On a Monday noon a small company of horsemen strung out along the trail from Sunk Creek to gather cattle over their allotted sweep of range. Spring was backward, and they, as they rode galloping and gathering upon the cold week's work, cursed cheerily and occasionally sang. The Virginian was grave in bearing and of infrequent speech; but he kept a song going--a matter of some seventy-nine verses. Seventy-eight were quite unprintable, and rejoiced his brother cowpunchers monstrously. They, knowing him to be a singular man, forebore ever to press him, and awaited his own humor, lest he should weary of the lyric; and when after a day of silence apparently saturnine, he would lift his gentle voice and begin:
"If you go to monkey with my Looloo girl, I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll cyarve your heart with my razor, AND I'll shoot you with my pistol, too--"
then they would stridently take up each last line, and keep it going three, four, ten times, and kick holes in the ground to the swing of it.
By the levels of Bear Creek that reach like inlets among the promontories of the lonely hills, they came upon the schoolhouse, roofed and ready for the first native Wyoming crop. It symbolized the dawn of a neighborhood, and it brought a change into the wilderness air. The feel of it struck cold upon the free spirits of the cow-punchers, and they told each other that, what with women and children and wire fences, this country would not long be a country for men. They stopped for a meal at an old comrade's. They looked over his gate, and there he was pattering among garden furrows.
"Pickin' nosegays?" inquired the Virginian and the old comrade asked if they could not recognize potatoes except in the dish. But he grinned sheepishly at them, too, because they knew that he had not always lived in a garden. Then he took them into his house, where they saw an object crawling on the floor with a handful of sulphur matches. He began to remove the matches, but stopped in alarm at the vociferous result; and his wife looked in from the kitchen to caution him about humoring little Christopher.
When she beheld the matches she was aghast but when she saw her baby grow quiet in the arms of the Virginian, she smiled at that cowpuncher and returned to her kitchen.
Then the Virginian slowly spoke again:"How many little strangers have yu' got, James?
"My! Ain't it most three years since yu' maried? Yu' mustn't let time creep ahaid o' yu', James."
The father once more grinned at his guests, who themselves turned sheepish and polite; for Mrs. Westfall came in, brisk and hearty, and set the meat upon the table. After that, it was she who talked. The guests ate scrupulously, muttering, "Yes, ma'am," and "No, ma'am," in their plates, while their hostess told them of increasing families upon Bear Creek, and the expected school-teacher, and little Alfred's early teething, and how it was time for all of them to become husbands like James. The bachelors of the saddle listened, always diffident, but eating heartily to the end; and soon after they rode away in a thoughtful clump. The wives of Bear Creek were few as yet, and the homes scattered; the schoolhouse was only a sprig on the vast face of a world of elk and bear and uncertain Indians; but that night, when the earth near the fire was littered with the cow-punchers' beds, the Virginian was heard drawling to himself:
"Alfred and Christopher. Oh, sugar!"
They found pleasure in the delicately chosen shade of this oath. He also recited to them a new verse about how he took his Looloo girl to the schoolhouse for to learn her A B C; and as it was quite original and unprintable, the camp laughed and swore joyfully, and rolled in its blankets to sleep under the stars.
Upon a Monday noon likewise (for things will happen so) some tearful people in petticoats waved handkerchiefs at a train that was just leaving Bennington, Vermont. A girl's face smiled back at them once, and withdrew quickly, for they must not see the smile die away.
She had with her a little money, a few clothes, and in her mind a rigid determination neither to be a burden to her mother nor to give in to that mother's desires. Absence alone would enable her to carry out this determination. Beyond these things, she possessed not much except spelling-books, a colonial miniature, and that craving for the unknown which has been mentioned. If the ancestors that we carry shut up inside us take turns in dictating to us our actions and our state of mind, undoubtedly Grandmother Stark was empress of Molly's spirit upon this Monday.
At Hoosic Junction, which came soon, she passed the up-train bound back to her home, and seeing the engineer and the conductor,--faces that she knew well,--her courage nearly failed her, and she shut her eyes against this glimpse of the familiar things that she was leaving. To keep herself steady she gripped tightly a little bunch of flowers in her hand.
But something caused her eyes to open; and there before her stood Sam Bannett, asking if he might accompany her so far as Rotterdam Junction.
"No!" she told him with a severity born from the struggle she was making with her grief. "Not a mile with me. Not to Eagle Bridge. Good-by."
And Sam--what did he do? He obeyed her, I should like to be sorry for him. But obedience was not a lover's part here. He hesitated, the golden moment hung hovering, the conductor cried "All aboard!" the train went, and there on the platform stood obedient Sam, with his golden moment gone like a butterfly.
After Rotterdam Junction, which was some forty minutes farther, Molly Wood sat bravely up in the through car, dwelling upon the unknown. She thought that she had attained it in Ohio, on Tuesday morning, and wrote a letter about it to Bennington. On Wednesday afternoon she felt sure, and wrote a letter much more picturesque. But on the following day, after breakfast at North Platte, Nebraska, she wrote a very long letter indeed, and told them that she had seen a black pig on a white pile of buffalo bones, catching drops of water in the air as they fell from the railroad tank. She also wrote that trees were extraordinarily scarce. Each hour westward from the pig confirmed this opinion, and when she left the train at Rock Creek, late upon that fourth night,--in those days the trains were slower,--she knew that she had really attained the unknown, and sent an expensive telegram to say that she was quite well.
At six in the morning the stage drove away into the sage-brush, with her as its only passenger; and by sundown she had passed through some of the primitive perils of the world. The second team, virgin to harness, and displeased with this novelty, tried to take it off, and went down to the bottom of a gully on its eight hind legs, while Miss Wood sat mute and unflinching beside the driver. Therefore he, when it was over, and they on the proper road again, invited her earnestly to be his wife during many of the next fifteen miles, and told her of his snug cabin and his horses and his mine. Then she got down and rode inside, Independence and Grandmother Stark shining in her eye. At Point of Rocks, where they had supper and his drive ended, her face distracted his heart, and he told her once more about his cabin, and lamentably hoped she would remember him. She answered sweetly that she would try, and gave him her hand. After all, he was a franklooking boy, who had paid her the highest compliment that a boy (or a man for that matter) knows; and it is said that Molly Stark, in her day, was not a New Woman.
The new driver banished the first one from the maiden's mind. He was not a frank-looking boy, and he had been taking whiskey. All night long he took it, while his passenger, helpless and sleepless inside the lurching stage, sat as upright as she possibly could; nor did the voices that she heard at Drybone reassure her. Sunrise found the white stage lurching eternally on across the alkali, with a driver and a bottle on the box, and a pale girl staring out at the plain, and knotting in her handkerchief some utterly dead flowers. They came to a river where the man bungled over the ford. Two wheels sank down over an edge, and the canvas toppled like a descending kite. The ripple came sucking through the upper spokes, and as she felt the seat careen, she put out her head and tremulously asked if anything was wrong. But the driver was addressing his team with much language, and also with the lash.
Then a tall rider appeared close against the buried axles, and took her out of the stage on his horse so suddenly that she screamed. She felt splashes, saw a swimming flood, and found herself lifted down upon the shore. The rider said something to her about cheering up, and its being all right, but her wits were stock-still, so she did not speak and thank him. After four days of train and thirty hours of stage, she was having a little too much of the unknown at once. Then the tall man gently withdrew leaving her to become herself again. She limply regarded the river pouring round the slanted stage, and a number of horsemen with ropes, who righted the vehicle, and got it quickly to dry land, and disappeared at once with a herd of cattle, uttering lusty yells.
She saw the tall one delaying beside the driver, and speaking. He spoke so quietly that not a word reached her, until of a sudden the driver protested loudly. The man had thrown something, which turned out to be a bottle. This twisted loftily and dived into the stream. He said something more to the driver, then put his hand on the saddle-horn, looked half-lingeringly at the passenger on the bank, dropped his grave eyes from hers, and swinging upon his horse, was gone just as the passenger opened her mouth and with inefficient voice murmured, "Oh, thank you!" at his departing back.
The driver drove up now, a chastened creature. He helped Miss Wood in, and inquired after her welfare with a hanging head; then meek as his own drenched horses, he climbed back to his reins, and nursed the stage on toward the Bow Leg Mountains much as if it had been a perambulator.
As for Miss Wood, she sat recovering, and she wondered what the man on the horse must think of her. She knew that she was not ungrateful, and that if he had given her an opportunity she would have explained to him. If he supposed that she did not appreciate his act--Here into the midst of these meditations came an abrupt memory that she had screamed--she could not be sure when. She rehearsed the adventure from the beginning, and found one or two further uncertainties--how it had all been while she was on the horse, for instance. It was confusing to determine precisely what she had done with her arms. She knew where one of his arms had been. And the handkerchief with the flowers was gone. She made a few rapid dives in search of it. Had she, or had she not, seen him putting something in his pocket? And why had she behaved so unlike herself? In a few miles Miss Wood entertained sentiments of maidenly resentment toward her rescuer, and of maidenly hope to see him again.
To that river crossing he came again, alone, when the days were growing short. The ford was dry sand, and the stream a winding lane of shingle. He found a pool,--pools always survive the year round in this stream,--and having watered his pony, he lunched near the spot to which he had borne the frightened passenger that day. Where the flowing current had been he sat, regarding the now extremely safe channel.
"She cert'nly wouldn't need to grip me so close this mawnin'," he said, as he pondered over his meal. "I reckon it will mightily astonish her when I tell her how harmless the torrent is lookin'." He held out to his pony a slice of bread matted with sardines, which the pony expertly accepted. "You're a plumb pie-biter you Monte," he continued. Monte rubbed his nose on his master's shoulder. "I wouldn't trust you with berries and cream. No, seh; not though yu' did rescue a drownin' lady."
Presently he tightened the forward cinch, got in the saddle, and the pony fell into his wise mechanical jog; for he had come a long way, and was going a long way, and he knew this as well as the man did.
To use the language of Cattle Land, steers had "jumped to seventy-five." This was a great and prosperous leap in their value. To have flourished in that golden time you need not be dead now, nor even middle-aged; but it is Wyoming mythology already--quite as fabulous as the high-jumping cow. Indeed, people gathered together and behaved themselves much in the same pleasant and improbable way. Johnson County, and Natrona, and Converse, and others, to say nothing of the Cheyenne Club, had been lumping over the moon for some weeks, all on account of steers; and on the strength of this vigorous price of seventy-five, the Stanton Brothers were giving a barbecue at the Goose Egg outfit, their ranch on Bear Creek. Of course the whole neighborhood was bidden, and would come forty miles to a man; some would come further--the Virginian was coming a hundred and eighteen. It had struck him--rather suddenly, as shall be made plain--that he should like to see how they were getting along up there on Bear Creek. "They," was how he put it to his acquaintances. His acquaintances did not know that he had bought himself a pair of trousers and a scarf, unnecessarily excellent for such a general visit. They did not know that in the spring, two days after the adventure with the stage, he had learned accidentally who the lady in the stage was. This he had kept to himself; nor did the camp ever notice that he had ceased to sing that eightieth stanza he had made about the A B C--the stanza which was not printable. He effaced it imperceptibly, giving the boys the other seventy-nine at judicious intervals. They dreamed of no guile, but merely saw in him, whether frequenting camp or town, the same not over-angelic comrade whom they valued and could not wholly understand.
All spring he had ridden trail, worked at ditches during, summer, and now he had just finished with the beef round-up. Yesterday, while he was spending a little comfortable money at the Drybone hog-ranch, a casual traveller from the north gossiped of Bear Creek, and the fences up there, and the farm crops, the Westfalls, and the young schoolmarm from Vermont, for whom the Taylors had built a cabin next door to theirs. The traveller had not seen her, but Mrs. Taylor and all the ladies thought the world of her, and Lin McLean had told him she was "away up in G." She would have plenty of partners at this Swinton barbecue. Great boom for the country, wasn't it, steers jumping that way?
The Virginian heard, asking no questions; and left town in an hour, with the scarf and trousers tied in his slicker behind his saddle. After looking upon the ford again, even though it was dry and not at all the same place, he journeyed in attentively. When you have been hard at work for months with no time to think, of course you think a great deal during your first empty days. "Step along, you Monte hawss!" he said, rousing after some while. He disciplined Monte, who flattened his ears affectedly and snorted.
"Why, you surely ain' thinkin' of you'-self as a hero? She wasn't really a-drowndin', you pie-biter." He rested his serious glance upon the alkali. "She's not likely to have forgot that mix-up, though. I guess I'll not remind her about grippin' me, and all that. She wasn't the kind a man ought to josh about such things. She had a right clear eye." Thus, tall and loose in the saddle, did he jog along the sixty miles which still lay between him and the dance.