"That's very extravagant for rings," said she. "January is diamonds."
"Diamonds," murmured the Virginian, more and more thoughtfully. "Well, it don't matter, for I'd not wear a ring. And November is—what did yu' say, ma'am?"
"Yes. Well, jewels are cert'nly pretty things. In the Spanish Missions yu'll see large ones now and again. And they're not glass, I think. And so they have got some jewel that kind of belongs to each month right around the twelve?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Henry, smiling. "One for each month. But the opal is what you want."
He looked at her, and began to blush.
"October is the opal," she added, and she laughed outright, for Miss Wood's birthday was on the fifteenth of that month.
The Virginian smiled guiltily at her through his crimson.
"I've no doubt you can beat around the bush very well with men," said Mrs. Henry. "But it's perfectly transparent with us—in matters of sentiment, at least."
"Well, I am sorry," he presently said. "I don't want to give her an opal. I have no superstition, but I don't want to give her an opal. If her mother did, or anybody like that, why, all right. But not from me. D' yu' understand, ma'am?"
Mrs. Henry did understand this subtle trait in the wild man, and she rejoiced to be able to give him immediate reassurance concerning opals.
"Don't worry about that," she said. "The opal is said to bring ill luck, but not when it is your own month stone. Then it is supposed to be not only deprived of evil influence, but to possess peculiarly fortunate power. Let it be an opal ring."
Then he asked her boldly various questions, and she showed him her rings, and gave him advice about the setting. There was no special custom, she told him, ruling such rings as this he desired to bestow. The gem might be the lady's favorite or the lover's favorite; and to choose the lady's month stone was very well indeed.
Very well indeed, the Virginian thought. But not quite well enough for him. His mind now busied itself with this lore concerning jewels, and soon his sentiment had suggested something which he forthwith carried out.
When the ring was achieved, it was an opal, but set with four small embracing diamonds. Thus was her month stone joined with his, that their luck and their love might be inseparably clasped.
He found the size of her finger one day when winter had departed, and the early grass was green. He made a ring of twisted grass for her, while she held her hand for him to bind it. He made another for himself. Then, after each had worn their grass ring for a while, he begged her to exchange. He did not send his token away from him, but most carefully measured it. Thus the ring fitted her well, and the lustrous flame within the opal thrilled his heart each time he saw it. For now June was near its end; and that other plain gold ring, which, for safe keeping, he cherished suspended round his neck day and night, seemed to burn with an inward glow that was deeper than the opal's.
So in due course arrived the second of July. Molly's punishment had got as far as this: she longed for her mother to be near her at this time; but it was too late.
XXXV. WITH MALICE AFORETHOUGHT
Town lay twelve straight miles before the lover and his sweetheart, when they came to the brow of the last long hill. All beneath them was like a map: neither man nor beast distinguishable, but the veined and tinted image of a country, knobs and flats set out in order clearly, shining extensive and motionless in the sun. It opened on the sight of the lovers as they reached the sudden edge of the tableland, where since morning they had ridden with the head of neither horse ever in advance of the other.
At the view of their journey's end, the Virginian looked down at his girl beside him, his eyes filled with a bridegroom's light, and, hanging safe upon his breast, he could feel the gold ring that he would slowly press upon her finger to-morrow. He drew off the glove from her left hand, and stooping, kissed the jewel in that other ring which he had given her. The crimson fire in the opal seemed to mingle with that in his heart, and his arm lifted her during a moment from the saddle as he held her to him. But in her heart the love of him was troubled by that cold pang of loneliness which had crept upon her like a tide as the day drew near. None of her own people were waiting in that distant town to see her become his bride. Friendly faces she might pass on the way; but all of them new friends, made in this wild country: not a face of her childhood would smile upon her; and deep within her, a voice cried for the mother who was far away in Vermont. That she would see Mrs. Taylor's kind face at her wedding was no comfort now.
There lay the town in the splendor of Wyoming space. Around it spread the watered fields, westward for a little way, eastward to a great distance, making squares of green and yellow crops; and the town was but a poor rag in the midst of this quilted harvest. After the fields to the east, the tawny plain began; and with one faint furrow of river lining its undulations, it stretched beyond sight. But west of the town rose the Bow Leg Mountains, cool with their still unmelted snows and their dull blue gulfs of pine. From three canyons flowed three clear forks which began the river. Their confluence was above the town a good two miles; it looked but a few paces from up here, while each side the river straggled the margin cottonwoods, like thin borders along a garden walk. Over all this map hung silence like a harmony, tremendous yet serene.
"How beautiful! how I love it!" whispered the girl. "But, oh, how big it is!" And she leaned against her lover for an instant. It was her spirit seeking shelter. To-day, this vast beauty, this primal calm, had in it for her something almost of dread. The small, comfortable, green hills of home rose before her. She closed her eyes and saw Vermont: a village street, and the post-office, and ivy covering an old front door, and her mother picking some yellow roses from a bush.
At a sound, her eyes quickly opened; and here was her lover turned in his saddle, watching another horseman approach. She saw the Virginian's hand in a certain position, and knew that his pistol was ready. But the other merely overtook and passed them, as they stood at the brow of the hill.
The man had given one nod to the Virginian, and the Virginian one to him; and now he was already below them on the descending road. To Molly Wood he was a stranger; but she had seen his eyes when he nodded to her lover, and she knew, even without the pistol, that this was not enmity at first sight. It was not indeed. Five years of gathered hate had looked out of the man's eyes. And she asked her lover who this was.
"Oh," said he, easily, "just a man I see now and then."
"Is his name Trampas?" said Molly Wood.
The Virginian looked at her in surprise. "Why, where have you seen him?" he asked.
"Never till now. But I knew."
"My gracious! Yu' never told me yu' had mind-reading powers." And he smiled serenely at her.
"I knew it was Trampas as soon as I saw his eyes."
"My gracious!" her lover repeated with indulgent irony. "I must be mighty careful of my eyes when you're lookin' at 'em."
"I believe he did that murder," said the girl.
"Whose mind are yu' readin' now?" he drawled affectionately.
But he could not joke her off the subject. She took his strong hand in hers, tremulously, so much of it as her little hand could hold. "I know something about that—that—last autumn," she said, shrinking from words more definite. "And I know that you only did—"
"What I had to," he finished, very sadly, but sternly, too.
"Yes," she asserted, keeping hold of his hand. "I suppose that—lynching—" (she almost whispered the word) "is the only way. But when they had to die just for stealing horses, it seems so wicked that this murderer—"
"Who can prove it?" asked the Virginian.
"But don't you know it?"
"I know a heap o' things inside my heart. But that's not proving. There was only the body, and the hoofprints—and what folks guessed."
"He was never even arrested!" the girl said.
"No. He helped elect the sheriff in that county."
Then Molly ventured a step inside the border of her lover's reticence. "I saw—" she hesitated, "just now, I saw what you did."
He returned to his caressing irony. "You'll have me plumb scared if you keep on seein' things."
"You had your pistol ready for him."
"Why, I believe I did. It was mighty unnecessary." And the Virginian took out the pistol again, and shook his head over it, like one who has been caught in a blunder.
She looked at him, and knew that she must step outside his reticence again. By love and her surrender to him their positions had been exchanged.
He was not now, as through his long courting he had been, her half-obeying, half-refractory worshipper. She was no longer his half-indulgent, half-scornful superior. Her better birth and schooling that had once been weapons to keep him at his distance, or bring her off victorious in their encounters, had given way before the onset of the natural man himself. She knew her cow-boy lover, with all that he lacked, to be more than ever she could be, with all that she had. He was her worshipper still, but her master, too. Therefore now, against the baffling smile he gave her, she felt powerless. And once again a pang of yearning for her mother to be near her to-day shot through the girl. She looked from her untamed man to the untamed desert of Wyoming, and the town where she was to take him as her wedded husband. But for his sake she would not let him guess her loneliness.
He sat on his horse Monte, considering the pistol. Then he showed her a rattlesnake coiled by the roots of some sage-brush. "Can I hit it?" he inquired.
"You don't often miss them," said she, striving to be cheerful.
"Well, I'm told getting married unstrings some men." He aimed, and the snake was shattered. "Maybe it's too early yet for the unstringing to begin!" And with some deliberation he sent three more bullets into the snake. "I reckon that's enough," said he.
"Was not the first one?"
"Oh, yes, for the snake." And then, with one leg crooked cow-boy fashion across in front of his saddle-horn, he cleaned his pistol, and replaced the empty cartridges.
Once more she ventured near the line of his reticence. "Has—has Trampas seen you much lately?"
"Why, no; not for a right smart while. But I reckon he has not missed me."
The Virginian spoke this in his gentlest voice. But his rebuffed sweetheart turned her face away, and from her eyes she brushed a tear.
He reined his horse Monte beside her, and upon her cheek she felt his kiss. "You are not the only mind-reader," said he, very tenderly. And at this she clung to him, and laid her head upon his breast. "I had been thinking," he went on, "that the way our marriage is to be was the most beautiful way."
"It is the most beautiful," she murmured.
He slowly spoke out his thought, as if she had not said this. "No folks to stare, no fuss, no jokes and ribbons and best bonnets, no public eye nor talkin' of tongues when most yu' want to hear nothing and say nothing."
She answered by holding him closer.
"Just the bishop of Wyoming to join us, and not even him after we're once joined. I did think that would be ahead of all ways to get married I have seen."
He paused again, and she made no rejoinder.
"But we have left out your mother."
She looked in his face with quick astonishment. It was as if his spirit had heard the cry of her spirit.
"That is nowhere near right," he said. "That is wrong."
"She could never have come here," said the girl.
"We should have gone there. I don't know how I can ask her to forgive me."
"But it was not you!" cried Molly.
"Yes. Because I did not object. I did not tell you we must go to her. I missed the point, thinking so much about my own feelings. For you see—and I've never said this to you until now—your mother did hurt me. When you said you would have me after my years of waiting, and I wrote her that letter telling her all about myself, and how my family was not like yours, and—and—all the rest I told her, why you see it hurt me never to get a word back from her except just messages through you. For I had talked to her about my hopes and my failings. I had said more than ever I've said to you, because she was your mother. I wanted her to forgive me, if she could, and feel that maybe I could take good care of you after all. For it was bad enough to have her daughter quit her home to teach school out hyeh on Bear Creek. Bad enough without havin' me to come along and make it worse. I have missed the point in thinking of my own feelings."
"But it's not your doing!" repeated Molly.
With his deep delicacy he had put the whole matter as a hardship to her mother alone. He had saved her any pain of confession or denial. "Yes, it is my doing," he now said. "Shall we give it up?"
"Give what—?" She did not understand.
"Why, the order we've got it fixed in. Plans are—well, they're no more than plans. I hate the notion of changing, but I hate hurting your mother more. Or, anyway, I OUGHT to hate it more. So we can shift, if yu' say so. It's not too late."
"Shift?" she faltered.
"I mean, we can go to your home now. We can start by the stage to-night. Your mother can see us married. We can come back and finish in the mountains instead of beginning in them. It'll be just merely shifting, yu' see."
He could scarcely bring himself to say this at all; yet he said it almost as if he were urging it. It implied a renunciation that he could hardly bear to think of. To put off his wedding day, the bliss upon whose threshold he stood after his three years of faithful battle for it, and that wedding journey he had arranged: for there were the mountains in sight, the woods and canyons where he had planned to go with her after the bishop had joined them; the solitudes where only the wild animals would be, besides themselves. His horses, his tent, his rifle, his rod, all were waiting ready in the town for their start to-morrow. He had provided many dainty things to make her comfortable. Well, he could wait a little more, having waited three years. It would not be what his heart most desired: there would be the "public eye and the talking of tongues"—but he could wait. The hour would come when he could be alone with his bride at last. And so he spoke as if he urged it.
"Never!" she cried. "Never, never!"
She pushed it from her. She would not brook such sacrifice on his part. Were they not going to her mother in four weeks? If her family had warmly accepted him—but they had not; and in any case, it had gone too far, it was too late. She told her lover that she would not hear him, that if he said any more she would gallop into town separately from him. And for his sake she would hide deep from him this loneliness of hers, and the hurt that he had given her in refusing to share with her his trouble with Trampas, when others must know of it.
Accordingly, they descended the hill slowly together, lingering to spin out these last miles long. Many rides had taught their horses to go side by side, and so they went now: the girl sweet and thoughtful in her sedate gray habit; and the man in his leathern chaps and cartridge belt and flannel shirt, looking gravely into the distance with the level gaze of the frontier.
Having read his sweetheart's mind very plainly, the lover now broke his dearest custom. It was his code never to speak ill of any man to any woman. Men's quarrels were not for women's ears. In his scheme, good women were to know only a fragment of men's lives. He had lived many outlaw years, and his wide knowledge of evil made innocence doubly precious to him. But to-day he must depart from his code, having read her mind well. He would speak evil of one man to one woman, because his reticence had hurt her—and was she not far from her mother, and very lonely, do what he could? She should know the story of his quarrel in language as light and casual as he could veil it with.
He made an oblique start. He did not say to her: "I'll tell you about this. You saw me get ready for Trampas because I have been ready for him any time these five years." He began far off from the point with that rooted caution of his—that caution which is shared by the primal savage and the perfected diplomat.
"There's cert'nly a right smart o' difference between men and women," he observed.
"You're quite sure?" she retorted.
"Ain't it fortunate?—that there's both, I mean."
"I don't know about fortunate. Machinery could probably do all the heavy work for us without your help."
"And who'd invent the machinery?"
She laughed. "We shouldn't need the huge, noisy things you do. Our world would be a gentle one."
"Oh, my gracious!"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, my gracious! Get along, Monte! A gentle world all full of ladies!"
"Do you call men gentle?" inquired Molly.
"Now it's a funny thing about that. Have yu' ever noticed a joke about fathers-in-law? There's just as many fathers—as mothers-in-law; but which side are your jokes?"
Molly was not vanquished. "That's because the men write the comic papers," said she.
"Hear that, Monte? The men write 'em. Well, if the ladies wrote a comic paper, I expect that might be gentle."
She gave up this battle in mirth; and he resumed:— "But don't you really reckon it's uncommon to meet a father-in-law flouncin' around the house? As for gentle—Once I had to sleep in a room next a ladies' temperance meetin'. Oh, heavens! Well, I couldn't change my room, and the hotel man, he apologized to me next mawnin'. Said it didn't surprise him the husbands drank some."
Here the Virginian broke down over his own fantastic inventions, and gave a joyous chuckle in company with his sweetheart. "Yes, there's a big heap o' difference between men and women," he said. "Take that fello' and myself, now."
"Trampas?" said Molly, quickly serious. She looked along the road ahead, and discerned the figure of Trampas still visible on its way to town.
The Virginian did not wish her to be serious—more than could be helped. "Why, yes," he replied, with a waving gesture at Trampas. "Take him and me. He don't think much o' me! How could he? And I expect he'll never. But yu' saw just now how it was between us. We were not a bit like a temperance meetin'."
She could not help laughing at the twist he gave to his voice. And she felt happiness warming her; for in the Virginian's tone about Trampas was something now that no longer excluded her. Thus he began his gradual recital, in a cadence always easy, and more and more musical with the native accent of the South. With the light turn he gave it, its pure ugliness melted into charm.
"No, he don't think anything of me. Once a man in the John Day Valley didn't think much, and by Canada de Oro I met another. It will always be so here and there, but Trampas beats 'em all. For the others have always expressed themselves—got shut of their poor opinion in the open air."
"Yu' see, I had to explain myself to Trampas a right smart while ago, long before ever I laid my eyes on yu'. It was just nothing at all. A little matter of cyards in the days when I was apt to spend my money and my holidays pretty headlong. My gracious, what nonsensical times I have had! But I was apt to win at cyards, 'specially poker. And Trampas, he met me one night, and I expect he must have thought I looked kind o' young. So he hated losin' his money to such a young-lookin' man, and he took his way of sayin' as much. I had to explain myself to him plainly, so that he learned right away my age had got its growth.
"Well, I expect he hated that worse, having to receive my explanation with folks lookin' on at us publicly that-a-way, and him without further ideas occurrin' to him at the moment. That's what started his poor opinion of me, not havin' ideas at the moment. And so the boys resumed their cyards.
"I'd most forgot about it. But Trampas's mem'ry is one of his strong points. Next thing—oh, it's a good while later—he gets to losin' flesh because Judge Henry gave me charge of him and some other punchers taking cattle—"
"That's not next," interrupted the girl.
"Don't you remember?" she said, timid, yet eager. "Don't you?"
"Blamed if I do!"
"The first time we met?"
"Yes; my mem'ry keeps that—like I keep this." And he brought from his pocket her own handkerchief, the token he had picked up at a river's brink when he had carried her from an overturned stage.
"We did not exactly meet, then," she said. "It was at that dance. I hadn't seen you yet; but Trampas was saying something horrid about me, and you said—you said, 'Rise on your legs, you pole cat, and tell them you're a liar.' When I heard that, I think—I think it finished me." And crimson suffused Molly's countenance.
"I'd forgot," the Virginian murmured. Then sharply, "How did you hear it?"
"Oh! Well, a man would never have told a woman that."
Molly laughed triumphantly. "Then who told Mrs. Taylor?"
Being caught, he grinned at her. "I reckon husbands are a special kind of man," was all that he found to say. "Well, since you do know about that, it was the next move in the game. Trampas thought I had no call to stop him sayin' what he pleased about a woman who was nothin' to me—then. But all women ought to be somethin' to a man. So I had to give Trampas another explanation in the presence of folks lookin' on, and it was just like the cyards. No ideas occurred to him again. And down goes his opinion of me some more!
"Well, I have not been able to raise it. There has been this and that and the other,—yu' know most of the later doings yourself,—and to-day is the first time I've happened to see the man since the doings last autumn. Yu' seem to know about them, too. He knows I can't prove he was with that gang of horse thieves. And I can't prove he killed poor Shorty. But he knows I missed him awful close, and spoiled his thieving for a while. So d' yu' wonder he don't think much of me? But if I had lived to be twenty-nine years old like I am, and with all my chances made no enemy, I'd feel myself a failure."
His story was finished. He had made her his confidant in matters he had never spoken of before, and she was happy to be thus much nearer to him. It diminished a certain fear that was mingled with her love of him.
During the next several miles he was silent, and his silence was enough for her. Vermont sank away from her thoughts, and Wyoming held less of loneliness. They descended altogether into the map which had stretched below them, so that it was a map no longer, but earth with growing things, and prairie-dogs sitting upon it, and now and then a bird flying over it. And after a while she said to him, "What are you thinking about?"
"I have been doing sums. Figured in hours it sounds right short. Figured in minutes it boils up into quite a mess. Twenty by sixty is twelve hundred. Put that into seconds, and yu' get seventy-two thousand seconds. Seventy-two thousand. Seventy-two thousand seconds yet before we get married."
"Seconds! To think of its having come to seconds!"
"I am thinkin' about it. I'm choppin' sixty of 'em off every minute."
With such chopping time wears away. More miles of the road lay behind them, and in the virgin wilderness the scars of new-scraped water ditches began to appear, and the first wire fences. Next, they were passing cabins and occasional fields, the outposts of habitation. The free road became wholly imprisoned, running between unbroken stretches of barbed wire. Far off to the eastward a flowing column of dust marked the approaching stage, bringing the bishop, probably, for whose visit here they had timed their wedding. The day still brimmed with heat and sunshine; but the great daily shadow was beginning to move from the feet of the Bow Leg Mountains outward toward the town. Presently they began to meet citizens. Some of these knew them and nodded, while some did not, and stared. Turning a corner into the town's chief street, where stood the hotel, the bank, the drug store, the general store, and the seven saloons, they were hailed heartily. Here were three friends,—Honey Wiggin, Scipio Le Moyne, and Lin McLean,—all desirous of drinking the Virginian's health, if his lady—would she mind? The three stood grinning, with their hats off; but behind their gayety the Virginian read some other purpose.
"We'll all be very good," said Honey Wiggin.
"Pretty good," said Lin.
"Good," said Scipio.
"Which is the honest man?" inquired Molly, glad to see them.
"Not one!" said the Virginian. "My old friends scare me when I think of their ways."
"It's bein' engaged scares yu'," retorted Mr. McLean. "Marriage restores your courage, I find."
"Well, I'll trust all of you," said Molly. "He's going to take me to the hotel, and then you can drink his health as much as you please."
With a smile to them she turned to proceed, and he let his horse move with hers; but he looked at his friends. Then Scipio's bleached blue eyes narrowed to a slit, and he said what they had all come out on the street to say:— "Don't change your clothes."
"Oh!" protested Molly, "isn't he rather dusty and countrified?"
But the Virginian had taken Scipio's meaning. "DON'T CHANGE YOURS CLOTHES." Innocent Molly appreciated these words no more than the average reader who reads a masterpiece, complacently unaware that its style differs from that of the morning paper. Such was Scipio's intention, wishing to spare her from alarm.
So at the hotel she let her lover go with a kiss, and without a thought of Trampas. She in her room unlocked the possessions which were there waiting for her, and changed her dress.
Wedding garments, and other civilized apparel proper for a genuine frontiersman when he comes to town, were also in the hotel, ready for the Virginian to wear. It is only the somewhat green and unseasoned cow-puncher who struts before the public in spurs and deadly weapons. For many a year the Virginian had put away these childish things. He made a sober toilet for the streets. Nothing but his face and bearing remained out of the common when he was in a town. But Scipio had told him not to change his clothes; therefore he went out with his pistol at his hip. Soon he had joined his three friends.
"I'm obliged to yu'," he said. "He passed me this mawnin'."
"We don't know his intentions," said Wiggin.
"Except that he's hangin' around," said McLean.
"And fillin' up," said Scipio, "which reminds me—"
They strolled into the saloon of a friend, where, unfortunately, sat some foolish people. But one cannot always tell how much of a fool a man is, at sight.
It was a temperate health-drinking that they made. "Here's how," they muttered softly to the Virginian; and "How," he returned softly, looking away from them. But they had a brief meeting of eyes, standing and lounging near each other, shyly; and Scipio shook hands with the bridegroom. "Some day," he stated, tapping himself; for in his vagrant heart he began to envy the man who could bring himself to marry. And he nodded again, repeating, "Here's how."
They stood at the bar, full of sentiment, empty of words, memory and affection busy in their hearts. All of them had seen rough days together, and they felt guilty with emotion.
"It's hot weather," said Wiggin.
"Hotter on Box Elder," said McLean. "My kid has started teething."
Words ran dry again. They shifted their positions, looked in their glasses, read the labels on the bottles. They dropped a word now and then to the proprietor about his trade, and his ornaments.
"Good head," commented McLean.
"Big old ram," assented the proprietor. "Shot him myself on Gray Bull last fall."
"Sheep was thick in the Tetons last fall," said the Virginian.
On the bar stood a machine into which the idle customer might drop his nickel. The coin then bounced among an arrangement of pegs, descending at length into one or another of various holes. You might win as much as ten times your stake, but this was not the most usual result; and with nickels the three friends and the bridegroom now mildly sported for a while, buying them with silver when their store ran out.
"Was it sheep you went after in the Tetons?" inquired the proprietor, knowing it was horse thieves.
"Yes," said the Virginian. "I'll have ten more nickels."
"Did you get all the sheep you wanted?" the proprietor continued.
"Poor luck," said the Virginian.
"Think there's a friend of yours in town this afternoon," said the proprietor.
"Did he mention he was my friend?"
The proprietor laughed. The Virginian watched another nickel click down among the pegs.
Honey Wiggin now made the bridegroom a straight offer. "We'll take this thing off your hands," said he.
"Any or all of us," said Lin.
But Scipio held his peace. His loyalty went every inch as far as theirs, but his understanding of his friend went deeper. "Don't change your clothes," was the first and the last help he would be likely to give in this matter. The rest must be as such matters must always be, between man and man. To the other two friends, however, this seemed a very special case, falling outside established precedent. Therefore they ventured offers of interference.
"A man don't get married every day," apologized McLean. "We'll just run him out of town for yu'."
"Save yu' the trouble," urged Wiggin. "Say the word."
The proprietor now added his voice. "It'll sober him up to spend his night out in the brush. He'll quit his talk then."
But the Virginian did not say the word, or any word. He stood playing with the nickels.
"Think of her," muttered McLean.
"Who else would I be thinking of?" returned the Southerner. His face had become very sombre. "She has been raised so different!" he murmured. He pondered a little, while the others waited, solicitous.
A new idea came to the proprietor. "I am acting mayor of this town," said he. "I'll put him in the calaboose and keep him till you get married and away."
"Say the word," repeated Honey Wiggin.
Scipio's eye met the proprietor's, and he shook his head about a quarter of an inch. The proprietor shook his to the same amount. They understood each other. It had come to that point where there was no way out, save only the ancient, eternal way between man and man. It is only the great mediocrity that goes to law in these personal matters.
"So he has talked about me some?" said the Virginian.
"It's the whiskey," Scipio explained.
"I expect," said McLean, "he'd run a mile if he was in a state to appreciate his insinuations."
"Which we are careful not to mention to yu'," said Wiggin, "unless yu' inquire for 'em."
Some of the fools present had drawn closer to hear this interesting conversation. In gatherings of more than six there will generally be at least one fool; and this company must have numbered twenty men.
"This country knows well enough," said one fool, who hungered to be important, "that you don't brand no calves that ain't your own."
The saturnine Virginian looked at him. "Thank yu'," said he, gravely, "for your indorsement of my character." The fool felt flattered. The Virginian turned to his friends. His hand slowly pushed his hat back, and he rubbed his black head in thought.
"Glad to see yu've got your gun with you," continued the happy fool. "You know what Trampas claims about that affair of yours in the Tetons? He claims that if everything was known about the killing of Shorty—"
"Take one on the house," suggested the proprietor to him, amiably. "Your news will be fresher." And he pushed him the bottle. The fool felt less important.
"This talk had went the rounds before it got to us," said Scipio, "or we'd have headed it off. He has got friends in town."
Perplexity knotted the Virginian's brows. This community knew that a man had implied he was a thief and a murderer; it also knew that he knew it. But the case was one of peculiar circumstances, assuredly. Could he avoid meeting the man? Soon the stage would be starting south for the railroad. He had already to-day proposed to his sweetheart that they should take it. Could he for her sake leave unanswered a talking enemy upon the field? His own ears had not heard the enemy.
Into these reflections the fool stepped once more. "Of course this country don't believe Trampas," said he. "This country—"
But he contributed no further thoughts. From somewhere in the rear of the building, where it opened upon the tin cans and the hinder purlieus of the town, came a movement, and Trampas was among them, courageous with whiskey.
All the fools now made themselves conspicuous. One lay on the floor, knocked there by the Virginian, whose arm he had attempted to hold. Others struggled with Trampas, and his bullet smashed the ceiling before they could drag the pistol from him. "There now! there now!" they interposed; "you don't want to talk like that," for he was pouring out a tide of hate and vilification. Yet the Virginian stood quiet by the bar, and many an eye of astonishment was turned upon him. "I'd not stand half that language," some muttered to each other. Still the Virginian waited quietly, while the fools reasoned with Trampas. But no earthly foot can step between a man and his destiny. Trampas broke suddenly free.
"Your friends have saved your life," he rang out, with obscene epithets. "I'll give you till sundown to leave town."
There was total silence instantly.
"Trampas," spoke the Virginian, "I don't want trouble with you."
"He never has wanted it," Trampas sneered to the bystanders. "He has been dodging it five years. But I've got him coralled."
Some of the Trampas faction smiled.
"Trampas," said the Virginian again, "are yu' sure yu' really mean that?"
The whiskey bottle flew through the air, hurled by Trampas, and crashed through the saloon window behind the Virginian.
"That was surplusage, Trampas," said he, "if yu' mean the other."
"Get out by sundown, that's all," said Trampas. And wheeling, he went out of the saloon by the rear, as he had entered.
"Gentlemen," said the Virginian, "I know you will all oblige me."
"Sure!" exclaimed the proprietor, heartily, "We'll see that everybody lets this thing alone."
The Virginian gave a general nod to the company, and walked out into the street.
"It's a turruble shame," sighed Scipio, "that he couldn't have postponed it."
The Virginian walked in the open air with thoughts disturbed. "I am of two minds about one thing," he said to himself uneasily.
Gossip ran in advance of him; but as he came by, the talk fell away until he had passed. Then they looked after him, and their words again rose audibly. Thus everywhere a little eddy of silence accompanied his steps.
"It don't trouble him much," one said, having read nothing in the Virginian's face.
"It may trouble his girl some," said another.
"She'll not know," said a third, "until it's over."
"He'll not tell her?"
"I wouldn't. It's no woman's business."
"Maybe that's so. Well, it would have suited me to have Trampas die sooner."
"How would it suit you to have him live longer?" inquired a member of the opposite faction, suspected of being himself a cattle thief.
"I could answer your question, if I had other folks' calves I wanted to brand." This raised both a laugh and a silence.
Thus the town talked, filling in the time before sunset.
The Virginian, still walking aloof in the open air, paused at the edge of the town. "I'd sooner have a sickness than be undecided this way," he said, and he looked up and down. Then a grim smile came at his own expense. "I reckon it would make me sick—but there's not time."
Over there in the hotel sat his sweetheart alone, away from her mother, her friends, her home, waiting his return, knowing nothing. He looked into the west. Between the sun and the bright ridges of the mountains was still a space of sky; but the shadow from the mountains' feet had drawn halfway toward the town. "About forty minutes more," he said aloud. "She has been raised so different." And he sighed as he turned back. As he went slowly, he did not know how great was his own unhappiness. "She has been raised so different," he said again.
Opposite the post-office the bishop of Wyoming met him and greeted him. His lonely heart throbbed at the warm, firm grasp of this friend's hand. The bishop saw his eyes glow suddenly, as if tears were close. But none came, and no word more open than, "I'm glad to see you."
But gossip had reached the bishop, and he was sorely troubled also. "What is all this?" said he, coming straight to it.
The Virginian looked at the clergyman frankly. "Yu' know just as much about it as I do," he said. "And I'll tell yu' anything yu' ask."
"Have you told Miss Wood?" inquired the bishop.
The eyes of the bridegroom fell, and the bishop's face grew at once more keen and more troubled. Then the bridegroom raised his eyes again, and the bishop almost loved him. He touched his arm, like a brother. "This is hard luck," he said.
The bridegroom could scarce keep his voice steady. "I want to do right to-day more than any day I have ever lived," said he.
"Then go and tell her at once."
"It will just do nothing but scare her."
"Go and tell her at once."
"I expected you was going to tell me to run away from Trampas. I can't do that, yu' know."
The bishop did know. Never before in all his wilderness work had he faced such a thing. He knew that Trampas was an evil in the country, and that the Virginian was a good. He knew that the cattle thieves—the rustlers—were gaining, in numbers and audacity; that they led many weak young fellows to ruin; that they elected their men to office, and controlled juries; that they were a staring menace to Wyoming. His heart was with the Virginian. But there was his Gospel, that he preached, and believed, and tried to live. He stood looking at the ground and drawing a finger along his eyebrow. He wished that he might have heard nothing about all this. But he was not one to blink his responsibility as a Christian server of the church militant.
"Am I right," he now slowly asked, "in believing that you think I am a sincere man?"
"I don't believe anything about it. I know it."
"I should run away from Trampas," said the bishop.
"That ain't quite fair, seh. We all understand you have got to do the things you tell other folks to do. And you do them, seh. You never talk like anything but a man, and you never set yourself above others. You can saddle your own horses. And I saw yu' walk unarmed into that White River excitement when those two other parsons was a-foggin' and a-fannin' for their own safety. Damn scoundrels!"
The bishop instantly rebuked such language about brothers of his cloth, even though he disapproved both of them and their doctrines. "Every one may be an instrument of Providence," he concluded.
"Well," said the Virginian, "if that is so, then Providence makes use of instruments I'd not touch with a ten-foot pole. Now if you was me, seh, and not a bishop, would you run away from Trampas?"
"That's not quite fair, either!" exclaimed the bishop, with a smile. "Because you are asking me to take another man's convictions, and yet remain myself."
"Yes, seh. I am. That's so. That don't get at it. I reckon you and I can't get at it."
"If the Bible," said the bishop, "which I believe to be God's word, was anything to you—"
"It is something to me, seh. I have found fine truths in it."
"'Thou shalt not kill,'" quoted the bishop. "That is plain."
The Virginian took his turn at smiling. "Mighty plain to me, seh. Make it plain to Trampas, and there'll be no killin'. We can't get at it that way."
Once more the bishop quoted earnestly. "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.'"
"How about instruments of Providence, seh? Why, we can't get at it that way. If you start usin' the Bible that way, it will mix you up mighty quick, seh."
"My friend," the bishop urged, and all his good, warm heart was in it, "my dear fellow—go away for the one night. He'll change his mind."
The Virginian shook his head. "He cannot change his word, seh. Or at least I must stay around till he does. Why, I have given him the say-so. He's got the choice. Most men would not have took what I took from him in the saloon. Why don't you ask him to leave town?"
The good bishop was at a standstill. Of all kicking against the pricks none is so hard as this kick of a professing Christian against the whole instinct of human man.
"But you have helped me some," said the Virginian. "I will go and tell her. At least, if I think it will be good for her, I will tell her."
The bishop thought that he saw one last chance to move him.
"You're twenty-nine," he began.
"And a little over," said the Virginian.
"And you were fourteen when you ran away from your family."
"Well, I was weary, yu' know, of havin' elder brothers lay down my law night and mawnin'."
"Yes, I know. So that your life has been your own for fifteen years. But it is not your own now. You have given it to a woman."
"Yes; I have given it to her. But my life's not the whole of me. I'd give her twice my life—fifty—a thousand of 'em. But I can't give her—her nor anybody in heaven or earth—I can't give my—my—we'll never get at it, seh! There's no good in words. Good-by." The Virginian wrung the bishop's hand and left him.
"God bless him!" said the bishop. "God bless him!"
The Virginian unlocked the room in the hotel where he kept stored his tent, his blankets, his pack-saddles, and his many accoutrements for the bridal journey in the mountains. Out of the window he saw the mountains blue in shadow, but some cottonwoods distant in the flat between were still bright green in the sun. From among his possessions he took quickly a pistol, wiping and loading it. Then from its holster he removed the pistol which he had tried and made sure of in the morning. This, according to his wont when going into a risk, he shoved between his trousers and his shirt in front. The untried weapon he placed in the holster, letting it hang visibly at his hip. He glanced out of the window again, and saw the mountains of the same deep blue. But the cottonwoods were no longer in the sunlight. The shadow had come past them, nearer the town; for fifteen of the forty minutes were gone. "The bishop is wrong," he said. "There is no sense in telling her." And he turned to the door, just as she came to it herself.
"Oh!" she cried out at once, and rushed to him.
He swore as he held her close. "The fools!" he said. "The fools!"
"It has been so frightful waiting for you," said she, leaning her head against him.
"Who had to tell you this?" he demanded.
"I don't know. Somebody just came and said it."
"This is mean luck," he murmured, patting her. "This is mean luck."
She went on: "I wanted to run out and find you; but I didn't! I didn't! I stayed quiet in my room till they said you had come back."
"It is mean luck. Mighty mean," he repeated.
"How could you be so long?" she asked. "Never mind, I've got you now. It is over."
Anger and sorrow filled him. "I might have known some fool would tell you," he said.
"It's all over. Never mind." Her arms tightened their hold of him. Then she let him go. "What shall we do?" she said. "What now?"
"Now?" he answered. "Nothing now."
She looked at him without understanding.
"I know it is a heap worse for you," he pursued, speaking slowly. "I knew it would be."
"But it is over!" she exclaimed again.
He did not understand her now. He kissed her. "Did you think it was over?" he said simply. "There is some waiting still before us. I wish you did not have to wait alone. But it will not be long." He was looking down, and did not see the happiness grow chilled upon her face, and then fade into bewildered fear. "I did my best," he went on. "I think I did. I know I tried. I let him say to me before them all what no man has ever said, or ever will again. I kept thinking hard of you—with all my might, or I reckon I'd have killed him right there. And I gave him a show to change his mind. I gave it to him twice. I spoke as quiet as I am speaking to you now. But he stood to it. And I expect he knows he went too far in the hearing of others to go back on his threat. He will have to go on to the finish now."
"The finish?" she echoed, almost voiceless.
"Yes," he answered very gently.
Her dilated eves were fixed upon him. "But—" she could scarce form utterance, "but you?"
"I have got myself ready," he said. "Did you think—why, what did you think?"
She recoiled a step. "What are you going—" She put her two hands to her head. "Oh, God!" she almost shrieked, "you are going—" He made a step, and would have put his arm round her, but she backed against the wall, staring speechless at him.
"I am not going to let him shoot me," he said quietly.
"You mean—you mean—but you can come away!" she cried. "It's not too late yet. You can take yourself out of his reach. Everybody knows that you are brave. What is he to you? You can leave him in this place. I'll go with you anywhere. To any house, to the mountains, to anywhere away. We'll leave this horrible place together and—and—oh, won't you listen to me?" She stretched her hands to him. "Won't you listen?"
He took her hands. "I must stay here."
Her hands clung to his. "No, no, no. There's something else. There's something better than shedding blood in cold blood. Only think what it means! Only think of having to remember such a thing! Why, it's what they hang people for! It's murder!"
He dropped her hands. "Don't call it that name," he said sternly.
"When there was the choice!" she exclaimed, half to herself, like a person stunned and speaking to the air. "To get ready for it when you have the choice!"
"He did the choosing," answered the Virginian. "Listen to me. Are you listening?" he asked, for her gaze was dull.
"I work hyeh. I belong hyeh. It's my life. If folks came to think I was a coward—"
"Who would think you were a coward?"
"Everybody. My friends would be sorry and ashamed, and my enemies would walk around saying they had always said so. I could not hold up my head again among enemies or friends."
"When it was explained—"
"There'd be nothing to explain. There'd just be the fact." He was nearly angry.
"There is a higher courage than fear of outside opinion," said the New England girl.
Her Southern lover looked at her. "Cert'nly there is. That's what I'm showing in going against yours."
"But if you know that you are brave, and if I know that you are brave, oh, my dear, my dear! what difference does the world make? How much higher courage to go your own course—"
"I am goin' my own course," he broke in. "Can't yu' see how it must be about a man? It's not for their benefit, friends or enemies, that I have got this thing to do. If any man happened to say I was a thief and I heard about it, would I let him go on spreadin' such a thing of me? Don't I owe my own honesty something better than that? Would I sit down in a corner rubbin' my honesty and whisperin' to it, 'There! there! I know you ain't a thief?' No, seh; not a little bit! What men say about my nature is not just merely an outside thing. For the fact that I let 'em keep on sayin' it is a proof I don't value my nature enough to shield it from their slander and give them their punishment. And that's being a poor sort of a jay."
She had grown very white.
"Can't yu' see how it must be about a man?" he repeated.
"I cannot," she answered, in a voice that scarcely seemed her own. "If I ought to, I cannot. To shed blood in cold blood. When I heard about that last fall,—about the killing of those cattle thieves,—I kept saying to myself: 'He had to do it. It was a public duty.' And lying sleepless I got used to Wyoming being different from Vermont. But this—" she gave a shudder—"when I think of to-morrow, of you and me, and of—If you do this, there can be no to-morrow for you and me."
At these words he also turned white.
"Do you mean—" he asked, and could go no farther.
Nor could she answer him, but turned her head away.
"This would be the end?" he asked.
Her head faintly moved to signify yes.
He stood still, his hand shaking a little. "Will you look at me and say that?" he murmured at length. She did not move. "Can you do it?" he said.
His sweetness made her turn, but could not pierce her frozen resolve. She gazed at him across the great distance of her despair.
"Then it is really so?" he said.
Her lips tried to form words, but failed.
He looked out of the window, and saw nothing but shadow. The blue of the mountains was now become a deep purple. Suddenly his hand closed hard.
"Good-by, then," he said.
At that word she was at his feet, clutching him. "For my sake," she begged him. "For my sake."
A tremble passed through his frame. She felt his legs shake as she held them, and, looking up, she saw that his eyes were closed with misery. Then he opened them, and in their steady look she read her answer. He unclasped her hands from holding him, and raised her to her feet.
"I have no right to kiss you any more," he said. And then, before his desire could break him down from this, he was gone, and she was alone.
She did not fall, or totter, but stood motionless. And next—it seemed a moment and it seemed eternity—she heard in the distance a shot, and then two shots. Out of the window she saw people beginning to run. At that she turned and fled to her room, and flung herself face downward upon the floor.
Trampas had departed into solitude from the saloon, leaving behind him his ULTIMATUM. His loud and public threat was town knowledge already, would very likely be county knowledge to-night. Riders would take it with them to entertain distant cabins up the river and down the river; and by dark the stage would go south with the news of it—and the news of its outcome. For everything would be over by dark. After five years, here was the end coming—coming before dark. Trampas had got up this morning with no such thought. It seemed very strange to look back upon the morning; it lay so distant, so irrevocable. And he thought of how he had eaten his breakfast. How would he eat his supper? For supper would come afterward. Some people were eating theirs now, with nothing like this before them. His heart ached and grew cold to think of them, easy and comfortable with plates and cups of coffee.
He looked at the mountains, and saw the sun above their ridges, and the shadow coming from their feet. And there close behind him was the morning he could never go back to. He could see it clearly; his thoughts reached out like arms to touch it once more, and be in it again. The night that was coming he could not see, and his eyes and his thoughts shrank from it. He had given his enemy until sundown. He could not trace the path which had led him to this. He remembered their first meeting—five years back, in Medicine Bow, and the words which at once began his hate. No, it was before any words; it was the encounter of their eyes. For out of the eyes of every stranger looks either a friend or an enemy, waiting to be known. But how had five years of hate come to play him such a trick, suddenly, to-day? Since last autumn he had meant sometime to get even with this man who seemed to stand at every turn of his crookedness, and rob him of his spoils. But how had he come to choose such a way of getting even as this, face to face? He knew many better ways; and now his own rash proclamation had trapped him. His words were like doors shutting him in to perform his threat to the letter, with witnesses at hand to see that he did so.
Trampas looked at the sun and the shadow again. He had till sundown. The heart inside him was turning it round in this opposite way: it was to HIMSELF that in his rage he had given this lessening margin of grace. But he dared not leave town in all the world's sight after all the world had heard him. Even his friends would fall from him after such an act. Could he—the thought actually came to him—could he strike before the time set? But the thought was useless. Even if his friends could harbor him after such a deed, his enemies would find him, and his life would be forfeit to a certainty. His own trap was closing upon him.
He came upon the main street, and saw some distance off the Virginian standing in talk with the bishop. He slunk between two houses, and cursed both of them. The sight had been good for him, bringing some warmth of rage back to his desperate heart. And he went into a place and drank some whiskey.
"In your shoes," said the barkeeper, "I'd be afraid to take so much."
But the nerves of Trampas were almost beyond the reach of intoxication, and he swallowed some more, and went out again. Presently he fell in with some of his brothers in cattle stealing, and walked along with them for a little.
"Well, it will not be long now," they said to him. And he had never heard words so desolate.
"No," he made out to say; "soon now." Their cheerfulness seemed unearthly to him, and his heart almost broke beneath it.
"We'll have one to your success," they suggested.
So with them he repaired to another place; and the sight of a man leaning against the bar made him start so that they noticed him. Then he saw that the man was a stranger whom he had never laid eyes on till now.
"It looked like Shorty," he said, and could have bitten his tongue off.
"Shorty is quiet up in the Tetons," said a friend. "You don't want to be thinking about him. Here's how!"
Then they clapped him on the back and he left them. He thought of his enemy and his hate, beating his rage like a failing horse, and treading the courage of his drink. Across a space he saw Wiggin, walking with McLean and Scipio. They were watching the town to see that his friends made no foul play.
"We're giving you a clear field," said Wiggin.
"This race will not be pulled," said McLean.
"Be with you at the finish," said Scipio.
And they passed on. They did not seem like real people to him.
Trampas looked at the walls and windows of the houses. Were they real? Was he here, walking in this street? Something had changed. He looked everywhere, and feeling it everywhere, wondered what this could be. Then he knew: it was the sun that had gone entirely behind the mountains, and he drew out his pistol.
The Virginian, for precaution, did not walk out of the front door of the hotel. He went through back ways, and paused once. Against his breast he felt the wedding ring where he had it suspended by a chain from his neck. His hand went up to it, and he drew it out and looked at it. He took it off the chain, and his arm went back to hurl it from him as far as he could. But he stopped and kissed it with one sob, and thrust it in his pocket. Then he walked out into the open, watching. He saw men here and there, and they let him pass as before, without speaking. He saw his three friends, and they said no word to him. But they turned and followed in his rear at a little distance, because it was known that Shorty had been found shot from behind. The Virginian gained a position soon where no one could come at him except from in front; and the sight of the mountains was almost more than he could endure, because it was there that he had been going to-morrow.
"It is quite a while after sunset," he heard himself say.
A wind seemed to blow his sleeve off his arm, and he replied to it, and saw Trampas pitch forward. He saw Trampas raise his arm from the ground and fall again, and lie there this time, still. A little smoke was rising from the pistol on the ground, and he looked at his own, and saw the smoke flowing upward out of it.
"I expect that's all," he said aloud.
But as he came nearer Trampas, he covered him with his weapon. He stopped a moment, seeing the hand on the ground move. Two fingers twitched, and then ceased; for it was all. The Virginian stood looking down at Trampas.
"Both of mine hit," he said, once more aloud. "His must have gone mighty close to my arm. I told her it would not be me."
He had scarcely noticed that he was being surrounded and congratulated. His hand was being shaken, and he saw it was Scipio in tears. Scipio's joy made his heart like lead within him. He was near telling his friend everything, but he did not.
"If anybody wants me about this," he said, "I will be at the hotel."
"Who'll want you?" said Scipio. "Three of us saw his gun out." And he vented his admiration. "You were that cool! That quick!"
"I'll see you boys again," said the Virginian, heavily; and he walked away.
Scipio looked after him, astonished. "Yu' might suppose he was in poor luck," he said to McLean.
The Virginian walked to the hotel, and stood on the threshold of his sweetheart's room. She had heard his step, and was upon her feet. Her lips were parted, and her eyes fixed on him, nor did she move, or speak.
"Yu' have to know it," said he. "I have killed Trampas."
"Oh, thank God!" she said; and he found her in his arms. Long they embraced without speaking, and what they whispered then with their kisses, matters not.
Thus did her New England conscience battle to the end, and, in the end, capitulate to love. And the next day, with the bishop's blessing, and Mrs. Taylor's broadest smile, and the ring on her finger, the Virginian departed with his bride into the mountains.
XXXVI. AT DUNBARTON
For their first bridal camp he chose an island. Long weeks beforehand he had thought of this place, and set his heart upon it. Once established in his mind, the thought became a picture that he saw waking and sleeping. He had stopped at the island many times alone, and in all seasons; but at this special moment of the year he liked it best. Often he had added several needless miles to his journey that he might finish the day at this point, might catch the trout for his supper beside a certain rock upon its edge, and fall asleep hearing the stream on either side of him.
Always for him the first signs that he had gained the true world of the mountains began at the island. The first pine trees stood upon it; the first white columbine grew in their shade; and it seemed to him that he always met here the first of the true mountain air—the coolness and the new fragrance. Below, there were only the cottonwoods, and the knolls and steep foot-hills with their sage-brush, and the great warm air of the plains; here at this altitude came the definite change. Out of the lower country and its air he would urge his horse upward, talking to him aloud, and promising fine pasture in a little while.
Then, when at length he had ridden abreast of the island pines, he would ford to the sheltered circle of his camp-ground, throw off the saddle and blanket from the horse's hot, wet back, throw his own clothes off, and, shouting, spring upon the horse bare, and with a rope for bridle, cross with him to the promised pasture. Here there was a pause in the mountain steepness, a level space of open, green with thick grass. Riding his horse to this, he would leap off him, and with the flat of his hand give him a blow that cracked sharp in the stillness and sent the horse galloping and gambolling to his night's freedom. And while the animal rolled in the grass, often his master would roll also, and stretch, and take the grass in his two hands, and so draw his body along, limbering his muscles after a long ride. Then he would slide into the stream below his fishing place, where it was deep enough for swimming, and cross back to his island, and dressing again, fit his rod together and begin his casting. After the darkness had set in, there would follow the lying drowsily with his head upon his saddle, the camp-fire sinking as he watched it, and sleep approaching to the murmur of the water on either side of him.
So many visits to this island had he made, and counted so many hours of revery spent in its haunting sweetness, that the spot had come to seem his own. It belonged to no man, for it was deep in the unsurveyed and virgin wilderness; neither had he ever made his camp here with any man, nor shared with any the intimate delight which the place gave him. Therefore for many weeks he had planned to bring her here after their wedding, upon the day itself, and show her and share with her his pines and his fishing rock. He would bid her smell the first true breath of the mountains, would watch with her the sinking camp-fire, and with her listen to the water as it flowed round the island.
Until this wedding plan, it had by no means come home to him how deep a hold upon him the island had taken. He knew that he liked to go there, and go alone; but so little was it his way to scan himself, his mind, or his feelings (unless some action called for it), that he first learned his love of the place through his love of her. But he told her nothing of it. After the thought of taking her there came to him, he kept his island as something to let break upon her own eyes, lest by looking forward she should look for more than the reality.
Hence, as they rode along, when the houses of the town were shrunk to dots behind them, and they were nearing the gates of the foot-hills, she asked him questions. She hoped they would find a camp a long way from the town. She could ride as many miles as necessary. She was not tired. Should they not go on until they found a good place far enough within the solitude? Had he fixed upon any? And at the nod and the silence that he gave her for reply, she knew that he had thoughts and intentions which she must wait to learn.
They passed through the gates of the foot-hills, following the stream up among them. The outstretching fences and the widely trodden dust were no more. Now and then they rose again into view of the fields and houses down in the plain below. But as the sum of the miles and hours grew, they were glad to see the road less worn with travel, and the traces of men passing from sight. The ploughed and planted country, that quilt of many-colored harvests which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world from this where they rode now. No hand but nature's had sown these crops of yellow flowers, these willow thickets and tall cottonwoods. Somewhere in a passage of red rocks the last sign of wagon wheels was lost, and after this the trail became a wild mountain trail. But it was still the warm air of the plains, bearing the sage-brush odor and not the pine, that they breathed; nor did any forest yet cloak the shapes of the tawny hills among which they were ascending. Twice the steepness loosened the pack ropes, and he jumped down to tighten them, lest the horses should get sore backs. And twice the stream that they followed went into deep canyons, so that for a while they parted from it. When they came back to its margin for the second time, he bade her notice how its water had become at last wholly clear. To her it had seemed clear enough all along, even in the plain above the town. But now she saw that it flowed lustrously with flashes; and she knew the soil had changed to mountain soil. Lower down, the water had carried the slightest cloud of alkali, and this had dulled the keen edge of its transparence. Full solitude was around them now, so that their words grew scarce, and when they spoke it was with low voices. They began to pass nooks and points favorable for camping, with wood and water at hand, and pasture for the horses. More than once as they reached such places, she thought he must surely stop; but still he rode on in advance of her (for the trail was narrow) until, when she was not thinking of it, he drew rein and pointed.
"What?" she asked timidly.
"The pines," he answered.
She looked, and saw the island, and the water folding it with ripples and with smooth spaces The sun was throwing upon the pine boughs a light of deepening red gold, and the shadow of the fishing rock lay over a little bay of quiet water and sandy shore. In this forerunning glow of the sunset, the pasture spread like emerald; for the dry touch of summer had not yet come near it. He pointed upward to the high mountains which they had approached, and showed her where the stream led into their first unfoldings.
"To-morrow we shall be among them," said he.
"Then," she murmured to him, "to-night is here?"
He nodded for answer, and she gazed at the island and understood why he had not stopped before; nothing they had passed had been so lovely as this place.
There was room in the trail for them to go side by side; and side by side they rode to the ford and crossed, driving the packhorses in front of them, until they came to the sheltered circle, and he helped her down where the soft pine needles lay. They felt each other tremble, and for a moment she stood hiding her head upon his breast. Then she looked round at the trees, and the shores, and the flowing stream, and he heard her whispering how beautiful it was.
"I am glad," he said, still holding her. "This is how I have dreamed it would happen. Only it is better than my dreams." And when she pressed him in silence, he finished, "I have meant we should see our first sundown here, and our first sunrise."
She wished to help him take the packs from their horses, to make the camp together with him, to have for her share the building of the fire, and the cooking. She bade him remember his promise to her that he would teach her how to loop and draw the pack-ropes, and the swing-ropes on the pack-saddles, and how to pitch a tent. Why might not the first lesson be now? But he told her that this should be fulfilled later. This night he was to do all himself. And he sent her away until he should have camp ready for them. He bade her explore the island, or take her horse and ride over to the pasture, where she could see the surrounding hills and the circle of seclusion that they made.
"The whole world is far from here," he said. And so she obeyed him, and went away to wander about in their hiding-place; nor was she to return, he told her, until he called her.
Then at once, as soon as she was gone, he fell to. The packs and saddles came off the horses, which he turned loose upon the pasture on the main land. The tent was unfolded first. He had long seen in his mind where it should go, and how its white shape would look beneath the green of the encircling pines. The ground was level in the spot he had chosen, without stones or roots, and matted with the fallen needles of the pines. If there should come any wind, or storm of rain, the branches were thick overhead, and around them on three sides tall rocks and undergrowth made a barrier. He cut the pegs for the tent, and the front pole, stretching and tightening the rope, one end of it pegged down and one round a pine tree. When the tightening rope had lifted the canvas to the proper height from the ground, he spread and pegged down the sides and back, leaving the opening so that they could look out upon the fire and a piece of the stream beyond. He cut tufts of young pine and strewed them thickly for a soft floor in the tent, and over them spread the buffalo hide and the blankets. At the head he placed the neat sack of her belongings. For his own he made a shelter with crossed poles and a sheet of canvas beyond the first pines. He built the fire where its smoke would float outward from the trees and the tent, and near it he stood the cooking things and his provisions, and made this first supper ready in the twilight. He had brought much with him; but for ten minutes he fished, catching trout enough. When at length she came riding over the stream at his call, there was nothing for her to do but sit and eat at the table he had laid. They sat together, watching the last of the twilight and the gentle oncoming of the dusk. The final after-glow of day left the sky, and through the purple which followed it came slowly the first stars, bright and wide apart. They watched the spaces between them fill with more stars, while near them the flames and embers of their fire grew brighter. Then he sent her to the tent while he cleaned the dishes and visited the horses to see that they did not stray from the pasture. Some while after the darkness was fully come, he rejoined her. All had been as he had seen it in his thoughts beforehand: the pines with the setting sun upon them, the sinking camp-fire, and now the sound of the water as it flowed murmuring by the shores of the island.
The tent opened to the east, and from it they watched together their first sunrise. In his thoughts he had seen this morning beforehand also: the waking, the gentle sound of the water murmuring ceaselessly, the growing day, the vision of the stream, the sense that the world was shut away far from them. So did it all happen, except that he whispered to her again:— "Better than my dreams."
They saw the sunlight begin upon a hilltop; and presently came the sun itself, and lakes of warmth flowed into the air, slowly filling the green solitude. Along the island shores the ripples caught flashes from the sun.
"I am going into the stream," he said to her; and rising, he left her in the tent. This was his side of the island, he had told her last night; the other was hers, where he had made a place for her to bathe. When he was gone, she found it, walking through the trees and rocks to the water's edge. And so, with the island between them, the two bathed in the cold stream. When he came back, he found her already busy at their camp. The blue smoke of the fire was floating out from the trees, loitering undispersed in the quiet air, and she was getting their breakfast. She had been able to forestall him because he had delayed long at his dressing, not willing to return to her unshaven. She looked at his eyes that were clear as the water he had leaped into, and at his soft silk neckerchief, knotted with care.
"Do not let us ever go away from here!" she cried, and ran to him as he came. They sat long together at breakfast, breathing the morning breath of the earth that was fragrant with woodland moisture and with the pines. After the meal he could not prevent her helping him make everything clean. Then, by all customs of mountain journeys, it was time they should break camp and be moving before the heat of the day. But first, they delayed for no reason, save that in these hours they so loved to do nothing. And next, when with some energy he got upon his feet and declared he must go and drive the horses in, she asked, Why? Would it not be well for him to fish here, that they might be sure of trout at their nooning? And though he knew that where they should stop for noon, trout would be as sure as here, he took this chance for more delay.
She went with him to his fishing rock, and sat watching him. The rock was tall, higher than his head when he stood. It jutted out halfway across the stream, and the water flowed round it in quick foam, and fell into a pool. He caught several fish; but the sun was getting high, and after a time it was plain the fish had ceased to rise.
Yet still he stood casting in silence, while she sat by and watched him. Across the stream, the horses wandered or lay down in their pasture. At length he said with half a sigh that perhaps they ought to go.
"Ought?" she repeated softly.
"If we are to get anywhere to-day," he answered.
"Need we get anywhere?" she asked.
Her question sent delight through him like a flood. "Then you do not want to move camp to-day?" said he.
She shook her head.
At this he laid down his rod and came and sat by her. "I am very glad we shall not go till to-morrow," he murmured.
"Not to-morrow," she said. "Nor next day. Nor any day until we must." And she stretched her hands out to the island and the stream exclaiming, "Nothing can surpass this!"
He took her in his arms. "You feel about it the way I do," he almost whispered. "I could not have hoped there'd be two of us to care so much."
Presently, while they remained without speaking by the pool, came a little wild animal swimming round the rock from above. It had not seen them, nor suspected their presence. They held themselves still, watching its alert head cross through the waves quickly and come down through the pool, and so swim to the other side. There it came out on a small stretch of sand, turned its gray head and its pointed black nose this way and that, never seeing them, and then rolled upon its back in the warm dry sand. After a minute of rolling, it got on its feet again, shook its fur, and trotted away.
Then the bridegroom husband opened his shy heart deep down.
"I am like that fellow," he said dreamily. "I have often done the same." And stretching slowly his arms and legs, he lay full length upon his back, letting his head rest upon her. "If I could talk his animal language, I could talk to him," he pursued. "And he would say to me: 'Come and roll on the sands. Where's the use of fretting? What's the gain in being a man? Come roll on the sands with me.' That's what he would say." The Virginian paused. "But," he continued, "the trouble is, I am responsible. If that could only be forgot forever by you and me!" Again he paused and went on, always dreamily. "Often when I have camped here, it has made me want to become the ground, become the water, become the trees, mix with the whole thing. Not know myself from it. Never unmix again. Why is that?" he demanded, looking at her. "What is it? You don't know, nor I don't. I wonder would everybody feel that way here?"
"I think not everybody," she answered.
"No; none except the ones who understand things they can't put words to. But you did!" He put up a hand and touched her softly. "You understood about this place. And that's what makes it—makes you and me as we are now—better than my dreams. And my dreams were pretty good."
He sighed with supreme quiet and happiness, and seemed to stretch his length closer to the earth. And so he lay, and talked to her as he had never talked to any one, not even to himself. Thus she learned secrets of his heart new to her: his visits here, what they were to him, and why he had chosen it for their bridal camp. "What I did not know at all," he said, "was the way a man can be pining for—for this—and never guess what is the matter with him."
When he had finished talking, still he lay extended and serene; and she looked down at him and the wonderful change that had come over him, like a sunrise. Was this dreamy boy the man of two days ago? It seemed a distance immeasurable; yet it was two days only since that wedding eve when she had shrunk from him as he stood fierce and implacable. She could look back at that dark hour now, although she could not speak of it. She had seen destruction like sharp steel glittering in his eyes. Were these the same eyes? Was this youth with his black head of hair in her lap the creature with whom men did not trifle, whose hand knew how to deal death? Where had the man melted away to in this boy? For as she looked at him, he might have been no older than nineteen to-day. Not even at their first meeting—that night when his freakish spirit was uppermost—had he looked so young. This change their hours upon the island had wrought, filling his face with innocence.
By and by they made their nooning. In the afternoon she would have explored the nearer woods with him, or walked up the stream. But since this was to be their camp during several days, he made it more complete. He fashioned a rough bench and a table; around their tent he built a tall wind-break for better shelter in case of storm; and for the fire he gathered and cut much wood, and piled it up. So they were provided for, and so for six days and nights they stayed, finding no day or night long enough.
Once his hedge of boughs did them good service, for they had an afternoon of furious storm. The wind rocked the pines and ransacked the island, the sun went out, the black clouds rattled, and white bolts of lightning fell close by. The shower broke through the pine branches and poured upon the tent. But he had removed everything inside from where it could touch the canvas and so lead the water through, and the rain ran off into the ditch he had dug round the tent. While they sat within, looking out upon the bounding floods and the white lightning, she saw him glance at her apprehensively, and at once she answered his glance.
"I am not afraid," she said. "If a flame should consume us together now, what would it matter?"
And so they sat watching the storm till it was over, he with his face changed by her to a boy's, and she leavened with him.
When at last they were compelled to leave the island, or see no more of the mountains, it was not a final parting. They would come back for the last night before their journey ended. Furthermore, they promised each other like two children to come here every year upon their wedding day, and like two children they believed that this would be possible. But in after years they did come, more than once, to keep their wedding day upon the island, and upon each new visit were able to say to each other, "Better than our dreams."
For thirty days by the light of the sun and the camp-fire light they saw no faces except their own; and when they were silent it was all stillness, unless the wind passed among the pines, or some flowing water was near them. Sometimes at evening they came upon elk, or black-tailed deer, feeding out in the high parks of the mountains; and once from the edge of some concealing timber he showed her a bear, sitting with an old log lifted in its paws. She forbade him to kill the bear, or any creature that they did not require. He took her upward by trail and canyon, through the unfooted woods and along dwindling streams to their headwaters, lakes lying near the summit of the range, full of trout, with meadows of long grass and a thousand flowers, and above these the pinnacles of rock and snow.
They made their camps in many places, delaying several days here, and one night there, exploring the high solitudes together, and sinking deep in their romance. Sometimes when he was at work with their horses, or intent on casting his brown hackle for a fish, she would watch him with eyes that were fuller of love than of understanding. Perhaps she never came wholly to understand him; but in her complete love for him she found enough. He loved her with his whole man's power. She had listened to him tell her in words of transport, "I could enjoy dying"; yet she loved him more than that. He had come to her from a smoking pistol, able to bid her farewell—and she could not let him go. At the last white-hot edge of ordeal, it was she who renounced, and he who had his way. Nevertheless she found much more than enough, in spite of the sigh that now and again breathed through her happiness when she would watch him with eyes fuller of love than of understanding.
They could not speak of that grim wedding eve for a long while after; but the mountains brought them together upon all else in the world and their own lives. At the end they loved each other doubly more than at the beginning, because of these added confidences which they exchanged and shared. It was a new bliss to her to know a man's talk and thoughts, to be given so much of him; and to him it was a bliss still greater to melt from that reserve his lonely life had bred in him. He never would have guessed so much had been stored away in him, unexpressed till now. They did not want to go to Vermont and leave these mountains, but the day came when they had to turn their backs upon their dream. So they came out into the plains once more, well established in their familiarity, with only the journey still lying between themselves and Bennington.
"If you could," she said, laughing. "If only you could ride home like this."
"With Monte and my six-shooter?" he asked. "To your mother?"
"I don't think mother could resist the way you look on a horse."
But he said "It this way she's fearing I will come."
"I have made one discovery," she said. "You are fonder of good clothes than I am."
He grinned. "I cert'nly like 'em. But don't tell my friends. They would say it was marriage. When you see what I have got for Bennington's special benefit, you—why, you'll just trust your husband more than ever."
She undoubtedly did. After he had put on one particular suit, she arose and kissed him where he stood in it.
"Bennington will be sorrowful," he said. "No wild-west show, after all. And no ready-made guy, either." And he looked at himself in the glass with unbidden pleasure.
"How did you choose that?" she asked. "How did you know that homespun was exactly the thing for you?"
"Why, I have been noticing. I used to despise an Eastern man because his clothes were not Western. I was very young then, or maybe not so very young, as very—as what you saw I was when you first came to Bear Creek. A Western man is a good thing. And he generally knows that. But he has a heap to learn. And he generally don't know that. So I took to watching the Judge's Eastern visitors. There was that Mr. Ogden especially, from New Yawk—the gentleman that was there the time when I had to sit up all night with the missionary, yu' know. His clothes pleased me best of all. Fit him so well, and nothing flash. I got my ideas, and when I knew I was going to marry you, I sent my measure East—and I and the tailor are old enemies now."
Bennington probably was disappointed. To see get out of the train merely a tall man with a usual straw hat, and Scotch homespun suit of a rather better cut than most in Bennington—this was dull. And his conversation—when he indulged in any—seemed fit to come inside the house.
Mrs. Flynt took her revenge by sowing broadcast her thankfulness that poor Sam Bannett had been Molly's rejected suitor. He had done so much better for himself. Sam had married a rich Miss Van Scootzer, of the second families of Troy; and with their combined riches this happy couple still inhabit the most expensive residence in Hoosic Falls.
But most of Bennington soon began to say that Molly s cow-boy could be invited anywhere and hold his own. The time came when they ceased to speak of him as a cow-boy, and declared that she had shown remarkable sense. But this was not quite yet.
Did this bride and groom enjoy their visit to her family? Well—well, they did their best. Everybody did their best, even Sarah Bell. She said that she found nothing to object to in the Virginian; she told Molly so. Her husband Sam did better than that. He told Molly he considered that she was in luck. And poor Mrs. Wood, sitting on the sofa, conversed scrupulously and timidly with her novel son-in-law, and said to Molly that she was astonished to find him so gentle. And he was undoubtedly fine-looking; yes, very handsome. She believed that she would grow to like the Southern accent. Oh, yes! Everybody did their best; and, dear reader, if ever it has been your earthly portion to live with a number of people who were all doing their best, you do not need me to tell you what a heavenly atmosphere this creates.
And then the bride and groom went to see the old great-aunt over at Dunbarton.
Their first arrival, the one at Bennington, had been thus: Sam Bell had met them at the train, and Mrs. Wood, waiting in her parlor, had embraced her daughter and received her son-in-law. Among them they had managed to make the occasion as completely mournful as any family party can be, with the window blinds up. "And with you present, my dear," said Sam Bell to Sarah, "the absence of a coffin was not felt."
But at Dunbarton the affair went off differently. The heart of the ancient lady had taught her better things. From Bennington to Dunbarton is the good part of a day's journey, and they drove up to the gate in the afternoon. The great-aunt was in her garden, picking some August flowers, and she called as the carriage stopped, "Bring my nephew here, my dear, before you go into the house."
At this, Molly, stepping out of the carriage, squeezed her husband's hand. "I knew that she would be lovely," she whispered to him. And then she ran to her aunt's arms, and let him follow. He came slowly, hat in hand.
The old lady advanced to meet him, trembling a little, and holding out her hand to him. "Welcome, nephew," she said. "What a tall fellow you are, to be sure. Stand off, sir, and let me look at you."
The Virginian obeyed, blushing from his black hair to his collar.
Then his new relative turned to her niece, and gave her a flower. "Put this in his coat, my dear," she said. "And I think I understand why you wanted to marry him."
After this the maid came and showed them to their rooms. Left alone in her garden, the great-aunt sank on a bench and sat there for some time; for emotion had made her very weak.
Upstairs, Molly, sitting on the Virginian's knee, put the flower in his coat, and then laid her head upon his shoulder.
"I didn't know old ladies could be that way," he said. "D' yu' reckon there are many?"
"Oh, I don't know," said the girl. "I'm so happy!"
Now at tea, and during the evening, the great-aunt carried out her plans still further. At first she did the chief part of the talking herself. Nor did she ask questions about Wyoming too soon. She reached that in her own way, and found out the one thing that she desired to know. It was through General Stark that she led up to it.
"There he is," she said, showing the family portrait. "And a rough time he must have had of it now and then. New Hampshire was full of fine young men in those days. But nowadays most of them have gone away to seek their fortunes in the West. Do they find them, I wonder?"
"Yes, ma'am. All the good ones do."
"But you cannot all be—what is the name?—Cattle Kings."
"That's having its day, ma'am, right now. And we are getting ready for the change—some of us are."
"And what may be the change, and when is it to come?"
"When the natural pasture is eaten off," he explained. "I have seen that coming a long while. And if the thieves are going to make us drive our stock away, we'll drive it. If they don't, we'll have big pastures fenced, and hay and shelter ready for winter. What we'll spend in improvements, we'll more than save in wages. I am well fixed for the new conditions. And then, when I took up my land, I chose a place where there is coal. It will not be long before the new railroad needs that."
Thus the old lady learned more of her niece's husband in one evening than the Bennington family had ascertained during his whole sojourn with them. For by touching upon Wyoming and its future, she roused him to talk. He found her mind alive to Western questions: irrigation, the Indians, the forests; and so he expanded, revealing to her his wide observation and his shrewd intelligence. He forgot entirely to be shy. She sent Molly to bed, and kept him talking for an hour. Then she showed him old things that she was proud of, "because," she said, "we, too, had something to do with making our country. And now go to Molly, or you'll both think me a tiresome old lady."
"I think—" he began, but was not quite equal to expressing what he thought, and suddenly his shyness flooded him again.
"In that case, nephew," said she, "I'm afraid you'll have to kiss me good night."
And so she dismissed him to his wife, and to happiness greater than either of them had known since they had left the mountains and come to the East. "He'll do," she said to herself, nodding.
Their visit to Dunbarton was all happiness and reparation for the doleful days at Bennington The old lady gave much comfort and advice to her niece in private, and when they came to leave, she stood at the front door holding both their hands a moment.
"God bless you, my dears," she told them. "And when you come next time, I'll have the nursery ready."
And so it happened that before she left this world, the great-aunt was able to hold in her arms the first of their many children.
Judge Henry at Sunk Creek had his wedding present ready. His growing affairs in Wyoming needed his presence in many places distant from his ranch, and he made the Virginian his partner. When the thieves prevailed at length, as they did, forcing cattle owners to leave the country or be ruined, the Virginian had forestalled this crash. The herds were driven away to Montana. Then, in 1889, came the cattle war, when, after putting their men in office, and coming to own some of the newspapers, the thieves brought ruin on themselves as well. For in a broken country there is nothing left to steal.
But the railroad came, and built a branch to that land of the Virginian's where the coal was. By that time he was an important man, with a strong grip on many various enterprises, and able to give his wife all and more than she asked or desired.
Sometimes she missed the Bear Creek days, when she and he had ridden together, and sometimes she declared that his work would kill him. But it does not seem to have done so. Their eldest boy rides the horse Monte; and, strictly between ourselves, I think his father is going to live a long while.