Part 6 out of 8
than a certain cabin, where he slept, and wrote a letter to the
Judge. This the owner of the cabin delivered. And so, having
spread news which would at once cause a search for the Virginian,
and having constructed such sentences to the Judge as would most
smoothly explain how, being overtaken by illness, he had not
wished to be a burden at Sunk Creek, Balaam turned homeward by
himself. By the time he was once more at Butte Creek, his general
appearance was a thing less to be noticed. And there was Shorty,
One way and another, the lost dog had been able to gather some
ready money. He was cheerful because of this momentary purseful
"And so I come back, yu' see," he said. "For I figured on getting
Pedro back as soon as I could when I sold him to yu'."
"You're behind the times, Shorty," said Balaam.
Shorty looked blank. "You've sure not sold Pedro?" he exclaimed.
"Them Indians," said Balaam, "got after me on the Bow Leg trail.
Got after me and that Virginia man. But they didn't get me."
Balaam wagged his bullet head to imply that this escape was due
to his own superior intelligence. The Virginian had been stupid,
and so the Indians had got him. "And they shot your horse,"
Balaam finished. "Stop and get some dinner with the boys."
Having eaten, Shorty rode away in mournful spirits. For he had
made so sure of once more riding and talking with Pedro, his
friend whom he had taught to shake hands.
XXVII. GRANDMOTHER STARK
Except for its chair and bed, the cabin was stripped almost bare.
Amid its emptiness of dismantled shelves and walls and floor,
only the tiny ancestress still hung in her place, last token of
the home that had been. This miniature, tacked against the
despoiled boards, and its descendant, the angry girl with her
hand on an open box-lid, made a sort of couple in the loneliness:
she on the wall sweet and serene, she by the box sweet and
stormy. The picture was her final treasure waiting to be packed
for the journey. In whatever room she had called her own since
childhood, there it had also lived and looked at her, not quite
familiar, not quite smiling, but in its prim colonial hues
delicate as some pressed flower. Its pale oval, of color blue and
rose and flaxen, in a battered, pretty gold frame, unconquerably
pervaded any surroundings with a something like last year's
lavender. Till yesterday a Crow Indian war-bonnet had hung next
it, a sumptuous cascade of feathers; on the other side a bow with
arrows had dangled; opposite had been the skin of a silver fox;
over the door had spread the antlers of a black-tail deer; a
bearskin stretched beneath it. Thus had the whole cosey log cabin
been upholstered, lavish with trophies of the frontier; and yet
it was in front of the miniature that the visitors used to stop.
Shining quietly now in the cabin's blackness this summer day, the
heirloom was presiding until the end. And as Molly Wood's eyes
fell upon her ancestress of Bennington, 1777, there flashed a
spark of steel in them, alone here in the room that she was
leaving forever. She was not going to teach school any more on
Bear Creek, Wyoming; she was going home to Bennington, Vermont.
When time came for school to open again, there should be a new
This was the momentous result of that visit which the Virginian
had paid her. He had told her that he was coming for his hour
soon. From that hour she had decided to escape. She was running
away from her own heart. She did not dare to trust herself face
to face again with her potent, indomitable lover. She longed for
him, and therefore she would never see him again. No great-aunt
at Dunbarton, or anybody else that knew her and her family,
should ever say that she had married below her station, had been
an unworthy Stark! Accordingly, she had written to the Virginian,
bidding him good-by, and wishing him everything in the world. As
she happened to be aware that she was taking everything in the
world away from him, this letter was not the most easy of letters
to write. But she had made the language very kind. Yes; it was a
thoroughly kind communication. And all because of that momentary
visit, when he had brought back to her two novels, EMMA and PRIDE
"How do you like them?" she had then inquired; and he had smiled
slowly at her. "You haven't read them!" she exclaimed.
"Are you going to tell me there has been no time?"
Then Molly had scolded her cow-puncher, and to this he had
listened with pleasure undisguised, as indeed he listened to
every word that she said.
"Why, it has come too late," he had told her when the scolding
was over. "If I was one of your little scholars hyeh in Bear
Creek schoolhouse, yu' could learn me to like such frillery I
reckon. But I'm a mighty ignorant, growed-up man."
"So much the worse for you!" said Molly.
"No. I am pretty glad I am a man. Else I could not have learned
the thing you have taught me."
But she shut her lips and looked away. On the desk was a letter
written from Vermont. "If you don't tell me at once when you
decide," had said the arch writer, "never hope to speak to me
again. Mary Wood, seriously, I am suspicious. Why do you never
mention him nowadays? How exciting to have you bring a live
cow-boy to Bennington! We should all come to dinner. Though of
course I understand now that many of them have excellent manners.
But would he wear his pistol at table?" So the letter ran on. It
recounted the latest home gossip and jokes. In answering it Molly
Wood had taken no notice of its childish tone here and there.
"Hyeh's some of them cactus blossoms yu' wanted," said the
Virginian. His voice recalled the girl with almost a start. "I've
brought a good hawss I've gentled for yu', and Taylor'll keep him
till I need him."
"Thank you so much! but I wish--"
"I reckon yu' can't stop me lendin' Taylor a hawss. And you
cert'nly'll get sick schoolteachin' if yu' don't keep outdoors
some. Goodby--till that next time."
"Yes; there's always a next time," she answered, as lightly as
"There always will be. Don't yu' know that?"
She did not reply.
"I have discouraged spells," he pursued, "but I down them. For
I've told yu' you were going to love me. You are goin' to learn
back the thing you have taught me. I'm not askin' anything now;
I don't want you to speak a word to me. But I'm never goin' to
quit till 'next time' is no more, and it's 'all the time' for you
With that he had ridden away, not even touching her hand. Long
after he had gone she was still In her chair, her eyes lingering
upon his flowers, those yellow cups of the prickly pear. At
length she had risen impatiently, caught up the flowers, gone
with them to the open window,-and then, after all, set them with
pains in water.
But to-day Bear Creek was over. She was going home now. By the
week's end she would be started. By the time the mail brought him
her good-by letter she would be gone. She had acted.
To Bear Creek, the neighborly, the friendly, the not
comprehending, this move had come unlooked for, and had brought
regret. Only one hard word had been spoken to Molly, and that by
her next-door neighbor and kindest friend. In Mrs. Taylor's house
the girl had daily come and gone as a daughter, and that lady
reached the subject thus:- "When I took Taylor," said she,
sitting by as Robert Browning and Jane Austen were going into
their box, "I married for love."
"Do you wish it had been money?" said Molly, stooping to her
"You know both of us better than that, child."
"I know I've seen people at home who couldn't possibly have had
any other reason. They seemed satisfied, too."
"Maybe the poor ignorant things were!"
"And so I have never been sure how I might choose."
"Yes, you are sure, deary. Don't you think I know you? And when
it comes over Taylor once in a while, and he tells me I'm the
best thing in his life, and I tell him he ain't merely the best
thing but the only thing in mine,--him and the children,--why, we
just agree we'd do it all over the same way if we had the
Molly continued to be industrious.
"And that's why," said Mrs. Taylor, "I want every girl that's
anything to me to know her luck when it comes. For I was that
near telling Taylor I wouldn't!"
"If ever my luck comes," said Molly, with her back to her friend,
"I shall say 'I will' at once."
"Then you'll say it at Bennington next week."
Molly wheeled round.
"Why, you surely will. Do you expect he's going to stay here, and
you in Bennington?" And the campaigner sat back in her chair.
"He? Goodness! Who is he?"
"Child, child, you're talking cross to-day because you're at outs
with yourself. You've been at outs ever since you took this idea
of leaving the school and us and everything this needless way.
You have not treated him right. And why, I can't make out to save
me. What have you found out all of a sudden? If he was not good
enough for you, I--But, oh, it's a prime one you're losing,
Molly. When a man like that stays faithful to a girl 'spite all
the chances he gets, her luck is come."
"Oh, my luck! People have different notions of luck."
"He has been very kind."
"Kind!" And now without further simmering, Mrs. Taylor's wrath
boiled up and poured copiously over Molly Wood. "Kind! There's a
word you shouldn't use, my dear. No doubt you can spell it. But
more than its spelling I guess you don't know. The children can
learn what it means from some of the rest of us folks that don't
spell so correct, maybe."
"Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Taylor--"
"I can't wait, deary. Since the roughness looks bigger to you
than the diamond, you had better go back to Vermont. I expect
you'll find better grammar there, deary."
The good dame stalked out, and across to her own cabin, and left
the angry girl among her boxes. It was in vain she fell to work
upon them. Presently something had to be done over again, and
when it was the box held several chattels less than before the
readjustment. She played a sort of desperate dominos to fit these
objects in the space, but here were a paper-weight, a portfolio,
with two wretched volumes that no chink would harbor; and letting
them fall all at once, she straightened herself, still stormy
with revolt, eyes and cheeks still hot from the sting of
long-parried truth. There, on her wall still, was the miniature,
the little silent ancestress; and upon this face the girl's
glance rested. It was as if she appealed to Grandmother Stark for
support and comfort across the hundred years which lay between
them. So the flaxen girl on the wall and she among the boxes
stood a moment face to face in seeming communion, and then the
descendant turned again to her work. But after a desultory touch
here and there she drew a long breath and walked to the open
door. What use was in finishing to-day, when she had nearly a
week? This first spurt of toil had swept the cabin bare of all
indwelling charm, and its look was chill. Across the lane his
horse, the one he had "gentled" for her, was grazing idly. She
walked there and caught him, and led him to her gate. Mrs. Taylor
saw her go in, and soon come out in riding-dress; and she watched
the girl throw the saddle on with quick ease--the ease he had
taught her. Mrs. Taylor also saw the sharp cut she gave the
horse, and laughed grimly to herself in her window as horse and
rider galloped into the beautiful sunny loneliness.
To the punished animal this switching was new! and at its third
repetition he turned his head in surprise, but was no more heeded
than were the bluffs and flowers where he was taking his own
undirected choice of way. He carried her over ground she knew by
heart--Corncliff Mesa, Crowheart Butte, Westfall's Crossing,
Upper Canyon; open land and woodland, pines and sage-brush, all
silent and grave and lustrous in the sunshine. Once and again a
ranchman greeted her, and wondered if she had forgotten who he
was; once she passed some cow-punchers with a small herd of
steers, and they stared after her too. Bear Creek narrowed, its
mountain-sides drew near, its little falls began to rush white in
midday shadow, and the horse suddenly pricked his ears. Unguided,
he was taking this advantage to go home. Though he had made but
little way--a mere beginning yet--on this trail over to Sunk
Creek, here was already a Sunk Creek friend whinnying good day to
him, so he whinnied back and quickened his pace, and Molly
started to life. What was Monte doing here? She saw the black
horse she knew also, saddled, with reins dragging on the trail as
the rider had dropped them to dismount. A cold spring bubbled out
beyond the next rock, and she knew her lover's horse was waiting
for him while he drank. She pulled at the reins, but loosed them,
for to turn and escape now was ridiculous; and riding boldly
round the rock, she came upon him by the spring. One of his arms
hung up to its elbow in the pool, the other was crooked beside
his head, but the face was sunk downward against the shelving
rock, so that she saw only his black, tangled hair. As her horse
snorted and tossed his head she looked swiftly at Monte, as if to
question him. Seeing now the sweat matted on his coat, and noting
the white rim of his eye, she sprang and ran to the motionless
figure. A patch of blood at his shoulder behind stained the soft
flannel shirt, spreading down beneath his belt, and the man's
whole strong body lay slack and pitifully helpless.
She touched the hand beside his head, but it seemed neither warm
nor cold to her; she felt for the pulse, as nearly as she could
remember the doctors did, but could not tell whether she imagined
or not that it was still; twice with painful care her fingers
sought and waited for the beat, and her face seemed like one of
listening. She leaned down and lifted his other arm and hand from
the water, and as their ice-coldness reached her senses, clearly
she saw the patch near the shoulder she had moved grow wet with
new blood, and at that sight she grasped at the stones upon which
she herself now sank. She held tight by two rocks, sitting
straight beside him, staring, and murmuring aloud, "I must not
faint; I will not faint;" and the standing horses looked at her,
pricking their ears.
In this cup-like spread of the ravine the sun shone warmly down,
the tall red cliff was warm, the pines were a warm film and
filter of green; outside the shade across Bear Creek rose the
steep, soft, open yellow hill, warm and high to the blue, and
Bear Creek tumbled upon its sunsparkling stones. The two horses
on the margin trail still looked at the spring and trees, where
sat the neat flaxen girl so rigid by the slack prone body in its
flannel shirt and leathern chaps. Suddenly her face livened. "But
the blood ran!" she exclaimed, as if to the horses, her
companions in this. She moved to him, and put her hand in through
his shirt against his heart.
Next moment she had sprung up and was at his saddle, searching,
then swiftly went on to her own and got her small flask and was
back beside him. Here was the cold water he had sought, and she
put it against his forehead and drenched the wounded shoulder
with it. Three times she tried to move him, so he might lie more
easy, but his dead weight was too much, and desisting, she sat
close and raised his head to let it rest against her. Thus she
saw the blood that was running from in front of the shoulder
also; but she said no more about fainting. She tore strips from
her dress and soaked them, keeping them cold and wet upon both
openings of his wound, and she drew her pocket-knife out and cut
his shirt away from the place. As she continually rinsed and
cleaned it, she watched his eyelashes, long and soft and thick,
but they did not stir. Again she tried the flask, but failed from
being still too gentle, and her searching eyes fell upon ashes
near the pool. Still undispersed by the weather lay the small
charred ends of a fire he and she had made once here together, to
boil coffee and fry trout. She built another fire now, and when
the flames were going well, filled her flask-cup from the spring
and set it to heat. Meanwhile, she returned to nurse his head and
wound. Her cold water had stopped the bleeding. Then she poured
her brandy in the steaming cup, and, made rough by her desperate
helplessness, forced some between his lips and teeth.
Instantly, almost, she felt the tremble of life creeping back,
and as his deep eyes opened upon her she sat still and mute. But
the gaze seemed luminous with an unnoting calm, and she wondered
if perhaps he could not recognize her; she watched this internal
clearness of his vision, scarcely daring to breathe, until
presently he began to speak, with the same profound and clear
impersonality sounding in his slowly uttered words.
"I thought they had found me. I expected they were going to kill
me." He stopped, and she gave him more of the hot drink, which he
took, still lying and looking at her as if the present did not
reach his senses. "I knew hands were touching me. I reckon I was
not dead. I knew about them soon as they began, only I could not
interfere." He waited again. "It is mighty strange where I have
been. No. Mighty natural." Then he went back into his revery, and
lay with his eyes still full open upon her where she sat
She began to feel a greater awe in this living presence than when
it had been his body with an ice-cold hand; and she quietly spoke
his name, venturing scarcely more than a whisper.
At this, some nearer thing wakened in his look. "But it was you
all along," he resumed. "It is you now. You must not stay--"
Weakness overcame him, and his eyes closed. She sat ministering
to him, and when he roused again, he began anxiously at once:
"You must not stay. They would get you, too."
She glanced at him with a sort of fierceness, then reached for
his pistol, in which was nothing but blackened empty cartridges.
She threw these out and drew six from his belt, loaded the
weapon, and snapped shut its hinge.
"Please take it," he said, more anxious and more himself. "I
ain't worth tryin' to keep. Look at me!"
"Are you giving up?" she inquired, trying to put scorn in her
tone. Then she seated herself.
"Where is the sense in both of us--"
"You had better save your strength," she interrupted.
He tried to sit up.
"Lie down!" she ordered.
He sank obediently, and began to smile.
When she saw that, she smiled too, and unexpectedly took his
hand. "Listen, friend," said she. "Nobody shall get you, and
nobody shall get me. Now take some more brandy."
"It must be noon," said the cow-puncher, when she had drawn her
hand away from him. "I remember it was dark when--when--when I
can remember. I reckon they were scared to follow me in so close
to settlers. Else they would have been here."
"You must rest," she observed.
She broke the soft ends of some evergreen, and putting them
beneath his head, went to the horses, loosened the cinches, took
off the bridles, led them to drink, and picketed them to feed.
Further still, to leave nothing undone which she could herself
manage, she took the horses' saddles off to refold the blankets
when the time should come, and meanwhile brought them for him.
But he put them away from him. He was sitting up against a rock,
stronger evidently, and asking for cold water. His head was
fire-hot, and the paleness beneath his swarthy skin had changed
to a deepening flush.
"Only five miles!" she said to him, bathing his head.
"Yes. I must hold it steady," he answered, waving his hand at the
She told him to try and keep it steady until they got home.
"Yes," he repeated. "Only five miles. But it's fightin' to turn
around." Half aware that he was becoming light-headed, he looked
from the rock to her and from her to the rock with dilating eyes.
"We can hold it together," she said. "You must get on your
horse." She took his handkerchief from round his neck, knotting
it with her own, and to make more bandage she ran to the roll of
clothes behind his saddle and tore in halves a clean shirt. A
handkerchief fell from it, which she seized also, and opening,
saw her own initials by the hem. Then she remembered: she saw
again their first meeting, the swollen river, the overset stage,
the unknown horseman who carried her to the bank on his saddle
and went away unthanked--her whole first adventure on that first
day of her coming to this new country--and now she knew how her
long-forgotten handkerchief had gone that day. She refolded it
gently and put it back in his bundle, for there was enough
bandage without it. She said not a word to him, and he placed a
wrong meaning upon the look which she gave him as she returned to
bind his shoulder.
"It don't hurt so much," he assured her (though extreme pain was
clearing his head for the moment, and he had been able to hold
the cliff from turning). "Yu' must not squander your pity."
"Do not squander your strength," said she.
"Oh, I could put up a pretty good fight now!" But he tottered in
showing her how strong he was, and she told him that, after all,
he was a child still.
"Yes," he slowly said, looking after her as she went to bring his
horse, "the same child that wanted to touch the moon, I guess."
And during the slow climb down into the saddle from a rock to
which she helped him he said, "You have got to be the man all
through this mess."
She saw his teeth clinched and his drooping muscles compelled by
will; and as he rode and she walked to lend him support, leading
her horse by a backward-stretched left hand, she counted off the
distance to him continually--the increasing gain, the lessening
road, the landmarks nearing and dropping behind; here was the
tree with the wasp-nest gone; now the burned cabin was passed;
now the cottonwoods at the ford were in sight. He was silent, and
held to the saddlehorn, leaning more and more against his two
hands clasped over it; and just after they had made the crossing
he fell, without a sound slipping to the grass, and his descent
broken by her. But it started the blood a little, and she dared
not leave him to seek help. She gave him the last of the flask
and all the water he craved.
Revived, he managed to smile. "Yu' see, I ain't worth keeping."
"It's only a mile," said she. So she found a log, a fallen trunk,
and he crawled to that, and from there crawled to his saddle, and
she marched on with him, talking, bidding him note the steps
accomplished. For the next half-mile they went thus, the silent
man clinched on the horse, and by his side the girl walking and
cheering him forward, when suddenly he began to speak:- "I will
say good-by to you now, ma'am."
She did not understand, at first, the significance of this.
"He is getting away," pursued the Virginian. "I must ask you to
excuse me, ma'am."
It was a long while since her lord had addressed her as "ma'am."
As she looked at him in growing apprehension, he turned Monte and
would have ridden away, but she caught the bridle.
"You must take me home," said she, with ready inspiration. "I am
afraid of the Indians."
"Why, you--why, they've all gone. There he goes. Ma'am--that
"No," said she, holding firmly his rein and quickening her step.
"A gentleman does not invite a lady to go out riding and leave
His eyes lost their purpose. "I'll cert'nly take you home. That
sorrel has gone in there by the wallow, and Judge Henry will
understand." With his eyes watching imaginary objects, he rode
and rambled and it was now the girl who was silent, except to
keep his mind from its half-fixed idea of the sorrel. As he grew
more fluent she hastened still more, listening to head off that
notion of return, skilfully inventing questions to engage him, so
that when she brought him to her gate she held him in a manner
subjected, answering faithfully the shrewd unrealities which she
devised, whatever makeshifts she could summon to her mind; and
next she had got him inside her dwelling and set him down docile,
but now completely wandering; and then--no help was at hand, even
here. She had made sure of aid from next door, and there she
hastened, to find the Taylor's cabin locked and silent; and this
meant that parents and children were gone to drive; nor might she
be luckier at her next nearest neighbors', should she travel the
intervening mile to fetch them. With a mind jostled once more
into uncertainty, she returned to her room, and saw a change in
him already. Illness had stridden upon him; his face was not as
she had left it, and the whole body, the splendid supple
horseman, showed sickness in every line and limb, its spurs and
pistol and bold leather chaps a mockery of trappings. She looked
at him, and decision came back to her, clear and steady. She
supported him over to her bed and laid him on it. His head sank
flat, and his loose, nerveless arms stayed as she left them. Then
among her packing-boxes and beneath the little miniature, blue
and flaxen and gold upon its lonely wall, she undressed him. He
was cold, and she covered him to the face, and arranged the
pillow, and got from its box her scarlet and black Navajo blanket
and spread it over him. There was no more that she could do, and
she sat down by him to wait. Among the many and many things that
came into her mind was a word he said to her lightly a long while
ago. "Cow-punchers do not live long enough to get old," he had
told her. And now she looked at the head upon the pillow, grave
and strong, but still the head of splendid, unworn youth.
At the distant jingle of the wagon in the lane she was out, and
had met her returning neighbors midway. They heard her with
amazement, and came in haste to the bedside; then Taylor departed
to spread news of the Indians and bring the doctor, twenty-five
miles away. The two women friends stood alone again, as they had
stood in the morning when anger had been between them.
"Kiss me, deary," said Mrs. Taylor. "Now I will look after
him--and you'll need some looking after yourself."
But on returning from her cabin with what store she possessed of
lint and stimulants, she encountered a rebel, independent as
ever. Molly would hear no talk about saving her strength, would
not be in any room but this one until the doctor should arrive;
then perhaps it would be time to think about resting. So together
the dame and the girl rinsed the man's wound and wrapped him in
clean things, and did all the little that they knew--which was,
in truth, the very thing needed. Then they sat watching him toss
and mutter. It was no longer upon Indians or the sorrel horse
that his talk seemed to run, or anything recent, apparently,
always excepting his work. This flowingly merged with whatever
scene he was inventing or living again, and he wandered
unendingly in that incompatible world we dream in. Through the
medley of events and names, often thickly spoken, but rising at
times to grotesque coherence, the listeners now and then could
piece out the reference from their own knowledge. "Monte," for
example, continually addressed, and Molly heard her own name, but
invariably as "Miss Wood"; nothing less respectful came out, and
frequently he answered some one as "ma'am." At these fragments of
revelation Mrs. Taylor abstained from speech, but eyed Molly Wood
with caustic reproach. As the night wore on, short lulls of
silence intervened, and the watchers were deceived into hope that
the fever was abating. And when the Virginian sat quietly up in
bed, essayed to move his bandage, and looked steadily at Mrs.
Taylor, she rose quickly and went to him with a question as to
how he was doing.
"Rise on your laigs, you polecat," said he, "and tell them you're
The good dame gasped, then bade him lie down, and he obeyed her
with that strange double understanding of the delirious; for even
while submitting, he muttered "liar," "polecat," and then
At that name light flashed on Mrs. Taylor, and she turned to
Molly; and there was the girl struggling with a fit of mirth at
his speech; but the laughter was fast becoming a painful seizure.
Mrs. Taylor walked Molly up and down, speaking mmediately to
arrest her attention.
"You might as well know it," she said. "He would blame me for
speaking of it, but where's the harm all this while after? And
you would never hear it from his mouth. Molly, child, they say
Trampas would kill him if he dared, and that's on account of
"I never saw Trampas," said Molly, fixing her eyes upon the
"No, deary. But before a lot of men--Taylor has told me about
it--Trampas spoke disrespectfully of you, and before them all he
made Trampas say he was a liar. That is what he did when you were
almost a stranger among us, and he had not started seeing so much
of you. I expect Trampas is the only enemy he ever had in this
country. But he would never let you know about that."
"No," whispered Molly; "I did not know."
"Steve!" the sick man now cried out, in poignant appeal. "Steve!"
To the women it was a name unknown,--unknown as was also this
deep inward tide of feeling which he could no longer conceal,
being himself no longer. "No, Steve," he said next, and muttering
followed. "It ain't so!" he shouted; and then cunningly in a
lowered voice, "Steve, I have lied for you."
In time Mrs. Taylor spoke some advice.
"You had better go to bed, child. You look about ready for the
"Then I will wait for him," said Molly.
So the two nurses continued to sit until darkness at the windows
weakened into gray, and the lamp was no more needed. Their
patient was rambling again. Yet, into whatever scenes he went,
there in some guise did the throb of his pain evidently follow
him, and he lay hitching his great shoulder as if to rid it of
the cumbrance. They waited for the doctor, not daring much more
than to turn pillows and give what other ease they could; and
then, instead of the doctor, came a messenger, about noon, to say
he was gone on a visit some thirty miles beyond, where Taylor had
followed to bring him here as soon as might be. At this Molly
consented to rest and to watch, turn about; and once she was over
in her friend's house lying down, they tried to keep her there.
But the revolutionist could not be put down, and when, as a last
pretext, Mrs. Taylor urged the proprieties and conventions, the
pale girl from Vermont laughed sweetly n her face and returned to
sit by the sick man. With the approach of the second night his
fever seemed to rise and master him more completely than they had
yet seen it, and presently it so raged that the women called in
stronger arms to hold him down. There were times when he broke
out in the language of the round-up, and Mrs. Taylor renewed her
protests. "Why," said Molly "don't you suppose I knew they could
swear?" So the dame, in deepening astonishment and affection,
gave up these shifts at decorum. Nor did the delirium run into
the intimate, coarse matters that she dreaded. The cow-puncher
had lived like his kind, but his natural daily thoughts were
clean, and came from the untamed but unstained mind of a man. And
toward morning, as Mrs. Taylor sat taking her turn, suddenly he
asked had he been sick long, and looked at her with a quieted
eye. The wandering seemed to drop from him at a stroke, leaving
him altogether himself. He lay very feeble, and inquired once or
twice of his state and how he came here; nor was anything left in
his memory of even coming to the spring where he had been found.
When the doctor arrived, he pronounced that it would be long--or
very short. He praised their clean water treatment; the wound was
fortunately well up on the shoulder, and gave so far no bad
signs; there were not any bad signs; and the blood and strength
of the patient had been as few men's were; each hour was now an
hour nearer certainty, and meanwhile--meanwhile the doctor would
remain as long as he could. He had many inquiries to satisfy.
Dusty fellows would ride up, listen to him, and reply, as they
rode away, "Don't yu' let him die, Doc." And Judge Henry sent
over from Sunk Creek to answer for any attendance or medicine
that might help his foreman. The country was moved with concern
and interest; and in Molly's ears its words of good feeling
seemed to unite and sum up a burden, "Don't yu' let him die,
Doc." The Indians who had done this were now in military custody.
They had come unpermitted from a southern reservation, hunting,
next thieving, and as the slumbering spirit roused in one or two
of the young and ambitious, they had ventured this in the secret
mountains, and perhaps had killed a trapper found there. Editors
immediately reared a tall war out of it; but from five Indians in
a guard-house waiting punishment not even an editor can supply
spar for more than two editions, and if the recent alarm was
still a matter of talk anywhere, it was not here in the sick-room.
Whichever way the case should turn, it was through Molly alone
(the doctor told her) that the wounded man had got this
chance--this good chance, he related.
And he told her she had not done a woman's part, but a man's
part, and now had no more to do; no more till the patient got
well, and could thank her in his own way, said the doctor,
smiling, and supposing things that were not so--misled perhaps by
"I'm afraid I'll be gone by the time he is well," said Molly,
coldly; and the discreet physician said ah, and that she would
find Bennington quite a change from Bear Creek.
But Mrs. Taylor spoke otherwise, and at that the girl said: "I
shall stay as long as I am needed. I will nurse him. I want to
nurse him. I will do everything for him that I can!" she
exclaimed, with force.
"And that won't be anything, deary," said Mrs. Taylor, harshly.
"A year of nursing don't equal a day of sweetheart."
The girl took a walk,--she was of no more service in the room at
present,--but she turned without going far, and Mrs. Taylor spied
her come to lean over the pasture fence and watch the two
horses--that one the Virginian had "gentled" for her, and his own
Monte. During this suspense came a new call for the doctor,
neighbors profiting by his visit to Bear Creek; and in his going
away to them, even under promise of quick return, Mrs. Taylor
suspected a favorable sign. He kept his word as punctually as had
been possible, arriving after some six hours with a confident
face, and spending now upon the patient a care not needed, save
to reassure the bystanders. He spoke his opinion that all was
even better than he could have hoped it would be, so soon. Here
was now the beginning of the fifth day; the wound's look was
wholesome, no further delirium had come, and the fever had abated
a degree while he was absent. He believed the serious danger-line
lay behind, and (short of the unforeseen) the man's deep
untainted strength would reassert its control. He had much blood
to make, and must be cared for during weeks--three, four,
five--there was no saying how long yet. These next few days it
must be utter quiet for him; he must not talk nor hear anything
likely to disturb him; and then the time for cheerfulness and
gradual company would come--sooner than later, the doctor hoped.
So he departed, and sent next day some bottles, with further
cautions regarding the wound and dirt, and to say he should be
calling the day after to-morrow.
Upon that occasion he found two patients. Molly Wood lay in bed
at Mrs. Taylor's, filled with apology and indignation. With
little to do, and deprived of the strong stimulant of anxiety and
action, her strength had quite suddenly left her, so that she had
spoken only in a sort of whisper. But upon waking from a long
sleep, after Mrs. Taylor had taken her firmly, almost severely,
in hand, her natural voice had returned, and now the chief
treatment the doctor gave her was a sort of scolding, which it
pleased Mrs. Taylor to hear. The doctor even dropped a phrase
concerning the arrogance of strong nerves in slender bodies, and
of undertaking several people's work when several people were at
hand to do it for themselves, and this pleased Mrs. Taylor
remarkably. As for the wounded man, he was behaving himself
properly. Perhaps in another week he could be moved to a more
cheerful room. Just now, with cleanliness and pure air, any barn
"We are real lucky to have such a sensible doctor in the
country," Mrs. Taylor observed, after the physician had gone.
"No doubt," said Molly. "He said my room was a barn."
"That's what you've made it, deary. But sick men don't notice
Nevertheless, one may believe, without going widely astray, that
illness, so far from veiling, more often quickens the
perceptions--at any rate those of the naturally keen. On a later
day--and the interval was brief--while Molly was on her second
drive to take the air with Mrs. Taylor, that lady informed her
that the sick man had noticed. "And I could not tell him things
liable to disturb him," said she, "and so I--well, I expect I
just didn't exactly tell him the facts. I said yes, you were
packing up for a little visit to your folks. They had not seen
you for quite a while, I said. And he looked at those boxes kind
of silent like."
"There's no need to move him," said Molly. '"It is simpler to
move them--the boxes. I could take out some of my things, you
know, just while he has to be kept there. I mean--you see, if the
doctor says the room should be cheerful--"
"I will ask the doctor next time," said Molly. "if he believes I
am--competent to spread a rug upon a floor." Molly's references
to the doctor were usually acid these days. And this he totally
failed to observe, telling her when he came, why, to be sure! the
very thing! And if she could play cards or read aloud, or afford
any other light distractions, provided they did not lead the
patient to talk and tire himself, that she would be most useful.
Accordingly she took over the cribbage board, and came with
unexpected hesitation face to face again with the swarthy man she
had saved and tended. He was not so swarthy now, but neat, with
chin clean, and hair and mustache trimmed and smooth, and he sat
propped among pillows watching for her.
"You are better," she said, speaking first, and with uncertain
"Yes. They have given me awdehs not to talk," said the
"Oh, yes. Please do not talk--not to-day."
"No. Only this"--he looked at her, and saw her seem to
shrink--"thank you for what you have done," he said simply.
She took tenderly the hand he stretched to her; and upon these
terms they set to work at cribbage. She won, and won again, and
the third time laid down her cards and reproached him with
playing in order to lose.
"No," he said, and his eye wandered to the boxes. "But my
thoughts get away from me. I'll be strong enough to hold them on
the cyards next time, I reckon."
Many tones in his voice she had heard, but never the tone of
sadness until to-day.
Then they played a little more, and she put away the board for
this first time.
"You are going now?" he asked.
"When I have made this room look a little less forlorn. They
haven't wanted to meddle with my things, I suppose." And Molly
stooped once again among the chattels destined for Vermont. Out
they came; again the bearskin was spread on the floor, various
possessions and ornaments went back into their ancient niches,
the shelves grew comfortable with books, and, last, some flowers
were stood on the table.
"More like old times," said the Virginian, but sadly.
"It's too bad," said Molly, "you had to be brought into such a
"And your folks waiting for you," said he.
"Oh, I'll pay my visit later," said Molly, putting the rug a
"May I ask one thing?" pleaded the Virginian, and at the
gentleness of his voice her face grew rosy, and she fixed her
eyes on him with a sort of dread.
"Anything that I can answer," said she.
"Oh, yes. Did I tell yu' to quit me, and did yu' load up my gun
and stay? Was that a real business? I have been mixed up in my
"That was real," said Molly. "What else was there to do?"
"Just nothing--for such as you!" he exclaimed. "My haid has been
mighty crazy; and that little grandmother of yours yondeh,
she--but I can't just quite catch a-hold of these things"--he
passed a hand over his forehead--"so many--or else one right
along--well, it's all foolishness!" he concluded, with something
almost savage in his tone. And after she had gone from the cabin
he lay very still, looking at the miniature on the wall.
He was in another sort of mood the next time, cribbage not
interesting him in the least. "Your folks will be wondering about
you," said he.
"I don't think they will mind which month I go to them," said
Molly. "Especially when they know the reason."
"Don't let me keep you, ma'am," said he. Molly stared at him; but
he pursued, with the same edge lurking in his slow words: "Though
I'll never forget. How could I forget any of all you have
done--and been? If there had been none of this, why, I had enough
to remember! But please don't stay, ma'am. We'll say I had a
claim when yu' found me pretty well dead, but I'm gettin' well,
yu' see--right smart, too!"
"I can't understand, indeed I can't," said Molly, "why you're
He seemed to have certain moods when he would address her as
"ma'am," and this she did not like, but could not prevent.
"Oh, a sick man is funny. And yu' know I'm grateful to you."
"Please say no more about that, or I shall go this afternoon. I
don't want to go. I am not ready. I think I had better read
"Why, yes. That's cert'nly a good notion. Why, this is the best
show you'll ever get to give me education. Won't yu' please try
that EMMA book now, ma'am? Listening to you will be different."
This was said with softness and humility.
Uncertain--as his gravity often left her--precisely what he meant
by what he said, Molly proceeded with EMMA, slackly at first, but
soon with the enthusiasm that Miss Austen invariably gave her.
She held the volume and read away at it, commenting briefly, and
then, finishing a chapter of the sprightly classic, found her
pupil slumbering peacefully. There was no uncertainty about that.
"You couldn't be doing a healthier thing for him, deary," said
Mrs. Taylor. "If it gets to make him wakeful, try something
harder." This was the lady's scarcely sympathetic view.
But it turned out to be not obscurity in which Miss Austen
When Molly next appeared at the Virginian's threshold, he said
plaintively, "I reckon I am a dunce." And he sued for pardon.
"When I waked up," he said, "I was ashamed of myself for a plumb
half-hour." Nor could she doubt this day that he meant what he
said. His mood was again serene and gentle, and without referring
to his singular words that had distressed her, he made her feel
his contrition, even in his silence.
"I am right glad you have come," he said. And as he saw her going
to the bookshelf, he continued, with diffidence: "As regyards
that EMMA book, yu' see--yu' see, the doin's and sayin's of folks
like them are above me. But I think" (he spoke most diffidently),
"if yu' could read me something that was ABOUT something, I--I'd
be liable to keep awake." And he smiled with a certain shyness.
"Something ABOUT something?" queried Molly, at a loss.
"Why, yes. Shakespeare. HENRY THE FOURTH. The British king is
fighting, and there is his son the prince. He cert'nly must have
been a jim-dandy boy if that is all true. Only he would go around
town with a mighty triflin' gang. They sported and they held up
citizens. And his father hated his travelling with trash like
them. It was right natural--the boy and the old man! But the boy
showed himself a man too. He killed a big fighter on the other
side who was another jim-dandy--and he was sorry for having it to
do." The Virginian warmed to his recital. "I understand most all
of that. There was a fat man kept everybody laughing. He was
awful natural too; except yu' don't commonly meet 'em so fat. But
the prince--that play is bed-rock, ma'am! Have you got something
"Yes, I think so," she replied. "I believe I see what you would
She took her Browning, her idol, her imagined affinity. For the
pale decadence of New England had somewhat watered her good old
Revolutionary blood too, and she was inclined to think under
glass and to live underdone--when there were no Indians to shoot!
She would have joyed to venture "Paracelsus" on him, and some
lengthy rhymed discourses; and she fondly turned leaves and
leaves of her pet doggerel analytics. "Pippa Passes" and others
she had to skip, from discreet motives--pages which he would have
doubtless stayed awake at; but she chose a poem at length. This
was better than Emma, he pronounced. And short. The horse was a
good horse. He thought a man whose horse must not play out on him
would watch the ground he was galloping over for holes, and not
be likely to see what color the rims of his animal's eye-sockets
were. You could not see them if you sat as you ought to for such
a hard ride. Of the next piece that she read him he thought still
better. "And it is short," said he. "But the last part drops."
Molly instantly exacted particulars.
"The soldier should not have told the general he was killed,"
stated the cow-puncher.
"What should he have told him, I'd like to know?" said Molly.
"Why, just nothing. If the soldier could ride out of the battle
all shot up, and tell his general about their takin' the
town--that was being gritty, yu' see. But that truck at the
finish--will yu' please say it again?"
So Molly read:--
"'You're wounded! 'Nay,' the soldier's pride
Touched to the quick, he said,
'I'm killed, sire!' And, his chief beside,
Smiling the boy fell dead."
"'Nay, I'm killed, sire,'" drawled the Virginian, amiably; for
(symptom of convalescence) his freakish irony was revived in him.
"Now a man who was man enough to act like he did, yu' see, would
fall dead without mentioning it."
None of Molly's sweet girl friends had ever thus challenged Mr.
Browning. They had been wont to cluster over him with a joyous
awe that deepened proportionally with their misunderstanding.
Molly paused to consider this novelty of view about the soldier.
"He was a Frenchman, you know," she said, under inspiration.
"A Frenchman," murmured the grave cowpuncher. "I never knowed a
Frenchman, but I reckon they might perform that class of
"But why was it foolish?" she cried.
"His soldier's pride--don't you see?"
Molly now burst into a luxury of discussion. She leaned toward
her cow-puncher with bright eyes searching his; with elbow on
knee and hand propping chin, her lap became a slant, and from it
Browning the poet slid and toppled, and lay unrescued. For the
slow cow-puncher unfolded his notions of masculine courage and
modesty (though he did not deal in such high-sounding names), and
Molly forgot everything to listen to him, as he forgot himself
and his inveterate shyness and grew talkative to her. "I would
never have supposed that!" she would exclaim as she heard him;
or, presently again, "I never had such an idea!" And her mind
opened with delight to these new things which came from the man's
mind so simple and direct. To Browning they did come back, but
the Virginian, though interested, conceived a dislike for him.
"He is a smarty," said he, once or twice.
"Now here is something," said Molly. "I have never known what to
"Oh, Heavens!" murmured the sick man, smiling. "Is it short?"
"Very short. Now please attend." And she read him twelve lines
about a lover who rowed to a beach in the dusk, crossed a field,
tapped at a pane, and was admitted.
"That is the best yet," said the Virginian. "There's only one
thing yu' can think about that."
"But wait," said the girl, swiftly. "Here is how they parted:--
"Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim--
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me."
"That is very, very true," murmured the Virginian, dropping his
eyes from the girl's intent ones.
"Had they quarrelled?" she inquired.
"I reckon he loved her very much."
"Then you're sure they hadn't quarrelled?"
"Dead sure, ma'am. He would come back afteh he had played some
more of the game."
"Life, ma'am. Whatever he was a-doin' in the world of men. That's
a bed-rock piece, ma'am!"
"Well, I don't see why you think it's so much better than some of
"I could sca'cely explain," answered the man. "But that writer
does know something."
"I am glad they hadn't quarrelled," said Molly, thoughtfully. And
she began to like having her opinions refuted.
His bandages, becoming a little irksome, had to be shifted, and
this turned their discourse from literature to Wyoming; and Molly
inquired, had he ever been shot before? Only once, he told her.
"I have been lucky in having few fusses," said he. "I hate them.
If a man has to be killed--"
"You never--" broke in Molly. She had started back a little.
"Well," she added hastily, "don't tell me if--"
"I shouldn't wonder if I got one of those Indians," he said
quietly. "But I wasn't waitin' to see! But I came mighty near
doing for a white man that day. He had been hurtin' a hawss."
"Hurting?" said Molly.
"Injurin.' I will not tell yu' about that. It would hurt yu' to
hear such things. But hawsses--don't they depend on us? Ain't
they somethin' like children? I did not lay up the man very bad.
He was able to travel 'most right away. Why, you'd have wanted to
kill him yourself!"
So the Virginian talked, nor knew what he was doing to the girl.
Nor was she aware of what she was receiving from him as he
unwittingly spoke himself out to her in these Browning meetings
they had each day. But Mrs. Taylor grew pleased. The kindly dame
would sometimes cross the road to see if she were needed, and
steal away again after a peep at the window. There, inside, among
the restored home treasures, sat the two: the rosy alert girl,
sweet as she talked or read to him; and he, the grave, half-weak
giant among his wraps, watching her.
Of her delayed home visit he never again spoke, either to her or
to Mrs. Taylor; and Molly veered aside from any trend of talk she
foresaw was leading toward that subject. But in those hours when
no visitors came, and he was by himself in the quiet, he would
lie often sombrely contemplating the girl's room, her little
dainty knickknacks, her home photographs, all the delicate
manifestations of what she came from and what she was. Strength
was flowing back into him each day, and Judge Henry's latest
messenger had brought him clothes and mail from Sunk Creek and
many inquiries of kindness, and returned taking the news of the
cow-puncher's improvement, and how soon he would be permitted the
fresh air. Hence Molly found him waiting in a flannel shirt of
highly becoming shade, and with a silk handkerchief knotted round
his throat; and he told her it was good to feel respectable
She had come to read to him for the allotted time; and she threw
around his shoulders the scarlet and black Navajo blanket,
striped with its splendid zigzags of barbarity. Thus he half sat,
half leaned, languid but at ease. In his lap lay one of the
letters brought over by the messenger: and though she was midway
in a book that engaged his full attention--DAVID COPPERFELD--his
silence and absent look this morning stopped her, and she accused
him of not attending.
"No," he admitted; "I am thinking of something else."
She looked at him with that apprehension which he knew.
"It had to come," said he. "And to-day I see my thoughts
straighter than I've been up to managing since--since my haid got
clear. And now I must say these thoughts--if I can, if I can!" He
stopped. His eyes were intent upon her; one hand was gripping the
arm of his chair.
"You promised--" trembled Molly.
"I promised you should love me," he sternly interrupted.
"Promised that to myself. I have broken that word."
She shut DAVID COPPERHEAD mechanically, and grew white.
"Your letter has come to me hyeh," he continued, gentle again.
"My--" She had forgotten it.
"The letter you wrote to tell me good-by. You wrote it a little
while ago--not a month yet, but it's away and away long gone for
"I have never let you know--" began Molly.
"The doctor," he interrupted once more, but very gently now, "he
gave awdehs I must be kept quiet. I reckon yu' thought tellin' me
"Forgive me!" cried the girl. "Indeed I ought to have told you
sooner! Indeed I had no excuse!"
"Why, should yu' tell me if yu' preferred not? You had written.
And you speak" (he lifted the letter) "of never being able to
repay kindness; but you have turned the tables. I can never repay
you by anything! by anything! So I had figured I would just jog
back to Sunk Creek and let you get away, if you did not want to
say that kind of good-by. For I saw the boxes. Mrs. Taylor is too
nice a woman to know the trick of lyin', and she could not
deceive me. I have knowed yu' were going away for good ever since
I saw those boxes. But now hyeh comes your letter, and it seems
no way but I must speak. I have thought a deal, lyin' in this
room. And--to-day--I can say what I have thought. I could not
make you happy." He stopped, but she did not answer. His voice
had grown softer than whispering, but yet was not a whisper. From
its quiet syllables she turned away, blinded with sudden tears.
"Once, I thought love must surely be enough," he continued. "And
I thought if I could make you love me, you could learn me to be
less--less-more your kind. And I think I could give you a pretty
good sort of love. But that don't help the little mean pesky
things of day by day that make roughness or smoothness for folks
tied together so awful close. Mrs. Taylor hyeh--she don't know
anything better than Taylor does. She don't want anything he
can't give her. Her friends will do for him and his for her. And
when I dreamed of you in my home--" he closed his eyes and drew a
long breath. At last he looked at her again. "This is no country
for a lady. Will yu' forget and forgive the bothering I have
"Oh!" cried Molly. "Oh!" And she put her hands to her eyes. She
had risen and stood with her face covered.
"I surely had to tell you this all out, didn't I?" said the
cow-puncher, faintly, in his chair.
"Oh!" said Molly again.
"I have put it clear how it is," he pursued. "I ought to have
seen from the start I was not the sort to keep you happy."
"But," said Molly--"but I--you ought--please try to keep me
happy!" And sinking by his chair, she hid her face on his knees.
Speechless, he bent down and folded her round, putting his hands
on the hair that had been always his delight. Presently he
whispered:- "You have beat me; how can I fight this?"
She answered nothing. The Navajo's scarlet and black folds fell
over both. Not with words, not even with meeting eyes, did the
two plight their troth in this first new hour. So they remained
long, the fair head nesting in the great arms, and the black head
laid against it, while over the silent room presided the little
Grandmother Stark in her frame, rosy, blue, and flaxen, not quite
familiar, not quite smiling.
XXVIII. NO DREAM TO WAKE FROM
For a long while after she had left him, he lay still, stretched
in his chair. His eyes were fixed steadily upon the open window
and the sunshine outside. There he watched the movement of the
leaves upon the green cottonwoods. What had she said to him when
she went? She had said, "Now I know how unhappy I have been."
These sweet words he repeated to himself over and over, fearing
in some way that he might lose them. They almost slipped from him
at times; but with a jump of his mind he caught them again and
held them,--and then- "I'm not all strong yet," he murmured. "I
must have been very sick." And, weak from his bullet wound and
fever, he closed his eyes without knowing it. There were the
cottonwoods again, waving, waving; and he felt the cool, pleasant
air from the window. He saw the light draught stir the ashes in
the great stone fireplace. "I have been asleep," he said. "But
she was cert'nly here herself. Oh, yes. Surely. She always has to
go away every day because the doctor says--why, she was readin'!"
he broke off, aloud. "DAVID COPPERFIELD." There it was on the
floor. "Aha! nailed you anyway!" he said. "But how scared I am of
myself!--You're a fool. Of course it's so. No fever business
could make yu' feel like this."
His eye dwelt awhile on the fireplace, next on the deer horns,
and next it travelled toward the shelf where her books were; but
it stopped before reaching them.
"Better say off the names before I look," said he. "I've had a
heap o' misreading visions. And--and supposin'--if this was just
my sickness fooling me some more--I'd want to die. I would die!
Now we'll see. If COPPERFIELD is on the floor" (he looked
stealthily to be sure that it was)," then she was readin' to me
when everything happened, and then there should be a hole in the
book row, top, left. Top, left," he repeated, and warily brought
his glance to the place. "Proved!" he cried. "It's all so!"
He now noticed the miniature of Grandmother Stark. "You are awful
like her," he whispered. "You're cert'nly awful like her. May I
kiss you too, ma'am?"
Then, tottering, he rose from his sick-chair. The Navajo blanket
fell from his shoulders, and gradually, experimentally, he stood
Helping himself with his hand slowly along the wall of the room,
and round to the opposite wall with many a pause, he reached the
picture, and very gently touched the forehead of the ancestral
dame with his lips. "I promise to make your little girl happy," he
He almost fell in stooping to the portrait, but caught himself
and stood carefully quiet, trembling, and speaking to himself.
"Where is your strength?" he demanded. "I reckon it is joy that
has unsteadied your laigs."
The door opened. It was she, come back with his dinner.
"My Heavens!" she said; and setting the tray down, she rushed to
him. She helped him back to his chair, and covered him again. He
had suffered no hurt, but she clung to him; and presently he
moved and let himself kiss her with fuller passion.
"I will be good," he whispered.
"You must," she said. "You looked so pale!"
"You are speakin' low like me," he answered. "But we have no
dream we can wake from."
Had she surrendered on this day to her cowpuncher, her wild man?
Was she forever wholly his? Had the Virginian's fire so melted
her heart that no rift in it remained? So she would have thought
if any thought had come to her. But in his arms to-day, thought
was lost in something more divine.
XXIX. WORD TO BENNINGTON
They kept their secret for a while, or at least they had that
special joy of believing that no one in all the world but
themselves knew this that had happened to them. But I think that
there was one person who knew how to keep a secret even better
than these two lovers. Mrs. Taylor made no remarks to any one
whatever. Nobody on Bear Creek, however, was so extraordinarily
cheerful and serene. That peculiar severity which she had
manifested in the days when Molly was packing her possessions,
had now altogether changed. In these days she was endlessly kind
and indulgent to her "deary." Although, as a housekeeper, Mrs.
Taylor believed in punctuality at meals, and visited her
offspring with discipline when they were late without good and
sufficient excuse, Molly was now exempt from the faintest hint of
"And it's not because you're not her mother," said George Taylor,
bitterly. "She used to get it, too. And we're the only ones that
get it. There she comes, just as we're about ready to quit!
Aren't you going to say NOTHING to her?"
"George," said his mother, "when you've saved a man's life it'll
be time for you to talk."
So Molly would come in to her meals with much irregularity; and
her remarks about the imperfections of her clock met with no
rejoinder. And yet one can scarcely be so severe as had been Mrs.
Taylor, and become wholly as mild as milk. There was one
recurrent event that could invariably awaken hostile symptoms in
the dame. Whenever she saw a letter arrive with the Bennington
postmark upon it, she shook her fist at that letter. "What's
family pride?" she would say to herself. "Taylor could be a Son
of the Revolution if he'd a mind to. I wonder if she has told her
And when letters directed to Bennington would go out, Mrs. Taylor
would inspect every one as if its envelope ought to grow
transparent beneath her eyes, and yield up to her its great
secret, if it had one. But in truth these letters had no great
secret to yield up, until one day--yes; one day Mrs. Taylor would
have burst, were bursting a thing that people often did. Three
letters were the cause of this emotion on Mrs. Taylor's part; one
addressed to Bennington, one to Dunbarton, and the third--here
was the great excitement--to Bennington, but not in the little
schoolmarm's delicate writing. A man's hand had traced those
plain, steady vowels and consonants.
"It's come!" exclaimed Mrs. Taylor, at this sight. "He has
written to her mother himself."
That is what the Virginian had done, and here is how it had come
The sick man's convalescence was achieved. The weeks had brought
back to him, not his whole strength yet--that could come only by
many miles of open air on the back of Monte; but he was strong
enough now to GET strength. When a patient reaches this stage, he
is out of the woods.
He had gone for a little walk with his nurse. They had taken
(under the doctor's recommendation) several such little walks,
beginning with a five-minute one, and at last to-day
accomplishing three miles.
"No, it has not been too far," said he. "I am afraid I could walk
twice as far."
"Yes. Because it means I can go to work again. This thing we have
had together is over."
For reply, she leaned against him.
"Look at you!" he said. "Only a little while ago you had to help
me stand on my laigs. And now--" For a while there was silence
between them. "I have never had a right down sickness before," he
presently went on. "Not to remember, that is. If any person had
told me I could ENJOY such a thing--" He said no more, for she
reached up, and no more speech was possible.
"How long has it been?" he next asked her.
She told him.
"Well, if it could be forever--no. Not forever with no more than
this. I reckon I'd be sick again! But if it could be forever with
just you and me, and no one else to bother with. But any longer
would not be doing right by your mother. She would have a right
to think ill of me."
"Oh!" said the girl. "Let us keep it."
"Not after I am gone. Your mother must be told."
"It seems so--can't we--oh, why need anybody know?"
"Your mother ain't 'anybody.' She is your mother. I feel mighty
responsible to her for what I have done."
"But I did it!"
"Do you think so? Your mother will not think so. I am going to
write to her to-day."
"You! Write to my mother! Oh, then everything will be so
different! They will all--" Molly stopped before the rising
visions of Bennington. Upon the fairy-tale that she had been
living with her cow-boy lover broke the voices of the world. She
could hear them from afar. She could see the eyes of Bennington
watching this man at her side. She could imagine the ears of
Bennington listening for slips in his English. There loomed upon
her the round of visits which they would have to make. The
ringing of the door-bells, the waiting in drawing-rooms for the
mistress to descend and utter her prepared congratulations, while
her secret eye devoured the Virginian's appearance, and his
manner of standing and sitting. He would be wearing gloves,
instead of fringed gauntlets of buckskin. In a smooth black coat
and waistcoat, how could they perceive the man he was? During
those short formal interviews, what would they ever find out of
the things that she knew about him? The things for which she was
proud of him? He would speak shortly and simply; they would say,
"Oh, yes!" and "How different you must find this from
Wyoming!"--and then, after the door was shut behind his departing
back they would say--He would be totally underrated, not in the
least understood. Why should he be subjected to this? He should
Now in all these half-formed, hurried, distressing thoughts which
streamed through the girl's mind, she altogether forgot one
truth. True it was that the voice of the world would speak as she
imagined. True it was that in the eyes of her family and
acquaintance this lover of her choice would be examined even more
like a SPECIMEN than are other lovers upon these occasions: and
all accepted lovers have to face this ordeal of being treated
like specimens by the other family. But dear me! most of us
manage to stand it, don't we? It isn't, perhaps, the most
delicious experience that we can recall in connection with our
engagement. But it didn't prove fatal. We got through it somehow.
We dined with Aunt Jane, and wined with Uncle Joseph, and perhaps
had two fingers given to us by old Cousin Horatio, whose enormous
fortune was of the greatest importance to everybody. And perhaps
fragments of the other family's estimate of us subsequently
reached our own ears. But if a chosen lover cannot stand being
treated as a specimen by the other family, he's a very weak
vessel, and not worth any good girl's love. That's all I can say
Now the Virginian was scarcely what even his enemy would term a
weak vessel; and Molly's jealousy of the impression which he
might make upon Bennington was vastly superfluous. She should
have known that he would indeed care to make a good impression;
but that such anxiety on his part would be wholly for her sake,
that in the eyes of her friends she might stand justified in
taking him for her wedded husband. So far as he was concerned
apart from her, Aunt Jane and Uncle Joseph might say anything
they pleased, or think anything they pleased. His character was
open for investigation. Judge Henry would vouch for him.
This is what he would have said to his sweetheart had she but
revealed to him her perturbations. But she did not reveal them;
and they were not of the order that he with his nature was likely
to divine. I do not know what good would have come from her
speaking out to him, unless that perfect understanding between
lovers which indeed is a good thing. But I do not believe that he
could have reassured her; and I am certain that she could not
have prevented his writing to her mother.
"Well, then," she sighed at last, "if you think so, I will tell
That sigh of hers, be it well understood, was not only because of
those far-off voices which the world would in consequence of her
news be lifting presently. It came also from bidding farewell to
the fairy-tale which she must leave now; that land in which she
and he had been living close together alone, unhindered,
unmindful of all things.
"Yes, you will tell her," said her lover. "And I must tell her
"Both of us?" questioned the girl.
What would he say to her mother? How would her mother like such a
letter as he would write to her? Suppose he should misspell a
word? Would not sentences from him at this time--written
sentences--be a further bar to his welcome acceptance at
"Why don't you send messages by me?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "She is not going to like it, anyway," he
answered. "I must speak to her direct. It would be like
Molly saw how true his instinct was here; and a little flame shot
upward from the glow of her love and pride in him. Oh, if they
could all only know that he was like this when you understood
him! She did not dare say out to him what her fear was about this
letter of his to her mother. She did not dare because--well,
because she lacked a little faith. That is it, I am afraid. And
for that sin she was her own punishment. For in this day, and in
many days to come, the pure joy of her love was vexed and
clouded, all through a little lack of faith; while for him,
perfect in his faith, his joy was like crystal.
"Tell me what you're going to write," she said.
He smiled at her. "No."
"Aren't you going to let me see it when it's done?"
"No." Then a freakish look came into his eyes. "I'll let yu' see
anything I write to other women." And he gave her one of his long
kisses. "Let's get through with it together," he suggested, when
they were once more in his sick-room, that room which she had
given to him. "You'll sit one side o' the table, and I'll sit the
other, and we'll go ahaid; and pretty soon it will be done."
"O dear!" she said. "Yes, I suppose that is the best way."
And so, accordingly, they took their places. The inkstand stood
between them. Beside each of them she distributed paper enough,
almost, for a presidential message. And pens and pencils were in
plenty. Was this not the headquarters of the Bear Creek
"Why, aren't you going to do it in pencil first?" she exclaimed,
looking up from her vacant sheet. His pen was moving slowly, but
"No, I don't reckon I need to," he answered, with his nose close
to the paper. "Oh, damnation, there's a blot!" He tore his
spoiled beginning in small bits, and threw them into the
fireplace. "You've got it too full," he commented; and taking the
inkstand, he tipped a little from it out of the window. She sat
lost among her false starts. Had she heard him swear, she would
not have minded. She rather liked it when he swore. He possessed
that quality in his profanity of not offending by it. It is quite
wonderful how much worse the same word will sound in one man's
lips than in another's. But she did not hear him. Her mind was
among a litter of broken sentences. Each thought which she began
ran out into the empty air, or came against some stone wall. So
there she sat, her eyes now upon that inexorable blank sheet that
lay before her, waiting, and now turned with vacant hopelessness
upon the sundry objects in the room. And while she thus sat
accomplishing nothing, opposite to her the black head bent down,
and the steady pen moved from phrase to phrase.
She became aware of his gazing at her, flushed and solemn. That
strange color of the sea-water, which she could never name, was
lustrous in his eyes. He was folding his letter.
finished?" she said.
"Yes." His voice was very quiet. "I feel like an honester man."
"Perhaps I can do something to-night at Mrs. Taylor's," she said,
looking at her paper.
On it were a few words crossed out. This was all she had to show.
At this set task in letter-writing, the cow-puncher had greatly
excelled the schoolmarm!
But that night, while he lay quite fast asleep in his bed, she
was keeping vigil in her room at Mrs. Taylor's.
Accordingly, the next day, those three letters departed for the
mail, and Mrs. Taylor consequently made her exclamation, "It's
On the day before the Virginian returned to take up his work at
Judge Henry's ranch, he and Molly announced their news. What
Molly said to Mrs. Taylor and what Mrs. Taylor said to her, is of
no interest to us, though it was of much to them.
But Mr. McLean happened to make a call quite early in the morning
to inquire for his friend's health.
"Lin," began the Virginian, "there is no harm in your knowing an
hour or so before the rest, I am--"
"Lord!" said Mr. McLean, indulgently. "Everybody has knowed that
since the day she found yu' at the spring."
"It was not so, then," said the Virginian, crossly.
"Lord! Everybody has knowed it right along."
"Hmp!" said the Virginian. "I didn't know this country was that
rank with gossips."
Mr. McLean laughed mirthfully at the lover. "Well," he said,
"Mrs. McLean will be glad. She told me to give yu' her
congratulations quite a while ago. I was to have 'em ready just
as soon as ever yu' asked for 'em yourself." Lin had been made a
happy man some twelve months previous to this. And now, by way of
an exchange of news, he added: "We're expectin' a little McLean
down on Box Elder. That's what you'll be expectin' some of these
days, I hope."
"Yes," murmured the Virginian, "I hope so too."
"And I don't guess," said Lin, "that you and I will do much
shufflin' of other folks' children any more."
Whereupon he and the Virginian shook hands silently, and
understood each other very well.
On the day that the Virginian parted with Molly, beside the
weight of farewell which lay heavy on his heart, his thoughts
were also grave with news. The cattle thieves had grown more
audacious. Horses and cattle both were being missed, and each man
began almost to doubt his neighbor.
"Steps will have to be taken soon by somebody, I reckon," said
"By you?" she asked quickly.
"Most likely I'll get mixed up with it."
"What will you have to do?"
"Can't say. I'll tell yu' when I come
So did he part from her, leaving her more kisses than words to
And what was doing at Bennington, meanwhile, and at Dunbarton?
Those three letters which by their mere outside had so moved Mrs.
Taylor, produced by their contents much painful disturbance.
It will be remembered that Molly wrote to her mother, and to her
great-aunt. That announcement to her mother was undertaken first.
Its composition occupied three hours and a half, and it filled
eleven pages, not counting a postscript upon the twelfth. The
letter to the great-aunt took only ten minutes. I cannot pretend
to explain why this one was so greatly superior to the other; but
such is the remarkable fact. Its beginning, to be sure, did give
the old lady a start; she had dismissed the cow-boy from her
"Tut, tut, tut!" she exclaimed out loud in her bedroom. "She has
thrown herself away on that fellow!"
But some sentences at the end made her pause and sit still for a
long while. The severity upon her face changed to tenderness,
gradually. "Ah, me," she sighed. "If marriage were as simple as
love!" Then she went slowly downstairs, and out into her garden,
where she walked long between the box borders. "But if she has
found a great love," said the old lady at length. And she
returned to her bedroom, and opened an old desk, and read some
There came to her the next morning a communication from
Bennington. This had been penned frantically by poor Mrs. Wood.
As soon as she had been able to gather her senses after the shock
of her daughter's eleven pages and the postscript, the mother had
poured out eight pages herself to the eldest member of the
family. There had been, indeed, much excuse for the poor lady. To
begin with, Molly had constructed her whole opening page with the
express and merciful intention of preparing her mother.
Consequently, it made no sense whatever. Its effect was the usual
effect of remarks designed to break a thing gently. It merely
made Mrs. Wood's head swim, and filled her with a sickening
dread. "Oh, mercy, Sarah," she had cried, "come here. What does
this mean?" And then, fortified by her elder daughter, she had
turned over that first page and found what it meant on the top of
the second. "A savage with knives and pistols!" she wailed.
"Well, mother, I always told you so," said her daughter Sarah.
"What is a foreman?" exclaimed the mother. "And who is Judge
"She has taken a sort of upper servant," said Sarah. "If
it is allowed to go as far as a wedding, I doubt if I can bring
myself to be present." (This threat she proceeded to make to
Molly, with results that shall be set forth in their proper
"The man appears to have written to me himself," said
"He knows no better," said Sarah.
"Bosh!" said Sarah's
husband later. "It was a very manly thing to do." Thus did
consternation rage in the house at Bennington. Molly might have
spared herself the many assurances that she gave concerning the
universal esteem in which her cow-puncher was held, and the fair
prospects which were his. So, in the first throes of her despair,
Mrs. Wood wrote those eight not maturely considered pages to the
"Tut, tut, tut!" said the great-aunt as she read them. Her face
was much more severe today. "You'd suppose," she said, "that the
girl had been kidnapped! Why, she has kept him waiting three
years!" And then she read more, but soon put the letter down with
laughter. For Mrs. Wood had repeated in writing that early
outburst of hers about a savage with knives and pistols. "Law!"
said the great-aunt. "Law, what a fool Lizzie is!"
So she sat down and wrote to Mrs. Wood a wholesome reply about
putting a little more trust in her own flesh and blood, and
reminding her among other things that General Stark had himself
been wont to carry knives and pistols owing to the necessities of
his career, but that he had occasionally taken them off, as did
probably this young man in Wyoming. "You had better send me the
letter he has written you," she concluded. "I shall know much
better what to think after I have seen that."
It is not probable that Mrs. Wood got much comfort from this
communication; and her daughter Sarah was actually enraged by it.
"She grows more perverse as she nears her dotage," said Sarah.
But the Virginian's letter was sent to Dunbarton, where the old
lady sat herself down to read it with much attention.
Here is what the Virginian had said to the unknown mother of his
MRS. JOHN STARK WOOD
Madam: If your daughter Miss Wood has ever told you about her
saving a man's life here when some Indians had shot him that is
the man who writes to you now. I don't think she can have told
you right about that affair for she is the only one in this
country who thinks it was a little thing. So I must tell you it,
the main points. Such an action would have been thought highly of
in a Western girl, but with Miss Wood's raising nobody had a
right to expect it.
"Indeed!" snorted the great-aunt. "Well, he would be right, if I
had not had a good deal more to do with her 'raising' than ever
Lizzie had." And she went on with the letter.
I was starting in to die when she found me. I did not know
anything then, and she pulled me back from where I was half in
the next world. She did not know but what Indians would get her
too but I could not make her leave me. I am a heavy man one
hundred and seventy-three stripped when in full health. She
lifted me herself from the ground me helping scarce any for there
was not much help in me that day. She washed my wound and brought
me to with her own whiskey. Before she could get me home I was
out of my head but she kept me on my horse somehow and talked
wisely to me so I minded her and did not go clean crazy till she
had got me safe to bed. The doctor says I would have died all the
same if she had not nursed me the way she did. It made me love
her more which I did not know I could. But there is no end, for
this writing it down makes me love her more as I write it.
And now Mrs. Wood I am sorry this will be bad news for you to
hear. I know you would never choose such a man as I am for her
for I have got no education and must write humble against my
birth. I wish I could make the news easier but truth is the best.
I am of old stock in Virginia. English and one Scotch Irish
grandmother my father's father brought from Kentucky. We have
always stayed at the same place farmers and hunters not bettering
our lot and very plain. We have fought when we got the chance,
under Old Hickory and in Mexico and my father and two brothers
were killed in the Valley sixty-four. Always with us one son has
been apt to run away and I was the one this time. I had too much
older brothering to suit me. But now I am doing well being in
full sight of prosperity and not too old and very strong my
health having stood the sundries it has been put through. She
shall teach school no more when she is mine. I wish I could make
this news easier for you Mrs. Wood. I do not like promises I have
heard so many. I will tell any man of your family anything he
likes to ask one, and Judge Henry would tell you about my
reputation. I have seen plenty rough things but can say I have
never killed for pleasure or profit and am not one of that kind,
always preferring peace. I have had to live in places where they
had courts and lawyers so called but an honest man was all the
law you could find in five hundred miles. I have not told her
about those things not because I am ashamed of them but there are
so many things too dark for a girl like her to hear about.
I had better tell you the way I know I love Miss Wood. I am not a
boy now, and women are no new thing to me. A man like me who has
travelled meets many of them as he goes and passes on but I
stopped when I came to Miss Wood. That is three years but I have
not gone on. What right has such as he? you will say. So did I
say it after she had saved my life. It was hard to get to that
point and keep there with her around me all day. But I said to
myself you have bothered her for three years with your love and
if you let your love bother her you don't love her like you
should and you must quit for her sake who has saved your life. I
did not know what I was going to do with my life after that but I
supposed I could go somewhere and work hard and so Mrs. Wood I
told her I would give her up. But she said no. It is going to be
hard for her to get used to a man like me-
But at this point in the Virginian's letter, the old great-aunt
could read no more. She rose, and went over to that desk where
lay those faded letters of her own. She laid her head down upon
the package, and as her tears flowed quietly upon it, "O dear,"
she whispered, "O dear! And this is what I lost!"
To her girl upon Bear Creek she wrote the next day. And this word
from Dunbarton was like balm among the harsh stings Molly was
receiving. The voices of the world reached her in gathering
numbers, and not one of them save that great-aunt's was sweet.
Her days were full of hurts; and there was no one by to kiss the
hurts away. Nor did she even hear from her lover any more now.
She only knew he had gone into lonely regions upon his errand.
That errand took him far:- Across the Basin, among the secret
places of Owl Creek, past the Washakie Needles, over the Divide
to Gros Ventre, and so through a final barrier of peaks into the
borders of East Idaho. There, by reason of his bidding me, I met
him, and came to share in a part of his errand.
It was with no guide that I travelled to him. He had named a
little station on the railroad, and from thence he had charted my
route by means of landmarks. Did I believe in omens, the black
storm that I set out in upon my horse would seem like one to-day.
But I had been living in cities and smoke; and Idaho, even with
rain, was delightful to me.
XXX. A STABLE ON THE FLAT
When the first landmark, the lone clump of cottonwoods, came at
length in sight, dark and blurred in the gentle rain, standing
out perhaps a mile beyond the distant buildings, my whole weary
body hailed the approach of repose. Saving the noon hour, I had
been in the saddle since six, and now six was come round again.
The ranch, my resting-place for this night, was a ruin--cabin,
stable, and corral. Yet after the twelve hours of pushing on and
on through silence, still to have silence, still to eat and go to
sleep in it, perfectly fitted the mood of both my flesh and
spirit. At noon, when for a while I had thrown off my long
oilskin coat, merely the sight of the newspaper half crowded into
my pocket had been a displeasing reminder of the railway, and
cities, and affairs. But for its possible help to build fires, it
would have come no farther with me. The great levels around me
lay cooled and freed of dust by the wet weather, and full of
sweet airs. Far in front the foot-hills rose through the rain,
indefinite and mystic. I wanted no speech with any one, nor to be
near human beings at all. I was steeped in a revery as of the
primal earth; even thoughts themselves had almost ceased motion.
To lie down with wild animals, with elk and deer, would have made
my waking dream complete; and since such dream could not be, the
cattle around the deserted buildings, mere dots as yet across
separating space, were my proper companions for this evening.
To-morrow night I should probably be camping with the Virginian
in the foot-hills. At his letter's bidding I had come eastward
across Idaho, abandoning my hunting in the Saw Tooth Range to
make this journey with him back through the Tetons. It was a
trail known to him, and not to many other honest men. Horse Thief
Pass was the name his letter gave it. Business (he was always
brief) would call him over there at this time. Returning, he must
attend to certain matters in the Wind River country. There I
could leave by stage for the railroad, or go on with him the
whole way back to Sunk Creek. He designated for our meeting the
forks of a certain little stream in the foot-hills which to-day's
ride had brought in sight. There would be no chance for him to
receive an answer from me in the intervening time. If by a
certain day--which was four days off still--I had not reached the
forks, he would understand I had other plans. To me it was like
living back in ages gone, this way of meeting my friend, this
choice of a stream so far and lonely that its very course upon
the maps was wrongly traced. And to leave behind all noise and
mechanisms, and set out at ease, slowly, with one packhorse, into
the wilderness, made me feel that the ancient earth was indeed my
mother and that I had found her again after being lost among
houses, customs, and restraints. I should arrive three days early
at the forks--three days of margin seeming to me a wise
precaution against delays unforeseen. If the Virginian were not
there, good; I could fish and be happy. If he were there but not
ready to start, good; I could still fish and be happy. And
remembering my Eastern helplessness in the year when we had met
first, I enjoyed thinking how I had come to be trusted. In those
days I had not been allowed to go from the ranch for so much as
an afternoon's ride unless tied to him by a string, so to speak;
now I was crossing unmapped spaces with no guidance. The man who
could do this was scarce any longer a "tenderfoot."
My vision, as I rode, took in serenely the dim
foot-hills,--to-morrow's goal,--and nearer in the vast wet plain
the clump of cottonwoods, and still nearer my lodging for
to-night with the dotted cattle round it. And now my horse
neighed. I felt his gait freshen for the journey's end, and
leaning to pat his neck I noticed his ears no longer slack and
inattentive, but pointing forward to where food and rest awaited
both of us. Twice he neighed, impatiently and long; and as he
quickened his gait still more, the packhorse did the same, and I
realized that there was about me still a spice of the tenderfoot:
those dots were not cattle; they were horses.
My horse had put me in the wrong. He had known his kind from
afar, and was hastening to them. The plainsman's eye was not yet
mine; and I smiled a little as I rode. When was I going to know,
as by instinct, the different look of horses and cattle across
some two or three miles of plain?
These miles we finished soon. The buildings changed in their
aspect as they grew to my approach, showing their desolation more
clearly, and in some way bringing apprehension into my mood. And
around them the horses, too, all standing with ears erect,
watching me as I came--there was something about them; or was it
the silence? For the silence which I had liked until now seemed
suddenly to be made too great by the presence of the deserted
buildings. And then the door of the stable opened, and men came
out and stood, also watching me arrive. By the time I was
dismounting more were there. It was senseless to feel as
unpleasant as I did, and I strove to give to them a greeting that
should sound easy. I told them that I hoped there was room for
one more here to-night. Some of them had answered my greeting,
but none of them answered this; and as I began to be sure that I
recognized several of their strangely imperturbable faces, the
Virginian came from the stable; and at that welcome sight my
relief spoke out instantly.
"I am here, you see!"
"Yes, I do see." I looked hard at him, for in his voice was the
same strangeness that I felt in everything around me. But he was
looking at his companions. "This gentleman is all right," he told
"That may be," said one whom I now knew that I had seen before at
Sunk Creek; "but he was not due to-night."
"Nor to-morrow," said another.
"Nor yet the day after," a third added.
The Virginian fell into his drawl. "None of you was ever early
for anything, I presume."
One retorted, laughing, "Oh, we're not suspicioning you of
And another, "Not even when we remember how thick you and Steve
used to be."
Whatever jokes they meant by this he did not receive as jokes. I
saw something like a wince pass over his face, and a flush follow
it. But he now spoke to me. "We expected to be through before
this," he began. "I'm right sorry you have come to-night. I know
you'd have preferred to keep away."
"We want him to explain himself," put in one of the others. "If
he satisfies us, he's free to go away."
"Free to go away!" I now exclaimed. But at the indulgence in
their frontier smile I cooled down. "Gentlemen," I said, "I don't
know why my movements interest you so much. It's quite a
compliment! May I get under shelter while I explain?"
No request could have been more natural, for the rain had now
begun to fall in straight floods. Yet there was a pause before
one of them said, "He might as well."
The Virginian chose to say nothing more; but he walked beside me
into the stable. Two men sat there together, and a third guarded
them. At that sight I knew suddenly what I had stumbled upon; and
on the impulse I murmured to the Virginian, "You're hanging them
He kept his silence.
"You may have three guesses," said a man behind me.
But I did not need them. And in the recoil of my insight the
clump of cottonwoods came into my mind, black and grim. No other
trees high enough grew within ten miles. This, then, was the
business that the Virginian's letter had so curtly mentioned. My
eyes went into all corners of the stable, but no other prisoners
were here. I half expected to see Trampas, and I half feared to
see Shorty; for poor stupid Shorty's honesty had not been proof
against frontier temptations, and he had fallen away from the
company of his old friends. Often of late I had heard talk at
Sunk Creek of breaking up a certain gang of horse and cattle
thieves that stole in one Territory and sold in the next, and
knew where to hide in the mountains between. And now it had come
to the point; forces had been gathered, a long expedition made,
and here they were, successful under the Virginian's lead, but a
little later than their calculations. And here was I, a little
too early, and a witness in consequence. My presence seemed a
simple thing to account for; but when I had thus accounted for
it, one of them said with good nature:- "So you find us here, and
we find you here. Which is the most surprised, I wonder?"
"There's no telling," said I, keeping as amiable as I could; "nor
any telling which objects the most."
"Oh, there's no objection here. You're welcome to stay. But not
welcome to go, I expect. He ain't welcome to go, is he?"
By the answers that their faces gave him it was plain that I was
not. "Not till we are through," said one.
"He needn't to see anything,"' another added.
"Better sleep late
to-morrow morning," a third suggested to me.
I did not wish to stay here. I could have made some sort of camp
apart from them before dark; but in the face of their needless
caution I was helpless. I made no attempt to inquire what kind of
spy they imagined I could be, what sort of rescue I could bring
in this lonely country; my too early appearance seemed to be all
that they looked at. And again my eyes sought the prisoners.
Certainly there were only two. One was chewing tobacco, and
talking now and then to his guard as if nothing were the matter.
The other sat dull in silence, not moving his eyes; but his face
worked, and I noticed how he continually moistened his dry lips.
As I looked at these doomed prisoners, whose fate I was invited
to sleep through to-morrow morning, the one who was chewing
quietly nodded to me.
"You don't remember me?" he said.
It was Steve! Steve of Medicine Bow! The pleasant Steve of my
first evening in the West. Some change of beard had delayed my
instant recognition of his face. Here he sat sentenced to die. A
shock, chill and painful, deprived me of speech.
He had no such weak feelings. "Have yu' been to Medicine Bow
lately?" he inquired. "That's getting to be quite a while ago."
I assented. I should have liked to say something natural and
kind, but words stuck against my will, and I stood awkward and
ill at ease, noticing idly that the silent one wore a gray
flannel shirt like mine. Steve looked me over, and saw in my
pocket the newspaper which I had brought from the railroad and on
which I had pencilled a few expenses. He asked me, Would I mind
letting him have it for a while? And I gave it to him eagerly,