The enthusiast came up and shook hands. That led off, and the rest followed, with Trampas at the end. The tide was too strong for him. He was not a graceful loser; but he got through this, and the Virginian eased him down by treating him precisely like the others—apparently. Possibly the supreme—the most American—moment of all was when word came that the bridge was open, and the Pullman trains, with noise and triumph, began to move westward at last. Every one waved farewell to every one, craning from steps and windows, so that the cars twinkled with hilarity; and in twenty minutes the whole procession in front had moved, and our turn came.
"Last chance for Rawhide," said the Virginian.
"Last chance for Sunk Creek," said a reconstructed mutineer, and all sprang aboard. There was no question who had won his spurs now.
Our caboose trundled on to Billings along the shingly cotton-wooded Yellowstone; and as the plains and bluffs and the distant snow began to grow well known, even to me, we turned to our baggage that was to come off, since camp would begin in the morning. Thus I saw the Virginian carefully rewrapping Kenilworth, that he might bring it to its owner unharmed; and I said, "Don't you think you could have played poker with Queen Elizabeth?"
"No; I expaict she'd have beat me," he replied. "She was a lady."
It was at Billings, on this day, that I made those reflections about equality. For the Virginian had been equal to the occasion: that is the only kind of equality which I recognize.
XVII. SCIPIO MORALIZES
Into what mood was it that the Virginian now fell? Being less busy, did he begin to "grieve" about the girl on Bear Creek? I only know that after talking so lengthily he fell into a nine days' silence. The talking part of him deeply and unbrokenly slept.
Official words of course came from him as we rode southward from the railroad, gathering the Judge's stray cattle. During the many weeks since the spring round-up, some of these animals had as usual got very far off their range, and getting them on again became the present business of our party.
Directions and commands—whatever communications to his subordinates were needful to the forwarding of this—he duly gave. But routine has never at any time of the world passed for conversation. His utterances, such as, "We'll work Willo' Creek to-morro' mawnin'," or, "I want the wagon to be at the fawks o' Stinkin' Water by Thursday," though on some occasions numerous enough to sound like discourse, never once broke the man's true silence. Seeming to keep easy company with the camp, he yet kept altogether to himself. That talking part of him—the mood which brings out for you your friend's spirit and mind as a free gift or as an exchange—was down in some dark cave of his nature, hidden away. Perhaps it had been dreaming; perhaps completely reposing. The Virginian was one of those rare ones who are able to refresh themselves in sections. To have a thing on his mind did not keep his body from resting. During our recent journey—it felt years ago now!—while our caboose on the freight train had trundled endlessly westward, and the men were on the ragged edge, the very jumping-off place, of mutiny and possible murder, I had seen him sleep like a child. He snatched the moments not necessary for vigil. I had also seen him sit all night watching his responsibility, ready to spring on it and fasten his teeth in it. And now that he had confounded them with their own attempted weapon of ridicule, his powers seemed to be profoundly dormant. That final pitched battle of wits had made the men his captives and admirers—all save Trampas. And of him the Virginian did not seem to be aware.
But Scipio le Moyne would say to me now and then, "If I was Trampas, I'd pull my freight." And once he added, "Pull it kind of casual, yu' know, like I wasn't noticing myself do it."
"Yes," our friend Shorty murmured pregnantly, with his eye upon the quiet Virginian, "he's sure studying his revenge."
"Studying your pussy-cat," said Scipio. "He knows what he'll do. The time 'ain't arrived." This was the way they felt about it; and not unnaturally this was the way they made me, the inexperienced Easterner, feel about it. That Trampas also felt something about it was easy to know. Like the leaven which leavens the whole lump, one spot of sulkiness in camp will spread its dull flavor through any company that sits near it; and we had to sit near Trampas at meals for nine days.
His sullenness was not wonderful. To feel himself forsaken by his recent adherents, to see them gone over to his enemy, could not have made his reflections pleasant. Why he did not take himself off to other climes—"pull his freight casual," as Scipio said—I can explain only thus: pay was due him—"time," as it was called in cow-land; if he would have this money, he must stay under the Virginian's command until the Judge's ranch on Sunk Creek should be reached; meanwhile, each day's work added to the wages in store for him; and finally, once at Sunk Creek, it would be no more the Virginian who commanded him; it would be the real ranch foreman. At the ranch he would be the Virginian's equal again, both of them taking orders from their officially recognized superior, this foreman. Shorty's word about "revenge" seemed to me like putting the thing backwards. Revenge, as I told Scipio, was what I should be thinking about if I were Trampas.
"He dassent," was Scipio's immediate view. "Not till he's got strong again. He got laughed plumb sick by the bystanders, and whatever spirit he had was broke in the presence of us all. He'll have to recuperate." Scipio then spoke of the Virginian's attitude. "Maybe revenge ain't just the right word for where this affair has got to now with him. When yu' beat another man at his own game like he done to Trampas, why, yu've had all the revenge yu' can want, unless you're a hog. And he's no hog. But he has got it in for Trampas. They've not reckoned to a finish. Would you let a man try such spite-work on you and quit thinkin' about him just because yu'd headed him off?" To this I offered his own notion about hogs and being satisfied. "Hogs!" went on Scipio, in a way that dashed my suggestion to pieces; "hogs ain't in the case. He's got to deal with Trampas somehow—man to man. Trampas and him can't stay this way when they get back and go workin' same as they worked before. No, sir; I've seen his eye twice, and I know he's goin' to reckon to a finish."
I still must, in Scipio's opinion, have been slow to understand, when on the afternoon following this talk I invited him to tell me what sort of "finish" he wanted, after such a finishing as had been dealt Trampas already. Getting "laughed plumb sick by the bystanders" (I borrowed his own not overstated expression) seemed to me a highly final finishing. While I was running my notions off to him, Scipio rose, and, with the frying-pan he had been washing, walked slowly at me.
"I do believe you'd oughtn't to be let travel alone the way you do." He put his face close to mine. His long nose grew eloquent in its shrewdness, while the fire in his bleached blue eye burned with amiable satire. "What has come and gone between them two has only settled the one point he was aimin' to make. He was appointed boss of this outfit in the absence of the regular foreman. Since then all he has been playin' for is to hand back his men to the ranch in as good shape as they'd been handed to him, and without losing any on the road through desertion or shooting or what not. He had to kick his cook off the train that day, and the loss made him sorrowful, I could see. But I'd happened to come along, and he jumped me into the vacancy, and I expect he is pretty near consoled. And as boss of the outfit he beat Trampas, who was settin' up for opposition boss. And the outfit is better than satisfied it come out that way, and they're stayin' with him; and he'll hand them all back in good condition, barrin' that lost cook. So for the present his point is made, yu' see. But look ahead a little. It may not be so very far ahead yu'll have to look. We get back to the ranch. He's not boss there any more. His responsibility is over. He is just one of us again, taking orders from a foreman they tell me has showed partiality to Trampas more'n a few times. Partiality! That's what Trampas is plainly trusting to. Trusting it will fix him all right and fix his enemy all wrong. He'd not otherwise dare to keep sour like he's doing. Partiality! D' yu' think it'll scare off the enemy?" Scipio looked across a little creek to where the Virginian was helping throw the gathered cattle on the bedground. "What odds"—he pointed the frying-pan at the Southerner—"d' yu' figure Trampas's being under any foreman's wing will make to a man like him? He's going to remember Mr. Trampas and his spite-work if he's got to tear him out from under the wing, and maybe tear off the wing in the operation. And I am goin' to advise your folks," ended the complete Scipio, "not to leave you travel so much alone—not till you've learned more life."
He had made me feel my inexperience, convinced me of innocence, undoubtedly; and during the final days of our journey I no longer invoked his aid to my reflections upon this especial topic: What would the Virginian do to Trampas? Would it be another intellectual crushing of him, like the frog story, or would there be something this time more material—say muscle, or possibly gunpowder—in it? And was Scipio, after all, infallible? I didn't pretend to understand the Virginian; after several years' knowledge of him he remained utterly beyond me. Scipio's experience was not yet three weeks long. So I let him alone as to all this, discussing with him most other things good and evil in the world, and being convinced of much further innocence; for Scipio's twenty odd years were indeed a library of life. I have never met a better heart, a shrewder wit, and looser morals, with yet a native sense of decency and duty somewhere hard and fast enshrined.
But all the while I was wondering about the Virginian: eating with him, sleeping with him (only not so sound as he did), and riding beside him often for many hours.
Experiments in conversation I did make—and failed. One day particularly while, after a sudden storm of hail had chilled the earth numb and white like winter in fifteen minutes, we sat drying and warming ourselves by a fire that we built, I touched upon that theme of equality on which I knew him to hold opinions as strong as mine. "Oh," he would reply, and "Cert'nly"; and when I asked him what it was in a man that made him a leader of men, he shook his head and puffed his pipe. So then, noticing how the sun had brought the earth in half an hour back from winter to summer again, I spoke of our American climate.
It was a potent drug, I said, for millions to be swallowing every day.
"Yes," said he, wiping the damp from his Winchester rifle.
Our American climate, I said, had worked remarkable changes, at least.
"Yes," he said; and did not ask what they were.
So I had to tell him. "It has made successful politicians of the Irish. That's one. And it has given our whole race the habit of poker."
Bang went his Winchester. The bullet struck close to my left. I sat up angrily.
"That's the first foolish thing I ever saw you do!" I said.
"Yes," he drawled slowly, "I'd ought to have done it sooner. He was pretty near lively again." And then he picked up a rattlesnake six feet behind me. It had been numbed by the hail, part revived by the sun, and he had shot its head off.
XVIII. "WOULD YOU BE A PARSON?"
After this I gave up my experiments in conversation. So that by the final afternoon of our journey, with Sunk Creek actually in sight, and the great grasshoppers slatting their dry song over the sage-brush, and the time at hand when the Virginian and Trampas would be "man to man," my thoughts rose to a considerable pitch of speculation.
And now that talking part of the Virginian, which had been nine days asleep, gave its first yawn and stretch of waking. Without preface, he suddenly asked me, "Would you be a parson?"
I was mentally so far away that I couldn't get back in time to comprehend or answer before he had repeated: "What would yu' take to be a parson?"
He drawled it out in his gentle way, precisely as if no nine days stood between it and our last real intercourse.
"Take?" I was still vaguely moving in my distance. "How?"
His next question brought me home.
"I expect the Pope's is the biggest of them parson jobs?"
It was with an "Oh!" that I now entirely took his idea. "Well, yes; decidedly the biggest."
"Beats the English one? Archbishop—ain't it?—of Canterbury? The Pope comes ahead of him?"
"His Holiness would say so if his Grace did not."
The Virginian turned half in his saddle to see my face—I was, at the moment, riding not quite abreast of him—and I saw the gleam of his teeth beneath his mustache. It was seldom I could make him smile, even to this slight extent. But his eyes grew, with his next words, remote again in their speculation.
"His Holiness and his Grace. Now if I was to hear 'em namin' me that-a-way every mawnin', I'd sca'cely get down to business."
"Oh, you'd get used to the pride of it."
"'Tisn't the pride. The laugh is what would ruin me. 'Twould take 'most all my attention keeping a straight face. The Archbishop"—here he took one of his wide mental turns—"is apt to be a big man in them Shakespeare plays. Kings take talk from him they'd not stand from anybody else; and he talks fine, frequently. About the bees, for instance, when Henry is going to fight France. He tells him a beehive is similar to a kingdom. I learned that piece." The Virginian could not have expected to blush at uttering these last words. He knew that his sudden color must tell me in whose book it was he had learned the piece. Was not her copy of Kenilworth even now In his cherishing pocket? So he now, to cover his blush, very deliberately recited to me the Archbishop's discourse upon bees and their kingdom:
"'Where some, like magistrates, correct at home... Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings, Make loot upon the summer's velvet buds; Which pillage they with merry march bring home To the tent-royal of their emperor: He, busied in his majesty, surveys The singing masons building roofs of gold.'
"Ain't that a fine description of bees a-workin'? 'The singing masons building roofs of gold!' Puts 'em right before yu', and is poetry without bein' foolish. His Holiness and his Grace. Well, they could not hire me for either o' those positions. How many religions are there?"
"All over the earth?"
"Yu' can begin with ourselves. Right hyeh at home I know there's Romanists, and Episcopals—"
"Two kinds!" I put in. "At least two of Episcopals."
"That's three. Then Methodists and Baptists, and—"
"Well, you do the countin'."
I accordingly did it, feeling my revolving memory slip cogs all the way round. "Anyhow, there are safely fifteen."
"Fifteen." He held this fact a moment. "And they don't worship a whole heap o' different gods like the ancients did?"
"It's just the same one?"
"The same one."
The Virginian folded his hands over the horn of his saddle, and leaned forward upon them in contemplation of the wide, beautiful landscape.
"One God and fifteen religions," was his reflection. "That's a right smart of religions for just one God."
This way of reducing it was, if obvious to him, so novel to me that my laugh evidently struck him as a louder and livelier comment than was required. He turned on me as if I had somehow perverted the spirit of his words.
"I ain't religious. I know that. But I ain't unreligious. And I know that too."
"So do I know it, my friend."
"Do you think there ought to be fifteen varieties of good people?" His voice, while it now had an edge that could cut anything it came against, was still not raised. "There ain't fifteen. There ain't two. There's one kind. And when I meet it, I respect it. It is not praying nor preaching that has ever caught me and made me ashamed of myself, but one or two people I have knowed that never said a superior word to me. They thought more o' me than I deserved, and that made me behave better than I naturally wanted to. Made me quit a girl onced in time for her not to lose her good name. And so that's one thing I have never done. And if ever I was to have a son or somebody I set store by, I would wish their lot to be to know one or two good folks mighty well—men or women—women preferred."
He had looked away again to the hills behind Sunk Creek ranch, to which our walking horses had now almost brought us.
"As for parsons "—the gesture of his arm was a disclaiming one—"I reckon some parsons have a right to tell yu' to be good. The bishop of this hyeh Territory has a right. But I'll tell yu' this: a middlin' doctor is a pore thing, and a middlin' lawyer is a pore thing; but keep me from a middlin' man of God."
Once again he had reduced it, but I did not laugh this time. I thought there should in truth be heavy damages for malpractice on human souls. But the hot glow of his words, and the vision of his deepest inner man it revealed, faded away abruptly.
"What do yu' make of the proposition yondeh?" As he pointed to the cause of this question he had become again his daily, engaging, saturnine self.
Then I saw over in a fenced meadow, to which we were now close, what he was pleased to call "the proposition." Proposition in the West does, in fact, mean whatever you at the moment please,—an offer to sell you a mine, a cloud-burst, a glass of whiskey, a steamboat. This time it meant a stranger clad in black, and of a clerical deportment which would in that atmosphere and to a watchful eye be visible for a mile or two.
"I reckoned yu' hadn't noticed him," was the Virginian's reply to my ejaculation. "Yes. He set me goin' on the subject a while back. I expect he is another missionary to us pore cow-boys."
I seemed from a hundred yards to feel the stranger's forceful personality. It was in his walk—I should better say stalk—as he promenaded along the creek. His hands were behind his back, and there was an air of waiting, of displeased waiting, in his movement.
"Yes, he'll be a missionary," said the Virginian, conclusively; and he took to singing, or rather to whining, with his head tilted at an absurd angle upward at the sky:
"'Dar is a big Car'lina nigger, About de size of dis chile or p'raps a little bigger, By de name of Jim Crow. Dat what de white folks call him. If ever I sees him I 'tends for to maul him, Just to let de white folks see Such an animos as he Can't walk around the streets and scandalize me.'"
The lane which was conducting us to the group of ranch buildings now turned a corner of the meadow, and the Virginian went on with his second verse:
"'Great big fool, he hasn't any knowledge. Gosh! how could he, when he's never been to scollege? Neither has I. But I'se come mighty nigh; I peaked through de door as I went by.'"
He was beginning a third stanza, but stopped short; a horse had neighed close behind us.
"Trampas," said he, without turning his head, "we are home."
"It looks that way." Some ten yards were between ourselves and Trampas, where he followed.
"And I'll trouble yu' for my rope yu' took this mawnin' instead o' your own."
"I don't know as it's your rope I've got." Trampas skilfully spoke this so that a precisely opposite meaning flowed from his words.
If it was discussion he tried for, he failed. The Virginian's hand moved, and for one thick, flashing moment my thoughts were evidently also the thoughts of Trampas. But the Virginian only held out to Trampas the rope which he had detached from his saddle.
"Take your hand off your gun, Trampas. If I had wanted to kill yu' you'd be lying nine days back on the road now. Here's your rope. Did yu' expect I'd not know it? It's the only one in camp the stiffness ain't all drug out of yet. Or maybe yu' expected me to notice and—not take notice?"
"I don't spend my time in expectations about you. If—"
The Virginian wheeled his horse across the road. "Yu're talkin' too soon after reachin' safety, Trampas. I didn't tell yu' to hand me that rope this mawnin', because I was busy. I ain't foreman now; and I want that rope."
Trampas produced a smile as skilful as his voice. "Well, I guess your having mine proves this one is yours." He rode up and received the coil which the Virginian held out, unloosing the disputed one on his saddle. If he had meant to devise a slippery, evasive insult, no small trick in cow-land could be more offensive than this taking another man's rope. And it is the small tricks which lead to the big bullets. Trampas put a smooth coating of plausibility over the whole transaction. "After the rope corral we had to make this morning"—his tone was mock explanatory—"the ropes was all strewed round camp, and in the hustle I—"
"Pardon me," said a sonorous voice behind us, "do you happen to have seen Judge Henry?" It was the reverend gentleman in his meadow, come to the fence. As we turned round to him he spoke on, with much rotund authority in his eye. "From his answer to my letter, Judge Henry undoubtedly expects me here. I have arrived from Fetterman according to my plan which I announced to him, to find that he has been absent all day—absent the whole day."
The Virginian sat sidewise to talk, one long, straight leg supporting him on one stirrup, the other bent at ease, the boot half lifted from its dangling stirrup. He made himself the perfection of courtesy. "The Judge is frequently absent all night, seh."
"Scarcely to-night, I think. I thought you might know something about him."
"I have been absent myself, seh."
"Ah! On a vacation, perhaps?" The divine had a ruddy facet. His strong glance was straight and frank and fearless; but his smile too much reminded me of days bygone, when we used to return to school from the Christmas holidays, and the masters would shake our hands and welcome us with: "Robert, John, Edward, glad to see you all looking so well! Rested, and ready for hard work, I'm sure!"
That smile does not really please even good, tame little boys; and the Virginian was nearing thirty.
"It has not been vacation this trip, seh," said he, settling straight in his saddle. "There's the Judge driving in now, in time for all questions yu' have to ask him."
His horse took a step, but was stopped short. There lay the Virginian's rope on the ground. I had been aware of Trampas's quite proper departure during the talk; and as he was leaving, I seemed also to be aware of his placing the coil across the cantle of its owner's saddle. Had he intended it to fall and have to be picked up? It was another evasive little business, and quite successful, if designed to nag the owner of the rope. A few hundred yards ahead of us Trampas was now shouting loud cow-boy shouts. Were they to announce his return to those at home, or did they mean derision? The Virginian leaned, keeping his seat, and, swinging down his arm, caught up the rope, and hung it on his saddle somewhat carefully. But the hue of rage spread over his face.
From his fence the divine now spoke, in approbation, but with another strong, cheerless smile. "You pick up that rope as if you were well trained to it."
"It's part of our business, seh, and we try to mind it like the rest." But this, stated in a gentle drawl, did not pierce the missionary's armor; his superiority was very thick.
We now rode on, and I was impressed by the reverend gentleman's robust, dictatorial back as he proceeded by a short cut through the meadow to the ranch. You could take him for nothing but a vigorous, sincere, dominating man, full of the highest purpose. But whatever his creed, I already doubted if he were the right one to sow it and make it grow in these new, wild fields. He seemed more the sort of gardener to keep old walks and vines pruned in their antique rigidity. I admired him for coming all this way with his clean, short, gray whiskers and his black, well-brushed suit. And he made me think of a powerful locomotive stuck puffing on a grade.
Meanwhile, the Virginian rode beside me, so silent in his volcanic wrath that I did not perceive it. The missionary coming on top of Trampas had been more than he could stand. But I did not know, and I spoke with innocent cheeriness.
"Is the parson going to save us?" I asked; and I fairly jumped at his voice: "Don't talk so much!" he burst out. I had got the whole accumulation!
"Who's been talking?" I in equal anger screeched back. "I'm not trying to save you. I didn't take your rope." And having poured this out, I whipped up my pony.
But he spurred his own alongside of me; and glancing at him, I saw that he was now convulsed with internal mirth. I therefore drew down to a walk, and he straightened into gravity.
"I'm right obliged to yu'," he laid his hand in its buckskin gauntlet upon my horse's mane as he spoke, "for bringing me back out o' my nonsense. I'll be as serene as a bird now—whatever they do. A man," he stated reflectively, "any full-sized man, ought to own a big lot of temper. And like all his valuable possessions, he'd ought to keep it and not lose any." This was his full apology. "As for salvation, I have got this far: somebody," he swept an arm at the sunset and the mountains, "must have made all that, I know. But I know one more thing I would tell Him to His face: if I can't do nothing long enough and good enough to earn eternal happiness, I can't do nothing long enough and bad enough to be damned. I reckon He plays a square game with us if He plays at all, and I ain't bothering my haid about other worlds."
As we reached the stables, he had become the serene bird he promised, and was sentimentally continuing:
"'De sun is made of mud from de bottom of de river; De moon is made o' fox-fire, as you might disciver; De stars like de ladies' eyes, All round de world dey flies, To give a little light when de moon don't rise.'"
If words were meant to conceal our thoughts, melody is perhaps a still thicker veil for them. Whatever temper he had lost, he had certainly found again; but this all the more fitted him to deal with Trampas, when the dealing should begin. I had half a mind to speak to the Judge, only it seemed beyond a mere visitor's business. Our missionary was at this moment himself speaking to Judge Henry at the door of the home ranch.
"I reckon he's explaining he has been a-waiting." The Virginian was throwing his saddle off as I loosened the cinches of mine. "And the Judge don't look like he was hopelessly distressed."
I now surveyed the distant parley, and the Judge, from the wagonful of guests whom he had evidently been driving upon a day's excursion, waved me a welcome, which I waved back. "He's got Miss Molly Wood there!" I exclaimed.
"Yes." The Virginian was brief about this fact. "I'll look afteh your saddle. You go and get acquainted with the company."
This favor I accepted; it was the means he chose for saying he hoped, after our recent boiling over, that all was now more than right between us. So for the while I left him to his horses, and his corrals, and his Trampas, and his foreman, and his imminent problem.
XIX. DR. MACBRIDE BEGS PARDON
Judge and Mrs. Henry, Molly Wood, and two strangers, a lady and a gentleman, were the party which had been driving in the large three-seated wagon. They had seemed a merry party. But as I came within hearing of their talk, it was a fragment of the minister's sonority which reached me first: "—more opportunity for them to have the benefit of hearing frequent sermons," was the sentence I heard him bring to completion.
"Yes, to be sure, sir." Judge Henry gave me (it almost seemed) additional warmth of welcome for arriving to break up the present discourse. "Let me introduce you to the Rev. Dr. Alexander MacBride. Doctor, another guest we have been hoping for about this time," was my host's cordial explanation to him of me. There remained the gentleman with his wife from New York, and to these I made my final bows. But I had not broken up the discourse.
"We may be said to have met already." Dr. MacBride had fixed upon me his full, mastering eye; and it occurred to me that if they had policemen in heaven, he would be at least a centurion in the force. But he did not mean to be unpleasant; it was only that in a mind full of matters less worldly, pleasure was left out. "I observed your friend was a skilful horseman," he continued. "I was saying to Judge Henry that I could wish such skilful horsemen might ride to a church upon the Sabbath. A church, that is, of right doctrine, where they would have opportunity to hear frequent sermons."
"Yes," said Judge Henry, "yes. It would be a good thing."
Mrs. Henry, with some murmur about the kitchen, here went into the house.
"I was informed," Dr. MacBride held the rest of us, "before undertaking my journey that I should find a desolate and mainly godless country. But nobody gave me to understand that from Medicine Bow I was to drive three hundred miles and pass no church of any faith."
The Judge explained that there had been a few a long way to the right and left of him. "Still," he conceded, "you are quite right. But don't forget that this is the newest part of a new world."
"Judge," said his wife, coming to the door, "how can you keep them standing in the dust with your talking?"
This most efficiently did break up the discourse. As our little party, with the smiles and the polite holdings back of new acquaintanceship, moved into the house, the Judge detained me behind all of them long enough to whisper dolorously, "He's going to stay a whole week."
I had hopes that he would not stay a whole week when I presently learned of the crowded arrangements which our hosts, with many hospitable apologies, disclosed to us. They were delighted to have us, but they hadn't foreseen that we should all be simultaneous. The foreman's house had been prepared for two of us, and did we mind? The two of us were Dr. MacBride and myself; and I expected him to mind. But I wronged him grossly. It would be much better, he assured Mrs. Henry, than straw in a stable, which he had tried several times, and was quite ready for. So I saw that though he kept his vigorous body clean when he could, he cared nothing for it in the face of his mission. How the foreman and his wife relished being turned out during a week for a missionary and myself was not my concern, although while he and I made ready for supper over there, it struck me as hard on them. The room with its two cots and furniture was as nice as possible; and we closed the door upon the adjoining room, which, however, seemed also untenanted.
Mrs. Henry gave us a meal so good that I have remembered it, and her husband the Judge strove his best that we should eat it in merriment. He poured out his anecdotes like wine, and we should have quickly warmed to them; but Dr. MacBride sat among us, giving occasional heavy ha-ha's, which produced, as Miss Molly Wood whispered to me, a "dreadfully cavernous effect." Was it his sermon, we wondered, that he was thinking over? I told her of the copious sheaf of them I had seen him pull from his wallet over at the foreman's. "Goodness!" said she. "Then are we to hear one every evening?" This I doubted; he had probably been picking one out suitable for the occasion. "Putting his best foot foremost," was her comment; "I suppose they have best feet, like the rest of us." Then she grew delightfully sharp. "Do you know, when I first heard him I thought his voice was hearty. But if you listen, you'll find it's merely militant. He never really meets you with it. He's off on his hill watching the battle-field the whole time."
"He will find a hardened pagan here."
"Oh, no! The wild man you're taming brought you Kenilworth safe back."
She was smooth. "Oh, as for taming him! But don't you find him intelligent?"
Suddenly I somehow knew that she didn't want to tame him. But what did she want to do? The thought of her had made him blush this afternoon. No thought of him made her blush this evening.
A great laugh from the rest of the company made me aware that the Judge had consummated his tale of the "Sole Survivor."
"And so," he finished, "they all went off as mad as hops because it hadn't been a massacre." Mr. and Mrs. Ogden—they were the New Yorkers-gave this story much applause, and Dr. MacBride half a minute later laid his "ha-ha," like a heavy stone, upon the gayety.
"I'll never be able to stand seven sermons," said Miss Wood to me.
"Talking of massacres,"—I now hastened to address the already saddened table,—"I have recently escaped one myself."
The Judge had come to an end of his powers. "Oh, tell us!" he implored.
"Seriously, sir, I think we grazed pretty wet tragedy but your extraordinary man brought us out into comedy safe and dry."
This gave me their attention; and, from that afternoon in Dakota when I had first stepped aboard the caboose, I told them the whole tale of my experience: how I grew immediately aware that all was not right, by the Virginian's kicking the cook off the train; how, as we journeyed, the dark bubble of mutiny swelled hourly beneath my eyes; and how, when it was threatening I know not what explosion, the Virginian had pricked it with humor, so that it burst in nothing but harmless laughter.
Their eyes followed my narrative: the New Yorkers, because such events do not happen upon the shores of the Hudson; Mrs. Henry, because she was my hostess; Miss Wood followed for whatever her reasons were—I couldn't see her eyes; rather, I FELT her listening intently to the deeds and dangers of the man she didn't care to tame. But it was the eyes of the Judge and the missionary which I saw riveted upon me indeed until the end; and they forthwith made plain their quite dissimilar opinions.
Judge Henry struck the table lightly with his fist. "I knew it!" And he leaned back in his chair with a face of contentment. He had trusted his man, and his man had proved worthy.
"Pardon me." Dr. MacBride had a manner of saying "pardon me," which rendered forgiveness well-nigh impossible.
The Judge waited for him.
"Am I to understand that these—a—cow-boys attempted to mutiny, and were discouraged in this attempt upon finding themselves less skilful at lying than the man they had plotted to depose?"
I began an answer. "It was other qualities, sir, that happened to be revealed and asserted by what you call his lying that—"
"And what am I to call it, if it is not lying? A competition in deceit in which, I admit, he out did them.
"It's their way to—"
"Pardon me. Their way to lie? They bow down to the greatest in this?"
"Oh," said Miss Wood in my ear, "give him up."
The Judge took a turn. "We-ell, Doctor—" He seemed to stick here.
Mr. Ogden handsomely assisted him. "You've said the word yourself, Doctor. It's the competition, don't you see? The trial of strength by no matter what test."
"Yes," said Miss Wood, unexpectedly. "And it wasn't that George Washington couldn't tell a lie. He just wouldn't. I'm sure if he'd undertaken to he'd have told a much better one than Cornwall's."
"Ha-ha, madam! You draw an ingenious subtlety from your books."
"It's all plain to me," Ogden pursued. "The men were morose. This foreman was in the minority. He cajoled them into a bout of tall stories, and told the tallest himself. And when they found they had swallowed it whole—well, it would certainly take the starch out of me," he concluded. "I couldn't be a serious mutineer after that."
Dr. MacBride now sounded his strongest bass. "Pardon me. I cannot accept such a view, sir. There is a levity abroad in our land which I must deplore. No matter how leniently you may try to put it, in the end we have the spectacle of a struggle between men where lying decides the survival of the fittest. Better, far better, if it was to come, that they had shot honest bullets. There are worse evils than war."
The Doctor's eye glared righteously about him. None of us, I think, trembled; or, if we did, it was with emotions other than fear. Mrs. Henry at once introduced the subject of trout-fishing, and thus happily removed us from the edge of whatever sort of precipice we seemed to have approached; for Dr. MacBride had brought his rod. He dilated upon this sport with fervor, and we assured him that the streams upon the west slope of the Bow Leg Mountains would afford him plenty of it. Thus we ended our meal in carefully preserved amity.
XX. THE JUDGE IGNORES PARTICULARS
"Do you often have these visitations?" Ogden inquired of Judge Henry. Our host was giving us whiskey in his office, and Dr. MacBride, while we smoked apart from the ladies, had repaired to his quarters in the foreman's house previous to the service which he was shortly to hold.
The Judge laughed. "They come now and then through the year. I like the bishop to come. And the men always like it. But I fear our friend will scarcely please them so well."
"You don't mean they'll—"
"Oh, no. They'll keep quiet. The fact is, they have a good deal better manners than he has, if he only knew it. They'll be able to bear him. But as for any good he'll do—"
"I doubt if he knows a word of science," said I, musing about the Doctor.
"Science! He doesn't know what Christianity is yet. I've entertained many guests, but none—The whole secret," broke off Judge Henry, "lies in the way you treat people. As soon as you treat men as your brothers, they are ready to acknowledge you—if you deserve it—as their superior. That's the whole bottom of Christianity, and that's what our missionary will never know."
There was a somewhat heavy knock at the office door, and I think we all feared it was Dr. MacBride. But when the Judge opened, the Virginian was standing there in the darkness.
"So!" The Judge opened the door wide. He was very hearty to the man he had trusted. "You're back at last."
"I came to repawt."
While they shook hands, Ogden nudged me. "That the fellow?" I nodded. "Fellow who kicked the cook off the train?" I again nodded, and he looked at the Virginian, his eye and his stature.
Judge Henry, properly democratic, now introduced him to Ogden.
The New Yorker also meant to be properly democratic. "You're the man I've been hearing such a lot about."
But familiarity is not equality. "Then I expect yu' have the advantage of me, seh," said the Virginian, very politely. "Shall I repawt to-morro'?" His grave eyes were on the Judge again. Of me he had taken no notice; he had come as an employee to see his employer.
"Yes, yes; I'll want to hear about the cattle to-morrow. But step inside a moment now. There's a matter—" The Virginian stepped inside, and took off his hat. "Sit down. You had trouble—I've heard something about it," the Judge went on.
The Virginian sat down, grave and graceful. But he held the brim of his hat all the while. He looked at Ogden and me, and then back at his employer. There was reluctance in his eye. I wondered if his employer could be going to make him tell his own exploits in the presence of us outsiders; and there came into my memory the Bengal tiger at a trained-animal show I had once seen.
"You had some trouble," repeated the Judge.
"Well, there was a time when they maybe wanted to have notions. They're good boys." And he smiled a very little.
Contentment increased in the Judge's face. "Trampas a good boy too?"
But this time the Bengal tiger did not smile. He sat with his eye fastened on his employer.
The Judge passed rather quickly on to his next point. "You've brought them all back, though, I understand, safe and sound, without a scratch?"
The Virginian looked down at his hat, then up again at the Judge, mildly. "I had to part with my cook."
There was no use; Ogden and myself exploded. Even upon the embarrassed Virginian a large grin slowly forced itself. "I guess yu' know about it," he murmured. And he looked at me with a sort of reproach. He knew it was I who had told tales out of school.
"I only want to say," said Ogden, conciliatingly, "that I know I couldn't have handled those men."
The Virginian relented. "Yu' never tried, seh."
The Judge had remained serious; but he showed himself plainly more and more contented. "Quite right," he said. "You had to part with your cook. When I put a man in charge, I put him in charge. I don't make particulars my business. They're to be always his. Do you understand?"
"Thank yu'." The Virginian understood that his employer was praising his management of the expedition. But I don't think he at all discerned—as I did presently—that his employer had just been putting him to a further test, had laid before him the temptation of complaining of a fellow-workman and blowing his own trumpet, and was delighted with his reticence. He made a movement to rise.
"I haven't finished," said the Judge. "I was coming to the matter. There's one particular—since I do happen to have been told. I fancy Trampas has learned something he didn't expect."
This time the Virginian evidently did not understand, any more than I did. One hand played with his hat, mechanically turning it round.
The Judge explained. "I mean about Roberts."
A pulse of triumph shot over the Southerner's face, turning it savage for that fleeting instant. He understood now, and was unable to suppress this much answer. But he was silent.
"You see," the Judge explained to me, "I was obliged to let Roberts, my old foreman, go last week. His wife could not have stood another winter here, and a good position was offered to him near Los Angeles."
I did see. I saw a number of things. I saw why the foreman's house had been empty to receive Dr. MacBride and me. And I saw that the Judge had been very clever indeed. For I had abstained from telling any tales about the present feeling between Trampas and the Virginian; but he had divined it. Well enough for him to say that "particulars" were something he let alone; he evidently kept a deep eye on the undercurrents at his ranch. He knew that in Roberts, Trampas had lost a powerful friend. And this was what I most saw, this final fact, that Trampas had no longer any intervening shield. He and the Virginian stood indeed man to man.
"And so," the Judge continued speaking to me, "here I am at a very inconvenient time without a foreman. Unless," I caught the twinkle in his eyes before he turned to the Virginian, "unless you're willing to take the position yourself. Will you?"
I saw the Southerner's hand grip his hat as he was turning it round. He held it still now, and his other hand found it and gradually crumpled the soft crown in. It meant everything to him: recognition, higher station, better fortune, a separate house of his own, and—perhaps—one step nearer to the woman he wanted. I don't know what words he might have said to the Judge had they been alone, but the Judge had chosen to do it in our presence, the whole thing from beginning to end. The Virginian sat with the damp coming out on his forehead, and his eyes dropped from his employer's.
"Thank yu'," was what he managed at last to say.
"Well, now, I'm greatly relieved!" exclaimed the Judge, rising at once. He spoke with haste, and lightly. "That's excellent. I was in some thing of a hole," he said to Ogden and me; "and this gives me one thing less to think of. Saves me a lot of particulars," he jocosely added to the Virginian, who was now also standing up. "Begin right off. Leave the bunk house. The gentlemen won't mind your sleeping in your own house."
Thus he dismissed his new foreman gayly. But the new foreman, when he got outside, turned back for one gruff word,—"I'll try to please yu'." That was all. He was gone in the darkness. But there was light enough for me, looking after him, to see him lay his hand on a shoulder-high gate and vault it as if he had been the wind. Sounds of cheering came to us a few moments later from the bunk house. Evidently he had "begun right away," as the Judge had directed. He had told his fortune to his brother cow-punchers, and this was their answer.
"I wonder if Trampas is shouting too?" inquired Ogden.
"Hm!" said the Judge. "That is one of the particulars I wash my hands of."
I knew that he entirely meant it. I knew, once his decision taken of appointing the Virginian his lieutenant for good and all, that, like a wise commander-in-chief, he would trust his lieutenant to take care of his own business.
"Well," Ogden pursued with interest, "haven't you landed Trampas plump at his mercy?"
The phrase tickled the Judge. "That is where I've landed him!" he declared. "And here is Dr. MacBride."
XXI. IN A STATE OF SIN
Thunder sat imminent upon the missionary's brow. Many were to be at his mercy soon. But for us he had sunshine still. "I am truly sorry to be turning you upside down," he said importantly. "But it seems the best place for my service." He spoke of the tables pushed back and the chairs gathered in the hall, where the storm would presently break upon the congregation. "Eight-thirty?" he inquired.
This was the hour appointed, and it was only twenty minutes off. We threw the unsmoked fractions of our cigars away, and returned to offer our services to the ladies. This amused the ladies. They had done without us. All was ready in the hall.
"We got the cook to help us," Mrs. Ogden told me, "so as not to disturb your cigars. In spite of the cow-boys, I still recognize my own country."
"In the cook?" I rather densely asked.
"Oh, no! I don't have a Chinaman. It's in the length of after-dinner cigars."
"Had you been smoking," I returned, "you would have found them short this evening."
"You make it worse," said the lady; "we have had nothing but Dr. Mac Bride."
"We'll share him with you now," I exclaimed.
"Has he announced his text? I've got one for him," said Molly Wood, joining us. She stood on tiptoe and spoke it comically in our ears. "'I said in my haste, All men are liars.'" This made us merry as we stood among the chairs in the congested hall.
I left the ladies, and sought the bunk house. I had heard the cheers, but I was curious also to see the men, and how they were taking it. There was but little for the eye. There was much noise in the room. They were getting ready to come to church,—brushing their hair, shaving, and making themselves clean, amid talk occasionally profane and continuously diverting.
"Well, I'm a Christian, anyway," one declared.
"I'm a Mormon, I guess," said another.
"I belong to the Knights of Pythias," said a third.
"I'm a Mohammedist," said a fourth; "I hope I ain't goin' to hear nothin' to shock me."
And they went on with their joking. But Trampas was out of the joking. He lay on his bed reading a newspaper, and took no pains to look pleasant. My eyes were considering him when the blithe Scipio came in.
"Don't look so bashful," said he. "There's only us girls here."
He had been helping the Virginian move his belongings from the bunk house over to the foreman's cabin. He himself was to occupy the Virginian's old bed here. "And I hope sleepin' in it will bring me some of his luck," said Scipio. "Yu'd ought to've seen us when he told us in his quiet way. Well," Scipio sighed a little, "it must feel good to have your friends glad about you."
"Especially Trampas," said I. "The Judge knows about that," I added.
"Knows, does he? What's he say?" Scipio drew me quickly out of the bunk house.
"Says it's no business of his."
"Said nothing but that?" Scipio's curiosity seemed strangely intense. "Made no suggestion? Not a thing?"
"Not a thing. Said he didn't want to know and didn't care."
"How did he happen to hear about it?" snapped Scipio. "You told him!" he immediately guessed. "He never would." And Scipio jerked his thumb at the Virginian, who appeared for a moment in the lighted window of the new quarters he was arranging. "He never would tell," Scipio repeated. "And so the Judge never made a suggestion to him," he muttered, nodding in the darkness. "So it's just his own notion. Just like him, too, come to think of it. Only I didn't expect—well, I guess he could surprise me any day he tried."
"You're surprising me now," I said. "What's it all about?"
"Oh, him and Trampas."
"What? Nothing surely happened yet?" I was as curious as Scipio had been.
"No, not yet. But there will."
"Great Heavens, man! when?"
"Just as soon as Trampas makes the first move," Scipio replied easily.
I became dignified. Scipio had evidently been told things by the Virginian.
"Yes, I up and asked him plumb out," Scipio answered. "I was liftin' his trunk in at the door, and I couldn't stand it no longer, and I asked him plumb out. 'Yu've sure got Trampas where yu' want him.' That's what I said. And he up and answered and told me. So I know." At this point Scipio stopped; I was not to know.
"I had no idea," I said, "that your system held so much meanness."
"Oh, it ain't meanness!" And he laughed ecstatically.
"What do you call it, then?"
"He'd call it discretion," said Scipio. Then he became serious. "It's too blamed grand to tell yu'. I'll leave yu' to see it happen. Keep around, that's all. Keep around. I pretty near wish I didn't know it myself."
What with my feelings at Scipio's discretion, and my human curiosity, I was not in that mood which best profits from a sermon. Yet even though my expectations had been cruelly left quivering in mid air, I was not sure how much I really wanted to "keep around." You will therefore understand how Dr. MacBride was able to make a prayer and to read Scripture without my being conscious of a word that he had uttered. It was when I saw him opening the manuscript of his sermon that I suddenly remembered I was sitting, so to speak, in church, and began once more to think of the preacher and his congregation. Our chairs were in the front line, of course; but, being next the wall, I could easily see the cow-boys behind me. They were perfectly decorous. If Mrs. Ogden had looked for pistols, daredevil attitudes, and so forth, she must have been greatly disappointed. Except for their weather-beaten cheeks and eyes, they were simply American young men with mustaches and without, and might have been sitting, say, in Danbury, Connecticut. Even Trampas merged quietly with the general placidity. The Virginian did not, to be sure, look like Danbury, and his frame and his features showed out of the mass; but his eyes were upon Dr. MacBride with a creamlike propriety.
Our missionary did not choose Miss Wood's text. He made his selection from another of the Psalms; and when it came, I did not dare to look at anybody; I was much nearer unseemly conduct than the cow-boys. Dr. Mac Bride gave us his text sonorously, "'They are altogether become filthy; There is none of them that doeth good, no, not one.'" His eye showed us plainly that present company was not excepted from this. He repeated the text once more, then, launching upon his discourse, gave none of us a ray of hope.
I had heard it all often before; but preached to cow-boys it took on a new glare of untimeliness, of grotesque obsoleteness—as if some one should say, "Let me persuade you to admire woman," and forthwith hold out her bleached bones to you. The cow-boys were told that not only they could do no good, but that if they did contrive to, it would not help them. Nay, more: not only honest deeds availed them nothing, but even if they accepted this especial creed which was being explained to them as necessary for salvation, still it might not save them. Their sin was indeed the cause of their damnation, yet, keeping from sin, they might nevertheless be lost. It had all been settled for them not only before they were born, but before Adam was shaped. Having told them this, he invited them to glorify the Creator of the scheme. Even if damned, they must praise the person who had made them expressly for damnation. That is what I heard him prove by logic to these cow-boys. Stone upon stone he built the black cellar of his theology, leaving out its beautiful park and the sunshine of its garden. He did not tell them the splendor of its past, the noble fortress for good that it had been, how its tonic had strengthened generations of their fathers. No; wrath he spoke of, and never once of love. It was the bishop's way, I knew well, to hold cow-boys by homely talk of their special hardships and temptations. And when they fell he spoke to them of forgiveness and brought them encouragement. But Dr. MacBride never thought once of the lives of these waifs. Like himself, like all mankind, they were invisible dots in creation; like him, they were to feel as nothing, to be swept up in the potent heat of his faith. So he thrust out to them none of the sweet but all the bitter of his creed, naked and stern as iron. Dogma was his all in all, and poor humanity was nothing but flesh for its canyons.
Thus to kill what chance he had for being of use seemed to me more deplorable than it did evidently to them. Their attention merely wandered. Three hundred years ago they would have been frightened; but not in this electric day. I saw Scipio stifling a smile when it came to the doctrine of original sin. "We know of its truth," said Dr. MacBride, "from the severe troubles and distresses to which infants are liable, and from death passing upon them before they are capable of sinning." Yet I knew he was a good man; and I also knew that if a missionary is to be tactless, he might almost as well be bad.
I said their attention wandered, but I forgot the Virginian. At first his attitude might have been mere propriety. One can look respectfully at a preacher and be internally breaking all the commandments. But even with the text I saw real attention light in the Virginian's eye. And keeping track of the concentration that grew on him with each minute made the sermon short for me. He missed nothing. Before the end his gaze at the preacher had become swerveless. Was he convert or critic? Convert was incredible. Thus was an hour passed before I had thought of time.
When it was over we took it variously. The preacher was genial and spoke of having now broken ground for the lessons that he hoped to instil. He discoursed for a while about trout-fishing and about the rumored uneasiness of the Indians northward where he was going. It was plain that his personal safety never gave him a thought. He soon bade us good night. The Ogdens shrugged their shoulders and were amused. That was their way of taking it. Dr. MacBride sat too heavily on the Judge's shoulders for him to shrug them. As a leading citizen in the Territory he kept open house for all comers. Policy and good nature made him bid welcome a wide variety of travellers. The cow-boy out of employment found bed and a meal for himself and his horse, and missionaries had before now been well received at Sunk Creek Ranch.
"I suppose I'll have to take him fishing," said the Judge, ruefully.
"Yes, my dear," said his wife, "you will. And I shall have to make his tea for six days."
"Otherwise," Ogden suggested, "it might be reported that you were enemies of religion."
"That's about it," said the Judge. "I can get on with most people. But elephants depress me."
So we named the Doctor "Jumbo," and I departed to my quarters.
At the bunk house, the comments were similar but more highly salted. The men were going to bed. In spite of their outward decorum at the service, they had not liked to be told that they were "altogether become filthy." It was easy to call names; they could do that themselves. And they appealed to me, several speaking at once, like a concerted piece at the opera: "Say, do you believe babies go to hell?"—"Ah, of course he don't."—"There ain't no hereafter, anyway."—"Ain't there?"—"Who told yu'?"—"Same man as told the preacher we were all a sifted set of sons-of-guns."—"Well, I'm going to stay a Mormon."—"Well, I'm going to quit fleeing from temptation."—"that's so! Better get it in the neck after a good time than a poor one." And so forth. Their wit was not extreme, yet I should like Dr. MacBride to have heard it. One fellow put his natural soul pretty well into words, "If I happened to learn what they had predestinated me to do, I'd do the other thing, just to show 'em!"
And Trampas? And the Virginian? They were out of it. The Virginian had gone straight to his new abode. Trampas lay in his bed, not asleep, and sullen as ever.
"He ain't got religion this trip," said Scipio to me.
"Did his new foreman get it?" I asked.
"Huh! It would spoil him. You keep around that's all. Keep around."
Scipio was not to be probed; and I went, still baffled, to my repose.
No light burned in the cabin as I approached its door.
The Virginian's room was quiet and dark; and that Dr. MacBride slumbered was plainly audible to me, even before I entered. Go fishing with him! I thought, as I undressed. And I selfishly decided that the Judge might have this privilege entirely to himself. Sleep came to me fairly soon, in spite of the Doctor. I was wakened from it by my bed's being jolted—not a pleasant thing that night. I must have started. And it was the quiet voice of the Virginian that told me he was sorry to have accidentally disturbed me. This disturbed me a good deal more. But his steps did not go to the bunk house, as my sensational mind had suggested. He was not wearing much, and in the dimness he seemed taller than common. I next made out that he was bending over Dr. Mac Bride. The divine at last sprang upright.
"I am armed," he said. "Take care. Who are you?"
"You can lay down your gun, seh. I feel like my spirit was going to bear witness. I feel like I might get an enlightening."
He was using some of the missionary's own language. The baffling I had been treated to by Scipio melted to nothing in this. Did living men petrify, I should have changed to mineral between the sheets. The Doctor got out of bed, lighted his lamp, and found a book; and the two retired into the Virginian's room, where I could hear the exhortations as I lay amazed. In time the Doctor returned, blew out his lamp, and settled himself. I had been very much awake, but was nearly gone to sleep again, when the door creaked and the Virginian stood by the Doctor's side.
"Are you awake, seh?"
"What? What's that? What is it?"
"Excuse me, seh. The enemy is winning on me. I'm feeling less inward opposition to sin."
The lamp was lighted, and I listened to some further exhortations. They must have taken half an hour. When the Doctor was in bed again, I thought that I heard him sigh. This upset my composure in the dark; but I lay face downward in the pillow, and the Doctor was soon again snoring. I envied him for a while his faculty of easy sleep. But I must have dropped off myself; for it was the lamp in my eyes that now waked me as he came back for the third time from the Virginian's room. Before blowing the light out he looked at his watch, and thereupon I inquired the hour of him.
"Three," said he.
I could not sleep any more now, and I lay watching the darkness.
"I'm afeared to be alone!" said the Virginian's voice presently in the next room. "I'm afeared." There was a short pause, and then he shouted very loud, "I'm losin' my desire afteh the sincere milk of the Word!"
"What? What's that? What?" The Doctor's cot gave a great crack as he started up listening, and I put my face deep in the pillow.
"I'm afeared! I'm afeared! Sin has quit being bitter in my belly."
"Courage, my good man." The Doctor was out of bed with his lamp again, and the door shut behind him. Between them they made it long this time. I saw the window become gray; then the corners of the furniture grow visible; and outside, the dry chorus of the blackbirds began to fill the dawn. To these the sounds of chickens and impatient hoofs in the stable were added, and some cow wandered by loudly calling for her calf. Next, some one whistling passed near and grew distant. But although the cold hue that I lay staring at through the window warmed and changed, the Doctor continued working hard over his patient in the next room. Only a word here and there was distinct; but it was plain from the Virginian's fewer remarks that the sin in his belly was alarming him less. Yes, they made this time long. But it proved, indeed, the last one. And though some sort of catastrophe was bound to fall upon us, it was myself who precipitated the thing that did happen.
Day was wholly come. I looked at my own watch, and it was six. I had been about seven hours in my bed, and the Doctor had been about seven hours out of his. The door opened, and he came in with his book and lamp. He seemed to be shivering a little, and I saw him cast a longing eye at his couch. But the Virginian followed him even as he blew out the now quite superfluous light. They made a noticeable couple in their underclothes: the Virginian with his lean racehorse shanks running to a point at his ankle, and the Doctor with his stomach and his fat sedentary calves.
"You'll be going to breakfast and the ladies, seh, pretty soon," said the Virginian, with a chastened voice. "But I'll worry through the day somehow without yu'. And to-night you can turn your wolf loose on me again."
Once more it was no use. My face was deep in the pillow, but I made sounds as of a hen who has laid an egg. It broke on the Doctor with a total instantaneous smash, quite like an ego.
He tried to speak calmly. "This is a disgrace. An infamous disgrace. Never in my life have I—" Words forsook him, and his face grew redder. "Never in my life—" He stopped again, because, at the sight of him being dignified in his red drawers, I was making the noise of a dozen hens. It was suddenly too much for the Virginian. He hastened into his room, and there sank on the floor with his head in his hands. The Doctor immediately slammed the door upon him, and this rendered me easily fit for a lunatic asylum. I cried into my pillow, and wondered if the Doctor would come and kill me. But he took no notice of me whatever. I could hear the Virginian's convulsions through the door, and also the Doctor furiously making his toilet within three feet of my head; and I lay quite still with my face the other way, for I was really afraid to look at him. When I heard him walk to the door in his boots, I ventured to peep; and there he was, going out with his bag in his hand. As I still continued to lie, weak and sore, and with a mind that had ceased an operation, the Virginian's door opened. He was clean and dressed and decent, but the devil still sported in his eye. I have never seen a creature more irresistibly handsome.
Then my mind worked again. "You've gone and done it," said I. "He's packed his valise. He'll not sleep here."
The Virginian looked quickly out of the door. "Why, he's leavin' us!" he exclaimed. "Drivin' away right now in his little old buggy!" He turned to me, and our eyes met solemnly over this large fact. I thought that I perceived the faintest tincture of dismay in the features of Judge Henry's new, responsible, trusty foreman. This was the first act of his administration. Once again he looked out at the departing missionary. "Well," he vindictively stated, "I cert'nly ain't goin' to run afteh him." And he looked at me again.
"Do you suppose the Judge knows?" I inquired.
He shook his head. "The windo' shades is all down still oveh yondeh." He paused. "I don't care," he stated, quite as if he had been ten years old. Then he grinned guiltily. "I was mighty respectful to him all night."
"Oh, yes, respectful! Especially when you invited him to turn his wolf loose."
The Virginian gave a joyous gulp. He now came and sat down on the edge of my bed. "I spoke awful good English to him most of the time," said he. "I can, yu' know, when I cinch my attention tight on to it. Yes, I cert'nly spoke a lot o' good English. I didn't understand some of it myself!"
He was now growing frankly pleased with his exploit. He had builded so much better than he knew. He got up and looked out across the crystal world of light. "The Doctor is at one-mile crossing," he said. "He'll get breakfast at the N-lazy-Y." Then he returned and sat again on my bed, and began to give me his real heart. "I never set up for being better than others. Not even to myself. My thoughts ain't apt to travel around making comparisons. And I shouldn't wonder if my memory took as much notice of the meannesses I have done as of—as of the other actions. But to have to sit like a dumb lamb and let a stranger tell yu' for an hour that yu're a hawg and a swine, just after you have acted in a way which them that know the facts would call pretty near white—"
"Trampas!" I could not help exclaiming.
For there are moments of insight when a guess amounts to knowledge.
"Has Scipio told—"
"No. Not a word. He wouldn't tell me."
"Well, yu' see, I arrived home hyeh this evenin' with several thoughts workin' and stirrin' inside me. And not one o' them thoughts was what yu'd call Christian. I ain't the least little bit ashamed of 'em. I'm a human. But after the Judge—well, yu' heard him. And so when I went away from that talk and saw how positions was changed—"
A step outside stopped him short. Nothing more could be read in his face, for there was Trampas himself in the open door.
"Good morning," said Trampas, not looking at us. He spoke with the same cool sullenness of yesterday.
We returned his greeting.
"I believe I'm late in congratulating you on your promotion," said he.
The Virginian consulted his watch. "It's only half afteh six," he returned.
Trampas's sullenness deepened. "Any man is to be congratulated on getting a rise, I expect."
This time the Virginian let him have it. "Cert'nly. And I ain't forgetting how much I owe mine to you."
Trampas would have liked to let himself go. "I've not come here for any forgiveness," he sneered.
"When did yu' feel yu' needed any?" The Virginian was impregnable.
Trampas seemed to feel how little he was going this way. He came out straight now. "Oh, I haven't any Judge behind me, I know. I heard you'd be paying the boys this morning, and I've come for my time."
"You're thinking of leaving us?" asked the new foreman. "What's your dissatisfaction?"
"Oh, I'm not needing anybody back of me. I'll get along by myself." It was thus he revealed his expectation of being dismissed by his enemy.
This would have knocked any meditated generosity out of my heart. But I was not the Virginian. He shifted his legs, leaned back a little, and laughed. "Go back to your job, Trampas, if that's all your complaint. You're right about me being in luck. But maybe there's two of us in luck."
It was this that Scipio had preferred me to see with my own eyes. The fight was between man and man no longer. The case could not be one of forgiveness; but the Virginian would not use his official position to crush his subordinate.
Trampas departed with something muttered that I did not hear, and the Virginian closed intimate conversation by saying, "You'll be late for breakfast." With that he also took himself away.
The ladies were inclined to be scandalized, but not the Judge. When my whole story was done, he brought his fist down on the table, and not lightly this time. "I'd make him lieutenant general if the ranch offered that position!" he declared.
Miss Molly Wood said nothing at the time. But in the afternoon, by her wish, she went fishing, with the Virginian deputed to escort her. I rode with them, for a while. I was not going to continue a third in that party; the Virginian was too becomingly dressed, and I saw KENILWORTH peeping out of his pocket. I meant to be fishing by myself when that volume was returned.
But Miss Wood talked with skilful openness as we rode. "I've heard all about you and Dr. MacBride," she said. "How could you do it, when the Judge places such confidence in you?"
He looked pleased. "I reckon," he said, "I couldn't be so good if I wasn't bad onced in a while."
"Why, there's a skunk," said I, noticing the pretty little animal trotting in front of us at the edge of the thickets.
"Oh, where is it? Don't let me see it!" screamed Molly. And at this deeply feminine remark, the Virginian looked at her with such a smile that, had I been a woman, it would have made me his to do what he pleased with on the spot.
Upon the lady, however, it seemed to make less impression. Or rather, I had better say, whatever were her feelings, she very naturally made no display of them, and contrived not to be aware of that expression which had passed over the Virginian's face.
It was later that these few words reached me while I was fishing alone: "Have you anything different to tell me yet?" I heard him say.
"Yes; I have." She spoke in accents light and well intrenched. "I wish to say that I have never liked any man better than you. But I expect to!"
He must have drawn small comfort from such an answer as that. But he laughed out indomitably: "Don't yu' go betting on any such expectation!" And then their words ceased to be distinct, and it was only their two voices that I heard wandering among the windings of the stream.
XXII. "WHAT IS A RUSTLER?"
We all know what birds of a feather do. And it may be safely surmised that if a bird of any particular feather has been for a long while unable to see other birds of its kind, it will flock with them all the more assiduously when they happen to alight in its vicinity.
Now the Ogdens were birds of Molly's feather. They wore Eastern, and not Western, plumage, and their song was a different song from that which the Bear Creek birds sang. To be sure, the piping of little George Taylor was full of hopeful interest; and many other strains, both striking and melodious, were lifted in Cattle Land, and had given pleasure to Molly's ear. But although Indians, and bears, and mavericks, make worthy themes for song, these are not the only songs in the world. Therefore the Eastern warblings of the Ogdens sounded doubly sweet to Molly Wood. Such words as Newport, Bar Harbor, and Tiffany's thrilled her exceedingly. It made no difference that she herself had never been to Newport or Bar Harbor, and had visited Tiffany's more often to admire than to purchase. On the contrary, this rather added a dazzle to the music of the Ogdens. And Molly, whose Eastern song had been silent in this strange land, began to chirp it again during the visit that she made at the Sunk Creek Ranch.
Thus the Virginian's cause by no means prospered at this time. His forces were scattered, while Molly's were concentrated. The girl was not at that point where absence makes the heart grow fonder. While the Virginian was trundling his long, responsible miles in the caboose, delivering the cattle at Chicago, vanquishing Trampas along the Yellowstone, she had regained herself.
Thus it was that she could tell him so easily during those first hours that they were alone after his return, "I expect to like another man better than you."
Absence had recruited her. And then the Ogdens had reenforced her. They brought the East back powerfully to her memory, and her thoughts filled with it. They did not dream that they were assisting in any battle. No one ever had more unconscious allies than did Molly at that time. But she used them consciously, or almost consciously. She frequented them; she spoke of Eastern matters; she found that she had acquaintances whom the Ogdens also knew, and she often brought them into the conversation. For it may be said, I think, that she was fighting a battle—nay, a campaign. And perhaps this was a hopeful sign for the Virginian (had he but known it), that the girl resorted to allies. She surrounded herself, she steeped herself, with the East, to have, as it were, a sort of counteractant against the spell of the black-haired horse man.
And his forces were, as I have said, scattered. For his promotion gave him no more time for love-making. He was foreman now. He had said to Judge Henry, "I'll try to please yu'." And after the throb of emotion which these words had both concealed and conveyed, there came to him that sort of intention to win which amounts to a certainty. Yes, he would please Judge Henry!
He did not know how much he had already pleased him. He did not know that the Judge was humorously undecided which of his new foreman's first acts had the more delighted him: his performance with the missionary, or his magnanimity to Trampas.
"Good feeling is a great thing in any one," the Judge would say; "but I like to know that my foreman has so much sense."
"I am personally very grateful to him," said Mrs. Henry.
And indeed so was the whole company. To be afflicted with Dr. MacBride for one night instead of six was a great liberation.
But the Virginian never saw his sweetheart alone again; while she was at the Sunk Creek Ranch, his duties called him away so much that there was no chance for him. Worse still, that habit of birds of a feather brought about a separation more considerable. She arranged to go East with the Ogdens. It was so good an opportunity to travel with friends, instead of making the journey alone!
Molly's term of ministration at the schoolhouse had so pleased Bear Creek that she was warmly urged to take a holiday. School could afford to begin a little late. Accordingly, she departed.
The Virginian hid his sore heart from her during the moment of farewell that they had.
"No, I'll not want any more books," he said, "till yu' come back." And then he made cheerfulness. "It's just the other way round!" said he.
"What is the other way round?"
"Why, last time it was me that went travelling, and you that stayed behind."
"So it was!" And here she gave him a last scratch. "But you'll be busier than ever," she said; "no spare time to grieve about me!"
She could wound him, and she knew it. Nobody else could. That is why she did it.
But he gave her something to remember, too.
"Next time," he said, "neither of us will stay behind. We'll both go together."
And with these words he gave her no laughing glance. It was a look that mingled with the words; so that now and again in the train, both came back to her, and she sat pensive, drawing near to Bennington and hearing his voice and seeing his eyes.
How is it that this girl could cry at having to tell Sam Bannett she could not think of him, and then treat another lover as she treated the Virginian? I cannot tell you, having never (as I said before) been a woman myself.
Bennington opened its arms to its venturesome daughter. Much was made of Molly Wood. Old faces and old places welcomed her. Fatted calves of varying dimensions made their appearance. And although the fatted calf is an animal that can assume more divergent shapes than any other known creature,—being sometimes champagne and partridges, and again cake and currant wine,—through each disguise you can always identify the same calf. The girl from Bear Creek met it at every turn.
The Bannetts at Hoosic Falls offered a large specimen to Molly—a dinner (perhaps I should say a banquet) of twenty-four. And Sam Bannett of course took her to drive more than once.
"I want to see the Hoosic Bridge," she would say. And when they reached that well-remembered point, "How lovely it is!" she exclaimed. And as she gazed at the view up and down the valley, she would grow pensive. "How natural the church looks," she continued. And then, having crossed both bridges, "Oh, there's the dear old lodge gate!" Or again, while they drove up the valley of the little Hoosic: "I had forgotten it was so nice and lonely. But after all, no woods are so interesting as those where you might possibly see a bear or an elk." And upon another occasion, after a cry of enthusiasm at the view from the top of Mount Anthony, "It's lovely, lovely, lovely," she said, with diminishing cadence, ending in pensiveness once more. "Do you see that little bit just there? No, not where the trees are—that bare spot that looks brown and warm in the sun. With a little sagebrush, that spot would look something like a place I know on Bear Creek. Only of course you don't get the clear air here."
"I don't forget you," said Sam. "Do you remember me? Or is it out of sight out of mind?"
And with this beginning he renewed his suit. She told him that she forgot no one; that she should return always, lest they might forget her.
"Return always!" he exclaimed. "You talk as if your anchor was dragging."
Was it? At all events, Sam failed in his suit.
Over in the house at Dunbarton, the old lady held Molly's hand and looked a long while at her. "You have changed very much," she said finally.
"I am a year older," said the girl.
"Pshaw, my dear!" said the great-aunt. "Who is he?"
"Nobody!" cried Molly, with indignation.
"Then you shouldn't answer so loud," said the great-aunt.
The girl suddenly hid her face. "I don't believe I can love any one," she said, "except myself."
And then that old lady, who in her day had made her courtesy to Lafayette, began to stroke her niece's buried head, because she more than half understood. And understanding thus much, she asked no prying questions, but thought of the days of her own youth, and only spoke a little quiet love and confidence to Molly.
"I am an old, old woman," she said. "But I haven't forgotten about it. They objected to him because he had no fortune. But he was brave and handsome, and I loved him, my dear. Only I ought to have loved him more. I gave him my promise to think about it. And he and his ship were lost." The great-aunt's voice had become very soft and low, and she spoke with many pauses. "So then I knew. If I had—if—perhaps I should have lost trim; but it would have been after—ah, well! So long as you can help it, never marry! But when you cannot help it a moment longer, then listen to nothing but that; for, my dear, I know your choice would be worthy of the Starks. And now—let me see his picture."
"Why, aunty!" said Molly.
"Well, I won't pretend to be supernatural," said the aunt, "but I thought you kept one back when you were showing us those Western views last night."
Now this was the precise truth. Molly had brought a number of photographs from Wyoming to show to her friends at home. These, however, with one exception, were not portraits. They were views of scenery and of cattle round-ups, and other scenes characteristic of ranch life. Of young men she had in her possession several photographs, and all but one of these she had left behind her. Her aunt's penetration had in a way mesmerized the girl; she rose obediently and sought that picture of the Virginian. It was full length, displaying him in all his cow-boy trappings,—the leathern chaps, the belt and pistol, and in his hand a coil of rope.
Not one of her family had seen it, or suspected its existence. She now brought it downstairs and placed it in her aunt's hand.
"Mercy!" cried the old lady.
Molly was silent, but her eye grew warlike.
"Is that the way—" began the aunt. "Mercy!" she murmured; and she sat staring at the picture.
Molly remained silent.
Her aunt looked slowly up at her. "Has a man like that presumed—"
"He's not a bit like that. Yes, he's exactly like that," said Molly. And she would have snatched the photograph away, but her aunt retained it.
"Well," she said, "I suppose there are days when he does not kill people."
"He never killed anybody!" And Molly laughed.
"Are you seriously—" said the old lady.
"I almost might—at times. He is perfectly splendid."
"My dear, you have fallen in love with his clothes."
"It's not his clothes. And I'm not in love. He often wears others. He wears a white collar like anybody."
"Then that would be a more suitable way to be photographed, I think. He couldn't go round like that here. I could not receive him myself."
"He'd never think of such a thing. Why, you talk as if he were a savage."
The old lady studied the picture closely for a minute. "I think it is a good face," she finally remarked. "Is the fellow as handsome as that, my dear?"
More so, Molly thought. And who was he, and what were his prospects? were the aunt's next inquiries. She shook her head at the answers which she received; and she also shook her head over her niece's emphatic denial that her heart was lost to this man. But when their parting came, the old lady said: "God bless you and keep you, my dear. I'll not try to manage you. They managed me—" A sigh spoke the rest of this sentence. "But I'm not worried about you—at least, not very much. You have never done anything that was not worthy of the Starks. And if you're going to take him, do it before I die so that I can bid him welcome for your sake. God bless you, my dear."
And after the girl had gone back to Bennington, the great-aunt had this thought: "She is like us all. She wants a man that is a man." Nor did the old lady breathe her knowledge to any member of the family. For she was a loyal spirit, and her girl's confidence was sacred to her.
"Besides," she reflected, "if even I can do nothing with her, what a mess THEY'D make of it! We should hear of her elopement next."
So Molly's immediate family never saw that photograph, and never heard a word from her upon this subject. But on the day that she left for Bear Creek, as they sat missing her and discussing her visit in the evening, Mrs. Bell observed: "Mother, how did you think she was?"—"I never saw her better, Sarah. That horrible place seems to agree with her."—"Oh, yes, agree. It seemed to me—"—"Well?"—"Oh, just somehow that she was thinking."—"Thinking?"—"Well, I believe she has something on her mind."—"You mean a man," said Andrew Bell.—"A man, Andrew?"—"Yes, Mrs. Wood, that's what Sarah always means."
It may be mentioned that Sarah's surmises did not greatly contribute to her mother's happiness. And rumor is so strange a thing that presently from the malicious outside air came a vague and dreadful word—one of those words that cannot be traced to its source. Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard Miss Molly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.
"Heavens, Andrew!" said his wife; "what is a rustler?"
It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it were inconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passed through Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentary way to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had always supposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarming version of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.
Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word ran a sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meanings as it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a very few days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, a gold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; while Mrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.
Along Bear Creek, however, Molly and her "rustler" took a ride soon after her return. They were neither married nor engaged, and she was telling him about Vermont.
"I never was there," said he. "Never happened to strike in that direction."
"What decided your direction?"
"Oh, looking for chances. I reckon I must have been more ambitious than my brothers—or more restless. They stayed around on farms. But I got out. When I went back again six years afterward, I was twenty. They was talking about the same old things. Men of twenty-five and thirty—yet just sittin' and talkin' about the same old things. I told my mother about what I'd seen here and there, and she liked it, right to her death. But the others—well, when I found this whole world was hawgs and turkeys to them, with a little gunnin' afteh small game throwed in, I put on my hat one mawnin' and told 'em maybe when I was fifty I'd look in on 'em again to see if they'd got any new subjects. But they'll never. My brothers don't seem to want chances."
"You have lost a good many yourself," said Molly.
"And yet," said she, "sometimes I think you know a great deal more than I ever shall."
"Why, of course I do," said he, quite simply. "I have earned my living since I was fourteen. And that's from old Mexico to British Columbia. I have never stolen or begged a cent. I'd not want yu' to know what I know."
She was looking at him, half listening and half thinking of her great-aunt.
"I am not losing chances any more," he continued. "And you are the best I've got."
She was not sorry to have Georgie Taylor come galloping along at this moment and join them. But the Virginian swore profanely under his breath. And on this ride nothing more happened.
XXIII. VARIOUS POINTS
Love had been snowbound for many weeks. Before this imprisonment its course had run neither smooth nor rough, so far as eye could see; it had run either not at all, or, as an undercurrent, deep out of sight. In their rides, in their talks, love had been dumb, as to spoken words at least; for the Virginian had set himself a heavy task of silence and of patience. Then, where winter barred his visits to Bear Creek, and there was for the while no ranch work or responsibility to fill his thoughts and blood with action, he set himself a task much lighter. Often, instead of Shakespeare and fiction, school books lay open on his cabin table; and penmanship and spelling helped the hours to pass. Many sheets of paper did he fill with various exercises, and Mrs. Henry gave him her assistance in advice and corrections.
"I shall presently be in love with him myself," she told the Judge. "And it's time for you to become anxious."
"I am perfectly safe," he retorted. "There's only one woman for him any more."
"She is not good enough for him," declared Mrs. Henry. "But he'll never see that."
So the snow fell, the world froze, and the spelling-books and exercises went on. But this was not the only case of education which was progressing at the Sunk Creek Ranch while love was snowbound.
One morning Scipio le Moyne entered the Virginian's sitting room—that apartment where Dr. MacBride had wrestled with sin so courageously all night.
The Virginian sat at his desk. Open books lay around him; a half-finished piece of writing was beneath his fist; his fingers were coated with ink. Education enveloped him, it may be said. But there was none in his eye. That was upon the window, looking far across the cold plain.
The foreman did not move when Scipio came in, and this humorous spirit smiled to himself. "It's Bear Creek he's havin' a vision of," he concluded. But he knew instantly that this was not so. The Virginian was looking at something real, and Scipio went to the window to see for himself.
"Well," he said, having seen, "when is he going to leave us?"
The foreman continued looking at two horsemen riding together. Their shapes, small in the distance, showed black against the universal whiteness.
"When d' yu' figure he'll leave us?" repeated Scipio.
"He," murmured the Virginian, always watching the distant horsemen; and again, "he."
Scipio sprawled down, familiarly, across a chair. He and the Virginian had come to know each other very well since that first meeting at Medora. They were birds many of whose feathers were the same, and the Virginian often talked to Scipio without reserve. Consequently, Scipio now understood those two syllables that the Virginian had pronounced precisely as though the sentences which lay between them had been fully expressed.
"Hm," he remarked. "Well, one will be a gain, and the other won't be no loss."
"Poor Shorty!" said the Virginian. "Poor fool!"
Scipio was less compassionate. "No," he persisted, "I ain't sorry for him. Any man old enough to have hair on his face ought to see through Trampas."
The Virginian looked out of the window again, and watched Shorty and Trampas as they rode in the distance. "Shorty is kind to animals," he said. "He has gentled that hawss Pedro he bought with his first money. Gentled him wonderful. When a man is kind to dumb animals, I always say he had got some good in him."