Part 5 out of 8
often to admire than to purchase. On the contrary, this rather
added a dazzle to the music of the Ogdens. And Molly, whose
Eastern song had been silent in this strange land, began to chirp
it again during the visit that she made at the Sunk Creek Ranch.
Thus the Virginian's cause by no means prospered at this time.
His forces were scattered, while Molly's were concentrated. The
girl was not at that point where absence makes the heart grow
fonder. While the Virginian was trundling his long, responsible
miles in the caboose, delivering the cattle at Chicago,
vanquishing Trampas along the Yellowstone, she had regained
Thus it was that she could tell him so easily during those first
hours that they were alone after his return, "I expect to like
another man better than you."
Absence had recruited her. And then the Ogdens had reenforced
her. They brought the East back powerfully to her memory, and her
thoughts filled with it. They did not dream that they were
assisting in any battle. No one ever had more unconscious allies
than did Molly at that time. But she used them consciously, or
almost consciously. She frequented them; she spoke of Eastern
matters; she found that she had acquaintances whom the Ogdens
also knew, and she often brought them into the conversation. For
it may be said, I think, that she was fighting a battle--nay, a
campaign. And perhaps this was a hopeful sign for the Virginian
(had he but known it), that the girl resorted to allies. She
surrounded herself, she steeped herself, with the East, to have,
as it were, a sort of counteractant against the spell of the
black-haired horse man.
And his forces were, as I have said, scattered. For his promotion
gave him no more time for love-making. He was foreman now. He had
said to Judge Henry, "I'll try to please yu'." And after the
throb of emotion which these words had both concealed and
conveyed, there came to him that sort of intention to win which
amounts to a certainty. Yes, he would please Judge Henry!
He did not know how much he had already pleased him. He did not
know that the Judge was humorously undecided which of his new
foreman's first acts had the more delighted him: his performance
with the missionary, or his magnanimity to Trampas.
"Good feeling is a great thing in any one," the Judge would say;
"but I like to know that my foreman has so much sense."
"I am personally very grateful to him," said Mrs. Henry.
And indeed so was the whole company. To be afflicted with Dr.
MacBride for one night instead of six was a great liberation.
But the Virginian never saw his sweetheart alone again; while she
was at the Sunk Creek Ranch, his duties called him away so much
that there was no chance for him. Worse still, that habit of
birds of a feather brought about a separation more considerable.
She arranged to go East with the Ogdens. It was so good an
opportunity to travel with friends, instead of making the journey
Molly's term of ministration at the schoolhouse had so pleased
Bear Creek that she was warmly urged to take a holiday. School
could afford to begin a little late. Accordingly, she departed.
The Virginian hid his sore heart from her during the moment of
farewell that they had.
"No, I'll not want any more books," he said, "till yu' come
back." And then he made cheerfulness. "It's just the other way
round!" said he.
"What is the other way round?"
"Why, last time it was me that went travelling, and you that
"So it was!" And here she gave him a last scratch. "But you'll be
busier than ever," she said; "no spare time to grieve about me!"
She could wound him, and she knew it. Nobody else could. That is
why she did it.
But he gave her something to remember, too.
"Next time," he said, "neither of us will stay behind. We'll both
And with these words he gave her no laughing glance. It was a
look that mingled with the words; so that now and again in the
train, both came back to her, and she sat pensive, drawing near
to Bennington and hearing his voice and seeing his eyes.
How is it that this girl could cry at having to tell Sam Bannett
she could not think of him, and then treat another lover as she
treated the Virginian? I cannot tell you, having never (as I said
before) been a woman myself.
Bennington opened its arms to its venturesome daughter. Much was
made of Molly Wood. Old faces and old places welcomed her. Fatted
calves of varying dimensions made their appearance. And although
the fatted calf is an animal that can assume more divergent
shapes than any other known creature,--being sometimes champagne
and partridges, and again cake and currant wine,--through each
disguise you can always identify the same calf. The girl from
Bear Creek met it at every turn.
The Bannetts at Hoosic Falls offered a large specimen to Molly--a
dinner (perhaps I should say a banquet) of twenty-four. And Sam
Bannett of course took her to drive more than once.
"I want to see the Hoosic Bridge," she would say. And when they
reached that well-remembered point, "How lovely it is!" she
exclaimed. And as she gazed at the view up and down the valley,
she would grow pensive. "How natural the church looks," she
continued. And then, having crossed both bridges, "Oh, there's
the dear old lodge gate!" Or again, while they drove up the
valley of the little Hoosic: "I had forgotten it was so nice and
lonely. But after all, no woods are so interesting as those where
you might possibly see a bear or an elk." And upon another
occasion, after a cry of enthusiasm at the view from the top of
Mount Anthony, "It's lovely, lovely, lovely," she said, with
diminishing cadence, ending in pensiveness once more. "Do you see
that little bit just there? No, not where the trees are--that
bare spot that looks brown and warm in the sun. With a little
sagebrush, that spot would look something like a place I know on
Bear Creek. Only of course you don't get the clear air here."
"I don't forget you," said Sam. "Do you remember me? Or is it out
of sight out of mind?"
And with this beginning he renewed his suit. She told him that
she forgot no one; that she should return always, lest they might
"Return always!" he exclaimed. "You talk as if your anchor was
Was it? At all events, Sam failed in his suit.
Over in the house at Dunbarton, the old lady held Molly's hand
and looked a long while at her. "You have changed very much," she
"I am a year older," said the girl.
"Pshaw, my dear!" said the great-aunt. "Who is he?"
"Nobody!" cried Molly, with indignation.
"Then you shouldn't answer so loud," said the great-aunt.
The girl suddenly hid her face. "I don't believe I can love any
one," she said, "except myself."
And then that old lady, who in her day had made her courtesy to
Lafayette, began to stroke her niece's buried head, because she
more than half understood. And understanding thus much, she asked
no prying questions, but thought of the days of her own youth,
and only spoke a little quiet love and confidence to Molly.
"I am an old, old woman," she said. "But I haven't forgotten
about it. They objected to him because he had no fortune. But he
was brave and handsome, and I loved him, my dear. Only I ought to
have loved him more. I gave him my promise to think about it. And
he and his ship were lost." The great-aunt's voice had become
very soft and low, and she spoke with many pauses. "So then I
knew. If I had--if--perhaps I should have lost trim; but it would
have been after--ah, well! So long as you can help it, never
marry! But when you cannot help it a moment longer, then listen
to nothing but that; for, my dear, I know your choice would be
worthy of the Starks. And now--let me see his picture."
"Why, aunty!" said Molly.
"Well, I won't pretend to be supernatural," said the aunt, "but I
thought you kept one back when you were showing us those Western
views last night."
Now this was the precise truth. Molly had brought a number of
photographs from Wyoming to show to her friends at home. These,
however, with one exception, were not portraits. They were views
of scenery and of cattle round-ups, and other scenes
characteristic of ranch life. Of young men she had in her
possession several photographs, and all but one of these she had
left behind her. Her aunt's penetration had in a way mesmerized
the girl; she rose obediently and sought that picture of the
Virginian. It was full length, displaying him in all his cow-boy
trappings,--the leathern chaps, the belt and pistol, and in his
hand a coil of rope.
Not one of her family had seen it, or suspected its existence.
She now brought it downstairs and placed it in her aunt's hand.
"Mercy!" cried the old lady.
Molly was silent, but her eye grew warlike.
"Is that the way--" began the aunt. "Mercy!" she murmured; and she
sat staring at the picture.
Molly remained silent.
Her aunt looked slowly up at her. "Has a man like that
"He's not a bit like that. Yes, he's exactly like that," said
Molly. And she would have snatched the photograph away, but her
aunt retained it.
"Well," she said, "I suppose there are days when
he does not kill people."
"He never killed anybody!" And Molly laughed.
"Are you seriously--" said the old lady.
"I almost might--at times. He is perfectly splendid."
"My dear, you have fallen in love with his clothes."
"It's not his clothes. And I'm not in love. He often wears
others. He wears a white collar like anybody."
"Then that would be a more suitable way to be photographed, I
think. He couldn't go round like that here. I could not receive
"He'd never think of such a thing. Why, you talk as if he were a
The old lady studied the picture closely for a minute. "I think
it is a good face," she finally remarked. "Is the fellow as
handsome as that, my dear?"
More so, Molly thought. And who was he, and what were his
prospects? were the aunt's next inquiries. She shook her head at
the answers which she received; and she also shook her head over
her niece's emphatic denial that her heart was lost to this man.
But when their parting came, the old lady said: "God bless you and
keep you, my dear. I'll not try to manage you. They managed me--"
A sigh spoke the rest of this sentence. "But I'm not worried
about you--at least, not very much. You have never done anything
that was not worthy of the Starks. And if you're going to take
him, do it before I die so that I can bid him welcome for your
sake. God bless you, my dear."
And after the girl had gone back to Bennington, the great-aunt
had this thought: "She is like us all. She wants a man that is a
man." Nor did the old lady breathe her knowledge to any member of
the family. For she was a loyal spirit, and her girl's confidence
was sacred to her.
"Besides," she reflected, "if even I can do nothing with her,
what a mess THEY'D make of it! We should hear of her elopement
So Molly's immediate family never saw that photograph, and never
heard a word from her upon this subject. But on the day that she
left for Bear Creek, as they sat missing her and discussing her
visit in the evening, Mrs. Bell observed: "Mother, how did you
think she was?"--"I never saw her better, Sarah. That horrible
place seems to agree with her."--"Oh, yes, agree. It seemed to
me--"--"Well?"--"Oh, just somehow that she was
thinking."--"Thinking?"--"Well, I believe she has something on
her mind."--"You mean a man," said Andrew Bell.--"A man,
Andrew?"--"Yes, Mrs. Wood, that's what Sarah always means."
It may be mentioned that Sarah's surmises did not greatly
contribute to her mother's happiness. And rumor is so strange a
thing that presently from the malicious outside air came a vague
and dreadful word--one of those words that cannot be traced to
its source. Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard Miss
Molly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.
"Heavens, Andrew!" said his wife; "what is a rustler?"
It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it were
inconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passed
through Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentary
way to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had always
supposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarming
version of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.
Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word ran
a sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meanings
as it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a very
few days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, a
gold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; while
Mrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.
Along Bear Creek, however, Molly and her "rustler" took a ride
soon after her return. They were neither married nor engaged, and
she was telling him about Vermont.
"I never was there," said he. "Never happened to strike in that
"What decided your direction?"
"Oh, looking for chances. I reckon I must have been more
ambitious than my brothers--or more restless. They stayed around
on farms. But I got out. When I went back again six years
afterward, I was twenty. They was talking about the same old
things. Men of twenty-five and thirty--yet just sittin' and
talkin' about the same old things. I told my mother about what
I'd seen here and there, and she liked it, right to her death.
But the others--well, when I found this whole world was hawgs and
turkeys to them, with a little gunnin' afteh small game throwed
in, I put on my hat one mawnin' and told 'em maybe when I was
fifty I'd look in on 'em again to see if they'd got any new
subjects. But they'll never. My brothers don't seem to want
"You have lost a good many yourself," said Molly.
"And yet," said she, "sometimes I think you know a great deal
more than I ever shall."
"Why, of course I do," said he, quite simply. "I have earned my
living since I was fourteen. And that's from old Mexico to
British Columbia. I have never stolen or begged a cent. I'd not
want yu' to know what I know."
She was looking at him, half listening and half thinking of her
"I am not losing chances any more," he continued. "And you are
the best I've got."
She was not sorry to have Georgie Taylor come galloping along at
this moment and join them. But the Virginian swore profanely
under his breath. And on this ride nothing more happened.
XXIII. VARIOUS POINTS
Love had been snowbound for many weeks. Before this imprisonment
its course had run neither smooth nor rough, so far as eye could
see; it had run either not at all, or, as an undercurrent, deep
out of sight. In their rides, in their talks, love had been dumb,
as to spoken words at least; for the Virginian had set himself a
heavy task of silence and of patience. Then, where winter barred
his visits to Bear Creek, and there was for the while no ranch
work or responsibility to fill his thoughts and blood with
action, he set himself a task much lighter. Often, instead of
Shakespeare and fiction, school books lay open on his cabin
table; and penmanship and spelling helped the hours to pass. Many
sheets of paper did he fill with various exercises, and Mrs.
Henry gave him her assistance in advice and corrections.
"I shall presently be in love with him myself," she told the
Judge. "And it's time for you to become anxious."
"I am perfectly safe," he retorted. "There's only one woman for
him any more."
"She is not good enough for him," declared Mrs. Henry. "But he'll
never see that."
So the snow fell, the world froze, and the spelling-books and
exercises went on. But this was not the only case of education
which was progressing at the Sunk Creek Ranch while love was
One morning Scipio le Moyne entered the Virginian's sitting
room--that apartment where Dr. MacBride had wrestled with sin so
courageously all night.
The Virginian sat at his desk. Open books lay around him; a
half-finished piece of writing was beneath his fist; his fingers
were coated with ink. Education enveloped him, it may be said.
But there was none in his eye. That was upon the window, looking
far across the cold plain.
The foreman did not move when Scipio came in, and this humorous
spirit smiled to himself. "It's Bear Creek he's havin' a vision
of," he concluded. But he knew instantly that this was not so.
The Virginian was looking at something real, and Scipio went to
the window to see for himself.
"Well," he said, having seen, "when is he going to leave us?"
The foreman continued looking at two horsemen riding together.
Their shapes, small in the distance, showed black against the
"When d' yu' figure he'll leave us?" repeated Scipio.
"He," murmured the Virginian, always watching the distant
horsemen; and again, "he."
Scipio sprawled down, familiarly, across a chair. He and the
Virginian had come to know each other very well since that first
meeting at Medora. They were birds many of whose feathers were
the same, and the Virginian often talked to Scipio without
reserve. Consequently, Scipio now understood those two syllables
that the Virginian had pronounced precisely as though the
sentences which lay between them had been fully expressed.
"Hm," he remarked. "Well, one will be a gain, and the other won't
be no loss."
"Poor Shorty!" said the Virginian. "Poor fool!"
Scipio was less compassionate. "No," he persisted, "I ain't sorry
for him. Any man old enough to have hair on his face ought to see
The Virginian looked out of the window again, and watched Shorty
and Trampas as they rode in the distance. "Shorty is kind to
animals," he said. "He has gentled that hawss Pedro he bought
with his first money. Gentled him wonderful. When a man is kind
to dumb animals, I always say he had got some good in him."
"Yes," Scipio reluctantly admitted. "Yes. But I always did hate a
"This hyeh is a mighty cruel country," pursued the Virginian. "To
animals that is. Think of it! Think what we do to hundreds an'
thousands of little calves! Throw 'em down, brand 'em, cut 'em,
ear mark 'em, turn 'em loose, and on to the next. It has got to
be, of course. But I say this. If a man can go jammin' hot irons
on to little calves and slicin' pieces off 'em with his knife,
and live along, keepin' a kindness for animals in his heart, he
has got some good in him. And that's what Shorty has got. But he
is lettin' Trampas get a hold of him, and both of them will leave
us." And the Virginian looked out across the huge winter
whiteness again. But the riders had now vanished behind some
Scipio sat silent. He had never put these thoughts about men and
animals to himself, and when they were put to him, he saw that
they were true.
"Queer," he observed finally
"Nothing's queer," stated the Virginian, "except marriage and
lightning. Them two occurrences can still give me a sensation of
"All the same it is queer," Scipio insisted
"Well, let her go at me."
"Why, Trampas. He done you dirt. You pass that over. You could
have fired him, but you let him stay and keep his job. That's
goodness. And badness is resultin' from it, straight. Badness
right from goodness."
"You're off the trail a whole lot," said the Virginian.
"Which side am I off, then?"
"North, south, east, and west. First point. I didn't expect to do
Trampas any good by not killin' him, which I came pretty near
doin' three times. Nor I didn't expect to do Trampas any good by
lettin' him keep his job. But I am foreman of this ranch. And I
can sit and tell all men to their face: 'I was above that
meanness.' Point two: it ain't any GOODNESS, it is TRAMPAS that
badness has resulted from. Put him anywhere and it will be the
same. Put him under my eye, and I can follow his moves a little,
anyway. You have noticed, maybe, that since you and I run on to
that dead Polled Angus cow, that was still warm when we got to
her, we have found no more cows dead of sudden death. We came
mighty close to catchin' whoever it was that killed that cow and
ran her calf off to his own bunch. He wasn't ten minutes ahead of
us. We can prove nothin'; and he knows that just as well as we
do. But our cows have all quit dyin' of sudden death. And Trampas
he's gettin' ready for a change of residence. As soon as all the
outfits begin hirin' new hands in the spring, Trampas will leave
us and take a job with some of them. And maybe our cows'll
commence gettin' killed again, and we'll have to take steps that
will be more emphatic--maybe."
Scipio meditated. "I wonder what killin' a man feels like?" he
"Why, nothing to bother yu'--when he'd ought to have been killed.
Next point: Trampas he'll take Shorty with him, which is
certainly bad for Shorty. But it's me that has kept Shorty out of
harm's way this long. If I had fired Trampas, he'd have worked
Shorty into dissatisfaction that much sooner."
Scipio meditated again. "I knowed Trampas would pull his
freight," he said. "But I didn't think of Shorty. What makes you
"He asked me for a raise."
"He ain't worth the pay he's getting now."
"Trampas has told him different."
"When a man ain't got no ideas of his own," said Scipio, "he'd
ought to be kind o' careful who he borrows 'em from."
"That's mighty correct," said the Virginian. "Poor Shorty! He has
told me about his life. It is sorrowful. And he will never get
wise. It was too late for him to get wise when he was born. D'
yu' know why he's after higher wages? He sends most all his money
"I don't see what Trampas wants him for," said Scipio.
"Oh, a handy tool some day."
"Not very handy," said Scipio.
"Well, Trampas is aimin' to train him. Yu' see, supposin' yu'
were figuring to turn professional thief--yu'd be lookin' around
for a nice young trustful accomplice to take all the punishment
and let you take the rest."
"No such thing!" cried Scipio, angrily. "I'm no shirker." And
then, perceiving the Virginian's expression, he broke out
laughing. "Well," he exclaimed, "yu' fooled me that time."
"Looks that way. But I do mean it about Trampas."
Presently Scipio rose, and noticed the half-finished exercise
upon the Virginian's desk. "Trampas is a rolling stone," he said.
"A rolling piece of mud," corrected the Virginian.
"Mud! That's right. I'm a rolling stone. Sometimes I'd most like
to quit being."
"That's easy done," said the Virginian.
"No doubt, when yu've found the moss yu' want to gather." As
Scipio glanced at the school books again, a sparkle lurked in his
bleached blue eye. "I can cipher some," he said. "But I expect
I've got my own notions about spelling."
"I retain a few private ideas that way myself," remarked the
Virginian, innocently; and Scipio's sparkle gathered light.
"As to my geography," he pursued, "that's away out loose in the
brush. Is Bennington the capital of Vermont? And how d' yu' spell
"Last point!" shouted the Virginian, letting a book fly after
him: "don't let badness and goodness worry yu', for yu'll never
be a judge of them."
But Scipio had dodged the book, and was gone. As he went his way,
he said to himself, "All the same, it must pay to fall regular in
love." At the bunk house that afternoon it was observed that he
was unusually silent. His exit from the foreman's cabin had let in
a breath of winter so chill that the Virginian went to see his
thermometer, a Christmas present from Mrs. Henry. It registered
twenty below zero. After reviving the fire to a white blaze, the
foreman sat thinking over the story of Shorty: what its useless,
feeble past had been; what would be its useless, feeble future.
He shook his head over the sombre question, Was there any way out
for Shorty? "It may be," he reflected, "that them whose pleasure
brings yu' into this world owes yu' a living. But that don't make
the world responsible. The world did not beget you. I reckon man
helps them that help themselves. As for the universe, it looks
like it did too wholesale a business to turn out an article up to
standard every clip. Yes, it is sorrowful. For Shorty is kind to
In the evening the Virginian brought Shorty into his room. He
usually knew what he had to say, usually found it easy to arrange
his thoughts; and after such arranging the words came of
themselves. But as he looked at Shorty, this did not happen to
him. There was not a line of badness in the face; yet also there
was not a line of strength; no promise in eye, or nose, or chin;
the whole thing melted to a stubby, featureless mediocrity. It
was a countenance like thousands; and hopelessness filled the
Virginian as he looked at this lost dog, and his dull, wistful
But some beginning must be made.
"I wonder what the thermometer has got to be," he said. "Yu' can
see it, if yu'll hold the lamp to that right side of the window."
Shorty held the lamp. "I never used any," he said, looking out at
the instrument, nevertheless.
The Virginian had forgotten that Shorty could not read. So he
looked out of the window himself, and found that it was
twenty-two below zero. "This is pretty good tobacco," he
remarked; and Shorty helped himself, and filled his pipe.
"I had to rub my left ear with snow to-day," said he. "I was just
"I thought it looked pretty freezy out where yu' was riding,"
said the foreman.
The lost dog's eyes showed plain astonishment. "We didn't see you
out there," said he.
"Well," said the foreman, "it'll soon not be freezing any more;
and then we'll all be warm enough with work. Everybody will be
working all over the range. And I wish I knew somebody that had a
lot of stable work to be attended to. I cert'nly do for your
"Why?" said Shorty.
"Because it's the right kind of a job for you."
"I can make more--" began Shorty, and stopped.
"There is a time coming," said the Virginian, "when I'll want
somebody that knows how to get the friendship of hawsses. I'll
want him to handle some special hawsses the Judge has plans
about. Judge Henry would pay fifty a month for that."
"I can make more," said Shorty, this time with stubbornness.
"Well, yes. Sometimes a man can--when he's not worth it, I mean.
But it don't generally last."
Shorty was silent. "I used to make more myself," said the
"You're making a lot more now," said Shorty.
"Oh, yes. But I mean when I was fooling around the earth, jumping
from job to job, and helling all over town between whiles. I was
not worth fifty a month then, nor twenty-five. But there was
nights I made a heap more at cyards."
Shorty's eyes grew large.
"And then, bang! it was gone with treatin' the men and the
"I don't always--" said Shorty, and stopped again.
The Virginian knew that he was thinking about the money he sent
East. "After a while," he continued, "I noticed a right strange
fact. The money I made easy that I WASN'T worth, it went like it
came. I strained myself none gettin' or spendin' it. But the
money I made hard that I WAS worth, why I began to feel right
careful about that. And now I have got savings stowed away. If
once yu' could know how good that feels--"
"So I would know," said Shorty, "with your luck."
"What's my luck?" said the Virginian, sternly.
"Well, if I had took up land along a creek that never goes dry
and proved upon it like you have, and if I had saw that land
raise its value on me with me lifting no finger--"
"Why did you lift no finger?" cut in the Virginian. "Who stopped
yu' taking up land? Did it not stretch in front of yu', behind
yu', all around yu', the biggest, baldest opportunity in sight?
That was the time I lifted my finger; but yu' didn't."
Shorty stood stubborn.
"But never mind that," said the Virginian. "Take my land away
to-morrow, and I'd still have my savings in bank. Because, you
see, I had to work right hard gathering them in. I found out what
I could do, and I settled down and did it. Now you can do that
too. The only tough part is the finding out what you're good for.
And for you, that is found. If you'll just decide to work at this
thing you can do, and gentle those hawsses for the Judge, you'll
be having savings in a bank yourself."
"I can make more," said the lost dog.
The Virginian was on the point of saying, "Then get out!" But
instead, he spoke kindness to the end. "The weather is freezing
yet," he said, "and it will be for a good long while. Take your
time, and tell me if yu' change your mind."
After that Shorty returned to the bunk house, and the Virginian
knew that the boy had learned his lesson of discontent from
Trampas with a thoroughness past all unteaching. This petty
triumph of evil seemed scarce of the size to count as any victory
over the Virginian. But all men grasp at straws. Since that first
moment, when in the Medicine Bow saloon the Virginian had shut
the mouth of Trampas by a word, the man had been trying to get
even without risk; and at each successive clash of his weapon
with the Virginian's, he had merely met another public
humiliation. Therefore, now at the Sunk Creek Ranch in these cold
white days, a certain lurking insolence in his gait showed
plainly his opinion that by disaffecting Shorty he had made some
sort of reprisal.
Yes, he had poisoned the lost dog. In the springtime, when the
neighboring ranches needed additional hands, it happened as the
Virginian had foreseen,--Trampas departed to a "better job," as
he took pains to say, and with him the docile Shorty rode away
upon his horse Pedro.
Love now was not any longer snowbound. The mountain trails were
open enough for the sure feet of love's steed--that horse called
Monte. But duty blocked the path of love. Instead of turning his
face to Bear Creek, the foreman had other journeys to make, full
of heavy work, and watchfulness, and councils with the Judge. The
cattle thieves were growing bold, and winter had scattered the
cattle widely over the range. Therefore the Virginian, instead of
going to see her, wrote a letter to his sweetheart. It was his
XXIV. A LETTER WITH A MORAL
The letter which the Virginian wrote to Molly Wood was, as has
been stated, the first that he had ever addressed to her. I
think, perhaps, he may have been a little shy as to his skill in
the epistolary art, a little anxious lest any sustained
production from his pen might contain blunders that would too
staringly remind her of his scant learning. He could turn off a
business communication about steers or stock cars, or any other
of the subjects involved in his profession, with a brevity and a
clearness that led the Judge to confide three-quarters of such
correspondence to his foreman. "Write to the 76 outfit," the
Judge would say, "and tell them that my wagon cannot start for
the round-up until," etc.; or "Write to Cheyenne and say that if
they will hold a meeting next Monday week, I will," etc. And then
the Virginian would write such communications with ease.
But his first message to his lady was scarcely written with ease.
It must be classed, I think, among those productions which are
styled literary EFFORTS. It was completed in pencil before it was
copied in ink; and that first draft of it in pencil was well-nigh
illegible with erasures and amendments. The state of mind of the
writer during its composition may be gathered without further
description on my part from a slight interruption which occurred
in the middle.
The door opened, and Scipio put his head in. "You coming to
dinner?" he inquired.
"You go to hell," replied the Virginian.
"My links!" said Scipio, quietly, and he shut the door without
To tell the truth, I doubt if this letter would ever have been
undertaken, far less completed and despatched, had not the
lover's heart been wrung with disappointment. All winter long he
had looked to that day when he should knock at the girl's door,
and hear her voice bid him come in. All winter long he had been
choosing the ride he would take her. He had imagined a sunny
afternoon, a hidden grove, a sheltering cleft of rock, a running
spring, and some words of his that should conquer her at last and
leave his lips upon hers. And with this controlled fire pent up
within him, he had counted the days, scratching them off his
calendar with a dig each night that once or twice snapped the
pen. Then, when the trail stood open, this meeting was deferred,
put off for indefinite days, or weeks; he could not tell how
long. So, gripping his pencil and tracing heavy words, he gave
himself what consolation he could by writing her.
The letter, duly stamped and addressed to Bear Creek, set forth
upon its travels; and these were devious and long. When it
reached its destination, it was some twenty days old. It had gone
by private hand at the outset, taken the stagecoach at a way
point, become late in that stagecoach, reached a point of
transfer, and waited there for the postmaster to begin, continue,
end, and recover from a game of poker, mingled with whiskey.
Then it once more proceeded, was dropped at the right way point,
and carried by private hand to Bear Creek. The experience of this
letter, however, was not at all a remarkable one at that time in
Molly Wood looked at the envelope. She had never before seen the
Virginian's handwriting She knew it instantly. She closed her
door. and sat down to read it with a beating heart.
SUNK CREEK RANCH,
May 5, 188_
My Dear Miss Wood: I am sorry about this. My plan was different.
It was to get over for a ride with you about now or sooner. This
year Spring is early. The snow is off the flats this side the
range and where the sun gets a chance to hit the earth strong all
day it is green and has flowers too, a good many. You can see
them bob and mix together in the wind. The quaking-asps down low
on the South side are in small leaf and will soon be twinkling
like the flowers do now. I had planned to take a look at this
with you and that was a better plan than what I have got to do.
The water is high but I could have got over and as for the snow
on top of the mountain a man told me nobody could cross it for a
week yet, because he had just done it himself. Was not he a funny
man? You ought to see how the birds have streamed across the sky
while Spring was coming. But you have seen them on your side of
the mountain. But I can't come now Miss Wood. There is a lot for
me to do that has to be done and Judge Henry needs more than two
eyes just now. I could not think much of myself if I left him for
my own wishes.
But the days will be warmer when I come. We will not have to quit
by five, and we can get off and sit too. We could not sit now
unless for a very short while. If I know when I can come I will
try to let you know, but I think it will be this way. I think you
will just see me coming for I have things to do of an unsure
nature and a good number of such. Do not believe reports about
Indians. They are started by editors to keep the soldiers in the
country. The friends of the editors get the hay and beef
contracts. Indians do not come to settled parts like Bear Creek
is. It is all editors and politicianists.
Nothing has happened worth telling you. I have read that play
Othello. No man should write down such a thing. Do you know if it
is true? I have seen one worse affair down in Arizona. He killed
his little child as well as his wife but such things should not
be put down in fine language for the public. I have read Romeo
and Juliet. That is beautiful language but Romeo is no man. I
like his friend Mercutio that gets killed. He is a man. If he had
got Juliet there would have been no foolishness and trouble.
Well Miss Wood I would like to see you to-day. Do you know what I
think Monte would do if I rode him out and let the rein slack? He
would come straight to your gate for he is a horse of great
judgement. ("That's the first word he has misspelled," said
Molly.) I suppose you are sitting with George Taylor and those
children right now. Then George will get old enough to help his
father but Uncle Hewie's twins will be ready for you about then
and the supply will keep coming from all quarters all sizes for
you to say big A little a to them. There is no news here. Only
calves and cows and the hens are laying now which does always
seem news to a hen every time she does it. Did I ever tell you
about a hen Emily we had here? She was venturesome to an extent I
have not seen in other hens only she had poor judgement and would
make no family ties. She would keep trying to get interest in the
ties of others taking charge of little chicks and bantams and
turkeys and puppies one time, and she thought most anything was
an egg. I will tell you about her sometime. She died without
family ties one day while I was building a house for her to teach
school in. ("The outrageous wretch!" cried Molly! And her cheeks
turned deep pink as she sat alone with her lover's letter.)
I am coming the first day I am free. I will be a hundred miles
from you most of the time when I am not more but I will ride a
hundred miles for one hour and Monte is up to that. After never
seeing you for so long I will make one hour do if I have to. Here
is a flower I have just been out and picked. I have kissed it
now. That is the best I can do yet.
Molly laid the letter in her lap and looked at the flower. Then
suddenly she jumped up and pressed it to her lips, and after a
long moment held it away from her.
"No," she said. "No, no, no." She sat down.
It was some time before she finished the letter. Then once more
she got up and put on her hat.
Mrs. Taylor wondered where the girl could be walking so fast. But
she was not walking anywhere, and in half an hour she returned,
rosy with her swift exercise, but with a spirit as perturbed as
when she had set out.
Next morning at six, when she looked out of her window, there was
Monte tied to the Taylor's gate. Ah, could he have come the day
before, could she have found him when she returned from that
swift walk of hers!
XXV. PROGRESS OF THE LOST DOG
It was not even an hour's visit that the Virginian was able to
pay his lady love. But neither had he come a hundred miles to see
her. The necessities of his wandering work had chanced to bring
him close enough for a glimpse of her, and this glimpse he took,
almost on the wing. For he had to rejoin a company of men at
"Yu' got my letter?" he said.
"Yesterday! I wrote it three weeks ago. Well, yu' got it. This
cannot be the hour with you that I mentioned. That is coming, and
maybe very soon."
She could say nothing. Relief she felt, and yet with it something
like a pang.
"To-day does not count," he told her, "except that every time I
see you counts with me. But this is not the hour that I
What little else was said between them upon this early morning
shall be told duly. For this visit in its own good time did count
momentously, though both of them took it lightly while its
fleeting minutes passed. He returned to her two volumes that she
had lent him long ago and with Taylor he left a horse which he
had brought for her to ride. As a good-by, he put a bunch of
flowers in her hand. Then he was gone, and she watched him going
by the thick bushes along the stream. They were pink with wild
roses; and the meadow-larks, invisible in the grass, like hiding
choristers, sent up across the empty miles of air their
unexpected song. Earth and sky had been propitious, could he have
stayed; and perhaps one portion of her heart had been propitious
too. So, as he rode away on Monte, she watched him, half chilled
by reason, half melted by passion, self-thwarted, self-accusing,
unresolved. Therefore the days that came for her now were all of
them unhappy ones, while for him they were filled with work well
done and with changeless longing.
One day it seemed as if a lull was coming, a pause in which he
could at last attain that hour with her. He left the camp and
turned his face toward Bear Creek. The way led him along Butte
Creek. Across the stream lay Balaam's large ranch; and presently
on the other bank he saw Balaam himself, and reined in Monte for
a moment to watch what Balaam was doing.
"That's what I've heard," he muttered to himself. For Balaam had
led some horses to the water, and was lashing them heavily
because they would not drink. He looked at this spectacle so
intently that he did not see Shorty approaching along the trail.
"Morning," said Shorty to him, with some constraint.
But the Virginian gave him a pleasant greeting, "I was afraid I'd
not catch you so quick," said Shorty. "This is for you." He
handed his recent foreman a letter of much battered appearance.
It was from the Judge. It had not come straight, but very
gradually, in the pockets of three successive cow-punchers. As
the Virginian glanced over it and saw that the enclosure it
contained was for Balaam, his heart fell. Here were new orders
for him, and he could not go to see his sweetheart.
"Hello, Shorty!" said Balaam, from over the creek. To the
Virginian he gave a slight nod. He did not know him, although he
knew well enough who he was.
"Hyeh's a letter from Judge Henry for yu'" said the Virginian,
and he crossed the creek.
Many weeks before, in the early spring, Balaam had borrowed two
horses from the Judge, promising to return them at once. But the
Judge, of course, wrote very civilly. He hoped that "this dunning
reminder" might be excused. As Balaam read the reminder, he
wished that he had sent the horses before. The Judge was a
greater man than he in the Territory. Balaam could not but excuse
the "dunning reminder,"--but he was ready to be disagreeable to
somebody at once.
"Well," he said, musing aloud in his annoyance, "Judge Henry
wants them by the 30th. Well, this is the 24th, and time enough
"This is the 27th," said the Virginian, briefly.
That made a difference! Not so easy to reach Sunk Creek in good
order by the 30th! Balaam had drifted three sunrises behind the
progress of the month. Days look alike, and often lose their very
names in the quiet depths of Cattle Land. The horses were not
even here at the ranch. Balaam was ready to be very disagreeable
now. Suddenly he perceived the date of the Judge's letter. He
held it out to the Virginian, and struck the paper.
"What's your idea in bringing this here two weeks late?" he said.
Now, when he had struck that paper, Shorty looked at the
Virginian. But nothing happened beyond a certain change of light
in the Southerner's eyes. And when the Southerner spoke, it was
with his usual gentleness and civility. He explained that the
letter had been put in his hands just now by Shorty.
"Oh," said Balaam. He looked at Shorty. How had he come to be a
messenger? "You working for the Sunk Creek outfit again?" said
"No," said Shorty.
Balaam turned to the Virginian again. "How do you expect me to
get those horses to Sunk Creek by the 30th?"
The Virginian levelled a lazy eye on Balaam. "I ain' doin' any
expecting," said he. His native dialect was on top to-day. "The
Judge has friends goin' to arrive from New Yawk for a trip across
the Basin," he added. "The hawsses are for them."
Balaam grunted with displeasure, and thought of the sixty or
seventy days since he had told the Judge he would return the
horses at once. He looked across at Shorty seated in the shade,
and through his uneasy thoughts his instinct irrelevantly noted
what a good pony the youth rode. It was the same animal he had
seen once or twice before. But something must be done. The
Judge's horses were far out on the big range, and must be found
and driven in, which would take certainly the rest of this day,
possibly part of the next.
Balaam called to one of his men and gave some sharp orders,
emphasizing details, and enjoining haste, while the Virginian
leaned slightly against his horse, with one arm over the saddle,
hearing and understanding, but not smiling outwardly. The man
departed to saddle up for his search on the big range, and Balaam
resumed the unhitching of his team.
"So you're not working for the Sunk Creek outfit now?" he
inquired of Shorty. He ignored the Virginian. "Working for the
"No," said Shorty.
"Sand Hill outfit, then?"
"No," said Shorty.
Balaam grinned. He noticed how Shorty's yellow hair stuck through
a hole in his hat, and how old and battered were Shorty's
overalls. Shorty had been glad to take a little accidental pay
for becoming the bearer of the letter which he had delivered to
the Virginian. But even that sum was no longer in his possession.
He had passed through Drybone on his way, and at Drybone there
had been a game of poker. Shorty's money was now in the pocket of
Trampas. But he had one valuable possession in the world left to
him, and that was his horse Pedro.
"Good pony of yours," said Balaam to him now, from across Butte
Creek. Then he struck his own horse in the jaw because he held
back from coming to the water as the other had done.
"Your trace ain't unhitched," commented the Virginian, pointing.
Balaam loosed the strap he had forgotten, and cut the horse again
for consistency's sake. The animal, bewildered, now came down to
the water, with its head in the air, and snuffing as it took
short, nervous steps.
The Virginian looked on at this, silent and sombre. He could
scarcely interfere between another man and his own beast. Neither
he nor Balaam was among those who say their prayers. Yet in this
omission they were not equal. A half-great poet once had a wholly
great day, and in that great day he was able to write a poem that
has lived and become, with many, a household word. He called it
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And it is rich with many lines
that possess the memory; but these are the golden ones:
"He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."
These lines are the pure gold. They are good to teach children;
because after the children come to be men, they may believe at
least some part of them still. The Virginian did not know
them,--but his heart had taught him many things. I doubt if
Balaam knew them either. But on him they would have been as
pearls to swine.
"So you've quit the round-up?" he resumed to Shorty.
Shorty nodded and looked sidewise at the Virginian.
For the Virginian knew that he had been turned off for going to
sleep while night-herding.
Then Balaam threw another glance on Pedro the horse.
"Hello, Shorty!" he called out, for the boy was departing. "Don't
you like dinner any more? It's ready about now."
Shorty forded the creek and slung his saddle off, and on
invitation turned Pedro, his buckskin pony, into Balaam's
pasture. This was green, the rest of the wide world being yellow,
except only where Butte Creek, with its bordering cottonwoods,
coiled away into the desert distance like a green snake without
end. The Virginian also turned his horse into the pasture. He
must stay at the ranch till the Judge's horses should be found.
"Mrs. Balaam's East yet," said her lord, leading the way to his
He wanted Shorty to dine with him, and could not exclude the
Virginian, much as he should have enjoyed this.
"See any Indians?" he enquired.
"Na-a!" said Shorty, in disdain of recent rumors.
"They're headin' the other way," observed the Virginian. "Bow
Laig Range is where they was repawted."
"What business have they got off the reservation, I'd like to
know," said the ranchman, " Bow Leg, or anywhere?"
"Oh, it's just a hunt, and a kind of visitin' their friends on
the South Reservation," Shorty explained. "Squaws along and all."
"Well, if the folks at Washington don't keep squaws and all where
they belong," said Balaam, in a rage, "the folks in Wyoming
Territory 'ill do a little job that way themselves."
"There's a petition out," said Shorty. "Paper's goin' East with a
lot of names to it. But they ain't no harm, them Indians ain't."
"No harm?" rasped out Balaam. "Was it white men druv off the O.
Balaam's Eastern grammar was sometimes at the mercy of his
Western feelings. The thought of the perennial stultification of
Indian affairs at Washington, whether by politician or
philanthropist, was always sure to arouse him. He walked
impatiently about while he spoke, and halted impatiently at the
window. Out in the world the unclouded day was shining, and
Balaam's eye travelled across the plains to where a blue line,
faint and pale, lay along the end of the vast yellow distance.
That was the beginning of the Bow Leg Mountains. Somewhere over
there were the red men, ranging in unfrequented depths of rock
and pine--their forbidden ground.
Dinner was ready, and they sat down.
"And I suppose," Balaam continued, still hot on the subject,
"you'd claim Indians object to killing a white man when they run
on to him good and far from human help? These peaceable Indians
are just the worst in the business."
"That's so," assented the easy-opinioned Shorty, exactly as if he
had always maintained this view. "Chap started for Sunk Creek
three weeks ago. Trapper he was; old like, with a red shirt. One
of his horses come into the round-up Toosday. Man ain't been
heard from." He ate in silence for a while, evidently brooding in
his childlike mind. Then he said, querulously, "I'd sooner trust
one of them Indians than I would Trampas."
Balaam slanted his fat bullet head far to one side, and laying
his spoon down (he had opened some canned grapes) laughed
steadily at his guest with a harsh relish of irony.
The guest ate a grape, and perceiving he was seen through, smiled
back rather miserably.
"Say, Shorty," said Balaam, his head still slanted over, "what's
the figures of your bank balance just now?"
"I ain't usin' banks," murmured the youth.
Balaam put some more grapes on Shorty's plate, and drawing a
cigar from his waistcoat, sent it rolling to his guest.
"Matches are behind you," he added. He gave a cigar to the
Virginian as an afterthought, but to his disgust, the Southerner
put it in his pocket and lighted a pipe.
Balaam accompanied his guest, Shorty, when he went to the pasture
to saddle up and depart. "Got a rope?" he asked the guest, as
they lifted down the bars.
"Don't need to rope him. I can walk right up to Pedro. You stay back."
Hiding his bridle behind him, Shorty walked to the river-bank,
where the pony was switching his long tail in the shade; and
speaking persuasively to him, he came nearer, till he laid his
hand on Pedro's dusky mane, which was many shades darker than his
hide. He turned expectantly, and his master came up to his
expectations with a piece of bread.
"Eats that, does he?" said Balaam, over the bars.
"Likes the salt," said Shorty. "Now, n-n-ow, here! Yu' don't
guess yu'll be bridled, don't you? Open your teeth! Yu'd like to
play yu' was nobody's horse and live private? Or maybe yu'd
prefer ownin' a saloon?"
Pedro evidently enjoyed this talk, and the dodging he made about
the bit. Once fairly in his mouth, he accepted the inevitable,
and followed Shorty to the bars. Then Shorty turned and extended
"Shake!" he said to his pony, who lifted his forefoot quietly and
put it in his master's hand. Then the master tickled his nose,
and he wrinkled it and flattened his ears, pretending to bite.
His face wore an expression of knowing relish over this
performance. "Now the other hoof," said Shorty; and the horse and
master shook hands with their left. "I learned him that," said
the cowboy, with pride and affection. "Say, Pede," he continued,
in Pedro's ear, "ain't yu' the best little horse in the country?
What? Here, now! Keep out of that, you dead-beat! There ain't no
more bread." He pinched the pony's nose, one quarter of which was
wedged into his pocket.
"Quite a lady's little pet!" said Balaam, with the rasp in his
voice. "Pity this isn't New York, now, where there's a big market
for harmless horses. Gee-gees, the children call them."
"He ain't no gee-gee," said Shorty, offended. "He'll beat any
cow-pony workin' you've got. Yu' can turn him on a half-dollar.
Don't need to touch the reins. Hang 'em on one finger and swing
your body, and he'll turn."
Balaam knew this, and he knew that the pony was only a
four-year-old. "Well," he said, "Drybone's had no circus this
season. Maybe they'd buy tickets to see Pedro. He's good for
Shorty became gloomy. The Virginian was grimly smoking. Here was
something else going on not to his taste, but none of his
"Try a circus," persisted Balaam. "Alter your plans for spending
cash in town, and make a little money instead."
Shorty having no plans to alter and no cash to spend, grew still
"What'll you take for that pony?" said Balaam.
Shorty spoke up instantly. "A hundred dollars couldn't buy that
piece of stale mud off his back," he asserted, looking off into
the sky grandiosely.
But Balaam looked at Shorty, "You keep the mud," he said, "and
I'll give you thirty dollars for the horse."
Shorty did a little professional laughing, and began to walk
toward his saddle.
"Give you thirty dollars," repeated Balaam, picking a stone up
and slinging it into the river.
"How far do yu' call it to Drybone?" Shorty remarked, stooping to
investigate the bucking-strap on his saddle--a superfluous
performance, for Pedro never bucked.
"You won't have to walk," said Balaam. "Stay all night, and I'll
send you over comfortably in the morning, when the wagon goes for
"Walk?" Shorty retorted. "Drybone's twenty-five miles. Pedro'll
put me there in three hours and not know he done it." He lifted
the saddle on the horse's back. "Come, Pedro," said he.
"Come, Pedro!" mocked Balaam.
There followed a little silence.
"No, sir," mumbled Shorty, with his head under Pedro's belly,
busily cinching. "A hundred dollars is bottom figures."
Balaam, in his turn, now duly performed some professional
laughing, which was noted by Shorty under the horse's belly. He
stood up and squared round on Balaam. "Well, then," he said,
what'll yu give for him?"
"Thirty dollars," said Balaam, looking far off into the sky, as
Shorty had looked.
"Oh, come, now," expostulated Shorty.
It was he who now did the feeling for an offer and this was what
Balaam liked to see. "Why yes," he said, "thirty," and looked
surprised that he should have to mention the sum so often.
"I thought yu'd quit them first figures," said the cow-puncher,
"for yu' can see I ain't goin' to look at em."
Balaam climbed on the fence and sat there "I'm not crying for
your Pedro," he observed dispassionately. "Only it struck me you
were dead broke, and wanted to raise cash and keep yourself going
till you hunted up a job and could buy him back." He hooked his
right thumb inside his waistcoat pocket. "But I'm not cryin' for
him," he repeated. "He'd stay right here, of course. I wouldn't
part with him. Why does he stand that way? Hello!" Balaam
suddenly straightened himself, like a man who has made a
"Hello, what?" said Shorty, on the defensive.
Balaam was staring at Pedro with a judicial frown. Then he stuck
out a finger at the horse, keeping the thumb hooked in his
pocket. So meagre a gesture was felt by the ruffled Shorty to be
no just way to point at Pedro. "What's the matter with that
foreleg there?" said Balaam.
"Which? Nothin's the matter with it!" snapped Shorty.
Balaam climbed down from his fence and came over with elaborate
deliberation. He passed his hand up and down the off foreleg.
Then he spit slenderly. "Mm!" he said thoughtfully; and added,
with a shade of sadness, "that's always to be expected when
they're worked too young."
Shorty slid his hand slowly over the disputed leg. "What's to be
expected?" he inquired--"that they'll eat hearty? Well, he does."
At this retort the Virginian permitted himself to laugh in
"Sprung," continued Balaam, with a sigh. "Whirling round short
when his bones were soft did that. Yes."
"Sprung!" Shorty said, with a bark of indignation. "Come on,
Pede; you and me'll spring for town."
He caught the horn of the saddle, and as he swung into place the
horse rushed away with him. "O-ee! yoi-yup, yup, yup!" sang
Shorty, in the shrill cow dialect. He made Pedro play an
exhibition game of speed, bringing him round close to Balaam in a
wide circle, and then he vanished in dust down the left-bank
Balaam looked after him and laughed harshly. He had seen trout
dash about like that when the hook in their jaw first surprised
them. He knew Shorty would show the pony off, and he knew
Shorty's love for Pedro was not equal to his need of money. He
called to one of his men, asked something about the dam at the
mouth of the canyon, where the main irrigation ditch began, made
a remark about the prolonged drought, and then walked to his
dining-room door, where, as he expected, Shorty met him.
"Say," said the youth, "do you consider that's any way to talk
about a good horse?"
"Any dude could see the leg's sprung," said Balaam. But he looked
at Pedro's shoulder, which was well laid back; and he admired his
points, dark in contrast with the buckskin, and also the width
between the eyes.
"Now you know," whined Shorty, "that it ain't sprung any more
than your leg's cork. If you mean the right leg ain't plumb
straight, I can tell you he was born so. That don't make no
difference, for it ain't weak. Try him onced. Just as sound and
strong as iron. Never stumbles. And he don't never go to jumpin'
with yu'. He's kind and he's smart." And the master petted his
pony, who lifted a hoof for another handshake.
Of course Balaam had never thought the leg was sprung, and he now
took on an unprejudiced air of wanting to believe Shorty's
statements if he only could.
"Maybe there's two years' work left in that leg," he now
"Better give your hawss away, Shorty," said the Virginian.
"Is this your deal, my friend?" inquired Balaam. And he slanted
his bullet head at the Virginian.
"Give him away, Shorty," drawled the Southerner. "His laig is
busted. Mr. Balaam says so."
Balaam's face grew evil with baffled fury. But the Virginian was
gravely considering Pedro. He, too, was not pleased. But he could
not interfere. Already he had overstepped the code in these
matters. He would have dearly liked--for reasons good and bad,
spite and mercy mingled--to have spoiled Balaam's market, to have
offered a reasonable or even an unreasonable price for Pedro, and
taken possession of the horse himself. But this might not be. In
bets, in card games, in all horse transactions and other matters
of similar business, a man must take care of himself, and wiser
onlookers must suppress their wisdom and hold their peace.
That evening Shorty again had a cigar. He had parted with Pedro
for forty dollars, a striped Mexican blanket, and a pair of
spurs. Undressing over in the bunk house, he said to the
Virginian, "I'll sure buy Pedro back off him just as soon as ever
I rustle some cash." The Virginian grunted. He was thinking he
should have to travel hard to get the horses to the Judge by the
30th; and below that thought lay his aching disappointment and
his longing for Bear Creek.
In the early dawn Shorty sat up among his blankets on the floor
of the bunk house and saw the various sleepers coiled or sprawled
in their beds; their breathing had not yet grown restless at the
nearing of day. He stepped to the door carefully, and saw the
crowding blackbirds begin their walk and chatter in the mud of
the littered and trodden corrals. From beyond among the cotton
woods, came continually the smooth unemphatic sound of the doves
answering each other invisibly; and against the empty ridge of
the river-bluff lay the moon, no longer shining, for there was
established a new light through the sky. Pedro stood in the
pasture close to the bars. The cowboy slowly closed the door
behind him, and sitting down on the step, drew his money out and
idly handled it, taking no comfort just then from its possession.
Then he put it back, and after dragging on his boots, crossed to
the pasture, and held a last talk with his pony, brushing the
cakes of mud from his hide where he had rolled, and passing a
lingering hand over his mane. As the sounds of the morning came
increasingly from tree and plain, Shorty glanced back to see that
no one was yet out of the cabin, and then put his arms round the
horse's neck, laying his head against him. For a moment the
cowboy's insignificant face was exalted by the emotion he would
never have let others see. He hugged tight this animal, who was
dearer to his heart than anybody in the world.
"Good-by, Pedro," he said--"good-by." Pedro looked for bread.
"No," said his master, sorrowfully, "not any more. Yu' know well
I'd give it yu' if I had it. You and me didn't figure on this,
did we, Pedro? Good-by!"
He hugged his pony again, and got as far as the bars of the
pasture, but returned once more. "Good-by, my little horse, my
dear horse, my little, little Pedro," he said, as his tears wet
the pony's neck. Then he wiped them with his hand, and got
himself back to the bunk house. After breakfast he and his
belongings departed to Drybone, and Pedro from his field calmly
watched this departure; for horses must recognize even less than
men the black corners that their destinies turn. The pony stopped
feeding to look at the mail-wagon pass by; but the master sitting
in the wagon forebore to turn his head.
XXVI. BALAAM AND PEDRO
Resigned to wait for the Judge's horses, Balaam went into his
office this dry, bright morning and read nine accumulated
newspapers; for he was behindhand. Then he rode out on the
ditches, and met his man returning with the troublesome animals
at last. He hastened home and sent for the Virginian. He had made
"See here," he said; "those horses are coming. What trail would
you take over to the Judge's?"
"Shortest trail's right through the Bow Laig Mountains," said the
foreman, in his gentle voice.
"Guess you're right. It's dinner-time. We'll start right
afterward. We'll make Little Muddy Crossing by sundown, and Sunk
Creek to-morrow, and the next day'll see us through. Can a wagon
get through Sunk Creek Canyon?"
The Virginian smiled. "I reckon it can't, seh, and stay
resembling a wagon."
Balaam told them to saddle Pedro and one packhorse, and drive the
bunch of horses into a corral, roping the Judge's two, who proved
extremely wild. He had decided to take this journey himself on
remembering certain politics soon to be rife in Cheyenne. For
Judge Henry was indeed a greater man than Balaam. This personally
conducted return of the horses would temper its tardiness, and,
moreover, the sight of some New York visitors would be a good
thing after seven months of no warmer touch with that metropolis
than the Sunday HERALD, always eight days old when it reached the
Butte Creek Ranch.
They forded Butte Creek, and, crossing the well-travelled trail
which follows down to Drybone, turned their faces toward the
uninhabited country that began immediately, as the ocean begins
off a sandy shore. And as a single mast on which no sail is
shining stands at the horizon and seems to add a loneliness to
the surrounding sea, so the long gray line of fence, almost a
mile away, that ended Balaam's land on this side the creek,
stretched along the waste ground and added desolation to the
plain. No solitary watercourse with margin of cottonwoods or
willow thickets flowed here to stripe the dingy, yellow world
with interrupting green, nor were cattle to be seen dotting the
distance, nor moving objects at all, nor any bird in the
soundless air. The last gate was shut by the Virginian, who
looked back at the pleasant trees of the ranch, and then followed
on in single file across the alkali of No Man's Land.
No cloud was in the sky. The desert's grim noon shone sombrely on
flat and hill. The sagebrush was dull like zinc. Thick heat rose
near at hand from the caked alkali, and pale heat shrouded the
There were five horses. Balaam led on Pedro, his squat figure
stiff in the saddle, but solid as a rock, and tilted a little
forward, as his habit was. One of the Judge's horses came next, a
sorrel, dragging back continually on the rope by which he was
led. After him ambled Balaam's wise pack-animal, carrying the
light burden of two days' food and lodging. She was an old mare
who could still go when she chose, but had been schooled by the
years, and kept the trail, giving no trouble to the Virginian who
came behind her. He also sat solid as a rock, yet subtly bending
to the struggles of the wild horse he led, as a steel spring
bends and balances and resumes its poise.
Thus they made but slow time, and when they topped the last dull
rise of ground and looked down on the long slant of ragged, caked
earth to the crossing of Little Muddy, with its single tree and
few mean bushes, the final distance where eyesight ends had
deepened to violet from the thin, steady blue they had stared at
for so many hours, and all heat was gone from the universal
dryness. The horses drank a long time from the sluggish yellow
water, and its alkaline taste and warmth were equally welcome to
the men. They built a little fire, and when supper was ended,
smoked but a short while and in silence, before they got in the
blankets that were spread in a smooth place beside the water.
They had picketed the two horses of the Judge in the best grass
they could find, letting the rest go free to find pasture where
they could. When the first light came, the Virginian attended to
breakfast, while Balaam rode away on the sorrel to bring in the
loose horses. They had gone far out of sight, and when he
returned with them, after some two hours, he was on Pedro. Pedro
was soaking with sweat, and red froth creamed from his mouth. The
Virginian saw the horses must have been hard to drive in,
especially after Balaam brought them the wild sorrel as a leader.
"If you'd kep' ridin' him, 'stead of changin' off on your hawss,
they'd have behaved quieter," said the foreman.
"That's good seasonable advice," said Balaam, sarcastically. "I
could have told you that now."
"I could have told you when you started," said the Virginian,
heating the coffee for Balaam.
Balaam was eloquent on the outrageous conduct of the horses. He
had come up with them evidently striking back for Butte Creek,
with the old mare in the lead.
"But I soon showed her the road she was to go," he said, as he
drove them now to the water.
The Virginian noticed the slight limp of the mare, and how her
pastern was cut as if with a stone or the sharp heel of a boot.
"I guess she'll not be in a hurry to travel except when she's
wanted to," continued Balaam. He sat down, and sullenly poured
himself some coffee. "We'll be in luck if we make any Sunk Creek
He went on with his breakfast, thinking aloud for the benefit of
his companion, who made no comments, preferring silence to the
discomfort of talking with a man whose vindictive humor was so
thoroughly uppermost. He did not even listen very attentively,
but continued his preparations for departure, washing the dishes,
rolling the blankets, and moving about in his usual way of easy
and visible good nature.
"Six o'clock, already," said Balaam, saddling the horses. "And
we'll not get started for ten minutes more." Then he came to
Pedro. "So you haven't quit fooling yet, haven't you?" he
exclaimed, for the pony shrank as he lifted the bridle. "Take
that for your sore mouth!" and he rammed the bit in, at which
Pedro flung back and reared.
"Well, I never saw Pedro act that way yet," said the Virginian.
"Ah, rubbish!" said Balaam. "They're all the same. Not a bastard
one but's laying for his chance to do for you. Some'll buck you
off, and some'll roll with you, and some'll fight you with their
fore feet. They may play good for a year, but the Western pony's
man's enemy, and when he judges he's got his chance, he's going
to do his best. And if you come out alive it won't be his fault."
Balaam paused for a while, packing. "You've got to keep them
afraid of you," he said next; "that's what you've got to do if
you don't want trouble. That Pedro horse there has been fed,
hand-fed, and fooled with like a damn pet, and what's that policy
done? Why, he goes ugly when he thinks it's time, and decides
he'll not drive any horses into camp this morning. He knows
"Mr. Balaam," said the Virginian, "I'll buy that hawss off yu'
Balaam shook his head. "You'll not do that right now or any other
time," said he. "I happen to want him."
The Virginian could do no more. He had heard cow-punchers say to
refractory ponies, "You keep still, or I'll Balaam you!" and he
now understood the aptness of the expression.
Meanwhile Balaam began to lead Pedro to the creek for a last
drink before starting across the torrid drought. The horse held
back on the rein a little, and Balaam turned and cut the whip
across his forehead. A delay of forcing and backing followed,
while the Virginian, already in the saddle, waited. The minutes
passed, and no immediate prospect, apparently, of getting nearer
"He ain' goin' to follow you while you're beatin' his haid," the
Southerner at length remarked.
"Do you think you can teach me anything about horses?" retorted
"Well, it don't look like I could," said the Virginian, lazily.
"Then don't try it, so long as it's not your horse, my friend."
Again the Southerner levelled his eye on Balaam. "All right," he
said, in the same gentle voice. "And don't you call me your
friend. You've made that mistake twiced."
The road was shadeless, as it had been from the start, and they
could not travel fast. During the first few hours all coolness
was driven out of the glassy morning, and another day of
illimitable sun invested the world with its blaze. The pale Bow
Leg Range was coming nearer, but its hard hot slants and rifts
suggested no sort of freshness, and even the pines that spread
for wide miles along near the summit counted for nothing in the
distance and the glare, but seemed mere patches of dull dry
discoloration. No talk was exchanged between the two travellers,
for the cow-puncher had nothing to say and Balaam was sulky, so
they moved along in silent endurance of each other's company and
the tedium of the journey.
But the slow succession of rise and fall in the plain changed and
shortened. The earth's surface became lumpy, rising into mounds
and knotted systems of steep small hills cut apart by staring
gashes of sand, where water poured in the spring from the melting
snow. After a time they ascended through the foot-hills till the
plain below was for a while concealed, but came again into view
in its entirety, distant and a thing of the past, while some
magpies sailed down to meet them from the new country they were
entering. They passed up through a small transparent forest of
dead trees standing stark and white, and a little higher came on
a line of narrow moisture that crossed the way and formed a stale
pool among some willow thickets. They turned aside to water their
horses, and found near the pool a circular spot of ashes and some
poles lying, and beside these a cage-like edifice of willow wands
built in the ground.
"Indian camp," observed the Virginian.
There were the tracks of five or six horses on the farther side
of the pool, and they did not come into the trail, but led off
among the rocks on some system of their own.
"They're about a week old," said Balaam. "It's part of that
outfit that's been hunting."
"They've gone on to visit their friends," added the cow-puncher.
"Yes, on the Southern Reservation. How far do you call Sunk Creek
"Well," said the Virginian, calculating, "it's mighty nigh fo'ty
miles from Muddy Crossin', an' I reckon we've come eighteen."
"Just about. It's noon." Balaam snapped his watch shut. "We'll
rest here till 12:30."
When it was time to go, the Virginian looked musingly at the
mountains. "We'll need to travel right smart to get through the
canyon to-night," he said.
"Tell you what," said Balaam; "we'll rope the Judge's horses
together and drive 'em in front of us. That'll make speed."
"Mightn't they get away on us?" objected the Virginian. "They're
"They can't get away from me, I guess," said Balaam, and the
arrangement was adopted. "We're the first this season over this
piece of the trail," he observed presently.
His companion had noticed the ground already, and assented. There
were no tracks anywhere to be seen over which winter had not come
and gone since they had been made. Presently the trail wound into
a sultry gulch that hemmed in the heat and seemed to draw down
the sun's rays more vertically. The sorrel horse chose this place
to make a try for liberty. He suddenly whirled from the trail,
dragging with him his less inventive fellow. Leaving the
Virginian with the old mare, Balaam headed them off, for Pedro
was quick, and they came jumping down the bank together, but
swiftly crossed up on the other side, getting much higher before
they could be reached. It was no place for this sort of game, as
the sides of the ravine were ploughed with steep channels, broken
with jutting knobs of rock, and impeded by short twisted pines
that swung out from their roots horizontally over the pitch of
the hill. The Virginian helped, but used his horse with more
judgment, keeping as much on the level as possible, and
endeavoring to anticipate the next turn of the runaways before
they made it, while Balaam attempted to follow them close,
wheeling short when they doubled, heavily beating up the face of
the slope, veering again to come down to the point he had left,
and whenever he felt Pedro begin to flag, driving his spurs into
the horse and forcing him to keep up the pace. He had set out to
overtake and capture on the side of the mountain these two
animals who had been running wild for many weeks, and now carried
no weight but themselves, and the futility of such work could not
penetrate his obstinate and rising temper. He had made up his
mind not to give in. The Virginian soon decided to move slowly
along for the present, preventing the wild horses from passing
down the gulch again, but otherwise saving his own animal from
useless fatigue. He saw that Pedro was reeking wet, with mouth
open, and constantly stumbling, though he galloped on. The
cow-puncher kept the group in sight, driving the packhorse in
front of him, and watching the tactics of the sorrel, who had now
undoubtedly become the leader of the expedition, and was at the
top of the gulch, in vain trying to find an outlet through its
rocky rim to the levels above. He soon judged this to be no
thoroughfare, and changing his plan, trotted down to the bottom
and up the other side, gaining more and more; for in this new
descent Pedro had fallen twice. Then the sorrel showed the
cleverness of a genuinely vicious horse. The Virginian saw him
stop and fall to kicking his companion with all the energy that a
short rope would permit. The rope slipped, and both,
unencumbered, reached the top and disappeared. Leaving the
packhorse for Balaam, the Virginian started after them and came
into a high tableland, beyond which the mountains began in
earnest. The runaways were moving across toward these at an easy
rate. He followed for a moment, then looking back, and seeing no
sign of Balaam, waited, for the horses were sure not to go fast
when they reached good pasture or water.
He got out of the saddle and sat on the ground, watching, till
the mare came up slowly into sight, and Balaam behind her. When
they were near, Balaam dismounted and struck Pedro fearfully,
until the stick broke, and he raised the splintered half to
Seeing the pony's condition, the Virginian spoke, and said, "I'd
let that hawss alone."
Balaam turned to him, but wholly possessed by passion did not
seem to hear, and the Southerner noticed how white and like that
of a maniac his face was. The stick slid to the ground.
"He played he was tired," said Balaam, looking at the Virginian
with glazed eyes. The violence of his rage affected him
physically, like some stroke of illness. "He played out on me on
purpose." The man's voice was dry and light. "He's perfectly
fresh now," he continued, and turned again to the coughing,
swaying horse, whose eyes were closed. Not having the stick, he
seized the animal's unresisting head and shook it. The Virginian
watched him a moment, and rose to stop such a spectacle. Then, as
if conscious he was doing no real hurt, Balaam ceased, and
turning again in slow fashion looked across the level, where the
runaways were still visible.
"I'll have to take your horse," he said, "mine's played out on
"You ain' goin' to touch my hawss."
Again the words seemed not entirely to reach Balaam's
understanding, so dulled by rage were his senses. He made no
answer, but mounted Pedro; and the failing pony walked
mechanically forward, while the Virginian, puzzled, stood looking
after him. Balaam seemed without purpose of going anywhere, and
stopped in a moment. Suddenly he was at work at something. This
sight was odd and new to look at. For a few seconds it had no
meaning to the Virginian as he watched. Then his mind grasped the
horror, too late. Even with his cry of execration and the tiger
spring that he gave to stop Balaam, the monstrosity was wrought.
Pedro sank motionless, his head rolling flat on the earth. Balaam
was jammed beneath him. The man had struggled to his feet before
the Virginian reached the spot, and the horse then lifted his
head and turned it piteously round.
Then vengeance like a blast struck Balaam. The Virginian hurled
him to the ground, lifted and hurled him again, lifted him and
beat his face and struck his jaw. The man's strong ox-like
fighting availed nothing. He fended his eyes as best he could
against these sledge-hammer blows of justice. He felt blindly for
his pistol. That arm was caught and wrenched backward, and
crushed and doubled. He seemed to hear his own bones, and set up
a hideous screaming of hate and pain. Then the pistol at last
came out, and together with the hand that grasped it was
instantly stamped into the dust. Once again the creature was
lifted and slung so that he lay across Pedro's saddle a blurred,
dingy, wet pulp.
Vengeance had come and gone. The man and the horse were
motionless. Around them, silence seemed to gather like a witness.
"If you are dead," said the Virginian, "I am glad of it." He
stood looking down at Balaam and Pedro, prone in the middle of
the open tableland. Then he saw Balaam looking at him. It was the
quiet stare of sight without thought or feeling, the mere visual
sense alone, almost frightful in its separation from any self.
But as he watched those eyes, the self came back into them. "I
have not killed you," said the Virginian. "Well, I ain't goin' to
do any more to yu'--if that's a satisfaction to know."
Then he began to attend to Balaam with impersonal skill, like
some one hired for the purpose. "He ain't hurt bad," he asserted
aloud, as if the man were some nameless patient; and then to
Balaam he remarked, "I reckon it might have put a less tough man
than you out of business for quite a while. I'm goin' to get some
water now." When he returned with the water, Balsam was sitting
up, looking about him. He had not yet spoken, nor did he now
speak. The sunlight flashed on the six-shooter where it lay, and
the Virginian secured it. "She ain't so pretty as she was," he
remarked, as he examined the weapon. "But she'll go right handy
Strength was in a measure returning to Pedro. He was a young
horse, and the exhaustion neither of anguish nor of over-riding
was enough to affect him long or seriously. He got himself on his
feet and walked waveringly over to the old mare, and stood by her
for comfort. The cow-puncher came up to him, and Pedro, after
starting back slightly, seemed to comprehend that he was in
friendly hands. It was plain that he would soon be able to travel
slowly if no weight was on him, and that he would be a very good
horse again. Whether they abandoned the runaways or not, there
was no staying here for night to overtake them without food or
water. The day was still high, and what its next few hours had in
store the Virginian could not say, and he left them to take care
of themselves, determining meanwhile that he would take command
of the minutes and maintain the position he had assumed both as
to Balaam and Pedro. He took Pedro's saddle off, threw the mare's
pack to the ground, put Balaam's saddle on her, and on that
stowed or tied her original pack, which he could do, since it was
so light. Then he went to Balaam, who was sitting up.
"I reckon you can travel," said the Virginian. "And your hawss
can. If you're comin' with me, you'll ride your mare. I'm goin'
to trail them hawsses. If you're not comin' with me, your hawss
comes with me, and you'll take fifty dollars for him."
Balaam was indifferent to this good bargain. He did not look at
the other or speak, but rose and searched about him on the
ground. The Virginian was also indifferent as to whether Balaam
chose to answer or not. Seeing Balaam searching the ground, he
finished what he had to say.
"I have your six-shooter, and you'll have it when I'm ready for
you to. Now, I'm goin'," he concluded.
Balaam's intellect was clear enough now, and he saw that though
the rest of this journey would be nearly intolerable, it must go
on. He looked at the impassive cow-puncher getting ready to go
and tying a rope on Pedro's neck to lead him, then he looked at
the mountains where the runaways had vanished, and it did not
seem credible to him that he had come into such straits. He was
helped stiffly on the mare, and the three horses in single file
took up their journey once more, and came slowly among the
mountains The perpetual desert was ended, and they crossed a
small brook, where they missed the trail. The Virginian
dismounted to find where the horses had turned off, and
discovered that they had gone straight up the ridge by the
"There's been a man camped in hyeh inside a month," he said,
kicking up a rag of red flannel. "White man and two hawsses. Ours
have went up his old tracks."
It was not easy for Balaam to speak yet, and he kept his silence.
But he remembered that Shorty had spoken of a trapper who had
started for Sunk Creek.
For three hours they followed the runaways' course over softer
ground, and steadily ascending, passed one or two springs, at
length, where the mud was not yet settled in the hoof-prints.
Then they came through a corner of pine forest and down a sudden
bank among quaking-asps to a green park. Here the runaways beside
a stream were grazing at ease, but saw them coming, and started
on again, following down the stream. For the present all to be
done was to keep them in sight. This creek received tributaries
and widened, making a valley for itself. Above the bottom, lining
the first terrace of the ridge, began the pines, and stretched
back, unbroken over intervening summit and basin, to cease at
last where the higher peaks presided.
"This hyeh's the middle fork of Sunk Creek," said the Virginian.
"We'll get on to our right road again where they join."
Soon a game trail marked itself along the stream. If this would
only continue, the runaways would be nearly sure to follow it
down into the canyon. Then there would be no way for them but to
go on and come out into their own country, where they would make
for the Judge's ranch of their own accord. The great point was to
reach the canyon before dark. They passed into permanent shadow;
for though the other side of the creek shone in full day, the sun
had departed behind the ridges immediately above them. Coolness
filled the air, and the silence, which in this deep valley of
invading shadow seemed too silent, was relieved by the birds. Not
birds of song, but a freakish band of gray talkative observers,
who came calling and croaking along through the pines, and
inspected the cavalcade, keeping it company for a while, and then
flying up into the woods again. The travellers came round a
corner on a little spread of marsh, and from somewhere in the
middle of it rose a buzzard and sailed on its black pinions into
the air above them, wheeling and wheeling, but did not grow
distant. As it swept over the trail, something fell from its
claw, a rag of red flannel; and each man in turn looked at it as
his horse went by.
"I wonder if there's plenty elk and deer hyeh?" said the
"I guess there is," Balaam replied, speaking at last. The
travellers had become strangely reconciled.
"There's game 'most all over these mountains," the Virginian
continued; "country not been settled long enough to scare them
out." So they fell into casual conversation, and for the first
time were glad of each other's company.
The sound of a new bird came from the pines above--the hoot of an
owl--and was answered from some other part of the wood. This they
did not particularly notice at first, but soon they heard the
same note, unexpectedly distant, like an echo. The game trail,
now quite a defined path beside the river, showed no sign of
changing its course or fading out into blank ground, as these
uncertain guides do so often. It led consistently in the desired
direction, and the two men were relieved to see it continue. Not
only were the runaways easier to keep track of, but better speed
was made along this valley. The pervading imminence of night more
and more dispelled the lingering afternoon, though there was yet
no twilight in the open, and the high peaks opposite shone yellow
in the invisible sun. But now the owls hooted again. Their music
had something in it that caused both the Virginian and Balaam to
look up at the pines and wish that this valley would end. Perhaps
it was early for night-birds to begin; or perhaps it was that the
sound never seemed to fall behind, but moved abreast of them
among the trees above, as they rode on without pause down below;
some influence made the faces of the travellers grave. The spell
of evil which the sight of the wheeling buzzard had begun,
deepened as evening grew, while ever and again along the creek
the singular call and answer of the owls wandered among the
darkness of the trees not far away.
The sun was gone from the peaks when at length the other side of
the stream opened into a long wide meadow. The trail they
followed, after crossing a flat willow thicket by the water, ran
into dense pines, that here for the first time reached all the
way down to the water's edge. The two men came out of the
willows, and saw ahead the capricious runaways leave the bottom
and go up the hill and enter the wood.
"We must hinder that," said the Virginian; and he dropped Pedro's
rope. "There's your sixshooter. You keep the trail, and camp down
there"--he pointed to where the trees came to the water--"till I
head them hawsses off. I may not get back right away." He
galloped up the open hill and went into the pine, choosing a
place above where the vagrants had disappeared.
Balaam dismounted, and picking up his six-shooter, took the rope
off Pedro's neck and drove him slowly down toward where the wood
began. Its interior was already dim, and Balaam saw that here
must be their stopping-place to-night, since there was no telling
how wide this pine strip might extend along the trail before they
could come out of it and reach another suitable camping-ground.
Pedro had recovered his strength, and he now showed signs of
restlessness. He shied where there was not even a stone in the
trail, and finally turned sharply round. Balaam expected he was
going to rush back on the way they had come; but the horse stood
still, breathing excitedly. He was urged forward again, though he
turned more than once. But when they were a few paces from the
wood, and Balaam had got off preparatory to camping, the horse
snorted and dashed into the water, and stood still there. The
astonished Balaam followed to turn him; but Pedro seemed to lose
control of himself, and plunged to the middle of the river, and
was evidently intending to cross. Fearing that he would escape to
the opposite meadow and add to their difficulties, Balaam, with
the idea of turning him round, drew his six-shooter and fired in
front of the horse, divining, even as the flash cut the dusk, the
secret of all this--the Indians; but too late. His bruised hand
had stiffened, marring his aim, and he saw Pedro fall over in the
water then rise and struggle up the bank on the farther shore,
where he now hurried also, to find that he had broken the pony's
He needed no interpreter for the voices of the seeming owls that
had haunted the latter hour of their journey, and he knew that
his beast's keener instinct had perceived the destruction that
lurked in the interior of the wood. The history of the trapper
whose horse had returned without him might have been--might still
be--his own; and he thought of the rag that had fallen from the
buzzard's talons when he had been disturbed at his meal in the
marsh. "Peaceable" Indians were still in these mountains, and
some few of them had for the past hour been skirting his journey
unseen, and now waited for him in the wood which they expected
him to enter. They had been too wary to use their rifles or show
themselves, lest these travellers should be only part of a larger
company following, who would hear the noise of a shot, and catch
them in the act of murder. So, safe under the cover of the pines,
they had planned to sling their silent noose, and drag the white
man from his horse as he passed through the trees.
Balaam looked over the river at the ominous wood, and then he
looked at Pedro, the horse that he had first maimed and now
ruined, to whom he probably owed his life. He was lying on the
ground, quietly looking over the green meadow, where dusk was
gathering. Perhaps he was not suffering from his wound yet, as he
rested on the ground; and into his animal intelligence there
probably came no knowledge of this final stroke of his fate. At
any rate, no sound of pain came from Pedro, whose friendly and
gentle face remained turned toward the meadow. Once more Balaam
fired his pistol, and this time the aim was true, and the horse
rolled over, with a ball through his brain. It was the best
reward that remained for him.
Then Balaam rejoined the old mare, and turned from the middle
fork of Sunk Creek. He dashed across the wide field, and went
over a ridge, and found his way along in the night till he came
to the old trail--the road which they would never have left but
for him and his obstinacy. He unsaddled the weary mare by Sunk
Creek, where the canyon begins, letting her drag a rope and find
pasture and water, while he, lighting no fire to betray him,
crouched close under a tree till the light came. He thought of
the Virginian in the wood. But what could either have done for
the other had he stayed to look for him among the pines? If the
cow-puncher came back to the corner, he would follow Balaam's
tracks or not. They would meet, at any rate, where the creeks
But they did not meet. And then to Balaam the prospect of going
onward to the Sunk Creek Ranch became more than he could bear. To
come without the horses, to meet Judge Henry, to meet the guests
of the Judge's, looking as he did now after his punishment by the
Virginian, to give the news about the Judge's favorite man--no,
how could he tell such a story as this? Balaam went no farther