But the Virginian understood part of it. "I am right sorry for your annoyance," he said. And now I noticed he was under a constraint very different from the ease of the others.
After the twelve hours' ride my bones were hungry for rest. I spread my blankets on some straw in a stall by myself and rolled up in them; yet I lay growing broader awake, every inch of weariness stricken from my excited senses. For a while they sat over their councils, whispering cautiously, so that I was made curious to hear them by not being able; was it the names of Trampas and Shorty that were once or twice spoken—I could not be sure. I heard the whisperers cease and separate. I heard their boots as they cast them off upon the ground. And I heard the breathing of slumber begin and grow in the interior silence. To one after one sleep came, but not to me. Outside, the dull fall of the rain beat evenly, and in some angle dripped the spouting pulses of a leak. Sometimes a cold air blew in, bearing with it the keen wet odor of the sage-brush. On hundreds of other nights this perfume had been my last waking remembrance; it had seemed to help drowsiness; and now I lay staring, thinking of this. Twice through the hours the thieves shifted their positions with clumsy sounds, exchanging muted words with their guard. So, often, had I heard other companions move and mutter in the darkness and lie down again. It was the very naturalness and usualness of every fact of the night,—the stable straw, the rain outside, my familiar blankets, the cool visits of the wind,—and with all this the thought of Steve chewing and the man in the gray flannel shirt, that made the hours unearthly and strung me tight with suspense. And at last I heard some one get up and begin to dress. In a little while I saw light suddenly through my closed eyelids, and then darkness shut again abruptly upon them. They had swung in a lantern and found me by mistake. I was the only one they did not wish to rouse. Moving and quiet talking set up around me, and they began to go out of the stable. At the gleams of new daylight which they let in my thoughts went to the clump of cottonwoods, and I lay still with hands and feet growing steadily cold. Now it was going to happen. I wondered how they would do it; one instance had been described to me by a witness, but that was done from a bridge, and there had been but a single victim. This morning, would one have to wait and see the other go through with it first?
The smell of smoke reached me, and next the rattle of tin dishes. Breakfast was something I had forgotten, and one of them was cooking it now in the dry shelter of the stable. He was alone, because the talking and the steps were outside the stable, and I could hear the sounds of horses being driven into the corral and saddled. Then I perceived that the coffee was ready, and almost immediately the cook called them. One came in, shutting the door behind him as he reentered, which the rest as they followed imitated; for at each opening of the door I saw the light of day leap into the stable and heard the louder sounds of the rain. Then the sound and the light would again be shut out, until some one at length spoke out bluntly, bidding the door be left open on account of the smoke. What were they hiding from? he asked. The runaways that had escaped? A laugh followed this sally, and the door was left open. Thus I learned that there had been more thieves than the two that were captured. It gave a little more ground for their suspicion about me and my anxiety to pass the night elsewhere. It cost nothing to detain me, and they were taking no chances, however remote.
The fresh air and the light now filled the stable, and I lay listening while their breakfast brought more talk from them. They were more at ease now than was I, who had nothing to do but carry out my role of slumber in the stall; they spoke in a friendly, ordinary way, as if this were like every other morning of the week to them. They addressed the prisoners with a sort of fraternal kindness, not bringing them pointedly into the conversation, nor yet pointedly leaving them out. I made out that they must all be sitting round the breakfast together, those who had to die and those who had to kill them. The Virginian I never heard speak. But I heard the voice of Steve; he discussed with his captors the sundry points of his capture.
"Do you remember a haystack?" he asked. "Away up the south fork of Gros Ventre?"
"That was Thursday afternoon," said one of the captors. "There was a shower."
"Yes. It rained. We had you fooled that time. I was laying on the ledge above to report your movements."
Several of them laughed. "We thought you were over on Spread Creek then."
"I figured you thought so by the trail you left after the stack. Saturday we watched you turn your back on us up Spread Creek. We were snug among the trees the other side of Snake River. That was another time we had you fooled."
They laughed again at their own expense. I have heard men pick to pieces a hand of whist with more antagonism.
Steve continued: "Would we head for Idaho? Would we swing back over the Divide? You didn't know which! And when we generalled you on to that band of horses you thought was the band you were hunting—ah, we were a strong combination!" He broke off with the first touch of bitterness I had felt in his words.
"Nothing is any stronger than its weakest point." It was the Virginian who said this, and it was the first word he had spoken.
"Naturally," said Steve. His tone in addressing the Virginian was so different, so curt, that I supposed he took the weakest point to mean himself. But the others now showed me that I was wrong in this explanation.
"That's so," one said. "Its weakest point is where a rope or a gang of men is going to break when the strain comes. And you was linked with a poor partner, Steve."
"You're right I was," said the prisoner, back in his easy, casual voice.
"You ought to have got yourself separated from him, Steve."
There was a pause. "Yes," said the prisoner, moodily. "I'm sitting here because one of us blundered." He cursed the blunderer. "Lighting his fool fire queered the whole deal," he added. As he again heavily cursed the blunderer, the others murmured to each other various I told you so's.
"You'd never have built that fire, Steve," said one.
"I said that when we spied the smoke," said another. "I said, 'That's none of Steve's work, lighting fires and revealing to us their whereabouts.'"
It struck me that they were plying Steve with compliments.
"Pretty hard to have the fool get away and you get caught," a third suggested. At this they seemed to wait. I felt something curious in all this last talk.
"Oh, did he get away?" said the prisoner, then.
Again they waited; and a new voice spoke huskily:— "I built that fire, boys." It was the prisoner in the gray flannel shirt.
"Too late, Ed," they told him kindly. "You ain't a good liar."
"What makes you laugh, Steve?" said some one.
"Oh, the things I notice."
"Meaning Ed was pretty slow in backing up your play? The joke is really on you, Steve. You'd ought never to have cursed the fire-builder if you wanted us to believe he was present. But we'd not have done much to Shorty, even if we had caught him. All he wants is to be scared good and hard, and he'll go back into virtuousness, which is his nature when not travelling with Trampas."
Steve's voice sounded hard now. "You have caught Ed and me. That should satisfy you for one gather."
"Well, we think different, Steve. Trampas escaping leaves this thing unfinished."
"So Trampas escaped too, did he?" said the prisoner.
"Yes, Steve, Trampas escaped—this time; and Shorty with him—this time. We know it most as well as if we'd seen them go. And we're glad Shorty is loose, for he'll build another fire or do some other foolishness next time, and that's the time we'll get Trampas."
Their talk drifted to other points, and I lay thinking of the skirmish that had played beneath the surface of their banter. Yes, the joke, as they put it, was on Steve. He had lost one point in the game to them. They were playing for names. He, being a chivalrous thief, was playing to hide names. They could only, among several likely confederates, guess Trampas and Shorty. So it had been a slip for him to curse the man who built the fire. At least, they so held it. For, they with subtlety reasoned, one curses the absent. And I agreed with them that Ed did not know how to lie well; he should have at once claimed the disgrace of having spoiled the expedition. If Shorty was the blunderer, then certainly Trampas was the other man; for the two were as inseparable as don and master. Trampas had enticed Shorty away from good, and trained him in evil. It now struck me that after his single remark the Virginian had been silent throughout their shrewd discussion.
It was the other prisoner that I heard them next address. "You don't eat any breakfast, Ed."
"Brace up, Ed. Look at Steve, how hardy he eats!"
But Ed, it seemed, wanted no breakfast. And the tin dishes rattled as they were gathered and taken to be packed.
"Drink this coffee, anyway," another urged; "you'll feel warmer."
These words almost made it seem like my own execution. My whole body turned cold in company with the prisoner's, and as if with a clank the situation tightened throughout my senses.
"I reckon if every one's ready we'll start." It was the Virginian's voice once more, and different from the rest. I heard them rise at his bidding, and I put the blanket over my head. I felt their tread as they walked out, passing my stall. The straw that was half under me and half out in the stable was stirred as by something heavy dragged or half lifted along over it. "Look out, you're hurting Ed's arm," one said to another, as the steps with tangled sounds passed slowly out. I heard another among those who followed say, "Poor Ed couldn't swallow his coffee." Outside they began getting on their horses; and next their hoofs grew distant, until all was silence round the stable except the dull, even falling of the rain.
XXXI. THE COTTONWOODS
I do not know how long I stayed there alone. It was the Virginian who came back, and as he stood at the foot of my blankets his eye, after meeting mine full for a moment, turned aside. I had never seen him look as he did now, not even in Pitchstone Canyon when we came upon the bodies of Hank and his wife. Until this moment we had found no chance of speaking together, except in the presence of others.
"Seems to be raining still," I began after a little.
"Yes. It's a wet spell."
He stared out of the door, smoothing his mustache.
It was again I that spoke. "What time is it?"
He brooded over his watch. "Twelve minutes to seven."
I rose and stood drawing on my clothes.
"The fire's out," said he; and he assembled some new sticks over the ashes. Presently he looked round with a cup.
"Never mind that for me," I said
"We've a long ride," he suggested.
"I know. I've crackers in my pocket."
My boots being pulled on, I walked to the door and watched the clouds. "They seem as if they might lift," I said. And I took out my watch.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"A quarter of—it's run down."
While I wound it he seemed to be consulting his own.
"Well?" I inquired.
"Ten minutes past seven."
As I was setting my watch he slowly said:
"Steve wound his all regular. I had to night-guard him till two." His speech was like that of one in a trance: so, at least, it sounds in my memory to-day.
Again I looked at the weather and the rainy immensity of the plain. The foot-hills eastward where we were going were a soft yellow. Over the gray-green sage-brush moved shapeless places of light—not yet the uncovered sunlight, but spots where the storm was wearing thin; and wandering streams of warmth passed by slowly in the surrounding air. As I watched the clouds and the earth, my eyes chanced to fall on the distant clump of cottonwoods. Vapors from the enfeebled storm floated round them, and they were indeed far away; but I came inside and began rolling up my blankets.
"You will not change your mind?" said the Virginian by the fire. "It is thirty-five miles."
I shook my head, feeling a certain shame that he should see how unnerved I was.
He swallowed a hot cupful, and after it sat thinking; and presently he passed his hand across his brow, shutting his eyes. Again he poured out a cup, and emptying this, rose abruptly to his feet as if shaking himself free from something.
"Let's pack and quit here," he said.
Our horses were in the corral and our belongings in the shelter of what had been once the cabin at this forlorn place. He collected them in silence while I saddled my own animal, and in silence we packed the two packhorses, and threw the diamond hitch, and hauled tight the slack, damp ropes. Soon we had mounted, and as we turned into the trail I gave a look back at my last night's lodging.
The Virginian noticed me. "Good-by forever!" he interpreted.
"By God, I hope so!"
"Same here," he confessed. And these were our first natural words this morning.
"This will go well," said I, holding my flask out to him; and both of us took some, and felt easier for it and the natural words.
For an hour we had been shirking real talk, holding fast to the weather, or anything, and all the while that silent thing we were keeping off spoke plainly in the air around us and in every syllable that we uttered. But now we were going to get away from it; leave it behind in the stable, and set ourselves free from it by talking it out. Already relief had begun to stir in my spirits.
"You never did this before," I said.
"No. I never had it to do." He was riding beside me, looking down at his saddle-horn.
"I do not think I should ever be able," I pursued.
Defiance sounded in his answer. "I would do it again this morning."
"Oh, I don't mean that. It's all right here. There's no other way."
"I would do it all over again the same this morning. Just the same."
"Why, so should I—if I could do it at all." I still thought he was justifying their justice to me.
He made no answer as he rode along, looking all the while at his saddle. But again he passed his hand over his forehead with that frown and shutting of the eyes.
"I should like to be sure I should behave myself if I were condemned," I said next. For it now came to me—which should I resemble? Could I read the newspaper, and be interested in county elections, and discuss coming death as if I had lost a game of cards? Or would they have to drag me out? That poor wretch in the gray flannel shirt—"It was bad in the stable," I said aloud. For an after-shiver of it went through me.
A third time his hand brushed his forehead, and I ventured some sympathy.
"I'm afraid your head aches."
"I don't want to keep seeing Steve," he muttered.
"Steve!" I was astounded. "Why he—why all I saw of him was splendid. Since it had to be. It was—"
"Oh, yes; Ed. You're thinking about him. I'd forgot him. So you didn't enjoy Ed?"
At this I looked at him blankly. "It isn't possible that—"
Again he cut me short with a laugh almost savage. "You needn't to worry about Steve. He stayed game."
What then had been the matter that he should keep seeing Steve—that his vision should so obliterate from him what I still shivered at, and so shake him now? For he seemed to be growing more stirred as I grew less. I asked him no further questions, however, and we went on for several minutes, he brooding always in the same fashion, until he resumed with the hard indifference that had before surprised me:— "So Ed gave you feelings! Dumb ague and so forth."
"No doubt we're not made the same way," I retorted.
He took no notice of this. "And you'd have been more comfortable if he'd acted same as Steve did. It cert'nly was bad seeing Ed take it that way, I reckon. And you didn't see him when the time came for business. Well, here's what it is: a man maybe such a confirmed miscreant that killing's the only cure for him; but still he's your own species, and you don't want to have him fall around and grab your laigs and show you his fear naked. It makes you feel ashamed. So Ed gave you feelings, and Steve made everything right easy for you!" There was irony in his voice as he surveyed me, but it fell away at once into sadness. "Both was miscreants. But if Steve had played the coward, too, it would have been a whole heap easier for me." He paused before adding, "And Steve was not a miscreant once."
His voice had trembled, and I felt the deep emotion that seemed to gain upon him now that action was over and he had nothing to do but think. And his view was simple enough: you must die brave. Failure is a sort of treason to the brotherhood, and forfeits pity. It was Steve's perfect bearing that had caught his heart so that he forgot even his scorn of the other man.
But this was by no means all that was to come. He harked back to that notion of a prisoner helping to make it easy for his executioner. "Easy plumb to the end," he pursued, his mind reviewing the acts of the morning. "Why, he tried to give me your newspaper. I didn't—"
"Oh, no," I said hastily. "I had finished with it."
"Well, he took dying as naturally as he took living. Like a man should. Like I hope to." Again he looked at the pictures in his mind. "No play-acting nor last words. He just told good-by to the boys as we led his horse under the limb—you needn't to look so dainty," he broke off. "You ain't going to get any more shocking particulars."
"I know I'm white-livered," I said with a species of laugh. "I never crowd and stare when somebody is hurt in the street. I get away."
He thought this over. "You don't mean all of that. You'd not have spoke just that way about crowding and staring if you thought well of them that stare. Staring ain't courage; it's trashy curiosity. Now you did not have this thing—"
He had stretched out his hand to point, but it fell, and his utterance stopped, and he jerked his horse to a stand. My nerves sprang like a wire at his suddenness, and I looked where he was looking. There were the cottonwoods, close in front of us. As we had travelled and talked we had forgotten them. Now they were looming within a hundred yards; and our trail lay straight through them.
"Let's go around them," said the Virginian.
When we had come back from our circuit into the trail he continued: "You did not have that thing to do. But a man goes through with his responsibilities—and I reckon you could."
"I hope so," I answered. "How about Ed?"
"He was not a man, though we thought he was till this. Steve and I started punching cattle together at the Bordeaux outfit, north of Cheyenne. We did everything together in those days—work and play. Six years ago. Steve had many good points onced."
We must have gone two miles before he spoke again. "You prob'ly didn't notice Steve? I mean the way he acted to me?" It was a question, but he did not wait for my answer. "Steve never said a word to me all through. He shunned it. And you saw how neighborly he talked to the other boys."
"Where have they all gone?" I asked.
He smiled at me. "It cert'nly is lonesome now, for a fact."
"I didn't know you felt it," said I.
"Feel it!—they've went to the railroad. Three of them are witnesses in a case at Evanston, and the Judge wants our outfit at Medicine Bow. Steve shunned me. Did he think I was going back on him?"
"What if he did? You were not. And so nobody's going to Wind River but you?"
"No. Did you notice Steve would not give us any information about Shorty? That was right. I would have acted that way, too." Thus, each time, he brought me back to the subject.
The sun was now shining warm during two or three minutes together, and gulfs of blue opened in the great white clouds. These moved and met among each other, and parted, like hands spread out, slowly weaving a spell of sleep over the day after the wakeful night storm. The huge contours of the earth lay basking and drying, and not one living creature, bird or beast, was in sight. Quiet was returning to my revived spirits, but there was none for the Virginian. And as he reasoned matters out aloud, his mood grew more overcast.
"You have a friend, and his ways are your ways. You travel together, you spree together confidentially, and you suit each other down to the ground. Then one day you find him putting his iron on another man's calf. You tell him fair and square those ways have never been your ways and ain't going to be your ways. Well, that does not change him any, for it seems he's disturbed over getting rich quick and being a big man in the Territory. And the years go on, until you are foreman of Judge Henry's ranch and he—is dangling back in the cottonwoods. What can he claim? Who made the choice? He cannot say, 'Here is my old friend that I would have stood by.' Can he say that?"
"But he didn't say it," I protested.
"No. He shunned me."
"Listen," I said. "Suppose while you were on guard he had whispered, 'Get me off'—would you have done it?"
"No, sir!" said the Virginian, hotly.
"Then what do you want?" I asked. "What did you want?"
He could not answer me—but I had not answered him, I saw; so I pushed it farther. "Did you want indorsement from the man you were hanging? That's asking a little too much."
But he had now another confusion. "Steve stood by Shorty," he said musingly. "It was Shorty's mistake cost him his life, but all the same he didn't want us to catch—"
"You are mixing things," I interrupted. "I never heard you mix things before. And it was not Shorty's mistake."
He showed momentary interest. "Whose then?"
"The mistake of whoever took a fool into their enterprise."
"That's correct. Well, Trampas took Shorty in, and Steve would not tell on him either."
I still tried it, saying, "They were all in the same boat." But logic was useless; he had lost his bearings in a fog of sentiment. He knew, knew passionately, that he had done right; but the silence of his old friend to him through those last hours left a sting that no reasoning could assuage. "He told good-by to the rest of the boys; but not to me." And nothing that I could point out in common sense turned him from the thread of his own argument. He worked round the circle again to self-justification. "Was it him I was deserting? Was not the deserting done by him the day I spoke my mind about stealing calves? I have kept my ways the same. He is the one that took to new ones. The man I used to travel with is not the man back there. Same name, to be sure. And same body. But different in—and yet he had the memory! You can't never change your memory!"
He gave a sob. It was the first I had ever heard from him, and before I knew what I was doing I had reined my horse up to his and put my arm around his shoulders. I had no sooner touched him than he was utterly overcome. "I knew Steve awful well," he said.
Thus we had actually come to change places; for early in the morning he had been firm while I was unnerved, while now it was I who attempted to steady and comfort him.
I had the sense to keep silent, and presently he shook my hand, not looking at me as he did so. He was always very shy of demonstration. And he took to patting the neck of his pony. "You Monte hawss," said he, "you think you are wise, but there's a lot of things you don't savvy." Then he made a new beginning of talk between us.
"It is kind of pitiful about Shorty."
"Very pitiful," I said.
"Do you know about him?" the Virginian asked.
"I know there's no real harm in him, and some real good, and that he has not got the brains necessary to be a horse thief."
"That's so. That's very true. Trampas has led him in deeper than his stature can stand. Now back East you can be middling and get along. But if you go to try a thing on in this Western country, you've got to do it WELL. You've got to deal cyards WELL; you've got to steal WELL; and if you claim to be quick with your gun, you must be quick, for you're a public temptation, and some man will not resist trying to prove he is the quicker. You must break all the Commandments WELL in this Western country, and Shorty should have stayed in Brooklyn, for he will be a novice his livelong days. You don't know about him? He has told me his circumstances. He don't remember his father, and it was like he could have claimed three or four. And I expect his mother was not much interested in him before or after he was born. He ran around, and when he was eighteen he got to be help to a grocery man. But a girl he ran with kept taking all his pay and teasing him for more, and so one day the grocery man caught Shorty robbing his till, and fired him. There wasn't no one to tell good-by to, for the girl had to go to the country to see her aunt, she said. So Shorty hung around the store and kissed the grocery cat good-by. He'd been used to feeding the cat, and she'd sit in his lap and purr, he told me. He sends money back to that girl now. This hyeh country is no country for Shorty, for he will be a conspicuous novice all his days."
"Perhaps he'll prefer honesty after his narrow shave," I said.
But the Virginian shook his head. "Trampas has got hold of him."
The day was now all blue above, and all warm and dry beneath. We had begun to wind in and rise among the first slopes of the foot-hills, and we had talked ourselves into silence. At the first running water we made a long nooning, and I slept on the bare ground. My body was lodged so fast and deep in slumber that when the Virginian shook me awake I could not come back to life at once; it was the clump of cottonwoods, small and far out in the plain below us, that recalled me.
"It'll not be watching us much longer," said the Virginian. He made it a sort of joke; but I knew that both of us were glad when presently we rode into a steeper country, and among its folds and carvings lost all sight of the plain. He had not slept, I found. His explanation was that the packs needed better balancing, and after that he had gone up and down the stream on the chance of trout. But his haunted eyes gave me the real reason—they spoke of Steve, no matter what he spoke of; it was to be no short thing with him.
XXXII. SUPERSTITION TRAIL
We did not make thirty-five miles that day, nor yet twenty-five, for he had let me sleep. We made an early camp and tried some unsuccessful fishing, over which he was cheerful, promising trout to-morrow when we should be higher among the mountains. He never again touched or came near the subject that was on his mind, but while I sat writing my diary, he went off to his horse Monte, and I could hear that he occasionally talked to that friend.
Next day we swung southward from what is known to many as the Conant trail, and headed for that short cut through the Tetons which is known to but a few. Bitch Creek was the name of the stream we now followed, and here there was such good fishing that we idled; and the horses and I at least enjoyed ourselves. For they found fresh pastures and shade in the now plentiful woods; and the mountain odors and the mountain heights were enough for me when the fish refused to rise. This road of ours now became the road which the pursuit had taken before the capture. Going along, I noticed the footprints of many hoofs, rain-blurred but recent, and these were the tracks of the people I had met in the stable.
"You can notice Monte's," said the Virginian. "He is the only one that has his hind feet shod. There's several trails from this point down to where we have come from."
We mounted now over a long slant of rock, smooth and of wide extent. Above us it went up easily into a little side canyon, but ahead, where our way was, it grew so steep that we got off and led our horses. This brought us to the next higher level of the mountain, a space of sagebrush more open, where the rain-washed tracks appeared again in the softer ground.
"Some one has been here since the rain," I called to the Virginian, who was still on the rock, walking up behind the packhorses.
"Since the rain!" he exclaimed. "That's not two days yet." He came and examined the footprints. "A man and a hawss," he said, frowning. "Going the same way we are. How did he come to pass us, and us not see him?"
"One of the other trails," I reminded him.
"Yes, but there's not many that knows them. They are pretty rough trails."
"Worse than this one we're taking?"
"Not much; only how does he come to know any of them? And why don't he take the Conant trail that's open and easy and not much longer? One man and a hawss. I don't see who he is or what he wants here."
"Probably a prospector," I suggested.
"Only one outfit of prospectors has ever been here, and they claimed there was no mineral-bearing rock in these parts."
We got back into our saddles with the mystery unsolved. To the Virginian it was a greater one, apparently, than to me; why should one have to account for every stray traveller in the mountains?
"That's queer, too," said the Virginian. He was now riding in front of me, and he stopped, looking down at the trail. "Don't you notice?"
It did not strike me.
"Why, he keeps walking beside his hawss; he don't get on him."
Now we, of course, had mounted at the beginning of the better trail after the steep rock, and that was quite half a mile back. Still, I had a natural explanation. "He's leading a packhorse. He's a poor trapper, and walks."
"Packhorses ain't usually shod before and behind," said the Virginian; and sliding to the ground he touched the footprints. "They are not four hours old," said he. "This bank's in shadow by one o'clock, and the sun has not cooked them dusty."
We continued on our way; and although it seemed no very particular thing to me that a man should choose to walk and lead his horse for a while,—I often did so to limber my muscles,—nevertheless I began to catch the Virginian's uncertain feeling about this traveller whose steps had appeared on our path in mid-journey, as if he had alighted from the mid-air, and to remind myself that he had come over the great face of rock from another trail and thus joined us, and that indigent trappers are to be found owning but a single horse and leading him with their belongings through the deepest solitudes of the mountains—none of this quite brought back to me the comfort which had been mine since we left the cottonwoods out of sight down in the plain. Hence I called out sharply, "What's the matter now?" when the Virginian suddenly stopped his horse again.
He looked down at the trail, and then he very slowly turned round in his saddle and stared back steadily at me. "There's two of them," he said.
"I don't know."
"You must know whether it's two horses or two men," I said, almost angrily.
But to this he made no answer, sitting quite still on his horse and contemplating the ground. The silence was fastening on me like a spell, and I spurred my horse impatiently forward to see for myself. The footprints of two men were there in the trail.
"What do you say to that?" said the Virginian. "Kind of ridiculous, ain't it?"
"Very quaint," I answered, groping for the explanation. There was no rock here to walk over and step from into the softer trail. These second steps came more out of the air than the first. And my brain played me the evil trick of showing me a dead man in a gray flannel shirt.
"It's two, you see, travelling with one hawss, and they take turns riding him."
"Why, of course!" I exclaimed; and we went along for a few paces.
"There you are," said the Virginian, as the trail proved him right. "Number one has got on. My God, what's that?"
At a crashing in the woods very close to us we both flung round and caught sight of a vanishing elk.
It left us confronted, smiling a little, and sounding each other with our eyes. "Well, we didn't need him for meat," said the Virginian.
"A spike-horn, wasn't it?" said I.
"Yes, just a spike-horn."
For a while now as we rode we kept up a cheerful conversation about elk. We wondered if we should meet many more close to the trail like this; but it was not long before our words died away. We had come into a veritable gulf of mountain peaks, sharp at their bare summits like teeth, holding fields of snow lower down, and glittering still in full day up there, while down among our pines and parks the afternoon was growing sombre. All the while the fresh hoofprints of the horse and the fresh footprints of the man preceded us. In the trees, and in the opens, across the levels, and up the steeps, they were there. And so they were not four hours old! Were they so much? Might we not, round some turn, come upon the makers of them? I began to watch for this. And again my brain played me an evil trick, against which I found myself actually reasoning thus: if they took turns riding, then walking must tire them as it did me or any man. And besides, there was a horse. With such thoughts I combated the fancy that those footprints were being made immediately in front of us all the while, and that they were the only sign of any presence which our eyes could see. But my fancy overcame my thoughts. It was shame only which held me from asking this question of the Virginian: Had one horse served in both cases of Justice down at the cottonwoods? I wondered about this. One horse—or had the strangling nooses dragged two saddles empty at the same signal? Most likely; and therefore these people up here—Was I going back to the nursery? I brought myself up short. And I told myself to be steady; there lurked in this brain-process which was going on beneath my reason a threat worse than the childish apprehensions it created. I reminded myself that I was a man grown, twenty-five years old, and that I must not merely seem like one, but feel like one. "You're not afraid of the dark, I suppose?" This I uttered aloud, unwittingly.
I started; but it was only the Virginian behind me. "Oh, nothing. The air is getting colder up here."
I had presently a great relief. We came to a place where again this trail mounted so abruptly that we once more got off to lead our horses. So likewise had our predecessors done; and as I watched the two different sets of footprints, I observed something and hastened to speak of it.
"One man is much heavier than the other."
"I was hoping I'd not have to tell you that," said the Virginian.
"You're always ahead of me! Well, still my education is progressing."
"Why, yes. You'll equal an Injun if you keep on."
It was good to be facetious; and I smiled to myself as I trudged upward. We came off the steep place, leaving the canyon beneath us, and took to horseback. And as we proceeded over the final gentle slant up to the rim of the great basin that was set among the peaks, the Virginian was jocular once more.
"Pounds has got on," said he, "and Ounces is walking."
I glanced over my shoulder at him, and he nodded as he fixed the weather-beaten crimson handkerchief round his neck. Then he threw a stone at a pack animal that was delaying on the trail. "Damn your buckskin hide," he drawled. "You can view the scenery from the top."
He was so natural, sitting loose in the saddle, and cursing in his gentle voice, that I laughed to think what visions I had been harboring. The two dead men riding one horse through the mountains vanished, and I came back to every day.
"Do you think we'll catch up with those people?" I asked.
"Not likely. They're travelling about the same gait we are."
"Ounces ought to be the best walker."
"Up hill, yes. But Pounds will go down a-foggin'."
We gained the rim of the basin. It lay below us, a great cup of country,—rocks, woods, opens, and streams. The tall peaks rose like spires around it, magnificent and bare in the last of the sun; and we surveyed this upper world, letting our animals get breath. Our bleak, crumbled rim ran like a rampart between the towering tops, a half circle of five miles or six, very wide in some parts, and in some shrinking to a scanty foothold, as here. Here our trail crossed over it between two eroded and fantastic shapes of stone, like mushrooms, or misshapen heads on pikes. Banks of snow spread up here against the black rocks, but half an hour would see us descended to the green and the woods. I looked down, both of us looked down, but our forerunners were not there.
"They'll be camping somewhere in this basin, though," said the Virginian, staring at the dark pines. "They have not come this trail by accident."
A cold little wind blew down between our stone shapes, and upward again, eddying. And round a corner upward with it came fluttering a leaf of newspaper, and caught against an edge close to me.
"What's the latest?" inquired the Virginian from his horse. For I had dismounted, and had picked up the leaf.
"Seems to be interesting," I next heard him say. "Can't you tell a man what's making your eyes bug out so?"
"Yes," my voice replied to him, and it sounded like some stranger speaking lightly near by; "oh, yes! Decidedly interesting." My voice mimicked his pronunciation. "It's quite the latest, I imagine. You had better read it yourself." And I handed it to him with a smile, watching his countenance, while my brain felt as if clouds were rushing through it.
I saw his eyes quietly run the headings over "Well?" he inquired, after scanning it on both sides. "I don't seem to catch the excitement. Fremont County is going to hold elections. I see they claim Jake—"
"It's mine," I cut him off. "My own paper. Those are my pencil marks."
I do not think that a microscope could have discerned a change in his face. "Oh," he commented, holding the paper, and fixing it with a critical eye. "You mean this is the one you lent Steve, and he wanted to give me to give back to you. And so them are your own marks." For a moment more he held it judicially, as I have seen men hold a contract upon whose terms they were finally passing. "Well, you have got it back now, anyway." And he handed it to me.
"Only a piece of it!" I exclaimed, always lightly. And as I took it from him his hand chanced to touch mine. It was cold as ice.
"They ain't through readin' the rest," he explained easily. "Don't you throw it away! After they've taken such trouble."
"That's true," I answered. "I wonder if it's Pounds or Ounces I'm indebted to."
Thus we made further merriment as we rode down into the great basin. Before us, the horse and boot tracks showed plain in the soft slough where melted snow ran half the day.
"If it's a paper chase," said the Virginian, "they'll drop no more along here."
"Unless it gets dark," said I.
"We'll camp before that. Maybe we'll see their fire."
We did not see their fire. We descended in the chill silence, while the mushroom rocks grew far and the sombre woods approached. By a stream we got off where two banks sheltered us; for a bleak wind cut down over the crags now and then, making the pines send out a great note through the basin, like breakers in a heavy sea. But we made cosey in the tent. We pitched the tent this night, and I was glad to have it shut out the mountain peaks. They showed above the banks where we camped; and in the starlight their black shapes rose stark against the sky. They, with the pines and the wind, were a bedroom too unearthly this night. And as soon as our supper dishes were washed we went inside to our lantern and our game of cribbage.
"This is snug," said the Virginian, as we played. "That wind don't get down here."
"Smoking is snug, too," said I. And we marked our points for an hour, with no words save about the cards.
"I'll be pretty near glad when we get out of these mountains," said the Virginian. "They're most too big."
The pines had altogether ceased; but their silence was as tremendous as their roar had been.
"I don't know, though," he resumed. "There's times when the plains can be awful big, too."
Presently we finished a hand, and he said, "Let me see that paper."
He sat readin, it apparently through, while I arranged my blankets to make a warm bed. Then, since the paper continued to absorb him, I got myself ready, and slid between my blankets for the night. "You'll need another candle soon in that lantern," said I.
He put the paper down. "I would do it all over again," he began. "The whole thing just the same. He knowed the customs of the country, and he played the game. No call to blame me for the customs of the country. You leave other folks' cattle alone, or you take the consequences, and it was all known to Steve from the start. Would he have me take the Judge's wages and give him the wink? He must have changed a heap from the Steve I knew if he expected that. I don't believe he expected that. He knew well enough the only thing that would have let him off would have been a regular jury. For the thieves have got hold of the juries in Johnson County. I would do it all over, just the same."
The expiring flame leaped in the lantern, and fell blue. He broke off in his words as if to arrange the light, but did not, sitting silent instead, just visible, and seeming to watch the death struggle of the flame. I could find nothing to say to him, and I believed he was now winning his way back to serenity by himself. He kept his outward man so nearly natural that I forgot about that cold touch of his hand, and never guessed how far out from reason the tide of emotion was even now whirling him. "I remember at Cheyenne onced," he resumed. And he told me of a Thanksgiving visit to town that he had made with Steve. "We was just colts then," he said. He dwelt on their coltish doings, their adventures sought and wrought in the perfect fellowship of youth. "For Steve and me most always hunted in couples back in them gamesome years," he explained. And he fell into the elemental talk of sex, such talk as would be an elk's or tiger's; and spoken so by him, simply and naturally, as we speak of the seasons, or of death, or of any actuality, it was without offense. It would be offense should I repeat it. Then, abruptly ending these memories of himself and Steve, he went out of the tent, and I heard him dragging a log to the fire. When it had blazed up, there on the tent wall was his shadow and that of the log where he sat with his half-broken heart. And all the while I supposed he was master of himself, and self-justified against Steve's omission to bid him good-by.
I must have fallen asleep before he returned, for I remember nothing except waking and finding him in his blankets beside me. The fire shadow was gone, and gray, cold light was dimly on the tent. He slept restlessly, and his forehead was ploughed by lines of pain. While I looked at him he began to mutter, and suddenly started up with violence. "No!" he cried out; "no! Just the same!" and thus wakened himself, staring. "What's the matter?" he demanded. He was slow in getting back to where we were; and full consciousness found him sitting up with his eyes fixed on mine. They were more haunted than they had been at all, and his next speech came straight from his dream. "Maybe you'd better quit me. This ain't your trouble."
I laughed. "Why, what is the trouble?"
His eyes still intently fixed on mine. "Do you think if we changed our trail we could lose them from us?"
I was framing a jocose reply about Ounces being a good walker, when the sound of hoofs rushing in the distance stopped me, and he ran out of the tent with his rifle. When I followed with mine he was up the bank, and all his powers alert. But nothing came out of the dimness save our three stampeded horses. They crashed over fallen timber and across the open to where their picketed comrade grazed at the end of his rope. By him they came to a stand, and told him, I suppose, what they had seen; for all four now faced in the same direction, looking away into the mysterious dawn. We likewise stood peering, and my rifle barrel felt cold in my hand. The dawn was all we saw, the inscrutable dawn, coming and coming through the black pines and the gray open of the basin. There above lifted the peaks, no sun yet on them, and behind us our stream made a little tinkling.
"A bear, I suppose," said I, at length.
His strange look fixed me again, and then his eyes went to the horses. "They smell things we can't smell," said he, very slowly. "Will you prove to me they don't see things we can't see?"
A chill shot through me, and I could not help a frightened glance where we had been watching. But one of the horses began to graze and I had a wholesome thought. "He's tired of whatever he sees, then," said I, pointing.
A smile came for a moment in the Virginian's face. "Must be a poor show," he observed. All the horses were grazing now, and he added, "It ain't hurt their appetites any."
We made our own breakfast then. And what uncanny dread I may have been touched with up to this time henceforth left me in the face of a real alarm. The shock of Steve was working upon the Virginian. He was aware of it himself; he was fighting it with all his might; and he was being overcome. He was indeed like a gallant swimmer against whom both wind and tide have conspired. And in this now foreboding solitude there was only myself to throw him ropes. His strokes for safety were as bold as was the undertow that ceaselessly annulled them.
"I reckon I made a fuss in the tent?" said he, feeling his way with me.
I threw him a rope. "Yes. Nightmare—indigestion—too much newspaper before retiring."
He caught the rope. "That's correct! I had a hell of a foolish dream for a growed-up man. You'd not think it of me."
"Oh, yes, I should. I've had them after prolonged lobster and champagne."
"Ah," he murmured, "prolonged! Prolonged is what does it." He glanced behind him. "Steve came back—"
"In your lobster dream," I put in.
But he missed this rope. "Yes," he answered, with his eyes searching me. "And he handed me the paper—"
"By the way, where is that?" I asked.
"I built the fire with it. But when I took it from him it was a six-shooter I had hold of, and pointing at my breast. And then Steve spoke. 'Do you think you're fit to live?' Steve said; and I got hot at him, and I reckon I must have told him what I thought of him. You heard me, I expect?"
"Glad I didn't. Your language sometimes is—"
He laughed out. "Oh, I account for all this that's happening just like you do. If we gave our explanations, they'd be pretty near twins."
"The horses saw a bear, then?"
"Maybe a bear. Maybe "—but here the tide caught him again—"What's your idea about dreams?"
My ropes were all out. "Liver—nerves," was the best I could do.
But now he swam strongly by himself.
"You may think I'm discreditable," he said, "but I know I am. It ought to take more than—well, men have lost their friendships before. Feuds and wars have cloven a right smart of bonds in twain. And if my haid is going to get shook by a little old piece of newspaper—I'm ashamed I burned that. I'm ashamed to have been that weak."
"Any man gets unstrung," I told him. My ropes had become straws; and I strove to frame some policy for the next hours.
We now finished breakfast and set forth to catch the horses. As we drove them in I found that the Virginian was telling me a ghost story. "At half-past three in the morning she saw her runaway daughter standing with a babe in her arms; but when she moved it was all gone. Later they found it was the very same hour the young mother died in Nogales. And she sent for the child and raised it herself. I knowed them both back home. Do you believe that?"
I said nothing.
"No more do I believe it," he asserted. "And see here! Nogales time is three hours different from Richmond. I didn't know about that point then."
Once out of these mountains, I knew he could right himself; but even I, who had no Steve to dream about, felt this silence of the peaks was preying on me.
"Her daughter and her might have been thinkin' mighty hard about each other just then," he pursued. "But Steve is dead. Finished. You cert'nly don't believe there's anything more?"
"I wish I could," I told him.
"No, I'm satisfied. Heaven didn't never interest me much. But if there was a world of dreams after you went—" He stopped himself and turned his searching eyes away from mine. "There's a heap o' darkness wherever you try to step," he said, "and I thought I'd left off wasting thoughts on the subject. You see"—he dexterously roped a horse, and once more his splendid sanity was turned to gold by his imagination—"I expect in many growed-up men you'd call sensible there's a little boy sleepin'—the little kid they onced was—that still keeps his fear of the dark. You mentioned the dark yourself yesterday. Well, this experience has woke up that kid in me, and blamed if I can coax the little cuss to go to sleep again! I keep a-telling him daylight will sure come, but he keeps a-crying and holding on to me."
Somewhere far in the basin there was a faint sound, and we stood still.
"Hush!" he said.
But it was like our watching the dawn; nothing more followed.
"They have shot that bear," I remarked.
He did not answer, and we put the saddles on without talk. We made no haste, but we were not over half an hour, I suppose, in getting off with the packs. It was not a new thing to hear a shot where wild game was in plenty; yet as we rode that shot sounded already in my mind different from others. Perhaps I should not believe this to-day but for what I look back to. To make camp last night we had turned off the trail, and now followed the stream down for a while, taking next a cut through the wood. In this way we came upon the tracks of our horses where they had been galloping back to the camp after their fright. They had kicked up the damp and matted pine needles very plainly all along.
"Nothing has been here but themselves, though," said I.
"And they ain't showing signs of remembering any scare," said the Virginian.
In a little while we emerged upon an open.
"Here's where they was grazing," said the Virginian; and the signs were clear enough. "Here's where they must have got their scare," he pursued. "You stay with them while I circle a little." So I stayed; and certainly our animals were very calm at visiting this scene. When you bring a horse back to where he has recently encountered a wild animal his ears and his nostrils are apt to be wide awake.
The Virginian had stopped and was beckoning to me.
"Here's your bear," said he, as I arrived. "Two-legged, you see. And he had a hawss of his own." There was a stake driven down where an animal had been picketed for the night.
"Looks like Ounces," I said, considering the Footprints.
"It's Ounces. And Ounces wanted another hawss very bad, so him and Pounds could travel like gentlemen should."
"But Pounds doesn't seem to have been with him."
"Oh, Pounds, he was making coffee, somewheres in yonder, when this happened. Neither of them guessed there'd be other hawsses wandering here in the night, or they both would have come." He turned back to our pack animals.
"Then you'll not hunt for this camp to make sure?"
"I prefer making sure first. We might be expected at that camp."
He took out his rifle from beneath his leg and set it across his saddle at half-cock. I did the same; and thus cautiously we resumed our journey in a slightly different direction. "This ain't all we're going to find out," said the Virginian. "Ounces had a good idea; but I reckon he made a bad mistake later."
We had found out a good deal without any more, I thought. Ounces had gone to bring in their single horse, and coming upon three more in the pasture had undertaken to catch one and failed, merely driving them where he feared to follow.
"Shorty never could rope a horse alone," I remarked.
The Virginian grinned. "Shorty? Well, Shorty sounds as well as Ounces. But that ain't the mistake I'm thinking he made."
I knew that he would not tell me, but that was just like him. For the last twenty minutes, having something to do, he had become himself again, had come to earth from that unsafe country of the brain where beckoned a spectral Steve. Nothing was left but in his eyes that question which pain had set there; and I wondered if his friend of old, who seemed so brave and amiable, would have dealt him that hurt at the solemn end had he known what a poisoned wound it would be.
We came out on a ridge from which we could look down. "You always want to ride on high places when there's folks around whose intentions ain't been declared," said the Virginian. And we went along our ridge for some distance. Then, suddenly he turned down and guided us almost at once to the trail. "That's it," he said. "See."
The track of a horse was very fresh on the trail. But it was a galloping horse now, and no bootprints were keeping up with it any more. No boots could have kept up with it. The rider was making time to-day. Yesterday that horse had been ridden up into the mountains at leisure. Who was on him? There was never to be any certain answer to that. But who was not on him? We turned back in our journey, back into the heart of that basin with the tall peaks all rising like teeth in the cloudless sun, and the snow-fields shining white.
"He was afraid of us," said the Virginian. "He did not know how many of us had come up here. Three hawsses might mean a dozen more around."
We followed the backward trail in among the pines, and came after a time upon their camp. And then I understood the mistake that Shorty had made. He had returned after his failure, and had told that other man of the presence of new horses. He should have kept this a secret; for haste had to be made at once, and two cannot get away quickly upon one horse. But it was poor Shorty's last blunder. He lay there by their extinct fire, with his wistful, lost-dog face upward, and his thick yellow hair unparted as it had always been. The murder had been done from behind. We closed the eyes.
"There was no natural harm in him," said the Virginian. "But you must do a thing well in this country."
There was not a trace, not a clew, of the other man; and we found a place where we could soon cover Shorty with earth. As we lifted him we saw the newspaper that he had been reading. He had brought it from the clump of cottonwoods where he and the other man had made a later visit than ours to be sure of the fate of their friends—or possibly in hopes of another horse. Evidently, when the party were surprised, they had been able to escape with only one. All of the newspaper was there save the leaf I had picked up—all and more, for this had pencil writing on it that was not mine, nor did I at first take it in. I thought it might be a clew, and I read it aloud. "Good-by, Jeff," it said. "I could not have spoke to you without playing the baby."
"Who's Jeff?" I asked. But it came over me when I looked at the Virginian. He was standing beside me quite motionless; and then he put out his hand and took the paper, and stood still, looking at the words. "Steve used to call me Jeff," he said, "because I was Southern. I reckon nobody else ever did."
He slowly folded the message from the dead, brought by the dead, and rolled it in the coat behind his saddle. For a half-minute he stood leaning his forehead down against the saddle. After this he came back and contemplated Shorty's face awhile. "I wish I could thank him," he said. "I wish I could."
We carried Shorty over and covered him with earth, and on that laid a few pine branches; then we took up our journey, and by the end of the forenoon we had gone some distance upon our trail through the Teton Mountains. But in front of us the hoofprints ever held their stride of haste, drawing farther from us through the hours, until by the next afternoon somewhere we noticed they were no longer to be seen; and after that they never came upon the trail again.
XXXIII. THE SPINSTER LOSES SOME SLEEP
Somewhere at the eastern base of the Tetons did those hoofprints disappear into a mountain sanctuary where many crooked paths have led. He that took another man's possessions, or he that took another man's life, could always run here if the law or popular justice were too hot at his heels. Steep ranges and forests walled him in from the world on all four sides, almost without a break; and every entrance lay through intricate solitudes. Snake River came into the place through canyons and mournful pines and marshes, to the north, and went out at the south between formidable chasms. Every tributary to this stream rose among high peaks and ridges, and descended into the valley by well-nigh impenetrable courses: Pacific Creek from Two Ocean Pass, Buffalo Fork from no pass at all, Black Rock from the To-wo-ge-tee Pass—all these, and many more, were the waters of loneliness, among whose thousand hiding-places it was easy to be lost. Down in the bottom was a spread of level land, broad and beautiful, with the blue and silver Tetons rising from its chain of lakes to the west, and other heights presiding over its other sides. And up and down and in and out of this hollow square of mountains, where waters plentifully flowed, and game and natural pasture abounded, there skulked a nomadic and distrustful population. This in due time built cabins, took wives, begot children, and came to speak of itself as "The honest settlers of Jackson's Hole." It is a commodious title, and doubtless to-day more accurate than it was once.
Into this place the hoofprints disappeared. Not many cabins were yet built there; but the unknown rider of the horse knew well that he would find shelter and welcome among the felons of his stripe. Law and order might guess his name correctly, but there was no next step, for lack of evidence; and he would wait, whoever he was, until the rage of popular justice, which had been pursuing him and his brother thieves, should subside. Then, feeling his way gradually with prudence, he would let himself be seen again.
And now, as mysteriously as he had melted away, rumor passed over the country. No tongue seemed to be heard telling the first news; the news was there, one day, a matter of whispered knowledge. On Sunk Creek and on Bear Creek, and elsewhere far and wide, before men talked men seemed secretly to know that Steve, and Ed, and Shorty, would never again be seen. Riders met each other in the road and drew rein to discuss the event, and its bearing upon the cattle interests. In town saloons men took each other aside, and muttered over it in corners.
Thus it reached the ears of Molly Wood, beginning in a veiled and harmless shape.
A neighbor joined her when she was out riding by herself.
"Good morning," said he. "Don't you find it lonesome?" And when she answered lightly, he continued, meaning well: "You'll be having company again soon now. He has finished his job. Wish he'd finished it MORE! Well, good day."
Molly thought these words over. She could not tell why they gave her a strange feeling. To her Vermont mind no suspicion of the truth would come naturally. But suspicion began to come when she returned from her ride. For, entering the cabin of the Taylors', she came upon several people who all dropped their talk short, and were not skilful at resuming it. She sat there awhile, uneasily aware that all of them knew something which she did not know, and was not intended to know. A thought pierced her—had anything happened to her lover? No; that was not it. The man she had met on horseback spoke of her having company soon again. How soon? she wondered. He had been unable to say when he should return, and now she suddenly felt that a great silence had enveloped him lately: not the mere silence of absence, of receiving no messages or letters, but another sort of silence which now, at this moment, was weighing strangely upon her.
And then the next day it came out at the schoolhouse. During that interval known as recess, she became aware through the open window that they were playing a new game outside. Lusty screeches of delight reached her ears.
"Jump!" a voice ordered. "Jump!"
"I don't want to," returned another voice, uneasily.
"You said you would," said several. "Didn't he say he would? Ah, he said he would. Jump now, quick!"
"But I don't want to," quavered the voice in a tone so dismal that Molly went out to see.
They had got Bob Carmody on the top of the gate by a tree, with a rope round his neck, the other end of which four little boys were joyously holding. The rest looked on eagerly, three little girls clasping their hands, and springing up and down with excitement.
"Why, children!" exclaimed Molly.
"He's said his prayers and everything," they all screamed out. "He's a rustler, and we're lynchin' him. Jump, Bob!"
"I don't want—"
"Ah, coward, won't take his medicine!"
"Let him go, boys," said Molly. "You might really hurt him." And so she broke up this game, but not without general protest from Wyoming's young voice.
"He said he would," Henry Dow assured her.
And George Taylor further explained: "He said he'd be Steve. But Steve didn't scare." Then George proceeded to tell the schoolmarm, eagerly, all about Steve and Ed, while the schoolmarm looked at him with a rigid face.
"You promised your mother you'd not tell," said Henry Dow, after all had been told. "You've gone and done it," and Henry wagged his head n a superior manner.
Thus did the New England girl learn what her cow-boy lover had done. She spoke of it to nobody; she kept her misery to herself. He was not there to defend his act. Perhaps in a way that was better. But these were hours of darkness indeed to Molly Wood.
On that visit to Dunbarton, when at the first sight of her lover's photograph in frontier dress her aunt had exclaimed, "I suppose there are days when he does not kill people," she had cried in all good faith and mirth, "He never killed anybody!" Later, when he was lying in her cabin weak from his bullet wound, but each day stronger beneath her nursing, at a certain word of his there had gone through her a shudder of doubt. Perhaps in his many wanderings he had done such a thing in self-defence, or in the cause of popular justice. But she had pushed the idea away from her hastily, back into the days before she had ever seen him. If this had ever happened, let her not know of it. Then, as a cruel reward for his candor and his laying himself bare to her mother, the letters from Bennington had used that very letter of his as a weapon against him. Her sister Sarah had quoted from it. "He says with apparent pride," wrote Sarah, "that he has never killed for pleasure or profit.' Those are his exact words, and you may guess their dreadful effect upon mother. I congratulate you, my dear, on having chosen a protector so scrupulous."
Thus her elder sister had seen fit to write; and letters from less near relatives made hints at the same subject. So she was compelled to accept this piece of knowledge thrust upon her. Yet still, still, those events had been before she knew him. They were remote, without detail or context. He had been little more than a boy. No doubt it was to save his own life. And so she bore the hurt of her discovery all the more easily because her sister's tone roused her to defend her cow-boy.
In her cabin, alone, after midnight, she arose from her sleepless bed, and lighting the candle, stood before his photograph.
"It is a good face," her great-aunt had said, after some study of it. And these words were in her mind now. There his likeness stood at full length, confronting her: the spurs on the boots, the fringed leathern chaparreros, the coiled rope in hand, the pistol at hip, the rough flannel shirt, and the scarf knotted at the throat—and then the grave eyes, looking at her. It thrilled her to meet them, even so. She could read life into them. She seemed to feel passion come from them, and then something like reproach. She stood for a long while looking at him, and then, beating her hands together suddenly, she blew out her light and went back into bed, but not to sleep.
"You're looking pale, deary," said Mrs. Taylor to her, a few days later.
"And you don't eat anything."
"Oh, yes, I do." And Molly retired to her cabin.
"George," said Mrs. Taylor, "you come here."
It may seem severe—I think that it was severe. That evening when Mr. Taylor came home to his family, George received a thrashing for disobedience.
"And I suppose," said Mrs. Taylor to her husband, "that she came out just in time to stop 'em breaking Bob Carmody's neck for him."
Upon the day following Mrs. Taylor essayed the impossible. She took herself over to Molly Wood's cabin. The girl gave her a listless greeting, and the dame sat slowly down, and surveyed the comfortable room.
"A very nice home, deary," said she, "if it was a home. But you'll fix something like this in your real home, I have no doubt."
Molly made no answer.
"What we're going to do without you I can't see," said Mrs. Taylor. "But I'd not have it different for worlds. He'll be coming back soon, I expect."
"Mrs. Taylor," said Molly, all at once, "please don't say anything now. I can't stand it." And she broke into wretched tears.
"Why, deary, he—"
"No; not a word. Please, please—I'll go out if you do."
The older woman went to the younger one, and then put her arms round her. But when the tears were over, they had not done any good; it was not the storm that clears the sky—all storms do not clear the sky. And Mrs. Taylor looked at the pale girl and saw that she could do nothing to help her toward peace of mind.
"Of course," she said to her husband, after returning from her profitless errand, "you might know she'd feel dreadful.
"What about?" said Taylor.
"Why, you know just as well as I do. And I'll say for myself, I hope you'll never have to help hang folks."
"Well," said Taylor, mildly, "if I had to, I'd have to, I guess."
"Well, I don't want it to come. But that poor girl is eating her heart right out over it."
"What does she say?"
"It's what she don't say. She'll not talk, and she'll not let me talk, and she sits and sits."
"I'll go talk some to her," said the man.
"Well, Taylor, I thought you had more sense. You'd not get a word in. She'll be sick soon if her worry ain't stopped someway, though."
"What does she want this country to do?" inquired Taylor. "Does she expect it to be like Vermont when it—"
"We can't help what she expects," his wife interrupted. "But I wish we could help HER."
They could not, however; and help came from another source. Judge Henry rode by the next day. To him good Mrs. Taylor at once confided her anxiety. The Judge looked grave.
"Must I meddle?" he said.
"Yes, Judge, you must," said Mrs. Taylor.
"But why can't I send him over here when he gets back? Then they'll just settle it between themselves."
Mrs. Taylor shook her head. "That would unsettle it worse than it is," she assured him. "They mustn't meet just now."
The Judge sighed. "Well," he said, "very well. I'll sacrifice my character, since you insist."
Judge Henry sat thinking, waiting until school should be out. He did not at all relish what lay before him. He would like to have got out of it. He had been a federal judge; he had been an upright judge; he had met the responsibilities of his difficult office not only with learning, which is desirable, but also with courage and common sense besides, and these are essential. He had been a stanch servant of the law. And now he was invited to defend that which, at first sight, nay, even at second and third sight, must always seem a defiance of the law more injurious than crime itself. Every good man in this world has convictions about right and wrong. They are his soul's riches, his spiritual gold. When his conduct is at variance with these, he knows that it is a departure, a falling; and this is a simple and clear matter. If falling were all that ever happened to a good man, all his days would be a simple matter of striving and repentance. But it is not all. There come to him certain junctures, crises, when life, like a highwayman, springs upon him, demanding that he stand and deliver his convictions in the name of some righteous cause, bidding him do evil that good may come. I cannot say that I believe in doing evil that good may come. I do not. I think that any man who honestly justifies such course deceives himself. But this I can say: to call any act evil, instantly begs the question. Many an act that man does is right or wrong according to the time and place which form, so to speak, its context; strip it of its surrounding circumstances, and you tear away its meaning. Gentlemen reformers, beware of this common practice of yours! beware of calling an act evil on Tuesday because that same act was evil on Monday!
Do you fail to follow my meaning? Then here is an illustration. On Monday I walk over my neighbor's field; there is no wrong in such walking. By Tuesday he has put up a sign that trespassers will be prosecuted according to law. I walk again on Tuesday, and am a law-breaker. Do you begin to see my point? or are you inclined to object to the illustration because the walking on Tuesday was not WRONG, but merely ILLEGAL? Then here is another illustration which you will find it a trifle more embarrassing to answer. Consider carefully, let me beg you, the case of a young man and a young woman who walk out of a door on Tuesday, pronounced man and wife by a third party inside the door. It matters not that on Monday they were, in their own hearts, sacredly vowed to each other. If they had omitted stepping inside that door, if they had dispensed with that third party, and gone away on Monday sacredly vowed to each other in their own hearts, you would have scarcely found their conduct moral. Consider these things carefully,—the sign-post and the third party,—and the difference they make. And now, for a finish, we will return to the sign-post.
Suppose that I went over my neighbor's field on Tuesday, after the sign-post was put up, because I saw a murder about to be committed in the field, and therefore ran in and stopped it. Was I doing evil that good might come? Do you not think that to stay out and let the murder be done would have been the evil act in this case? To disobey the sign-post was RIGHT; and I trust that you now perceive the same act may wear as many different hues of right or wrong as the rainbow, according to the atmosphere in which it is done. It is not safe to say of any man, "He did evil that good might come." Was the thing that he did, in the first place, evil? That is the question.
Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader, and we will go back at once to Judge Henry and his meditations about lynching.
He was well aware that if he was to touch at all upon this subject with the New England girl, he could not put her off with mere platitudes and humdrum formulas; not, at least, if he expected to do any good. She was far too intelligent, and he was really anxious to do good. For her sake he wanted the course of the girl's true love to run more smoothly, and still more did he desire this for the sake of his Virginian.
"I sent him myself on that business," the Judge reflected uncomfortably. "I am partly responsible for the lynching. It has brought him one great unhappiness already through the death of Steve. If it gets running in this girl's mind, she may—dear me!" the Judge broke off, "what a nuisance!" And he sighed. For as all men know, he also knew that many things should be done in this world in silence, and that talking about them is a mistake.
But when school was out, and the girl gone to her cabin, his mind had set the subject in order thoroughly, and he knocked at her door, ready, as he had put it, to sacrifice his character in the cause of true love.
"Well," he said, coming straight to the point, "some dark things have happened." And when she made no answer to this, he continued: "But you must not misunderstand us. We're too fond of you for that."
"Judge Henry," said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, "have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?"
He met her. "Of burning Southern negroes in public, no. Of hanging Wyoming cattle thieves in private, yes. You perceive there's a difference, don't you?"
"Not in principle," said the girl, dry and short.
"Oh—dear—me!" slowly exclaimed the Judge. "I am sorry that you cannot see that, because I think that I can. And I think that you have just as much sense as I have." The Judge made himself very grave and very good-humored at the same time. The poor girl was strung to a high pitch, and spoke harshly in spite of herself.
"What is the difference in principle?" she demanded.
"Well," said the Judge, easy and thoughtful, "what do you mean by principle?"
"I didn't think you'd quibble," flashed Molly. "I'm not a lawyer myself."
A man less wise than Judge Henry would have smiled at this, and then war would have exploded hopelessly between them, and harm been added to what was going wrong already. But the Judge knew that he must give to every word that the girl said now his perfect consideration.
"I don't mean to quibble," he assured her. "I know the trick of escaping from one question by asking another. But I don't want to escape from anything you hold me to answer. If you can show me that I am wrong, I want you to do so. But," and here the Judge smiled, "I want you to play fair, too."
"And how am I not?"
"I want you to be just as willing to be put right by me as I am to be put right by you. And so when you use such a word as principle, you must help me to answer by saying what principle you mean. For in all sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States. We execute our criminals by the swiftest means, and in the quietest way. Do you think the principle is the same?"
Molly had listened to him with attention. "The way is different," she admitted.
"Only the way?"
"So it seems to me. Both defy law and order."
"Ah, but do they both? Now we're getting near the principle."
"Why, yes. Ordinary citizens take the law in their own hands."
"The principle at last!" exclaimed the Judge.
"Now tell me some more things. Out of whose hands do they take the law?"
"What made the courts?"
"I don't understand."
"How did there come to be any courts?"
"How did there come to be any Constitution? Who made it?"
"The delegates, I suppose."
"Who made the delegates?"
"I suppose they were elected, or appointed, or something.
"And who elected them?"
"Of course the people elected them."
"Call them the ordinary citizens," said the Judge. "I like your term. They are where the law comes from, you see. For they chose the delegates who made the Constitution that provided for the courts. There's your machinery. These are the hands into which ordinary citizens have put the law. So you see, at best, when they lynch they only take back what they once gave. Now we'll take your two cases that you say are the same in principle. I think that they are not. For in the South they take a negro from jail where he was waiting to be duly hung. The South has never claimed that the law would let him go. But in Wyoming the law has been letting our cattle-thieves go for two years. We are in a very bad way, and we are trying to make that way a little better until civilization can reach us. At present we lie beyond its pale. The courts, or rather the juries, into whose hands we have put the law, are not dealing the law. They are withered hands, or rather they are imitation hands made for show, with no life in them, no grip. They cannot hold a cattle-thief. And so when your ordinary citizen sees this, and sees that he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a DEFIANCE of the law, it is an ASSERTION of it—the fundamental assertion of self governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based. There is your principle, Miss Wood, as I see it. Now can you help me to see anything different?"
She could not.
"But perhaps you are of the same opinion still?" the Judge inquired.
"It is all terrible to me," she said.
"Yes; and so is capital punishment terrible. And so is war. And perhaps some day we shall do without them. But they are none of them so terrible as unchecked theft and murder would be."
After the Judge had departed on his way to Sunk Creek, no one spoke to Molly upon this subject. But her face did not grow cheerful at once. It was plain from her fits of silence that her thoughts were not at rest. And sometimes at night she would stand in front of her lover's likeness, gazing upon it with both love and shrinking.
XXXIV. TO FIT HER FINGER
It was two rings that the Virginian wrote for when next I heard from him.
After my dark sight of what the Cattle Land could be, I soon had journeyed home by way of Washakie and Rawlins. Steve and Shorty did not leave my memory, nor will they ever, I suppose.
The Virginian had touched the whole thing the day I left him. He had noticed me looking a sort of farewell at the plains and mountains.
"You will come back to it," he said. "If there was a headstone for every man that once pleasured in his freedom here, yu'd see one most every time yu' turned your head. It's a heap sadder than a graveyard—but yu' love it all the same."
Sadness had passed from him—from his uppermost mood, at least, when he wrote about the rings. Deep in him was sadness of course, as well as joy. For he had known Steve, and he had covered Shorty with earth. He had looked upon life with a marksman's eyes, very close; and no one, if he have a heart, can pass through this and not carry sadness in his spirit with him forever. But he seldom shows it openly; it bides within him, enriching his cheerfulness and rendering him of better service to his fellow-men.
It was a commission of cheerfulness that he now gave, being distant from where rings are to be bought. He could not go so far as the East to procure what he had planned. Rings were to be had in Cheyenne, and a still greater choice in Denver; and so far as either of these towns his affairs would have permitted him to travel. But he was set upon having rings from the East. They must come from the best place in the country; nothing short of that was good enough "to fit her finger," as he said. The wedding ring was a simple matter. Let it be right, that was all: the purest gold that could be used, with her initials and his together graven round the inside, with the day of the month and the year.
The date was now set. It had come so far as this. July third was to be the day. Then for sixty days and nights he was to be a bridegroom, free from his duties at Sunk Creek, free to take his bride wheresoever she might choose to go. And she had chosen.
Those voices of the world had more than angered her; for after the anger a set purpose was left. Her sister should have the chance neither to come nor to stay away. Had her mother even answered the Virginian's letter, there could have been some relenting. But the poor lady had been inadequate in this, as in all other searching moments of her life: she had sent messages,—kind ones, to be sure,—but only messages. If this had hurt the Virginian, no one knew it in the world, least of all the girl in whose heart it had left a cold, frozen spot. Not a good spirit in which to be married, you will say. No; frozen spots are not good at any time. But Molly's own nature gave her due punishment. Through all these days of her warm happiness a chill current ran, like those which interrupt the swimmer's perfect joy. The girl was only half as happy as her lover; but she hid this deep from him,—hid it until that final, fierce hour of reckoning that her nature had with her,—nay, was bound to have with her, before the punishment was lifted, and the frozen spot melted at length from her heart.
So, meanwhile, she made her decree against Bennington. Not Vermont, but Wyoming, should be her wedding place. No world's voices should be whispering, no world's eyes should be looking on, when she made her vow to him and received his vow. Those voices should be spoken and that ring put on in this wild Cattle Land, where first she had seen him ride into the flooded river, and lift her ashore upon his horse. It was this open sky which should shine down on them, and this frontier soil upon which their feet should tread. The world should take its turn second.
After a month with him by stream and canyon, a month far deeper into the mountain wilds than ever yet he had been free to take her, a month with sometimes a tent and sometimes the stars above them, and only their horses besides themselves—after such a month as this, she would take him to her mother and to Bennington; and the old aunt over at Dunbarton would look at him, and be once more able to declare that the Storks had always preferred a man who was a man.
And so July third was to be engraved inside the wedding ring. Upon the other ring the Virginian had spent much delicious meditation, all in his secret mind. He had even got the right measure of her finger without her suspecting the reason. But this step was the final one in his plan.
During the time that his thoughts had begun to be busy over the other ring, by a chance he had learned from Mrs. Henry a number of old fancies regarding precious stones. Mrs. Henry often accompanied the Judge in venturesome mountain climbs, and sometimes the steepness of the rocks required her to use her hands for safety. One day when the Virginian went with them to help mark out certain boundary corners, she removed her rings lest they should get scratched; and he, being just behind her, took them during the climb.
"I see you're looking at my topaz," she had said, as he returned them. "If I could have chosen, it would have been a ruby. But I was born in November."
He did not understand her in the least, but her words awakened exceeding interest in him; and they had descended some five miles of mountain before he spoke again. Then he became ingenious, for he had half worked out what Mrs. Henry's meaning must be; but he must make quite sure. Therefore, according to his wild, shy nature, he became ingenious.
"Men wear rings," he began. "Some of the men on the ranch do. I don't see any harm in a man's wearin' a ring. But I never have."
"Well," said the lady, not yet suspecting that he was undertaking to circumvent her, "probably those men have sweethearts."
"No, ma'am. Not sweethearts worth wearin' rings for—in two cases, anyway. They won 'em at cyards. And they like to see 'em shine. I never saw a man wear a topaz."
Mrs. Henry did not have any further remark to make.
"I was born in January myself," pursued the Virginian, very thoughtfully.
Then the lady gave him one look, and without further process of mind perceived exactly what he was driving at.