MY DEAR HARRY MERCER: When Lin McLean was only a hero in manuscript, he received his first welcome and chastening beneath your patient roof. By none so much as by you has he in private been helped and affectionately disciplined, an now you must stand godfather to him upon this public page.
HOW LIN McLEAN WENT EAST
In the old days, the happy days, when Wyoming was a Territory with a future instead of a State with a past, and the unfenced cattle grazed upon her ranges by prosperous thousands, young Lin McLean awaked early one morning in cow camp, and lay staring out of his blankets upon the world. He would be twenty-two this week. He was the youngest cow-puncher in camp. But because he could break wild horses, he was earning more dollars a month than any man there, except one. The cook was a more indispensable person. None save the cook was up, so far, this morning. Lin’s brother punchers slept about him on the ground, some motionless, some shifting their prone heads to burrow deeper from the increasing day. The busy work of spring was over, that of the fall, or beef round-up, not yet come. It was mid-July, a lull for these hard-riding bachelors of the saddle, and many unspent dollars stood to Mr. McLean’s credit on the ranch books.
“What’s the matter with some variety?” muttered the boy in his blankets.
The long range of the mountains lifted clear in the air. They slanted from the purple folds and furrows of the pines that richly cloaked them, upward into rock and grassy bareness until they broke remotely into bright peaks, and filmed into the distant lavender of the north and the south. On their western side the streams ran into Snake or into Green River, and so at length met the Pacific. On this side, Wind River flowed forth from them, descending out of the Lake of the Painted Meadows. A mere trout-brook it was up there at the top of the divide, with easy riffles and stepping-stones in many places; but down here, outside the mountains, it was become a streaming avenue, a broadening course, impetuous between its two tall green walls of cottonwood-trees. And so it wound away like a vast green ribbon across the lilac-gray sage-brush and the yellow, vanishing plains.
“Variety, you bet!” young Lin repeated, aloud.
He unrolled himself from his bed, and brought from the garments that made his pillow a few toilet articles. He got on his long boy legs and limped blithely to the margin. In the mornings his slight lameness was always more visible. The camp was at Bull Lake Crossing, where the fork from Bull Lake joins Wind River. Here Lin found some convenient shingle-stones, with dark, deepish water against them, where he plunged his face and energetically washed, and came up with the short curly hair shining upon his round head. After enough looks at himself in the dark water, and having knotted a clean, jaunty handkerchief at his throat, he returned with his slight limp to camp, where they were just sitting at breakfast to the rear of the cook-shelf of the wagon.
“Bugged up to kill!” exclaimed one, perceiving Lin’s careful dress.
“He sure has not shaved again?” another inquired, with concern.
“I ain’t got my opera-glasses on,” answered a third.
“He has spared that pansy-blossom mustache,” said a fourth.
“My spring crop,” remarked young Lin, rounding on this last one, “has juicier prospects than that rat-eaten catastrophe of last year’s hay which wanders out of your face.”
“Why, you’ll soon be talking yourself into a regular man,” said the other.
But the camp laugh remained on the side of young Lin till breakfast was ended, when the ranch foreman rode into camp.
Him Lin McLean at once addressed. “I was wantin’ to speak to you,” said he.
The experienced foreman noticed the boy’s holiday appearance. “I understand you’re tired of work,” he remarked.
“Who told you?” asked the bewildered Lin.
The foreman touched the boy’s pretty handkerchief. “Well, I have a way of taking things in at a glance,” said he. “That’s why I’m foreman, I expect. So you’ve had enough work?”
“My system’s full of it,” replied Lin, grinning. As the foreman stood thinking, he added, “And I’d like my time.”
Time, in the cattle idiom, meant back-pay up to date.
“It’s good we’re not busy,” said the foreman.
“Meanin’ I’d quit all the same?” inquired Lin, rapidly, flushing.
“No–not meaning any offence. Catch up your horse. I want to make the post before it gets hot.”
The foreman had come down the river from the ranch at Meadow Creek, and the post, his goal, was Fort Washakie. All this part of the country formed the Shoshone Indian Reservation, where, by permission, pastured the herds whose owner would pay Lin his time at Washakie. So the young cow-puncher flung on his saddle and mounted.
“So-long!” he remarked to the camp, by way of farewell. He might never be going to see any of them again; but the cow-punchers were not demonstrative by habit.
“Going to stop long at Washakie?” asked one.
“Alma is not waiter-girl at the hotel now,” another mentioned.
“If there’s a new girl,” said a third, “kiss her one for me, and tell her I’m handsomer than you.”
“I ain’t a deceiver of women,” said Lin.
“That’s why you’ll tell her,” replied his friend.
“Say, Lin, why are you quittin’ us so sudden, anyway?” asked the cook, grieved to lose him.
“I’m after some variety,” said the boy.
“If you pick up more than you can use, just can a little of it for me!” shouted the cook at the departing McLean.
This was the last of camp by Bull Lake Crossing, and in the foreman’s company young Lin now took the road for his accumulated dollars.
“So you’re leaving your bedding and stuff with the outfit?” said the foreman.
“Brought my tooth-brush,” said Lin, showing it in the breast-pocket of his flannel shirt.
“Going to Denver?”
“Take in San Francisco?”
“Made any plans?”
“Don’t want anything on your brain?”
“Nothin’ except my hat, I guess,” said Lin, and broke into cheerful song:
“‘Twas a nasty baby anyhow,
And it only died to spite us;
‘Twas afflicted with the cerebrow Spinal meningitis!'”
They wound up out of the magic valley of Wind River, through the bastioned gullies and the gnome-like mystery of dry water-courses, upward and up to the level of the huge sage-brush plain above. Behind lay the deep valley they had climbed from, mighty, expanding, its trees like bushes, its cattle like pebbles, its opposite side towering also to the edge of this upper plain. There it lay, another world. One step farther away from its rim, and the two edges of the plain had flowed together over it like a closing sea, covering without a sign or ripple the great country which lay sunk beneath.
“A man might think he’d dreamed he’d saw that place,” said Lin to the foreman, and wheeled his horse to the edge again. “She’s sure there, though,” he added, gazing down. For a moment his boy face grew thoughtful. “Shucks!” said he then, abruptly, “where’s any joy in money that’s comin’ till it arrives? I have most forgot the feel o’ spot-cash.”
He turned his horse away from the far-winding vision of the river, and took a sharp jog after the foreman, who had not been waiting for him. Thus they crossed the eighteen miles of high plain, and came down to Fort Washakie, in the valley of Little Wind, before the day was hot.
His roll of wages once jammed in his pocket like an old handkerchief, young Lin precipitated himself out of the post-trader’s store and away on his horse up the stream among the Shoshone tepees to an unexpected entertainment–a wolf-dance. He had meant to go and see what the new waiter-girl at the hotel looked like, but put this off promptly to attend the dance. This hospitality the Shoshone Indians were extending to some visiting Ute friends, and the neighborhood was assembled to watch the ring of painted naked savages.
The post-trader looked after the galloping Lin. “What’s he quitting his job for?” he asked the foreman.
“Same as most of ’em quit.”
“Never had a boy more so. Good-hearted, willing, a plumb dare-devil with a horse.”
“And worthless,” suggested the post-trader.
“Well–not yet. He’s headed that way.”
“Been punching cattle long?”
“Came in the country about seventy-eight, I believe, and rode for the Bordeaux Outfit most a year, and quit. Blew in at Cheyenne till he went broke, and worked over on to the Platte. Rode for the C. Y. Outfit most a year, and quit. Blew in at Buffalo. Rode for Balaam awhile on Butte Creek. Broke his leg. Went to the Drybone Hospital, and when the fracture was commencing to knit pretty good he broke it again at the hog-ranch across the bridge. Next time you’re in Cheyenne get Dr. Barker to tell you about that. McLean drifted to Green River last year and went up over on to Snake, and up Snake, and was around with a prospecting outfit on Galena Creek by Pitchstone Canyon. Seems he got interested in some Dutchwoman up there, but she had trouble–died, I think they said–and he came down by Meteetsee to Wind River. He’s liable to go to Mexico or Africa next.”
“If you need him,” said the post-trader, closing his ledger, “you can offer him five more a month.”
“That’ll not hold him.”
“Well, let him go. Have a cigar. The bishop is expected for Sunday, and I’ve got to see his room is fixed up for him.”
“The bishop!” said the foreman. “I’ve heard him highly spoken of.”
“You can hear him preach to-morrow. The bishop is a good man.”
“He’s better than that; he’s a man,” stated the foreman–“at least so they tell me.”
Now, saving an Indian dance, scarce any possible event at the Shoshone agency could assemble in one spot so many sorts of inhabitants as a visit from this bishop. Inhabitants of four colors gathered to view the wolf-dance this afternoon–red men, white men, black men, yellow men. Next day, three sorts came to church at the agency. The Chinese laundry was absent. But because, indeed (as the foreman said), the bishop was not only a good man but a man, Wyoming held him in respect and went to look at him. He stood in the agency church and held the Episcopal service this Sunday morning for some brightly glittering army officers and their families, some white cavalry, and some black infantry; the agency doctor, the post-trader, his foreman, the government scout, three gamblers, the waiter-girl from the hotel, the stage-driver, who was there because she was; old Chief Washakie, white-haired and royal in blankets, with two royal Utes splendid beside him; one benchful of squatting Indian children, silent and marvelling; and, on the back bench, the commanding officer’s new hired-girl, and, beside her, Lin McLean.
Mr. McLean’s hours were already various and successful. Even at the wolf-dance, before he had wearied of its monotonous drumming and pageant, his roving eye had rested upon a girl whose eyes he caught resting upon him. A look, an approach, a word, and each was soon content with the other. Then, when her duties called her to the post from him and the stream’s border, with a promise for next day he sought the hotel and found the three gamblers anxious to make his acquaintance; for when a cow-puncher has his pay many people will take an interest in him. The three gamblers did not know that Mr. McLean could play cards. He left them late in the evening fat with their money, and sought the tepees of the Arapahoes. They lived across the road from the Shoshones, and among their tents the boy remained until morning. He was here in church now, keeping his promise to see the bishop with the girl of yesterday; and while he gravely looked at the bishop, Miss Sabina Stone allowed his arm to encircle her waist. No soldier had achieved this yet, but Lin was the first cow-puncher she had seen, and he had given her the handkerchief from round his neck.
The quiet air blew in through the windows and door, the pure, light breath from the mountains; only, passing over their foot-hills it had caught and carried the clear aroma of the sage-brush. This it brought into church, and with this seemed also to float the peace and great silence of the plains. The little melodeon in the corner, played by one of the ladies at the post, had finished accompanying the hymn, and now it prolonged a few closing chords while the bishop paused before his address, resting his keen eyes on the people. He was dressed in a plain suit of black with a narrow black tie. This was because the Union Pacific Railroad, while it had delivered him correctly at Green River, had despatched his robes towards Cheyenne.
Without citing chapter and verse the bishop began:
“And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him.”
The bishop told the story of that surpassing parable, and then proceeded to draw from it a discourse fitted to the drifting destinies in whose presence he found himself for one solitary morning. He spoke unlike many clergymen. His words were chiefly those which the people round him used, and his voice was more like earnest talking than preaching.
Miss Sabina Stone felt the arm of her cow-puncher loosen slightly, and she looked at him. But he was looking at the bishop, no longer gravely but with wide-open eyes, alert. When the narrative reached the elder brother in the field, and how he came to the house and heard sounds of music and dancing, Miss Stone drew away from her companion and let him watch the bishop, since he seemed to prefer that. She took to reading hymns vindictively. The bishop himself noted the sun-browned boy face and the wide-open eyes. He was too far away to see anything but the alert, listening position of the young cow-puncher. He could not discern how that, after he had left the music and dancing and begun to draw morals, attention faded from those eyes that seemed to watch him, and they filled with dreaminess. It was very hot in church. Chief Washakie went to sleep, and so did a corporal; but Lin McLean sat in the same alert position till Miss Stone pulled him and asked if he intended to sit down through the hymn. Then church was out. Officers, Indians, and all the people dispersed through the great sunshine to their dwellings, and the cow-puncher rode beside Sabina in silence.
“What are you studying over, Mr. McLean?” inquired the lady, after a hundred yards.
“Did you ever taste steamed Duxbury clams?” asked Lin, absently.
“No, indeed. What’s them?”
“Oh, just clams. Yu’ have drawn butter, too.” Mr. McLean fell silent again.
“I guess I’ll be late for settin’ the colonel’s table. Good-bye,” said Sabina, quickly, and swished her whip across the pony, who scampered away with her along the straight road across the plain to the post.
Lin caught up with her at once and made his peace.
“Only,” protested Sabina, “I ain’t used to gentlemen taking me out and– well, same as if I was a collie-dog. Maybe it’s Wind River politeness.”
But she went riding with him up Trout Creek in the cool of the afternoon. Out of the Indian tepees, scattered wide among the flat levels of sage-brush, smoke rose thin and gentle, and vanished. They splashed across the many little running channels which lead water through that thirsty soil, and though the range of mountains came no nearer, behind them the post, with its white, flat buildings and green trees, dwindled to a toy village.
“My! but it’s far to everywheres here,” exclaimed Sabina, “and it’s little you’re sayin’ for yourself to-day, Mr. McLean. I’ll have to do the talking. What’s that thing now, where the rocks are?”
“That’s Little Wind River Canyon,” said the young man. “Feel like goin’ there, Miss Stone?”
“Why, yes. It looks real nice and shady like, don’t it? Let’s.”
So Miss Stone turned her pony in that direction.
“When do your folks eat supper?” inquired Lin.
“Half-past six. Oh, we’ve lots of time! Come on.”
“How many miles per hour do you figure that cayuse of yourn can travel?” Lin asked.
“What are you a-talking about, anyway? You’re that strange to-day,” said the lady.
“Only if we try to make that canyon, I guess you’ll be late settin’ the colonel’s table,” Lin remarked, his hazel eyes smiling upon her. “That is, if your horse ain’t good for twenty miles an hour. Mine ain’t, I know. But I’ll do my best to stay with yu’.”
“You’re the teasingest man–” said Miss Stone, pouting. “I might have knowed it was ever so much further nor it looked.”
“Well, I ain’t sayin’ I don’t want to go, if yu’ was desirous of campin’ out to-night.”
“Mr. McLean! Indeed, and I’d do no such thing!” and Sabina giggled.
A sage-hen rose under their horses’ feet, and hurtled away heavily over the next rise of ground, taking a final wide sail out of sight.
“Something like them partridges used to,” said Lin, musingly.
“Partridges?” inquired Sabina.
“Used to be in the woods between Lynn and Salem. Maybe the woods are gone by this time. Yes, they must be gone, I guess.”
Presently they dismounted and sought the stream bank.
“We had music and dancing at Thanksgiving and such times,” said Lin, his wiry length stretched on the grass beside the seated Sabina. He was not looking at her, but she took a pleasure in watching him, his curly head and bronze face, against which the young mustache showed to its full advantage.
“I expect you used to dance a lot,” remarked Sabina, for a subject.
“Yes. Do yu’ know the Portland Fancy?”
Sabina did not, and her subject died away.
“Did anybody ever tell you you had good eyes?” she inquired next.
“Why, sure,” said Lin, waking for a moment; “but I like your color best. A girl’s eyes will mostly beat a man’s.”
“Indeed, I don’t think so!” exclaimed poor Sabina, too much expectant to perceive the fatal note of routine with which her transient admirer pronounced this gallantry. He informed her that hers were like the sea, and she told him she had not yet looked upon the sea.
“Never?” said he. “It’s a turruble pity you’ve never saw salt water. It’s different from fresh. All around home it’s blue–awful blue in July– around Swampscott and Marblehead and Nahant, and around the islands. I’ve swam there lots. Then our home bruck up and we went to board in Boston.” He snapped off a flower in reach of his long arm. Suddenly all dreaminess left him.
“I wonder if you’ll be settin’ the colonel’s table when I come back?” he said.
Miss Stone was at a loss.
“I’m goin’ East to-morrow–East, to Boston.”
Yesterday he had told her that sixteen miles to Lander was the farthest journey from the post that he intended to make–the farthest from the post and her.
“I hope nothing ain’t happened to your folks?” said she.
“I ain’t got no folks,” replied Lin, “barring a brother. I expect he is taking good care of himself.”
“Don’t you correspond?”
“Well, I guess he would if there was anything to say. There ain’t been nothin’.”
Sabina thought they must have quarrelled, but learned that they had not. It was time for her now to return and set the colonel’s table, so Lin rose and went to bring her horse. When he had put her in her saddle she noticed him step to his own.
“Why, I didn’t know you were lame!” cried she.
“Shucks!” said Lin. “It don’t cramp my style any.” He had sprung on his horse, ridden beside her, leaned and kissed her before she got any measure of his activity.
“That’s how,” said he; and they took their homeward way galloping. “No,” Lin continued, “Frank and me never quarrelled. I just thought I’d have a look at this Western country. Frank, he thought dry-goods was good enough for him, and so we’re both satisfied, I expect. And that’s a lot of years now. Whoop ye!” he suddenly sang out, and fired his six-shooter at a jack-rabbit, who strung himself out flat and flew over the earth.
Both dismounted at the parade-ground gate, and he kissed her again when she was not looking, upon which she very properly slapped him; and he took the horses to the stable. He sat down to tea at the hotel, and found the meal consisted of black potatoes, gray tea, and a guttering dish of fat pork. But his appetite was good, and he remarked to himself that inside the first hour he was in Boston he would have steamed Duxbury clams. Of Sabina he never thought again, and it is likely that she found others to take his place. Fort Washakie was one hundred and fifty miles from the railway, and men there were many and girls were few.
The next morning the other passengers entered the stage with resignation, knowing the thirty-six hours of evil that lay before them. Lin climbed up beside the driver. He had a new trunk now.
“Don’t get full, Lin,” said the clerk, putting the mail-sacks in at the store.
“My plans ain’t settled that far yet,” replied Mr. McLean.
“Leave it out of them,” said the voice of the bishop, laughing, inside the stage.
It was a cool, fine air. Gazing over the huge plain down in which lies Fort Washakie, Lin heard the faint notes of the trumpet on the parade ground, and took a good-bye look at all things. He watched the American flag grow small, saw the circle of steam rising away down by the hot springs, looked at the bad lands beyond, chemically pink and rose amid the vast, natural, quiet-colored plain. Across the spreading distance Indians trotted at wide spaces, generally two large bucks on one small pony, or a squaw and pappoose–a bundle of parti-colored rags. Presiding over the whole rose the mountains to the west, serene, lifting into the clearest light. Then once again came the now tiny music of the trumpet.
“When do yu’ figure on comin’ back?” inquired the driver.
“Oh, I’ll just look around back there for a spell,” said Lin. “About a month, I guess.”
He had seven hundred dollars. At Lander the horses are changed; and during this operation Lin’s friends gathered and said, where was any sense in going to Boston when you could have a good time where you were? But Lin remained sitting safe on the stage. Toward evening, at the bottom of a little dry gulch some eight feet deep, the horses decided it was a suitable place to stay. It was the bishop who persuaded them to change their minds. He told the driver to give up beating, and unharness. Then they were led up the bank, quivering, and a broken trace was spliced with rope. Then the stage was forced on to the level ground, the bishop proving a strong man, familiar with the gear of vehicles. They crossed through the pass among the quaking asps and the pines, and, reaching Pacific Springs, came down again into open country. That afternoon the stage put its passengers down on the railroad platform at Green River; this was the route in those days before the mid-winter catastrophes of frozen passengers led to its abandonment. The bishop was going west. His robes had passed him on the up stage during the night. When the reverend gentleman heard this he was silent for a very short moment, and then laughed vigorously in the baggage-room.
“I can understand how you swear sometimes,” he said to Lin McLean; “but I can’t, you see. Not even at this.”
The cow-puncher was checking his own trunk to Omaha.
“Good-bye and good luck to you,” continued the bishop, giving his hand to Lin. “And look here–don’t you think you might leave that ‘getting full’ out of your plans?”
Lin gave a slightly shamefaced grin. “I don’t guess I can, sir,” he said. “I’m givin’ yu’ straight goods, yu’ see,” he added.
“That’s right. But you look like a man who could stop when he’d had enough. Try that. You’re man enough–and come and see me whenever we’re in the same place.”
He went to the hotel. There were several hours for Lin to wait. He walked up and down the platform till the stars came out and the bright lights of the town shone in the saloon windows. Over across the way piano-music sounded through one of the many open doors.
“Wonder if the professor’s there yet?” said Lin, and he went across the railroad tracks. The bartender nodded to him as he passed through into the back room. In that place were many tables, and the flat clicking and rattle of ivory counters sounded pleasantly through the music. Lin did not join the stud-poker game. He stood over a table at which sat a dealer and a player, very silent, opposite each other, and whereon were painted sundry cards, numerals, and the colors red and black in squares. The legend “Jacks pay” was also clearly painted. The player placed chips on whichever insignia of fortune he chose, and the dealer slid cards (quite fairly) from the top of a pack that lay held within a skeleton case made with some clamped bands of tin. Sometimes the player’s pile of chips rose high, and sometimes his sumptuous pillar of gold pieces was lessened by one. It was very interesting and pretty to see; Lin had much better have joined the game of stud-poker. Presently the eye of the dealer met the eye of the player. After that slight incident the player’s chip pile began to rise, and rose steadily, till the dealer made admiring comments on such a run of luck. Then the player stopped, cashed in, and said good-night, having nearly doubled the number of his gold pieces.
“Five dollars’ worth,” said Lin, sitting down in the vacant seat. The chips were counted out to him. He played with unimportant shiftings of fortune until a short while before his train was due, and then, singularly enough, he discovered he was one hundred and fifty dollars behind the game.
“I guess I’ll leave the train go without me,” said Lin, buying five dollars’ worth more of ivory counters. So that train came and went, removing eastward Mr. McLean’s trunk.
During the hour that followed his voice grew dogged and his remarks briefer, as he continually purchased more chips from the now surprised and sympathetic dealer. It was really wonderful how steadily Lin lost– just as steadily as his predecessor had won after that meeting of eyes early in the evening.
When Lin was three hundred dollars out, his voice began to clear of its huskiness and a slight humor revolved and sparkled in his eye. When his seven hundred dollars had gone to safer hands and he had nothing left at all but some silver fractions of a dollar, his robust cheerfulness was all back again. He walked out and stood among the railroad tracks with his hands in his pockets, and laughed at himself in the dark. Then his fingers came on the check for Omaha, and he laughed loudly. The trunk by this hour must be nearing Rawlins; it was going east anyhow.
“I’m following it, you bet,” he declared, kicking the rail. “Not yet though. Nor I’ll not go to Washakie to have ’em josh me. And yonder lays Boston.” He stretched his arm and pointed eastward. Had he seen another man going on in this fashion alone in the dark, among side-tracked freight cars, he would have pitied the poor fool. “And I guess Boston’ll have to get along without me for a spell, too,” continued Lin. “A man don’t want to show up plumb broke like that younger son did after eatin’ with the hogs the bishop told about. His father was a Jim-dandy, that hog chap’s. Hustled around and set ’em up when he come back home. Frank, he’d say to me ‘How do you do, brother?’ and he’d be wearin’ a good suit o’ clothes and–no, sir, you bet!”
Lin now watched the great headlight of a freight train bearing slowly down into Green River from the wilderness. Green River is the end of a division, an epoch in every train’s journey. Lanterns swung signals, the great dim thing slowed to its standstill by the coal chute, its locomotive moved away for a turn of repose, the successor backed steaming to its place to tackle a night’s work. Cars were shifted, heavily bumping and parting.
“Hello, Lin!” A face was looking from the window of the caboose.
“Hello!” responded Mr. McLean, perceiving above his head Honey Wiggin, a good friend of his. They had not met for three years.
“They claimed you got killed somewheres. I was sorry to hear it.” Honey offered his condolence quite sincerely.
“Bruck my leg,” corrected Lin, “if that’s what they meant.”
“I expect that’s it,” said Honey. “You’ve had no other trouble?”
“Been boomin’,” said Lin.
From the mere undertone in their voices it was plain they were good friends, carefully hiding their pleasure at meeting.
“Wher’re yu’ bound?” inquired Honey.
“East,” said Lin.
“Better jump in here, then. We’re goin’ west.”
“That just suits me,” said Lin.
The busy lanterns wagged among the switches, the steady lights of the saloons shone along the town’s wooden facade. From the bluffs that wall Green River the sweet, clean sage-brush wind blew down in currents freshly through the coal-smoke. A wrench passed through the train from locomotive to caboose, each fettered car in turn strained into motion and slowly rolled over the bridge and into silence from the steam and the bells of the railroad yard. Through the open windows of the caboose great dull-red cinders rattled in, and the whistles of distant Union Pacific locomotives sounded over the open plains ominous and long, like ships at sea.
Honey and Lin sat for a while, making few observations and far between, as their way is between whom flows a stream of old-time understanding. Mutual whiskey and silence can express much friendship, and eloquently.
“What are yu’ doing at present?” Lin inquired.
Now prospecting means hunting gold, except to such spirits as the boy Lin. To these it means finding gold. So Lin McLean listened to the talk of his friend Honey Wiggin as the caboose trundled through the night. He saw himself in a vision of the near future enter a bank and thump down a bag of gold-dust. Then he saw the new, clean money the man would hand him in exchange, bills with round zeroes half covered by being folded over, and heavy, satisfactory gold pieces. And then he saw the blue water that twinkles beneath Boston. His fingers came again on his trunk check. He had his ticket, too. And as dawn now revealed the gray country to him, his eye fell casually upon a mile-post: “Omaha, 876.” He began to watch for them:–877, 878. But the trunk would really get to Omaha.
“What are yu’ laughin’ about?” asked Honey.
“Oh, the wheels.”
“Don’t yu’ hear ’em?” said Lin. “‘Variety,’ they keep a-sayin’. ‘Variety, variety.'”
“Huh!” said Honey, with scorn. “‘Ker-chunka-chunk’ ‘s all I make it.”
“You’re no poet,” observed Mr. McLean.
As the train moved into Evanston in the sunlight, a gleam of dismay shot over Lin’s face, and he ducked his head out of sight of the window, but immediately raised it again. Then he leaned out, waving his arm with a certain defiant vigor. But the bishop on the platform failed to notice this performance, though it was done for his sole benefit, nor would Lin explain to the inquisitive Wiggin what the matter was. Therefore, very naturally, Honey drew a conclusion for himself, looked quickly out of the window, and, being disappointed in what he expected to see remarked, sulkily, “Do yu’ figure I care what sort of a lookin’ girl is stuck on yu’ in Evanston?” And upon this young Lin laughed so loudly that his friend told him he had never seen a man get so foolish in three years.
By-and-by they were in Utah, and, in the company of Ogden friends, forgot prospecting. Later they resumed freight trains and journeyed north In Idaho they said good-bye to the train hands in the caboose, and came to Little Camas, and so among the mountains near Feather Creek. Here the berries were of several sorts, and growing riper each day, and the bears in the timber above knew this, and came down punctually with the season, making variety in the otherwise even life of the prospectors. It was now August, and Lin sat on a wet hill making mud-pies for sixty days. But the philosopher’s stone was not in the wash at that placer, nor did Lin gather gold-dust sufficient to cover the nail of his thumb. Then they heard of an excitement at Obo, Nevada, and, hurrying to Obo, they made some more mud-pies.
Now and then, eating their fat bacon at noon, Honey would say, “Lin, wher’re yu’ goin’?”
And Lin always replied, “East.” This became a signal for drinks.
For beauty and promise, Nevada is a name among names. Nevada! Pronounce the word aloud. Does it not evoke mountains and clear air, heights of untrodden snow and valleys aromatic with the pine and musical with falling waters? Nevada! But the name is all. Abomination of desolation presides over nine-tenths of the place. The sun beats down as on a roof of zinc, fierce and dull. Not a drop of water to a mile of sand. The mean ash-dump landscape stretches on from nowhere to nowhere, a spot of mange. No portion of the earth is more lacquered with paltry, unimportant ugliness.
There is gold in Nevada, but Lin and Honey did not find it. Prospecting of the sort they did, besides proving unfruitful, is not comfortable. Now and again, losing patience, Lin would leave his work and stalk about and gaze down at the scattered men who stooped or knelt in the water. Passing each busy prospector, Lin would read on every broad, upturned pair of overalls the same label, “Levi Strauss, No. 2,” with a picture of two lusty horses hitched to one of these garments and vainly struggling to split them asunder. Lin remembered he was wearing a label just like that too, and when he considered all things he laughed to himself. Then, having stretched the ache out of his long legs, he would return to his ditch. As autumn wore on, his feet grew cold in the mushy gravel they were sunk in. He beat off the sand that had stiffened on his boots, and hated Obo, Nevada. But he held himself ready to say “East” whenever he saw Honey coming along with the bottle. The cold weather put an end to this adventure. The ditches froze and filled with snow, through which the sordid gravel heaps showed in a dreary fashion; so the two friends drifted southward.
Near the small new town of Mesa, Arizona, they sat down again in the dirt. It was milder here, and, when the sun shone, never quite froze. But this part of Arizona is scarcely more grateful to the eye than Nevada. Moreover, Lin and Honey found no gold at all. Some men near them found a little. Then in January, even though the sun shone, it quite froze one day.
“We’re seein’ the country, anyway,” said Honey.
“Seein’ hell,” said Lin, “and there’s more of it above ground than I thought.”
“What’ll we do?” Honey inquired.
“Have to walk for a job–a good-payin’ job,” responded the hopeful cow-puncher. And he and Honey went to town.
Lin found a job in twenty-five minutes, becoming assistant to the apothecary in Mesa. Established at the drug-store, he made up the simpler prescriptions. He had studied practical pharmacy in Boston between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, and, besides this qualification, the apothecary had seen him when he first came into Mesa, and liked him. Lin made no mistakes that he or any one ever knew of; and, as the mild weather began, he materially increased the apothecary’s business by persuading him to send East for a soda-water fountain. The ladies of the town clustered around this entertaining novelty, and while sipping vanilla and lemon bought knickknacks. And the gentlemen of the town discovered that whiskey with soda and strawberry syrup was delicious, and produced just as competent effects. A group of them were generally standing in the shop and shaking dice to decide who should pay for the next, while Lin administered to each glass the necessary ingredients. Thus money began to come to him a little more steadily than had been its wont, and he divided with the penniless Honey.
But Honey found fortune quickly, too. Through excellent card-playing he won a pinto from a small Mexican horse-thief who came into town from the South, and who cried bitterly when he delivered up his pet pony to the new owner. The new owner, being a man of the world and agile on his feet, was only slightly stabbed that evening as he walked to the dance-hall at the edge of the town. The Mexican was buried on the next day but one.
The pony stood thirteen two, and was as long as a steamboat. He had white eyelashes, pink nostrils, and one eye was bright blue. If you spoke pleasantly to him, he rose instantly on his hind-legs and tried to beat your face. He did not look as if he could run, and that was what made him so valuable. Honey travelled through the country with him, and every gentleman who saw the pinto and heard Honey became anxious to get up a race. Lin always sent money for Wiggin to place, and he soon opened a bank account, while Honey, besides his racing-bridle, bought a silver-inlaid one, a pair of forty-dollar spurs, and a beautiful saddle richly stamped. Every day (when in Mesa) Honey would step into the drug-store and inquire, “Lin, wher’re yu’ goin’?”
But Lin never answered any more. He merely came to the soda-water fountain with the whiskey. The passing of days brought a choked season of fine sand and hard blazing sky. Heat rose up from the ground and hung heavily over man and beast. Many insects sat out in the sun rattling with joy; the little tearing river grew clear from the swollen mud, and shrank to a succession of standing pools; and the fat, squatting cactus bloomed everywhere into butter-colored flowers big as tulips in the sand. There were artesian wells in Mesa, and the water did not taste very good; but if you drank from the standing pools where the river had been, you repaired to the drug-store almost immediately. A troop of wandering players came dotting along the railroad, and, reaching Mesa, played a brass-band up and down the street, and announced the powerful drama of “East Lynne.” Then Mr. McLean thought of the Lynn marshes that lie between there and Chelsea, and of the sea that must look so cool. He forgot them while following the painful fortunes of the Lady Isabel; but, going to bed in the back part of the drug-store, he remembered how he used to beat everybody swimming in the salt water.
“I’m goin’,” he said. Then he got up, and, striking the light, he inspected his bank account. “I’m sure goin’,” he repeated, blowing the light out, “and I can buy the fatted calf myself, you bet!” for he had often thought of the bishop’s story. “You bet!” he remarked once more in a muffled voice, and was asleep in a minute. The apothecary was sorry to have him go, and Honey was deeply grieved.
“I’d pull out with yer,” he said, “only I can do business round Yuma and westward with the pinto.”
For three farewell days Lin and Honey roved together in all sorts of places, where they were welcome, and once more Lin rode a horse and was in his native element. Then he travelled to Deming, and so through Denver to Omaha, where he was told that his trunk had been sold for some months. Besides a suit of clothes for town wear, it had contained a buffalo coat for his brother–something scarce to see in these days.
“Frank’ll have to get along without it,” he observed, philosophically, and took the next eastbound train.
If you journey in a Pullman from Mesa to Omaha without a waistcoat, and with a silk handkerchief knotted over the collar of your flannel shirt instead of a tie, wearing, besides, tall, high-heeled boots, a soft, gray hat with a splendid brim, a few people will notice you, but not the majority. New Mexico and Colorado are used to these things. As Iowa, with its immense rolling grain, encompasses you, people will stare a little more, for you’re getting near the East, where cow-punchers are not understood. But in those days the line of cleavage came sharp-drawn at Chicago. West of there was still tolerably west, but east of there was east indeed, and the Atlantic Ocean was the next important stopping-place. In Lin’s new train, good gloves, patent-leathers, and silence prevailed throughout the sleeping-car, which was for Boston without change. Had not home memories begun impetuously to flood his mind, he would have felt himself conspicuous. Town clothes and conventions had their due value with him. But just now the boy’s single- hearted thoughts were far from any surroundings, and he was murmuring to himself, “To-morrow! tomorrow night!”
There were ladies in that blue plush car for Boston who looked at Lin for thirty miles at a stretch; and by the time Albany was reached the next day one or two of them commented that he was the most attractive-looking man they had ever seen! Whereas, beyond his tallness, and wide-open, jocular eyes, eyes that seemed those of a not highly conscientious wild animal, there was nothing remarkable about young Lin except stage effect. The conductor had been annoyed to have such a passenger; but the cow-puncher troubled no one, and was extremely silent. So evidently was he a piece of the true frontier that curious and hopeful fellow-passengers, after watching him with diversion, more than once took a seat next to him. He met their chatty inquiries with monosyllables so few and so unprofitable in their quiet politeness that the passengers soon gave him up. At Springfield he sent a telegram to his brother at the great dry-goods establishment that employed him.
The train began its homestretch after Worcester, and whirled and swung by hills and ponds he began to watch for, and through stations with old wayside names. These flashed on Lin’s eye as he sat with his hat off and his forehead against the window, looking: Wellesley. Then, not long after, Riverside. That was the Charles River, and did the picnic woods used to be above the bridge or below? West Newton; Newtonville; Newton. “Faneuil’s next,” he said aloud in the car, as the long-forgotten home-knowledge shone forth in his recollection. The traveller seated near said, “Beg pardon?” but, turning, wondered at the all-unconscious Lin, with his forehead pressed against the glass. The blue water flashed into sight, and soon after they were running in the darkness between high walls; but the cow-puncher never moved, though nothing could be seen. When the porter announced “Boston,” he started up and followed like a sheep in the general exodus. Down on the platform he moved along with the slow crowd till some one touched him, and, wheeling round, he seized both his brother’s hands and swore a good oath of joy.
There they stood–the long, brown fellow with the silk handkerchief knotted over his flannel shirt, greeting tremendously the spruce civilian, who had a rope-colored mustache and bore a fainthearted resemblance to him. The story was plain on its face to the passers-by; and one of the ladies who had come in the car with Lin turned twice, and smiled gently to herself.
But Frank McLean’s heart did not warm. He felt that what he had been afraid of was true; and he saw he was being made conspicuous. He saw men and women stare in the station, and he saw them staring as he and his Western brother went through the streets. Lin strode along, sniffing the air of Boston, looking at all things, and making it a stretch for his sleek companion to keep step with him. Frank thought of the refined friends he should have to introduce his brother to; for he had risen with his salary, and now belonged to a small club where the paying-tellers of banks played cards every night, and the head clerk at the Parker House was president. Perhaps he should not have to reveal the cow-puncher to these shining ones. Perhaps the cow-puncher would not stay very long. Of course he was glad to see him again, and he would take him to dine at some obscure place this first evening. But this was not Lin’s plan. Frank must dine with him, at the Parker House. Frank demurred, saying it was he that should be host.
“And,” he added, “they charge up high for wines at Parker’s.” Then for the twentieth time he shifted a sidelong eye over his brother’s clothes.
“You’re goin’ to take your grub with me,” said Lin. “That’s all right, I guess. And there ain’t any ‘no’ about it. Things is not the same like as if father was livin’–(his voice softened)–and here to see me come home. Now I’m good for several dinners with wines charged up high, I expect, nor it ain’t nobody in this world, barrin’ just Lin McLean, that I’ve any need to ask for anything. ‘Mr. McLean,’ says I to Lin, ‘can yu’ spare me some cash?’ ‘Why, to be sure, you bet!’ And we’ll start off with steamed Duxbury clams.” The cow-puncher slapped his pocket, where the coin made a muffled chinking. Then he said, gruffly, “I suppose Swampscott’s there yet?”
“Yes,” said Frank. “It’s a dead little town, is Swampscott.”
“I guess I’ll take a look at the old house tomorrow,” Lin pursued.
“Oh, that’s been pulled down since– I forget the year they improved that block.”
Lin regarded in silence his brother, who was speaking so jauntily of the first and last home they had ever had.
“Seventy-nine is when it was,” continued Frank. “So you can save the trouble of travelling away down to Swampscott.”
“I guess I’ll go to the graveyard, anyway,” said the cow-puncher in his offish voice, and looking fixedly in front of him.
They came into Washington Street, and again the elder McLean uneasily surveyed the younger’s appearance.
But the momentary chill had melted from the heart of the genial Lin. “After to-morrow,” said he, laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder, “yu’ can start any lead yu’ please, and I guess I can stay with yu’ pretty close, Frank.”
Frank said nothing. He saw one of the members of his club on the other side of the way, and the member saw him, and Frank caught diverted amazement on the member’s face. Lin’s hand weighed on his shoulder, and the stress became too great. “Lin,” said he, “while you’re running with our crowd, you don’t want to wear that style of hat, you know.”
It may be that such words can in some way be spoken at such a time, but not in the way that these were said. The frozen fact was irrevocably revealed in the tone of Frank’s voice.
The cow-puncher stopped dead short, and his hand slid off his brother’s shoulder. “You’ve made it plain,” he said, evenly, slanting his steady eyes down into Frank’s. “You’ve explained yourself fairly well. Run along with your crowd, and I’ll not bother yu’ more with comin’ round and causin’ yu’ to feel ashamed. It’s a heap better to understand these things at once, and save making a fool of yourself any longer ‘n yu’ need to. I guess there ain’t no more to be said, only one thing. If yu’ see me around on the street, don’t yu’ try any talk, for I’d be liable to close your jaw up, and maybe yu’d have more of a job explainin’ that to your crowd than you’ve had makin’ me see what kind of a man I’ve got for a brother.”
Frank found himself standing alone before any reply to these sentences had occurred to him. He walked slowly to his club, where a friend joked him on his glumness.
Lin made a sore failure of amusing himself that night; and in the bright, hot morning he got into the train for Swampscott. At the graveyard he saw a woman lay a bunch of flowers on a mound and kneel, weeping.
“There ain’t nobody to do that for this one,” thought the cow-puncher, and looked down at the grave he had come to see, then absently gazed at the woman.
She had stolen away from her daily life to come here where her grief was shrined, and now her heart found it hard to bid the lonely place goodbye. So she lingered long, her thoughts sunk deep in the motionless past. When she at last looked up, she saw the tall, strange man re-enter from the street among the tombs, and deposit on one of them an ungainly lump of flowers. They were what Lin had been able hastily to buy in Swampscott. He spread them gently as he had noticed the woman do, but her act of kneeling he did not imitate. He went away quickly. For some hours he hung about the little town, aimlessly loitering, watching the salt water where he used to swim.
“Yu’ don’t belong any more, Lin,” he miserably said at length, and took his way to Boston.
The next morning, determined to see the sights, he was in New York, and drifted about to all places night and day, till his money was mostly gone, and nothing to show for it but a somewhat pleasure-beaten face and a deep hatred of the crowded, scrambling East. So he suddenly bought a ticket for Green River, Wyoming, and escaped from the city that seemed to numb his good humor.
When, after three days, the Missouri lay behind him and his holiday, he stretched his legs and took heart to see out of the window the signs of approaching desolation. And when on the fourth day civilization was utterly emptied out of the world, he saw a bunch of cattle, and, galloping among them, his spurred and booted kindred. And his manner took on that alertness a horse shows on turning into the home road. As the stage took him toward Washakie, old friends turned up every fifty miles or so, shambling out of a cabin or a stable, and saying, in casual tones, “Hello, Lin, where’ve you been at?”
At Lander, there got into the stage another old acquaintance, the Bishop of Wyoming. He knew Lin at once, and held out his hand, and his greeting was hearty.
“It took a week for my robes to catch up with me,” he said, laughing. Then, in a little while, “How was the East?”
“First-rate,” said Lin, not looking at him. He was shy of the conversation’s taking a moral turn. But the bishop had no intention of reverting–at any rate, just now–to their last talk at Green River, and the advice he had then given.
“I trust your friends were all well?” he said.
“I guess they was healthy enough,” said Lin.
“I suppose you found Boston much changed? It’s a beautiful city.”
“Good enough town for them that likes it, I expect,” Lin replied.
The bishop was forming a notion of what the matter must be, but he had no notion whatever of what now revealed itself.
“Mr. Bishop,” the cow-puncher said, “how was that about that fellow you told about that’s in the Bible somewheres?–he come home to his folks, and they–well there was his father saw him comin'”–He stopped, embarrassed.
Then the bishop remembered the wide-open eyes, and how he had noticed them in the church at the agency intently watching him. And, just now, what were best to say he did not know. He looked at the young man gravely.
“Have yu’ got a Bible?” pursued Lin. “For, excuse me, but I’d like yu’ to read that onced.”
So the bishop read, and Lin listened. And all the while this good clergyman was perplexed how to speak–or if indeed to speak at this time at all–to the heart of the man beside him for whom the parable had gone so sorely wrong. When the reading was done, Lin had not taken his eyes from the bishop’s face.
“How long has that there been wrote?” he asked.
He was told about how long.
“Mr. Bishop,” said Lin, “I ain’t got good knowledge of the Bible, and I never figured it to be a book much on to facts. And I tell you I’m more plumb beat about it’s having that elder brother, and him being angry, down in black and white two thousand years ago, than–than if I’d seen a man turn water into wine, for I’d have knowed that ain’t so. But the elder brother is facts–dead-sure facts. And they knowed about that, and put it down just the same as life two thousand years ago!”
“Well,” said the bishop, wisely ignoring the challenge as to miracles, “I am a good twenty years older than you, and all that time I’ve been finding more facts in the Bible every day I have lived.”
Lin meditated. “I guess that could be,” he said. “Yes; after that yu’ve been a-readin’, and what I know for myself that I didn’t know till lately, I guess that could be.”
Then the bishop talked with exceeding care, nor did he ask uncomfortable things, or moralize visibly. Thus he came to hear how it had fared with Lin his friend, and Lin forgot altogether about its being a parson he was delivering the fulness of his heart to. “And come to think,” he concluded, “it weren’t home I had went to back East, layin’ round them big cities, where a man can’t help but feel strange all the week. No, sir! Yu’ can blow in a thousand dollars like I did in New York, and it’ll not give yu’ any more home feelin’ than what cattle has put in a stock-yard. Nor it wouldn’t have in Boston neither. Now this country here” (he waved his hand towards the endless sage-brush), “seein’ it onced more, I know where my home is, and I wouldn’t live nowheres else. Only I ain’t got no father watching for me to come up Wind River.”
The cow-puncher stated this merely as a fact, and without any note of self-pity. But the bishops face grew very tender, and he looked away from Lin. Knowing his man–for had he not seen many of this kind in his desert diocese?–he forbore to make any text from that last sentence the cow-puncher had spoken. Lin talked cheerfully on about what he should now do. The round-up must be somewhere near Du Noir Creek. He would join it this season, but next he should work over to the Powder River country. More business was over there, and better chances for a man to take up some land and have a ranch of his own. As they got out at Fort Washakie, the bishop handed him a small book, in which he had turned several leaves down, carefully avoiding any page that related of miracles.
“You need not read it through, you know,” he said, smiling; “just read where I have marked, and see if you don’t find some more facts. Goodbye– and always come and see me.”
The next morning he watched Lin riding slowly out of the post towards Wind River, leading a single pack-horse. By-and-by the little moving dot went over the ridge. And as the bishop walked back into the parade-ground, thinking over the possibilities in that untrained manly soul, he shook his head sorrowfully.
THE WINNING OF THE BISCUIT-SHOOTER
It was quite clear to me that Mr. McLean could not know the news. Meeting him to-day had been unforeseen–unforeseen and so pleasant that the thing had never come into my head until just now, after both of us had talked and dined our fill, and were torpid with satisfaction.
I had found Lin here at Riverside in the morning. At my horse’s approach to the cabin, it was he and not the postmaster who had come precipitately out of the door.
“I’m turruble pleased to see yu’,” he had said, immediately.
“What’s happened?” said I, in some concern at his appearance.
And he piteously explained: “Why, I’ve been here all alone since yesterday!”
This was indeed all; and my hasty impressions of shooting and a corpse gave way to mirth over the child and his innocent grievance that he had blurted out before I could get off my horse.
Since when, I inquired of him, had his own company become such a shock to him?
“As to that,” replied Mr. McLean, a thought ruffled, “when a man expects lonesomeness he stands it like he stands anything else, of course. But when he has figured on finding company–say–” he broke off (and vindictiveness sparkled in his eye)–“when you’re lucky enough to catch yourself alone, why, I suppose yu’ just take a chair and chat to yourself for hours.–You’ve not seen anything of Tommy?” he pursued with interest.
I had not; and forthwith Lin poured out to me the pent-up complaints and sociability with which he was bursting. The foreman had sent him over here with a sackful of letters for the post, and to bring back the week’s mail for the ranch. A day was gone now, and nothing for a man to do but sit and sit. Tommy was overdue fifteen hours. Well, you could have endured that, but the neighbors had all locked their cabins and gone to Buffalo. It was circus week in Buffalo. Had I ever considered the money there must be in the circus business? Tommy had taken the outgoing letters early yesterday. Nobody had kept him waiting. By all rules he should have been back again last night. Maybe the stage was late reaching Powder River, and Tommy had had to lay over for it. Well, that would justify him. Far more likely he had gone to the circus himself and taken the mail with him. Tommy was no type of man for postmaster. Except drawing the allowance his mother in the East gave him first of every month, he had never shown punctuality that Lin could remember. Never had any second thoughts, and awful few first ones. Told bigger lies than a small man ought, also.
“Has successes, though,” said I, wickedly.
“Huh!” went on Mr. McLean. “Successes! One ice-cream-soda success. And she”–Lin’s still wounded male pride made him plaintive–“why, even that girl quit him, once she got the chance to appreciate how insignificant he was as compared with the size of his words. No, sir. Not one of ’em retains interest in Tommy.”
Lin was unsaddling and looking after my horse, just because he was glad to see me. Since our first acquaintance, that memorable summer of Pitchstone Canyon when he had taken such good care of me and such bad care of himself, I had learned pretty well about horses and camp craft in general. He was an entire boy then. But he had been East since, East by a route of his own discovering–and from his account of that journey it had proved, I think, a sort of spiritual experience. And then the years of our friendship were beginning to roll up. Manhood of the body he had always richly possessed; and now, whenever we met after a season’s absence and spoke those invariable words which all old friends upon this earth use to each other at meeting–“You haven’t changed, you haven’t changed at all!”–I would wonder if manhood had arrived in Lin’s boy soul. And so to-day, while he attended to my horse and explained the nature of Tommy (a subject he dearly loved just now), I looked at him and took an intimate, superior pride in feeling how much more mature I was than he, after all.
There’s nothing like a sense of merit for making one feel aggrieved, and on our return to the cabin Mr. McLean pointed with disgust to some firewood.
“Look at those sorrowful toothpicks,” said he: “Tommy’s work.”
So Lin, the excellent hearted, had angrily busied himself, and chopped a pile of real logs that would last a week. He had also cleaned the stove, and nailed up the bed, the pillow-end of which was on the floor. It appeared the master of the house had been sleeping in it the reverse way on account of the slant. Thus had Lin cooked and dined alone, supped alone, and sat over some old newspapers until bed-time alone with his sense of virtue. And now here it was long after breakfast, and no Tommy yet.
“It’s good yu’ come this forenoon,” Lin said to me. “I’d not have had the heart to get up another dinner just for myself. Let’s eat rich!”
Accordingly, we had richly eaten, Lin and I. He had gone out among the sheds and caught some eggs (that is how he spoke of it), we had opened a number of things in cans, and I had made my famous dish of evaporated apricots, in which I managed to fling a suspicion of caramel throughout the stew.
“Tommy’ll be hot about these,” said Lin, joyfully, as we ate the eggs. “He don’t mind what yu’ use of his canned goods–pickled salmon and truck. He is hospitable all right enough till it comes to an egg. Then he’ll tell any lie. But shucks! Yu’ can read Tommy right through his clothing. ‘Make yourself at home, Lin,’ says he, yesterday. And he showed me his fresh milk and his stuff. ‘Here’s a new ham,’ says he; ‘too bad my damned hens ain’t been layin’. The sons-o’guns have quit on me ever since Christmas.’ And away he goes to Powder River for the mail. ‘You swore too heavy about them hens,’ thinks I. Well, I expect he may have travelled half a mile by the time I’d found four nests.”
I am fond of eggs, and eat them constantly–and in Wyoming they were always a luxury. But I never forget those that day, and how Lin and I enjoyed them thinking of Tommy. Perhaps manhood was not quite established in my own soul at that time–and perhaps that is the reason why it is the only time I have ever known which I would live over again, those years when people said, “You are old enough to know better”–and one didn’t care!
Salmon, apricots, eggs, we dealt with them all properly, and I had some cigars. It was now that the news came back into my head.
“What do you think of–” I began, and stopped.
I spoke out of a long silence, the slack, luxurious silence of digestion. I got no answer, naturally, from the torpid Lin, and then it occurred to me that he would have asked me what I thought, long before this, had he known. So, observing how comfortable he was, I began differently.
“What is the most important event that can happen in this country?” said I.
Mr. McLean heard me where he lay along the floor of the cabin on his back, dozing by the fire; but his eyes remained closed. He waggled one limp, open hand slightly at me, and torpor resumed her dominion over him.
“I want to know what you consider the most important event that can happen in this country,” said I, again, enunciating each word with slow clearness.
The throat and lips of Mr. McLean moved, and a sulky sound came forth that I recognized to be meant for the word “War.” Then he rolled over so that his face was away from me, and put an arm over his eyes.
“I don’t mean country in the sense of United States,” said I. “I mean this country here, and Bear Creek, and–well, the ranches southward for fifty miles, say. Important to this section.”
“Mosquitoes’ll be due in about three weeks,” said Lin. “Yu’ might leave a man rest till then.”
“I want your opinion,” said I.
“Oh, misery! Well, a raise in the price of steers.”
“Yu’ said yu’ wanted my opinion,” said Lin. “Seems like yu’ merely figure on givin’ me yours.”
“Very well,” said I. “Very well, then.”
I took up a copy of the Cheyenne Sun. It was five weeks old, and I soon perceived that I had read it three weeks ago; but I read it again for some minutes now.
“I expect a railroad would be more important,” said Mr. McLean, persuasively, from the floor.
“Than a rise in steers?” said I, occupied with the Cheyenne Sun. “Oh yes. Yes, a railroad certainly would.”
“It’s got to be money, anyhow,” stated Lin, thoroughly wakened. “Money in some shape.”
“How little you understand the real wants of the country!” said I, coming to the point. “It’s a girl.”
Mr. McLean lay quite still on the floor.
“A girl,” I repeated. “A new girl coming to this starved country.”
The cow-puncher took a long, gradual stretch and began to smile. “Well,” said he, “yu’ caught me–if that’s much to do when a man is half-witted with dinner and sleep.” He closed his eyes again and lay with a specious expression of indifference. But that sort of thing is a solitary entertainment, and palls. “Starved,” he presently muttered. “We are kind o’ starved that way I’ll admit. More dollars than girls to the square mile. And to think of all of us nice, healthy, young–bet yu’ I know who she is!” he triumphantly cried. He had sat up and levelled a finger at me with the throw-down jerk of a marksman. “Sidney, Nebraska.”
I nodded. This was not the lady’s name–he could not recall her name–but his geography of her was accurate.
One day in February my friend, Mrs. Taylor over on Bear Creek, had received a letter–no common event for her. Therefore, during several days she had all callers read it just as naturally as she had them all see the new baby, and baby and letter had both been brought out for me. The letter was signed,
“Ever your afectionite frend. “Katie Peck,
and was not easy to read, here and there. But you could piece out the drift of it, and there was Mrs. Taylor by your side, eager to help you when you stumbled. Miss Peck wrote that she was overworked in Sidney, Nebraska, and needed a holiday. When the weather grew warm she should like to come to Bear Creek and be like old times. “Like to come and be like old times” filled Mrs. Taylor with sentiment and the cow-punchers with expectation. But it is a long way from February to warm weather on Bear Creek, and even cow-punchers will forget about a new girl if she does not come. For several weeks I had not heard Miss Peck mentioned, and old girls had to do. Yesterday, however, when I paid a visit to Miss Molly Wood (the Bear Creek schoolmistress), I found her keeping in order the cabin and the children of the Taylors, while they were gone forty-five miles to the stage station to meet their guest.
“Well,” said Lin, judicially, “Miss Wood is a lady.”
“Yes,” said I, with deep gravity. For I was thinking of an occasion when Mr. McLean had discovered that truth somewhat abruptly.
Lin thoughtfully continued. “She is–she’s–she’s–what are you laughin’ at?”
“Oh, nothing. You don’t see quite so much of Miss Wood as you used to, do you?”
“Huh! So that’s got around. Well, o’ course I’d ought t’ve knowed better, I suppose. All the same, there’s lots and lots of girls do like gettin’ kissed against their wishes–and you know it.”
“But the point would rather seem to be that she–“
“Would rather seem! Don’t yu’ start that professor style o’ yours, or I’ll–I’ll talk more wickedness in worse language than ever yu’ve heard me do yet.”
“Impossible!” I murmured, sweetly, and Master Lin went on.
“As to point–that don’t need to be explained to me. She’s a lady all right.” He ruminated for a moment. “She has about scared all the boys off, though,” he continued. “And that’s what you get by being refined,” he concluded, as if Providence had at length spoken in this matter.
“She has not scared off a boy from Virginia, I notice,” said I. “He was there yesterday afternoon again. Ridden all the way over from Sunk Creek. Didn’t seem particularly frightened.”
“Oh, well, nothin’ alarms him–not even refinement,” said Mr. McLean, with his grin. “And she’ll fool your Virginian like she done the balance of us. You wait. Shucks! If all the girls were that chilly, why, what would us poor punchers do?”
“You have me cornered,” said I, and we sat in a philosophical silence, Lin on the floor still, and I at the window. There I looked out upon a scene my eyes never tired of then, nor can my memory now. Spring had passed over it with its first, lightest steps. The pastured levels undulated in emerald. Through the many-changing sage, that just this moment of to-day was lilac, shone greens scarce a week old in the dimples of the foot-hills; and greens new-born beneath today’s sun melted among them. Around the doubling of the creek in the willow thickets glimmered skeined veils of yellow and delicate crimson. The stream poured turbulently away from the snows of the mountains behind us. It went winding in many folds across the meadows into distance and smallness, and so vanished round the great red battlement of wall beyond. Upon this were falling the deep hues of afternoon–violet, rose, and saffron, swimming and meeting as if some prism had dissolved and flowed over the turrets and crevices of the sandstone. Far over there I saw a dot move.
“At last!” said I.
Lin looked out of the window. “It’s more than Tommy,” said he, at once; and his eyes made it out before mine could. “It’s a wagon. That’s Tommy’s bald-faced horse alongside. He’s fooling to the finish,” Lin severely commented, as if, after all this delay, there should at least be a homestretch.
Presently, however, a homestretch seemed likely to occur. The bald-faced horse executed some lively manoeuvres, and Tommy’s voice reached us faintly through the light spring air. He was evidently howling the remarkable strain of yells that the cow-punchers invented as the speech best understood by cows–“Oi-ee, yah, whoop-yahye-ee, oooo-oop, oop, oop-oop-oop-oop-yah-hee!” But that gives you no idea of it. Alphabets are worse than photographs. It is not the lungs of every man that can produce these effects, nor even from armies, eagles, or mules were such sounds ever heard on earth. The cow-puncher invented them. And when the last cow-puncher is laid to rest (if that, alas! have not already befallen) the yells will be forever gone. Singularly enough, the cattle appeared to appreciate them. Tommy always did them very badly, and that was plain even at this distance. Nor did he give us a homestretch, after all. The bald-faced horse made a number of evolutions and returned beside the wagon.
“Showin’ off,” remarked Lin. “Tommy’s showin’ off.” Suspicion crossed his face, and then certainty. “Why, we might have knowed that!” he exclaimed, in dudgeon. “It’s her.” He hastened outside for a better look, and I came to the door myself. “That’s what it is,” said he. “It’s the girl. Oh yes. That’s Taylor’s buckskin pair he traded Balaam for. She come by the stage all right yesterday, yu’ see, but she has been too tired to travel, yu’ see, or else, maybe, Taylor wanted to rest his buckskins–they’re four-year-olds. Or else–anyway, they laid over last night at Powder River, and Tommy he has just laid over too, yu’ see, holdin’ the mail back on us twenty-four hours–and that’s your postmaster!”
It was our postmaster, and this he had done, quite as the virtuously indignant McLean surmised. Had I taken the same interest in the new girl, I suppose that I too should have felt virtuously indignant.
Lin and I stood outside to receive the travellers. As their cavalcade drew near, Mr. McLean grew silent and watchful, his whole attention focused upon the Taylors’ vehicle. Its approach was joyous. Its gear made a cheerful clanking, Taylor cracked his whip and encouragingly chirruped to his buckskins, and Tommy’s apparatus jingled musically. For Tommy wore upon himself and his saddle all the things you can wear in the Wild West. Except that his hair was not long, our postmaster might have conducted a show and minted gold by exhibiting his romantic person before the eyes of princes. He began with a black-and-yellow rattlesnake skin for a hat-band, he continued with a fringed and beaded shirt of buckskin, and concluded with large, tinkling spurs. Of course, there were things between his shirt and his heels, but all leather and deadly weapons. He had also a riata, a cuerta, and tapaderos, and frequently employed these Spanish names for the objects. I wish that I had not lost Tommy’s photograph in Rocky Mountain costume. You must understand that he was really pretty, with blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, and a graceful figure; and, besides, he had twenty-four hours’ start of poor dusty Lin, whose best clothes were elsewhere.
You might have supposed that it would be Mrs. Taylor who should present us to her friend from Sidney, Nebraska; but Tommy on his horse undertook the office before the wagon had well come to a standstill. “Good friends of mine, and gentlemen, both,” said he to Miss Peck; and to us, “A lady whose acquaintance will prove a treat to our section.”
We all bowed at each other beneath the florid expanse of these recommendations, and I was proceeding to murmur something about its being a long journey and a fine day when Miss Peck cut me short, gaily:
“Well,” she exclaimed to Tommy, “I guess I’m pretty near ready for them eggs you’ve spoke so much about.”
I have not often seen Mr. McLean lose his presence of mind. He needed merely to exclaim, “Why, Tommy, you told me your hens had not been laying since Christmas!” and we could have sat quiet and let Tommy try to find all the eggs that he could. But the new girl was a sore embarrassment to the cow-puncher’s wits. Poor Lin stood by the wheels of the wagon. He looked up at Miss Peck, he looked over at Tommy, his features assumed a rueful expression, and he wretchedly blurted,
“Why, Tommy, I’ve been and eat ’em.”
“Well, if that ain’t!” cried Miss Peck. She stared with interest at Lin as he now assisted her to descend.
“All?” faltered Tommy. “Not the four nests?”
“I’ve had three meals, yu’ know,” Lin reminded him, deprecatingly.
“I helped him,” said I. “Ten innocent, fresh eggs. But we have left some ham. Forgive us, please.”
“I declare!” said Miss Peck, abruptly, and rolled her sluggish, inviting eyes upon me. “You’re a case, too, I expect.”
But she took only brief note of me, although it was from head to foot. In her stare the dull shine of familiarity grew vacant, and she turned back to Lin McLean. “You carry that,” said she, and gave the pleased cow-puncher a hand valise.
“I’ll look after your things, Miss Peck,” called Tommy, now springing down from his horse. The egg tragedy had momentarily stunned him.
“You’ll attend to the mail first, Mr. Postmaster!” said the lady, but favoring him with a look from her large eyes. “There’s plenty of gentlemen here.” With that her glance favored Lin. She went into the cabin, he following her close, with the Taylors and myself in the rear. “Well, I guess I’m about collapsed!” said she, vigorously, and sank upon one of Tommy’s chairs.
The fragile article fell into sticks beneath her, and Lin leaped to her assistance. He placed her upon a firmer foundation. Mrs. Taylor brought a basin and towel to bathe the dust from her face, Mr. Taylor produced whiskey, and I found sugar and hot water. Tommy would doubtless have done something in the way of assistance or restoratives, but he was gone to the stable with the horses.
“Shall I get your medicine from the valise, deary?” inquired Mrs. Taylor.
“Not now,” her visitor answered; and I wondered why she should take such a quick look at me.
“We’ll soon have yu’ independent of medicine,” said Lin, gallantly. “Our climate and scenery here has frequently raised the dead.”
“You’re a case, anyway!” exclaimed the sick lady with rich conviction.
The cow-puncher now sat himself on the edge of Tommy’s bed, and, throwing one leg across the other, began to raise her spirits with cheerful talk. She steadily watched him–his face sometimes, sometimes his lounging, masculine figure. While he thus devoted his attentions to her, Taylor departed to help Tommy at the stable, and good Mrs. Taylor, busy with supper for all of us in the kitchen, expressed her joy at having her old friend of childhood for a visit after so many years.
“Sickness has changed poor Katie some,” said she. “But I’m hoping she’ll get back her looks on Bear Creek.”
“She seems less feeble than I had understood,” I remarked.
“Yes, indeed! I do believe she’s feeling stronger. She was that tired and down yesterday with the long stage-ride, and it is so lonesome! But Taylor and I heartened her up, and Tommy came with the mail, and to-day she’s real spruced-up like, feeling she’s among friends.”
“How long will she stay?” I inquired.
“Just as long as ever she wants! Me and Katie hasn’t met since we was young girls in Dubuque, for I left home when I married Taylor, and he brought me to this country right soon; and it ain’t been like Dubuque much, though if I had it to do over again I’d do just the same, as Taylor knows. Katie and me hasn’t wrote even, not till this February, for you always mean to and you don’t. Well, it’ll be like old times. Katie’ll be most thirty-four, I expect. Yes. I was seventeen and she was sixteen the very month I was married. Poor thing! She ought to have got some good man for a husband, but I expect she didn’t have any chance, for there was a big fam’ly o’ them girls, and old Peck used to act real scandalous, getting drunk so folks didn’t visit there evenings scarcely at all. And so she quit home, it seems, and got a position in the railroad eating-house at Sidney, and now she has poor health with feeding them big trains day and night.”
“A biscuit-shooter!” said I.
Loyal Mrs. Taylor stirred some batter in silence. “Well,” said she then, “I’m told that’s what the yard-hands of the railroad call them poor waiter-girls. You might hear it around the switches at them division stations.”
I had heard it in higher places also, but meekly accepted the reproof.
If you have made your trans-Missouri journeys only since the new era of dining-cars, there is a quantity of things you have come too late for, and will never know. Three times a day in the brave days of old you sprang from your scarce-halted car at the summons of a gong. You discerned by instinct the right direction, and, passing steadily through doorways, had taken, before you knew it, one of some sixty chairs in a room of tables and catsup bottles. Behind the chairs, standing attention, a platoon of Amazons, thick-wristed, pink-and-blue, began immediately a swift chant. It hymned the total bill-of-fare at a blow. In this inexpressible ceremony the name of every dish went hurtling into the next, telescoped to shapelessness. Moreover, if you stopped your Amazon in the middle, it dislocated her, and she merely went back and took a fresh start. The chant was always the same, but you never learned it. As soon as it began, your mind snapped shut like the upper berth in a Pullman. You must have uttered appropriate words–even a parrot will–for next you were eating things–pie, ham, hot cakes–as fast as you could. Twenty minutes of swallowing, and all aboard for Ogden, with your pile-driven stomach dumb with amazement. The Strasburg goose is not dieted with greater velocity, and “biscuit-shooter” is a grand word. Very likely some Homer of the railroad yards first said it–for what men upon the present earth so speak with imagination’s tongue as we Americans?
If Miss Peck had been a biscuit-shooter, I could account readily for her conversation, her equipped deportment, the maturity in her round, blue, marble eye. Her abrupt laugh, something beyond gay, was now sounding in response to Mr. McLean’s lively sallies, and I found him fanning her into convalescence with his hat. She herself made but few remarks, but allowed the cow-puncher to entertain her, merely exclaiming briefly now and then, “I declare!” and “If you ain’t!” Lin was most certainly engaging, if that was the lady’s meaning. His wide-open eyes sparkled upon her, and he half closed them now and then to look at her more effectively. I suppose she was worth it to him. I have forgotten to say that she was handsome in a large California-fruit style. They made a good-looking pair of animals. But it was in the presence of Tommy that Master Lin shone more energetically than ever, and under such shining Tommy was transparently restless. He tried, and failed, to bring the conversation his way, and took to rearranging the mail and the furniture.
“Supper’s ready,” he said, at length. “Come right in, Miss Peck; right in here. This is your seat–this one, please. Now you can see my fields out of the window.”
“You sit here,” said the biscuit-shooter to Lin; and thus she was between them. “Them’s elegant!” she presently exclaimed to Tommy. “Did you cook ’em?”
I explained that the apricots were of my preparation.
“Indeed!” said she, and returned to Tommy, who had been telling her of his ranch, his potatoes, his horses. “And do you punch cattle, too?” she inquired of him.
“Me?” said Tommy, slightingly; “gave it up years ago; too empty a life for me. I leave that to such as like it. When a man owns his own property”–Tommy swept his hand at the whole landscape–“he takes to more intellectual work.”
“Lickin’ postage-stamps,” Mr. McLean suggested, sourly.
“You lick them and I cancel them,” answered the postmaster; and it does not seem a powerful rejoinder. But Miss Peck uttered her laugh.
“That’s one on you,” she told Lin. And throughout this meal it was Tommy who had her favor. She partook of his generous supplies; she listened to his romantic inventions, the trails he had discovered, the bears he had slain; and after supper it was with Tommy, and not with Lin, that she went for a little walk.
“Katie was ever a tease,” said Mrs. Taylor of her childhood friend, and Mr. Taylor observed that there was always safety in numbers. “She’ll get used to the ways of this country quicker than our little school-marm,” said he.
Mr. McLean said very little, but read the new-arrived papers. It was only when bedtime dispersed us, the ladies in the cabin and the men choosing various spots outside, that he became talkative again for a while. We lay in the blank–we had spread on some soft, dry sand in preference to the stable, where Taylor and Tommy had gone. Under the contemplative influence of the stars, Lin fell into generalization.
“Ever notice,” said he, “how whiskey and lyin’ act the same on a man?”
I did not feel sure that I had.
“Just the same way. You keep either of ’em up long enough, and yu’ get to require it. If Tommy didn’t lie some every day, he’d get sick.”
I was sleepy, but I murmured assent to this, and trusted he would not go on.
“Ever notice,” said he, “how the victims of the whiskey and lyin’ habit get to increasing the dose?”
“Yes,” said I.
“Him roping six bears!” pursued Mr. McLean, after further contemplation. “Or any bear. Ever notice how the worser a man’s lyin’ the silenter other men’ll get? Why’s that, now?”
I believe that I made a faint sound to imply that I was following him.
“Men don’t get took in. But ladies now, they–“
Here he paused again, and during the next interval of contemplation I sank beyond his reach.
In the morning I left Riverside for Buffalo, and there or thereabouts I remained for a number of weeks. Miss Peck did not enter my thoughts, nor did I meet any one to remind me of her, until one day I stopped at the drug-store. It was not for drugs, but gossip, that I went. In the daytime there was no place like the apothecary’s for meeting men and hearing the news. There I heard how things were going everywhere, including Bear Creek.
All the cow-punchers liked the new girl up there, said gossip. She was a great addition to society. Reported to be more companionable than the school-marm, Miss Molly Wood, who had been raised too far east, and showed it. Vermont, or some such dude place. Several had been in town buying presents for Miss Katie Peck. Tommy Postmaster had paid high for a necklace of elk-tushes the government scout at McKinney sold him. Too bad Miss Peck did not enjoy good health. Shorty had been in only yesterday to get her medicine again. Third bottle. Had I heard the big joke on Lin McLean? He had promised her the skin of a big bear he knew the location of, and Tommy got the bear.
Two days after this I joined one of the roundup camps at sunset. They had been working from Salt Creek to Bear Creek, and the Taylor ranch was in visiting distance from them again, after an interval of gathering and branding far across the country. The Virginian, the gentle-voiced Southerner, whom I had last seen lingering with Miss Wood, was in camp. Silent three-quarters of the time, as was his way, he sat gravely watching Lin McLean. That person seemed silent also, as was not his way quite so much.
“Lin,” said the Southerner, “I reckon you’re failin’.”
Mr. McLean raised a sombre eye, but did not trouble to answer further.
“A healthy man’s laigs ought to fill his pants,” pursued the Virginian. The challenged puncher stretched out a limb and showed his muscles with young pride.
“And yu’ cert’nly take no comfort in your food,” his ingenious friend continued, slowly and gently.
“I’ll eat you a match any day and place yu’ name,” said Lin.
“It ain’t sca’cely hon’able,” went on the Virginian, “to waste away durin’ the round-up. A man owes his strength to them that hires it. If he is paid to rope stock he ought to rope stock, and not leave it dodge or pull away.”
“It’s not many dodge my rope,” boasted Lin, imprudently.
“Why, they tell me as how that heifer of the Sidney-Nebraska brand got plumb away from yu’, and little Tommy had to chase afteh her.”
Lin sat up angrily amid the laughter, but reclined again. “I’ll improve,” said he, “if yu’ learn me how yu’ rope that Vermont stock so handy. Has she promised to be your sister yet?” he added.
“Is that what they do?” inquired the Virginian, serenely. “I have never got related that way. Why, that’ll make Tommy your brother-in-law, Lin!”
And now, indeed, the camp laughed a loud, merciless laugh.
But Lin was silent. Where everybody lives in a glass-house the victory is to him who throws the adroitest stone. Mr. McLean was readier witted than most, but the gentle, slow Virginian could be a master when he chose.
“Tommy has been recountin’ his wars up at the Taylors’,” he now told the camp. “He has frequently campaigned with General Crook, General Miles, and General Ruger, all at onced. He’s an exciting fighter, in conversation, and kep’ us all scared for mighty nigh an hour. Miss Peck appeared interested in his statements.”
“What was you doing at the Taylors’ yourself?” demanded Lin.
“Visitin’ Miss Wood,” answered the Virginian, with entire ease. For he also knew when to employ the plain truth as a bluff. “You’d ought to write to Tommy’s mother, Lin, and tell her what a dare-devil her son is gettin’ to be. She would cut off his allowance and bring him home, and you would have the runnin’ all to yourself.”
“I’ll fix him yet,” muttered Mr. McLean. “Him and his wars.”
With that he rose and left us.
The next afternoon he informed me that if I was riding up the creek to spend the night he would go for company. In that direction we started, therefore, without any mention of the Taylors or Miss Peck. I was puzzled. Never had I seen him thus disconcerted by woman. With him woman had been a transient disturbance. I had witnessed a series of flighty romances, where the cow-puncher had come, seen, often conquered, and moved on. Nor had his affairs been of the sort to teach a young man respect. I am putting it rather mildly.
For the first part of our way this afternoon he was moody, and after that began to speak with appalling wisdom about life. Life, he said, was a serious matter. Did I realize that? A man was liable to forget it. A man was liable to go sporting and helling around till he waked up some day and found all his best pleasures had become just a business. No interest, no surprise, no novelty left, and no cash in the bank. Shorty owed him fifty dollars. Shorty would be able to pay that after the round-up, and he, Lin, would get his time and rustle altogether some five hundred dollars. Then there was his homestead claim on Box Elder, and the surveyors were coming in this fall. No better location for a home in this country than Box Elder. Wood, water, fine land. All it needed was a house and ditches and buildings and fences, and to be planted with crops. Such chances and considerations should sober a man and make him careful what he did. “I’d take in Cheyenne on our wedding-trip, and after that I’d settle right down to improving Box Elder,” concluded Mr. McLean, suddenly.
His real intentions flashed upon me for the first time. I had not remotely imagined such a step.
“Marry her!” I screeched in dismay. “Marry her!”
I don’t know which word was the worse to emphasize at such a moment, but I emphasized both thoroughly.
“I didn’t expect yu’d act that way,” said the lover. He dropped behind me fifty yards and spoke no more.
Not at once did I beg his pardon for the brutality I had been surprised into. It is one of those speeches that, once said, is said forever.
But it was not that which withheld me. As I thought of the tone in which my friend had replied, it seemed to me sullen, rather than deeply angry or wounded–resentment at my opinion not of her character so much as of his choice! Then I began to be sorry for the fool, and schemed for a while how to intervene. But have you ever tried intervention? I soon abandoned the idea, and took a way to be forgiven, and to learn more.
“Lin,” I began, slowing my horse, “you must not think about what I said.”
“I’m thinkin’ of pleasanter subjects,” said he, and slowed his own horse.
“Oh, look here!” I exclaimed.
“Well?” said he. He allowed his horse to come within about ten yards.
“Astonishment makes a man say anything,” I proceeded. “And I’ll say again you’re too good for her–and I’ll say I don’t generally believe in the wife being older than the husband.”
“What’s two years?” said Lin.
I was near screeching out again, but saved myself. He was not quite twenty-five, and I remembered Mrs. Taylor’s unprejudiced computation of the biscuit-shooter’s years. It is a lady’s prerogative, however, to estimate her own age.
“She had her twenty-seventh birthday last month,” said Lin, with sentiment, bringing his horse entirely abreast of mine. “I promised her a bear-skin.”
“Yes,” said I, “I heard about that in Buffalo.”
Lin’s face grew dusky with anger. “No doubt yu’ heard about it,” said he. “I don’t guess yu’ heard much about anything else. I ain’t told the truth to any of ’em–but her.” He looked at me with a certain hesitation. “I think I will,” he continued. “I don’t mind tellin’ you.”
He began to speak in a strictly business tone, while he evened the coils of rope that hung on his saddle.
“She had spoke to me about her birthday, and I had spoke to her about something to give her. I had offered to buy her in town whatever she named, and I was figuring to borrow from Taylor. But she fancied the notion of a bear-skin. I had mentioned about some cubs. I had found the cubs where the she-bear had them cached by the foot of a big boulder in the range over Ten Sleep, and I put back the leaves and stuff on top o’ them little things as near as I could the way I found them, so that the bear would not suspicion me. For I was aiming to get her. And Miss Peck, she sure wanted the hide for her birthday. So I went back. The she-bear was off, and I crumb up inside the rock, and I waited a turruble long spell till the sun travelled clean around the canyon. Mrs. Bear come home though, a big cinnamon; and I raised my gun, but laid it down to see what she’d do. She scrapes around and snuffs, and the cubs start whining, and she talks back to ’em. Next she sits up awful big, and lifts up a cub and holds it to her close with both her paws, same as a person. And she rubbed her ear agin the cub, and the cub sort o’ nipped her, and she cuffed the cub, and the other cub came toddlin’, and away they starts rolling all three of ’em! I watched that for a long while. That big thing just nursed and played with them little cubs, beatin’ em for a change onced in a while, and talkin’, and onced in a while she’d sit up solemn and look all around so life-like that I near busted. Why, how was I goin’ to spoil that? So I come away, very quiet, you bet! for I’d have hated to have Mrs. Bear notice me. Miss Peck, she laughed. She claimed I was scared to shoot.”
“After you had told her why it was?” said I.
“Before and after. I didn’t tell her first, because I felt kind of foolish. Then Tommy went and he killed the bear all right, and she has the skin now. Of course the boys joshed me a heap about gettin’ beat by Tommy.”
“But since she has taken you?” said I.
“She ain’t said it. But she will when she understands Tommy.”
I fancied that the lady understood. The once I had seen her she appeared to me as what might be termed an expert in men, and one to understand also the reality of Tommy’s ranch and allowance, and how greatly these differed from Box Elder. Probably the one thing she could not understand was why Lin spared the mother and her cubs. A deserted home in Dubuque, a career in a railroad eating-house, a somewhat vague past, and a present lacking context–indeed, I hoped with all my heart that Tommy would win!
“Lin,” said I, “I’m backing him.”
“Back away!” said he. “Tommy can please a woman–him and his blue eyes– but he don’t savvy how to make a woman want him, not any better than he knows about killin’ Injuns.”
“Did you hear about the Crows?” said I.
“About young bucks going on the war-path? Shucks! That’s put up by the papers of this section. They’re aimin’ to get Uncle Sam to order his troops out, and then folks can sell hay and stuff to ’em. If Tommy believed any Crows–” he stopped, and suddenly slapped his leg.
“What’s the matter now?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing.” He took to singing, and his face grew roguish to its full extent. “What made yu’ say that to me?” he asked, presently.
“About marrying. Yu’ don’t think I’d better.”
“Onced in a while yu’ tell me I’m flighty. Well, I am. Whoop-ya!”
“Colts ought not to marry,” said I.
“Sure!” said he. And it was not until we came in sight of the Virginian’s black horse tied in front of Miss Wood’s cabin next the Taylors’ that Lin changed the lively course of thought that was evidently filling his mind.
“Tell yu’,” said he, touching my arm confidentially and pointing to the black horse, “for all her Vermont refinement she’s a woman just the same. She likes him dangling round her so earnest–him that no body ever saw dangle before. And he has quit spreein’ with the boys. And what does he get by it? I am glad I was not raised good enough to appreciate the Miss Woods of this world,” he added, defiantly–“except at long range.”
At the Taylors’ cabin we found Miss Wood sitting with her admirer, and Tommy from Riverside come to admire Miss Peck. The biscuit-shooter might pass for twenty-seven, certainly. Something had agreed with her–whether the medicine, or the mountain air, or so much masculine company; whatever had done it, she had bloomed into brutal comeliness. Her hair looked curlier, her figure was shapelier, her teeth shone whiter, and her cheeks were a lusty, overbearing red. And there sat Molly Wood talking sweetly to her big, grave Virginian; to look at them, there was no doubt that he had been “raised good enough” to appreciate her, no matter what had been his raising!
Lin greeted every one jauntily. “How are yu’, Miss Peck? How are yu’, Tommy?” said he. “Hear the news, Tommy? Crow Injuns on the war-path.”
“I declare!” said the biscuit-shooter.
The Virginian was about to say something, but his eye met Lin’s, and then he looked at Tommy. Then what he did say was, “I hadn’t been goin’ to mention it to the ladies until it was right sure.”
“You needn’t to be afraid, Miss Peck,” said Tommy. “There’s lots of men here.”
“Who’s afraid?” said the biscuit-shooter.
“Oh,” said Lin, “maybe it’s like most news we get in this country. Two weeks stale and a lie when it was fresh.”
“Of course,” said Tommy.
“Hello, Tommy!” called Taylor from the lane. “Your horse has broke his rein and run down the field.”
Tommy rose in disgust and sped after the animal.
“I must be cooking supper now,” said Katie, shortly.
“I’ll stir for yu’,” said Lin, grinning at her.
“Come along then,” said she; and they departed to the adjacent kitchen.
Miss Wood’s gray eyes brightened with mischief. She looked at her Virginian, and she looked at me.
“Do you know,” she said, “I used to be so afraid that when Bear Creek wasn’t new any more it might become dull!”
“Miss Peck doesn’t find it dull either,” said I.
Molly Wood immediately assumed a look of doubt. “But mightn’t it become just–just a little trying to have two gentlemen so very–determined, you know?”
“Only one is determined,” said the Virginian
Molly looked inquiring.
“Lin is determined Tommy shall not beat him. That’s all it amounts to.”
“Dear me, what a notion!”
“No, ma’am, no notion. Tommy–well, Tommy is considered harmless, ma’am. A cow-puncher of reputation in this country would cert’nly never let Tommy get ahaid of him that way.”
“It’s pleasant to know sometimes how much we count!” exclaimed Molly.
“Why, ma’am,” said the Virginian, surprised at her flash of indignation, “where is any countin’ without some love?”
“Do you mean to say that Mr. McLean does not care for Miss Peck?”
“I reckon he thinks he does. But there is a mighty wide difference between thinkin’ and feelin’, ma’am.”
I saw Molly’s eyes drop from his, and I saw the rose deepen in her cheeks. But just then a loud voice came from the kitchen.
“You, Lin, if you try any of your foolin’ with me, I’ll histe yu’s over the jiste!”
“All cow-punchers–” I attempted to resume.
“Quit now, Lin McLean,” shouted the voice, “or I’ll put yus through that window, and it shut.”
“Well, Miss Peck, I’m gettin’ most a full dose o’ this treatment. Ever since yu’ come I’ve been doing my best. And yu’ just cough in my face. And now I’m going to quit and cough back.”
“Would you enjoy walkin’ out till supper, ma’am?” inquired the Virginian as Molly rose. “You was speaking of gathering some flowers yondeh.”
“Why, yes,” said Molly, blithely. “And you’ll come?” she added to me.
But I was on the Virginian’s side. “I must look after my horse,” said I,