It was for several minutes, I suppose, that I stood drawing these silent morals. No man occupied himself with me. Quiet voices, and games of chance, and glasses lifted to drink, continued to be the peaceful order of the night. And into my thoughts broke the voice of that card-dealer who had already spoken so sagely. He also took his turn at moralizing.
"What did I tell you?" he remarked to the man for whom he continued to deal, and who continued to lose money to him,
"Tell me when?"
"Didn't I tell you he'd not shoot?" the dealer pursued with complacence. "You got ready to dodge. You had no call to be concerned. He's not the kind a man need feel anxious about."
The player looked over at the Virginian, doubtfully. "Well," he said, "I don't know what you folks call a dangerous man."
"Not him!" exclaimed the dealer with admiration. "He's a brave man. That's different."
The player seemed to follow this reasoning no better than I did.
"It's not a brave man that's dangerous," continued the dealer. "It's the cowards that scare me." He paused that this might sink home.
"Fello' came in here las' Toosday," he went on. "He got into some misunderstanding about the drinks. Well, sir, before we could put him out of business, he'd hurt two perfectly innocent onlookers. They'd no more to do with it than you have," the dealer explained to me.
"Were they badly hurt?" I asked.
"One of 'em was. He's died since."
"What became of the man?"
"Why, we put him out of business, I told you. He died that night. But there was no occasion for any of it; and that's why I never like to be around where there's a coward. You can't tell. He'll always go to shooting before it's necessary, and there's no security who he'll hit. But a man like that black-headed guy is (the dealer indicated the Virginian) need never worry you. And there's another point why there's no need to worry about him: IT'D BE TOO LATE."
These good words ended the moralizing of the dealer. He had given us a piece of his mind. He now gave the whole of it to dealing cards. I loitered here and there, neither welcome nor unwelcome at present, watching the cow-boys at their play. Saving Trampas, there was scarce a face among them that had not in it something very likable. Here were lusty horsemen ridden from the heat of the sun, and the wet of the storm, to divert themselves awhile. Youth untamed sat here for an idle moment, spending easily its hard-earned wages. City saloons rose into my vision, and I instantly preferred this Rocky Mountain place. More of death it undoubtedly saw, but less of vice, than did its New York equivalents.
And death is a thing much cleaner than vice. Moreover, it was by no means vice that was written upon these wild and manly faces. Even where baseness was visible, baseness was not uppermost. Daring, laughter, endurance--these were what I saw upon the countenances of the cow-boys. And this very first day of my knowledge of them marks a date with me. For something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart, and I have never forgotten it, nor ever shall, as long as I live. In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took on heroic stature.
The dealer had styled the Virginian "a black-headed guy." This did well enough as an unflattered portrait. Judge Henry's trustworthy man, with whom I was to drive two hundred and sixty-three miles, certainly had a very black head of hair. It was the first thing to notice now, if one glanced generally at the table where he sat at cards. But the eye came back to him--drawn by that inexpressible something which had led the dealer to speak so much at length about him.
Still, "black-headed guy" justly fits him and his next performance. He had made his plan for this like a true and (I must say) inspired devil. And now the highly appreciative town of Medicine Bow was to be treated to a manifestation of genius.
He sat playing his stud-poker. After a decent period of losing and winning, which gave Trampas all proper time for a change of luck and a repairing of his fortunes, he looked at Steve and said amiably:"How does bed strike you?"
I was beside their table, learning gradually that stud-poker has in it more of what I will call red pepper than has our Eastern game. The Virginian followed his own question:"Bed strikes me," he stated.
Steve feigned indifference. He was far more deeply absorbed in his bet and the American drummer than he was in this game; but he chose to take out a fat, florid gold watch, consult it elaborately, and remark, "It's only eleven."
"Yu' forget I'm from the country," said the black-headed guy. "The chickens have been roostin' a right smart while."
His sunny Southern accent was again strong. In that brief passage with Trampas it had been almost wholly absent. But different moods of the spirit bring different qualities of utterance--where a man comes by these naturally. The Virginian cashed in his checks.
"Awhile ago," said Steve, "you had won three months' salary."
"I'm still twenty dollars to the good," said the Virginian. "That's better than breaking a laig."
Again, in some voiceless, masonic way, most people in that saloon had become aware that something was in process of happening. Several left their games and came to the front by the bar.
"If he ain't in bed yet--" mused the Virginian.
"I'll find out," said I. And I hurried across to the dim sleeping room, happy to have a part in this.
They were all in bed; and in some beds two were sleeping. How they could do it--but in those days I was fastidious. The American had come in recently and was still awake.
"Thought you were to sleep at the store?" said he.
So then I invented a little lie, and explained that I was in search of the Virginian
"Better search the dives," said he. "These cow-boys don't get to town often."
At this point I stumbled sharply over something.
"It's my box of Consumption Killer," explained the drummer; "Well, I hope that man will stay out all night."
"Bed narrow?" I inquired.
"For two it is. And the pillows are mean. Takes both before you feel anything's under your head."
He yawned, and I wished him pleasant dreams
At my news the Virginian left the bar at once; and crossed to the sleeping room. Steve and I followed softly, and behind us several more strung out in an expectant line. "What is this going to be?" they inquired curiously of each other. And upon learning the great novelty of the event, they clustered with silence intense outside the door where the Virginian had gone in.
We heard the voice of the drummer, cautioning his bed-fellow. "Don't trip over the Killer," he was saying. "The Prince of Wales barked his shin just now." It seemed my English clothes had earned me this title.
The boots of the Virginian were next heard to drop.
"Can yu' make out what he's at?" whispered Steve.
He was plainly undressing. The rip of swift unbuttoning told us that the black-headed guy must now be removing his overalls.
"Why, thank yu', no," he was replying to a question of the drummer. "Outside or in's all one to me."
"Then, if you'd just as soon take the wall--"
"Why, cert'nly." There was a sound of bedclothes, and creaking. "This hyeh pillo' needs a Southern climate," was the Virginian's next observation.
Many listeners had now gathered at the door. The dealer and the player were both here. The storekeeper was present, and I recognized the agent of the Union Pacific Railroad among the crowd. We made a large company, and I felt that trembling sensation which is common when the cap of a camera is about to be removed upon a group.
"I should think," said the drummer's voice, "that you'd feel your knife and gun clean through that pillow."
"I do," responded the Virginian.
"I should think you'd put them on a chair and be comfortable."
"I'd be uncomfortable, then."
"Used to the feel of them, I suppose?"
"That's it. Used to the feel of them. I would miss them, and that would make me wakeful."
"Well, good night."
"Good night. If I get to talkin' and tossin', or what not, you'll understand you're to--"
"Yes, I'll wake you."
"No, don't yu', for God's sake!"
"Don't yu' touch me."
"What'll I do?"
"Roll away quick to your side. It don't last but a minute." The Virginian spoke with a reassuring drawl.
Upon this there fell a brief silence, and I heard the drummer clear his throat once or twice.
"It's merely the nightmare, I suppose?" he said after a throat clearing.
"Lord, yes. That's all. And don't happen twice a year. Was you thinkin' it was fits?"
"Oh, no! I just wanted to know. I've been told before that it was not safe for a person to be waked suddenly that way out of a nightmare."
"Yes, I have heard that too. But it never harms me any. I didn't want you to run risks."
"Oh, it'll be all right now that yu' know how it is." The Virginian's drawl was full of assurance.
There was a second pause, after which the drummer said.
"Tell me again how it is."
The Virginian answered very drowsily: "Oh, just don't let your arm or your laig touch me if I go to jumpin' around. I'm dreamin' of Indians when I do that. And if anything touches me then, I'm liable to grab my knife right in my sleep."
"Oh, I understand," said the drummer, clearing his throat. "Yes."
Steve was whispering delighted oaths to himself, and in his joy applying to the Virginian one unprintable name after another.
We listened again, but now no further words came. Listening very hard, I could half make out the progress of a heavy breathing, and a restless turning I could clearly detect. This was the wretched drummer. He was waiting. But he did not wait long. Again there was a light creak, and after it a light step. He was not even going to put his boots on in the fatal neighborhood of the dreamer. By a happy thought Medicine Bow formed into two lines, making an avenue from the door. And then the commercial traveller forgot his Consumption Killer. He fell heavily over it.
Immediately from the bed the Virginian gave forth a dreadful howl.
And then everything happened at once; and how shall mere words narrate it? The door burst open, and out flew the commercial traveller in his stockings. One hand held a lump of coat and trousers with suspenders dangling, his boots were clutched in the other. The sight of us stopped his flight short. He gazed, the boots fell from his hand; and at his profane explosion, Medicine Bow set up a united, unearthly noise and began to play Virginia reel with him. The other occupants of the beds had already sprung out of them, clothed chiefly with their pistols, and ready for war."What is it?" they demanded. "What is it?"
"Why, I reckon it's drinks on Steve," said the Virginian from his bed. And he gave the first broad grin that I had seen from him.
"I'll set 'em up all night!" Steve shouted, as the reel went on regardless. The drummer was bawling to be allowed to put at least his boots on. "This way, Pard," was the answer; and another man whirled him round. "This way, Beau!" they called to him; "This way, Budd!" and he was passed like a shuttle-cock down the line. Suddenly the leaders bounded into the sleeping-room. "Feed the machine!" they said. "Feed her!" And seizing the German drummer who sold jewellery, they flung him into the trough of the reel. I saw him go bouncing like an ear of corn to be shelled, and the dance ingulfed him. I saw a Jew sent rattling after him; and next they threw in the railroad employee, and the other Jew; and while I stood mesmerized, my own feet left the earth. I shot from the room and sped like a bobbing cork into this mill race, whirling my turn in the wake of the others amid cries of, "Here comes the Prince of Wales!" There was soon not much English left about my raiment.
They were now shouting for music. Medicine Bow swept in like a cloud of dust to where a fiddler sat playing in a hall; and gathering up fiddler and dancers, swept out again, a larger Medicine Bow, growing all the while. Steve offered us the freedom of the house, everywhere. He implored us to call for whatever pleased us, and as many times as we should please. He ordered the town to be searched for more citizens to come and help him pay his bet. But changing his mind, kegs and bottles were now carried along with us. We had found three fiddlers, and these played busily for us; and thus we set out to visit all cabins and houses where people might still by some miracle be asleep. The first man put out his head to decline. But such a possibility had been foreseen by the proprietor of the store. This seemingly respectable man now came dragging some sort of apparatus from his place, helped by the Virginian. The cow-boys cheered, for they knew what this was. The man in his window likewise recognized it, and uttering a groan, came immediately out and joined us. What it was, I also learned in a few minutes. For we found a house where the people made no sign at either our fiddlers or our knocking. And then the infernal machine was set to work. Its parts seemed to be no more than an empty keg and a plank. Some citizen informed me that I should soon have a new idea of noise; and I nerved myself for something severe in the way of gunpowder. But the Virginian and the proprietor now sat on the ground holding the keg braced, and two others got down apparently to play see-saw over the top of it with the plank. But the keg and plank had been rubbed with rosin, and they drew the plank back and forth over the keg. Do you know the sound made in a narrow street by a dray loaded with strips of iron? That noise is a lullaby compared with the staggering, blinding bellow which rose from the keg. If you were to try it in your native town, you would not merely be arrested, you would be hanged, and everybody would be glad, and the clergyman would not bury you. My head, my teeth, the whole system of my bones leaped and chattered at the din, and out of the house like drops squirted from a lemon came a man and his wife. No time was given them. They were swept along with the rest; and having been routed from their own bed, they now became most furious in assailing the remaining homes of Medicine Bow. Everybody was to come out. Many were now riding horses at top speed out into the plains and back, while the procession of the plank and keg continued its work, and the fiddlers played incessantly.
Suddenly there was a quiet. I did not see who brought the message; but the word ran among us that there was a woman--the engineer's woman down by the water-tank--very sick. The doctor had been to see her from Laramie. Everybody liked the engineer. Plank and keg were heard no more. The horsemen found it out and restrained their gambols. Medicine Bow went gradually home. I saw doors shutting, and lights go out; I saw a late few reassemble at the card tables, and the drummers gathered themselves together for sleep; the proprietor of the store (you could not see a more respectable-looking person) hoped that I would be comfortable on the quilts; and I heard Steve urging the Virginian to take one more glass.
"We've not met for so long," he said.
But the Virginian, the black-headed guy who had set all this nonsense going, said No to Steve. "I have got to stay responsible," was his excuse to his friend. And the friend looked at me. Therefore I surmised that the Judge's trustworthy man found me an embarrassment to his holiday. But if he did, he never showed it to me. He had been sent to meet a stranger and drive him to Sunk Creek in safety, and this charge he would allow no temptation to imperil. He nodded good night to me. "If there's anything I can do for yu', you'll tell me."
I thanked him. "What a pleasant evening!" I added.
"I'm glad yu' found it so."
Again his manner put a bar to my approaches. Even though I had seen him wildly disporting himself, those were matters which he chose not to discuss with me.
Medicine Bow was quiet as I went my way to my quilts. So still, that through the air the deep whistles of the freight trains came from below the horizon across great miles of silence. I passed cow-boys, whom half an hour before I had seen prancing and roaring, now rolled in their blankets beneath the open and shining night.
"What world am I in?" I said aloud. "Does this same planet hold Fifth Avenue?"
And I went to sleep, pondering over my native land.