"Oh, my luck! People have different notions of luck."
"He has been very kind."
"Kind!" And now without further simmering, Mrs. Taylor's wrath boiled up and poured copiously over Molly Wood. "Kind! There's a word you shouldn't use, my dear. No doubt you can spell it. But more than its spelling I guess you don't know. The children can learn what it means from some of the rest of us folks that don't spell so correct, maybe."
"Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Taylor—"
"I can't wait, deary. Since the roughness looks bigger to you than the diamond, you had better go back to Vermont. I expect you'll find better grammar there, deary."
The good dame stalked out, and across to her own cabin, and left the angry girl among her boxes. It was in vain she fell to work upon them. Presently something had to be done over again, and when it was the box held several chattels less than before the readjustment. She played a sort of desperate dominos to fit these objects in the space, but here were a paper-weight, a portfolio, with two wretched volumes that no chink would harbor; and letting them fall all at once, she straightened herself, still stormy with revolt, eyes and cheeks still hot from the sting of long-parried truth. There, on her wall still, was the miniature, the little silent ancestress; and upon this face the girl's glance rested. It was as if she appealed to Grandmother Stark for support and comfort across the hundred years which lay between them. So the flaxen girl on the wall and she among the boxes stood a moment face to face in seeming communion, and then the descendant turned again to her work. But after a desultory touch here and there she drew a long breath and walked to the open door. What use was in finishing to-day, when she had nearly a week? This first spurt of toil had swept the cabin bare of all indwelling charm, and its look was chill. Across the lane his horse, the one he had "gentled" for her, was grazing idly. She walked there and caught him, and led him to her gate. Mrs. Taylor saw her go in, and soon come out in riding-dress; and she watched the girl throw the saddle on with quick ease—the ease he had taught her. Mrs. Taylor also saw the sharp cut she gave the horse, and laughed grimly to herself in her window as horse and rider galloped into the beautiful sunny loneliness.
To the punished animal this switching was new! and at its third repetition he turned his head in surprise, but was no more heeded than were the bluffs and flowers where he was taking his own undirected choice of way. He carried her over ground she knew by heart—Corncliff Mesa, Crowheart Butte, Westfall's Crossing, Upper Canyon; open land and woodland, pines and sage-brush, all silent and grave and lustrous in the sunshine. Once and again a ranchman greeted her, and wondered if she had forgotten who he was; once she passed some cow-punchers with a small herd of steers, and they stared after her too. Bear Creek narrowed, its mountain-sides drew near, its little falls began to rush white in midday shadow, and the horse suddenly pricked his ears. Unguided, he was taking this advantage to go home. Though he had made but little way—a mere beginning yet—on this trail over to Sunk Creek, here was already a Sunk Creek friend whinnying good day to him, so he whinnied back and quickened his pace, and Molly started to life. What was Monte doing here? She saw the black horse she knew also, saddled, with reins dragging on the trail as the rider had dropped them to dismount. A cold spring bubbled out beyond the next rock, and she knew her lover's horse was waiting for him while he drank. She pulled at the reins, but loosed them, for to turn and escape now was ridiculous; and riding boldly round the rock, she came upon him by the spring. One of his arms hung up to its elbow in the pool, the other was crooked beside his head, but the face was sunk downward against the shelving rock, so that she saw only his black, tangled hair. As her horse snorted and tossed his head she looked swiftly at Monte, as if to question him. Seeing now the sweat matted on his coat, and noting the white rim of his eye, she sprang and ran to the motionless figure. A patch of blood at his shoulder behind stained the soft flannel shirt, spreading down beneath his belt, and the man's whole strong body lay slack and pitifully helpless.
She touched the hand beside his head, but it seemed neither warm nor cold to her; she felt for the pulse, as nearly as she could remember the doctors did, but could not tell whether she imagined or not that it was still; twice with painful care her fingers sought and waited for the beat, and her face seemed like one of listening. She leaned down and lifted his other arm and hand from the water, and as their ice-coldness reached her senses, clearly she saw the patch near the shoulder she had moved grow wet with new blood, and at that sight she grasped at the stones upon which she herself now sank. She held tight by two rocks, sitting straight beside him, staring, and murmuring aloud, "I must not faint; I will not faint;" and the standing horses looked at her, pricking their ears.
In this cup-like spread of the ravine the sun shone warmly down, the tall red cliff was warm, the pines were a warm film and filter of green; outside the shade across Bear Creek rose the steep, soft, open yellow hill, warm and high to the blue, and Bear Creek tumbled upon its sunsparkling stones. The two horses on the margin trail still looked at the spring and trees, where sat the neat flaxen girl so rigid by the slack prone body in its flannel shirt and leathern chaps. Suddenly her face livened. "But the blood ran!" she exclaimed, as if to the horses, her companions in this. She moved to him, and put her hand in through his shirt against his heart.
Next moment she had sprung up and was at his saddle, searching, then swiftly went on to her own and got her small flask and was back beside him. Here was the cold water he had sought, and she put it against his forehead and drenched the wounded shoulder with it. Three times she tried to move him, so he might lie more easy, but his dead weight was too much, and desisting, she sat close and raised his head to let it rest against her. Thus she saw the blood that was running from in front of the shoulder also; but she said no more about fainting. She tore strips from her dress and soaked them, keeping them cold and wet upon both openings of his wound, and she drew her pocket-knife out and cut his shirt away from the place. As she continually rinsed and cleaned it, she watched his eyelashes, long and soft and thick, but they did not stir. Again she tried the flask, but failed from being still too gentle, and her searching eyes fell upon ashes near the pool. Still undispersed by the weather lay the small charred ends of a fire he and she had made once here together, to boil coffee and fry trout. She built another fire now, and when the flames were going well, filled her flask-cup from the spring and set it to heat. Meanwhile, she returned to nurse his head and wound. Her cold water had stopped the bleeding. Then she poured her brandy in the steaming cup, and, made rough by her desperate helplessness, forced some between his lips and teeth.
Instantly, almost, she felt the tremble of life creeping back, and as his deep eyes opened upon her she sat still and mute. But the gaze seemed luminous with an unnoting calm, and she wondered if perhaps he could not recognize her; she watched this internal clearness of his vision, scarcely daring to breathe, until presently he began to speak, with the same profound and clear impersonality sounding in his slowly uttered words.
"I thought they had found me. I expected they were going to kill me." He stopped, and she gave him more of the hot drink, which he took, still lying and looking at her as if the present did not reach his senses. "I knew hands were touching me. I reckon I was not dead. I knew about them soon as they began, only I could not interfere." He waited again. "It is mighty strange where I have been. No. Mighty natural." Then he went back into his revery, and lay with his eyes still full open upon her where she sat motionless.
She began to feel a greater awe in this living presence than when it had been his body with an ice-cold hand; and she quietly spoke his name, venturing scarcely more than a whisper.
At this, some nearer thing wakened in his look. "But it was you all along," he resumed. "It is you now. You must not stay—" Weakness overcame him, and his eyes closed. She sat ministering to him, and when he roused again, he began anxiously at once: "You must not stay. They would get you, too."
She glanced at him with a sort of fierceness, then reached for his pistol, in which was nothing but blackened empty cartridges. She threw these out and drew six from his belt, loaded the weapon, and snapped shut its hinge.
"Please take it," he said, more anxious and more himself. "I ain't worth tryin' to keep. Look at me!"
"Are you giving up?" she inquired, trying to put scorn in her tone. Then she seated herself.
"Where is the sense in both of us—"
"You had better save your strength," she interrupted.
He tried to sit up.
"Lie down!" she ordered.
He sank obediently, and began to smile.
When she saw that, she smiled too, and unexpectedly took his hand. "Listen, friend," said she. "Nobody shall get you, and nobody shall get me. Now take some more brandy."
"It must be noon," said the cow-puncher, when she had drawn her hand away from him. "I remember it was dark when—when—when I can remember. I reckon they were scared to follow me in so close to settlers. Else they would have been here."
"You must rest," she observed.
She broke the soft ends of some evergreen, and putting them beneath his head, went to the horses, loosened the cinches, took off the bridles, led them to drink, and picketed them to feed. Further still, to leave nothing undone which she could herself manage, she took the horses' saddles off to refold the blankets when the time should come, and meanwhile brought them for him. But he put them away from him. He was sitting up against a rock, stronger evidently, and asking for cold water. His head was fire-hot, and the paleness beneath his swarthy skin had changed to a deepening flush.
"Only five miles!" she said to him, bathing his head.
"Yes. I must hold it steady," he answered, waving his hand at the cliff.
She told him to try and keep it steady until they got home.
"Yes," he repeated. "Only five miles. But it's fightin' to turn around." Half aware that he was becoming light-headed, he looked from the rock to her and from her to the rock with dilating eyes.
"We can hold it together," she said. "You must get on your horse." She took his handkerchief from round his neck, knotting it with her own, and to make more bandage she ran to the roll of clothes behind his saddle and tore in halves a clean shirt. A handkerchief fell from it, which she seized also, and opening, saw her own initials by the hem. Then she remembered: she saw again their first meeting, the swollen river, the overset stage, the unknown horseman who carried her to the bank on his saddle and went away unthanked—her whole first adventure on that first day of her coming to this new country—and now she knew how her long-forgotten handkerchief had gone that day. She refolded it gently and put it back in his bundle, for there was enough bandage without it. She said not a word to him, and he placed a wrong meaning upon the look which she gave him as she returned to bind his shoulder.
"It don't hurt so much," he assured her (though extreme pain was clearing his head for the moment, and he had been able to hold the cliff from turning). "Yu' must not squander your pity."
"Do not squander your strength," said she.
"Oh, I could put up a pretty good fight now!" But he tottered in showing her how strong he was, and she told him that, after all, he was a child still.
"Yes," he slowly said, looking after her as she went to bring his horse, "the same child that wanted to touch the moon, I guess." And during the slow climb down into the saddle from a rock to which she helped him he said, "You have got to be the man all through this mess."
She saw his teeth clinched and his drooping muscles compelled by will; and as he rode and she walked to lend him support, leading her horse by a backward-stretched left hand, she counted off the distance to him continually—the increasing gain, the lessening road, the landmarks nearing and dropping behind; here was the tree with the wasp-nest gone; now the burned cabin was passed; now the cottonwoods at the ford were in sight. He was silent, and held to the saddle-horn, leaning more and more against his two hands clasped over it; and just after they had made the crossing he fell, without a sound slipping to the grass, and his descent broken by her. But it started the blood a little, and she dared not leave him to seek help. She gave him the last of the flask and all the water he craved.
Revived, he managed to smile. "Yu' see, I ain't worth keeping."
"It's only a mile," said she. So she found a log, a fallen trunk, and he crawled to that, and from there crawled to his saddle, and she marched on with him, talking, bidding him note the steps accomplished. For the next half-mile they went thus, the silent man clinched on the horse, and by his side the girl walking and cheering him forward, when suddenly he began to speak:— "I will say good-by to you now, ma'am."
She did not understand, at first, the significance of this.
"He is getting away," pursued the Virginian. "I must ask you to excuse me, ma'am."
It was a long while since her lord had addressed her as "ma'am." As she looked at him in growing apprehension, he turned Monte and would have ridden away, but she caught the bridle.
"You must take me home," said she, with ready inspiration. "I am afraid of the Indians."
"Why, you—why, they've all gone. There he goes. Ma'am—that hawss—"
"No," said she, holding firmly his rein and quickening her step. "A gentleman does not invite a lady to go out riding and leave her."
His eyes lost their purpose. "I'll cert'nly take you home. That sorrel has gone in there by the wallow, and Judge Henry will understand." With his eyes watching imaginary objects, he rode and rambled and it was now the girl who was silent, except to keep his mind from its half-fixed idea of the sorrel. As he grew more fluent she hastened still more, listening to head off that notion of return, skilfully inventing questions to engage him, so that when she brought him to her gate she held him in a manner subjected, answering faithfully the shrewd unrealities which she devised, whatever makeshifts she could summon to her mind; and next she had got him inside her dwelling and set him down docile, but now completely wandering; and then—no help was at hand, even here. She had made sure of aid from next door, and there she hastened, to find the Taylor's cabin locked and silent; and this meant that parents and children were gone to drive; nor might she be luckier at her next nearest neighbors', should she travel the intervening mile to fetch them. With a mind jostled once more into uncertainty, she returned to her room, and saw a change in him already. Illness had stridden upon him; his face was not as she had left it, and the whole body, the splendid supple horseman, showed sickness in every line and limb, its spurs and pistol and bold leather chaps a mockery of trappings. She looked at him, and decision came back to her, clear and steady. She supported him over to her bed and laid him on it. His head sank flat, and his loose, nerveless arms stayed as she left them. Then among her packing-boxes and beneath the little miniature, blue and flaxen and gold upon its lonely wall, she undressed him. He was cold, and she covered him to the face, and arranged the pillow, and got from its box her scarlet and black Navajo blanket and spread it over him. There was no more that she could do, and she sat down by him to wait. Among the many and many things that came into her mind was a word he said to her lightly a long while ago. "Cow-punchers do not live long enough to get old," he had told her. And now she looked at the head upon the pillow, grave and strong, but still the head of splendid, unworn youth.
At the distant jingle of the wagon in the lane she was out, and had met her returning neighbors midway. They heard her with amazement, and came in haste to the bedside; then Taylor departed to spread news of the Indians and bring the doctor, twenty-five miles away. The two women friends stood alone again, as they had stood in the morning when anger had been between them.
"Kiss me, deary," said Mrs. Taylor. "Now I will look after him—and you'll need some looking after yourself."
But on returning from her cabin with what store she possessed of lint and stimulants, she encountered a rebel, independent as ever. Molly would hear no talk about saving her strength, would not be in any room but this one until the doctor should arrive; then perhaps it would be time to think about resting. So together the dame and the girl rinsed the man's wound and wrapped him in clean things, and did all the little that they knew—which was, in truth, the very thing needed. Then they sat watching him toss and mutter. It was no longer upon Indians or the sorrel horse that his talk seemed to run, or anything recent, apparently, always excepting his work. This flowingly merged with whatever scene he was inventing or living again, and he wandered unendingly in that incompatible world we dream in. Through the medley of events and names, often thickly spoken, but rising at times to grotesque coherence, the listeners now and then could piece out the reference from their own knowledge. "Monte," for example, continually addressed, and Molly heard her own name, but invariably as "Miss Wood"; nothing less respectful came out, and frequently he answered some one as "ma'am." At these fragments of revelation Mrs. Taylor abstained from speech, but eyed Molly Wood with caustic reproach. As the night wore on, short lulls of silence intervened, and the watchers were deceived into hope that the fever was abating. And when the Virginian sat quietly up in bed, essayed to move his bandage, and looked steadily at Mrs. Taylor, she rose quickly and went to him with a question as to how he was doing.
"Rise on your laigs, you polecat," said he, "and tell them you're a liar."
The good dame gasped, then bade him lie down, and he obeyed her with that strange double understanding of the delirious; for even while submitting, he muttered "liar," "polecat," and then "Trampas."
At that name light flashed on Mrs. Taylor, and she turned to Molly; and there was the girl struggling with a fit of mirth at his speech; but the laughter was fast becoming a painful seizure. Mrs. Taylor walked Molly up and down, speaking mmediately to arrest her attention.
"You might as well know it," she said. "He would blame me for speaking of it, but where's the harm all this while after? And you would never hear it from his mouth. Molly, child, they say Trampas would kill him if he dared, and that's on account of you."
"I never saw Trampas," said Molly, fixing her eyes upon the speaker.
"No, deary. But before a lot of men—Taylor has told me about it—Trampas spoke disrespectfully of you, and before them all he made Trampas say he was a liar. That is what he did when you were almost a stranger among us, and he had not started seeing so much of you. I expect Trampas is the only enemy he ever had in this country. But he would never let you know about that."
"No," whispered Molly; "I did not know."
"Steve!" the sick man now cried out, in poignant appeal. "Steve!" To the women it was a name unknown,—unknown as was also this deep inward tide of feeling which he could no longer conceal, being himself no longer. "No, Steve," he said next, and muttering followed. "It ain't so!" he shouted; and then cunningly in a lowered voice, "Steve, I have lied for you."
In time Mrs. Taylor spoke some advice.
"You had better go to bed, child. You look about ready for the doctor yourself."
"Then I will wait for him," said Molly.
So the two nurses continued to sit until darkness at the windows weakened into gray, and the lamp was no more needed. Their patient was rambling again. Yet, into whatever scenes he went, there in some guise did the throb of his pain evidently follow him, and he lay hitching his great shoulder as if to rid it of the cumbrance. They waited for the doctor, not daring much more than to turn pillows and give what other ease they could; and then, instead of the doctor, came a messenger, about noon, to say he was gone on a visit some thirty miles beyond, where Taylor had followed to bring him here as soon as might be. At this Molly consented to rest and to watch, turn about; and once she was over in her friend's house lying down, they tried to keep her there. But the revolutionist could not be put down, and when, as a last pretext, Mrs. Taylor urged the proprieties and conventions, the pale girl from Vermont laughed sweetly in her face and returned to sit by the sick man. With the approach of the second night his fever seemed to rise and master him more completely than they had yet seen it, and presently it so raged that the women called in stronger arms to hold him down. There were times when he broke out in the language of the round-up, and Mrs. Taylor renewed her protests. "Why," said Molly "don't you suppose I knew they could swear?" So the dame, in deepening astonishment and affection, gave up these shifts at decorum. Nor did the delirium run into the intimate, coarse matters that she dreaded. The cow-puncher had lived like his kind, but his natural daily thoughts were clean, and came from the untamed but unstained mind of a man. And toward morning, as Mrs. Taylor sat taking her turn, suddenly he asked had he been sick long, and looked at her with a quieted eye. The wandering seemed to drop from him at a stroke, leaving him altogether himself. He lay very feeble, and inquired once or twice of his state and how he came here; nor was anything left in his memory of even coming to the spring where he had been found.
When the doctor arrived, he pronounced that it would be long—or very short. He praised their clean water treatment; the wound was fortunately well up on the shoulder, and gave so far no bad signs; there were not any bad signs; and the blood and strength of the patient had been as few men's were; each hour was now an hour nearer certainty, and meanwhile—meanwhile the doctor would remain as long as he could. He had many inquiries to satisfy. Dusty fellows would ride up, listen to him, and reply, as they rode away, "Don't yu' let him die, Doc." And Judge Henry sent over from Sunk Creek to answer for any attendance or medicine that might help his foreman. The country was moved with concern and interest; and in Molly's ears its words of good feeling seemed to unite and sum up a burden, "Don't yu' let him die, Doc." The Indians who had done this were now in military custody. They had come unpermitted from a southern reservation, hunting, next thieving, and as the slumbering spirit roused in one or two of the young and ambitious, they had ventured this in the secret mountains, and perhaps had killed a trapper found there. Editors immediately reared a tall war out of it; but from five Indians in a guard-house waiting punishment not even an editor can supply spar for more than two editions, and if the recent alarm was still a matter of talk anywhere, it was not here in the sick-room. Whichever way the case should turn, it was through Molly alone (the doctor told her) that the wounded man had got this chance—this good chance, he related.
And he told her she had not done a woman's part, but a man's part, and now had no more to do; no more till the patient got well, and could thank her in his own way, said the doctor, smiling, and supposing things that were not so—misled perhaps by Mrs. Taylor.
"I'm afraid I'll be gone by the time he is well," said Molly, coldly; and the discreet physician said ah, and that she would find Bennington quite a change from Bear Creek.
But Mrs. Taylor spoke otherwise, and at that the girl said: "I shall stay as long as I am needed. I will nurse him. I want to nurse him. I will do everything for him that I can!" she exclaimed, with force.
"And that won't be anything, deary," said Mrs. Taylor, harshly. "A year of nursing don't equal a day of sweetheart."
The girl took a walk,—she was of no more service in the room at present,—but she turned without going far, and Mrs. Taylor spied her come to lean over the pasture fence and watch the two horses—that one the Virginian had "gentled" for her, and his own Monte. During this suspense came a new call for the doctor, neighbors profiting by his visit to Bear Creek; and in his going away to them, even under promise of quick return, Mrs. Taylor suspected a favorable sign. He kept his word as punctually as had been possible, arriving after some six hours with a confident face, and spending now upon the patient a care not needed, save to reassure the bystanders. He spoke his opinion that all was even better than he could have hoped it would be, so soon. Here was now the beginning of the fifth day; the wound's look was wholesome, no further delirium had come, and the fever had abated a degree while he was absent. He believed the serious danger-line lay behind, and (short of the unforeseen) the man's deep untainted strength would reassert its control. He had much blood to make, and must be cared for during weeks—three, four, five—there was no saying how long yet. These next few days it must be utter quiet for him; he must not talk nor hear anything likely to disturb him; and then the time for cheerfulness and gradual company would come—sooner than later, the doctor hoped. So he departed, and sent next day some bottles, with further cautions regarding the wound and dirt, and to say he should be calling the day after to-morrow.
Upon that occasion he found two patients. Molly Wood lay in bed at Mrs. Taylor's, filled with apology and indignation. With little to do, and deprived of the strong stimulant of anxiety and action, her strength had quite suddenly left her, so that she had spoken only in a sort of whisper. But upon waking from a long sleep, after Mrs. Taylor had taken her firmly, almost severely, in hand, her natural voice had returned, and now the chief treatment the doctor gave her was a sort of scolding, which it pleased Mrs. Taylor to hear. The doctor even dropped a phrase concerning the arrogance of strong nerves in slender bodies, and of undertaking several people's work when several people were at hand to do it for themselves, and this pleased Mrs. Taylor remarkably. As for the wounded man, he was behaving himself properly. Perhaps in another week he could be moved to a more cheerful room. Just now, with cleanliness and pure air, any barn would do.
"We are real lucky to have such a sensible doctor in the country," Mrs. Taylor observed, after the physician had gone.
"No doubt," said Molly. "He said my room was a barn."
"That's what you've made it, deary. But sick men don't notice much."
Nevertheless, one may believe, without going widely astray, that illness, so far from veiling, more often quickens the perceptions—at any rate those of the naturally keen. On a later day—and the interval was brief—while Molly was on her second drive to take the air with Mrs. Taylor, that lady informed her that the sick man had noticed. "And I could not tell him things liable to disturb him," said she, "and so I—well, I expect I just didn't exactly tell him the facts. I said yes, you were packing up for a little visit to your folks. They had not seen you for quite a while, I said. And he looked at those boxes kind of silent like."
"There's no need to move him," said Molly. '"It is simpler to move them—the boxes. I could take out some of my things, you know, just while he has to be kept there. I mean—you see, if the doctor says the room should be cheerful—"
"I will ask the doctor next time," said Molly, "if he believes I am—competent to spread a rug upon a floor." Molly's references to the doctor were usually acid these days. And this he totally failed to observe, telling her when he came, why, to be sure! the very thing! And if she could play cards or read aloud, or afford any other light distractions, provided they did not lead the patient to talk and tire himself, that she would be most useful. Accordingly she took over the cribbage board, and came with unexpected hesitation face to face again with the swarthy man she had saved and tended. He was not so swarthy now, but neat, with chin clean, and hair and mustache trimmed and smooth, and he sat propped among pillows watching for her.
"You are better," she said, speaking first, and with uncertain voice.
"Yes. They have given me awdehs not to talk," said the Southerner, smiling.
"Oh, yes. Please do not talk—not to-day."
"No. Only this"—he looked at her, and saw her seem to shrink—"thank you for what you have done," he said simply.
She took tenderly the hand he stretched to her; and upon these terms they set to work at cribbage. She won, and won again, and the third time laid down her cards and reproached him with playing in order to lose.
"No," he said, and his eye wandered to the boxes. "But my thoughts get away from me. I'll be strong enough to hold them on the cyards next time, I reckon."
Many tones in his voice she had heard, but never the tone of sadness until to-day.
Then they played a little more, and she put away the board for this first time.
"You are going now?" he asked.
"When I have made this room look a little less forlorn. They haven't wanted to meddle with my things, I suppose." And Molly stooped once again among the chattels destined for Vermont. Out they came; again the bearskin was spread on the floor, various possessions and ornaments went back into their ancient niches, the shelves grew comfortable with books, and, last, some flowers were stood on the table.
"More like old times," said the Virginian, but sadly.
"It's too bad," said Molly, "you had to be brought into such a looking place."
"And your folks waiting for you," said he.
"Oh, I'll pay my visit later," said Molly, putting the rug a trifle straighter.
"May I ask one thing?" pleaded the Virginian, and at the gentleness of his voice her face grew rosy, and she fixed her eyes on him with a sort of dread.
"Anything that I can answer," said she.
"Oh, yes. Did I tell yu' to quit me, and did yu' load up my gun and stay? Was that a real business? I have been mixed up in my haid."
"That was real," said Molly. "What else was there to do?"
"Just nothing—for such as you!" he exclaimed. "My haid has been mighty crazy; and that little grandmother of yours yondeh, she—but I can't just quite catch a-hold of these things"—he passed a hand over his forehead—"so many—or else one right along—well, it's all foolishness!" he concluded, with something almost savage in his tone. And after she had gone from the cabin he lay very still, looking at the miniature on the wall.
He was in another sort of mood the next time, cribbage not interesting him in the least. "Your folks will be wondering about you," said he.
"I don't think they will mind which month I go to them," said Molly. "Especially when they know the reason."
"Don't let me keep you, ma'am," said he. Molly stared at him; but he pursued, with the same edge lurking in his slow words: "Though I'll never forget. How could I forget any of all you have done—and been? If there had been none of this, why, I had enough to remember! But please don't stay, ma'am. We'll say I had a claim when yu' found me pretty well dead, but I'm gettin' well, yu' see—right smart, too!"
"I can't understand, indeed I can't," said Molly, "why you're talking so!"
He seemed to have certain moods when he would address her as "ma'am," and this she did not like, but could not prevent.
"Oh, a sick man is funny. And yu' know I'm grateful to you."
"Please say no more about that, or I shall go this afternoon. I don't want to go. I am not ready. I think I had better read something now."
"Why, yes. That's cert'nly a good notion. Why, this is the best show you'll ever get to give me education. Won't yu' please try that EMMA book now, ma'am? Listening to you will be different." This was said with softness and humility.
Uncertain—as his gravity often left her—precisely what he meant by what he said, Molly proceeded with EMMA, slackly at first, but soon with the enthusiasm that Miss Austen invariably gave her. She held the volume and read away at it, commenting briefly, and then, finishing a chapter of the sprightly classic, found her pupil slumbering peacefully. There was no uncertainty about that.
"You couldn't be doing a healthier thing for him, deary," said Mrs. Taylor. "If it gets to make him wakeful, try something harder." This was the lady's scarcely sympathetic view.
But it turned out to be not obscurity in which Miss Austen sinned.
When Molly next appeared at the Virginian's threshold, he said plaintively, "I reckon I am a dunce." And he sued for pardon. "When I waked up," he said, "I was ashamed of myself for a plumb half-hour." Nor could she doubt this day that he meant what he said. His mood was again serene and gentle, and without referring to his singular words that had distressed her, he made her feel his contrition, even in his silence.
"I am right glad you have come," he said. And as he saw her going to the bookshelf, he continued, with diffidence: "As regyards that EMMA book, yu' see—yu' see, the doin's and sayin's of folks like them are above me. But I think" (he spoke most diffidently), "if yu' could read me something that was ABOUT something, I—I'd be liable to keep awake." And he smiled with a certain shyness.
"Something ABOUT something?" queried Molly, at a loss.
"Why, yes. Shakespeare. HENRY THE FOURTH. The British king is fighting, and there is his son the prince. He cert'nly must have been a jim-dandy boy if that is all true. Only he would go around town with a mighty triflin' gang. They sported and they held up citizens. And his father hated his travelling with trash like them. It was right natural—the boy and the old man! But the boy showed himself a man too. He killed a big fighter on the other side who was another jim-dandy—and he was sorry for having it to do." The Virginian warmed to his recital. "I understand most all of that. There was a fat man kept everybody laughing. He was awful natural too; except yu' don't commonly meet 'em so fat. But the prince—that play is bed-rock, ma'am! Have you got something like that?"
"Yes, I think so," she replied. "I believe I see what you would appreciate."
She took her Browning, her idol, her imagined affinity. For the pale decadence of New England had somewhat watered her good old Revolutionary blood too, and she was inclined to think under glass and to live underdone—when there were no Indians to shoot! She would have joyed to venture "Paracelsus" on him, and some lengthy rhymed discourses; and she fondly turned leaves and leaves of her pet doggerel analytics. "Pippa Passes" and others she had to skip, from discreet motives—pages which he would have doubtless stayed awake at; but she chose a poem at length. This was better than Emma, he pronounced. And short. The horse was a good horse. He thought a man whose horse must not play out on him would watch the ground he was galloping over for holes, and not be likely to see what color the rims of his animal's eye-sockets were. You could not see them if you sat as you ought to for such a hard ride. Of the next piece that she read him he thought still better. "And it is short," said he. "But the last part drops."
Molly instantly exacted particulars.
"The soldier should not have told the general he was killed," stated the cow-puncher.
"What should he have told him, I'd like to know?" said Molly.
"Why, just nothing. If the soldier could ride out of the battle all shot up, and tell his general about their takin' the town—that was being gritty, yu' see. But that truck at the finish—will yu' please say it again?"
So Molly read:—
"'You're wounded! 'Nay,' the soldier's pride Touched to the quick, he said, 'I'm killed, sire!' And, his chief beside, Smiling the boy fell dead."
"'Nay, I'm killed, sire,'" drawled the Virginian, amiably; for (symptom of convalescence) his freakish irony was revived in him. "Now a man who was man enough to act like he did, yu' see, would fall dead without mentioning it."
None of Molly's sweet girl friends had ever thus challenged Mr. Browning. They had been wont to cluster over him with a joyous awe that deepened proportionally with their misunderstanding. Molly paused to consider this novelty of view about the soldier. "He was a Frenchman, you know," she said, under inspiration.
"A Frenchman," murmured the grave cowpuncher. "I never knowed a Frenchman, but I reckon they might perform that class of foolishness."
"But why was it foolish?" she cried.
"His soldier's pride—don't you see?"
Molly now burst into a luxury of discussion. She leaned toward her cow-puncher with bright eyes searching his; with elbow on knee and hand propping chin, her lap became a slant, and from it Browning the poet slid and toppled, and lay unrescued. For the slow cow-puncher unfolded his notions of masculine courage and modesty (though he did not deal in such high-sounding names), and Molly forgot everything to listen to him, as he forgot himself and his inveterate shyness and grew talkative to her. "I would never have supposed that!" she would exclaim as she heard him; or, presently again, "I never had such an idea!" And her mind opened with delight to these new things which came from the man's mind so simple and direct. To Browning they did come back, but the Virginian, though interested, conceived a dislike for him. "He is a smarty," said he, once or twice.
"Now here is something," said Molly. "I have never known what to think."
"Oh, Heavens!" murmured the sick man, smiling. "Is it short?"
"Very short. Now please attend." And she read him twelve lines about a lover who rowed to a beach in the dusk, crossed a field, tapped at a pane, and was admitted.
"That is the best yet," said the Virginian. "There's only one thing yu' can think about that."
"But wait," said the girl, swiftly. "Here is how they parted:—
"Round the cape of a sudden came the sea, And the sun looked over the mountain's rim— And straight was a path of gold for him, And the need of a world of men for me."
"That is very, very true," murmured the Virginian, dropping his eyes from the girl's intent ones.
"Had they quarrelled?" she inquired.
"I reckon he loved her very much."
"Then you're sure they hadn't quarrelled?"
"Dead sure, ma'am. He would come back afteh he had played some more of the game."
"Life, ma'am. Whatever he was a-doin' in the world of men. That's a bed-rock piece, ma'am!"
"Well, I don't see why you think it's so much better than some of the others."
"I could sca'cely explain," answered the man. "But that writer does know something."
"I am glad they hadn't quarrelled," said Molly, thoughtfully. And she began to like having her opinions refuted.
His bandages, becoming a little irksome, had to be shifted, and this turned their discourse from literature to Wyoming; and Molly inquired, had he ever been shot before? Only once, he told her. "I have been lucky in having few fusses," said he. "I hate them. If a man has to be killed—"
"You never—" broke in Molly. She had started back a little. "Well," she added hastily, "don't tell me if—"
"I shouldn't wonder if I got one of those Indians," he said quietly. "But I wasn't waitin' to see! But I came mighty near doing for a white man that day. He had been hurtin' a hawss."
"Hurting?" said Molly.
"Injurin.' I will not tell yu' about that. It would hurt yu' to hear such things. But hawsses—don't they depend on us? Ain't they somethin' like children? I did not lay up the man very bad. He was able to travel 'most right away. Why, you'd have wanted to kill him yourself!"
So the Virginian talked, nor knew what he was doing to the girl. Nor was she aware of what she was receiving from him as he unwittingly spoke himself out to her in these Browning meetings they had each day. But Mrs. Taylor grew pleased. The kindly dame would sometimes cross the road to see if she were needed, and steal away again after a peep at the window. There, inside, among the restored home treasures, sat the two: the rosy alert girl, sweet as she talked or read to him; and he, the grave, half-weak giant among his wraps, watching her.
Of her delayed home visit he never again spoke, either to her or to Mrs. Taylor; and Molly veered aside from any trend of talk she foresaw was leading toward that subject. But in those hours when no visitors came, and he was by himself in the quiet, he would lie often sombrely contemplating the girl's room, her little dainty knickknacks, her home photographs, all the delicate manifestations of what she came from and what she was. Strength was flowing back into him each day, and Judge Henry's latest messenger had brought him clothes and mail from Sunk Creek and many inquiries of kindness, and returned taking the news of the cow-puncher's improvement, and how soon he would be permitted the fresh air. Hence Molly found him waiting in a flannel shirt of highly becoming shade, and with a silk handkerchief knotted round his throat; and he told her it was good to feel respectable again.
She had come to read to him for the allotted time; and she threw around his shoulders the scarlet and black Navajo blanket, striped with its splendid zigzags of barbarity. Thus he half sat, half leaned, languid but at ease. In his lap lay one of the letters brought over by the messenger: and though she was midway in a book that engaged his full attention—DAVID COPPERFELD—his silence and absent look this morning stopped her, and she accused him of not attending.
"No," he admitted; "I am thinking of something else."
She looked at him with that apprehension which he knew.
"It had to come," said he. "And to-day I see my thoughts straighter than I've been up to managing since—since my haid got clear. And now I must say these thoughts—if I can, if I can!" He stopped. His eyes were intent upon her; one hand was gripping the arm of his chair.
"You promised—" trembled Molly.
"I promised you should love me," he sternly interrupted. "Promised that to myself. I have broken that word."
She shut DAVID COPPERHEAD mechanically, and grew white.
"Your letter has come to me hyeh," he continued, gentle again.
"My—" She had forgotten it.
"The letter you wrote to tell me good-by. You wrote it a little while ago—not a month yet, but it's away and away long gone for me."
"I have never let you know—" began Molly.
"The doctor," he interrupted once more, but very gently now, "he gave awdehs I must be kept quiet. I reckon yu' thought tellin' me might—"
"Forgive me!" cried the girl. "Indeed I ought to have told you sooner! Indeed I had no excuse!"
"Why, should yu' tell me if yu' preferred not? You had written. And you speak" (he lifted the letter) "of never being able to repay kindness; but you have turned the tables. I can never repay you by anything! by anything! So I had figured I would just jog back to Sunk Creek and let you get away, if you did not want to say that kind of good-by. For I saw the boxes. Mrs. Taylor is too nice a woman to know the trick of lyin', and she could not deceive me. I have knowed yu' were going away for good ever since I saw those boxes. But now hyeh comes your letter, and it seems no way but I must speak. I have thought a deal, lyin' in this room. And—to-day—I can say what I have thought. I could not make you happy." He stopped, but she did not answer. His voice had grown softer than whispering, but yet was not a whisper. From its quiet syllables she turned away, blinded with sudden tears.
"Once, I thought love must surely be enough," he continued. "And I thought if I could make you love me, you could learn me to be less—less-more your kind. And I think I could give you a pretty good sort of love. But that don't help the little mean pesky things of day by day that make roughness or smoothness for folks tied together so awful close. Mrs. Taylor hyeh—she don't know anything better than Taylor does. She don't want anything he can't give her. Her friends will do for him and his for her. And when I dreamed of you in my home—" he closed his eyes and drew a long breath. At last he looked at her again. "This is no country for a lady. Will yu' forget and forgive the bothering I have done?"
"Oh!" cried Molly. "Oh!" And she put her hands to her eyes. She had risen and stood with her face covered.
"I surely had to tell you this all out, didn't I?" said the cow-puncher, faintly, in his chair.
"Oh!" said Molly again.
"I have put it clear how it is," he pursued. "I ought to have seen from the start I was not the sort to keep you happy."
"But," said Molly—"but I—you ought—please try to keep me happy!" And sinking by his chair, she hid her face on his knees.
Speechless, he bent down and folded her round, putting his hands on the hair that had been always his delight. Presently he whispered:— "You have beat me; how can I fight this?"
She answered nothing. The Navajo's scarlet and black folds fell over both. Not with words, not even with meeting eyes, did the two plight their troth in this first new hour. So they remained long, the fair head nesting in the great arms, and the black head laid against it, while over the silent room presided the little Grandmother Stark in her frame, rosy, blue, and flaxen, not quite familiar, not quite smiling.
XXVIII. NO DREAM TO WAKE FROM
For a long while after she had left him, he lay still, stretched in his chair. His eyes were fixed steadily upon the open window and the sunshine outside. There he watched the movement of the leaves upon the green cottonwoods. What had she said to him when she went? She had said, "Now I know how unhappy I have been." These sweet words he repeated to himself over and over, fearing in some way that he might lose them. They almost slipped from him at times; but with a jump of his mind he caught them again and held them,—and then—"I'm not all strong yet," he murmured. "I must have been very sick." And, weak from his bullet wound and fever, he closed his eyes without knowing it. There were the cottonwoods again, waving, waving; and he felt the cool, pleasant air from the window. He saw the light draught stir the ashes in the great stone fireplace. "I have been asleep," he said. "But she was cert'nly here herself. Oh, yes. Surely. She always has to go away every day because the doctor says—why, she was readin'!" he broke off, aloud. "DAVID COPPERFIELD." There it was on the floor. "Aha! nailed you anyway!" he said. "But how scared I am of myself!—You're a fool. Of course it's so. No fever business could make yu' feel like this."
His eye dwelt awhile on the fireplace, next on the deer horns, and next it travelled toward the shelf where her books were; but it stopped before reaching them.
"Better say off the names before I look," said he. "I've had a heap o' misreading visions. And—and supposin'—if this was just my sickness fooling me some more—I'd want to die. I would die! Now we'll see. If COPPERFIELD is on the floor" (he looked stealthily to be sure that it was), "then she was readin' to me when everything happened, and then there should be a hole in the book row, top, left. Top, left," he repeated, and warily brought his glance to the place. "Proved!" he cried. "It's all so!"
He now noticed the miniature of Grandmother Stark. "You are awful like her," he whispered. "You're cert'nly awful like her. May I kiss you too, ma'am?"
Then, tottering, he rose from his sick-chair. The Navajo blanket fell from his shoulders, and gradually, experimentally, he stood upright.
Helping himself with his hand slowly along the wall of the room, and round to the opposite wall with many a pause, he reached the picture, and very gently touched the forehead of the ancestral dame with his lips. "I promise to make your little girl happy," he whispered.
He almost fell in stooping to the portrait, but caught himself and stood carefully quiet, trembling, and speaking to himself. "Where is your strength?" he demanded. "I reckon it is joy that has unsteadied your laigs."
The door opened. It was she, come back with his dinner.
"My Heavens!" she said; and setting the tray down, she rushed to him. She helped him back to his chair, and covered him again. He had suffered no hurt, but she clung to him; and presently he moved and let himself kiss her with fuller passion.
"I will be good," he whispered.
"You must," she said. "You looked so pale!"
"You are speakin' low like me," he answered. "But we have no dream we can wake from."
Had she surrendered on this day to her cowpuncher, her wild man? Was she forever wholly his? Had the Virginian's fire so melted her heart that no rift in it remained? So she would have thought if any thought had come to her. But in his arms to-day, thought was lost in something more divine.
XXIX. WORD TO BENNINGTON
They kept their secret for a while, or at least they had that special joy of believing that no one in all the world but themselves knew this that had happened to them. But I think that there was one person who knew how to keep a secret even better than these two lovers. Mrs. Taylor made no remarks to any one whatever. Nobody on Bear Creek, however, was so extraordinarily cheerful and serene. That peculiar severity which she had manifested in the days when Molly was packing her possessions, had now altogether changed. In these days she was endlessly kind and indulgent to her "deary." Although, as a housekeeper, Mrs. Taylor believed in punctuality at meals, and visited her offspring with discipline when they were late without good and sufficient excuse, Molly was now exempt from the faintest hint of reprimand.
"And it's not because you're not her mother," said George Taylor, bitterly. "She used to get it, too. And we're the only ones that get it. There she comes, just as we're about ready to quit! Aren't you going to say NOTHING to her?"
"George," said his mother, "when you've saved a man's life it'll be time for you to talk."
So Molly would come in to her meals with much irregularity; and her remarks about the imperfections of her clock met with no rejoinder. And yet one can scarcely be so severe as had been Mrs. Taylor, and become wholly as mild as milk. There was one recurrent event that could invariably awaken hostile symptoms in the dame. Whenever she saw a letter arrive with the Bennington postmark upon it, she shook her fist at that letter. "What's family pride?" she would say to herself. "Taylor could be a Son of the Revolution if he'd a mind to. I wonder if she has told her folks yet."
And when letters directed to Bennington would go out, Mrs. Taylor would inspect every one as if its envelope ought to grow transparent beneath her eyes, and yield up to her its great secret, if it had one. But in truth these letters had no great secret to yield up, until one day—yes; one day Mrs. Taylor would have burst, were bursting a thing that people often did. Three letters were the cause of this emotion on Mrs. Taylor's part; one addressed to Bennington, one to Dunbarton, and the third—here was the great excitement—to Bennington, but not in the little schoolmarm's delicate writing. A man's hand had traced those plain, steady vowels and consonants.
"It's come!" exclaimed Mrs. Taylor, at this sight. "He has written to her mother himself."
That is what the Virginian had done, and here is how it had come about.
The sick man's convalescence was achieved. The weeks had brought back to him, not his whole strength yet—that could come only by many miles of open air on the back of Monte; but he was strong enough now to GET strength. When a patient reaches this stage, he is out of the woods.
He had gone for a little walk with his nurse. They had taken (under the doctor's recommendation) several such little walks, beginning with a five-minute one, and at last to-day accomplishing three miles.
"No, it has not been too far," said he. "I am afraid I could walk twice as far."
"Yes. Because it means I can go to work again. This thing we have had together is over."
For reply, she leaned against him.
"Look at you!" he said. "Only a little while ago you had to help me stand on my laigs. And now—" For a while there was silence between them. "I have never had a right down sickness before," he presently went on. "Not to remember, that is. If any person had told me I could ENJOY such a thing—" He said no more, for she reached up, and no more speech was possible.
"How long has it been?" he next asked her.
She told him.
"Well, if it could be forever—no. Not forever with no more than this. I reckon I'd be sick again! But if it could be forever with just you and me, and no one else to bother with. But any longer would not be doing right by your mother. She would have a right to think ill of me."
"Oh!" said the girl. "Let us keep it."
"Not after I am gone. Your mother must be told."
"It seems so—can't we—oh, why need anybody know?"
"Your mother ain't 'anybody.' She is your mother. I feel mighty responsible to her for what I have done."
"But I did it!"
"Do you think so? Your mother will not think so. I am going to write to her to-day."
"You! Write to my mother! Oh, then everything will be so different! They will all—" Molly stopped before the rising visions of Bennington. Upon the fairy-tale that she had been living with her cow-boy lover broke the voices of the world. She could hear them from afar. She could see the eyes of Bennington watching this man at her side. She could imagine the ears of Bennington listening for slips in his English. There loomed upon her the round of visits which they would have to make. The ringing of the door-bells, the waiting in drawing-rooms for the mistress to descend and utter her prepared congratulations, while her secret eye devoured the Virginian's appearance, and his manner of standing and sitting. He would be wearing gloves, instead of fringed gauntlets of buckskin. In a smooth black coat and waistcoat, how could they perceive the man he was? During those short formal interviews, what would they ever find out of the things that she knew about him? The things for which she was proud of him? He would speak shortly and simply; they would say, "Oh, yes!" and "How different you must find this from Wyoming!"—and then, after the door was shut behind his departing back they would say—He would be totally underrated, not in the least understood. Why should he be subjected to this? He should never be!
Now in all these half-formed, hurried, distressing thoughts which streamed through the girl's mind, she altogether forgot one truth. True it was that the voice of the world would speak as she imagined. True it was that in the eyes of her family and acquaintance this lover of her choice would be examined even more like a SPECIMEN than are other lovers upon these occasions: and all accepted lovers have to face this ordeal of being treated like specimens by the other family. But dear me! most of us manage to stand it, don't we? It isn't, perhaps, the most delicious experience that we can recall in connection with our engagement. But it didn't prove fatal. We got through it somehow. We dined with Aunt Jane, and wined with Uncle Joseph, and perhaps had two fingers given to us by old Cousin Horatio, whose enormous fortune was of the greatest importance to everybody. And perhaps fragments of the other family's estimate of us subsequently reached our own ears. But if a chosen lover cannot stand being treated as a specimen by the other family, he's a very weak vessel, and not worth any good girl's love. That's all I can say for him.
Now the Virginian was scarcely what even his enemy would term a weak vessel; and Molly's jealousy of the impression which he might make upon Bennington was vastly superfluous. She should have known that he would indeed care to make a good impression; but that such anxiety on his part would be wholly for her sake, that in the eyes of her friends she might stand justified in taking him for her wedded husband. So far as he was concerned apart from her, Aunt Jane and Uncle Joseph might say anything they pleased, or think anything they pleased. His character was open for investigation. Judge Henry would vouch for him.
This is what he would have said to his sweetheart had she but revealed to him her perturbations. But she did not reveal them; and they were not of the order that he with his nature was likely to divine. I do not know what good would have come from her speaking out to him, unless that perfect understanding between lovers which indeed is a good thing. But I do not believe that he could have reassured her; and I am certain that she could not have prevented his writing to her mother.
"Well, then," she sighed at last, "if you think so, I will tell her."
That sigh of hers, be it well understood, was not only because of those far-off voices which the world would in consequence of her news be lifting presently. It came also from bidding farewell to the fairy-tale which she must leave now; that land in which she and he had been living close together alone, unhindered, unmindful of all things.
"Yes, you will tell her," said her lover. "And I must tell her too."
"Both of us?" questioned the girl.
What would he say to her mother? How would her mother like such a letter as he would write to her? Suppose he should misspell a word? Would not sentences from him at this time—written sentences—be a further bar to his welcome acceptance at Bennington?
"Why don't you send messages by me?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "She is not going to like it, anyway," he answered. "I must speak to her direct. It would be like shirking."
Molly saw how true his instinct was here; and a little flame shot upward from the glow of her love and pride in him. Oh, if they could all only know that he was like this when you understood him! She did not dare say out to him what her fear was about this letter of his to her mother. She did not dare because—well, because she lacked a little faith. That is it, I am afraid. And for that sin she was her own punishment. For in this day, and in many days to come, the pure joy of her love was vexed and clouded, all through a little lack of faith; while for him, perfect in his faith, his joy was like crystal.
"Tell me what you're going to write," she said.
He smiled at her. "No."
"Aren't you going to let me see it when it's done?"
"No." Then a freakish look came into his eyes. "I'll let yu' see anything I write to other women." And he gave her one of his long kisses. "Let's get through with it together," he suggested, when they were once more in his sick-room, that room which she had given to him. "You'll sit one side o' the table, and I'll sit the other, and we'll go ahaid; and pretty soon it will be done."
"O dear!" she said. "Yes, I suppose that is the best way."
And so, accordingly, they took their places. The inkstand stood between them. Beside each of them she distributed paper enough, almost, for a presidential message. And pens and pencils were in plenty. Was this not the headquarters of the Bear Creek schoolmarm?
"Why, aren't you going to do it in pencil first?" she exclaimed, looking up from her vacant sheet. His pen was moving slowly, but steadily.
"No, I don't reckon I need to," he answered, with his nose close to the paper. "Oh, damnation, there's a blot!" He tore his spoiled beginning in small bits, and threw them into the fireplace. "You've got it too full," he commented; and taking the inkstand, he tipped a little from it out of the window. She sat lost among her false starts. Had she heard him swear, she would not have minded. She rather liked it when he swore. He possessed that quality in his profanity of not offending by it. It is quite wonderful how much worse the same word will sound in one man's lips than in another's. But she did not hear him. Her mind was among a litter of broken sentences. Each thought which she began ran out into the empty air, or came against some stone wall. So there she sat, her eyes now upon that inexorable blank sheet that lay before her, waiting, and now turned with vacant hopelessness upon the sundry objects in the room. And while she thus sat accomplishing nothing, opposite to her the black head bent down, and the steady pen moved from phrase to phrase.
She became aware of his gazing at her, flushed and solemn. That strange color of the sea-water, which she could never name, was lustrous in his eyes. He was folding his letter.
"You have finished?" she said.
"Yes." His voice was very quiet. "I feel like an honester man."
"Perhaps I can do something to-night at Mrs. Taylor's," she said, looking at her paper.
On it were a few words crossed out. This was all she had to show. At this set task in letter-writing, the cow-puncher had greatly excelled the schoolmarm!
But that night, while he lay quite fast asleep in his bed, she was keeping vigil in her room at Mrs. Taylor's.
Accordingly, the next day, those three letters departed for the mail, and Mrs. Taylor consequently made her exclamation, "It's come!"
On the day before the Virginian returned to take up his work at Judge Henry's ranch, he and Molly announced their news. What Molly said to Mrs. Taylor and what Mrs. Taylor said to her, is of no interest to us, though it was of much to them.
But Mr. McLean happened to make a call quite early in the morning to inquire for his friend's health.
"Lin," began the Virginian, "there is no harm in your knowing an hour or so before the rest, I am—"
"Lord!" said Mr. McLean, indulgently. "Everybody has knowed that since the day she found yu' at the spring."
"It was not so, then," said the Virginian, crossly.
"Lord! Everybody has knowed it right along."
"Hmp!" said the Virginian. "I didn't know this country was that rank with gossips."
Mr. McLean laughed mirthfully at the lover. "Well," he said, "Mrs. McLean will be glad. She told me to give yu' her congratulations quite a while ago. I was to have 'em ready just as soon as ever yu' asked for 'em yourself." Lin had been made a happy man some twelve months previous to this. And now, by way of an exchange of news, he added: "We're expectin' a little McLean down on Box Elder. That's what you'll be expectin' some of these days, I hope."
"Yes," murmured the Virginian, "I hope so too."
"And I don't guess," said Lin, "that you and I will do much shufflin' of other folks' children any more."
Whereupon he and the Virginian shook hands silently, and understood each other very well.
On the day that the Virginian parted with Molly, beside the weight of farewell which lay heavy on his heart, his thoughts were also grave with news. The cattle thieves had grown more audacious. Horses and cattle both were being missed, and each man began almost to doubt his neighbor.
"Steps will have to be taken soon by somebody, I reckon," said the lover.
"By you?" she asked quickly.
"Most likely I'll get mixed up with it."
"What will you have to do?"
"Can't say. I'll tell yu' when I come back."
So did he part from her, leaving her more kisses than words to remember.
And what was doing at Bennington, meanwhile, and at Dunbarton? Those three letters which by their mere outside had so moved Mrs. Taylor, produced by their contents much painful disturbance.
It will be remembered that Molly wrote to her mother, and to her great-aunt. That announcement to her mother was undertaken first. Its composition occupied three hours and a half, and it filled eleven pages, not counting a postscript upon the twelfth. The letter to the great-aunt took only ten minutes. I cannot pretend to explain why this one was so greatly superior to the other; but such is the remarkable fact. Its beginning, to be sure, did give the old lady a start; she had dismissed the cow-boy from her probabilities.
"Tut, tut, tut!" she exclaimed out loud in her bedroom. "She has thrown herself away on that fellow!"
But some sentences at the end made her pause and sit still for a long while. The severity upon her face changed to tenderness, gradually. "Ah, me," she sighed. "If marriage were as simple as love!" Then she went slowly downstairs, and out into her garden, where she walked long between the box borders. "But if she has found a great love," said the old lady at length. And she returned to her bedroom, and opened an old desk, and read some old letters.
There came to her the next morning a communication from Bennington. This had been penned frantically by poor Mrs. Wood. As soon as she had been able to gather her senses after the shock of her daughter's eleven pages and the postscript, the mother had poured out eight pages herself to the eldest member of the family. There had been, indeed, much excuse for the poor lady. To begin with, Molly had constructed her whole opening page with the express and merciful intention of preparing her mother. Consequently, it made no sense whatever. Its effect was the usual effect of remarks designed to break a thing gently. It merely made Mrs. Wood's head swim, and filled her with a sickening dread. "Oh, mercy, Sarah," she had cried, "come here. What does this mean?" And then, fortified by her elder daughter, she had turned over that first page and found what it meant on the top of the second. "A savage with knives and pistols!" she wailed.
"Well, mother, I always told you so," said her daughter Sarah.
"What is a foreman?" exclaimed the mother. "And who is Judge Henry?"
"She has taken a sort of upper servant," said Sarah. "If it is allowed to go as far as a wedding, I doubt if I can bring myself to be present." (This threat she proceeded to make to Molly, with results that shall be set forth in their proper place.)
"The man appears to have written to me himself," said Mrs. Wood.
"He knows no better," said Sarah.
"Bosh!" said Sarah's husband later. "It was a very manly thing to do." Thus did consternation rage in the house at Bennington. Molly might have spared herself the many assurances that she gave concerning the universal esteem in which her cow-puncher was held, and the fair prospects which were his. So, in the first throes of her despair, Mrs. Wood wrote those eight not maturely considered pages to the great-aunt.
"Tut, tut, tut!" said the great-aunt as she read them. Her face was much more severe to-day. "You'd suppose," she said, "that the girl had been kidnapped! Why, she has kept him waiting three years!" And then she read more, but soon put the letter down with laughter. For Mrs. Wood had repeated in writing that early outburst of hers about a savage with knives and pistols. "Law!" said the great-aunt. "Law, what a fool Lizzie is!"
So she sat down and wrote to Mrs. Wood a wholesome reply about putting a little more trust in her own flesh and blood, and reminding her among other things that General Stark had himself been wont to carry knives and pistols owing to the necessities of his career, but that he had occasionally taken them off, as did probably this young man in Wyoming. "You had better send me the letter he has written you," she concluded. "I shall know much better what to think after I have seen that."
It is not probable that Mrs. Wood got much comfort from this communication; and her daughter Sarah was actually enraged by it. "She grows more perverse as she nears her dotage," said Sarah. But the Virginian's letter was sent to Dunbarton, where the old lady sat herself down to read it with much attention.
Here is what the Virginian had said to the unknown mother of his sweetheart.
MRS. JOHN STARK WOOD Bennington, Vermont.
Madam: If your daughter Miss Wood has ever told you about her saving a man's life here when some Indians had shot him that is the man who writes to you now. I don't think she can have told you right about that affair for she is the only one in this country who thinks it was a little thing. So I must tell you it, the main points. Such an action would have been thought highly of in a Western girl, but with Miss Wood's raising nobody had a right to expect it.
"Indeed!" snorted the great-aunt. "Well, he would be right, if I had not had a good deal more to do with her 'raising' than ever Lizzie had." And she went on with the letter.
I was starting in to die when she found me. I did not know anything then, and she pulled me back from where I was half in the next world. She did not know but what Indians would get her too but I could not make her leave me. I am a heavy man one hundred and seventy-three stripped when in full health. She lifted me herself from the ground me helping scarce any for there was not much help in me that day. She washed my wound and brought me to with her own whiskey. Before she could get me home I was out of my head but she kept me on my horse somehow and talked wisely to me so I minded her and did not go clean crazy till she had got me safe to bed. The doctor says I would have died all the same if she had not nursed me the way she did. It made me love her more which I did not know I could. But there is no end, for this writing it down makes me love her more as I write it.
And now Mrs. Wood I am sorry this will be bad news for you to hear. I know you would never choose such a man as I am for her for I have got no education and must write humble against my birth. I wish I could make the news easier but truth is the best.
I am of old stock in Virginia. English and one Scotch Irish grandmother my father's father brought from Kentucky. We have always stayed at the same place farmers and hunters not bettering our lot and very plain. We have fought when we got the chance, under Old Hickory and in Mexico and my father and two brothers were killed in the Valley sixty-four. Always with us one son has been apt to run away and I was the one this time. I had too much older brothering to suit me. But now I am doing well being in full sight of prosperity and not too old and very strong my health having stood the sundries it has been put through. She shall teach school no more when she is mine. I wish I could make this news easier for you Mrs. Wood. I do not like promises I have heard so many. I will tell any man of your family anything he likes to ask one, and Judge Henry would tell you about my reputation. I have seen plenty rough things but can say I have never killed for pleasure or profit and am not one of that kind, always preferring peace. I have had to live in places where they had courts and lawyers so called but an honest man was all the law you could find in five hundred miles. I have not told her about those things not because I am ashamed of them but there are so many things too dark for a girl like her to hear about.
I had better tell you the way I know I love Miss Wood. I am not a boy now, and women are no new thing to me. A man like me who has travelled meets many of them as he goes and passes on but I stopped when I came to Miss Wood. That is three years but I have not gone on. What right has such as he? you will say. So did I say it after she had saved my life. It was hard to get to that point and keep there with her around me all day. But I said to myself you have bothered her for three years with your love and if you let your love bother her you don't love her like you should and you must quit for her sake who has saved your life. I did not know what I was going to do with my life after that but I supposed I could go somewhere and work hard and so Mrs. Wood I told her I would give her up. But she said no. It is going to be hard for her to get used to a man like me—
But at this point in the Virginian's letter, the old great-aunt could read no more. She rose, and went over to that desk where lay those faded letters of her own. She laid her head down upon the package, and as her tears flowed quietly upon it, "O dear," she whispered, "O dear! And this is what I lost!"
To her girl upon Bear Creek she wrote the next day. And this word from Dunbarton was like balm among the harsh stings Molly was receiving. The voices of the world reached her in gathering numbers, and not one of them save that great-aunt's was sweet. Her days were full of hurts; and there was no one by to kiss the hurts away. Nor did she even hear from her lover any more now. She only knew he had gone into lonely regions upon his errand.
That errand took him far:— Across the Basin, among the secret places of Owl Creek, past the Washakie Needles, over the Divide to Gros Ventre, and so through a final barrier of peaks into the borders of East Idaho. There, by reason of his bidding me, I met him, and came to share in a part of his errand.
It was with no guide that I travelled to him. He had named a little station on the railroad, and from thence he had charted my route by means of landmarks. Did I believe in omens, the black storm that I set out in upon my horse would seem like one to-day. But I had been living in cities and smoke; and Idaho, even with rain, was delightful to me.
XXX. A STABLE ON THE FLAT
When the first landmark, the lone clump of cottonwoods, came at length in sight, dark and blurred in the gentle rain, standing out perhaps a mile beyond the distant buildings, my whole weary body hailed the approach of repose. Saving the noon hour, I had been in the saddle since six, and now six was come round again. The ranch, my resting-place for this night, was a ruin—cabin, stable, and corral. Yet after the twelve hours of pushing on and on through silence, still to have silence, still to eat and go to sleep in it, perfectly fitted the mood of both my flesh and spirit. At noon, when for a while I had thrown off my long oilskin coat, merely the sight of the newspaper half crowded into my pocket had been a displeasing reminder of the railway, and cities, and affairs. But for its possible help to build fires, it would have come no farther with me. The great levels around me lay cooled and freed of dust by the wet weather, and full of sweet airs. Far in front the foot-hills rose through the rain, indefinite and mystic. I wanted no speech with any one, nor to be near human beings at all. I was steeped in a revery as of the primal earth; even thoughts themselves had almost ceased motion. To lie down with wild animals, with elk and deer, would have made my waking dream complete; and since such dream could not be, the cattle around the deserted buildings, mere dots as yet across separating space, were my proper companions for this evening.
To-morrow night I should probably be camping with the Virginian in the foot-hills. At his letter's bidding I had come eastward across Idaho, abandoning my hunting in the Saw Tooth Range to make this journey with him back through the Tetons. It was a trail known to him, and not to many other honest men. Horse Thief Pass was the name his letter gave it. Business (he was always brief) would call him over there at this time. Returning, he must attend to certain matters in the Wind River country. There I could leave by stage for the railroad, or go on with him the whole way back to Sunk Creek. He designated for our meeting the forks of a certain little stream in the foot-hills which to-day's ride had brought in sight. There would be no chance for him to receive an answer from me in the intervening time. If by a certain day—which was four days off still—I had not reached the forks, he would understand I had other plans. To me it was like living back in ages gone, this way of meeting my friend, this choice of a stream so far and lonely that its very course upon the maps was wrongly traced. And to leave behind all noise and mechanisms, and set out at ease, slowly, with one packhorse, into the wilderness, made me feel that the ancient earth was indeed my mother and that I had found her again after being lost among houses, customs, and restraints. I should arrive three days early at the forks—three days of margin seeming to me a wise precaution against delays unforeseen. If the Virginian were not there, good; I could fish and be happy. If he were there but not ready to start, good; I could still fish and be happy. And remembering my Eastern helplessness in the year when we had met first, I enjoyed thinking how I had come to be trusted. In those days I had not been allowed to go from the ranch for so much as an afternoon's ride unless tied to him by a string, so to speak; now I was crossing unmapped spaces with no guidance. The man who could do this was scarce any longer a "tenderfoot."
My vision, as I rode, took in serenely the dim foot-hills,—to-morrow's goal,—and nearer in the vast wet plain the clump of cottonwoods, and still nearer my lodging for to-night with the dotted cattle round it. And now my horse neighed. I felt his gait freshen for the journey's end, and leaning to pat his neck I noticed his ears no longer slack and inattentive, but pointing forward to where food and rest awaited both of us. Twice he neighed, impatiently and long; and as he quickened his gait still more, the packhorse did the same, and I realized that there was about me still a spice of the tenderfoot: those dots were not cattle; they were horses.
My horse had put me in the wrong. He had known his kind from afar, and was hastening to them. The plainsman's eye was not yet mine; and I smiled a little as I rode. When was I going to know, as by instinct, the different look of horses and cattle across some two or three miles of plain?
These miles we finished soon. The buildings changed in their aspect as they grew to my approach, showing their desolation more clearly, and in some way bringing apprehension into my mood. And around them the horses, too, all standing with ears erect, watching me as I came—there was something about them; or was it the silence? For the silence which I had liked until now seemed suddenly to be made too great by the presence of the deserted buildings. And then the door of the stable opened, and men came out and stood, also watching me arrive. By the time I was dismounting more were there. It was senseless to feel as unpleasant as I did, and I strove to give to them a greeting that should sound easy. I told them that I hoped there was room for one more here to-night. Some of them had answered my greeting, but none of them answered this; and as I began to be sure that I recognized several of their strangely imperturbable faces, the Virginian came from the stable; and at that welcome sight my relief spoke out instantly.
"I am here, you see!"
"Yes, I do see." I looked hard at him, for in his voice was the same strangeness that I felt in everything around me. But he was looking at his companions. "This gentleman is all right," he told them.
"That may be," said one whom I now knew that I had seen before at Sunk Creek; "but he was not due to-night."
"Nor to-morrow," said another.
"Nor yet the day after," a third added.
The Virginian fell into his drawl. "None of you was ever early for anything, I presume."
One retorted, laughing, "Oh, we're not suspicioning you of complicity."
And another, "Not even when we remember how thick you and Steve used to be."
Whatever jokes they meant by this he did not receive as jokes. I saw something like a wince pass over his face, and a flush follow it. But he now spoke to me. "We expected to be through before this," he began. "I'm right sorry you have come to-night. I know you'd have preferred to keep away."
"We want him to explain himself," put in one of the others. "If he satisfies us, he's free to go away."
"Free to go away!" I now exclaimed. But at the indulgence in their frontier smile I cooled down. "Gentlemen," I said, "I don't know why my movements interest you so much. It's quite a compliment! May I get under shelter while I explain?"
No request could have been more natural, for the rain had now begun to fall in straight floods. Yet there was a pause before one of them said, "He might as well."
The Virginian chose to say nothing more; but he walked beside me into the stable. Two men sat there together, and a third guarded them. At that sight I knew suddenly what I had stumbled upon; and on the impulse I murmured to the Virginian, "You're hanging them to-morrow."
He kept his silence.
"You may have three guesses," said a man behind me.
But I did not need them. And in the recoil of my insight the clump of cottonwoods came into my mind, black and grim. No other trees high enough grew within ten miles. This, then, was the business that the Virginian's letter had so curtly mentioned. My eyes went into all corners of the stable, but no other prisoners were here. I half expected to see Trampas, and I half feared to see Shorty; for poor stupid Shorty's honesty had not been proof against frontier temptations, and he had fallen away from the company of his old friends. Often of late I had heard talk at Sunk Creek of breaking up a certain gang of horse and cattle thieves that stole in one Territory and sold in the next, and knew where to hide in the mountains between. And now it had come to the point; forces had been gathered, a long expedition made, and here they were, successful under the Virginian's lead, but a little later than their calculations. And here was I, a little too early, and a witness in consequence. My presence seemed a simple thing to account for; but when I had thus accounted for it, one of them said with good nature:— "So you find us here, and we find you here. Which is the most surprised, I wonder?"
"There's no telling," said I, keeping as amiable as I could; "nor any telling which objects the most."
"Oh, there's no objection here. You're welcome to stay. But not welcome to go, I expect. He ain't welcome to go, is he?"
By the answers that their faces gave him it was plain that I was not. "Not till we are through," said one.
"He needn't to see anything,"' another added.
"Better sleep late to-morrow morning," a third suggested to me.
I did not wish to stay here. I could have made some sort of camp apart from them before dark; but in the face of their needless caution I was helpless. I made no attempt to inquire what kind of spy they imagined I could be, what sort of rescue I could bring in this lonely country; my too early appearance seemed to be all that they looked at. And again my eyes sought the prisoners. Certainly there were only two. One was chewing tobacco, and talking now and then to his guard as if nothing were the matter. The other sat dull in silence, not moving his eyes; but his face worked, and I noticed how he continually moistened his dry lips. As I looked at these doomed prisoners, whose fate I was invited to sleep through to-morrow morning, the one who was chewing quietly nodded to me.
"You don't remember me?" he said.
It was Steve! Steve of Medicine Bow! The pleasant Steve of my first evening in the West. Some change of beard had delayed my instant recognition of his face. Here he sat sentenced to die. A shock, chill and painful, deprived me of speech.
He had no such weak feelings. "Have yu' been to Medicine Bow lately?" he inquired. "That's getting to be quite a while ago."
I assented. I should have liked to say something natural and kind, but words stuck against my will, and I stood awkward and ill at ease, noticing idly that the silent one wore a gray flannel shirt like mine. Steve looked me over, and saw in my pocket the newspaper which I had brought from the railroad and on which I had pencilled a few expenses. He asked me, Would I mind letting him have it for a while? And I gave it to him eagerly, begging him to keep it as long as he wanted. I was overeager in my embarrassment. "You need not return it at all," I said; "those notes are nothing. Do keep it."
He gave me a short glance and a smile. "Thank you," he said; "I'll not need it beyond to-morrow morning." And he began to search through it. "Jake's election is considered sure," he said to his companion, who made no response. "Well, Fremont County owes it to Jake." And I left him interested in the local news.
Dead men I have seen not a few times, even some lying pale and terrible after violent ends, and the edge of this wears off; but I hope I shall never again have to be in the company with men waiting to be killed. By this time to-morrow the gray flannel shirt would be buttoned round a corpse. Until what moment would Steve chew? Against such fancies as these I managed presently to barricade my mind, but I made a plea to be allowed to pass the night elsewhere, and I suggested the adjacent cabin. By their faces I saw that my words merely helped their distrust of me. The cabin leaked too much, they said; I would sleep drier here. One man gave it to me more directly: "If you figured on camping in this stable, what has changed your mind?" How could I tell them that I shrunk from any contact with what they were doing, although I knew that only so could justice be dealt in this country? Their wholesome frontier nerves knew nothing of such refinements.