meal tickets at once, else you became unwelcome. Guests here had foibles at times, and a rapid exit was too easy. Therefore I bought a ticket. It was spring and summer since I had heard anything like the colonel. The Missouri had not yet flowed into New York dialect freely, and his vocabulary met me like the breeze of the plains. So I went in to be fanned by it, and there sat the Virginian at a table, alone.
His greeting was up to the code of indifference proper on the plains; but he presently remarked, "I'm right glad to see somebody," which was a good deal to say. "Them that comes hyeh," he observed next, "don't eat. They feed." And he considered the guests with a sombre attention. "D' yu' reckon they find joyful digestion in this swallo'-an'-get-out trough?"
"What are you doing here, then?" said I.
"Oh, pshaw! When yu' can't have what you choose, yu' just choose what you have." And he took the bill-of-fare. I began to know that he had something on his mind, so I did not trouble him further.
Meanwhile he sat studying the bill-of-fare.
"Ever heard o' them?" he inquired, shoving me the spotted document.
Most improbable dishes were there,—salmis, canapes, supremes,—all perfectly spelt and absolutely transparent. It was the old trick of copying some metropolitan menu to catch travellers of the third and last dimension of innocence; and whenever this is done the food is of the third and last dimension of awfulness, which the cow-puncher knew as well as anybody.
"So they keep that up here still," I said.
"But what about them?" he repeated. His finger was at a special item, FROGS' LEGS A LA DELMONICO. "Are they true anywheres?" he asked And I told him, certainly. I also explained to him about Delmonico of New York and about Augustin of Philadelphia.
"There's not a little bit o' use in lyin' to me this mawnin'," he said, with his engaging smile. "I ain't goin' to awdeh anything's laigs."
"Well, I'll see how he gets out of it," I said, remembering the odd Texas legend. (The traveller read the bill-of-fare, you know, and called for a vol-au-vent. And the proprietor looked at the traveller, and running a pistol into his ear, observed, "You'll take hash.") I was thinking of this and wondering what would happen to me. So I took the step.
"Wants frogs' legs, does he?" shouted Colonel Cyrus Jones. He fixed his eye upon me, and it narrowed to a slit. "Too many brain workers breakfasting before yu' came in, professor," said he. "Missionary ate the last leg off me just now. Brown the wheat!" he commanded, through the hole to the cook, for some one had ordered hot cakes.
"I'll have fried aiggs," said the Virginian. "Cooked both sides."
"White wings!" sang the colonel through the hole. "Let 'em fly up and down."
"Coffee an' no milk," said the Virginian.
"Draw one in the dark!" the colonel roared.
"And beefsteak, rare."
"One slaughter in the pan, and let the blood drip!"
"I should like a glass of water, please," said I. The colonel threw me a look of pity.
"One Missouri and ice for the professor!" he said.
"That fello's a right live man," commented the Virginian. But he seemed thoughtful. Presently he inquired, "Yu' say he was a foreigner, an' learned fancy cookin' to New Yawk?"
That was this cow-puncher's way. Scarcely ever would he let drop a thing new to him until he had got from you your whole information about it. So I told him the history of Lorenzo Delmonico and his pioneer work, as much as I knew, and the Southerner listened intently.
"Mighty inter-estin'," he said—"mighty. He could just take little old o'rn'ry frawgs, and dandy 'em up to suit the bloods. Mighty inter-estin'. I expaict, though, his cookin' would give an outraiged stomach to a plain-raised man."
"If you want to follow it up," said I, by way of a sudden experiment, "Miss Molly Wood might have some book about French dishes."
But the Virginian did not turn a hair. "I reckon she wouldn't," he answered. "She was raised in Vermont. They don't bother overly about their eatin' up in Vermont. Hyeh's what Miss Wood recommended the las' time I was seein' her," the cow-puncher added, bringing Kenilworth from his pocket. "Right fine story. That Queen Elizabeth must have cert'nly been a competent woman."
"She was," said I. But talk came to an end here. A dusty crew, most evidently from the plains, now entered and drifted to a table; and each man of them gave the Virginian about a quarter of a slouchy nod. His greeting to them was very serene. Only, Kenilworth went back into his pocket, and he breakfasted in silence. Among those who had greeted him I now recognized a face.
"Why, that's the man you played cards with at Medicine Bow!" I said.
"Yes. Trampas. He's got a job at the ranch now." The Virginian said no more, but went on with his breakfast.
His appearance was changed. Aged I would scarcely say, for this would seem as if he did not look young. But I think that the boy was altogether gone from his face—the boy whose freak with Steve had turned Medicine Bow upside down, whose other freak with the babies had outraged Bear Creek, the boy who had loved to jingle his spurs. But manhood had only trained, not broken, his youth. It was all there, only obedient to the rein and curb.
Presently we went together to the railway yard.
"The Judge is doing a right smart o' business this year," he began, very casually indeed, so that I knew this was important. Besides bells and coal smoke, the smell and crowded sounds of cattle rose in the air around us. "Hyeh's our first gather o' beeves on the ranch," continued the Virginian. "The whole lot's shipped through to Chicago in two sections over the Burlington. The Judge is fighting the Elkhorn road." We passed slowly along the two trains,—twenty cars, each car packed with huddled, round-eyed, gazing steers. He examined to see if any animals were down. "They ain't ate or drank anything to speak of," he said, while the terrified brutes stared at us through their slats. "Not since they struck the railroad they've not drank. Yu' might suppose they know somehow what they're travellin' to Chicago for." And casually, always casually, he told me the rest. Judge Henry could not spare his foreman away from the second gather of beeves. Therefore these two ten-car trains with their double crew of cow-boys had been given to the Virginian's charge. After Chicago, he was to return by St. Paul over the Northern Pacific; for the Judge had wished him to see certain of the road's directors and explain to them persuasively how good a thing it would be for them to allow especially cheap rates to the Sunk Creek outfit henceforth. This was all the Virginian told me; and it contained the whole matter, to be sure.
"So you're acting foreman," said I.
"Why, somebody has to have the say, I reckon."
"And of course you hated the promotion?"
"I don't know about promotion," he replied. "The boys have been used to seein' me one of themselves. Why don't you come along with us far as Plattsmouth?" Thus he shifted the subject from himself, and called to my notice the locomotives backing up to his cars, and reminded me that from Plattsmouth I had the choice of two trains returning. But he could not hide or belittle this confidence of his employer in him. It was the care of several thousand perishable dollars and the control of men. It was a compliment. There were more steers than men to be responsible for; but none of the steers had been suddenly picked from the herd and set above his fellows. Moreover, Chicago finished up the steers; but the new-made deputy foreman had then to lead his six highly unoccupied brethren away from towns, and back in peace to the ranch, or disappoint the Judge, who needed their services. These things sometimes go wrong in a land where they say you are all born equal; and that quarter of a nod in Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace held more equality than any whole nod you could see. But the Virginian did not see it, there being a time for all things.
We trundled down the flopping, heavy-eddied Missouri to Plattsmouth, and there they backed us on to a siding, the Christian Endeavor being expected to pass that way. And while the equality absorbed themselves in a deep but harmless game of poker by the side of the railway line, the Virginian and I sat on the top of a car, contemplating the sandy shallows of the Platte.
"I should think you'd take a hand," said I.
"Poker? With them kittens?" One flash of the inner man lightened in his eyes and died away, and he finished with his gentle drawl, "When I play, I want it to be interestin'." He took out Sir Walter's Kenilworth once more, and turned the volume over and over slowly, without opening it. You cannot tell if in spirit he wandered on Bear Creek with the girl whose book it was. The spirit will go one road, and the thought another, and the body its own way sometimes. "Queen Elizabeth would have played a mighty pow'ful game," was his next remark.
"Poker?" said I.
"Yes, seh. Do you expaict Europe has got any queen equal to her at present?"
I doubted it.
"Victoria'd get pretty nigh slain sliding chips out agaynst Elizabeth. Only mos' prob'ly Victoria she'd insist on a half-cent limit. You have read this hyeh Kenilworth? Well, deal Elizabeth ace high, an' she could scare Robert Dudley with a full house plumb out o' the bettin'."
I said that I believed she unquestionably could.
"And," said the Virginian, "if Essex's play got next her too near, I reckon she'd have stacked the cyards. Say, d' yu' remember Shakespeare's fat man?"
"Falstaff? Oh, yes, indeed."
"Ain't that grand? Why, he makes men talk the way they do in life. I reckon he couldn't get printed to-day. It's a right down shame Shakespeare couldn't know about poker. He'd have had Falstaff playing all day at that Tearsheet outfit. And the Prince would have beat him."
"The Prince had the brains," said I.
"Well, didn't he?"
"I neveh thought to notice. Like as not he did."
"And Falstaff didn't, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, seh! Falstaff could have played whist."
"I suppose you know what you're talking about; I don't," said I, for he was drawling again.
The cow-puncher's eye rested a moment amiably upon me. "You can play whist with your brains," he mused,—"brains and cyards. Now cyards are only one o' the manifestations of poker in this hyeh world. One o' the shapes yu fool with it in when the day's work is oveh. If a man is built like that Prince boy was built (and it's away down deep beyond brains), he'll play winnin' poker with whatever hand he's holdin' when the trouble begins. Maybe it will be a mean, triflin' army, or an empty six-shooter, or a lame hawss, or maybe just nothin' but his natural countenance. 'Most any old thing will do for a fello' like that Prince boy to play poker with."
"Then I'd be grateful for your definition of poker," said I.
Again the Virginian looked me over amiably. "You put up a mighty pretty game o' whist yourself," he remarked. "Don't that give you the contented spirit?" And before I had any reply to this, the Christian Endeavor began to come over the bridge. Three instalments crossed the Missouri from Pacific Junction, bound for Pike's Peak, every car swathed in bright bunting, and at each window a Christian with a handkerchief, joyously shrieking. Then the cattle trains got the open signal, and I jumped off. "Tell the Judge the steers was all right this far," said the Virginian.
That was the last of the deputy foreman for a while.
XIV. BETWEEN THE ACTS
My road to Sunk Creek lay in no straight line. By rail I diverged northwest to Fort Meade, and thence, after some stay with the kind military people, I made my way on a horse. Up here in the Black Hills it sluiced rain most intolerably. The horse and I enjoyed the country and ourselves but little; and when finally I changed from the saddle into a stagecoach, I caught a thankful expression upon the animal's face, and returned the same.
"Six legs inside this jerky to-night?" said somebody, as I climbed the wheel. "Well, we'll give thanks for not havin' eight," he added cheerfully. "Clamp your mind on to that, Shorty." And he slapped the shoulder of his neighbor. Naturally I took these two for old companions. But we were all total strangers. They told me of the new gold excitement at Rawhide, and supposed it would bring up the Northern Pacific; and when I explained the millions owed to this road's German bondholders, they were of opinion that a German would strike it richer at Rawhide. We spoke of all sorts of things, and in our silence I gloated on the autumn holiday promised me by Judge Henry. His last letter had said that an outfit would be starting for his ranch from Billings on the seventh, and he would have a horse for me. This was the fifth. So we six legs in the jerky travelled harmoniously on over the rain-gutted road, getting no deeper knowledge of each other than what our outsides might imply.
Not that we concealed anything. The man who had slapped Shorty introduced himself early. "Scipio le Moyne, from Gallipolice, Ohio," he said. "The eldest of us always gets called Scipio. It's French. But us folks have been white for a hundred years." He was limber and light-muscled, and fell skilfully about, evading bruises when the jerky reeled or rose on end. He had a strange, long, jocular nose, very wary-looking, and a bleached blue eye. Cattle was his business, as a rule, but of late he had been "looking around some," and Rawhide seemed much on his brain. Shorty struck me as "looking around" also. He was quite short, indeed, and the jerky hurt him almost every time. He was light-haired and mild. Think of a yellow dog that is lost, and fancies each newcomer in sight is going to turn out his master, and you will have Shorty.
It was the Northern Pacific that surprised us into intimacy. We were nearing Medora. We had made a last arrangement of our legs. I lay stretched in silence, placid in the knowledge it was soon to end. So I drowsed. I felt something sudden, and, waking, saw Scipio passing through the air. As Shorty next shot from the jerky, I beheld smoke and the locomotive. The Northern Pacific had changed its schedule. A valise is a poor companion for catching a train with. There was rutted sand and lumpy, knee-high grease wood in our short cut. A piece of stray wire sprang from some hole and hung caracoling about my ankle. Tin cans spun from my stride. But we made a conspicuous race. Two of us waved hats, and there was no moment that some one of us was not screeching. It meant twenty-four hours to us.
Perhaps we failed to catch the train's attention, though the theory seems monstrous. As it moved off in our faces, smooth and easy and insulting, Scipio dropped instantly to a walk, and we two others outstripped him and came desperately to the empty track. There went the train. Even still its puffs were the separated puffs of starting, that bitten-off, snorty kind, and sweat and our true natures broke freely forth.
I kicked my valise, and then sat on it, dumb.
Shorty yielded himself up aloud. All his humble secrets came out of him. He walked aimlessly round, lamenting. He had lost his job, and he mentioned the ranch. He had played cards, and he mentioned the man. He had sold his horse and saddle to catch a friend on this train, and he mentioned what the friend had been going to do for him. He told a string of griefs and names to the air, as if the air knew.
Meanwhile Scipio arrived with extreme leisure at the rails. He stuck his hands into his pockets and his head out at the very small train. His bleached blue eyes shut to slits as he watched the rear car in its smoke-blur ooze away westward among the mounded bluffs. "Lucky it's out of range," I thought. But now Scipio spoke to it.
"Why, you seem to think you've left me behind," he began easily, in fawning tones. "You're too much of a kid to have such thoughts. Age some." His next remark grew less wheedling. "I wouldn't be a bit proud to meet yu'. Why, if I was seen travellin' with yu', I'd have to explain it to my friends! Think you've got me left, do yu'? Just because yu' ride through this country on a rail, do yu' claim yu' can find your way around? I could take yu' out ten yards in the brush and lose yu' in ten seconds, you spangle-roofed hobo! Leave ME behind? you recent blanket-mortgage yearlin'! You plush-lined, nickel-plated, whistlin' wash room, d' yu' figure I can't go east just as soon as west? Or I'll stay right here if it suits me, yu' dude-inhabited hot-box! Why, yu' coon-bossed face-towel—" But from here he rose in flights of novelty that appalled and held me spellbound, and which are not for me to say to you. Then he came down easily again, and finished with expressions of sympathy for it because it could never have known a mother.
"Do you expaict it could show a male parent offhand?" inquired a slow voice behind us. I jumped round, and there was the Virginian.
"Male parent!" scoffed the prompt Scipio. "Ain't you heard about THEM yet?"
"Them? Was there two?"
"Two? The blamed thing was sired by a whole doggone Dutch syndicate."
"Why, the piebald son of a gun!" responded the Virginian, sweetly. "I got them steers through all right," he added to me. "Sorry to see yu' get so out o' breath afteh the train. Is your valise sufferin' any?"
"Who's he?" inquired Scipio, curiously, turning to me.
The Southerner sat with a newspaper on the rear platform of a caboose. The caboose stood hitched behind a mile or so of freight train, and the train was headed west. So here was the deputy foreman, his steers delivered in Chicago, his men (I could hear them) safe in the caboose, his paper in his lap, and his legs dangling at ease over the railing. He wore the look of a man for whom things are going smooth. And for me the way to Billings was smooth now, also.
"Who's he?" Scipio repeated.
But from inside the caboose loud laughter and noise broke on us. Some one was reciting "And it's my night to howl."
"We'll all howl when we get to Rawhide," said some other one; and they howled now.
"These hyeh steam cyars," said the Virginian to Scipio, "make a man's language mighty nigh as speedy as his travel." Of Shorty he took no notice whatever—no more than of the manifestations in the caboose.
"So yu' heard me speakin' to the express," said Scipio. "Well, I guess, sometimes I—See here," he exclaimed, for the Virginian was gravely considering him, "I may have talked some, but I walked a whole lot. You didn't catch ME squandering no speed. Soon as—"
"I noticed," said the Virginian, "thinkin' came quicker to yu' than runnin'."
I was glad I was not Shorty, to have my measure taken merely by my way of missing a train. And of course I was sorry that I had kicked my valise.
"Oh, I could tell yu'd been enjoyin' us!" said Scipio. "Observin' somebody else's scrape always kind o' rests me too. Maybe you're a philosopher, but maybe there's a pair of us drawd in this deal."
Approval now grew plain upon the face of the Virginian. "By your laigs," said he, "you are used to the saddle."
"I'd be called used to it, I expect."
"By your hands," said the Southerner, again, "you ain't roped many steers lately. Been cookin' or something?"
"Say," retorted Scipio, "tell my future some now. Draw a conclusion from my mouth."
"I'm right distressed," unsevered the gentle Southerner, "we've not a drop in the outfit."
"Oh, drink with me uptown!" cried Scipio "I'm pleased to death with yu'."
The Virginian glanced where the saloons stood just behind the station, and shook his head.
"Why, it ain't a bit far to whiskey from here!" urged the other, plaintively. "Step down, now. Scipio le Moyne's my name. Yes, you're lookin' for my brass ear-rings. But there ain't no ear-rings on me. I've been white for a hundred years. Step down. I've a forty-dollar thirst."
"You're certainly white," began the Virginian. "But—"
Here the caboose resumed:
"I'm wild, and woolly, and full of peas; I'm hard to curry above the knees; I'm a she-wolf from Bitter Creek, and It's my night to ho-o-wl—"
And as they howled and stamped, the wheels of the caboose began to turn gently and to murmur.
The Virginian rose suddenly. "Will yu' save that thirst and take a forty-dollar job?"
"Missin' trains, profanity, or what?" said Scipio.
"I'll tell yu' soon as I'm sure."
At this Scipio looked hard at the Virginian. "Why, you're talkin' business!" said he, and leaped on the caboose, where I was already. "I WAS thinkin' of Rawhide," he added, "but I ain't any more."
"Well, good luck!" said Shorty, on the track behind us.
"Oh, say!" said Scipio, "he wanted to go on that train, just like me."
"Get on," called the Virginian. "But as to getting a job, he ain't just like you." So Shorty came, like a lost dog when you whistle to him.
Our wheels clucked over the main-line switch. A train-hand threw it shut after us, jumped aboard, and returned forward over the roofs. Inside the caboose they had reached the third howling of the she-wolf.
"Friends of yourn?" said Scipio.
"My outfit," drawled the Virginian.
"Do yu' always travel outside?" inquired Scipio.
"It's lonesome in there," returned the deputy foreman. And here one of them came out, slamming the door.
"Hell!" he said, at sight of the distant town. Then, truculently, to the Virginian, "I told you I was going to get a bottle here."
"Have your bottle, then," said the deputy foreman, and kicked him off into Dakota. (It was not North Dakota yet; they had not divided it.) The Virginian had aimed his pistol at about the same time with his boot. Therefore the man sat in Dakota quietly, watching us go away into Montana, and offering no objections. Just before he became too small to make out, we saw him rise and remove himself back toward the saloons.
XV. THE GAME AND THE NATION—ACT SECOND
"That is the only step I have had to take this whole trip," said the Virginian. He holstered his pistol with a jerk. "I have been fearing he would force it on me." And he looked at empty, receding Dakota with disgust. "So nyeh back home!" he muttered.
"Known your friend long?" whispered Scipio to me.
"Fairly," I answered.
Scipio's bleached eyes brightened with admiration as he considered the Southerner's back. "Well," he stated judicially, "start awful early when yu' go to fool with him, or he'll make you feel unpunctual."
"I expaict I've had them almost all of three thousand miles," said the Virginian, tilting his head toward the noise in the caboose. "And I've strove to deliver them back as I received them. The whole lot. And I would have. But he has spoiled my hopes." The deputy foreman looked again at Dakota. "It's a disappointment," he added. "You may know what I mean."
I had known a little, but not to the very deep, of the man's pride and purpose in this trust. Scipio gave him sympathy. "There must be quite a balance of 'em left with yu' yet," said Scipio, cheeringly.
"I had the boys plumb contented," pursued the deputy foreman, hurt into open talk of himself. "Away along as far as Saynt Paul I had them reconciled to my authority. Then this news about gold had to strike us."
"And they're a-dreamin' nuggets and Parisian bowleyvards," suggested Scipio.
The Virginian smiled gratefully at him.
"Fortune is shinin' bright and blindin' to their delicate young eyes," he said, regaining his usual self.
We all listened a moment to the rejoicings within.
"Energetic, ain't they?" said the Southerner. "But none of 'em was whelped savage enough to sing himself bloodthirsty. And though they're strainin' mighty earnest not to be tame, they're goin' back to Sunk Creek with me accordin' to the Judge's awders. Never a calf of them will desert to Rawhide, for all their dangerousness; nor I ain't goin' to have any fuss over it. Only one is left now that don't sing. Maybe I will have to make some arrangements about him. The man I have parted with," he said, with another glance at Dakota, "was our cook, and I will ask yu' to replace him, Colonel."
Scipio gaped wide. "Colonel! Say!" He stared at the Virginian. "Did I meet yu' at the palace?"
"Not exackly meet," replied the Southerner. "I was present one mawnin' las' month when this gentleman awdehed frawgs' laigs."
"Sakes and saints, but that was a mean position!" burst out Scipio. "I had to tell all comers anything all day. Stand up and jump language hot off my brain at 'em. And the pay don't near compensate for the drain on the system. I don't care how good a man is, you let him keep a-tappin' his presence of mind right along, without takin' a lay-off, and you'll have him sick. Yes, sir. You'll hit his nerves. So I told them they could hire some fresh man, for I was goin' back to punch cattle or fight Indians, or take a rest somehow, for I didn't propose to get jaded, and me only twenty-five years old. There ain't no regular Colonel Cyrus Jones any more, yu' know. He met a Cheyenne telegraph pole in seventy-four, and was buried. But his palace was doin' big business, and he had been a kind of attraction, and so they always keep a live bear outside, and some poor fello', fixed up like the Colonel used to be, inside. And it's a turruble mean position. Course I'll cook for yu'. Yu've a dandy memory for faces!"
"I wasn't right convinced till I kicked him off and you gave that shut to your eyes again," said the Virginian.
Once more the door opened. A man with slim black eyebrows, slim black mustache, and a black shirt tied with a white handkerchief was looking steadily from one to the other of us.
"Good day!" he remarked generally and without enthusiasm; and to the Virginian, "Where's Schoffner?"
"I expaict he'll have got his bottle by now, Trampas."
Trampas looked from one to the other of us again. "Didn't he say he was coming back?"
"He reminded me he was going for a bottle, and afteh that he didn't wait to say a thing."
Trampas looked at the platform and the railing and the steps. "He told me he was coming back," he insisted.
"I don't reckon he has come, not without he clumb up ahaid somewhere. An' I mus' say, when he got off he didn't look like a man does when he has the intention o' returnin'."
At this Scipio coughed, and pared his nails attentively. We had already been avoiding each other's eye. Shorty did not count. Since he got aboard, his meek seat had been the bottom step.
The thoughts of Trampas seemed to be in difficulty. "How long's this train been started?" he demanded.
"This hyeh train?" The Virginian consulted his watch. "Why, it's been fanning it a right smart little while," said he, laying no stress upon his indolent syllables.
"Huh!" went Trampas. He gave the rest of us a final unlovely scrutiny. "It seems to have become a passenger train," he said. And he returned abruptly inside the caboose.
"Is he the member who don't sing?" asked Scipio.
"That's the specimen," replied the Southerner.
"He don't seem musical in the face," said Scipio.
"Pshaw!" returned the Virginian. "Why, you surely ain't the man to mind ugly mugs when they're hollow!"
The noise inside had dropped quickly to stillness. You could scarcely catch the sound of talk. Our caboose was clicking comfortably westward, rail after rail, mile upon mile, while night was beginning to rise from earth into the clouded sky.
"I wonder if they have sent a search party forward to hunt Schoffner?" said the Virginian. "I think I'll maybe join their meeting." He opened the door upon them. "Kind o' dark hyeh, ain't it?" said he. And lighting the lantern, he shut us out.
"What do yu' think?" said Scipio to me. "Will he take them to Sunk Creek?"
"He evidently thinks he will," said I. "He says he will, and he has the courage of his convictions."
"That ain't near enough courage to have!" Scipio exclaimed. "There's times in life when a man has got to have courage WITHOUT convictions—WITHOUT them—or he is no good. Now your friend is that deep constitooted that you don't know and I don't know what he's thinkin' about all this."
"If there's to be any gun-play," put in the excellent Shorty, "I'll stand in with him."
"Ah, go to bed with your gun-play!" retorted Scipio, entirely good-humored. "Is the Judge paying for a carload of dead punchers to gather his beef for him? And this ain't a proposition worth a man's gettin' hurt for himself, anyway."
"That's so," Shorty assented.
"No," speculated Scipio, as the night drew deeper round us and the caboose click-clucked and click-clucked over the rail joints; "he's waitin' for somebody else to open this pot. I'll bet he don't know but one thing now, and that's that nobody else shall know he don't know anything."
Scipio had delivered himself. He lighted a cigarette, and no more wisdom came from him. The night was established. The rolling bad-lands sank away in it. A train-hand had arrived over the roof, and hanging the red lights out behind, left us again without remark or symptom of curiosity. The train-hands seemed interested in their own society and lived in their own caboose. A chill wind with wet in it came blowing from the invisible draws, and brought the feel of the distant mountains.
"That's Montana!" said Scipio, snuffing. "I am glad to have it inside my lungs again."
"Ain't yu' getting cool out there?" said the Virginian's voice. "Plenty room inside."
Perhaps he had expected us to follow him; or perhaps he had meant us to delay long enough not to seem like a reenforcement. "These gentlemen missed the express at Medora," he observed to his men, simply.
What they took us for upon our entrance I cannot say, or what they believed. The atmosphere of the caboose was charged with voiceless currents of thought. By way of a friendly beginning to the three hundred miles of caboose we were now to share so intimately, I recalled myself to them. I trusted no more of the Christian Endeavor had delayed them. "I am so lucky to have caught you again," I finished. "I was afraid my last chance of reaching the Judge's had gone."
Thus I said a number of things designed to be agreeable, but they met my small talk with the smallest talk you can have. "Yes," for instance, and "Pretty well, I guess," and grave strikings of matches and thoughtful looks at the floor. I suppose we had made twenty miles to the imperturbable clicking of the caboose when one at length asked his neighbor had he ever seen New York.
"No," said the other. "Flooded with dudes, ain't it?"
"Swimmin'," said the first.
"Leakin', too," said a third.
"Well, my gracious!" said a fourth, and beat his knee in private delight. None of them ever looked at me. For some reason I felt exceedingly ill at ease.
"Good clothes in New York," said the third.
"Rich food," said the first.
"Fresh eggs, too," said the third.
"Well, my gracious!" said the fourth, beating his knee.
"Why, yes," observed the Virginian, unexpectedly; "they tell me that aiggs there ain't liable to be so rotten as yu'll strike 'em in this country."
None of them had a reply for this, and New York was abandoned. For some reason I felt much better.
It was a new line they adopted next, led off by Trampas.
"Going to the excitement?" he inquired, selecting Shorty.
"Excitement?" said Shorty, looking up.
"Going to Rawhide?" Trampas repeated. And all watched Shorty.
"Why, I'm all adrift missin' that express," said Shorty.
"Maybe I can give you employment," suggested the Virginian. "I am taking an outfit across the basin."
"You'll find most folks going to Rawhide, if you re looking for company," pursued Trampas, fishing for a recruit.
"How about Rawhide, anyway?" said Scipio, skillfully deflecting this missionary work. "Are they taking much mineral out? Have yu' seen any of the rock?"
"Rock?" broke in the enthusiast who had beaten his knee. "There!" And he brought some from his pocket.
"You're always showing your rock," said Trampas, sulkily; for Scipio now held the conversation, and Shorty returned safely to his dozing.
"H'm!" went Scipio at the rock. He turned it back and forth in his hand, looking it over; he chucked and caught it slightingly in the air, and handed it back. "Porphyry, I see." That was his only word about it. He said it cheerily. He left no room for discussion. You could not damn a thing worse. "Ever been in Santa Rita?" pursued Scipio, while the enthusiast slowly pushed his rock back into his pocket. "That's down in New Mexico. Ever been to Globe, Arizona?" And Scipio talked away about the mines he had known. There was no getting at Shorty any more that evening. Trampas was foiled of his fish, or of learning how the fish's heart lay. And by morning Shorty had been carefully instructed to change his mind about once an hour. This is apt to discourage all but very superior missionaries. And I too escaped for the rest of this night. At Glendive we had a dim supper, and I bought some blankets; and after that it was late, and sleep occupied the attention of us all.
We lay along the shelves of the caboose, a peaceful sight I should think, in that smoothly trundling cradle. I slept almost immediately, so tired that not even our stops or anything else waked me, save once, when the air I was breathing grew suddenly pure, and I roused. Sitting in the door was the lonely figure of the Virginian. He leaned in silent contemplation of the occasional moon, and beneath it the Yellowstone's swift ripples. On the caboose shelves the others slept sound and still, each stretched or coiled as he had first put himself. They were not untrustworthy to look at, it seemed to me—except Trampas. You would have said the rest of that young humanity was average rough male blood, merely needing to be told the proper things at the right time; and one big bunchy stocking of the enthusiast stuck out of his blanket, solemn and innocent, and I laughed at it. There was a light sound by the door, and I found the Virginian's eye on me. Finding who it was, he nodded and motioned with his hand to go to sleep. And this I did with him in my sight, still leaning in the open door, through which came the interrupted moon and the swimming reaches of the Yellowstone.
XVI. THE GAME AND THE NATION—LAST ACT
It has happened to you, has it not, to wake in the morning and wonder for a while where on earth you are? Thus I came half to life in the caboose, hearing voices, but not the actual words at first.
But presently, "Hathaway!" said some one more clearly. "Portland 1291!"
This made no special stir in my intelligence, and I drowsed off again to the pleasant rhythm of the wheels. The little shock of stopping next brought me to, somewhat, with the voices still round me; and when we were again in motion, I heard: "Rosebud! Portland 1279!" These figures jarred me awake, and I said, "It was 1291 before," and sat up in my blankets.
The greeting they vouchsafed and the sight of them clustering expressionless in the caboose brought last evening's uncomfortable memory back to me. Our next stop revealed how things were going to-day.
"Forsythe," one of them read on the station. "Portland 1266."
They were counting the lessening distance westward. This was the undercurrent of war. It broke on me as I procured fresh water at Forsythe and made some toilet in their stolid presence. We were drawing nearer the Rawhide station—the point, I mean, where you left the railway for the new mines. Now Rawhide station lay this side of Billings. The broad path of desertion would open ready for their feet when the narrow path to duty and Sunk Creek was still some fifty miles more to wait. Here was Trampas's great strength; he need make no move meanwhile, but lie low for the immediate temptation to front and waylay them and win his battle over the deputy foreman. But the Virginian seemed to find nothing save enjoyment in this sunny September morning, and ate his breakfast at Forsythe serenely.
That meal done and that station gone, our caboose took up again its easy trundle by the banks of the Yellowstone. The mutineers sat for a while digesting in idleness.
"What's your scar?" inquired one at length inspecting casually the neck of his neighbor.
"Foolishness," the other answered.
"Well, I don't know but I prefer to have myself to thank for a thing," said the first.
"I was displaying myself," continued the second. "One day last summer it was. We come on a big snake by Torrey Creek corral. The boys got betting pretty lively that I dassent make my word good as to dealing with him, so I loped my cayuse full tilt by Mr. Snake, and swung down and catched him up by the tail from the ground, and cracked him same as a whip, and snapped his head off. You've saw it done?" he said to the audience.
The audience nodded wearily.
"But the loose head flew agin me, and the fangs caught. I was pretty sick for a while."
"It don't pay to be clumsy," said the first man. "If you'd snapped the snake away from yu' instead of toward yu', its head would have whirled off into the brush, same as they do with me."
"How like a knife-cut your scar looks!" said I.
"Don't it?" said the snake-snapper. "There's many that gets fooled by it."
"An antelope knows a snake is his enemy," said another to me. "Ever seen a buck circling round and round a rattler?"
"I have always wanted to see that," said I, heartily. For this I knew to be a respectable piece of truth.
"It's worth seeing," the man went on. "After the buck gets close in, he gives an almighty jump up in the air, and down comes his four hoofs in a bunch right on top of Mr. Snake. Cuts him all to hash. Now you tell me how the buck knows that."
Of course I could not tell him. And again we sat in silence for a while—friendlier silence, I thought.
"A skunk'll kill yu' worse than a snake bite," said another, presently. "No, I don't mean that way," he added. For I had smiled. "There is a brown skunk down in Arkansaw. Kind of prairie-dog brown. Littler than our variety, he is. And he is mad the whole year round, same as a dog gets. Only the dog has a spell and dies but this here Arkansaw skunk is mad right along, and it don't seem to interfere with his business in other respects. Well, suppose you're camping out, and suppose it's a hot night, or you're in a hurry, and you've made camp late, or anyway you haven't got inside any tent, but you have just bedded down in the open. Skunk comes travelling along and walks on your blankets. You're warm. He likes that, same as a cat does. And he tramps with pleasure and comfort, same as a cat. And you move. You get bit, that's all. And you die of hydrophobia. Ask anybody."
"Most extraordinary!" said I. "But did you ever see a person die from this?"
"No, sir. Never happened to. My cousin at Bald Knob did."
"No, sir. Saw a man."
"But how do you know they're not sick skunks?"
"No, sir! They're well skunks. Well as anything. You'll not meet skunks in any state of the Union more robust than them in Arkansaw. And thick."
"That's awful true," sighed another. "I have buried hundreds of dollars' worth of clothes in Arkansaw."
"Why didn't yu' travel in a sponge bag?" inquired Scipio. And this brought a slight silence.
"Speakin' of bites," spoke up a new man, "how's that?" He held up his thumb.
"My!" breathed Scipio. "Must have been a lion."
The man wore a wounded look. "I was huntin' owl eggs for a botanist from Boston," he explained to me.
"Chiropodist, weren't he?" said Scipio. "Or maybe a sonnabulator?"
"No, honest," protested the man with the thumb; so that I was sorry for him, and begged him to go on.
"I'll listen to you," I assured him. And I wondered why this politeness of mine should throw one or two of them into stifled mirth. Scipio, on the other hand, gave me a disgusted look and sat back sullenly for a moment, and then took himself out on the platform, where the Virginian was lounging.
"The young feller wore knee-pants and ever so thick spectacles with a half-moon cut in 'em," resumed the narrator, "and he carried a tin box strung to a strap I took for his lunch till it flew open on him and a horn toad hustled out. Then I was sure he was a botanist—or whatever yu' say they're called. Well, he would have owl eggs—them little prairie-owl that some claim can turn their head clean around and keep a-watchin' yu', only that's nonsense. We was ridin' through that prairie-dog town, used to be on the flat just after yu' crossed the south fork of Powder River on the Buffalo trail, and I said I'd dig an owl nest out for him if he was willing to camp till I'd dug it. I wanted to know about them owls some myself—if they did live with the dogs and snakes, yu' know," he broke off, appealing to me.
"Oh, yes," I told him eagerly.
"So while the botanist went glarin' around the town with his glasses to see if he could spot a prairie-dog and an owl usin' the same hole, I was diggin' in a hole I'd seen an owl run down. And that's what I got." He held up his thumb again.
"The snake!" I exclaimed.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Rattler was keepin' house that day. Took me right there. I hauled him out of the hole hangin' to me. Eight rattles."
"Eight!" said I. "A big one."
"Yes, sir. Thought I was dead. But the woman—"
"The woman?" said I.
"Yes, woman. Didn't I tell yu' the botanist had his wife along? Well, he did. And she acted better than the man, for he was rosin' his head, and shoutin' he had no whiskey, and he didn't guess his knife was sharp enough to amputate my thumb, and none of us chewed, and the doctor was twenty miles away, and if he had only remembered to bring his ammonia—well, he was screeching out 'most everything he knew in the world, and without arranging it any, neither. But she just clawed his pocket and burrowed and kep' yelling, 'Give him the stone, Augustus!' And she whipped out one of them Injun medicine-stones,—first one I ever seen,—and she clapped it on to my thumb, and it started in right away."
"What did it do?" said I.
"Sucked. Like blotting-paper does. Soft and funny it was, and gray. They get 'em from elks' stomachs, yu' know. And when it had sucked the poison out of the wound, off it falls of my thumb by itself! And I thanked the woman for saving my life that capable and keeping her head that cool. I never knowed how excited she had been till afterward. She was awful shocked."
"I suppose she started to talk when the danger was over," said I, with deep silence around me.
"No; she didn't say nothing to me. But when her next child was born, it had eight rattles."
Din now rose wild in the caboose. They rocked together. The enthusiast beat his knee tumultuously. And I joined them. Who could help it? It had been so well conducted from the imperceptible beginning. Fact and falsehood blended with such perfect art. And this last, an effect so new made with such world-old material! I cared nothing that I was the victim, and I joined them; but ceased, feeling suddenly somehow estranged or chilled. It was in their laughter. The loudness was too loud. And I caught the eyes of Trampas fixed upon the Virginian with exultant malevolence. Scipio's disgusted glance was upon me from the door.
Dazed by these signs, I went out on the platform to get away from the noise. There the Virginian said to me: "Cheer up! You'll not be so easy for 'em that-a-way next season."
He said no more; and with his legs dangled over the railing, appeared to resume his newspaper.
"What's the matter?" said I to Scipio.
"Oh, I don't mind if he don't," Scipio answered. "Couldn't yu' see? I tried to head 'em off from yu' all I knew, but yu' just ran in among 'em yourself. Couldn't yu' see? Kep' hinderin' and spoilin' me with askin' those urgent questions of yourn—why, I had to let yu' go your way! Why, that wasn't the ordinary play with the ordinary tenderfoot they treated you to! You ain't a common tenderfoot this trip. You're the foreman's friend. They've hit him through you. That's the way they count it. It's made them encouraged. Can't yu' see?"
Scipio stated it plainly. And as we ran by the next station, "Howard!" they harshly yelled. "Portland 1256!"
We had been passing gangs of workmen on the track. And at that last yell the Virginian rose. "I reckon I'll join the meeting again," he said. "This filling and repairing looks like the washout might have been true."
"Washout?" said Scipio.
"Big Horn bridge, they say—four days ago."
"Then I wish it came this side Rawhide station."
"Do yu'?" drawled the Virginian. And smiling at Scipio, he lounged in through the open door.
"He beats me," said Scipio, shaking his head. "His trail is turruble hard to anticipate."
"Work bein' done on the road, I see," the Virginian was saying, very friendly and conversational.
"We see it too," said the voice of Trampas.
"Seem to be easin' their grades some."
"Cheaper to build 'em the way they want 'em at the start, a man would think," suggested the Virginian, most friendly. "There go some more I-talians."
"They're Chinese," said Trampas.
"That's so," acknowledged the Virginian, with a laugh.
"What's he monkeyin' at now?" muttered Scipio.
"Without cheap foreigners they couldn't afford all this hyeh new gradin'," the Southerner continued.
"Grading! Can't you tell when a flood's been eating the banks?"
"Why, yes," said the Virginian, sweet as honey. "But 'ain't yu' heard of the improvements west of Big Timber, all the way to Missoula, this season? I'm talkin' about them."
"Oh! Talking about them. Yes, I've heard."
"Good money-savin' scheme, ain't it?" said the Virginian. "Lettin' a freight run down one hill an' up the next as far as she'll go without steam, an' shavin' the hill down to that point." Now this was an honest engineering fact. "Better'n settin' dudes squintin' through telescopes and cypherin' over one per cent reductions," the Southerner commented.
"It's common sense," assented Trampas. "Have you heard the new scheme about the water-tanks?"
"I ain't right certain," said the Southerner.
"I must watch this," said Scipio, "or I shall bust." He went in, and so did I.
They were all sitting over this discussion of the Northern Pacific's recent policy as to betterments, as though they were the board of directors. Pins could have dropped. Only nobody would have cared to hear a pin.
"They used to put all their tanks at the bottom of their grades," said Trampas.
"Why, yu' get the water easier at the bottom."
"You can pump it to the top, though," said Trampas, growing superior. "And it's cheaper."
"That gets me," said the Virginian, interested.
"Trains after watering can start down hill now and get the benefit of the gravity. It'll cut down operating expenses a heap."
"That's cert'nly common sense!" exclaimed the Virginian, absorbed. "But ain't it kind o' tardy?"
"Live and learn. So they gained speed, too. High speed on half the coal this season, until the accident."
"Accident!" said the Virginian, instantly.
"Yellowstone Limited. Man fired at engine driver. Train was flying past that quick the bullet broke every window and killed a passenger on the back platform. You've been running too much with aristocrats," finished Trampas, and turned on his heel.
"Haw, hew!" began the enthusiast, but his neighbor gripped him to silence. This was a triumph too serious for noise. Not a mutineer moved; and I felt cold.
"Trampas," said the Virginian, "I thought yu'd be afeared to try it on me."
Trampas whirled round. His hand was at his belt. "Afraid!" he sneered.
"Shorty!" said Scipio, sternly, and leaping upon that youth, took his half-drawn pistol from him.
"I'm obliged to yu'," said the Virginian to Scipio. Trampas's hand left his belt. He threw a slight, easy look at his men, and keeping his back to the Virginian, walked out on the platform and sat on the chair where the Virginian had sat so much.
"Don't you comprehend," said the Virginian to Shorty, amiably, "that this hyeh question has been discussed peaceable by civilized citizens? Now you sit down and be good, and Mr. Le Moyne will return your gun when we're across that broken bridge, if they have got it fixed for heavy trains yet."
"This train will be lighter when it gets to that bridge," spoke Trampas, out on his chair.
"Why, that's true, too!" said the Virginian. "Maybe none of us are crossin' that Big Horn bridge now, except me. Funny if yu' should end by persuadin' me to quit and go to Rawhide myself! But I reckon I'll not. I reckon I'll worry along to Sunk Creek, somehow."
"Don't forget I'm cookin' for yu'," said Scipio, gruffy.
"I'm obliged to yu'," said the Southerner.
"You were speaking of a job for me," said Shorty.
"I'm right obliged. But yu' see—I ain't exackly foreman the way this comes out, and my promises might not bind Judge Henry to pay salaries."
A push came through the train from forward. We were slowing for the Rawhide station, and all began to be busy and to talk. "Going up to the mines to-day?" "Oh, let's grub first." "Guess it's too late, anyway." And so forth; while they rolled and roped their bedding, and put on their coats with a good deal of elbow motion, and otherwise showed off. It was wasted. The Virginian did not know what was going on in the caboose. He was leaning and looking out ahead, and Scipio's puzzled eye never left him. And as we halted for the water-tank, the Southerner exclaimed, "They 'ain t got away yet!" as if it were good news to him.
He meant the delayed trains. Four stalled expresses were in front of us, besides several freights. And two hours more at least before the bridge would be ready.
Travellers stood and sat about forlorn, near the cars, out in the sage-brush, anywhere. People in hats and spurs watched them, and Indian chiefs offered them painted bows and arrows and shiny horns.
"I reckon them passengers would prefer a laig o' mutton," said the Virginian to a man loafing near the caboose.
"Bet your life!" said the man. "First lot has been stuck here four days."
"Plumb starved, ain't they?" inquired the Virginian.
"Bet your life! They've eat up their dining cars and they've eat up this town."
"Well," said the Virginian, looking at the town, "I expaict the dining-cyars contained more nourishment."
"Say, you're about right there!" said the man. He walked beside the caboose as we puffed slowly forward from the water-tank to our siding. "Fine business here if we'd only been ready," he continued. "And the Crow agent has let his Indians come over from the reservation. There has been a little beef brought in, and game, and fish. And big money in it, bet your life! Them Eastern passengers has just been robbed. I wisht I had somethin' to sell!"
"Anything starting for Rawhide this afternoon?" said Trampas, out of the caboose door.
"Not until morning," said the man. "You going to the mines?" he resumed to the Virginian.
"Why," answered the Southerner, slowly and casually, and addressing himself strictly to the man, while Trampas, on his side, paid obvious inattention, "this hyeh delay, yu' see, may unsettle our plans some. But it'll be one of two ways,—we're all goin' to Rawhide, or we're all goin' to Billings. We're all one party, yu' see."
Trampas laughed audibly inside the door as he rejoined his men. "Let him keep up appearances," I heard him tell them. "It don't hurt us what he says to strangers."
"But I'm goin' to eat hearty either way," continued the Virginian. "And I ain' goin' to be robbed. I've been kind o' promisin' myself a treat if we stopped hyeh."
"Town's eat clean out," said the man.
"So yu' tell me. But all you folks has forgot one source of revenue that yu' have right close by, mighty handy. If you have got a gunny sack, I'll show you how to make some money."
"Bet your life!" said the man.
"Mr. Le Moyne," said the Virginian, "the outfit's cookin' stuff is aboard, and if you'll get the fire ready, we'll try how frawgs' laigs go fried." He walked off at once, the man following like a dog. Inside the caboose rose a gust of laughter.
"Frogs!" muttered Scipio. And then turning a blank face to me, "Frogs?"
"Colonel Cyrus Jones had them on his bill of fare," I said. "'FROGS' LEGS A LA DELMONICO.'"
"Shoo! I didn't get up that thing. They had it when I came. Never looked at it. Frogs?" He went down the steps very slowly, with a long frown. Reaching the ground, he shook his head. "That man's trail is surely hard to anticipate," he said. "But I must hurry up that fire. For his appearance has given me encouragement," Scipio concluded, and became brisk. Shorty helped him, and I brought wood. Trampas and the other people strolled off to the station, a compact band.
Our little fire was built beside the caboose, so the cooking things might be easily reached and put back. You would scarcely think such operations held any interest, even for the hungry, when there seemed to be nothing to cook. A few sticks blazing tamely in the dust, a frying-pan, half a tin bucket of lard, some water, and barren plates and knives and forks, and three silent men attending to them—that was all. But the travellers came to see. These waifs drew near us, and stood, a sad, lone, shifting fringe of audience; four to begin with; and then two wandered away; and presently one of these came back, finding it worse elsewhere. "Supper, boys?" said he. "Breakfast," said Scipio, crossly. And no more of them addressed us. I heard them joylessly mention Wall Street to each other, and Saratoga; I even heard the name Bryn Mawr, which is near Philadelphia. But these fragments of home dropped in the wilderness here in Montana beside a freight caboose were of no interest to me now.
"Looks like frogs down there, too," said Scipio. "See them marshy slogs full of weeds?" We took a little turn and had a sight of the Virginian quite active among the ponds. "Hush! I'm getting some thoughts," continued Scipio. "He wasn't sorry enough. Don't interrupt me."
"I'm not," said I.
"No. But I'd 'most caught a-hold." And Scipio muttered to himself again, "He wasn't sorry enough." Presently he swore loud and brilliantly. "Tell yu'!" he cried. "What did he say to Trampas after that play they exchanged over railroad improvements and Trampas put the josh on him? Didn't he say, 'Trampas, I thought you'd be afraid to do it?' Well, sir, Trampas had better have been afraid. And that's what he meant. There's where he was bringin' it to. Trampas made an awful bad play then. You wait. Glory, but he's a knowin' man! Course he wasn't sorry. I guess he had the hardest kind of work to look as sorry as he did. You wait."
"Wait? What for? Go on, man! What for?"
"I don't know! I don't know! Whatever hand he's been holdin' up, this is the show-down. He's played for a show-down here before the caboose gets off the bridge. Come back to the fire, or Shorty'll be leavin' it go out. Grow happy some, Shorty!" he cried on arriving, and his hand cracked on Shorty's shoulder. "Supper's in sight, Shorty. Food for reflection."
"None for the stomach?" asked the passenger who had spoken once before.
"We're figuring on that too," said Scipio. His crossness had melted entirely away.
"Why, they're cow-boys!" exclaimed another passenger; and he moved nearer.
From the station Trampas now came back, his herd following him less compactly. They had found famine, and no hope of supplies until the next train from the East. This was no fault of Trampas's; but they were following him less compactly. They carried one piece of cheese, the size of a fist, the weight of a brick, the hue of a corpse. And the passengers, seeing it, exclaimed, "There's Old Faithful again!" and took off their hats.
"You gentlemen met that cheese before, then?" said Scipio, delighted.
"It's been offered me three times a day for four days," said the passenger. "Did he want a dollar or a dollar and a half?"
"Two dollars!" blurted out the enthusiast. And all of us save Trampas fell into fits of imbecile laughter.
"Here comes our grub, anyway," said Scipio, looking off toward the marshes. And his hilarity sobered away in a moment.
"Well, the train will be in soon," stated Trampas. "I guess we'll get a decent supper without frogs."
All interest settled now upon the Virginian. He was coming with his man and his gunny sack, and the gunny sack hung from his shoulder heavily, as a full sack should. He took no notice of the gathering, but sat down and partly emptied the sack. "There," said he, very businesslike, to his assistant, "that's all we'll want. I think you'll find a ready market for the balance."
"Well, my gracious!" said the enthusiast. "What fool eats a frog?"
"Oh, I'm fool enough for a tadpole!" cried the passenger. And they began to take out their pocket-books.
"You can cook yours right hyeh, gentlemen," said the Virginian, with his slow Southern courtesy. "The dining-cyars don't look like they were fired up."
"How much will you sell a couple for?" inquired the enthusiast.
The Virginian looked at him with friendly surprise. "Why, help yourself! We're all together yet awhile. Help yourselves," he repeated, to Trampas and his followers. These hung back a moment, then, with a slinking motion, set the cheese upon the earth and came forward nearer the fire to receive some supper.
"It won't scarcely be Delmonico style," said the Virginian to the passengers, "nor yet Saynt Augustine." He meant the great Augustin, the traditional chef of Philadelphia, whose history I had sketched for him at Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace.
Scipio now officiated. His frying-pan was busy, and prosperous odors rose from it.
"Run for a bucket of fresh water, Shorty," the Virginian continued, beginning his meal. "Colonel, yu' cook pretty near good. If yu' had sold 'em as advertised, yu'd have cert'nly made a name."
Several were now eating with satisfaction, but not Scipio. It was all that he could do to cook straight. The whole man seemed to glisten. His eye was shut to a slit once more, while the innocent passengers thankfully swallowed.
"Now, you see, you have made some money," began the Virginian to the native who had helped him get the frogs.
"Bet your life!" exclaimed the man. "Divvy, won't you?" And he held out half his gains.
"Keep 'em," returned the Southerner. "I reckon we're square. But I expaict they'll not equal Delmonico's, seh?" he said to a passenger.
"Don't trust the judgment of a man as hungry as I am!" exclaimed the traveller, with a laugh. And he turned to his fellow-travellers. "Did you ever enjoy supper at Delmonico's more than this?"
"Never!" they sighed.
"Why, look here," said the traveller, "what fools the people of this town are! Here we've been all these starving days, and you come and get ahead of them!"
"That's right easy explained," said the Virginian. "I've been where there was big money in frawgs, and they 'ain't been. They're all cattle hyeh. Talk cattle, think cattle, and they're bankrupt in consequence. Fallen through. Ain't that so?" he inquired of the native.
"That's about the way," said the man.
"It's mighty hard to do what your neighbors ain't doin'," pursued the Virginian. "Montana is all cattle, an' these folks must be cattle, an' never notice the country right hyeh is too small for a range, an' swampy, anyway, an' just waitin' to be a frawg ranch."
At this, all wore a face of careful reserve.
"I'm not claimin' to be smarter than you folks hyeh," said the Virginian, deprecatingly, to his assistant. "But travellin' learns a man many customs. You wouldn't do the business they done at Tulare, California, north side o' the lake. They cert'nly utilized them hopeless swamps splendid. Of course they put up big capital and went into it scientific, gettin' advice from the government Fish Commission, an' such like knowledge. Yu' see, they had big markets for their frawgs,—San Francisco, Los Angeles, and clear to New York afteh the Southern Pacific was through. But up hyeh yu' could sell to passengers every day like yu' done this one day. They would get to know yu' along the line. Competing swamps are scarce. The dining-cyars would take your frawgs, and yu' would have the Yellowstone Park for four months in the year. Them hotels are anxious to please, an' they would buy off yu' what their Eastern patrons esteem as fine-eatin'. And you folks would be sellin' something instead o' nothin'."
"That's a practical idea," said a traveller. "And little cost."
"And little cost," said the Virginian.
"Would Eastern people eat frogs?" inquired the man.
"Look at us!" said the traveller.
"Delmonico doesn't give yu' such a treat!" said the Virginian.
"Not exactly!" the traveller exclaimed.
"How much would be paid for frogs?" said Trampas to him. And I saw Scipio bend closer to his cooking.
"Oh, I don't know," said the traveller. "We've paid pretty well, you see."
"You're late for Tulare, Trampas," said the Virginian.
"I was not thinking of Tulare," Trampas retorted. Scipio's nose was in the frying-pan.
"Mos' comical spot you ever struck!" said the Virginian, looking round upon the whole company. He allowed himself a broad smile of retrospect. "To hear 'em talk frawgs at Tulare! Same as other folks talks hawsses or steers or whatever they're raising to sell. Yu'd fall into it yourselves if yu' started the business. Anything a man's bread and butter depends on, he's going to be earnest about. Don't care if it is a frawg."
"That's so," said the native. "And it paid good?"
"The only money in the county was right there," answered the Virginian. "It was a dead county, and only frawgs was movin'. But that business was a-fannin' to beat four of a kind. It made yu' feel strange at first, as I said. For all the men had been cattle-men at one time or another. Till yu' got accustomed, it would give 'most anybody a shock to hear 'em speak about herdin' the bulls in a pasture by themselves." The Virginian allowed himself another smile, but became serious again. "That was their policy," he explained. "Except at certain times o' year they kept the bulls separate. The Fish Commission told 'em they'd better, and it cert'nly worked mighty well. It or something did—for, gentlemen, hush! but there was millions. You'd have said all the frawgs in the world had taken charge at Tulare. And the money rolled in! Gentlemen, hush! 'twas a gold mine for the owners. Forty per cent they netted some years. And they paid generous wages. For they could sell to all them French restaurants in San Francisco, yu' see. And there was the Cliff House. And the Palace Hotel made it a specialty. And the officers took frawgs at the Presidio, an' Angel Island, an' Alcatraz, an' Benicia. Los Angeles was beginnin' its boom. The corner-lot sharps wanted something by way of varnish. An' so they dazzled Eastern investors with advertisin' Tulare frawgs clear to New Orleans an' New York. 'Twas only in Sacramento frawgs was dull. I expaict the California legislature was too or'n'ry for them fine-raised luxuries. They tell of one of them senators that he raked a million out of Los Angeles real estate, and started in for a bang-up meal with champagne. Wanted to scatter his new gold thick an' quick. But he got astray among all the fancy dishes, an' just yelled right out before the ladies, 'Damn it! bring me forty dollars' worth of ham and aiggs.' He was a funny senator, now."
The Virginian paused, and finished eating a leg. And then with diabolic art he made a feint at wandering to new fields of anecdote. "Talkin' of senators," he resumed, "Senator Wise—"
"How much did you say wages were at Tulare?" inquired one of the Trampas faction.
"How much? Why, I never knew what the foreman got. The regular hands got a hundred. Senator Wise—"
"A hundred a MONTH?"
"Why, it was wet an' muddy work, yu' see. A man risked rheumatism some. He risked it a good deal. Well, I was going to tell about Senator Wise. When Senator Wise was speaking of his visit to Alaska—"
"Forty per cent, was it?" said Trampas.
"Oh, I must call my wife'" said the traveller behind me. "This is what I came West for." And he hurried away.
"Not forty per cent the bad years," replied the Virginian. "The frawgs had enemies, same as cattle. I remember when a pelican got in the spring pasture, and the herd broke through the fence—"
"Fence?" said a passenger.
"Ditch, seh, and wire net. Every pasture was a square swamp with a ditch around, and a wire net. Yu've heard the mournful, mixed-up sound a big bunch of cattle will make? Well, seh, as yu' druv from the railroad to the Tulare frawg ranch yu' could hear 'em a mile. Springtime they'd sing like girls in the organ loft, and by August they were about ready to hire out for bass. And all was fit to be soloists, if I'm a judge. But in a bad year it might only be twenty per cent. The pelican rushed 'em from the pasture right into the San Joaquin River, which was close by the property. The big balance of the herd stampeded, and though of course they came out on the banks again, the news had went around, and folks below at Hemlen eat most of 'em just to spite the company. Yu' see, a frawg in a river is more hopeless than any maverick loose on the range. And they never struck any plan to brand their stock and prove ownership."
"Well, twenty per cent is good enough for me," said Trampas, "if Rawhide don't suit me."
"A hundred a month!" said the enthusiast. And busy calculations began to arise among them.
"It went to fifty per cent," pursued the Virginian, "when New York and Philadelphia got to biddin' agaynst each other. Both cities had signs all over 'em claiming to furnish the Tulare frawg. And both had 'em all right. And same as cattle trains, yu'd see frawg trains tearing acrosst Arizona—big glass tanks with wire over 'em—through to New York, an' the frawgs starin' out."
"Why, George," whispered a woman's voice behind me, "he's merely deceiving them! He's merely making that stuff up out of his head."
"Yes, my dear, that's merely what he's doing."
"Well, I don't see why you imagined I should care for this. I think I'll go back."
"Better see it out, Daisy. This beats the geysers or anything we're likely to find in the Yellowstone."
"Then I wish we had gone to Bar Harbor as usual," said the lady, and she returned to her Pullman.
But her husband stayed. Indeed, the male crowd now was a goodly sight to see, how the men edged close, drawn by a common tie. Their different kinds of feet told the strength of the bond—yellow sleeping-car slippers planted miscellaneous and motionless near a pair of Mexican spurs. All eyes watched the Virginian and gave him their entire sympathy. Though they could not know his motive for it, what he was doing had fallen as light upon them—all except the excited calculators. These were loudly making their fortunes at both Rawhide and Tulare, drugged by their satanically aroused hopes of gold, heedless of the slippers and the spurs. Had a man given any sign to warn them, I think he would have been lynched. Even the Indian chiefs had come to see in their show war bonnets and blankets. They naturally understood nothing of it, yet magnetically knew that the Virginian was the great man. And they watched him with approval. He sat by the fire with the frying-pan, looking his daily self—engaging and saturnine. And now as Trampas declared tickets to California would be dear and Rawhide had better come first, the Southerner let loose his heaven-born imagination.
"There's a better reason for Rawhide than tickets, Trampas," said he. "I said it was too late for Tulare."
"I heard you," said Trampas. "Opinions may differ. You and I don't think alike on several points."
"Gawd, Trampas!" said the Virginian, "d' yu' reckon I'd be rotting hyeh on forty dollars if Tulare was like it used to be? Tulare is broke."
"What broke it? Your leaving?"
"Revenge broke it, and disease," said the Virginian, striking the frying-pan on his knee, for the frogs were all gone. At those lurid words their untamed child minds took fire, and they drew round him again to hear a tale of blood. The crowd seemed to lean nearer.
But for a short moment it threatened to be spoiled. A passenger came along, demanding in an important voice, "Where are these frogs?" He was a prominent New York after-dinner speaker, they whispered me, and out for a holiday in his private car. Reaching us and walking to the Virginian, he said cheerily, "How much do you want for your frogs, my friend?"
"You got a friend hyeh?" said the Virginian. "That's good, for yu' need care taken of yu'." And the prominent after-dinner speaker did not further discommode us.
"That's worth my trip," whispered a New York passenger to me.
"Yes, it was a case of revenge," resumed the Virginian, "and disease. There was a man named Saynt Augustine got run out of Domingo, which is a Dago island. He come to Philadelphia, an' he was dead broke. But Saynt Augustine was a live man, an' he saw Philadelphia was full o' Quakers that dressed plain an' eat humdrum. So he started cookin' Domingo way for 'em, an' they caught right ahold. Terrapin, he gave 'em, an' croakeets, an' he'd use forty chickens to make a broth he called consommay. An' he got rich, and Philadelphia got well known, an' Delmonico in New York he got jealous. He was the cook that had the say-so in New York."
"Was Delmonico one of them I-talians?" inquired a fascinated mutineer.
"I don't know. But he acted like one. Lorenzo was his front name. He aimed to cut—"
"Domingo's throat?" breathed the enthusiast.
"Aimed to cut away the trade from Saynt Augustine an' put Philadelphia back where he thought she belonged. Frawgs was the fashionable rage then. These foreign cooks set the fashion in eatin', same as foreign dressmakers do women's clothes. Both cities was catchin' and swallowin' all the frawgs Tulare could throw at 'em. So he—"
"Lorenzo?" said the enthusiast.
"Yes, Lorenzo Delmonico. He bid a dollar a tank higher. An' Saynt Augustine raised him fifty cents. An' Lorenzo raised him a dollar An' Saynt Augustine shoved her up three. Lorenzo he didn't expect Philadelphia would go that high, and he got hot in the collar, an' flew round his kitchen in New York, an' claimed he'd twist Saynt Augustine's Domingo tail for him and crack his ossified system. Lorenzo raised his language to a high temperature, they say. An' then quite sudden off he starts for Tulare. He buys tickets over the Santa Fe, and he goes a-fannin' and a-foggin'. But, gentlemen, hush! The very same day Saynt Augustine he tears out of Philadelphia. He travelled by the way o' Washington, an' out he comes a-fannin' an' a-foggin' over the Southern Pacific. Of course Tulare didn't know nothin' of this. All it knowed was how the frawg market was on soarin' wings, and it was feelin' like a flight o' rawckets. If only there'd been some preparation,—a telegram or something,—the disaster would never have occurred. But Lorenzo and Saynt Augustine was that absorbed watchin' each other—for, yu' see, the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific come together at Mojave, an' the two cooks travelled a matter of two hundred an' ten miles in the same cyar—they never thought about a telegram. And when they arruv, breathless, an' started in to screechin' what they'd give for the monopoly, why, them unsuspectin' Tulare boys got amused at 'em. I never heard just all they done, but they had Lorenzo singin' and dancin', while Saynt Augustine played the fiddle for him. And one of Lorenzo's heels did get a trifle grazed. Well, them two cooks quit that ranch without disclosin' their identity, and soon as they got to a safe distance they swore eternal friendship, in their excitable foreign way. And they went home over the Union Pacific, sharing the same stateroom. Their revenge killed frawgs. The disease—"
"How killed frogs?" demanded Trampas.
"Just killed 'em. Delmonico and Saynt Augustine wiped frawgs off the slate of fashion. Not a banker in Fifth Avenue'll touch one now if another banker's around watchin' him. And if ever yu' see a man that hides his feet an' won't take off his socks in company, he has worked in them Tulare swamps an' got the disease. Catch him wadin', and yu'll find he's web-footed. Frawgs are dead, Trampas, and so are you."
"Rise up, liars, and salute your king!" yelled Scipio. "Oh, I'm in love with you!" And he threw his arms round the Virginian.
"Let me shake hands with you," said the traveller, who had failed to interest his wife in these things. "I wish I was going to have more of your company."
"Thank ye', seh," said the Virginian.
Other passengers greeted him, and the Indian chiefs came, saying, "How!" because they followed their feelings without understanding.
"Don't show so humbled, boys," said the deputy foreman to his most sheepish crew. "These gentlemen from the East have been enjoying yu' some, I know. But think what a weary wait they have had hyeh. And you insisted on playing the game with me this way, yu' see. What outlet did yu' give me? Didn't I have it to do? And I'll tell yu' one thing for your consolation: when I got to the middle of the frawgs I 'most believed it myself." And he laughed out the first laugh I had heard him give.