"Dear Friend [thus in the spring the Virginian wrote me], Yours received. It must be a poor thing to be sick. That time I was shot at Canada de Oro would have made me sick if it had been a littel lower or if I was much of a drinking man. You will be well if you give over city life and take a hunt with me about August or say September for then the elk will be out of the velvett.
"Things do not please me here just now and I am going to settel it by vamosing. But I would be glad to see you. It would be pleasure not business for me to show you plenty elk and get you strong. I am not crybabying to the Judge or making any kick about things. He will want me back after he has swallowed a litter tincture of time. It is the best dose I know.
"Now to answer your questions. Yes the Emmily hen might have ate loco weed if hens do. I never saw anything but stock and horses get poisoned with loco weed. No the school is not built yet. They are always big talkers on Bear Creek. No I have not seen Steve. He is around but I am sorry for him. Yes I have been to Medicine Bow. I had the welcom I wanted. Do you remember a man I played poker and he did not like it? He is working on the upper ranch near Ten Sleep. He does not amount to a thing except with weaklings. Uncle Hewie has twins. The boys got him vexed some about it, but I think they are his. Now that is all I know to-day and I would like to see you poco presently as they say at Los Cruces. There's no sense in you being sick."
The rest of this letter discussed the best meeting point for us should I decide to join him for a hunt.
That hunt was made, and during the weeks of its duration something was said to explain a little more fully the Virginian's difficulty at the Sunk Creek Ranch, and his reason for leaving his excellent employer the Judge. Not much was said, to be sure; the Virginian seldom spent many words upon his own troubles. But it appeared that owing to some jealousy of him on the part of the foreman, or the assistant foreman, he found himself continually doing another man's work, but under circumstances so skilfully arranged that he got neither credit nor pay for it. He would not stoop to telling tales out of school. Therefore his ready and prophetic mind devised the simple expedient of going away altogether. He calculated that Judge Henry would gradually perceive there was a connection between his departure and the cessation of the satisfactory work. After a judicious interval it was his plan to appear again in the neighborhood of Sunk Creek and await results.
Concerning Steve he would say no more than he had written. But it was plain that for some cause this friendship had ceased.
Money for his services during the hunt he positively declined to accept, asserting that he had not worked enough to earn his board. And the expedition ended in an untravelled corner of the Yellowstone Park, near Pitchstone Canyon, where he and young Lin McLean and others were witnesses of a sad and terrible drama that has been elsewhere chronicled.
His prophetic mind had foreseen correctly the shape of events at Sunk Creek. The only thing that it had not foreseen was the impression to be made upon the Judge's mind by his conduct.
Toward the close of that winter, Judge and Mrs. Henry visited the East. Through them a number of things became revealed. The Virginian was back at Sunk Creek.
"And," said Mrs. Henry, "he would never have left you if I had had my way, Judge H.!"
"No, Madam Judge," retorted her husband; "I am aware of that. For you have always appreciated a fine appearance in a man."
"I certainly have," confessed the lady, mirthfully. "And the way he used to come bringing my horse, with the ridges of his black hair so carefully brushed and that blue spotted handkerchief tied so effectively round his throat, was something that I missed a great deal after he went away."
"Thank you, my dear, for this warning. I have plans that will keep him absent quite constantly for the future."
And then they spoke less flightily. "I always knew," said the lady, "that you had found a treasure when that man came."
The Judge laughed. "When it dawned on me," he said, "how cleverly he caused me to learn the value of his services by depriving me of them, I doubted whether it was safe to take him back."
"Safe!" cried Mrs. Henry.
"Safe, my dear. Because I'm afraid he is pretty nearly as shrewd as I am. And that's rather dangerous in a subordinate." The Judge laughed again. "But his action regarding the man they call Steve has made me feel easy."
And then it came out that the Virginian was supposed to have discovered in some way that Steve had fallen from the grace of that particular honesty which respects another man's cattle. It was not known for certain. But calves had begun to disappear in Cattle Land, and cows had been found killed. And calves with one brand upon them had been found with mothers that bore the brand of another owner. This industry was taking root in Cattle Land, and of those who practised it, some were beginning to be suspected. Steve was not quite fully suspected yet. But that the Virginian had parted company with him was definitely known. And neither man would talk about it.
There was the further news that the Bear Creek schoolhouse at length stood complete, floor, walls, and roof; and that a lady from Bennington, Vermont, a friend of Mrs. Balaam's, had quite suddenly decided that she would try her hand at instructing the new generation.
The Judge and Mrs. Henry knew this because Mrs. Balaam had told them of her disappointment that she would be absent from the ranch on Butte Creek when her friend arrived, and therefore unable to entertain her. The friend's decision had been quite suddenly made, and must form the subject of the next chapter.